Exploring the Mediterranean Island of Corsica

The clifftop town of Bonifacio, on the southern tip of Corsica. By Roger Allnutt

By Roger Allnutt

The large Mediterranean island of Corsica has had a turbulent history over the centuries, even up to the 1970s with its fiercely patriotic inhabitants calling for independence from France.

Corsica has a strong connection with Napoleon Bonaparte who was born and raised in Ajaccio, the major city on the island. Bonaparte spent some time as a Lieutenant Colonel with the Corsican Free Regiment at Bocagnano in the central mountainous region in his early military career (Bocagnano was also where his grandmother lived).

Nowadays Corsica is a popular destination for holidaymakers mainly from other parts of Europe, who flock to the island’s numerous beaches and resorts mainly along the east coast. The incredibly rugged and mountainous landscape particularly in the central and western parts of the island provide some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe, and a visit to Corsica is highly recommended on any European itinerary.

Corsica (part of France) and the neighbouring island of Sardinia (part of Italy) are two of the larger islands in the Mediterranean. Corsica can be reached by air from a number of cities across Europe, or by ferry from Italy and France from ports such as Livorno, Marseille and Toulon. Companies including Corsica Ferries have regular sailings.

I had arranged a car on arrival at Bastia on the northeast corner of the island. The roads round Corsica are generally good although they can be very winding and narrow in places. Campervans are suitable for most roads in Corsica but motor homes (especially large ones) would be a trial for an inexperienced driver. It is often difficult to find parking places outside the major towns.

Bastia is a pleasant, sunny town centered round the busy port. Place St Nicolas is the focal point of the town, a large, open, tree-lined square bordered on three sides by imposing buildings.

Stretching thumb-like north from Bastia is Cap Corse, and the 62-mile drive around this peninsula is a good introduction to the dramatic scenery found throughout Corsica. Tiny ports, villages clinging to hillsides, a few sandy coves, rocky and steep coastline, old fortresses and watchtowers, and some vineyards and olive groves are evidence of the rich variety of Corsica. Wild herbs and wildflowers added a dash of color while oleanders, hydrangeas and broom are a vivid contrast against the blue water. I would recommend driving round the peninsula in a clockwise direction so you aren’t driving on the “outer” side of the often narrow road.

As you drive, note that many of the road signs have two spellings – one in French and the other in the local Corsican language – and often the French version has been scrawled out. Patriotism dies slowly in Corsica.

The center of the island and the western side are especially mountainous with winding roads joining the main towns.

Corte is the main town in the center of the island, ringed by mountains that remain snow-covered well into summer. The imposing Citadel (pictured above) towers over the shop-lined streets and from the lookout at the Belvedere you get great views of the surrounding countryside. The museum in the citadel houses a splendid collection of material relating to all aspects of Corsican life.

Corte is a center for some magnificent walking trails. The famous GR20, a 100-mile walk from near Calvi in the north west to Conca near Porto Vecchio in the south east, passes through the mountains near Corte but it is only recommended for the young, adventurous and very fit.

There are other trails near Corte, especially along the beautiful Gorges of Restonica where the waters of the river tumble between rocky cliffs through forests of pine and chestnut. Waterholes in the river provide places for a refreshing dip. The walks to Lac de Mello and Lac de Capitello are especially beautiful.

Even more dramatic is the scenery along the west coast, particularly near the tiny port of Porto on the Gulf of Porto. The granite cliffs of the Calanques de Piana rise in amazing formations direct from the sea, changing from grey to orange to red during the day. The best views are from the village of Piana or from one of the many sightseeing boats that sail from Porto – the sunsets here can be stunning. These tours often include a visit to the remote fishing village of Girolata, only reachable by sea or a two-hour walk from the highway.

Inland from Porto the Gorges de Spelunca winds between the tiny villages of Ota and Evisa. Highly recommended is the easy hour-long walk between two beautiful old Genoese bridges Pianello and Zaglia, the track clinging to the side of the steep cliffs of the gorge (pictured above).

Ajaccio, the capital of Corsica, is a relaxing port town on the Gulf of Ajaccio whose main street is naturally enough called Cours Napoleon after the city’s favorite son. It was founded by Genoese colonists in 1492 and became French in 1768 when Genoa sold the island to France.

Reminders of Napoleon abound in the city. Maison Bonaparte where he was born in 1769 can be visited, Salon Napoleon in the Town Hall contains medals, paintings and busts and the Palais Fesch, named after his maternal uncle, contains a chapel built as a sepulchre for members of his family. There is even a Hotel Napoleon.

West of Ajaccio the rugged promontory Pointe de la Parata is also famed for its sunsets; offshore the Isles Sanguinaires also turn a deep red, so the islands are naturally called the Bloody Islands.

Two other towns not to be missed are Bonifacio and Calvi, the old towns of which perch on the top of high cliffs overlooking the sea.

Bonifacio is at the southern tip of the island, only a short distance across a narrow strait from Sardinia. The citadel or old city of Bonifacio complete with ramparts is reached by steep steps and through imposing gates from the large, colorful marina below. Its narrow alleys are lined with tall buildings and numerous shops. The best views of Bonifacio are obtained from the cliffs leading out to the lighthouse Phare de Pertusato or the many tourist boats called vedettes.

Calvi also sits on a promontory above the surrounding waters and from the citadel are great views along the coast (pictured above). The marina is packed with leisure craft of all sizes and is lined with numerous cafes and bars. Christopher Columbus is, according to local tradition, supposed to have been born in Calvi.

There is a wide range of accommodation throughout Corsica from luxury five-star hotels to modest pensions and apartments; hotels become very busy during the European summer season.

I would recommend at least five days to ‘see’ Corsica.

For more information on Corsica check the website www.visit-corsica.com/en/. For timetables, prices and bookings on Corsica ferries visit www.corsicaferries.co.uk.

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