Corsica, France: Where is it, when to go and what to see

The Island of Corsica

Corsica is a large Mediterranean island that became part of France in the 18th century. In two and a half centuries of living together, nothing has changed fundamentally for the islanders. Corsicans still do not recognize themselves as French and are insulted if they are counted among their Italian neighbors. Corsica’s isolation has its advantages: the landscapes in Prosper Merimee’s novels have retained their original appeal. For the sake of them tourists are ready to put up with the underdeveloped infrastructure. It is fair to say that part of Corsica is covered by progress, and fashionable recreation areas on the coast around the major cities meet all international standards.

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Video: The Island of Corsica

A brief history of Corsica

Corsica’s historical destiny is due to its geographic location. Europe’s leading trading nations have fought for centuries for the right to use it as an intermediate base for ships, and pirates have considered it an ideal source of rich livelihood. The process of continuous confrontation was so fascinating that many islanders got bored in peacetime, left their homes, and went off on their own to become sea brigands.

Map of the Island of Corsica

Schematically, the history of the island looks like this: the tribes originally inhabiting Corsica were conquered by the Romans, then their successors, the Byzantines, were replaced by the Moors and the Italian city-states became active intermittently. From XIV to XVIII century. entrenched here Genoese, who erected in 1530-1620 of the coastal defense system – a reliable stone towers, survived to this day.

The freedom-loving Corsicans eventually tired of being subjugated to outsiders, and a revolt led by Pascal Paoli broke out in the mid-18th century. The rebels drove the Genoese almost everywhere and were the first of their contemporaries to introduce universal suffrage in the liberated territories. But the triumph failed: the Genoese ceded the territory of Corsica to France, after which the rebellion was crushed. Very soon the Corsicans managed to avenge their humiliation by “giving” to Europe an ambitious Napoleon, the island’s most famous native. In the twentieth century, the military history of the island was continued, it participated in the world wars and was the first of all the French regions to be liberated from the Nazis.

Island of Corsica Mountains in Corsica Roccapina Beach on the island of Corsica

Ethnographic features of Corsicans

Modern Corsica consists of small communal settlements and several coastal towns. In the average village, nestled on the mountainside, stand old houses of light stone with red-tiled roofs. Their owners are engaged in agriculture: growing grapes, herding sheep and pigs. On the coast they catch fish and serve tourists staying in the resort areas. People here are not rich, according to statistics, there are many unemployed in Corsica, and at the same time there are more luxury cars on the island than in other regions of France.

Feliceto Calvi Brando Prato di Giovellina

Locals know French, but communicate with each other in Corsican, a relative of Italian. Corsicans have problems with English: even in tourist towns the staff of hotels and restaurants does not always know this language. Most travelers think the islanders are quite reserved and unfriendly compared to the inhabitants of mainland France. It is not customary for them to give a ride to the road, a centuries-old instinct that makes them suspicious of strangers. Relationships within the family, which include all relatives, remain important to Corsicans, but the tradition of vendetta, blood feuds, is already far in the past.

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Street in Bastia Sartene Ajaccio, Corsica

Natural attractions of Corsica

Despite its modest size, with a maximum length of 183 km and a width of 83 km, Corsica amazes tourists with its variety of landscapes. Snow capped mountains, waterfalls, small rivers and glacier lakes, olive groves, thorny bushes, semi-desert plains ravaged by fires, blooming steppes, white sand beaches, rocky shores – all are the signs of Corsica. Tourists are served by roads, yacht rentals, and hiking trails.

Landscapes of the island of Corsica

Hiking trails

The best way to explore the natural sights of the island is a trip along the GR20 hiking route. Its starting points are Calenzana, near the town of Calvi, to the north, and Conca, half an hour by bus from Porto Vecchio, to the south. Through the central point of the route, the village of Vizzavona, runs the railroad. Marked by red and white stripes, the 180-kilometer trail runs through the Corsica National Park. It is divided into 15 stages, which can be completed in one to two weeks with a backpack loaded with provisions and warm clothing.

Hike along the route GR20

The route is year-round, but for safety reasons you’d better conquer it in summer and early September on snow-covered mountain passes. The management of the park has built guest houses for overnight stays between stages, without special conveniences, with bedrooms for 20-50 people, equipped with 2-3 floors bunk beds. In the season, the night will cost 10 euros per person, at other times stay here for free. In the summertime you can pitch a tent in a designated area for 5 euros. There are private hotels with showers and meals at some points along the trail. Only the brave ones dare to tackle the whole complex route; most are satisfied with some flat stages in the south or mountain stages in the north of the island of Corsica.

Erbalunga in Corsica

Beaches

Not all tourists are willing to wander along beautiful but lacking any amenities. They prefer a beach holiday on the sea coast of Corsica, washed by the waters of the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the east. Typical wild beaches can be found on the northern tip of the island, in the municipality of Ersa: guests expect white sand, water-treated pebbles, clean sea and almost total lack of service, because the entire population of the nearby villages is 150 people.

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Saleccia Beach in Corsica Farinole Beach

Among the recognized centers of beach tourism are the town of Saint-Florent with the nearby beach of Saleccia and the suburbs of Bastia. At 10 km to the west of it – the municipality of Farinole with sand and pebble coast, 40 km to the north – Roliano with a marina for 500 ships, half of which – recreational yachts. La Marana beach has a developed infrastructure, but the sea is not too clean because of the proximity of the port of Bastia. About 20 beaches are equipped near Ajaccio, the capital of the region, but the most comfortable – in the south of Corsica, on the coast between Porto Vecchio and Bonifacio. At the beginning and end of the season, Santa Julia is especially popular: it’s shallow by the shore, so the water warms up quickly.

Beach in the south of Corsica Santa Giulia, Corsica

Diving, yachting, fishing and hunting

Diving is the most popular outdoor activity in Corsica. For beginners there are 80 diving schools along the coast. The cost of a dive is about 50 euros, you can save almost twice if you buy a season ticket. Night fishing near Ajaccio will cost 100 euros per person. Tourists are attracted by diving centers near Calvi, where several aircraft and sea vessels from World War II were sunk, the coastal waters near Bonifacio have excellent visibility. The area is also windy enough for surfing. The hunting season in Corsica is short, from August to October. The rent of equipment and escort to the hunting area costs about 200 euros a day, while wild boars and birds are not guaranteed.

Diving in Corsica Fishing in Corsica Windsurfing

The handcrafted sights of Corsica

The coast of the island is covered with a network of massive round towers, built during the Genoese rule of the local stone. The similar structures differ only in their state of preservation and uncomplicated names: Belaya, Chernaya or by the nearest village. They successfully guarded the shores of Corsica from the raids of Berber pirates, and later, in the XVIII century, were used in the struggle for independence.

The towers of the island of Corsica

Sights of small communes

There are many traces of primitive man on Corsica. During the cultivation of the soil for vineyards near Patrimonio an ancient menhir was found. Another archaeological site was found in the center of the island, in the municipality of Nochet. When the floor of its wooden church had fallen through from old age, a burial in the form of a perfect octagon was discovered below, the origin of which is still unclear.

Of the less ancient structures in the north of Corsica, the Mattei mill, recently restored on the border of the commune of Ersa, and the church of St. Antonio, which offers a panorama of the sea, deserve attention. At 1.5 km north of the coast of the municipality lies the islet of Ghiraglia with a Genoese tower of the XVI century, a strong lighthouse visible from 100 km away, the ruins of San Pasquale chapel and the remains of Napoleon’s fortifications.

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Scattered throughout the villages, religious architectural monuments created during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, most are not among the architectural masterpieces, but there are exceptions. In Murato, the Church of St. Michael, composed of contrasting black and white blocks, has been perfectly preserved since the twelfth century. The Romanesque church of La Canonica in Lucciana was built as early as the eleventh century.

There are two sites on the island that are included in the list of the most beautiful villages in France, and in total there are 155 of them in the country. In Upper Corsica it is Sant’Antonino, 12 km east of Calvi, in South Corsica it is Piana, half an hour north of Ajaccio.

View of Sant’Antonino The Mattei Mill

Port of Bastia

Huddled on a narrow strip of coastline in northwest Corsica, Bastia is France’s largest port in terms of transported cargo. The old port, which operated during the Genoese rule, has become a historical landmark and is open to visitors only in summer. In the city center there are many interesting monuments: the Genoese governor’s palace, a fortress, or Terra Nova, the Church of the Holy Cross and John the Baptist, known for the original interiors of the 16th century. The town and its surroundings are sunny but windy in high season, making for ideal sailing conditions. Bastia hosts ferries from Italy and France and is sometimes jammed with traffic.

Corte is the historic capital of the island

Declared by Pascal Paoli as the capital of independent Corsica, Corte lies at the foot of the mountains, in a region of small glacial lakes. The small town of seven thousand is built up with old 3-4 story houses. Tour of the city does not do without mentioning the name of Napoleon – his older brother was born here. In the XVIII century fortress built on the foundations of the Genoese fortifications there is a museum of Corsica with an interesting ethnographic collection. During the summer season, it is open from 10 to 20 hours without weekends, the cost of a full ticket is 5.3 euros. Corte is connected to Ajaccio and Bastia by road and railroad.

Calvi – the legendary birthplace of Columbus

Tiny northwestern Calvi intervenes in the dispute between Spanish and Italian cities for the right to be considered the birthplace of Columbus. Local historians believe he concealed his birth here because of the unenviable international reputation of the Genoese and Calvi in particular, as the place served as a haven for maritime brigands. A more obvious historical fact is the loss of Admiral Nelson’s eye when the town was shelled from the sea. Summer tourism is well developed here, from October to November every year the Wind Festival is held – a festival of art and sports, which brings together artists, musicians, actors, yachtsmen, surfers and paragliders.

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Capital Ajaccio – City of Napoleon

The cult of the emperor is the first thing tourists encounter on the streets of the Corsican capital. Souvenirs, monuments, toponyms are associated, if not with Napoleon himself, then with his relatives. Thus, Letizia Square with a house-museum of Bonaparte was named after his mother. You can visit the museum in high season from 10:30 to 18:00 clock for 7 euros. Near the square is the yacht club and the colonial-style Ajaccio Cathedral. A 10-minute walk to the north is the house of Cardinal Fèche, Napoleon’s uncle, which has an interesting collection of paintings – paintings by Titian and Botticelli. Admission to the museum costs 8 euros.

Fashionable Bonifacio

A tiny town, one of the most picturesque in Europe, located in two tiers at the very south of Corsica, a half-hour ferry ride from Sardinia. The cost of the ticket is about 20 euros. The upper, historic part of Bonifacio overhangs the cliff above the sea, the classic resort area surrounds the marina below. In the surrounding area there are golf courses, campsites, equipped with the best beaches on the island.

Tourist Porto Vecchio

The historic part of Porto Vecchio, lying on the southeast coast – the traditional towers and fortress walls – can be visited in a couple of hours and the remaining time can be devoted to tourist leisure activities: fishing, visiting nightclubs and restaurants. In the vicinity of the town there are ancient walls, half-hidden in the picturesque thickets.

Information for tourists

Corsica’s service sector is gradually reoriented towards tourists, even in the remote provinces: modest stores and eateries in tiny villages with a few dozen inhabitants open in the summer. During the season it is hot and dry, especially in July and August; in winter it is cooler rather than frosty. The mountains are colder, with snow on the peaks until early summer.

Transport infrastructure of Corsica

Almost all modes of transport are represented in Corsica: rail, road, sea and air. Numerous rivers are not navigable. The final stations of the Corsican railroad are Calvi, Ajaccio and Bastia. Near the coast the roads are of good quality, in the center of the island – patches or a complete lack of asphalt. All towns and villages are connected by bus, but at weekends and on holidays there is no public transport to small villages.

The track in the center of the island

What to try and buy in Corsica

The centuries-old isolation of the island has led to a unique food and drink experience. Some of them are of more of an ethnographic interest, like the sardines with cheese and heavily salted cod in Bastia, but the raw smoked spicy sausages, roasted wild boar, goat and sheep cheese will be a real treat for gourmets. All this can be ordered in restaurants or bought at the market. In the evening the prices of the delicacies go down a lot and you can get them for next to nothing if you don’t hesitate to haggle.

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Fruit Lunch in a restaurant Spice sale Sea food French cheeses Market in Ajaccio

The pride of Corsica is chestnut dishes: roasts, broths, bread, honey, beer. They used to be considered a product for the poor, but now the priorities have changed and chestnuts are quite expensive. You can take home with you different varieties of honey and a local version of the Italian limoncello liqueur from the south of the island. The municipality of Cilia sold mineral water before the First World War, now the production has been resumed and bottles of carbonated and natural beverage can be bought all over the island. Of souvenirs, in addition to images of Napoleon, one should pay attention to ceramics.

Signage in a wine boutique

Special mention should be made of Corsican wines, which are purchased even for the needs of the Kremlin. Corsica has more favorable natural conditions than the mainland because of the long dry and sunny summers. Local winemakers use almost no chemicals: strong winds of Corsica itself clean the plants from diseases and pests. The most famous vineyards, which yield products for 38 private cellars, are located in the north of the island, in Patrimonio. Here they grow “Nielucco” for rosé wines, a white variety with floral aroma “Vermentino”. Pink wines with a fruity flavor from the “Chiacarello” grape variety are famous in the farms around Ajaccio. The pink and white Corsican brands are drunk young, not older than two years, and the red wines are long preserved.

Tourist Safety in Corsica

In winter, avalanches are possible in the mountains, it is easy to get lost in the passes because of snow and fog. In hiking with you need to take food supplies, as in the center of the island it is difficult to find stores. Be sure to have a phone number of rescuers – these teams are specifically designed to help tourists in trouble in the national park “Corsica”. Terrorist activity by local nationalist groups has declined in recent years, with rare speeches directed against the authorities, but not against visitors to the island. Malaria, once the scourge of Corsica, has been defeated and no vaccinations are needed before traveling.

How to get there

The main air gateway of the region is Ajaccio airport, named after Napoleon Bonaparte. Located near the eastern borders of the city, it receives regular and seasonal flights from France, Switzerland, Belgium, Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. A smaller airport “Bastia-Poretta”, 16 km south of the port city, is focused on local flights, but also receives guests from London, Geneva and Cologne. The seasonal airport Figari is located in the south of Corsica, half an hour from Bonifacio and Porto Vecchio. There are ferries from France and Italy to Ajaccio, Bastia, Ile Rousse and Calvi. The cost of the trip is on average 35-40 euros, to Sardinia – 20 euros. During the season, tickets must be purchased in advance due to high demand.

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