This weekend belongs to Columbus, and not just in this land he discovered nearly five centuries ago. In fact, more than 3,000 miles away, the tiny Corsican town of Calvi will honor the Great Discoverer with a simple but significant ceremony.
At a site on a rocky hillside, marked by a marble plaque, rows of schoolchildren will hear the mayor of Calvi and perhaps other dignitaries extol the courage of their countryman: Cristofanu Culombu, as the name was written in Corsican in the 15th century.
Though the people of Calvi may honor Columbus with less hoopla than Main Street U.S.A., their patriotic fervor will run just as high. For according to local legend it is there, within the awesome walls of Calvi's ancient citadel, that Christopher Columbus was born. The marble plaque marks the spot where supposedly his house once stood; today only the remnant of a wall remains.
If the legend is true, then why does history commonly cite Genoa, Italy, as his birthplace? The Corsicans' answer is simple enough:
For more than 600 years, from about 1132 to 1768, the town of Calvi (and indeed much of northern Corsica) was ruled by Genoa. The people of Calvi paid their taxes to Genoa, enjoyed Genoan citizenship and were known as Genoans. Hence -- say the Corsicans -- the misunderstanding that Columbus, born in Calvi and legally a Genoan, was born in Genoa.
It's only 100 miles southeast from the bumper-to-bumper French Riviera to the rugged French island of Corsica. On a map Corsica measures only 115 miles from north to south and 52 miles from east to west. But the map is wickedly deceptive. For Corsica's modest dimensions are akin to a banquet cloth crushed to the size of a pocket handkerchief. What might appear to be an easy drive from one town to another could, in fact, turn out to be a hard day's trip along roads that seem to have been laid out in imitation of a giant roller coaster.
Tiny Calvi -- population 3,500 -- is on the northwest coast of Corsica, forming a horseshoe around the Bay of Calvi. As you face the sea, the left side of the horseshoe is surrounded by the medieval citadel. The right side stretches out into two unbroken miles of pristine beaches. The town's center sits snug in the horseshoe's curve looking out through a forest of masts, for Calvi has long been a favorite port for Mediterranean yachts.
They moor in the same waters of which Horatio Nelson once said, "Give me the Bay of Calvi and I will hold all of the Mediterranean." And, in fact, it was in that bay in 1794, during an Anglo-Corsican attack against French forces, that Nelson lost his right eye.
The best way to visit Calvi's citadel is on foot; its cobbled streets are too steep for a bicycle, too narrow for a car and frequently are interrupted by steps. The citadel crowns a hill that rises steeply from the sea's edge and has served the citizenry as a refuge in wartime since pre-Christian days. Generation after generation fortified it, building up its outer walls, improving its lookouts and expanding its housing so as to enable the people to hold out against siege. In the 15th century, when the Genoans wished to emphasize and strengthen their grip on the town, the fortifications were expanded to their present enormous dimensions.
Today, these ancient stone structures are shuttered by day against the heat, so visitors frequently assume that they are unoccupied. Actually more than 1,000 people live in the citadel, with spectacular views of sea, sand and snow-fringed peaks, the highest of which rises 8,900 feet.
Columbus, say the Corsicans, was born within the walls of the citadel about 1441 and at 14 went to sea under the command of his uncle. Thus he was 51 with 37 years of continuous seafaring behind him when he first sighted land in the West Indies. At the very least, their claim deserves no less consideration than the Genoans' contention that he was not born until 1451 and never went to sea until his early 20s. (The explorer first sighted land in the present-day Bahamas island chain on Oct. 12, 1492, but official U.S. observances of Columbus Day are held on the second Monday in October.)
What is verifiable is that the name Columbus chose for the second island he discovered was that of the Patron Saint of Calvi, Santa Maria de la Conception. He also conferred on a number of islands names that matched those of Corsican villages. The island that today we call Haiti was actually named Aiti by Columbus; the village of Aiti was within an easy day's journey of Calvi.
Visitors sufficiently lucky or discerning to find their way to Calvi today will notice that the Great Discoverer's name is used liberally. Two hotels and a broad public square are named in his honor. And every sunny morning the Christophe Colomb II departs the waterfront, laden with about 100 passengers who pay 120 French francs (about $8) for an all-day excursion. Ernest Colombani, skipper of the excursion boat, who is pleased to acknowledge direct descent from Columbus, takes his day trippers south along the coast to the Golfe de Porto. Here a combination of surf, wind and volcanic action has sculpted red rock grottoes, caverns and towering, surrealistic peaks sharp as dragon teeth.
Most of Calvi's many restaurants are found along the Quai des Pecheurs bordering the waterfront. They range from sandwich and ice-cream establishments to impeccably appointed dining rooms where choice, service and preparation are easily on a par with the best that Paris has to offer -- at a fraction of the price. Seafood is of course a specialty, with lobster, crayfish, oysters, mussels, sea urchins and crabs often grilled over open wood fires.
Gardens flourish around Calvi, so street stalls overflow with tomatoes, melons, eggplant and peaches large as baseballs. Figs fall from the trees that line the town streets. Ripe and full, they split underfoot to be leisurely lapped by the town cats.
Calvi's street eating is delectable for visitors, as well. Along the Rue Alsace-Lorraine, half a dozen chefs keep pedestrians well supplied with crepes: chocolate, sugared or filled with berries for five, six or seven francs. Fresh oysters can be enjoyed at street stalls. Meat and herb concoctions wrapped in cones of pastry are handed over amidst fragrant clouds of charcoal smoke. And ice cream in dozens of different flavors is another Calvi specialty; it's served everywhere from vendor carts to port-side cafe's.
Because Corsica has experienced more than 2,000 years of piracy and its offshore waters are so clear that on a still day a sailor can visually check his anchor 30 feet below his hull, snorkeling and scuba diving rank high among the island sports. Twice a day "Gets Plongee" fills its twin-masted, black-hulled sailboat with eager divers.
"We've gone down and explored sunken ships that date back all the way to Roman times," said one enthusiastic diver, waiting to go aboard for what he said was his eighth descent in a single week. "We're forbidden to remove anything from the wrecks we explore, but just to swim over and around them is thrilling enough."
From Calvi it's possible to undertake spectacularly beautiful two- and three-day hikes up into the mountains. Overnight huts -- simple shelters with bare bunks -- are available for use free of charge. For the less ambitious, the beaches are safe, clean and rarely overcrowded. It's also possible to sunbathe and swim from the huge rocks that rim the base of the citadel.
French is the island's official language, but Corsican is still spoken in many parts. Calvi is joined to both the French and the Italian mainlands by car-carrying ferry and by air service. (Air Inter flies nonstop from Marseilles, Air France from Rome to Nice, where a connection is made with Air Inter.) Summer lingers into November in Calvi. Winter is mild and spring begins in mid-February.
It's unlikely that the debate about Columbus' origins will be settled any time soon. But it's a safe bet that no island in the New World ever struck him as more dramatically beautiful than the island of Corsica.