From Ajaccio, the vista of whitewashed villas and sandy beaches lining the opposite side of the gulf may tempt you out of town when you first arrive. On closer inspection, however, Porticcio turns out to be a faceless string of leisure settlements for Ajaccio’s smart set, complete with tennis courts, malls and flotillas of jet-skis. Better to skip this stretch and press on south along the route nationale (RN194) which, after scaling the Col de Celaccia, winds down to the stunning Golfe de Valinco. A vast blue inlet bounded by rolling, scrub-covered hills, the gulf presents the first dramatic scenery along the coastal highway. It also marks the start of militant and Mafia-ridden south Corsica, more closely associated with vendetta, banditry and separatism than any other part of the island. Many of the mountain villages glimpsed from the roads hereabouts are riven with age-old divisions, exacerbated in recent years by the spread of organized crime and nationalist violence. But the island’s seamier side is rarely discernible to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who pass through each summer, most of whom stay around the small port of Propriano, at the eastern end of the gulf. In addition to offering most of the area’s tourist amenities, this busy resort town lies within easy reach of the menhirs at Filitosa, one of the western Mediterranean’s most important prehistoric sites.
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Tucked into the narrowest part of the Golfe de Valinco, the small port of Propriano, 57km southeast of Ajaccio, centres on a fine natural harbour that was exploited by the ancient Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans, but became a prime target for Saracen pirate raids in the sixteenth century, when it was largely destroyed. Redeveloped in the 1900s, it now boasts a thriving marina, and handles ferries to Toulon, Marseille and Sardinia.
During the summer, tourists come here in droves for the area’s beaches. The nearest of these, plage de Lido, lies 1km west, just beyond the Port de Commerce, but it’s nowhere near as pretty as the coves strung along the northern shore of the gulf around Olmeto plage. You can reach Olmeto on the three daily buses from Propriano to Porto.
FilitosaSet deep in the countryside of the fertile Vallée du Taravo, the extraordinary Station Préhistorique de Filitosa, 17km north of Propriano, comprises a wonderful array of statue-menhirs and prehistoric structures encapsulating some eight thousand years of history. There’s no public transport to the site; vehicles should be parked in the small car park five-minutes’ walk from the entrance in the village.
Filitosa was settled by Neolithic farming people who lived here in rock shelters until the arrival of navigators from the east in about 3500 BC. These invaders were the creators of the menhirs, the earliest of which were possibly phallic symbols worshipped by an ancient fertility cult. When the seafaring people known as the Torréens (after the towers they built on Corsica) conquered Filitosa around 1300 BC, they destroyed most of the menhirs, incorporating the broken stones into the area of dry-stone walling surrounding the site’s two torri, or towers, examples of which can be found all over the south of Corsica. The site remained undiscovered until a farmer stumbled across the ruins on his land in the late 1940s.