The dominant tone of Corsica’s most successful commercial town, Bastia, is one of charismatic dereliction, as the city’s industrial zone is spread onto the lowlands to the south, leaving the centre of town with plenty of aged charm. The old quarter, known as the Terra Vecchia, comprises a tightly packed network of haphazard streets, flamboyant Baroque churches and lofty tenements, their crumbling golden-grey walls set against a backdrop of maquis-covered hills.
The city dates from Roman times, when a base was set up at Biguglia to the south, beside a freshwater lagoon. Little remains of the former colony, but the site merits a day-trip for the well-preserved pair of Pisan churches at Mariana, rising from the southern fringes of Poretta airport. Bastia began to thrive under the Genoese, when wine was exported to the Italian mainland from Porto Cardo, forerunner of Bastia’s Vieux Port, or Terra Vecchia. Despite the fact that in 1811 Napoleon appointed Ajaccio capital of the island, initiating a rivalry between the two towns which exists to this day, Bastia soon established a stronger trading position with mainland France. The Nouveau Port, created in 1862 to cope with the increasing traffic with France and Italy, became the mainstay of the local economy, exporting chiefly agricultural products from Cap Corse, Balagne and the eastern plain.
The centre of Bastia is not especially large, and all its sights can easily be seen in a day without the use of a car. The spacious place St-Nicolas is the obvious place to get your bearings: open to the sea and lined with shady trees and cafés, it’s the main focus of town life. Running parallel to it on the landward side are boulevard Paoli and rue César-Campinchi, the two main shopping streets, but all Bastia’s historic sights lie within Terra Vecchia, the old quarter immediately south of place St-Nicolas, and Terra Nova, the area surrounding the Citadelle. Tucked away below the imposing, honey-coloured bastion is the much-photographed Vieux Port, with its boat-choked marina encircled by crumbling eighteenth-century tenement buildings.