More than three million people visit Corsica each year, drawn by the mild climate and some of the most diverse landscapes in all Europe. Nowhere in the Mediterranean has beaches finer than the island’s perfect half-moon bays of white sand and transparent water, or seascapes more dramatic than the red porphyry Calanches of the west coast. Even though the annual visitor influx now exceeds the island’s population nearly ten times over, tourism hasn’t spoilt the place: there are a few resorts, but overdevelopment is rare and high-rise blocks are confined to the main towns.
Bastia, capital of the north, was the principal Genoese stronghold, and its fifteenth-century citadelle has survived almost intact. It’s a purely Corsican city, and commerce rather than tourism is its main concern. Also relatively undisturbed, the northern Cap Corse harbours inviting sandy coves and fishing villages such as Macinaggio and Centuri-Port. Within a short distance of Bastia, the fertile region of the Nebbio contains a scattering of churches built by Pisan stoneworkers, the prime example being the Cathédral de Santa Maria Assunta at the appealingly chic little port of St-Florent.
To the west of here, L’Île-Rousse and Calvi, the latter graced with an impressive citadelle and fabulous sandy beach, are major targets for holiday-makers. The spectacular Scandola nature reserve to the southwest of Calvi is most easily visited by boat from the tiny resort of Porto, from where walkers can also strike into the wild Gorges de Spelunca. Corte, at the heart of Corsica, is the best base for exploring the mountains and gorges of the interior which form part of the Parc Naturel Régional that runs almost the entire length of the island.
Sandy beaches and rocky headlands punctuate the west coast all the way down to Ajaccio, Napoleon’s birthplace and the island’s capital, where pavement cafés and palm-lined boulevards teem with tourists in summer. Slightly fewer make it to nearby Filitosa, greatest of the many prehistoric sites scattered across the south. Propriano, the area’s principal resort, lies close to stern Sartène, former seat of the wild feudal lords who once ruled this region and still the quintessential Corsican town.
More megalithic sites lie south of Sartène on the way to Bonifacio, a comb of ancient buildings perched atop furrowed white cliffs at the southern tip of the island. Equally popular, Porto-Vecchio provides a springboard for excursions to the amazing beaches of the south. The eastern plain has less to boast of, but the Roman site at Aléria is worth a visit for its excellent museum.
Set on the western Mediterranean trade routes, Corsica has always been of strategic and commercial appeal. Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans came in successive waves, driving native Corsicans into the interior. The Romans were ousted by Vandals, and for the following thirteen centuries the island was attacked, abandoned, settled and sold as a nation state, with generations of islanders fighting against foreign government. In 1768 France bought Corsica from Genoa, but nearly two-and-half centuries of French rule have had a limited effect and the island’s Baroque churches, Genoese fortresses, fervent Catholic rituals and a Tuscan-influenced indigenous language and cuisine show a more profound affinity with Italy.
Corsica’s uneasy relationship with the mainland has worsened in recent decades. Economic neglect and the French government’s reluctance to encourage Corsican language and culture spawned a nationalist movement in the early 1970s, whose clandestine armed wing – the FLNC (Fronte di Liberazione Nazionale di a Corsica) – and its various offshoots have been engaged ever since in a bloody conflict with the state. The violence seldom affects tourists but signs of the “troubles” are everywhere, from the graffiti-sprayed road signs to the bullet holes plastering public buildings.
Relations between the island’s hardline nationalists and Paris may be perennially fraught, but there’s little support among ordinary islanders for total independence. Bankrolled by Paris and Brussels, Corsica is the most heavily subsidized region of France. Moreover, Corsicans are exempt from social security contributions and the island as a whole enjoys preferential tax status, with one-third of the permanent population employed in the public sector. Increasingly, nationalist violence is seen as biting the hand that feeds it.
Opinion, however, remains divided on the best way forward for the island. While the centre-Right UMP (Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire) party pushes for an all-out promotion of tourism as a socio-economic cure-all, local nationalist groups resist large-scale development, claiming it will irrevocably damage the pristine environment visitors come to enjoy. Such opposition achieved resounding popular support in the territorial elections of 2010, in which the nationalists gained an historic 35 percent of the vote thanks largely to their anti-development policies. This, however, was not enough to win them control of L’Assemblée Corse, which went by a narrow margin to Paul Giacobbi’s centre-Left coalition.Read More
Corsican food and drink
Corsican food and drink
It’s the herbs – thyme, marjoram, basil, fennel and rosemary – of the maquis (the dense, scented scrub covering lowland Corsica) that lend the island’s cuisine its distinctive aromas.
You’ll find the best charcuterie in the hills of the interior, where pork is smoked and cured in the cold cellars of village houses – it’s particularly tasty in Castagniccia, where wild pigs feed on the chestnuts which were once the staple diet of the locals. Here you can also taste chestnut fritters (fritelli a gaju frescu) and chestnut porridge (pulenta) sprinkled with sugar or eau de vie. Brocciu, a soft mozzarella-like cheese made with ewe’s milk, is found everywhere on the island, forming the basis for many dishes, including omelettes and cannelloni. Fromage corse is also very good – a hard cheese made in the sheep- and goat-rearing central regions, where cabrettu à l’istrettu (kid stew) is a speciality.
Game – mainly stews of hare and wild boar but also roast woodcock, partridge and wood pigeon – features throughout the island’s mountain and forested regions. Here blackbirds (merles) are made into a fragrant pâté, and eel and trout are fished from the unpolluted rivers. Sea fish like red mullet (rouget), bream (loup de mer) and a great variety of shellfish is eaten along the coast – the best crayfish (langouste) comes from around the Golfe de St-Florent, whereas oysters (huîtres) and mussels (moules) are a speciality of the eastern plain.
Corsica produces some excellent, and still little-known, wines, mostly from indigenous vine stocks that yield distinctive, herb-tinged aromas. Names to look out for include: Domaine Torraccia (Porto-Vecchio); Domaine Fiumicicoli (Sartène); Domaine Saparale (Sartène); Domaine Gentille (Patrimonio); Domaine Leccia (Patrimomio); and Venturi-Pieretti (Cap Corse). In addition to the usual whites, reds and rosés, the latter also makes the sweet muscat for which Cap Corse was renowned in previous centuries. Another popular aperitif is the drink known as Cap Corse, a fortified wine flavoured with quinine and herbs. Note that tap water is particularly good quality in Corsica, coming from the fresh mountain streams.
Winding some 170km from Calenzana (12km from Calvi) to Conca (22km from Porto-Vecchio), the GR20 is Corsica’s most demanding long-distance footpath. Only one-third of the 18,000 to 20,000 hikers who start it each season complete all sixteen stages, which can be covered in ten to twelve days if you’re in good physical shape – if you’re not, don’t even think about attempting this route. Marked with red-and-white splashes of paint, it comprises a series of harsh ascents and descents, sections of which exceed 2000m and become more of a scramble than a walk, with stanchions, cables and ladders driven into the rock as essential aids. The going is made tougher by the necessity of carrying a sleeping bag, all-weather kit and two or three days’ food with you. That said, the rewards more than compensate. The GR20 takes in the most spectacular mountain terrain in Corsica and along the way you can spot the elusive mouflon (mountain sheep), glimpse lammergeier (a rare vulture) wheeling around the crags, and swim in ice-cold torrents and waterfalls.
The first thing you need to do before setting off is get hold of the Parc Régional’s indispensable Topo-guide, published by the Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre, which gives a detailed description of the route, along with relevant sections of IGN contour maps, lists of refuges and other essential information. Most good bookshops in Corsica stock them, or call at the park office in Ajaccio.
The route can be undertaken in either direction, but most hikers start in the north at Calenzana, tackling the most demanding étapes early on. The hardship is alleviated by extraordinary mountainscapes as you round the Cinto massif, skirt the Asco, Niolo, Tavignano and Restonica valleys, and scale the sides of Monte d’Oro and Rotondo. At Vizzavona on the main Bastia–Corte–Ajaccio road, roughly the halfway mark, you can call it a day and catch a bus or train back to the coast, or press on south across two more ranges to the needle peaks of Bavella.
Accommodation along the route is provided by refuges, where, for around €13–17, you can take a hot shower, use an equipped kitchen and bunk down on mattresses. Usually converted bergeries, these places are staffed by wardens during the peak period (June–Sept). Advance reservations can be made online via the national park (PNRC) website, w parc-corse.org, for an advance payment of €5 per bed; any un-booked places are allocated on a first-come-first-served basis, so be prepared to bivouac if you arrive late. Another reason to be on the trail soon after dawn is that it allows you to break the back of the étape before 2pm, when clouds tend to bubble over the mountains and obscure the views.
The weather in the high mountains is notoriously fickle. A sunny morning doesn’t necessarily mean a sunny day, and during July and August violent storms can envelop the route without warning. It’s therefore essential to take good wet-weather gear with you, as well as a hat, sunblock and shades. In addition, make sure you set off on each stage with adequate food and water. At the height of the season, most refuges sell basic supplies (alimentation or ravitaillement), but you shouldn’t rely on this service; ask hikers coming from the opposite direction where their last supply stop was and plan accordingly (basic provisions are always available at the main passes of Col de Vergio, Col de Vizzavona, Col de Bavella and Col de Verde). The refuge wardens (gardiens) will be able to advise you on how much water to carry at each stage.
Finally, a word of warning: each year, injured hikers have to be air-lifted to safety off remote sections of the GR20, normally because they strayed from the marked route and got lost. Occasionally, fatal accidents also occur for the same reason, so always keep the paint splashes in sight, especially if the weather closes in – don’t rely purely on the many cairns that punctuate the route, as these sometimes mark more hazardous paths to high peaks.
Napoleon and Corsica
Napoleon and Corsica
Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio in 1769, a year after the French took over the island from the Genoese. They made a thorough job of it, crushing the Corsican leader Paoli’s troops at Ponte Nuovo and driving him into exile. Napoleon’s father Carlo, a close associate of Paoli, fled the scene of the battle with his pregnant wife in order to escape the victorious French army. But Carlo’s subsequent behaviour was quite different from that of his former leader – he came to terms with the French, becoming a representative of the newly styled Corsican nobility in the National Assembly, and using his contacts with the French governor to get a free education for his children.
At the age of 9, Napoleon was awarded a scholarship to the Brienne military academy, an institution specially founded to teach the sons of the French nobility the responsibilities of their status, and the young son of a Corsican Italian-speaking household used his time well, leaving Brienne to enter the exclusive École Militaire in Paris. At the age of 16 he was commissioned into the artillery. When he was 20 the Revolution broke out in Paris and the scene was set for a remarkable career.
Always an ambitious opportunist, Napolean obtained leave from his regiment, returned to Ajaccio, joined the local Jacobin club and – with his eye on a colonelship in the Corsican militia – promoted enthusiastically the interests of the Revolution. However, things did not quite work out as he had planned, for Pascal Paoli had also returned to Corsica.
Carlo Bonaparte had died some years before, and Napoleon was head of a family that had formerly given Paoli strong support. Having spent the last twenty years in London, Paoli was pro-English and had developed a profound distaste for revolutionary excesses. Napoleon’s French allegiance and his Jacobin views antagonized the older man, and his military conduct didn’t enhance his standing at all. Elected second-in-command of the volunteer militia, Napoleon was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to wrest control of the citadelle from royalist sympathizers. He thus took much of the blame when, in reprisal for the killing of one of the militiamen, several people were gunned down in Ajaccio, an incident which engendered eight days of civil war. In June 1793, Napoleon and his family were chased back to the mainland by the Paolists.
Napoleon promptly renounced any special allegiance he had ever felt for Corsica. He Gallicized the spelling of his name, preferring Napoléon to his baptismal Napoleone. And, although he was later to speak with nostalgia about the scents of the Corsican countryside, he put the city of his birth fourth on the list of places he would like to be buried.