I am glad you asked me, General, for an oral and not a written account of my recent adventure. No one ever knows where email may end up, and I do not want to be accused of homicide. Of course I know you will brief the Director General when next you go to Brussels, but I hope my story will not go further than that. I really don't want to be pursued by either French magistrates or Corsican terrorists. And, with due respect, I don't want people to think I still work for the Organization.
I did not anticipate encountering violence in Corsica. My trip began with a very nice ride—does one still say nice ride in America? At first, after leaving Bastia, ours seemed a sort of suburban train, a modern, narrow-gauge, two-car trainset that stopped every mile or so to pick up or drop off a couple of passengers. The land was flat and there were commercial buildings along the track, but it was late June and along our way south out of the little city there were also big clumps of nasturtiums with bright red and yellow blooms, old palms and oaks, and big plane trees. The calm sea was just a quarter-mile away on the left. (I will try not to trouble you, my dear American, with too many meters and kilometers.) Then the line curved rightward, southwestward, and we began to climb. In less than half an hour we were well beyond the last shops and service stations, and going up into green hills of Corsica with stream valleys deep below us. There were big patches of woodland, an occasional farmhouse, and much pasture with sheep or horses. Through our car's big windows I could see jagged mountains beyond us to the south. I felt good, even elated.
Corsica. You know, I'd wanted to visit that island ever since the first time I took a flight from Rome to London, and sat by a left-hand window as we took off from Fiumicino on a cloudless perfect day. Soon Sardinia lay six or seven miles below us, hilly pastures and low mountains, but then, beyond to the north, came Corsica. It is not as big as Sardinia, but I saw that it had higher, snow-covered peaks and more forest than pasture or farmland. I must go there sometime, I thought, but when could that be?
I was always busy at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation that pays me so well and accomplishes so little. I have spent most of my time at FAO's Rome headquarters, but much time, too, in travels to Kampala and Amman and Vientiane. It is seldom I get home to Norway for a couple of weeks' leave on the Nordfjord; but I enjoy my Sundays when I am in Rome, driving with friends forty or fifty miles into the Apennines to climb some small peak and picnic on top. Those Sundays are fine but for a long time I had looked for a chance to see the wilds of Corsica.
I have a senior colleague at FAO who is a Corsican, Jean Fabiani. He is chief of another division than mine, but we have occasions to meet. When I once asked him about his native island I found he was full of information, although (curiously, I thought later) he stopped short of urging me to go vacation there. No matter; I was intent on a trip to the big island set in Homer's blue sea.
Finally I found two summer weeks free to go there. I was going to forget the world of international bureaucracy, and concentrate on hiking and climbing.
It was in good part because I had glimpsed from the air not just the mountains but the forests of Corsica that I wanted to go there. I am not a forester by training. I studied biology at the university in Trondheim and then evolutionary biology in America, at Yale University, where I wrote my doctoral dissertation on an obscure worm. Soon, though, I turned away from helminths and schistosomes, and after various adventures, some of which you know, I joined FAO and focused on the problem of improving crop yields in order to feed our world's exploding human population. But my great love was always trees, and I much wanted to see the Corsican forests, some of which were said to be splendid, although most of this Mediterranean world is sadly deforested. We Norwegians know trees and we like them, although we do sometimes frighten our children with tales of trolls in deep woods. It was Norway's forests, and of course our fisheries, that first brought prosperity to our country, long before we built a great merchant fleet and the world discovered North Sea oil.
I am, you know, a 42-year-old divorced man. I was married for four years to a red-haired Irishwoman named Maureen. I think you never met her. She was even prettier than Maureen O'Hara, the film actress. But my Maureen, if ever she was really mine, had a sharp tongue and no desire for children. She left me for an American diplomat as I had begun looking into the difference between divorce laws in Italy and in Norway. That was a decade ago. That seems to me enough to say about romance, for now—but I will say that even if I come from a cold country, I do not consider myself a cold person. I do enjoy the company of others. But I am also content to go and be alone; hence my trip alone to the heart of unknown Corsica.
I say unknown Corsica, but I had been reading a lot about the island, not just its forests but its history, in my free evenings. You know, we still have a monarchy in Norway, but we are true democrats, and many years ago I was pleased to read that in the 1700s Corsica had been a democratic republic under a President named Pasquale Paoli. Alas, the French invaded Corsica in 1769 and destroyed Paoli's republic.
Am I telling you things you know? No? Good; I'll go on.
For two centuries the French laid a heavy hand on Corsica. They closed Paoli's university. The Corsican language, which is so close to Italian, was replaced by French in the press, government, and schools. I have read that a teacher would whip a child who foolishly said something in Corsican—the same thing that used to happen in your schools for Native Americans, when a teacher heard a child use Arapaho or Navajo. Over the years many discouraged Corsicans left their homeland. Most of them went to metropolitan France, where a number of them made a career in public service—and others in crime. I think the French mafia is mainly Corsican, and on the other hand the French ambassador to Italy, whom I know slightly, has what must be a Corsican surname, Andreani.
But then, I'm not sure quite when, came the birth of a new nationalist movement in Corsica. It was not entirely peaceful. A group called the FLNC or Fronte di Liberazione Naziunale di a Corsica set off bombs with some frequency at French government buildings. This was done usually at night, so people weren't hurt—but then, one evening in 1998, the most senior French official in Corsica, the Préfet de la Corse, was assassinated as he left a theater. Besides all that, the FLNC apparently had it in for NATO: they attacked the air base at Solenzara, on the island's east coast.
The Solenzara base is of course French but NATO members' air forces use it for training. It played some role when NATO was bombing Serbia in 1999 to dissuade Slobodan Milosevic from further aggression against Kosovo. Why the FLNC attacked Solenzara, I never knew. Did some of their people have it in for NATO as "imperialists" or something of that sort, or were they simply aiming at the French?
Before my holiday on the island I had seen nothing recent about Corsica in the European press, until one morning shortly before I left Rome the post brought the latest issue of Capitals Today. I skimmed it for two minutes and noticed an article on Corsica that I put aside and read at home that evening.
The article discussed the modern disquiet of the Corsicans. There was no perfect solution for the island. It could not fend for itself if it ever did gain independence. The Corsican people were aging and increasingly dependent on the French pension system. Corsicans perhaps had a genetic disposition toward violence, as witness their invention of the vendetta, not to speak of the useless violence perpetrated by the FLNC. Corsicans were less well equipped for independence, politically or economically, than, for example, the Catalans or Scots. At least, so said the article.
Capitals Today had even less sympathy for the French, who, said the writer, had been thoughtless, as witness their stationing Foreign Legion units on the island when the Legion was not stationed anywhere in mainland France. That angered the Corsicans, who said they were being treated like a colony. After some years one Legion regiment had been transferred elsewhere—but, said Capitals Today, an airborne Legion regiment was still based in Corsica.
That was something I had not known. I went to my iPad and did some Googling. Sure enough, the 2ème Régiment étranger de parachutistes was stationed at Calvi, on the north coast—and it had a mountain warfare training center near the Col de Vergio. Wasn't the Col near the GR20, the main north-south trail across Corsica that I planned to take? I pulled out of my backpack David Abram's guide to trekking in Corsica. The Col de Vergio was a 4,264-foot-high pass where the GR20 crossed a paved highway. There was a fairly sizable hotel there, and an extinct ski lift.
I kept on Googling. There were two or three photos of the Legion's mountain center, which was surrounded by a ten-foot wall on which was painted in Latin Legio patria nostra. The Legion is our Fatherland. Indeed, it is a small army of eight or nine thousand tough and ruthless fellows who have found a new fatherland in the Legion. Most of them are not even French. I wondered what Corsicans made of all this. At a minimum it was clear that the Legion's presence on the island was not welcomed by all Corsicans, although over the years people had gotten used to it—and the Legion regiment did not police Corsica. The garrison at Calvi was, instead, the base for deployments by Legion detachments to Francophone Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, where they helped local regimes put down unrest and rebellion.
More importantly, I read, for some time the French had been stationing Foreign Legion units not just in Corsica and in French overseas departments, but in mainland France as well. That undercut the FLNC claim that France treated Corsica like a colony, in stationing the Foreign Legion there—but the writer of the article wondered whether the FLNC, if not other Corsicans, were nevertheless continuing to find the Legion an undesirable presence. And not all of the FLNC had put away their arms; there were still two armed groups. One of these had lately agreed to give up their weapons sometime soon—but the other group, who called themselves the 22 Octobre, had not. And, the article said, there were rumors of still a third group that had really violent aims but hadn't done anything violent; at least for now it hadn't.
Well, I saw no reason for a foreign tourist to be concerned... but was there really a third armed group, hiding out in the woods and mountains? And besides hitting post offices did they still have it in for NATO—or maybe the Foreign Legion regiment? And did they know anything about my own past? Very doubtful. I'd keep that possibility in the back of my mind, but I was really going to Corsica just to hike. In any case I had in my pack my hunting knife with a fine six-inch blade, and my Glock 42 pistol. I also brought my old copy of Colomba, the novella by Prosper Mérimée about Corsica and the vendetta in the early 1800s. I had first read the book when I was in my 20s, and had no thought of coming to live in the Mediterranean world or, indeed, of going to Corsica for a vacation.
Four peaceful hours out of Livorno, long low mountains loomed ahead and soon our ferry came into Bastia. We were a half-hour late. I shouldered my heavy pack, hurried out of the modern terminal, found my way to Avenue Maréchal Sebastian, and jogging up the street I soon reached the modest gare, five minutes before my train left.
In less than two hours our little train stopped for a few minutes at Corte. I could see modern buildings, and the old citadel high above Paoli's capital. I was getting close to my destination, a place called Vizzavona that I had read about in guidebooks and on the internet. After Corte we still climbed steadily. The curves kept our speed to no more than thirty miles an hour—and then suddenly, abruptly, we stopped. Our driver kindly waited for two brown cows and a calf to get off the track and amble into the trees, and we proceeded. I liked this Corsica.
An hour beyond Corte the train reached Vizzavona. I took my backpack and stepped onto the station platform. The air was cool and smelled of pines and some flower I could not identify. The altitude was three thousand feet, the month was June, and a warm afternoon sun was shining. Så langt er alt bra, we say. So far all's good.
I had read that Vizzavona was only an hameau, a hamlet; not even a village. Adjoining the old station building were a small restaurant and outdoor café. Across the little street from the station another building advertised itself as a pizzeria. A hundred yards to the right was a building that seemed to be a small hotel or B&B. And that was all of the hameau, or anyway all of it that was in sight.
But there was more to see. I turned, and saw that a mile or more beyond the north side of the track and a grove of big trees rose the high rock ridge of Monte d'Oro, one of the highest points on the island. The peak was, I knew, eight thousand feet above sea level, a vertical mile above Vizzavona, and the mountainside was still holding on to some of last winter's snow.
For nearly a half-century, until the 1890s, the nearby woods had been a small bandit kingdom headed by two brothers, Antoine and Jacques Bonelli. French courts condemned them to death in absentia for numerous murders but they were never captured. They became not just infamous but famous in France, a little like your Billy the Kid—but I think Billy the Kid never met with any leading American official, while the Bonellis, incredibly I'll say, met with the President of the French Republic when he visited Corsica in 1890. Eventually Antoine, the older of the two, surrendered voluntarily to a detachment of gendarmes, at the Vizzavona station. A court at Corte freed him, despite the earlier death sentences. Brother Jacques had perhaps less faith in the French judicial system, and lived as an outlaw in the woods until he died in 1895.
Well, the days of banditry were long gone in Corsica. But what about the FLNC? I am not prone to apply simplistic descriptions to whole peoples, but I wondered if the Corsicans might indeed be violent by nature, given their history of vendettas.
I was still standing on the station platform. The Vizzavona stationmaster was just a few yards away. He waved his green paddle and my train left Vizzavona and in a hundred yards disappeared into the long tunnel that led toward Ajaccio, thirty miles to the southwest. Ajaccio is Napoleon's birthplace, the Corsican capital and the only real city on the island. It has all of sixty thousand people. Perhaps, I thought, I might take a day to go see it.
I walked up to the stationmaster, a man in his forties with a red uniform cap and a trim brown beard. My French is good, if accented: "Tell me, please, where does one find the Grand Hôtel de la Forêt? I do not see a sign for it."
"It is not far, monsieur. Two hundred meters up the road to the right."
From the front of the station, to the right of the pizzeria, three roads went uphill. Which one did I want? Although there were a couple of signs pointing toward places to stay or eat, there was no sign for any Grand Hôtel. Too well known to need a sign? I started up the road farthest to the right. In a couple of minutes there was the hotel on the left, somewhat shielded from the road by a line of huge lilac bushes in full purple bloom.
When I had first read of this place I thought of that film from the thirties called Grand Hotel. I stopped for a minute now to look. This hotel had a ground floor that must be storerooms, and three floors above. Gray granite. It looked noble enough, but a little aged and hardly grand. Vizzavona was no Paris or Vienna. The hotel advertised just forty rooms, I had read, as well as two suites where French novelists and British aristocrats had once stayed. No suite for me; I had asked for a single room with bath.
There was, I saw as I approached, a bronze plaque reading Grand Hôtel de la Forêt on one of the stone pillars that flanked the beginning of a driveway paved with big flat stones. I walked up the driveway to broad flights of curving stone steps that rose from both right and left up to an entrance with a massive wooden portico, one floor above ground level. The portico was shaped from broad widths of pine, I saw, cut from what must have been huge trees.
A young man stood at the top of the steps. He was not uniformed but he was, it seemed, the doorman, in a sweatshirt, jeans, and Nikes. I walked up the steps and he greeted me, and led me into a big high-ceilinged lobby. The walls were painted a faded white, the ceiling had dark wooden beams, and the furniture was upholstered in what looked like 1930s plush. Much of the lobby floor was covered by two huge rugs certainly from Baluchistan, each of them a good two dozen feet long and a little worn. What I could see of the floor was polished pine boards a foot across. Boards, like the portico, from a big-tree forest; was any of it left?
The reception desk was manned by a woman, if I may put it that way. She might have been sixty years old and she was stout but not fat, and she had black hair except for a band of white that ran back from her forehead. She was rather fierce-looking, but she greeted me politely with a "Good day" in English.
"Good day," I said, "My name is Moe, Olav Moe."
"Ah, yes," she said, "We have been expecting you, Mr. Moe. My name is Silvani."
"How do you do? If I may say so, Silvani is a good forest name."
"Yes, we like to think so. Our forests in this region are very old, and our family, too, has long been here. That is to say, my husband's family."
"Madame Silvani, I hope that I made myself clear in the email I sent you. I would like to stay here for a week, and I want to do some walks on the Grande Randonnée, the GR20, so I may spend a night or more away from the hotel, on the trail. Even so, I will want to keep the room all during the week."
"Entendu, monsieur. Will you dine here this evening?"
"Yes, thank you, I will."
"Good. Dinner is served at 7:30 and we are proud of our mountain cuisine."
"I trust I need not dress for dinner."
"Mon Dieu, no, indeed. It is many decades since the English lords and ladies favored us with their presence. We had grand dinners and balls then, the gentlemen in their black-tie smokings and the ladies in lovely long gowns. All that is gone, except for some photographs you may see on our walls... a little sad, perhaps."
"Perhaps, but not for this hiker."
"You are American, I think, Mr. Moe?"
"No, I am from Norway, and I work for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, at their headquarters in Rome."
"I see. How interesting. My family are Corsican, but I had an uncle, an uncle by marriage, who was a Dane named Jensen."
"And that is certainly a good Danish name. And I am pleased to be your guest. May I see my room now?"
She gave me the key to 306. The youth in Nikes offered to take my pack but it was still on my back, so I thanked him and walked over to the elevator, all open ironwork, that must be decades old. I could easily have walked upstairs; for fun I took the ancient Otis.
Room 306 was clean and the shower and plumbing in the bathroom looked fairly new. The broad bed and the furniture, on the other hand, had surely known a Great Depression and at least one world war.
I pulled aside curtains and opened the big window. Warmer air came in, with a faint scent that must come from the big lilacs. I looked down at the station and rail line, and then up at Monte d'Oro on my left. A thin long waterfall cascaded down the mountain's gray face, from the snows melting in the afternoon sun. All was quiet. This was a good place. I lay down on the bed and slept.
It was still quiet when I woke after an hour. Were there any other guests? It was getting on toward seven, time to go downstairs and have an apéritif. I was hungry; dinner would be none too early.
In the lobby I saw that there were some other guests. Two couples, plump ones aged around 50, sat on facing sofas with drinks, talking happily and loudly. Jolly Germans. I nodded to them as I passed and sat down on a sofa 20 feet beyond them, and I nodded to Madame Silvani, who I realized was looking steadily at me from behind the registration desk.
And then she came.
She was the most beautiful woman I had seen in a long time. She was perhaps 30 years old, tall, black-haired, blue-eyed, not too slim, with fine breasts and lovely legs, in a blue dress and black high heels—and she walked over to me, and she smiled at me. She smiled—and I was smitten.
"Good evening," she said in English without, I thought, an accent. "May I bring you something to drink?"
"Definitely," I said. "May I have a whisky and water?"
She walked away, heels clicking on the fine pine floor, with my eyes fixed on her. You are not to think I am lascivious. In any case, this was a lovely lady and no waitress. When she came back with my drink, I ventured to ask her to sit down and tell me a little about herself.
"My name is Maria Silvani and I am the niece of the proprietor. That is to say, I am the daughter of the brother of Madame Silvani's husband. And you are Mr. Moe and come from Norway? Norway is beautiful. I have gone there with friends to do a trek. We walked five days across the mountains and stayed in big huts. But your mountains are not as green as ours in Corsica... I understand you are going to do some trekking, anyway some walking, on the GR20."
"I am. You must know the GR20. I have maps and a guidebook, but is the trail well marked?"
"Well, yes, but do you think to climb Monte d'Oro, which is the nearest peak to Vizzavona? If so, you should start early. If a storm comes you can easily get lost. Even in good weather it is not an easy climb."
"I understand. Perhaps I will run into someone who knows the way."
"Perhaps you will. It would be better not to go alone. Now I must go help with dinner. Our cook is quite old." She smiled, and walked away again, and again my eyes followed her.
Other guests had sat down in the large lobby and were being served by a blond waitress, not so young or pretty, who had appeared in a white apron and black uniform. Besides the two couples in knickers who were undoubtedly German, a French couple in their thirties had two little boys who began playing with toy cars on the floor. A trim middle-aged couple must be Japanese. But only I had been served by the lovely Maria. She probably wanted to see what a Norwegian looked like, away from his fells and fjords.
Farther down the lobby I saw three men sitting with liters of beer in front of them. They were all in their late thirties or early forties, dressed in dark shirts and trousers and clean-shaven. They were local types, I thought, and not guests of the hotel. They were tough-looking and they did not look happy. One of them looked at Madame Silvani and raised his hand slightly as if to call her. She got up quickly and walked the ten yards to them, and sat down in a chair facing the summoner. What looked like an intense dialogue ensued, no doubt in Corsican, though I could not hear their voices from where I sat.
The man who had summoned the proprietor was facing in my direction. He said something to her. Then, looking at me, he raised his chin as if to point at me, and said to her and the others something that I thought might have to do with me. What could that be about? But then the three men rose, shook hands with Madame Silvani, walked away from the area where the other guests and I were sitting, and went out of the lobby. Madame Silvani resumed her post at the desk, but now she was not looking my way.
In another few minutes the Niked youth appeared, dressed as a waiter at least above his shoes. He carried a sizable bell and rang it twice. Time for dinner.
The dining room was large, and stood out at the rear of the hotel. It had three sides that were all floor-length windows. The evening sky had not yet darkened. Beyond the windows was a large green garden with several huge oaks. Far out in this garden, two hundred feet or more, was a wall of huge blooming lilac bushes that almost hid, beyond them, what looked like the windowless wall of a two-story building, storerooms at a guess, or maybe just an old stable.
An ivy vine came into the dining room at the top of one window and spread over much of the twelve-foot ceiling. This was a pleasant place. I hoped the food was as good as the setting.
I ordered tenderloin of wild boar, a large piece of which the young man brought me. It came cooked with garlic and some other spice in a thick brown gravy. He also brought small boiled potatoes, spinach, and a half-liter of the house red wine. It was good cooking and I was hungry; the wine was drinkable and I was thirsty.
I would have enjoyed a chance to exchange a few words with other guests, but none of them was sitting near me. I finished my boar, had a generous serving of crème caramel for dessert, drank the last of the wine, and left the dining room.
Why not an after-dinner stroll? I walked out of the hotel's front entrance into warm twilight; it was warmer than it had been in the afternoon. The flowers on the old lilacs provided the air a slight perfume. A horn sounded, and a train coming from the direction of Corte stopped at the Vizzavona station, just a hundred yards downhill from where I stood. The station platform was well lit in the dusk and I watched four men get off the train. Each carried just a small bag—so they couldn't be serious hikers intending to spend days on the GR20, which was said to be the most difficult of France's series of long trails, the grandes randonnées. I had read in my guidebook that from Vizzavona it was five days' strenuous walk to reach either the north or the south end of the trail. That was more than I planned to do, at least on my first visit.
The train left. The four men stood on the platform, waiting for someone, and then came the man they had been waiting for. The light was fading, but I could see it was the man who had taken an interest in me earlier in the evening. He shook hands with each of the four, and they followed him to a van sitting by the station.
It was almost dark now, so I ended my short stroll. When I got to my room it was only nine o'clock but even after my earlier nap I was tired from my long day of travel. I had left Rome's Termini station at dawn on a fast Frecciabianca for Livorno, and had caught the ferry for Bastia with only minutes to spare. Then at Bastia I had, as I think I mentioned, jogged with my backpack a half-mile to the station to catch the train for Vizzavona. Now I put on my pajamas and climbed into bed with my paperback copy of Sharpe's Enemy. Bernard Cornwell's novels were good reading, full of blood and adventure... but my eyes were closing. Lights out; time to sleep.
I woke in the morning at six. Through the window came the first light and cool dawn air, and a blackbird's bold song somewhere nearby. Should I shave? I was on vacation, after all, a hiking vacation—but then, I thought, this was after all a Grand Hotel. I got up, shaved, put on my hiking shirt and a sweater, shorts, and boots, and went down to breakfast.
It was not quite seven o'clock. No one was in the dining room but there was a well-stocked buffet laid out on a sideboard. I poured myself coffee and a glass of orange juice, and filled a plate with ham, cheese, a hardboiled egg, a container of yogurt, a croissant, a roll, butter, and jam. I was hungry, and I planned on a strenuous day.
The lovely Maria, in jeans and a white blouse, came in from the kitchen and walked over to me.
She smiled, and said, "Good morning, Olav Moe. I may call you Olav?"
And I said, "Yes, please do. And then I can call you Maria. The weather looks good and I think I will walk up Monte d'Oro today."
"You do know it's a long way? A rise of 1,500 vertical meters from here; an English mile. And there is often a thunderstorm in the afternoon. People have been killed by lightning up there, and if cloud comes in it can, as I told you, be hard to find one's way. Even in good weather the trail is, well, difficult. A woman fell to her death last year although she was a good climber. You must be careful."
"I understand. I will start soon, and will hope to be down before a storm comes."
"That's wise. The trail is fairly well marked."
"You told me earlier that it was better not to climb the mountain alone—but I have no companion. Is there any chance you might come with me?"
"Oh. Thank you, but I have things I must do. Perhaps another day we might take a walk together, on the GR20, I mean."
"I hope so. And today I'll be careful, and do as you say. Aghju da fa cum'e tu dici."
"Corsican! Amazing. Where did you learn that?"
"I found a phrasebook in Rome. I think I know all of four phrases. Incidentally, I'd like to take some food from the buffet to make myself a sandwich, for lunch. Of course I'll be happy to pay."
"Oh, no need to pay. Take what you like..."
So I did. In a few minutes, having left in my room my change of clothing, sleeping bag and mat, small stove, and packets of dried food I'd brought with me from Rome, I set out with a lightened backpack that held just a wool cap and sweater, rain jacket, canteen of water, and two sandwiches for my lunch—and my knife and Glock. One never knew.
I had decided to take a clockwise route up Monte d'Oro and back to the hotel. I started out on a broad path leading out of the village. It was the GR20, and well marked with red and white strips. I was soon in the forest. It was remarkable, big beeches and oaks and pines that had trunks four and even five feet across. It was the nearest thing to a primeval forest I had seen in the sadly deforested Mediterranean world. The undergrowth was low. Moss and lichen covered the rocks and a lot of flowers were blooming, mainly delicate purple anemones, my favorites. (I hope you don't think I'm just narrating a travelogue. I want to set the scene for what happened.)
After an hour or more walking up the broad path and then a narrower but well-used trail, I came to the Cascade des Anglais, where a succession of waterfalls and rapids came down a narrow little rocky canyon. A pretty place, where, my guidebook said, English guests from the Grand Hotel had liked to come and picnic, so many years ago. I thought to myself, that was before two world wars and so many other wars and recessions, assassinations, famines, scandals... and terrorism. I wondered whether any of the FLNC boys ever came to picnic here. I very much doubted it. I sat down on a rock and drank a little water from my canteen. A lean couple with big packs came down the trail and we waved and called Bon jour to one another as they passed. I started off again, uphill.
When I am in Rome I run for an hour, most mornings, and I was in good shape. It took me less than two hours on a pretty steep trail to come up out of the forest into a land of pastures with gray rock outcrops and a few gray grazing donkeys.
There was a group of hikers ahead of me now. I counted five of them, and soon I was catching up with them. No wonder; they had extremely big backpacks. It struck me that four of the five might be the men I had seen getting off the train yesterday evening. And the fifth, who was leading them, was, I realized as I neared them, the fellow who had met them at the train, who had seemed to take an interest in me in the hotel. Altogether these five men did not look like hikers on holiday. Perhaps, given their big packs that they must have picked up at Vizzavona, they worked for the Corsican forest service.
I stayed patiently behind them for some minutes as our trail kept leading higher; but they were just too slow. They had, I recalled, had just small bags when they got off the train, bu their packs now must be quite heavy, twenty or even thirty kilos. Finally I passed them, wishing the fellow who had met them Bon jour. He stopped, looked at me, scowled, and muttered something. I saw him looking at me keenly as I went on. It was not a friendly look.
In another hour the trail reached a ridge which must be the Crête de Muratello that I had seen on my map. Sure enough, at a yellow marker on a tall standing rock a faint trail led off to the right. That had to be the way to the summit of Monte d'Oro, and so I left the GR20 and went off on the faint trail. I stopped in a minute and looked around. The five men were still two or three hundred yards down the main trail. They had not reached the turnoff I had taken for the summit. No doubt when they got there they would keep on northward on the main GR20.
The weather was changing. There was a large cloud to the north that looked like it might become a thunderhead, but not for a while. Closer, certainly not a half-mile ahead of me, rose what must be the summit, a steep rocky summit. A half-hour and more passed as I went steeply upward and now I was on all fours, climbing ever more steeply over rock and scree and small patches of old snow. It was a long difficult stretch, and then I was there!
I stood on a narrow mountaintop from which cliffs fell away in all directions except the way I had come. Far below me to the south I could see Vizzavona and the little railroad and the broad roof of the hotel. Northward rose still higher mountains. The highest must be Monte Cinto, almost nine thousand feet and still white with snow.
The wind picked up and now cloud came on quickly. Almost before I could decide it was time to get off the mountain, I was enveloped in gray cloud and could see no more than ten yards. I could just see below me a low stone cairn that I knew I'd passed. I started down that way.
In several slow minutes I came to the part I had climbed on all fours. I had not noticed on my way upward how steeply, precipitously, the mountain fell off on either side from my faint track. I kept on downward, my back to the rock, again on all fours. If I should slip it could be the end of me.
And there, just below me in the fog, the man from the hotel stood waiting for me. I stopped. He had a long knife in his right hand and grimness on his face.
I said "Qu'est-que tu veux? What do you want?"
"C'est la fin pour toi," he said, and came slowly up toward me, using his left hand to grab onto the rocks. I stood up. I saw a large rock by my right foot. It looked detached, could I lift it? It was and I could and I did, when he was still below me but no more than five or six feet away. The rock weighed a good forty pounds and I lifted it high and threw it at his torso as he lunged at me with the knife. The rock hit him in the face and he fell down to his right, fell screaming, into the abyss, into the fog. After a second I could no longer see him. The screaming stopped but I heard rocks and no doubt his body falling, for ten seconds or more.
And then it was quiet. The man must have fallen a thousand feet. He must be dead, or would be soon. There was nothing I could do about it. But there were four others below me. Surely they would kill me if they knew what had happened. But why, why, had the man come after me? Who, what, did these people think I was? A secret agent—which in fact I once had been?
Perhaps the others had stayed on the main GR20. Perhaps I knew something they did not, if they were not from Vizzavona and the dead man had been guiding them. I did not plan to return to the GR20 the way I had come; I knew there was another way back to Vizzavona.
I pulled my topographic map out of the pocket in my backpack. If I went a half-kilometer, say five or six hundred yards, circling rightward back down the mountain, with some distance still to do before coming back to the GR20, there should be a track leading leftward.
I went the half-kilometer and saw nothing—but then I did. The track to the left was very faint and there was no sign or painted mark, but I was sure it was a track made by humans and not animals. One must make choices. I started off to the left, hoping I would not end on the edge of a cliff. After some time I saw a faint footprint in dried mud. At least one other person had come this way in recent days. It began to rain. I stopped to pull out my rain jacket and the waterproof cover for my pack.
It rained hard. For an hour and a half I walked steeply down a strange landscape, past huge rock masses that some cataclysm must have shaken off the mountaintop. I came to a big meadow that was half granite outcrops and half grass, with eight or ten handsome horses grazing. The rain let up. I could see a long way behind me now. There were no followers. In another hour I was down in woods, a forest of ancient pines as big as those I had seen in the morning. Soon enough I crossed the little railroad, turned right on a small road alongside the rail line, and came back to Vizzavona and my hotel. I had had a murderous adventure but I felt not just tired but almost lighthearted from all the exercise.
What did Madame Silvani, or Maria her niece, or others at the Grand Hotel, know about the group I had encountered on the trail? What would the group think had happened to their missing member? And why, just why, had he wanted to kill me? I would not tell the Silvanis that I had met them but if I was asked, perhaps I should confirm that I had. I would say I had not seen them after I turned off the GR20 to climb Monte d'Oro. I would not say that I had killed one of them—killed an assailant, an assassin—if indeed I had killed him. No, I knew I had. He was dead and I was a killer; but as you well know, it wasn't for the first time. I don't forget bloody Bosnia. I never had combat fatigue, but sometimes I still have bad dreams.
Perhaps, I thought, it would be prudent for me to end this excursion and go back to Rome.
No; I would continue my trip and maybe it would be all in all worthwhile—and adventurous. The FAO was more than a little boring.
It was almost four o'clock. The Niked young doorman was nowhere to be seen and the lobby was empty, though Madame Silvani must be somewhere near. I took my key off the rack and mounted to 306. Suddenly I felt very tired. Climbing up and down a vertical mile might, I thought, be nothing for the famous Reinhold Messner, who had summited the highest peaks in the world and without supplemental oxygen—but Monte d'Oro was a lot for me. I showered and then lay down on the bed in afternoon sunshine, thinking I did right; I killed that fellow but I am not a murderer.
When I walked down to the lobby at cocktail hour the scene was much as it had been the previous evening. The French couple with the small children were missing; one night at Vizzavona probably sufficed if you were not hikers. The four Germans were busy at large beers. I nodded to the Japanese couple. None of the three men who had talked with Madame Silvani was there. One, of course, had gone to meet his Maker.
The lean couple I had seen at the Cascades des Anglais were sitting there, and waved at me. Swedes? I walked over to them and said in English, "Did you have a good day?"
"Yes, indeed," said the woman. "We are doing the GR20 from here at Vizzavona to the north end of the trail. We got off the train here and started north, intending to camp out tonight, but then decided to be lazy, turn back, and spend a night or two in this hotel. It is pleasant, don't you think? Oh, will you sit down and join us for a drink?"
"I will; thanks. My name is Olav Moe. I am Norwegian but I live in Rome."
The man said "We are Ants and Jana Palts. Estonians. From Tallinn."
"How do you do? I have been in Tallinn twice, but never in the Estonian mountains."
He laughed. "Woods and swamps, you mean. But we do like mountains; that's why we're here."
The blond waitress brought me a glass of white wine and I began to talk with the Estomians. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that Madame Silvani had sat down at her desk and was looking keenly at me. I nodded to her politely.
I went in to dinner with Ants and Jana. They were both in their late 30s. They were, they said, software people who had their own firm in Tallinn. Just now they had left the business in the hands of their manager and come to Corsica for a month, maybe longer. They had one son, aged five, whom they had left with a grandmother. Estonia was doing well but the Russian bear was a continuing threat. Thank heaven, said Ants, Estonia was in NATO.
"Of course," he said, "Our army is not large, but in addition we have a volunteer force, the Defence League. Jana and I are both members. We train on weekends. There are 15,000 of us. If the Russians ever invaded we'd take to the woods, as hundreds of our men did when the Red Army occupied Estonia at the end of the Second War. We called them the Forest Brothers, and some of them carried on guerrilla fighting against the Russians for a decade, into the 1950s. In fact I was named for the fiercest of them, Ants Kaljurand."
"That's impressive," I said, "You know, Some of my friends, and I myself, had doubts at first about you and your Latvian and Lithuanian neighbors joining NATO. Like all Norwegians, my friends and I are strong supporters of your independence. At first, though, I thought it might be better for you to stay outside NATO, as Finland has done. But I've changed my mind, given Putin's very threatening ways. I confess I was wrong, and I'm glad you are NATO members."
The aging blond waitress was just then bringing us our first course, and she nearly spilled my minestrone. I glanced at her as I spoke. It almost seemed if she had been shaken by hearing "NATO," and was now hanging on my every word. But that could hardly be the case.
...Jana had said something I missed. "Sorry, what did you say?"
"I was just saying that we are going to walk from here not northward but southward down the GR20, tomorrow morning, to catch a glimpse of the sea, and then come back here for another night. And then go north on the GR20, again, this time to the end."
"Would you like company," I said, "For part of your way? I climbed Monte d'Oro today, and I thought I'd do a little less tomorrow. There is, I know, a pass on the way south called the Bocca Palmenti, that's less than seven hundred meters higher than Vizzavona. My guidebook says you can see the sea from there on a clear day. I want to walk to there and then return here for the night."
"That is exactly what we ourselves intend to do," said Ants. "We'll be happy to have your company."
I looked for Maria Silvani that evening, hoping she might agree to join the three of us on the next day's hike, but she was nowhere to be seen. Nor was Madame Silvani at the registration desk. The person on duty there was a stout man in his fifties I had not seen before. I asked him if he knew where la giovane dottoressa Maria might be. No, he said briefly, and turned to read his newspaper. What did he, and others, think, or know, about the man I had knocked off the edge? Was it only I who knew what had happened?
I had still not seen Maria when the two Estonians and I left the hotel at eight o'clock the next morning. The way to the Bocca Palmenti was pleasant. We went steadily but not steeply uphill along a small forest road and then up a well-marked trail through a forest of giant pines. After an hour or more I looked back down the trail, and caught sight of someone behind us. I looked ahead; the two Estonians were continuing up the trail ahead of me. I stopped and looked back again, and saw my follower had stopped, too. A man, I thought, but I was not sure. Two minutes passed and neither of us moved. Not good, this being followed, but what could I do? I started walking and soon caught up to Ants and Jana.
"Are you all right?" asked Jana.
"Yes, fine. Someone is coming behind us and I thought I'd wait to greet him, or her, but whoever it is has stopped or else turned off onto a side trail. Let's go on."
In another hour and a half we came to the Bocca Palmenti, a pretty place, a gap in the mountains where the forest gave way to a high pasture inhabited by fifty or sixty head of brown cattle and several handsome gray horses. We raised our hands in greeting when we saw, some distance off, an old herdsman who had a big umbrella and a big guard dog plus a small guard dog in training, a frolicking brown puppy. Beyond the gap to the south was a valley, and then another mountain ridge, and then... could it be the sea? The sea might sometimes be visible from here, but today the air was hazy and I could not be sure.
The three of us sat down on a long low rib of granite, to rest, drink, and eat a sandwich. The shepherd's puppy gamboled over to us to be petted, while I heard a low, uncertain growl from the protective parent.
Ants and Jana said they would go some way farther seaward before turning back toward Vizzavona. I said I felt lazy, and would turn back from here. The Estonians started off.
What I wanted was to encounter my follower, who was not in sight now. What did he want? Did he know that the man who had summoned Madame Silvani was missing, and if so did he suspect my involvement? Was he simply a hiker—or might he be a robber? No, I thought, not that. Well, had he mistaken me for someone else? If so, who?
Perhaps, I thought, I might turn off the GR20, walk into the woods, and do some bushwhacking, if that's the word, on my way back to the hotel. I did not know these woods, but I saw no impossibly steep parts on the topo map. It was a clean forest, from what I had seen so far, with no dead trunks and little undergrowth beneath the big trees; and I could use the sun—and my compass if necessary—to keep going generally north, back to Vizzavona.
Yes—but since there was little undergrowth the follower might see me from some distance. At least I was not wearing any bright color. I reached the edge of the meadow and started off into the trees, thinking Not quite the vacation I anticipated.
In the next two hours I saw no living thing except one large woodpecker and three graceful mouflon, wild sheep: two ewes and a ram with huge curved horns. I stopped when I saw them. They stopped, too, gazed at me for five seconds and bounded off, quickly vanishing from my sight.
Perhaps I was alone; perhaps I had no follower... but then I saw for a second, some distance to my right, a human figure. Should I hide, and hope the man, if it was a man, would come closer?
No. I took the Glock from my pack and put it in the pocket of my shorts, and started walking toward the spot where I had seen the unknown person. I caught sight of him—or could it be a woman?—but the figure was retreating, hurriedly I thought, and soon disappeared in the trees. Was that a good sign, or was this an assassin looking for a good vantage point from which to shoot at me?
I saw him or her no more. In an hour was back at the hotel, puzzled and frankly a little worried. For whatever reason, someone had their eye on me.
I went to my room, showered, dressed, and pulled out my Corsica guidebook, which had good maps. I was thinking about the men I had seen with heavy packs going northward up the GR20. One was dead; where had the other four gone to?
The GR20, my guidebook showed, went south from Vizzavona not just toward the sea but roughly in the direction of Solenzara and the NATO base. At a guess, my watcher had seen me and the two Estonians start hiking in that direction. The waitress in the dining room had jumped the previous evening, when she heard us say "NATO." Someone, I thought, might have decided that the three of us were heading for the base, or the vicinity of the base, and followed us or had us followed. But now I had turned back to Vizzavona. Perhaps that had puzzled the mystery person. If I was not some sort of agent or spy, maybe I really was just a hiker on holiday.
What about the Foreign Legion training base near the Col de Vergio, on the GR20 north of Vizzavona? That, I was sure, must have been the destination of the four men with heavy packs plus the one now missing from the world. They were violent people; one of them had tried to kill a certain Norwegian hiker. Their packs must have contained some sort of weaponry. Ammunition, could it be, for rocket launchers?
No matter what anyone might think, I had really come just as a tourist, a hiker. And I had no particular love for the Foreign Legion. But it was part of the armed forces of a NATO member state, and I was strong for NATO even if I was no longer on the payroll….I'm hungry, and I bet you are. Right? And it's getting on toward eight o'clock. Let us go for dinner to the Hostaria da Nerone, up on the Colle Oppio. We can sit outside under the big plane trees, and gaze down the street at the Colosseum, and I know from experience that one can't hear diners at the adjacent tables, and no one will pay any attention to two aging fellows. I am glad you have time to hear my tale. If anything untoward should happen to me... but I trust it won't.
That was good pasta, wouldn't you say? And I think their tiramisu is exceptional. Now let us drink the limoncello that our host has kindly offered us, and I will tell you more about Olav Moe's non-Odyssey.
The evening after I had seen the watcher in the woods, I came down for a before-dinner apéritif and there was the more than attractive Maria. I asked her for a whisky and water, and she brought it on a little tray together with a glass of red wine—and she sat down with me, saying she had a few minutes free and hoped I wouldn't mind if she joined me.
"I saw you," she said, "head off this morning down the GR20 with that Estonian couple. How far did you go with them? The Bocca Palmenti, I'll bet."
"You win the bet, in part. The two of them left me at Bocca Palmenti and went on from there, but they said they'd be back here sometime this evening. I think I may have had a glimpse of the sea, but it was too hazy to be sure—and then on the way back I had a glimpse or two of something else, in the forest."
"Oh? And what might that have been?"
"That might have been, in fact it surely was, someone following me. I'm sure it wasn't just another hiker. I was a little concerned that it might be a thief, or some sort of outlaw. You still have any of those types around here?"
"No, no. Perhaps it was someone who was just curious about you, especially if you didn't stay on the GR20. Someone, maybe, who might have been worried about you. I know a number of cases of people who took falls, got hurt, even died."
"Well, in fact I did go off the trail, and that was when I was sure someone was following me... it wasn't you, was it?"
"My dear Mr. Olav Moe, I don't make it a habit to follow our guests in the woods. In any case I am glad you had a good excursion and came back to us safely. Enjoy your dinner. Perhaps we can talk again soon."
"My dear Maria, I do hope so."
She gave me what we call a halvt smil, half-smile, and got up and walked to the kitchen. I wonder whether it had in fact been Maria in the woods.
At dinner it was the Niked youth who served me a stufatu. It was a stew of beef, ham, garlic, onions, and some sort of herbs. It was excellent. But I saw no more of Corsican Maria that evening.
When I left the dining room Madame Silvani was sitting at her desk in the lobby. I walked over to her.
"Buona sera, signora. May I compliment you on the hotel cuisine? It compares favorably with any restaurant I know in Rome—and, I imagine, almost any in Paris."
"Thank you kindly. Our chef, Nicola, has been with us 20 years and more."
"I had just a word with your niece, Maria. I caught sight of someone in the woods this afternoon, and thought it might be her, but I was too far away to be sure."
"Oh, it may well have been Maria. I know she was planning a walk. A walk to look for mushrooms, she said."
"Ah, mushrooms. With these grand forests hereabouts there must be plenty of mushrooms."
"Certainly. But I never pick them, or eat them. I had a bad case of mushroom poisoning when I was a girl of twelve."
Well, I thought, that's how you could tell me a fable about your niece going to look for mushrooms, in a season when, as I well knew, there were no edible mushrooms to be found in this part of the Mediterranean world. Tell me a better lie next time!
The situation I thought frankly worrisome. A Corsican had gone missing, and it was not unlikely that these people suspected I had something to do with it, even though they could not know that I had sent the man to his death on Monte d'Oro. The dining-room waitress had, I was sure, flinched on hearing the word "NATO." The four men with heavy packs had been headed up the trail that came near the Foreign Legion camp, the camp of a NATO member country. And Madame Silvani had just lied to me.
Was I in the midst of a nest of the most violent people in FLNC? Were they planning new anti-NATO, maybe anti-Foreign Legion, action? And was I myself being viewed as some sort of NATO agent? Well, I was not one. Had Maria—and it must have been her—followed me in the woods because she was for some reason worried about my safety, or did she think I was a suspicious character? And I wondered if my FAO colleague Fabiani had somehow decided that I was not simply a harmless FAO bureaucrat, and had sent word to friends in Corsica that some sort of secret agent was on his way there.
What then should I do? Practically speaking, I should be safe in the hotel, assuming someone really had it in for me; that is to say, if I kept the door to my room locked, made sure with the hair-on-the-door trick that no one had entered it while I was not there, and kept the Glock nearby when I went to bed.
And outside the hotel? I am no Deerslayer, but I am a rather good hunter and tracker. I'm skilled at what I think is called woodcraft. If someone tried to follow me, say, when I next left the hotel to go up the GR20, I could evade them if there weren't too many of them.
But the main thing was that, although I had not come to Corsica as a secret agent, I now felt the need to find out what was going on; what sort of violence, if any, these unknowns might be planning—in spite of my personal dislike for the French Foreign Legion, a dislike I shared with some if not many Corsicans.
I think, my dear General, I've told you enough of my tale for one day. I must spend tomorrow morning at FAO. Shall we meet back here for lunch, say at 1:30?
Sorry to be a little late; I was summoned to a meeting that went on and on, for hours, as FAO meetings often do. Shall we order before I continue with my narrative?
...As I was saying when our waiter friend Carlo brought the rigatoni, my Corsican colleague Jean Fabiani was at the meeting and asked me how I had liked his homeland.
"Very much," I said, "But I had to cut my stay short. I'd been there just two days when Kleinschimdt called me and said I must come back to Rome at once and then go on to Port-au-Prince. An emergency had risen in Haiti. What emergency, I asked; Haiti's a perpetual emergency. And I'm better on crop yields than emergencies. He didn't like me saying that. 'I want you here tomorrow,' he said. So, dear Fabiani, I came back here to Rome, and two days later I was in Port-au-Prince. My third trip there. You know, Jean, we have Haitian colleagues here at FAO and they are impressive, educated, talented... and the Haitian peasants are good people, too, but hopelessly poor, and it seems they've cut down every tree in sight to make charcoal. It's altogether a hopeless scene. I've been back from Haiti now for a couple of days, and I'll be off to Corsica again this weekend. After Haiti I badly need more time in lush territory; in forests."
"So," he said, "You'll be taking the ferry to Bastia, perhaps on Saturday?"
"Yes, on Saturday, and the train to Vizzavona. But why do you ask?"
"Oh," said Fabiani, "I think they're forecasting bad weather. It could be a rough crossing."
"Thanks for telling me," I said. "I know the Med can get rough, but I've seen huge seas off the coast of Norway."
"Very well," he said, "And I hope all goes well in Corsica."
Well for me, I wondered, or for your cause—whatever cause that may be.
As it turned out, the sea was not rough and the train ride to Vizzavona was again pleasant. I wondered if Fabiani had told someone in Corsica that I was coming. In any case the people at the Grand Hotel knew; I had phoned Signora Silvani from Rome and reserved my old room again.
When I went down for a drink before dinner in the hotel that evening, there was a group of a dozen French people, hikers from their dress, talking and drinking at one end of the lobby. I waved to Madame Silvani at her desk, and I wondered where Maria might be. Almost two weeks had passed since I had had to go back to Rome and onward to Haiti. By now my new Estonian friends, Ants and Jana, should be nearing the north end of the GR20. I was sorry I could not be with them... but I suddenly remembered that they had given me their cell phone numbers.
I sat down in an armchair at the end of the lobby, where it was relatively quiet, and called Ants, wondering how good Corsican cellular service might be... and in several seconds there he was, perfectly clear and audible: "Ants Palts speaking."
"Ants, it's Olav Moe. I've just come back to Vizzavona. How are you? Where are you? Not back in Tallinn already?"
"No, no. Are you in the hotel?"
"Yes, in the room I had before, 306. But just now I'm having a drink in the lobby."
"Well, we are here, too, just down the corridor from you, in 312. We'll come downstairs and join you in a minute."
"Marvelous! I'll be here."
In five minutes they joined me. "Hello!" I said. "Do tell me all. I've been not just to Rome but to Haiti and back since we last met. I imagined you had finished the GR20 by now, and gone home to Tallinn."
"No, no. Our manager is taking good care of the business, our son is happy staying on with his grandmother, and we decided we needed to see more of Corsica—for more than one reason."
"Oh? Tell me, did you walk the GR20 to the northern end?"
"No, in fact. We got as far as Asco Stagnu, four days short of the end, and spent the night at quite a nice refuge called Le Chalet."
Jana broke in. "...and there we had our first hot showers in days; and the meals there were good, too."
"...but," Ants continued, "The question was, should we climb Monte Cinto. The trail starts from where we were, Le Chalet, and if we were lucky on the weather we'd be on Corsica's highest peak, 2,700 meters, in four or five hours. Of course we had to do it.
"We left the next day at dawn, under a cloudless sky, and by noon we were on top, and the sky stayed clear. Dear Olav, it was magnificent: below us were snow fields, a blue lake, and cliffs, there were other peaks all around us, and the sea beyond, probably a dozen miles farther west but it seemed much nearer. The sea to the north was farther away but we could see the continent and the Alps, far beyond.
"When we came back to Le Chalet it was mid-afternoon and so we spent another pleasant night there—and made a big decision, which was not to walk four more days north to the end of the GR20 and make our way home to Estonia, but rather spend a week coming back to Vizzavona and this old hotel, which we like well. No doubt if we'd been Parisians and serious people, we'd have felt compelled to do the whole GR20. But we're only indolent Estonians, so we've been lazing around, enjoying these forests and really not doing much... but something strange is going on and I'm glad you're here."
"What's that? Tell me."
"Well, you know there's that building you see when you look out the big dining room windows—the building on the far side of the green garden. We thought it might have living quarters for the staff, and maybe storerooms. Well, yesterday morning we set off before breakfast, just as dawn was breaking, to walk a part of the woods we hadn't seen. We walked past the corner of that building, and there were several men unloading a small truck. The things they were unloading were wrapped—but not all were wrapped entirely.
"I could not believe my eyes. What they were unloading looked like 81-millimeter mortars broken down into three pieces: long barrel, baseplate, and bipod with sights. Olav, we know that weapon well from our training in the Defence League.
"The men were glaring at us. I said to them, Y a-t-il un problème avec la plomberie? You have a plumbing problem?'
"One answered, 'Oui, monsieur. Rien de sérieux.' Nothing important."
"'C'est bon,' I said. 'Bonne journée.' And we walked off. I imagined the fellow looking after us intently but in 50 meters we were out of sight in the trees.
"But there's more, which perhaps I might tell you over dinner... or better yet, perhaps on a walk after dinner. Walls, you know may have ears. I hope these don't..."
At dinner I looked around for Maria, but she wasn't there. Dinner was good, and very Corsican. For my main dish I had misgiscia, which is a ragout made of kid meat that's been marinaded. The Estonians both had wild boar. After dessert and coffee we walked out, southward along the GR20 for a mile or so. No other human was in sight.
"Now," said Ants, "Here's a big beech trunk just waiting for us to sit on it. Olav, you know there's a Foreign Legion regiment stationed in Corsica?"
"I do. And they have a training camp for mountain warfare along the GR20. Did you see it?"
"Yes. On our northbound excursion from here we walked right by the front gate. It was closed, but there was a Legionnaire standing there on duty, in uniform with flat-topped white képi, just like Legionnaires I had seen in photos. For some reason I said to him not 'Bon jour' but 'Hello,' and he said to me in English 'Good day!'
"Well, we stopped and talked for several minutes. He was in fact an Englishman, and if I know my English accents, his was upper-class. God only knows what had taken him into the Légion étrangère. Anyway, he said there were just him and four others there on guard duty. The rest of the regiment was at the main garrison at Calvi; but a company was arriving soon for two weeks' training in the mountains.
"We had left the Englishman and walked on for maybe a kilometer when suddenly two mouflons strolled across the path, a ram and ewe, the ram with huge horns. Jana said 'Let's follow them and get a photo!' and we left the GR20 and went into the forest."
"Let me break in," said Jana. "We are wildlife people in our spare time. Estonia has hundreds of bears and wolves, and we are thinking of reintroducing mouflons, which have been gone from our land for centuries..."
"Anyway," Ants continued, "These animals were walking into the wind, so maybe they wouldn't smell or hear us. They were, what's the word, ambling, not running, and we followed them for more than an English mile. And then..." He stopped.
"What?" I said.
"...and then we came on a clearing a hundred yards across. A new clearing: big pine trunks sawed off a foot from the ground. And there were eight or ten round pits, several feet across and a couple of feet deep. There was a sort of rough trail that came into the clearing from the far side. It looked like the sort of rough emplacement our Defence Force might have made for training. The mouflons had vanished and we saw no other humans.We thought we'd better get out of there, too, so we retraced our way to the GR20 and started back toward Vizzavona.
"And then yesterday morning we saw the mortars—and I am sure that's what they were—being unloaded here, back of the hotel. And it all clicked, if that's the word.
"Olav, we Estonians are suspicious people, after all the Russians did to us. Jana and I know there's a Corsican nationalist movement that has a violent fringe. We think that those must be the people with the mortars, and that they've dug emplacements for the weapons and must be planning to bombard the Foreign Legion camp. And if they have a GPS system they won't have any problem with accuracy."
"Must be. Let me tell you about a group I saw some days ago—several men with heavy backpacks heading up the GR20. What was a little curious was that they were carrying so much stuff. Heavy stuff. Not mortars, but maybe ammunition for mortars?
"There's a road, Ants, that I know from my trekking book, that goes to the hotel near there, at that pass... the Col de Vergio... and it must go on to the Legion camp, right? These people could truck their weapons fairly close to the camp and then lug them into the woods."
"Well, we thought about that," said Ants. "They must have decided that it was less hazardous to be seen on foot by a trekker or two than to be seen unloading heavy parcels from one or more vehicles.
"Right," I said, "And what do we do now? At a minimum, what if I took the train up to Calvi tomorrow morning, and called on the commander of the Legion regiment? I'm not sure we can do much more than just warn him—and of course we can't sure about what we've seen.
"As an alternative," I said, "We could get in touch with the nearest Gendarmerie station, but I'd have to ask what town it's in—you don't know, do you?—and that might raise suspicions."
"I'd say, by all means go to Calvi," said Ants.
Next morning I left on the early northbound train, after telling Madame Silvani that I was headed up to Corte for a day of sightseeing.
A few miles beyond Corte our train stopped at Ponte Leccia, where the line splits into two, one going northeast to Bastia and the other northwest to Calvi, which like Bastia is a port, but a smaller place. At Ponte Leccia a train for Calvi was waiting on the far side of the platform, and left two minutes after I boarded it. I reached Calvi just three hours out of Vizzavona. The Legion garrison, I knew, was called Camp Rafalli, and the train made a stop there, a couple of miles before the main Calvi station. I got off at the Rafalli stop, walked to the camp gate, and convinced the guard at the gate that I needed to see the commandant, whose office he pointed to on the far side of the broad parade ground.
I didn't know what a Foreign Legion garrison might look like; surely not like the rough forts in the sands of the Sahara that I'd seen in films with Gary Cooper when I was young. This garrison was, I saw, a neat and orderly place, with trees and flower beds; and here came a company of Legionnaires in white kepis, marching in perfect step at a curiously slow pace.
The commandant of the 2e Régiment étranger de parachutistes received me in ten minutes. He was a colonel in his early forties named Pierre Roussel de Laforte. He had a shaved head, not an ounce of fat, an aristocratic way, and English as good as mine. I imagined him running ten miles with his troops each morning. I learned later that he was a veteran of operations from West Africa to Afghanistan. I told him in confidence of my NATO background and of my new and, I was sure, trustworthy friends from Estonia. I was quick to get to the point and his face grew hard.
"Whom have you told about these plotters, if that's what they are?"
"No one else. The two Estonians agreed I should come straight to you. No doubt the Gendarmerie must be informed, but we thought to leave that to you. Frankly, I have been wondering whether the police may have ties with the local people that could be, let's say, unhelpful."
"Dear sir, you must not impugn the French police... in general. But you did right to come to me. There are a couple of small Gendarmerie stations in villages up the road from Vizzavona to Corte. I think the overall brigade is sound, but we know that there are a couple of bad actors in the local stations. There's also the GIGN, their anti-terrorist units, but I'm not aware of any of those being stationed in Corsica... So let us sit down with my chief of staff, who is Major Michel Bringier, and some topographic maps, and discuss what's to be done. And I'm inclined to have my regiment do it. Can I count on the cooperation of your good self and the Estonian couple? There may be—there will be—some danger."
"Of course we'll help."
"...and I wouldn't want to see you in trouble with the French authorities. I realize that whatever your experience may have been, you are purely a civilian now."
"You're right. But the three of us will help as best we can."
It was late afternoon when I got back to Vizzavona and the hotel. As I walked down the corridor to my room, here came Maria Silvani. We stopped to exchange words. She smiled at me, and I at her. I invited her into my room. And she came.
To be brief, in five minutes we were together in bed. As we lay there afterward I looked into her blue eyes and I thought of Colomba, Merimee's lovely blue-eyed heroine, who had been bound on revenge, on pushing her brother to continue an ancient vendetta. I hoped Maria thought in a different way.
I said "Who are you? You are lovely but who are you, really?"
"Well, Olav, I will tell you, if you insist. You know my name is Silvani. What I doubt you know is that my mother was born a Bonelli—do you know that name?"
"Bonelli... those were the two bandit chieftains. Was that your mother's family?"
"Indeed. Antoine Bonelli, the brother who made peace with the government, if you know the story...
"I know a little of it."
"...well, Antoine the famous bandit was my great-great-grandfather. He died in 1907, decades before I was born. But, well, memories and traditions last a long time in Corsica, although by the time I came along we were a pretty peaceful people.
"My father's family, the Silvanis, built this hotel back in the 1890s, when the new railroad from Bastia to Ajaccio made access to the mountains easy. It acquired a wealthy clientele. They were mainly English upper-class folk who liked the outdoors and were tired of Florence and Rome. They kept coming, except for a couple of world wars, until the 1960s or so, when the English were not so rich any more and in any case it was just as easy to jet to the Bahamas.
"I was my parents' only child, so would inherit the hotel. But my father saw that business was dropping, and no doubt it would continue to do so. He sent me off to America to learn something different from hotelkeeping. I had a Bonelli cousin who taught in an American university, forestry and environmental studies, so I went there. Yale University. You know it?"
"Yes, indeed I know it. And I know Tom Bonelli slightly. I got my doctorate at Yale, but on worms not trees..."
Briefly, this led to more minutes of what I'll call intimacy. Wonderful amorous intimacy. Maria Silvani was glorious—is glorious.
What she told me next, as we lay together, was not so pleasant.
She got her bachelor's degree in New Haven and came home to Vizzavona for what was to be just a few weeks, thinking to go look then for a job in London or Paris—or maybe with the FAO in Rome. Alas, she found that her father, who had long been a widower, was dying of cancer. Her aunt Silvani had taken over management of the hotel.
Worse, bad folk had moved in: distant cousins named Natali who had ties with a crime family in Marseille. More likely, they themselves were a crime family. They wanted an out-of-the-way place that they could use in their operations. What better place than the old staff quarters and storerooms, almost out of sight behind this respectable hotel?
They made clear, Maria said, to her and her aunt that the two of them could run the hotel and the cousins would not interfere; but they would bring in a few people to augment the staff.
"Did these by chance include that older blond waitress?"
"Yes, and Pierre, the teenager whose uniform ends in Nikes. He is, I regret to say, a fourth cousin of mine."
Maria said she gave up the idea of a job search. She decided she'd have to stay at Vizzavona and help her aunt, and try to keep the family hotel attractive to tourists and not become, visibly at least, the headquarters for a criminal enterprise. This had been going on now for some months. The hotel business had been doing well, Maria said; they had an attractive website and, as I must have seen, guests were coming from as far away as Japan. The Natali gang was pretty much staying under cover—but she was worried about what they might be planning.
"And just what do you think that is, Maria?"
"They're not into old-style vendettas. They're criminals. I think they've pulled off some successful robberies, including a couple of banks and jewelers in Ajaccio. But now I think they're planning violence, violence that looks like it's coming from the armed faction of the FNLC, but really isn't."
"The top man in the gang is now a fellow named Carlu. No relative of mine, thank God. He took over from Petru Natali, who was a very distant cousin, and who disappeared several weeks ago. I'll tell you now that from something I overheard, they thought you might be involved in that. My understanding is that Petru and some others met you on the GR20 and Petru took off after you, up Monte d'Oro—and never came back. You've seen Petru; he's—he is or he was—tough and dangerous.
"A gang member saw you come back to the hotel, coming from a different direction and looking nonchalant, not like you'd been in a fight. So the group decided that whatever had happened to Petru—as I told you, Monte d' Oro can be dangerous, and there was a big thunderstorm on the mountain that afternoon—they decided you were probably not involved. Still they decided to keep their eyes on you. Petru had told them he had been informed that you might be some sort of secret agent.
"I tried for a time to keep an eye on you, too, not for their sake but wondering if you might be in danger. But then you left for Rome and I think they, and I, decided you really were just a forestry person on vacation."
"Glad to hear it. But what do you know about this violence that they're planning?"
"Ah. They'd surely kill me if they thought I knew, cousins or not. What I know is that two guests, a couple, arrived at the hotel one day. They had Czech passports but somehow they didn't look Czech. Russians, I thought. And then by chance I overheard a conversation between the woman, who spoke good French, and Carlu. What came clear was that in exchange for a lot of money from, I do suppose, Moscow, these supposed 'Corsican independence' types were to set off bombs, and assassinate leading people, all over the island. They were to start with the Foreign Legion camp. After several attacks, assassinations, bombings, France would probably put Corsica under martial law and this (the plotters hoped) would turn many peaceable Corsicans against France. And I suspect they were plotting trouble in other places, other countries, too. All in all it could amount to a first-class mess in the Mediterranean—in Europe—and who would profit? It had to be the Russians; who else?"
"Yes, I see. I fear you're right. But did you really overhear all this?"
"Well... no, not all. The truth is that someone told me things. Let's just say blood is thicker than water."
"Right," I said. "Blod er tykkere enn vann... and my Estonian friends and I had decided that, as you learned, one attack, I suppose the first, will be against the Foreign Legion camp up near that pass, the Col de Vergio.
"Maria," I said, and I kissed her, "We'll stop them..."
We went on, let me just say, to a long afternoon dalliance, and not to talk about the criminal cousins.
I know you've seen the news accounts of what happened later, but I'll give you the inside story.
Maria left me after an hour that had been, I'd say, both lovely and useful. We agreed that we'd best not be seen together.
I went to brief the Estonians and then called Colonel Roussel on my cell and told him all, or almost all, that Maria had told me, not least about the likely Russian connection. At Calvi, Roussel and Bringier, the chief of staff—a slightly younger, equally fit version of his colonel—had told me that they would of course want to strike the assailants before they began firing their mortars at the Legion camp—just before. It had to be a clear case of the Legion defending itself, not acting aggressively. And from what Maria had heard and told me, the miscreants were planning to attack soon after the Legion company arrived in the mountain camp.
The Estonians and I had wondered, I told the colonel, whether, if the local Gendarmerie unit was penetrated by bad fellows, it might be advisable to go around them, to the top French government official on the island, the Prefect of Corsica.
"Well," said Roussel, "I thought of that; but even if the Prefect could bring in armed units from metropolitan France, they wouldn't know the terrain and they probably wouldn't come in time. And there's clearly not much time. The first company from my regiment is scheduled to move to our mountain camp in just four days, and other companies—and some units from metropolitan France—are to follow in a steady stream over the months to come. These bad fellows have got to be dealt with quickly. I learned years ago, in certain places in West Africa, that it's best not to delay once one knows what must be done. And Major Bringier and I have decided what that is.
"Would you and your Estonian friends join us? Not, say, as active participants, but as possible witnesses—three hikers, let's say, who'd been staying at the Vizzavona hotel and were making their way, admittedly late in the day, to spend a night camping out near the Col de Vergio."
The plan was simple. The first company—actually the regiment's Fourth Company, that specialized in woodland warfare and numbered just over a hundred men—would travel by truck from Calvi to the mountain camp during daylight hours. They would no doubt be seen by the miscreants, who at a guess included people on the staff of the hotel at the pass. Meanwhile the Estonians and I would have left the Vizzavona hotel with heavy packs, after telling Madame Silvani we were going north to climb Monte Cinto (which of course Ants and Jana had already done). Maria was standing by her aunt, and winked at me. I had decided that it was best, safest, for her not to know what was planned. But I knew she sensed that things were afoot, and not just hiking,
Things worked out well. After nightfall, the company moved quietly out of the camp on foot, after sending out several scouts to ensure the camp was not being watched. Four Legionnaires were posted as guards at some distance outside the camp gate, far enough that they would not be hurt if there was in fact mortar fire. The rest of the company, skilled at moving through forests without a sound, made their way to positions near the clearing that the criminals turned terrorists had prepared.
These terrorists were not numerous, around two dozen men. We could hear them arriving; they had not come all the way on foot; they came on two small trucks that they parked in the darkness behind the hotel. Then, with heavy packs that clearly contained mortars and ammunition, they walked into the woods to the clearing that was to be their firing base. They made noise, and they were wearing headlamps. In contrast the Legionnaires and the two Estonians and I (and Colonel Roussel, whom we stayed close to), watched them and were utterly silent in the dark. The Legionnaires were armed with assault rifles that had night-vision devices mounted on them. The two Legion officers, Roussel and Bringier, and the three of us had pistols instead of rifles. Bringier had handed out night-vision goggles to each of us.
We watched the terrorists assemble the mortars, which we could see were six in number. As you know, these mortars come in three pieces: barrel, baseplate, and bipod. Each piece, I knew, weighed over twenty pounds, so once the mortars were assembled and in place they were pretty much going to stay in place. A usual mortar crew is of course five men, but it looked to me as if the terrorists were making do with four. I counted a total of 26 or 27 men.
Ten minutes passed and it looked like the mortars and their crews were ready. Their leader, who must be Carlu, walked from mortar to mortar, no doubt giving final instructions. He was clutching an assault rifle.
Suddenly the clearing was full of brilliant light. Roussel and Bringier had lobbed in flares. Roussel had a microphone, and shouted "A genoux, mains en l'air!" On your knees, hands up!
In a few seconds most of them obeyed and dropped to their knees, but Carlu and two other fellows stood and aimed their rifles in the direction of Roussel's voice. I was less than a hundred feet from Carlu, had my Glock in hand, and I shot him in the face. Two or three of our men also fired at Carlu and his comrades, and the three of them fell. Several other miscreants scrambled to pick up rifles—and our men shot them in the legs and they lay there screaming with pain. I should add that Roussel had ordered the Legionnaires not to shoot to kill, if possible, but to aim at their kneecaps so as to cripple them. The Estonians had not fired a shot—but I had. So it had not been purely a Foreign Legion show.
Now the Legionnaires came forward out of the dark. They handcuffed the miscreants, and looked after the wounded ones, none of whom looked like dying. Carlu and the other two fellows were dead. Our men left them lying on the ground clutching their weapons, their dead eyes staring at nothing. The only one of our men who had suffered any hurt was a young Asian-looking Legionnaire who had tripped in the dark and sprained his ankle.
The Estonians and I, we would say when asked—as we would be—were just witnesses. We were trekkers, who had seen the Legionnaires come on the terrorist firing base in time to prevent them from bombarding the Legion camp with mortars. I was certainly not going to admit I had shot Carlu.
The three of us said goodbye to Colonel Roussel, found our way to the GR20, and with our trekkers' headlamps made our way a couple of miles down the trail toward Vizzavona. (We had given back to the Legionnaires the sophisticated night-vision goggles, not a sort of thing trekkers carried.) We camped just off the trail and returned in the early afternoon to our hotel. A Gendarmerie unit had already arrived, and had taken into custody four men in the building beyond the garden—and confiscated a large cache of small arms and ammunition they found in the building.
The Estonians and I could be witnesses to what had happened, if we had to be, but Colonel Roussel was an authoritative voice and it would do us no good to stay around for what might be long interrogations. Fortunately the gendarmes were busy in the back building. I'm not sure what the Estonians did, but they were quickly gone; I think they started north on the GR20. I saw Maria for a minute when no one was around, and told her I loved her—and I'd call her from Rome. I made my way to the Vizzavona station in time to catch the 3:30 p.m. train to Bastia, where I got a cabin on the overnight ferry to Livorno. We sailed at eleven p.m., and as we came out into the open sea I threw my pistol into the black water. The next day I was back at work at the FAO in busy Rome, a million miles from Corsica.
When I was free of colleagues for a minute I shut the door to my office and called Maria on my cell. It was not a happy conversation. I had told her, at the hotel, that I wanted her, not for a night but a lifetime—and she had confessed she wanted me—but where and how could we come together? It would not be prudent for me to go back to Corsica, and she had the hotel to run at Vizzavona. We agreed that somehow, though, we would find a solution.
The solution came, unexpected and unpleasant, in a week. We did not find it; it found us. Late one Sunday night, when there were no more than five or six guests in the hotel, it caught on fire. The exterior was stone but the interior was all wood, and it burned. The nearest firefighting station was a half-hour away, and when the engine arrived it was too late.
Maria, thank God, and all the guests and staff were safe—except for Madame Silvani, who had a small apartment on the second floor. They found her body there the following day; she appeared to have suffered a blow on the head. I had no doubt it was a case of arson, and of murder.
"Maria," I said, "Get out of there. Come to Rome. Come now."
And she did. And she is here now, with me, bless her. And we are going to leave Rome. I am, you know, a wary woodsman, and I am sure someone has their eye on me, and probably on her. Someone, I know, was in my apartment here, a few days ago. And the someone, I suspect, may be not Corsican but Russian. My guess is that Moscow guesses I'm a dangerous spy. Whatever I am, the two of us think it best to leave this pleasant Mediterranean world. I am sending my letter of resignation to FAO today—and we'll leave town tomorrow.
Where are we going, you ask? I thought at first of going back to Norway. Home is home, I love our country, and Maria enjoyed her trek in the Norwegian mountains. I will leave FAO a forwarding address in Norway: a cousin in Bergen. But we're not going to move there.
Just two days ago I had an offer I decided to take, in Orono. I think you must know that it's the seat of the University of Maine. I learned a month ago that the university was looking for someone to come lecture, for good pay, on forestry and worldwide reforestation, in which they aim to play a useful role. I quickly applied. I'd had enough of FAO and of Rome, even before going to Corsica.
I hope it'll be a permanent job. I have found on the internet a lovely 1834 house for sale on Main Street in Orono, and my wife and I will hope you can visit us there... assuming a less friendly visitor does not come by with, say, some polonium or sarin. If they do, I keep on me my knife and my new Glock. One never knows.