The island known to the ancient Greeks as Kallisto and to the present-day inhabitants as L’lle de Beaute, is Corsica.
Corsica has had a long and turbulent history, the indigenous population having at various times been enslaved, besieged and subjected to pirate raids, so to wage their rebellion they moved to the mountainous region in the interior. During WWII Corsica was occupied by thousands of Italian and German troops, who were relentlessly harassed by islanders conducting guerrilla warfare from hideouts in the maquis – those vast areas of tangled, almost impenetrable scrubland, which gave it’s name to the underground resistance movement.
To best understand our travels in Corsica, you need to know a little of the Geography of this Island. For the most part the terrain is mountainous, with about two thirds consisting of an ancient massif that divides the island on a north-west to south-west axis. Corsica has a cluster of 20 peaks exceeding 2,000m with Mount Cinto being the highest at just over 2,700 m.
Cap Corse is mostly sedimentary rock, slate, in colours of green, brown, and grey. Whereas on the mid-west coast the granite rocks are dramatic, and in brilliant colours of red, pink and orange and that plunge steeply into the ocean, so that much of the coastline is only accessible by boat. The south west coastline has huge rounded outcrops of granite called Taffonis, shaped by water, wind and time into the strangest of formations, and scrub covered hills that run into the deep bays where you can just imagine pirates waiting to attack passing ships. And in Bonifacio, on the southern tip the cliffs are of chalk-white limestone sea stacks, precipitous and dramatic.
We arrived into Bastia, the most northerly major town right on time at 7am after an easy overnight crossing. We turn north towards the Cap de Corse, and soon lose the line of traffic heading to work, and to drop off schoolchildren for their 8am start. Wild camping is not actually forbidden on Corsica, but it’s not particularly easy. Height restriction bars, and no camping car signs are everywhere, but nevertheless with not a lot of options with most of Corsica being closed for vacation in January, we do manage to find some truly beautiful places to stop overnight, and were never told to move on by the police or locals.
It’s only 50 kms in length and 10 km wide, but it took us 5 hours to drive this winding route. With black pebble beaches, ancient Genoese watch towers, colourful houses and dramatic views that open up to you around every corner, the camera was never far from my hand At times the road was only wide enough for one vehicle, and mostly had no guardrails, or when you are lucky you find rocks placed along the side of the 100 or so metre drop-offs. With Hermione feeling like the size of a bus, I’m glad it is off season and there weren’t too many other cars about.
Nonza is on the west coast of the Cap and perched on an impressive peak and where in the third century Saint Julie was born. Yes, there really was a Saint Julie! Apparently Julie was a young Christian woman who was crucified for not honouring the Roman’s pagan gods, her persecutors not thinking that her crucifixion was not causing her enough pain, cut off her breasts and threw them down the hillside. Two hot springs emerged from that spot and is where to this day a fountain flows. The Church of Saint Julie is in the village of Nonza, May 22nd is the Feast Day of Saint Julie in France, and she is the patron saint of Corsica.
Birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1769, and the capital Southern Corsica, Ajaccio feels a little like a Riviera town with palm trees lining the streets, lovely squares and cobbled streets of the old town.
We visited Maison Bonaparte where Napoléon was born in 1769 and is now a museum. The home is in the centre of the old town and I was hoping to learn a little more about ‘The Little Corsican’ but sadly did not so I will have to do some further reading on him. There was quite a lot about Letizia, Napoleon’s mother however. She was said to be one of the most beautiful women of her day, and by the age of thirty when she became a widow, she had given birth to thirteen children, of which only five boys and three girls lived, all who played distinguished parts in the reign of Napoleon.
The weather hasn’t been particularly kind to us here in Corsica and the day we had planned on visiting Corte in the centre of the island, we were turned around by the police as the road had been closed. Not sure if trees had been blown down in the 70 km per hour winds, or that the heavy snow that had fallen overnight had not yet been cleared by the snow plows.
Positioned on the southerly tip of the island, Bonifacio is the oldest town in Corsica and is truly a photographer’s dream, the cliff tops have incredible views out to sea with Sardinia in easy sight.
The Citadel was built in the 9th century and historically most of the city’s inhabitants lived enclosed within it’s walls in the Haute Ville, a tangle of narrow streets and tall buildings, some five or six stories high and only one room wide and split by perpendicular staircases where there were once only ladders that could be pulled up in times of siege.
A level walk opens the sky and sea again with views of what scholars believe to be Homer’s ‘excellent harbour’, closed in on all sides by precipitous cliffs, with two bold headlands facing each other at the mouth, leaving only a narrow channel in between.
We have found a beautiful quiet place to free camp alongside the Gulf de Santa Manza near Bonifacio, with sheep and goats grazing in the field next to us, and nice walks over the hills close by.
Corsica has been a wonderful little island to visit, such dramatic scenery, mountains and winding roads that you think will never stop. But if you ever get the chance to visit here, do it!
It is from Bonifacio that we leave Corsica and take a short 16 km, 60 minute ferry to Sardinia where our adventures continue.