Napoleon said he could recognize his native island just by the fragrance of the maquis. Corsica is an enigmatic island, and the “Island of Beauty”, as the French call it, lives up to its name. It has towering mountains, lush forests, timeless villages, stylish resorts and pristine beaches.
The island’s chic seaside resorts – Calvi, St-Florent, Porto-Vecchio, Propriano and lively capital Ajaccio – are surrounded by some of the Mediterranean’s most beautiful beaches. On the west coast, there’s the astonishing Golfe de Porto, framed on either end by the bizarre porphyry rock formations of the Calanche de Piana and the savage pink cliffs of Scandola. The long, narrow peninsula of Cap Corse is lined with vertiginous villages, vineyards and seascapes.
Inland, Corsica’s untamed beauty is one of its greatest draws. The Parc Naturel Régional de Corse protects 40 per cent of the island’s wilderness, encompassing one of the most demanding high-altitude trails in the world, the GR20. Yet along with this wild terrain, evidence of Corsica’s unique history abounds: the 5,000-year-old standing stones of Filitosa, medieval Pisan churches and the austerely beautiful old mountain capital Corte are wonderfully evocative. Traces of more recent history can be found in Ajaccio, home to one of France’s finest provincial museums and a vast range of Napoleonic artifacts.
With a backdrop of wild, granite mountains and lapis-blue sea, Ajaccio ranks among the most splendidly sited capitals in the Mediterranean. Travellers from Edward Lear to Guy de Maupassant were enthralled by its setting, and the imperial city remains an essential stop for visitors – not least because of its association with Napoleon, who was born and raised here. The Bonapartes’ former residence lies in the heart of a grid of narrow, weather-worn alleys, where you can sip pastis at a pavement café while the locals take their afternoon passeghiata (walk), or enjoy fresh seafood straight off the boats.
Golfe de Valinco
The most southerly of the four great gulfs indenting Corsica’s west coast, Valinco presents an arresting spectacle when seen from the high ridges enfolding it. Its vivid blue waters cleave into the heart of the Alta Rocca region, where orange-roofed settlements cling to hillsides smothered in holm-oak forest and impenetrable maquis. People come here to laze on the string of sandy beaches, although some stupendous views are to be had from the ancient granite perched villages inland, which were the refuge of local inhabitants during the repeated pirate raids in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Coastal wilderness is a rarity in the Mediterranean these days, especially where there are sublime beaches. However, the southwest of Corsica has remained astonishingly untrammelled. Forced out by pirates and the collapse of the wine industry, its inhabitants left the maquis a century or so ago to the ghosts of their prehistoric ancestors, whose tombs and standing stones are still strewn all over the countryside. Roads will only take you so far in this region: you will need solid shoes and lots of bottled water for the full experience.
Bonifacio is Corsica’s foremost visitor attraction and, despite all the commotion in high season, it more than merits the distinction. Spread over the top of a long, narrow promontory that is encircled on three sides by sheer chalk escarpments, the medieval Genoese haute ville (upper town) looks on one side across the straits to Sardinia and on the other over its secluded harbour, a port Homer mentions in The Odyssey. Aside from wandering around the ancient alleyways of the Citadelle, the other unmissable activity here is taking a boat trip for a view of the fabled white cliffs from water level.
Bastia is Corsica’s commercial capital, with a more upbeat, big-city feel than Ajaccio. Since Genoese times, its nucleus has been a picturesque quarter of ramshackle old tenements, with buttressed walls and cobbled alleyways radiating from the harbour. The twin bell towers of the St-Jean-Baptiste church are the town’s emblematic landmark. Behind the Vieux Port, an amphitheatre of high-rise suburbs look out to sea. The constant to-and-fro of ferries reminds you that Italy is just across the water, and its influence over Bastia’s culture is ubiquitous.
Before the construction in the 19th century of the corniche that circles Cap Corse, the long, finger-like promontory running north from Bastia was practically inaccessible except via sea. To a large extent, Cap Corse still feels like a separate island. Wine was its raison d’être under the Genoese, but production collapsed after the phylloxera epidemic of the early 1900s. However, the famous orange-blossom-scented muscat is still produced by a handful of growers, whose terraces cling to steep, fire-blackened slopes.
St-Florent and the Nebbio
The Col de Teghime (Teghime Pass), separating Bastia from the Golfe de St-Florent, marks a dramatic shift in landscape, from the flat, intensively cultivated east coast to the mountainous terrain of the Nebbio – Corsica’s proverbial “Land of Mists”. By the time you reach the compact resort of St-Florent itself, with its formidable backdrop of hills, the transition is complete. Press any further west and you venture into the Désert des Agriate, a sea of maquis and cacti fringed by empty beaches.