Porto Vecchio, 8am. Our guide Stéphane Rogliano was waiting for us there; I’d already heard about him and his passion for plants, his profession as a horticulturist and his culinary associations with great chefs, but what I would experience in the ensuing hours I didn’t know.
It was only 15 minutes later, on the road leading to the hospital, that we stopped. Stéphane parked the SUV in the shade of an oak tree. The sun and heat were already there despite the relatively early hour, but I was well prepared: water, cap, long pants, T-shirt and good shoes. I was about to spend over three hours in the Corsican maquis on a ‘scented hike’.
Before beginning our olfactory experience, and as a preamble to the discovery of the Corsican maquis, Stéphane explained: “It wasn’t until the 1970s with the emergence of ecological ideas that it was understood that wealth was in biodiversity. We’ll see this as we start our walk.”
Biodiversity was duly delivered: in front of us was an amazing flora, trees and bushes in all shades of green and all very fragrant. Armed with pruning shears, Stéphane cut small delicate samples of plants and told us to crush them between two fingers and smell. It was an explosion of fragrance. Myrtle, fennel, ‘Erba Barona’, nepita, rosemary, ‘Erba Strega’ (epiary), immortelle, marjolaine, sarsaparilla… all these aromatic plants, whose names are evocative of their scents. I was holding the essence of the maquis in the palm of my hand.
Stéphane also told us a bit about the behaviour of the plants, why they grow there, why the leaves of some trees are deciduous and others evergreen and why the oak leaves have serrated edges. We also learned the properties of essential oils, especially that of immortelle, about which Stéphane is a true expert – he’s inexhaustible on the subject, knowing all the scientific and Latin names of plants by heart, and could speak for hours on end! But his sense of humour allowed him to say, “I used to talk less and walk more but now, with the increasing years, I talk more and walk less.”
At the turn of a pine tree, a small stone building stood before us: but what was it? A wood-burning oven, a bread oven, a chestnut dryer? In fact, it was a tiled oven! Man was present here decades ago, cultivating his land at the heart of this maquis, hunting wild boar and availing himself of anything else nature offered him. This is also Stéphane’s mission: to share the culture and history with the visitors who have chosen to come into the Corsican wilderness.
After three hours of walking and olfactory discoveries, it was with some regret that we took the return route back. The smells on my clothes, on my hands and in my hair continued to remind me of the walk long after it ended.