Bonifacio enjoys a superbly isolated location at Corsica’s southernmost point, a narrow peninsula of dazzling white limestone creating a town site unlike any other. The much-photographed haute ville, a maze of narrow streets flanked by tall Genoese tenements, rises seamlessly out of sheer cliffs that have been hollowed and striated by the wind and waves, while on the landward side the deep cleft between the peninsula and the mainland forms a perfect natural harbour. A haven for boats for centuries, this inlet is nowadays a chic marina that attracts yachts from around the Med. Its geography has long enabled Bonifacio to maintain a certain temperamental detachment from the rest of Corsica, and the town today remains distinctly more Italian than French in atmosphere. It retains Renaissance features found only here, and its inhabitants have their own dialect based on Ligurian, a legacy of the days when this was practically an independent Genoese colony.
There are impressive views of the citadelle from the cliffs at the head of the montée Rastello (reached via the pathway running left from the top of the steps), but they’re not a patch on the spectacular panorama from the sea. Throughout the day, a flotilla of excursion boats ferries visitors out to the best vantage points, taking in a string of caves and other landmarks only accessible by water en route, including the Îles Lavezzi, the scattering of small islets where the troop ship Sémillante was shipwrecked in 1855, now designated as a nature reserve. The whole experience of bobbing around to an amplified running commentary is about as touristy as Bonifacio gets, but it’s well worth enduring just to round the mouth of the harbour and see the vieille ville, perched atop the famous chalk cliffs. The Lavezzi islets themselves are surrounded by wonderfully clear sea water, offering Corsica’s best snorkelling. On your way back, you skirt the famous Île Cavallo, or “millionaire’s island”, where the likes of Princess Caroline of Monaco and other French and Italian glitterati have luxury hideaways.
The beaches within walking distance of Bonifacio are generally smaller and less appealing than most in southern Corsica. For a dazzling splash of turquoise, you’ll have to follow the narrow, twisting lane east of town in the direction of Pertusatu lighthouse, turning left when you see signs for Piantarella, Corsica’s kitesurfing hotspot. A twenty-minute walk south around the shore from there takes you past the remains of a superbly situated Roman villa to a pair of divine little coves, Grand Sperone and Petit Sperone – both shallow and perfect for kids. Another superb beach in the area is Rondinara, a perfect shell-shaped cove of turquoise water enclosed by dunes and a pair of twin headlands. Located 10km north (east of N198), it’s sufficiently off the beaten track to remain relatively peaceful (outside school holidays). Facilities are minimal, limited to a smart wooden beach restaurant, paying car park and campsite. Shade is at a premium, so come armed with a parasol.
Such a place has its inevitable drawbacks: exorbitant prices, overwhelming crowds in July and August and a commercial cynicism that’s atypical of Corsica as a whole. However, the old town forms one of the most arresting spectacles in the Mediterranean, and warrants at least a day-trip. If you plan to come in peak season, try to get here early in the day before the bus parties arrive at around 10am.