Years ago, my boss suggested that it could be a career limiting move, to stay in Paris longer than the assignment required. Of course, I found this rather disappointing as I had a strong desire to explore Corsica, and felt that a holiday was well deserved. The French, for good reason, call Corsica “l’Ile de Beaute” or Island of Beauty. The island is stunning at every turn with sandy beaches, limestone cliffs, granite mountain peaks and lush agricultural areas. Corsica offers something for every taste, from the “beach lizard” to the “adventure racer” and all the folks in between.
There are two ferry companies offering crossings to the island, SNCM and Corsica Ferries. We booked on Corsica Ferries from Nice to Bastia. Our trip fell between two religious holidays, L’Assomption de Marie and Pentecte, which necessitated booking accommodation in advance, and in our case dictated a clockwise circuit of the island. Bastia is a port city, located at the northern end of the island. The historic old port, citadel and the current Place Saint Nicholas are all worth visiting. Bastia is a working town, which does not radiate natural or architectural beauty.
However, Bastia is the “gateway” city to Cap Corse, the wild and still relatively underpopulated area at the very tip of the island. There is one coastal road on Cap Corse, allowing the traveller to view most of the rugged coastline. There are villages perched in the hills above the coastline; it is worth the drive to a few of these hamlets for some splendid views. In our case, it took all day to drive 100km, in a place that combines the beauty of both Cape Breton (Nova Scotia) and Big Sur (California) on tiny roads with no shoulders and crazy drivers. The tourist office in Bastia is located on Place Saint Nicholas, they are friendly and have some colorful brochures available for visitors. However, they offer limited information on Cap Corse. The Cap Corse information office is located just on the edge of Bastia at Port de Toga. This tiny badly signed office is part of La Communaut de Communes du Cap Corse. They were helpful despite the seemingly inefficient system.
After two nights in Bastia, the next overnight stop was Corte, located in the mountains. Corte’s permanent population is barely 7000, the numbers swell during tourist season, from April to November. Corte was once the island capital for a short period from 1755-69. Unfortunately, it is not a remarkable beauty either, although it is worth walking up to the citadel and taking some photos from the viewing platform. The allure is found outside Corte, in the hills and gorges surrounding the town that form the Corsica Natural Parc. There are numerous hiking options from this point of departure. We were not fortunate to land on favourable hiking weather, however, understand that there is something available for all levels from the G20 for the hearty and fit, to shorter hikes such as the Gorges de la Restonica.
Down the coast from Corte is Porto Vecchio, famous for its’ marina and the beach areas close by. Porto Vecchio was built on a hill above swampy marshes, a defensive tactic against pirates and malaria, which bred in the marshes. The salt trade developed after the Second World War, finally turning the marshes into productive, economic use. Today, Port Vecchio is actually two parts the old haute ville on the hill, and the modern port down below. We found the town and the setting to be a disappointment. The old town is small and over-run with touristy restaurants and shops. The port is unremarkable.
So where is the beauty? I was sure starting to wonder!
Just south of Porto Vecchio it all starts to become clear. There are small bays and natural harbors; the water is aqua colored and typically easily accessible by car or a short walk. The town of Bonifaccio, located at the southern most tip of the island, is a real gem. The old town is built within fortification walls, high upon limestone cliffs of some 60 meters. The town setting, sheltered marina and stunning cliffs (les falaises) make Bonifaccio a real treat. Bonifaccio has a small market on Tuesday mornings in the summer. The tourist office is central located; the staff accommodating, and they have created a decent audio-guide available for a self-guided walking tour.
The coast from Bonifaccio to Ajaccio is beautiful, that is until you reach the capital city and its’ traffic. At first glance, Ajaccio is not a beautiful city. The capital is large by the island’s standards with a population of just over 63,000. The city is poorly planned as the traffic is terribly congested. The real beauty in Ajaccio is found once you settle in to your hotel and go for a walk. The waterfront is pretty with an attractive promenade area. In my opinion, the real treasure is in the few well-preserved or renovated Genoese buildings found in the old section and the Quartier des Etrangers. In Ajaccio’s “Imperial City”, the Fesch Palace (named after Napoleon’s uncle) is a stunning building both inside and out. This building houses a substantial art collection. However, they do not offer audio-guides, so the endless stream of heavy religious art was lost on this traveller.
At this point, in the trip I was convinced that we had saved the best for last, and we were not disappointed. The coastal drive from Ajaccio to Calvi is utterly stunning. However, be prepared for a long, slow drive as the road is small, full of turns and lots of photo opportunities. Not to be missed are the calanches (cliffs and rock formations) by Piana and the Golfe de Girolata.
Our last two nights were spent in the seaside town of Calvi. This attractive town has embraced tourism and still managed to maintain its’ charm. The old town and citadel are located high on a cliff, overlooking the marina, surrounding the old and the new are small pedestrian streets filled with restaurants and shops. The tourist office is located in the marina, although helpful make sure to check the opening hours. In our case, we could not get the walking tour audio-guide as they were closing for the afternoon! A walk or drive up to the high viewpoint at Notre Dame de la Serra is well worth the effort. We spent a glorious afternoon walking the pathways on the peninsula by La Revellata, simply wonderful. Whether by careful planning, or simply luck the result is Calvi is an exceptionally pleasant place to spend a few days.
After 10 days, this twosome arrived back in Bastia in time for our boat back to France. We had entirely circled the island, putting over 1200 kilometers on the odometer, and we are already planning our return trip to “l’Ile de Beaute”!!