Corsica is a large island in the Mediterranean Sea, and France’s only metropolitan region that isn’t part of the mainland. Corsica is an island of sparkling seas and sunbaked beaches, grandiose coastal fortresses that top sheer clifftops, and dramatic jagged mountain ranges. The vibrant capital of the region, Ajaccio, was the birthplace of France’s first emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. With historical ties to Genoa and Italy, Corsica has developed its own rich cultural identity, language, and cuisine, and today is one of France’s most unique and beautiful regions.
Corsica is the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean sea, after Sicily, Sardinia and Cyprus, and also the most mountainous. The island is home to some of France’s oldest Megalithic sites at Filitosa, the UNESCO-listed ecosystem at the Gulf of Porto, and even the Désert des Agriates, one of Europe’s few deserts. When it comes to cuisine, Corsica is heavily influenced by Italian cooking, as well as locally made produce such as brocciu cheese, olives, wild game, and exceptional Corsican wine.
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Cities Of Corsica
The cities of Corsica are located mostly around coastal areas, with origins as fortified strongholds. It is the region of France with the smallest metropolitan region by size and population.
Located on the island’s west coast is Ajaccio, Corsica’s vibrant capital city. Located on the Gulf of Ajaccio, the pastel-hued buildings, colourful boats and flags of the marina juxtapose against the the imposing mountain ranges in the distance.
Ajaccio is the birthplace of one of France’s most famous figures in history, Napoleon Bonaparte, whose childhood home (Casa Buonaparte) is open to visitors. The most prominent feature of Ajaccio is its citadel, La Citadelle d’Ajaccio, a 15th century stone fortress built against the sea. The defensive fort is still the property of the French military, so visitors can only admire the walls from the outside.
Beyond the waterfront, Ajaccio has some great museums to explore. Le Musée Fesch, named for Napoleon’s uncle Joseph Fesch (who founded it), has a great collection of fine arts. Ajaccio is also famous for its fabulous coastal scenery, including dozens of great beaches in the area. The picturesque Pointe de la Parata is a rocky promontory topped by the 16th century tower fortification, the Torra di a Parata. Offshore are the 4 islands of the Archipel des Sanguinaires, named for their red-purple colour that comes from the colourful sunsets and native pink flowers.
The beautiful and historic port commune of Bastia (and Corsica’s second largest city) is located in the north east of the island. Bastia is the main port city of Corsica, and is France’s second busiest port after Calais. The city is named after its impressive 14th century Genoese fortification (or bastiglia) known as the Citadel of Bastia. Completed in 1380, the defensive fort has a commanding view of the bay below. Within its walls are several impressive historic buildings that includes Le Palais des Gouverneurs, a luxurious fortified residence for the city’s governors which was later used as a military barracks, the Oratory of the Holy Cross, and the Cathedral of St. Mary.
Outside of the Citadel, the Vieux Port is the scene of lively cafes and colourfully painted houses that overlook a small bay of boats moored under the Corsican sun. Nearby, the wide-open spaces of Saint-Nicholas Square is ringed by cafes and restaurants with packed terraces. On Sundays there is a large open-air market, and is the place to pick up fresh food, flowers and souvenirs.
Located down on the southernmost tip of Corsica is the coastal town of Bonifacio, unmistakable for its stunning position perched atop a promontory of rugged limestone cliffs. This is the 9th century Vieille Ville (Old Town), which includes its iconic Bonifacio Citadel. Ringed by imposing curtain walls and undercut by the eroding cliffs, the citadel appears to lean out above the sea. One of the more interesting routes up to the Citadel is the King of Aragon’s Stairway, a hand-carved limestone walkway that features 187 steps through some of the most amazing sea views (and some hair-raising steep staircases!). From above, visitors can see the Grain de Sable (grain of sand), a limestone sea stack in the bay.
Within the Bonifacio Old Town are winding cobblestone streets, cozy restaurants and fantastic lookouts. Below, sheltered by the high cliffs is the Port of Bonifacio, with 4 quays ideal for ambling along. There are plenty of bars and restaurants lined up along the boardwalk, while yachts and sailing vessels bob in the calm waters. Bonifacio is located just 12km away from the Italian island of Sardinia, and ferry trips take less than 1 hour, making for a perfect day trip. Another great boat trip is the marine reserve of the Lavezzi Islands, and it’s also a great place for diving, and relaxing on one of its many nearby beaches.
The commune of Calvi is located on the northwest coast of Corsica. One of the island’s smaller locations, Calvi has an idyllic setting on a long white sand beach, with its magnificent and elegant Citadelle de Calvi towering above. Built by Genoa, the Citadel formed the nucleus of the commune throughout its history, helping the people defend against frequent sieges and massacres. Within the Citadel are cobblestone streets and Genoese-style houses, with characteristic terracotta rooftops.
It is thought that Christopher Columbus may have been born in Calvi. While his early life is generally accepted as taking place in Genoa, Italy, his exact place of birth is disputed. Many Corsicans believe that Columbus is one of their own, and there is even a historic Christopher Columbus House located in Calvi.
One of Corsica’s settlements located high in the mountains instead of along the coast, Corte was once the capital of Corsica for the short-lived Corsican Republic, led by the revolutionary leader Pasquale Paoli. The most dramatic sight in the commune is the Citadelle de Corte, which juts up on top of a rocky outcrop. The fortress dates back to 1419, and cemented Corte’s status as a mountain stronghold. In WW1, it was used to house prisoners of war. There are several notable sights to see in Corte. The historic fountains, la Fontaine des Quatre Canons and la Fontaine de la Rampe Saint-Croix are both beautiful public sculptures. They are near to Corte’s restaurant and bar district.
Corte is ideal as a base for exploring Corsica National Park, and there are plenty of hiking routes for all fitness levels, from short walks to multi-day adventures. Popular walks include hiking out to the Arche de Padule (or Arche de Corte), a gravity-defying rock arch; visiting the Lac de Nino or Lac de Melo, breathtaking natural lakes surrounded by snowy mountains; and exploring the wonderful wilderness of the Tavignano Gorge.
Natural Beauty Of Corsica
Gulf of Porto
Corsica is home to one UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site, the Gulf of Porto. A rocky gulf that follows along the Scandola Peninsula, the site also includes the neighbouring Gulf of Girolata. It is a largely untouched natural habitat for many plants and animals native to Corsica, such as sea eagles, cormorants and giant gulls that fish in the gulf, and ospreys in their huge nests. In the water, dolphins and seals are native, and the plant life is composed mostly of shrubland. Equally impressive is the geology; the rust-red, grey, and black volcanic rocks of the gulf create otherworldly shapes of stacked towers, huge boulders, spiked pinnacles and bundled geometric columns.
One of the most famous formations is the Calanques de Piana, a series of 200-300 metre (650-980 feet) pink cliffs that create incredible spiked peaks, and at times resemble a small mountain range dropping into the sea. Visitors can visit the small settlement of Porto, which has amenities, tourist information, hotels and food. Piana is smaller, and consists of old stone houses. Porto is the best jumping off point for sightseeing boat tours and long hikes.
Désert des Agriates
Corsica is home to a small desert, one of just a few in Europe. Located in the north of the island and bordering the coast, the Désert des Agriates is 15,000 hectares of ancient granite and volcanic rock. Despite its classification as a desert due to its very low rainfall, Agriates actually has abundant plant life, and is home to maquis shrubland, olive trees, Mediterranean pines, and was even historically used for wheat and olive farming, and raising sheep.
Visitors to the Désert des Agriates come to admire the many coves and beaches, the ruined Genoese watchtowers (such as the Tower of Mortella), and hike the walking trails. Sightseeing boat trips leave Saint-Florent, taking visitors to beaches such as Saleccia and Lotu. 4×4 tours from the village of Casta (the only settlement inside the desert) are also popular options to see the landscape, and for dedicated hikers, the 5 1/2 hour Custom Officer’s Path is the most scenic coastal walk.
Ruins And Archaeological Sites Of Corsica
Filitosa Megalithic Site
The remains of some of Corsica’s easiest human habitation is located at Filitosa Megalithic Site in the south west of the island. The archaeological site is located on a hilltop, surrounded by the beautiful hilly landscape of Corsica. Neolithic artefacts such as pottery, flints, axes and arrowheads were excavated in 1954, and dated to 3300BCE. The most intriguing remnants are the stone menhirs that stand between 2 to 3 metres (6.5 to 10 feet), and date to around 1500BCE. The stone warriors are carved with faces, weapons and armour.
Other stone structures such as towers and walls that once formed the foundation for buildings are still standing for visitors to explore. These were erected by the Torrean civilisation, which replaced the indigenous peoples (and were later conquered by Greeks and Romans). The site is about an hour’s drive south of Ajaccio, a must-see for those interested in history and archaeology.
Archaeological Sites Of Cucuruzzu and Capula
Excavated by Roger Grosjean, the same archaeologist who worked at Filitosa, the archaeological site at Cucuruzzu is another excellent example of a Bronze Age village. The site consists of shelters built of granite, as well as staircases and a menhir. The most impressive structure is the Casteddu de Cucuruzzu (Cucuruzzu Castle), a circular structure with stone walls 5 metres (16 feet) high and 8 metres (26 feet) in diameter, leading to a round enclosure with magnificent views. Dating to around 1200BCE, it is an amazing feat of building.
Nearby is the site of Capula, another casteddu structure from 1800BCE. However, it was modified and built upon around the 10th century CE, with strengthened walls and walking trails for horses. However, it has since been partially dismantled. Located more inland than Filitosa, the best way to reach Cucuruzzu is by car from Porto-Vecchio, and takes about an hour.
Convent of Saint-François d’Orezza
Founded in 1485, the Convent of Saint-François d’Orezza (le Couvent d’Orezza) is a medieval convent built on a 680 metre (2,230 feet) hilltop, about an hour’s drive south of Bastia. The convent is now is ruins, but its impressive archways, central tower and walls still remain under the Corsican sun. It was used for several important assemblies during its history. In 1731, the Corsican revolutionary Erasmo Orticoni debated the legitimacy of the revolt against Genoa, declaring it just and holy. In 1735, the convent was the location where the new Corsican constitution was drawn up. After the sale of Corsica to France, the convent was used as a gendarmerie from the 19th century until 1934, when the roof collapsed. Then used as an ammunition depot, it was finally destroyed by German bombers in 1943.
Lighthouse of the Pietra (Fanale di Petra)
The panoramic views of the Lighthouse of the Pietra is one of Corscia’s most stunning sea views. The lighthouse is situated on the Île de la Pietra, a rocky island just off the coast of L’Île-Rousse along Corscia’s north coast. The island is connected via road causeway, and there is a small tourist train that takes visitors around the island.
Tower of Nonza (Torra di Nonza)
The fortified Tower of Nonza was built in the 18th century on the ruins of a Genoese watchtower. In a well-preserved state, the shale tower saw defensive action in 1768 during the war between France and Pasquale Paoli’s independent Corsica troops. It is thought that a single soldier single handedly held off French attackers using multiple rifles, after the rest of his unit was captured. The tower is located on the coast in the north of Corsica, about 45 minutes drive from Bastia.
Eating And Drinking In Corsica
Wine Of Corsica
Corsica is one of France’s major wine-producing regions, famed for its local winemaking traditions and grape varieties composed of local grapes, as well as those brought across from Italy. Located along the coastlines of Corsica, the winemakers have a long history going back over 2000 years, starting with the Phoenicians, and then Greeks, Romans, Genoese, and French. The elevation of the island, variety of microclimates, and rich soils all make Corsican wine some of France’s best. Corsica has 9 distinct wine producers classified as AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée – controlled origin certification).
There are two grape varieties indigenous to Corsica that produce the island’s famous reds; Nielluccio, a robust and tannic red; and Sciaccarello, a softer, more elegant variety. A white grape, Vermentino, is an Italian variety used for making Corsican whites. While there is increasing export, most Corsican wines are not exported, making Corsica an alluring destination for lovers of fine French wine.
Because of its status as an island, Corsican cuisine centres around locally produced ingredients, with both French and Italian influences. The forested mountains and hills of Corsica’s interior are ideal for raising livestock, with mutton and especially wild boar often featuring in Corsican dishes. Civet de sanglier is a rich wild boar stewed in red wine, often served with mushrooms and onions. Veau aux olives is a slow-cooked veal ragu made with locally grown olives, lardons and onions. Fish is popular from the Mediterranean and the rivers, and includes anchovies, sardines, trout and eels; and soups are always popular, especially zuppa corsa, a fish and vegetable soup made with wine and rouille sauce.
Cured meats such as pork sausages are popular with locals, especially those made from pigs fed on wild chestnuts. Charcuterie includes priscuttu, a local ham; lonzu, a smoked fatty pork fillet; and the island’s signature sausage figatellu, a dried liver pork sausage often used in soups. Corsica has their own local version of dumplings called strozzapreti, a chard and brocciu cheese dumpling baked in a rich capsicum sauce, then steamed and baked in red wine.
When it comes to Corsican sweets, the availability of local Corsican honey features in many desserts. One example is the Corsican flan, called flan a la farine de châtaigne which uses honey, milk, vanilla eggs and chestnut flour. Fiadone corse is perhaps the island’s most iconic dessert, a lemon cheesecake without a biscuit base which uses local brocciu cheese as a base. And when it’s time for coffee, canistrelli is an Italian-influenced biscuit made with almond meal and olive oil and are similar to biscotti. Another popular cookie is the cucciole, which incorporates white wine and brandy, cut into diamond shapes, and baked until crunchy.
All discussions about Corsican cheese begin with Brocciu, a sheep or goat cheese similar to ricotta. It is a white cheese which is eaten along with white wine, and frequently used in cooking. Another sheep’s cheese is Brin d’Amour (also called Fleur du Maquis), which has a creamy texture and a natural rind which is often covered with juniper berries, rosemary and fennel. Other local cheeses include Niulincu, a soft goat’s milk cheese with a strong flavour and smell; and Corsu Vecchiu, a soft sheep’s milk cheese made with raw milk.