Still, many Europeans, especially Parisians, have learned that it can be risky to become too attached to Corsica. There’s a long list of flush Frenchmen—including actors Jean Reno and Christian Clavier—who have bought properties on the island, or tried to, then surrendered in the face of dubious permit challenges or death threats from separatists and environmental activists.
My seatmate on the flight from Paris to Corsica is an effervescent 72-year-old who, as it turns out, is the island’s first native movie star. Marie-José Nat, named best actress at Cannes in 1974 for Les Violons du Bal, doesn’t seem very menacing, particularly when she invites me over for lunch near the town of Bonifacio, at the island’s southern tip, the next day. Although Nat owns the village’s most imposing house, perched atop 240- foot-high limestone cliffs, she spends most of her time at a retreat in the countryside, where she greets me by extending a plate of freshly picked figs still warm from the morning sun. Reminiscing about her bucolic childhood on a nearby farm—her mother was a shepherdess—Nat tells me that, in her eyes, Corsica’s wild beauty, along with its inhabitants’ “strong, stubborn character,” has remained remarkably intact.
Of course, it’s possible to vacation here happily oblivious to all of the island’s social and political complexities—that’s what most tourists do in July and August, when the beaches are thronged with sunseekers. Americans, still rare here, will generally receive a warm welcome, as will most Europeans; the bad blood is primarily between the Corsicans and the mainland French, whose relationship has been poisoned by centuries of mutual mistrust and resentment. Though there are plenty of grievances from both sides, the long-held stereotypes aptly illustrate the discord: Parisians, in particular, view the Corsicans as proud, uncultivated brutes, while Corsicans view the Parisians as proud, overcultivated snobs.
Jean Touitou, the Paris-based A.P.C. founder, recently rented a place near the port town of Saint-Florent, where a local contact insisted on introducing him to village merchants at the beginning of his stay so that he wouldn’t be overcharged or mistreated all summer. “Basically, a Corsican guy cannot stand attitude,” he says. “If you are humble—more than humble—and show a lot of respect, you can get along. But if you act like you deserve the best table at a restaurant because you are a powerful man in Paris or wherever, the owner will say, ‘No, we’re full’—even if you can see that the place is empty.”
The close juxtaposition of the refined and the rustic on the island is giving rise to some peculiar culture clashes. Around Saint-Florent, you’ll find summer compounds of a handful of well-known French families—the d’Ormessons, the de Ribes, the Rheimses—not far from a host of budget inns and campgrounds. According to Touitou, many unsuspecting yachters dock in the marina and come ashore looking for Riviera-style glamour, only to find it sorely lacking. “So they wander into the village supermarket,” he says, “where they see German campers having a riot in the cheap-beer section.”