The Pleasures of the Grand Hotel

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The next day, we packed up the Peugeot, said goodbye to the nice staff of the Santa Maria (then, as now, I felt slightly guilty for so disliking their hotel), and headed to Calvi, a half-hour drive on an increasingly steep and windy road that hugged the coast. We saw the blue Mediterranean the whole way. Traffic on the narrow road into town never clogged.

In Calvi, we quickly located the Grand Hotel.

The Grand Hotel! Is there a prettier phrase for the traveler reeling from the blight of rinky-dinkiness?

The Grand Hotel did not disappoint. We entered its hushed, marble-floored lobby, wonderfully devoid of central air, its coolness deriving from shade; at the far end was a big room full of couches and chairs, dormant in the daytime, suggesting many long evenings of drinking and talking. A bit haunted. I loved it. The hotel was a big, stolid structure, its provenance indeterminately “prewar”; it was equipped with that era’s notions of luxury—a pair of small creaky elevators whose copper-lined interior featured little ashtrays, and room keys with the room number handwritten in elegant script on heavy wooden blocks. Our room was on the fourth floor, one flight below the Grand Hotel restaurant.

We pushed open the door to our room and entered a kind of paradise. The air conditioning was demure. The windows had heavy wooden shutters that opened onto the terra cotta roof opposite and, beyond that, a view of the Golfe de Calvi and mountains beyond.

We spent the first few minutes swanning around. The bathroom alone was nearly the size of our room at the Santa Maria. On its pink-tiled walls were metal towel rings fastened with little black fists, which I especially enjoyed. The room featured a pleasantly shabby pink velvet couch against one wall, a pair of firm twin beds against the opposite wall, and in the middle a low white table and a pair of chairs that struck me as a deeply generous touch, suggesting picnic lunches and that state of conversational leisure that seems, for some reason, so much more attainable in Europe than in America.

The Grand Hotel is located at the edge of the cluster of narrow streets that make up the old town, at the top of which sits the formidable citadel, a bunched group of buildings that sits perched on lookout above the vast and lonely sea. But first and foremost, it is a beach town.

The Calvi beach is a marvelous place. It is a long, thin crescent of fine, pale sand that stretches all the way across the bay and, near the town, is festooned with bright umbrellas and beach chairs that you can rent for 10 or 15 euros a day, each attached to a little cafe. Right behind the beach is a stand of pines that conceals railroad tracks. A little two-car train that runs along the coast between Calvi and Ile Rousse comes honking by every hour.

On our first day, we located a merry set of chairs, encamped, and took in the scene. In front of us were the sea and a marina of moored sailboats; close enough to be picturesque but far enough that you don’t feel like you are swimming in a marina. To the left sits the old town on a gentle slope, presided over by the old citadel at the far end. And to the right a set of mountains. They were both stark and lush. They seemed a bit gigantic. I stared and stared. The mountains had a particular beauty that was benign and brutal, and in comparison the lovely Golfe de Calvi felt domesticated without having been turned completely into a toy of tourism.

We swam in the briny water. Swimming in the Mediterranean is unlike swimming in any other sea. It’s not just the absence of waves or the general warmth of the water. It seems extremely gentle, and you float easier and move faster through it; you feel cosseted and cared for. It doesn’t really fight you. In Calvi we could wade into the sea and walk and swim and walk some more and still touch the bottom. So we swam, lounged on our beach chairs, swam some more, lounged some more, and I settled into my book—Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

I had always regarded McCarthy warily and had never read him. There seemed to be a kind of macho cowboy fetish surrounding his aura, which I distrusted. But a day before leaving for Corsica, Blood Meridian (subtitle: Or the Evening Redness in the West) looked like a good idea, so I bought it at the Open Door bookshop on the Via Lungaretta in Rome.

Who knows why a book one avoids for a long time suddenly appeals? Perhaps Corsica’s renegade vibe and my anticipation of it as a place to confront nature drew me to a book in which a solitary figure moves across an unforgiving landscape. Perhaps, on my honeymoon, I wanted a narrative that I anticipated (correctly) to be completely empty of tenderness, sex, or hope—in a word, women.

On Page 2 of the book, I encountered this: “On a certain night a Maltese boatswain shoots him in the back with a small pistol. Swinging to deal with the man he is shot again just below the heart. The man flees and he leans against the bar with blood running out of his shirt. The others look away. After a while he sits on the floor.”

I soon realized the above passage was an act of restraint by McCarthy, both syntactically and in its degree of specificity regarding cruelty and blood. I wondered if a honeymoon in Corsica was an ideal time for such a book. But the book’s incantatory prose kept me going.

On our way back from the beach, we wandered the streets, and the peculiar chemistry of Calvi presented itself—it is a little town whose old, narrow streets are filled with shops catering to tourists, but the place nevertheless does not feel overrun or manic or even altogether that touristy, perhaps because just about everyone was French and therefore not a peep of English was heard. Beyond that, though, the stores were filled with postcards and beach towels and kadima paddles and cheap shoes, there were markets, and the place had a life of its own.

This feeling—that it was a place hospitable to us, meant for the pleasure of travelers but not a eunuch clown grinning for the amusement of tourists­—persisted throughout our visit.

We saw a lot of Che Guevara imagery on T-shirts, buttons, towels, and so forth; Guevara’s famous beret was eclipsed in frequency only by the peculiar Corse logo. This is, I realize, a terrible way to refer to the national symbol. Is the bald eagle America’s logo? And yet that is the word that first came to mind. This logo—a black man’s head with a white headband seen in profile—was on buttons, beach towels, postcards, flags, everything. I asked Adrien, a young waiter down from Paris for the summer who was one of the few people I met who spoke any English (or at least admitted to), what this image, which appeared on the sleeve of his brasserie’s uniform, meant.

“I don’t really know,” he remarked blithely. He asked another guy about it in French. The man spoke at length. Then Adrien turned to me and said, “It’s complicated.” I persisted, and between Adrien and a few other people, the story I got was as follows: At one point, Moors overran the island. They were repelled. The victorious king cut off the head of a Moor and put it on a stake, which he then set out for all to see. So, the national symbol of pride is a decapitated head. In its current form, there is a white bandana around his head that lends the image a slightly beach-bum vibe, but originally it was covering his eyes.

Cormac McCarthy suddenly seemed appropriate reading.

After our beach sojourn and a coffee, we shopped in the narrow streets. We found the ancestral charcuterie, with its many shriveled and delicious items hanging from the ceiling, and bought some. We got a baguette. We stopped at the market and got a ton of grapes and nectarines and peaches and tiny yellow plums and ripe purple plums, and we took the whole entourage up to our room and picnicked at the little white table. We had a long siesta, took a walk, and dined upstairs at the Grand Hotel’s restaurant.

We sat on the balcony. The menu’s design was florid and festive. The view was commanding. For an appetizer, I had a dish made of fresh sardines layered over couscous that was sublime. My longing for caprese salad and pasta immediately abated.

The sky over the mountains slowly darkened as we ate. Many shades of blue passed through each other until it was black and the lights on the far shore blinked peacefully. It was a blissful end to the night, the pleasure of it all interrupted now and then only by a slight cough from Elizabeth, as though something were scratching the inside of her throat. Each little cough seemed sure to be the last, a passing little whitecap in the sea of our contentment. But like a whitecap, each one receded only to be replaced by another.