Corsica

The Isle of Corsica – One of the Hidden Gems of France – Part 3 of 3

From Bonifacio (for information on Bonifacio, click here, for a map of Corsica click here) we spent our last few days working our way north along the east coast to Aléria and then on to Corte in the interior, then Calvi (on the northwest coast) and finally Bastia (also on the east coast), our final stop in Corsica. On the east side of the island there is a little more flat terrain near the coast and therefore the roads are faster.

Aléria. The little town of Aléria has an old church and castle-like building that holds a museum and ticket office for the nearby Roman village ruins.

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An old little stone church in Aléria, near the Roman ruins.

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The Roman ruins museum in Aléria.

There were a number of ancient settlements around this area, but it was the Romans who built the harbor port city known as Aléria starting in 80 BC, which was inhabited throughout the duration of the Roman Empire. The ruins are not extensive, mainly foundations and a few baths remaining.

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A view of part of the Roman ruins of Aléria.

Given the proximity to Italy, one would think the Romans would have colonized Corsica more. But then, like now, with its rugged topography, Corsica was more of a hinterland and was never completely conquered and brought under the domination of Rome

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There are a number of old Genoese (14th-15th century) bridges in Corsica, this one is near the road on the way to Corte from Aléria.

Corte. I expected Corte to be a little village, and I was surprised to see that it was a good sized town. Corte was the capital of Corsica during its period of independence in the mid 18th century.

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A view of the old town of Corte, with the fortress sitting at the top.

In the main square, there is a statue of Pascal Paoli (1725-1807) the founding father of Corsica.

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The main square in old Corte with the statue of Pascal Paoli to the right.

Even 250 years later, there are bullet holes still visible in the buildings surrounding Place Gaffori, marking the fight over independence that took place here.

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Place Gaffori in old town Corte. Note the bullet holes in the building.

The old town slopes up a hill located in the middle of a deep valley. The Citadelle and 15th century fortress sit atop the old town, commanding a good view of the surrounding valleys. The old town below the Citadelle has several small squares, churches with narrow alleys, and restaurants. Although not visible from the main town, the fortress has a very modern, large museum and conference center located next to it. Corte is home to the aptly named Corsica Pasquale Paoli University, where students speak Corsican.

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Looking down on the old town of Corte from the fortress.

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The old 15th century fortress in Corte, photo taken from the Belvedere, a scenic view spot.

There are also a few old hilltop towns in the great vicinity of Corte, located off very narrow steep and winding roads up in the hills.

Calvi. From Corte, we traveled north and west over to Calvi, another extremely picturesque town situated on a beautiful bay surrounded by mountains.

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A view of the beautiful town of Calvi with its magnificent bay and Citadelle.

Calvi is a jet-setting hotspot in the summer with numerous sailboats and yachts filling its docks and harbor. The huge Genoese Citadelle at the entrance to the bay really dominates the whole area.

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A closer view of Calvi and the Citadelle.

There is a nice beach here too, overlooking the harbor and town. The Citadelle was pretty quiet, at least during the time of year we were there (October).

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The entrance to Calvi’s Citadelle.

We enjoyed sitting by the harbor and having our lunch.

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Calvi’s harbor, lined with outdoor cafes.

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There is some evidence that the explorer, Christopher Columbus, was born in Calvi. Hence the name of this souvenir shop.

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We stayed in the picturesque small town of Lumio, just across the bay from Calvi.

Bastia. From Calvi, we crossed back over to the north east coast and made our last stop in Corsica. We were really surprised at how large Bastia was. It is a major city and the commercial hub of Corsica. Like many coastal Corsican towns, Bastia has a large Citadelle overlooking the harbor (Vieux Port) and a scenic and large old town area.

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The harbor of Bastia. The twin towers of the 16th century church of St. Jean Baptiste are a local landmark.

Bastia felt similar to many large European towns with multiple squares, shopping streets, great churches and restaurants lining the harbor and squares.

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A major shopping thoroughfare in Bastia.

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Interior of the Oratory of the Confraternity of the Holy Cross. This church contains the Holy Crucifix of Miracles, discovered drifting on the sea by two fishermen in 1428.

Bastia’s Citadelle streets were fairly quiet, and the area had a non-touristy feel. There are good signs pointing out historically significant buildings in this area.

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The Louis XVI gateway into Bastia’s Citadelle.

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A street scene in Bastia’s Citadelle.

 

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An old building in the Citadelle. I’d hate to have to work on or rebuild these walls!

Bastia has decent sized airport, so it was easy to fly back to Nice from here, which kept us from having to backtrack across the island to Ajaccio. This third post concludes our tour of Corsica. We highly recommend visiting this wonderful island!

The Isle of Corsica – One of the Hidden Gems of France – Part 2 of 3

From Ajaccio we worked our way south along the west coast towards Bonifacio, which is located at the southern end of Corsica. Two interesting locations on the way to Bonifacio are Filitosa and Sartène.

Filitosa

Filitosa is one of several prehistoric sites on Corsica and probably the most well known, having earned UNESCO World Heritage status. This site is privately owned. It is located about 65 km (40 miles) from Ajaccio. Although not far, it takes about 90 minutes to get here on the roads that follow every curve of the hilly country. This site dates back as far as the early Neolithic era (6000 BC), and covers a pretty large area. Surprisingly, the ancient artifacts here were not discovered until 1946.

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One of the earliest dwellings at Filitosa.

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One of the most detailed and best preserved menhirs at Filitosa. There are also carvings on the back, representing the physical back of a human.

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A field of menhirs in Filitosa.

There are upright carved stones in human form (called menhirs), temple structures, a quarry, some fortifications and foundations of Bronze Age huts.

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A lookout platform at Filitosa.

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A chamber in what is called the Western Monument.

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This place is called the Central Monument at Filitosa. It has a commanding view of the countryside.

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The enchanting hill where the monuments are found. It has a feel like it could be a location right out of “The Lord of the Rings”.

We found Filitosa quite interesting. Allow a couple hours for a visit. We got there first thing in the morning and had the site largely to ourselves. You can obtain a guidebook at the site and there is a small museum as well.

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The town of Propriano, just south of Filitosa. It has a beautiful harbor surrounded by mountains. We stopped here between our visits to Filitosa and Sartène.

Sartène

This town is known as “the most Corsican of Corsican towns” and is in a picturesque hillside location. It also has an attractive old town center. The type of stone used here for construction gives the buildings a very austere appearance.

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View of the exterior fortifications of Sartène.

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Street scene in Sartène.

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Old doorways in the center of Sartène.

We enjoyed wandering through the streets and admiring the old buildings.

Bonifacio

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If driving in to Bonifacio, this is your first stunning view. The “Stronghold of the Standard” bastion was used until the 18th century by the Genoese to defend Bonifacio.

If I had to pick just one favorite place in Corsica, Bonifacio would be it. The unique sight of a massive fortress and medieval town jutting straight up from the little bay on a narrow strip of land is striking. The Republic of Genoa took control of Bonifacio in 1195 and the whole of Corsica in 1294 after defeating the Pisans. Bonifacio became an autonomous city of the Genoese republic in 1388 and even issued its own coinage.

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The steep walk up to the old medieval fortifications from the harbor.

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A view of the old medieval town of Bonifacio from a cliff walking path.

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The last part of the ascent into the bastion of Bonifacio.

No wonder this town withstood numerous sieges, and was considered such a strategic spot. One siege by the King of Aragon (a region of modern Spain) lasted for 3 months. In the end, the King, even with his mighty fleet, could not take Bonifacio and he left in defeat in early 1421.

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Looking down on Bonifacio’s harbor from the bastion.

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Another view of the walls surrounding Bonifacio. You can walk along most sections of the walls.

We spent two days here and you could easily spend more. This is perhaps the most popular spot on Corsica, and it does receive cruise ship visitors. There are a number of beaches in the vicinity and good coastal walks too.

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The steep Escalier du Roy D’Aragon (King of Aragon’s Stairway) can be appreciated from a boat excursion. This stairway accessed a water supply in medieval times.

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Climbing the 187 steps of the Escalier du Roy D’Aragon. Doing this a few times a day will get you in great shape!

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The walk along a pathway below Bonifacio, accessed by the Escalier du Roy D’Aragon.

We took a boat excursion (highly recommended) for a view of the cliffs and old village which somehow clings to the top of the cliffs–you have to wonder when the whole town might fall into the sea.

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A view of Bonifacio from our boat tour. The houses are literally at the edge of the cliffs.

Boats will also take you to nearby islands which have good beaches. Since we were just past the swimming season, we opted for the coastal tour with a glass bottomed boat, and as part of the tour we were able to go into a small secluded grotto and a beautiful small bay-very cool.

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Inside the grotto on our boat excursion.

In my last post, we’ll cover the Roman ruins of Aleria, the interior village of Corte, Calvi and the north eastern city of Bastia.

The Isle of Corsica – One of the Hidden Gems of France – Part 1 of 3

When we mentioned to friends that we were going to Corsica, the typical response was “where is Corsica?” Even though it’s part of France, relatively few people in the U.S know much about this island. For the record, Corsica is just north of Sardinia (another great island, which belongs to Italy) and is closer to Italy than it is to France.

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A map of Corsica. We started in Ajaccio on the west coast and ended in Bastia on the northeast coast.

Corsica is a relatively remote part of France and Europe—it’s rugged, mountainous, and sparsely populated, especially in the interior. Corsica has had a tumultuous history, with several nations (such as Spain and France) and medieval city states (such as Pisa and Genoa) staking their claim here over the centuries. Even today, the island is a very independent part of France, and there have been separatist struggles over the years. As a tourist, there is very little evidence of this, except for some banners or signage in the interior villages of the island.

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A burned out car near Ajaccio – evidence of the Corsican mob? Hard to say.

As a sign of its independent roots, Corsica has its own language (more similar to Italian, although everyone speaks French also), and road signs are in French and Corsican.

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An example of the excellent food found in Corsica – with heavy Italian influence.

Corsica offers the tourist a large variety of things to do: hiking, climbing, four wheeling, mountain scenery, kayaking, beautiful beaches, prehistoric sites and some very cool old fortified towns with huge bastions. We visited in October, and while the island was quieter, the weather was still good. During the summer, the towns on the coast are a magnet for sailboats and yachts from all over Europe.

We spent about a week on Corsica, starting our visit in Ajaccio and then taking a clockwise one-way route through the island. We rented a car and although distances aren’t far, the roads are winding and fairly slow. Luckily the local drivers were pretty patient with us as tourists, but I pulled over to let them pass every chance I got.

Ajaccio. We flew in to Ajaccio from Nice. It was a good place to start our trip. Ajaccio is the capital of Corsica and the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. It has a quaint old quarter, situated on a bay on the west coast of the island.

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A view of Ajaccio’s harbor.

Napoleon, the early 19th century emperor of France, looms large over Ajaccio, his image can be found in several spots in Ajaccio.

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Statue of Napoleon in the form of a Roman emperor in old town Ajaccio.

One of the main sights in Ajaccio is Napoleon’s home and the church where he was baptized.

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The street in Ajaccio where Napoleon was born. His house is the building with the green shutters behind his caricature.

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The orange hued Ajaccio Cathedral, where Napoleon was baptized.

Like many costal Corsican towns, Ajaccio has a 15th century fortress guarding the entrance to the protected bay. The fortress is still used by the military and therefore is off limits to tourists.

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Ajaccio’s Citadelle or fortress, built originally by the Genoese, housed resistance fighters during World War II.

Coastal and Mountain Scenery. We took a day trip north of Ajaccio through the mountains and along the coast. It is a stunningly beautiful island, and even in October I was impressed how green the island is. We had just one day of rain during our visit.

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The village of Ota, near the Spilonca Gorge, a mountain park and hiking area.

There are little villages nestled high on the steep hillsides. The backcountry has some great trails and rushing rivers. The coastline of Corsica is a mix of rugged terrain and secluded beaches.

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The beautiful coastline on the southwestern side of Corsica. In the distance is the island of Sardinia.

Towers. There are 15th and 16th century towers dotted all along the coast, 91 of them in total, which were watch towers on the lookout for pirates and also light houses for the Genoese sailors.

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This tower, called Tour de la Parata is close to Ajaccio.

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A view of the small town of Porto, north of Ajaccio, with its 15th century tower (left side of image).

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Another tower along the west coast of Corsica.

Many of the towers are not accessible, but a few are. They give the coastline a unique feel, standing as they have for centuries against the wind and the waves.

Pisan Churches. Also throughout the island are tiny churches from the medieval era, many built by the Pisans in the 12th and 13th centuries. Each is unique, but the style is generally familiar to what one finds in northern Italy.

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The little 13th century Saint Michel de Murato church near Bastia.

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A close-up of one of the carvings on the exterior of Saint Michele de Murato.

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This 12th century church, Eglise de la Trinite et de San Giovanni, is near Aregno, Corsica.

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La Canonica. This little church was built by the Pisans in 1119 on the site of a 4th century basilica. It sits next to some Roman ruins, near Bastia.

In parts 2 and 3 of my posts on Corsica, I will review other sights and towns as we traveled south and east around the island.