Twingo car rental, Corsica

Corsica Rond Point and the Stick Shift Saga

Story by Stephanie Levin.

Let me put my domestic and international driving record into perspective: it’s perfect.  My foray into driving began with the family stick shift bouncing up the block until I got the hang of the clutch and gear coordination. Subsequently, all my cars have been powerful little manual gears. There’s a connection with a stick shift you cannot obtain with an automatic. I love the regulation of speed, the windows rolled down, the breeze flirting with my imagination whether I’m downshifting through traffic-choked Mexico City, desolate Moroccan roads, or ripping around rond-points in Paris. Simply said, why any driver would opt for an uneventful automatic over a stylish stick shift is beyond me. That is until I recall my Corsica Rond Point and the Stick Shift Saga. (Rond-point is a roundabout.)

Perhaps it’s my age or the fact that I showed up at the car rental counter alone, but lately, I’ve noticed a slight hesitation from behind the counter before handing over the keys. ” Are you sure you wouldn’t like an automatic?” My notion is to blurt out, “Of course, I’m sure…, can’t you read the reservation?  Would you ask a man this question?” With great restraint, my retort is “No, I would not like an automatic.”

Alas, I was in Corsica, and so I obtained the keys to a petite white Renault Twingo at Figari airport. But not before the young woman behind the counter reiterated that the car is pristine and new, had very few kilometers, and is blemish-free. To make sure I understood her French, she repeated that the company inspects the car upon return and the driver is responsible for any bumps, bruises, or accidents the little Twingo may incur. I have never had so much as a fender bender; however, I had a more immediate concern than defending my driving record. Most of all, I needed directions to exit the airport.

“There is one way in and one way out,” motioned the agent as only the French can do with the perfect eye and hand coordination. Of course, I reasoned, the airport was an eye-blink: one waiting room, one small baggage claim area, and a skip across the pavement to the rental car area. How difficult could it be?

Sartene (Photo:

Exiting Figari Airport was a snap; the directions, however, were a lottery. There was no direction toward my destination of Sartene.  This was my first trip to Corsica and I had been warned that Corsican road signs were notoriously sparse by design. Ponte Vecchio- the polar opposite direction from Sartenewas clearly printed on a primitive wooden arrow; unfortunately, the other two directive arrows were blank. No, I did not have GPS! Relying on my stupendous sense of direction always leaves the possibility of spontaneous adventures on the road, a goldmine of possibilities that the mapped mind normally doesn’t travel. Besides, the already expensive car rental ratchets up with each added gadget. And really, who needs a GPS  on an island with one road that circumvents the entire island?  Certainly not a saucy, seasoned woman traveler.

The only possibility in the soaring heat was the merry-go-round of chance.  I circled and circled around the rond-point several times and did what a woman does when indecision tussles with reason. I defer to my gut to direct me toward the correct route, and that is exactly what I did in Figari. Downshifting, I jettisoned down one of the two-lane routes for about ten minutes in a heat so intense that the lizards had gone underground to cool off.  The route was deserted at 1:00 pm because any Corsican in their right mind was eating al fresco on a shaded patio or snoozing.  Common sense waivered. Should I continue blindly and hope for the best, or return to the rond-point and try the other unmarked direction?  There wasn’t a single person in sight to ask for directions, and it was impossible to turn around on a road the width of a zipper.  Sweltering, I shifted and downshifted around curves for another 10 miles, windows open, air conditioner blasting before I spotted a driveway the Twingo could turn into and reverse.  I rolled into the driveway and put the little gem in reverse. The gear growled back at me. You know that grinding noise that s make as if they were shouting, “what the hell are you doing, don’t you know reverse from first gear? “ I ground the gears a few more times, completely flummoxed.  There was no gear guessing game here. The gearbox was clearly marked, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, over to the right and up for reverse; so why was reverse stubbornly refusing to budge?

Thimble Size Corsican Roads (Photo: Stephanie Levin)

Even with all the windows open, the Twingo had morphed into a sauna. The hellish heat made reverse more imperative, and for a moment I figured I must be experiencing heat hallucinations. At the end of the long driveway, I spotted a house set back on a hill with three bare-chested men stationed on the patio eating and eyeballing me. They stared while eating, I stared back while grinding the gears. Maybe it was their relaxed posture posited around the table, or perhaps it was the heat, but to my mind, they were thinking this woman should drive an automatic, or the sun has addled her senses, or far worse, she doesn’t know the difference between 5th and reverse.  All this nonsense inserted itself in my brain as I sat wilting in the heat while battling with reverse.

Corsican men are not chivalrous by nature, nor inclined to interrupt a meal.  Nor was I for a skinny minute going to saunter up and ask for help like some hapless female tourist. If I had to get out and push the Twingo backward, so be it. I wasn’t going to sashay up to three half-naked men and ask them to come to my rescue.

Armpits sloshing, my two legs united in sweat, I contemplated, talked to myself, and recalled another vehicle adventure years ago in the Loire Valley. The Renault that I had rented would not go into reverse. My friend Maya, one of the smartest women on the planet, was with me.  We sat stymied as we each tried reverse only to hear the echo of that awful grinding sound.  We struggled for 60 minutes trying to figure out the problem; and voila, without understanding how or why we discovered reverse. Now, frustration running neck and neck with the temperature,  I jerked the puffy part of the gearshift box up and to the right, my fingers making a V under it and provoked the Twingo to spin into reverse. The three fellows, who had been gawking while eating and drinking, stared at me as I rocketed off in the opposite direction.

Corsican Village Road (Photo: Stephanie Levin)

After a 20-minute drive on the opposite isolated road without signage, I spied what appeared to be a boat repair shop. I eased into the gravel driveway and stopped the car in front of a stone wall, but not before the little white Twingo rolled into the wall, scraping the underside of the bumper. “Merde,”  I grumbled seeing the white paint scratched off. I left the car running, just in case. Composing myself, I sauntered up to the door, rapped on it, and explained in my gallant French to the woman at the door that I seemed to be having trouble finding the direction to Sartene.

Oh, pas de probleme,” she said, “c’est la direction contraire.

I retraced my original route and passed the three bare-chested men as I sped off shifting down from 4th to 3rd to 2nd like a teenager driving around thimble-size cliffs that towered above the shimmering, turquoise Mediterranean Sea with heart-thumping views.  It was only an hour’s drive from Figari Airport to my eventual destination, Propriano, yet I had been on the road for more than two hours. With the temperature nearing inferno, I desperately needed a drink, so when I spotted an outdoor restaurant, I shifted into a dirt lot, closed the car door, walked in and purchased a bottle of chilled water. Hydrated, I sauntered back to the Twingo, got in, and turned the key. Zilch! I tried again to no avail. Then, I wept and banged my head against the steering wheel in frustration.  I’d been in Corsica for two hours, gotten lost twice, tussled with reverse, pinged the pristine Twingo, and now,  a car that had purred only a few minutes before now refused to budge. The only sane option was to trot back into the restaurant, and plead my situation to the owner, who did as I would learn in my time in Corsica was typical… stop what she was doing and walk out to my car to help me. The petite woman assumed the driver’s position, turned the key–rien– nothing. Then she got out, locked the car, looked at it, then opened it. She eased back into the driver’s seat, turned the ignition, and the Twingo fired up.

“I don’t understand, “I stammered feeling utterly ridiculous. She explained that I had not locked the car, and it is a child-proof mechanism. If the car isn’t locked when parked, who was it won’t startup. I made a mental note to always lock the car when parking.

Though I tried to call the couple I’d rented the apartment from, there was no cell service. Of course not, I was in the countryside accompanied by a cacophony of cicadas. I passed the walled town of Sartene and 15-minutes later arrived in Propriano.  Elated, I rounded the rond-point near the pharmacy and followed the direction. Turn right at the pharmacy and when you come to the second rond-point, look for Viggianello, a tiny alley.

Propriano (Photo:

Unfortunately, the rond-point was near a busy Casino food market with cars entering from four directions at once.  I lost count of how many times I shifted and circled, and with no obvious place to pull over, I never spotted  Viggianello alley. Instead, I headed off in the direction of Viggianello and realized I was headed out of Propriano. I don’t know how long I drove before spotting a man atop a steep driveway who was watering plants in the heat of the day and dressed in shorts and no shirt. I eased into first, stepped on the gas, jetted up the drive, and startled the unsuspecting man.

 Pardonme, I explained, I’m looking for Vigianello, a small alley. He wasn’t from the area and pointed to the workers below us, suggesting I ask them. Thanking the shirtless gentleman, I popped the Twingo into reverse, feeling quite accomplished with a reverse by now, and eased down the other driveway where I repeated my dilemma to the workmen. “Follow me,” said one of the workmen heading for his truck. “When I reach  Viggianello alley, I’ll put my hand out the window and signal for you to turn that direction, ” instructed the truck driver.

Grateful, I tailed the truck down the road and when we arrived near the dreaded rond-point, he signaled me to drive up a thimble size cobblestone alley. I felt an immense sense of gratitude and relief as I chugged up the alley searching for an address that did not appear on any gate. Once I reached the top of the alley, there stood a solidly built gray-haired man in sandals, shorts, and a sleeveless undershirt, the kind my grandfather once wore.

Again, in my best French, I said I was looking for the Aliotti’s residence. “Ah, vienne, see that rooftop below, that is the Aliotti’s residence, about five rooftops down the alley,” he said, but not before noting that I had a slight accent in French. “San Francisco,” I replied. “The Golden Gate Bridge!” he charmed. We spent 20 minutes in the midday heat conversing like old friends about San Francisco.  When I finally arrived at the Aliotti residence, it was 4:40 pm.

Francoise Aliotti rushed out of her garden to greet me. “We thought you weren’t coming, we expected you hours ago,” she said worried, but relieved. “Not come to Corsica; I’ve been waiting for years to travel here,” I replied as she showed me to my apartment with a view of the sea. That was the first of three trips to Corsica and the forging of a beautiful friendship with the Aliotti family, and, of course, I always swing into their driveway in a rented, manual Twingo. And I long ago mastered the art of downshifting around those rond- points.

View of the Mediterranean Sea (Photo: Stephanie Levin)

IF YOU GO:  It’s best to reserve a car online before traveling to Corsica. The four major airports Figari,  Ajaccio, Bastia, and Calvi, have car rentals from the major car rental companies. Prices vary depending on the time of year, and they have both manual and automatic.