24 Jun 2010

Walled Gardens in Stone Silence (Part 2)

Some of these wall constructions are little gems of ingenuity and complex architecture incorporating pillars, arcades, niches, shelters, built-in benches, wells, water basins, built-in irrigation systems, stepping stones. Pictured below is an example of this attention to detail (albeit now compromised by neglect) showing a stone staircase integrated within the wall of a culture terrace. I remember that the stairs were still intact less than 30 years ago, until a maquis fire and rampant scrub vegetation started to destabilise it. According to mémé, broad beans used to be cultivated on this very terrace.

Mémé also used to mention that local families were continuously keeping an eye on their walls, checking the foundations, adding a stone here, replacing a stone there, eradicating bramble, thorny ivy, salsepareille and other invasive creepers. She remembered families seeking the local justice of the peace if an ill-intentioned individual had 'displaced' one of their stones... Walls were sacred indeed!

In my countryside walks of late, I have found solace and fascination for those walls, as well as respect. They accompany my solitary journey of discovery of a slow-paced Corsica, of a bygone era that is increasingly being cast aside for the bright lights. If only they could free themselves from their stone silence and provide an account, a potted history of the cultures they helped sustain, the farm animals that lived there, the families that sweat tears and blood to make a living against all odds, their joys, their blessings, hopes and fears!

These walls testify that once upon a time, no less than half a century ago, human activity was still commonly found in the Corsican countryside. This may be hard to imagine today as many of the rural outposts stand empty, lay in semi-neglect or are put to different use (through mainly property schemes). With rural desertification a reality, much of the countryside now stands in resigned stone silence, showing or still just about hiding behind tall walls the remnants of an agricultural tradition, be the abandoned orchards, the overgrown fields, the derelict garden shelters and paggliaghi (stone mountain shelters used by shepherds).

Elsewhere on the island, countless other wall structures are slowly but surely falling into disrepair, crumbling away under the passing of seasons (heavy rain and hot weather), the assault of invasive wild vegetation, and lack of care. Some are past this stage already and now a heap of tumbled-down stones that, at best will be salvaged for a new build.

However some of our counterparts have realised the importance of those walls, not just as sociological testament, but also as part of land enhancement and preservation, and I have seen examples of those old walls breathing a new life under a restoration project. Let's mention in passing that restoration is a costly and labour-intensive process, and if you are looking at having stone walls built from scratch, expect to pay on average 50 euros/ sq.m.

Let us hope that the future of walled gardens and stone walls in general is not going to be pinned to a photo album, onto a museum wall, or rediscovered through archeology... The future of the past is today.

Further historical insight (photographic archives):

Source: ETH Zurich, ETH Bibliothek: Korsika 1922, Rebterrassen Bei Nonza (terrace cultivation in Nonza), photography by Eduard Rübel. This invaluable photograph gives the magnitude of land management and terrace cultivation around the Corsican coastal village of Nonza, on the Western front of the Cap Corse region.

Walled Gardens in Stone Silence (Part 1)

In my Land of Labour/ Land of Leisure post, I touched on one of the features of Corsican landscapes: the old stone walls and stone terraces. Of course, these features are not solely restricted to this part of the world; they will be found anywhere that is mountainous, hilly, rocky, from the Peak District of England to Madeira, via Tuscany, the sweet potato fields of Nerja (Spain) and much further afield. They didn't only act as boundary posts, their purpose was to contain soil and level land to make it cultivable, and prevent natural erosion...

My dad has always commented on those walls that we would spot by the roadside, or boldly erected on desolate hillsides and inhospitable mountains. He is fascinated by them, by the difficult and hazardous feat of engineering and logistical challenge they would have represented at the time of construction. But neither harsh topography nor primitive tools hampered builders' enthusiasm, it seems! Huge chunks of rock would have been hammered into more manageable pieces that would have been transported by cart, on mule-back/ donkey-back, or by hand to hard-to-reach places, then laid out into those dry-stone walls.

Today it is so easy to ignore those humble walls, to see them without giving them the time of day, no second look or a mere mention in a tourist guide, yet I would ask you to pause for a second and think of the thousands of man-hours they would have swallowed, and the human toll even. These walls facilitated agriculture, pastoralism and peasantry. By providing anchorage, they provided boundaries, enclosures, shelters, land division and soil retention. They allowed the local population to survive, live off the land, prosper to an extent and stay on the island as a result.

Walls were also found in the fertile plains, on flat terrains, sheltering cultures against the winds and providing welcoming shade for the more delicate crops. Stone structures were not solely aimed for cultivation. Some pictured here epitomise civil engineering: roadside parapets (sturdy stone walls built to reinforce mountain roads and to buffer traffic against lethal skids), minor stone features strengthening mountain paths, and stone bridges that linked river banks and enabled roads to bypass the deep curvature of mountains.

The build material used for the walls is also a good indicator of local available resources. A rather peculiar example will be the well-camouflaged WWII German blockhaus built by the roadside in the Ponte Leccia area. A more classic example will be the proximity to a waterfall, a river, a brook. They will have provided a readily-available source of pebbles and polished stones, some of them incredibly decorative.

Talking of the more recently-built walls (probably 100 to 150 years' old), the mortar used for their construction will have been based on sand from the river banks, and you will notice small white stone incrustations (see above picture as a perfect illustration of plant intrusion). Likewise seaside proximity will have enabled our ancestors to build walls using pebbles, as seen in La Marana seaside area, nearby the beautiful cathédrale de la Canonica, an imposing country church. (to be continued)

23 Jun 2010

Land of Labour/ Land of Leisure (Part 2)

Undeniably (and despite recession still crippling the building industry elsewhere), the construction process is in full swing throughout Corsica and is set to enjoy further growth in the coming years as land speculation and property developments are hot potatoes on the island, fuelling riches and tourism. South of Bastia, in the Plaine Orientale, the plains traditionally referred to as the fruit gardens of Corsica, struggling (or non-struggling) land owners are selling their fields and becoming instant euro-millionaires (10,000 sq.m. sold for 1.2 million Euros earlier this year)!

We may agree or disagree with the way land is being put to use, however French agriculture and peasantry in general are struggling for survival, and the selling off of family heritage is not a carefree decision for the parties concerned: rather it is often a reluctant, last-resort, bitter affair, and perceived deep down as a personal defeat or betrayal. Currently the average Corsican farmer is burdened with 58,170 euros woth of debt*. In the same breath, the extent of this agricultural malaise translates into the fact that 100,000 farms are threatened with closure across France over the next 10 years**.

The Corsican landscape is changing indeed, and probably at a faster pace over the last 10 years than in previous decades. I do not condemn progress and evolution, but I do not condone the excesses brought to some parts of the island that now exude more the space-wasting sprawl plainness of identikit Provence/ Côte d'Azur suburbia than individuality, character and visual merit that would be associated with a small island that is known to be ferociously protective of its identity.

I do encourage however a more careful, yet less politically-biased, approach to development and architecture, preserving the Corsican spirit and upping the architectural legacy, in harmony with the strong visual elements of the surrounding nature.

However I remain in fear of the architectural bankruptcy found on the Spanish Costas, with Benidorm the ultimate insult to land planning and sustainability. I do hope that Corsica will never reach those lows, and believe that land usage and property development need to remain everybody's business (not just that of town halls, the DDE*** and speculators), whether you are a local, a friend of the island or a tourist.

Source: The Benidorm Skyline by Wikipedia
We need to exert caution as (to put is very simplistically) the land that once fed families and gave generations their financial independence is now being sold off for a quick buck and snatched by unscrupulous investors. We need to ensure that ecology, agriculture/ peasantry, property developments and the local economy derivatives co-exist without prejudice, now and especially for the sake of generations to come!

* Corse-Matin local newspaper (27/04/2010)
** According to lunchtime news on French TV channel TF1 (13/04/2010)
*** DDE = Direction Départementale de l'Equipement (French government planning body that controls and delivers building applications).

Land of Labour/ Land of Leisure (Part 1)

Beyond the geographical and geological clichés that have fathomed mass tourism over the last 50 years (adequate weather, scenic landscapes, plethora of beaches, all catering for a variety of leisure pursuits from kayaking to trekking, deep-sea fishing, kite surfing, yachting, skiing, gastronomy, crafts, etc.), Corsica benefits from a rich history and heritage that unfold to the observer who takes time to witness the clues.

These include: the walled terraces found in the most inhospitable settings, the ingenious irrigation systems that channelled the precious water commodity from springs to culture fields and domestic gardens, the robust, expertly-built stone houses that have defied time and gravity, the now-ruined chapels that perpetrated faith to the most remote locations, the traces of prehistoric settlements, the paths (some of them now sadly lost for ever to overgrowth and general neglect) that were the veins of the land, connecting networks between the smallest of hubs and a fountain, a secluded church, a palazzu, a cluster of cultivated land parcels, a vantage point or a cove...

The relentless taming, shaping, claiming or reclaiming by man of most of the landscapes of Corsica helped sustain a pastoral and agricultural lifestyle, and testify the resilience of the local population, set against the influence of occupation, from successive waves of foreign rulers, invaders, friends or foes, and a spirit of protection against the dangers from the sea (the military towers that punctuate the coastline are a good illustration).

The (loosely-termed) Italian influence seems the most obvious one, but let us note more precisely Etruscan, Roman, Genoese, Tuscan influences, and remember that the island was even briefly under Neuhoff's rule (a German), and was also governed by English rule (1794-96). In passing, the ruined tower of Ste Marie (Santa Maria), at the Northern point of the Cape, is a result of Nelson's bombing it from sea!

Although I am familiar with only a small part of the island, namely the Northeastern part of the Cape, what I have witnessed here is a microcosm that encapsulates this pastoral and agricultural order, this organisational distribution of land. Although post-WWII modernity has brought more technological progress inland, it has also heralded the further erosion of the peasant/ fisherman society, echoing the decline seen elsewhere in Europe, and driven large expanses of cultivated land into fallow, before the inevitable shift: the land that once fed families and kept them on the island is progressively being turned into construction sites. When once upon a time a vineyard would have prospered on great grand-dad's piece of land, a house now stands, either built by our brave winemaker's descendants or by whichever family the descendants sold the land to.

In the sought-after areas of Costa Verde, Porto Vecchio, Calvi/ Lumio, and Ajaccio/ Propriano, construction on prime land has been more 'aggressive' as reflected by recent developments of hotels, shopping parades, apartment blocks, private or council housing estates, and villas, with promoters and end-consumers alike vying for that ultimate kick: the seaview, the exclusivity, the panorama, a snatch of your own private slice of paradise, from reasonable to hardly affordable... (to be continued)