Published on: 13 March 2017 | Last updated: 25 December 2019
At a glance
Moderately challenging. There are no really big climbs on this section, but there are three climbs to over 400m altitude.
While the major part of the section is on quiet roads, there’s a short section near Ajaccio on roads with heavy traffic, but you can avoid this if you don’t mind a bit of a detour (see Options).
The route is entirely on surfaced tarmac roads that are in good condition.
This section mainly follows the well-signed D81.
Map and altitude profile
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|Porto to Cargèse||32 kms|
|Cargèse to Porticcio||59 kms|
Porto to Cargèse (Carghjese)
From the bridge, the road starts to climb again, towards Piana. The climb is fairly gentle with an average gradient by my calculation of almost exactly five per cent. This section of road is slightly busier than the D81 further north.
There’s a shady little picnic spot under the trees as you reach about the 370m mark. You then come to a bend in the road with a rock formation called the Tête du Chien which does indeed look like the head of a dog. A little further on, there’s a sign telling you that you are now entering the UNESCO World Heritage-listed site of the Calanches de Piana.
Inevitably, this is a popular tourist attraction, and even in April I saw half a dozen tourist buses, just be patient, everybody takes it slowly. Enjoy.
There are very few lorries that use this route, although one I saw a couple of truck drivers in training who are having to do this route: I guess is that is tough a test as a learner lorry driver can have.
The Calanches de Piana really are something truly special, that rightly justifies being called spectacular and stunning. The narrow and tortuous corniche road clings to the cliff face, threading its way through red granite rocks gouged by the wind and rain info fantastic shapes.
The Calanches are at their most beautiful in the afternoon, and, if you can make the timings work for you, a great option would be to climb up to the Calanches in the late afternoon/early evening and then stay the night in Piana.
One of the more famous visitors to Corsica is Edward Lear. Although he’s best known for his nonsense poetry (particularly The Owl and the Pussycat), he was also a travel writer, landscape artist and illustrator. Here’s one of his sketches of the Calanches published in Journal of a Landscape Painter in Corsica by Edward Lear (free ebook from archive.org).
As you leave the Calanches behind the road starts to descend gently towards Piana.There are still some fabulous views to enjoy of the coast looking out over the Capo Rosso. Coming into Piana there’s a sign on your right-hand side proclaiming it one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France (most beautiful villages in France). Unfortunately, someone has decided to use the sign for target practice, which probably wasn’t quite the message that was intended.
If you pull over in the parking area opposite the hotel Capo Rosso you can see the road that leads all the way down to the beach at Arone —this is reckoned to be one of the very best beaches in Corsica. There’s a campsite (the Camping Plage d’Arone and a residence (Residence Marine d’Arone). If you don’t mind the climb back up.
Look out on your right-hand side for the splendidly old-school and faded Hôtel Roches Rouges.
Piana deserves the title of one of the most beautiful villages in France. Normally places that are part of associations of the prettiest villages, a little bit too posh for their own good. But Piana retains an authentic feel. It’s definitely worth taking a few minutes to walk through the old village: it’s nothing spectacular, but very much has the feel of a living Corsican village.
There is a short climb out of Piana, and then the road begins a long descent down to almost a sea-level. The road swings the inland, making a big arc before turning back towards the sea and Cargèse. It’s a lovely a great cruising descent. The high drama of the Calanches is behind you —which is probably a bit of a good thing, as you can concentrate riding rather than the scenery. Keep following the D81 signs for Carghjese (Cargèse) and Ajaccio.
As the road goes through Cargèse you can catch glimpses of the two churches and the small port. The two churches are the most visible evidence of the village’s unique history: one is Greek Orthodox and the other Roman Catholic. For four decades, until he retired in 2005, the village priest would conduct services in the Latin and Greek rites on alternate Sundays.
The village was founded by Greek-speaking settlers whose families had originally come from Crete in the seventeenth century after its conquest by the Ottoman Empire. They had been granted land by the Genovese who then ruled the island. The settlers agreed to pledge loyalty to Genova and to recognise the spiritual authority of the Pope but were allowed to continue practising the Greek rite.
The local Corsicans resented the Greek colonists occupying land that they considered to be rightfully theirs and this led to bitter and long-lasting conflicts between the two communities. The settlers were loyal to the Genovese, and then to the French, while their neighbours were in armed rebellion against them. At one point, the settlers were forced to abandon the original village and move to Ajaccio. Present-day Cargèse was founded when the French took control of the island in the 18th century.
The Greek-speaking community was reduced by successive waves of emigration and by gradual assimilation. The last Greek speaker in Cargèse died in 1976 — three hundred years after the arrival of the original settlers.
The Golfe de Sagone
From Cargèse the road takes you down into Sagone on around the Golfe de Sagone. It’s an attractive, scenic road that inevitably it suffers in comparison with the section of the route further north. I like this stretch of coast: it’s comparatively undeveloped and unspoilt, and an enjoyable ride even though compared with the Calanches it is relatively ordinary.
Sagone is a fairly low-key seaside resort with a big sandy beach, a couple of hotels and a bar-tabac. There’s also a campsite 1.5 kilometres out of town.
There are some great sandy beaches along the way, but watch out for the plage dangereuse (dangerous beach) warning signs on some of the beaches.
The road climbs towards the Bocca di San Bastiano (altitude 404m), leaving the Golfe de Sagone behind.
As you climb there are some nice views back over the coast. At the Bocca di San Bastianu (altitude 404m) there is a memorial that commemorates the first balloon flight across the Mediterranean between Corsica and the Continent. There’s also a chapel dedicated to Saint Sebastian and a small picnic table, with views back over the mountains of northern Corsica.
The Golfe d’Ajaccio
There’s quite a fast descent down into the periphery of Ajaccio. Note though that in places the road surface is a little rough. As you get closer to Ajaccio the road got busier, it is also wider than the road north of Cargèse and traffic is more fast-moving.
The D81, like all good things, comes to an end. For the D81 the end is at a traffic-clogged roundabout on the fringes of Ajaccio. There’s a junction here with the T20 (the former N194 route nationale). In one direction it heads for Ajaccio Mezzavia and in the other towards the airport. There’s also a D-road that leads into Ajaccio itself. My original plan had been to head into Ajaccio but, as both alternatives looked equally horrible, I decided to take the shorter route and follow the T20) in the direction of the airport.
A bit further on you can turn off onto a D road that leads through Ajaccio’s industrial/commercial hinterland. This option is shorter, but has no other redeeming features — although it does go past the Ajaccio branch of Decathlon where you can get things like gas canisters, and replacements for any gear you may have forgotten, left behind or lost.
The D-road rejoins the N194/T20. The road is pretty horrible, but at least there’s a decent shoulder. After a couple of kilometres, you come to another roundabout. You need to go almost all the way all around the roundabout and pick up the N196/T40 (signs for Propriano, Coti-Chiavari and Bonifacio). The road is still pretty fast-moving but as it’s a dual carriageway there’s plenty of space for passing cars.
After a couple of kilometres and what feels like an age, you come to a set of No-Bikes signs. Just follow the round blue bike signs for the quieter alternative to the main road. The alternative route follows the right-hand side of the main road before dipping under it and then following the left-hand side. You then come to another roundabout where you rejoin the N196/T40 but fortunately only for a short way before you turn off at yet another roundabout and take the D55 into Porticcio.
The D55 takes you along the southern shore of the Golfe d’Ajaccio. This section of coast is still part of the periphery of Ajaccio, and the coastal strip between the road and the sea has been almost entirely given over to villa developments and glimpses of the sea are very real pretty rare. The road does seem to get quieter the further you get from Porticcio and Ajaccio, and the glimpses of the sea more frequent.
The Plage du Mare e Sole and next door Plage de Verghia are the nicest along this stretch of coast. The signs warn that Baignade non-surveillée (no lifeguard) but there are no danger signs. From this point on you feel like you have finally escaped the urban sprawl of Ajaccio.
At Verghia the D55 makes a sharp right heading inland. Follow the signs for Coti-Chiavari. There’s a definite change of pace and perspective as the road climbs into the forest of Coti-Chiavari. The forest is crisscrossed with dirt roads and tracks, making it one of the few places in Corsica that’s really suitable for mountain biking (in many other areas the footpaths are simply too steep.).
About a third of the way to the top of the climb you come to the ruins of the old prison, the big windowless building that you can see on your right-hand side was used to store hay. After the busy road through Ajaccio and Porticcio, the climb is blissfully quiet.
The road climbs to a little over 500m attitude and then descends to the village of Coti-Chiavari itself. There’s a water fountain on the left-hand side as you head down towards the village, but there are signs warning that the water isn’t safe to drink.
Coti-Chiavari is a smashing little village of stone-built houses looking out to sea. The views are superb.
Unfortunately, while on the climb up to Coti-Chiavari large sections of the road have been resurfaced, on the way down the road has definitely seen better days — although on the whole, it’s not bad. It’s a lovely descent and on a clear day, you should be able to see all the way across the Golfe d’Ajaccio to the Îles des Sanguinaires.
At the fork in the road after Acqua Doria stays on the D155 following the signs for Propriano (Prupria). There’s a short climb from here. When you get to the top there’s a viewpoint with a view over the Capo di Muru.
The Golfe de Valinco
As you go over the rise, you leave behind the Golfe d’Ajaccio and head towards the Golfe de Valinco. The road, lined with gorse, lavender, rock roses, and other wildflowers. The road descends gently down, following the contours of the land. This part of the coast is very undeveloped, with the occasional house linked to the road by a dirt track. The rest is coastal maquis. As you descend you can look out over the Baie de Cupalbia and the Plage de Cupalbia.
The road descends to a bridge over a river, before levelling out. Keep following the signs for Propriano and Serra di Ferro. The road bends right and heads towards the sea, passing through the attractive village of Serra di Ferro. Around the bend in the road is the tiny village church with its bells. Beside the bells is a notice (in French of course) saying that ‘it is strictly forbidden to ring the bells of the church just for fun’.
There’s then a lovely fast, cruising descent that takes you down to sea-level. At the junction turn right if you want to go to Porto Pollo (Porti Proddi). Or turn left if you want to continue to Propriano
I must admit that I have been wondering whether there is a better alternative to this route, avoiding Ajaccio. I think there might be. I’ve checked it out on Google Streetview and it looks OK, but I haven’t ridden it, so use to Google Streetview to check it out and make up your own mind. Here’s a map showing the two routes (the alternative is shown in darker blue). I have included gpx tracks for the alternative in the gps download package.
Places to stay
Hotel and B&Bs
In Cargèse I stayed at the Hotel Punta e Mare, which is the sort of family-run hotel that I thought didn’t exist anymore. I left my (cheap) watch behind and they even sent someone out in a car after me who caught me up 10 kilometres or so down the road from Cargèse.
There are several hotels and restaurants in Tiuccia on the coast between Cargèse and Ajaccio.
In Porto Pollo I stayed at the Hotel L’Escale. I booked it after finding that the campsite I had expected to find in Serra-di-Ferru was closed, but liked it so much that I stayed another night.
Propriano is the main tourist centre, but Porto Pollo and Olmeto are probably nicer places to stay.
Find and book places to stay with Booking.com
Booking.com pages for places on this section of the route:
About these links
If you use these links to book accommodation Booking.com will pay me a small part of their commission. This helps support the costs of producing this site.
I use Booking.com to find and book places to stay when there are no campsites in the area. The large majority of hotels and many hostels are now on ‘Booking’. I like it because it means that I can get almost-instant confirmation. The rating system is also a reliable guide to the quality of the accommodation.
I’ve never had a problem finding places to keep my bike —even if it’s a cupboard or store room. I always use the ‘special requests’ field on the booking form to tell the hotel that I’m travelling with a bike, which gives them the opportunity to let me know if there’s a problem.
Many properties offer free cancellation but it’s a good idea to check the conditions as these vary from property to property.
Hostels and gîte d’étapes
There’s a gîte d’étape in Curzu (the Gîte d’Étape di Curzu) — you can also camp there.
If you’re camping there are quite a few choices:
There may also be a campsite at Porto Pollo the Camping U Casteddu. It doesn’t have a website, but (according to Google) the phone number is +33 4 95 74 01 80. There’s a useful page (with lots of photos) on paradisu.info.
There’s a very nice, small, site at Verghia (Camping La Vallée). It’s open from 1 May. Don’t be put off by the cluster of mobile homes at the entrance to the campsite, if you go past them there are some nice spaces for tents.
Transport and services
The ferry from Marseille to Porto Torres stops at Propriano.
Bike shops on this section of the route
Grossa: water tap in the village, but so far as I can see, no other services.
There’s a bar and a boulangerie at Pertolacci and a bar-restaurant at Roccapina.
There are a couple of restaurants in Olmeto. I had mussels and chips watching the waves breaking on the beach at Una Stonda in Olmeto.
Articles in this series
- Corsica Coast: introduction
- Corsica Coast: Part 1: Cap Corse
- Corsica Coast: Part 2: The north-west coast from Saint-Florent to Porto
- Corsica Coast: Part 3: The Calanches de Piana and Cargèse
- Corsica Coast: Part 4: The south-west coast: Campomoro and Bonifacio