Mediterranean thunderstorms/donkey on a tennis court/Napoleon Bonaparte
AJACCIO, Corsica - Talk about your bizarre travel days.
Up at 6:30 at the luscious Regent Grand hotel in Bordeaux, then a 9 a.m. flight to Paris/Orly airport. Then an 11:25 a.m. flight to Corsica, which was back in the opposite direction, for a 1 p.m. flight.
I just got back a few weeks ago from 13 days in the British Isles with maybe, MAYBE, five minutes of rain the whole time. So I come to the “sunny” Mediterranean and within an hour of my plane landing I’m driving over a mountain in Corsica in a thunderstorm, rain pounding down on my rented Peugeot 3008 with the parking brake I can barely figure out and a “sun” roof that’s literally about five feet long.
The rain was a bit of a drag. I had hoped to drive north from Ajaccio to Porto and maybe take a boat ride, but I gave up after some rough slogging in the rain and beat it back to Ajaccio, driving over terrain the average Corsican wouldn’t think twice about but that I could a bit nerve-wracking, what with the lack of railings and the thousand foot drops and the rain and the curves and the admittedly small but still noticeable rock slides. I got back to my hotel around 4:30 and found a parking spot, then started to unpack.
It was then that I looked out and saw folks taking pictures of my hotel. Not of the hotel, but of two absolutely smashing, tall and thin and very pretty blonde women sashaying down the road. This got my attention. When they passed, I looked towards the Mediterranean from my hotel room at the San Carlu and spotted some ramparts; what looked the dry moat of a long-since abanboned castle.
So, I said to myself, “Self, you’re in the Mediterraean and you’re soggy and wet from having to stop in the middle of nowhere to take a leak in the rain at the side of the road and you drove through a thunderstorm over mountain roads and now it’s stopped raining but there’s an abandoned tennis court in a usually dry moat across the street and there’s a goat and a donkey having a re-enactment of Nadal-Federer.” Wow.
If my hotel had room service, I’d have ordered up a snifter of Jameson’s, or maybe just a Stella. Instead, I went for a walk. An hour later, I was walking past one of 1,413 places here that have the name Napoleon in the title (he was born in Ajaccio in a non-descript apartment about 60 yards from my hotel) when I spotted a ray of sunlight over the Mediterranean. I wandered in that general direction and immediately spotted a group of people dressed as…Napoleon.
Really. Well, not all of them, but a lot of folks in military-gear with pointed hats and feathers and rifles and swords and drums and trumpets and the whole nine meters. Tres bizarre. Not speaking a lick of French, I wasn’t able to ask anyone what in hell was happening. So I waited. A half hour later the several dozen folks gathered in costume started to collect themselves in the centre of the street. Then they started the music; a military-sounding jaunt. They marched up the road, around the corner and then down to the city’s old square, which happens to have a statue of…wait for it…Napoleon Bonaparte.
It turns out today was something like the 182nd anniversary of the founding of the French Legion of Honour, and all the dignitaries had gathered to do a little speechifying and to have the local volunteers dress up like the Little General and parade about town playing tunes. In all seriousness, it was pretty stirring stuff. The volunteers have a clear sense of Corsican pride, and it was wonderful to watch their precision and to watch them light a flame in the centre of the square and to hear their music.
As luck would have it, I had dinner with a woman from the Corsica tourism office and was telling her about the days’ events. Lo and behold who would sit down next to us but a group of the musicians who had just played during the ceremony. Crazy.
I had a nice meal, with some local charcuterie and great Corsican wine, not to mention what I think was a kind of shellfish dished out in thick, brown gravy and two huge slabs of crème caramel. The owner of the restaurant insisted on playing a CD with the song, “Napoleon, Napoleon” on it, just to amuse the Canadian journalist in the house. He also played a song by the French singer who made famous the tune “Le Petit Papa Noel,” which my oldest son sang at a school recital in kindergarten and something that merely thinking about makes me cry.
So, yeah, it was basically just another day on the road. But isn’t that why we travel? Because crazy, random, bizarre, fascinating, unexpected things could happen at any moment.