Michael Edwards offers up his insider guide to Corsica following his cruise with Riviera on the Star Clipper.
A severed Moor’s head on a flag isn’t the warmest of welcomes. Corsicans flew the flag as a warning to invaders that, if they advanced, they would be next to lose their heads.
Over the centuries, Corsica’s strategic position in the Mediterranean and proximity to North Africa has encouraged invasion after invasion.
That brutal flag still flies on the Ile de Rousse as the four masted Star Clipper moors in the harbour. Though the Ile is no longer an island, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered a causeway to be built, and the rocks are reddish rather than red.
Napoleon, who firmly brought the island of his birth under French control, isn’t a local hero. That honour belongs to Pasquale Paoli. He led Corsica to two brief years of independence from 1794 to 1796 when he wrote a constitution. It was Europe’s first constitution to be voted into place. Ahead of his time, Paoli gave women the vote and established a university. A handful of American towns are named in his honour.
From the Ile de Rousse, a narrow road ascends, winds, twists and ascends to the village of Sant Antonino. Travel in Corsica, a land of canyons, peaks and rives is always slow. Amongst the mountain range that runs from the northwest to the southeast there are 117 peaks that top 7,000 metres.
With frequent raids from Barbary pirates, Moors and Saracens, coastal living was too vulnerable for the Corsicans, they took to the mountains, where they had more chance of defending themselves. Our Riviera guide tells us that in some medieval years, over 6,000 Corsicans had been taken into slavery in North Africa.
An essential visit on this Insider Guide to Corsica is Sant Antonino, classified as one of France’s plus belles villages, scales the rocky crags with its Baroque church, shops and restaurants. It’s a place to sample the village’s famed lemon juice and stock up on its extra virgin olive oil.
Road signs in both French and Corsican, lead us back down to a coastline of sandy beaches fringing Caribbean blue seas. Corsican is close to Medieval Tuscan, after all the island was occupied by the Genoese for five centuries, and the language is taught in schools.
It is one of the quirks of history, that if Napoleon had been born a year earlier, before Genoa’s sale of Corsica to France, he would have been French rather than Italian. Looking at the long line of Napoleon’s alleged victories on his monument in Ajaccio, if Corsica had still been Genoese, Napoleon would never have been sent to a French military school at the age of 9 and those battles may never have been fought. Incidentally, Corsica’s capital, Ajaccio, hosting Napoleon’s birth house, is pronounced like an extended sneeze.
On our way to The Isles Sanguinaires, named after their blood red appearance, when the sun sets behind the isles on the shortest days of the year, we pass another quirk of history. Deceived by the terracotta roofs and white walls of the shrines, Germans bombed the graveyard rather than Ajaccio. Locals say that this was an occasion when the dead saved the living.
Sailing on south we moor in the natural limestone harbour of Bonifacio. A train arrives among side the ship to take us up an ascent of 600 metres to the Old Town. Not only did thick walls defend the city, people lived on the first and second floors of their houses. Given themselves another layer of defence to fight off raiders as they tried to ascend narrow steep stairs to the first floor.
For our last leg of Riveria’s tour and this Insider Guide to Corsica we sail north to Bastia, at the base of Corsica’s thumb which gestures out into the Med. On the Place Saint Nicolas our guide shows us the tower of the Casabianca French submarine that had escaped from Toulon to make six clandestine drops of weapons for the Corsican resistance. So successful were the Corsican resistance, helped by the perfect terrain for guerrilla warfare, that the island was liberated from Italian and German forces in September 1943, without landings from Allied forces. At the far end of the place is the Jean Nicoli Lycee, named in honour of a resistance leader who was beheaded.
Over the centuries the Place St Nicolas had witnessed many gruesome executions. After a beheading, it was customary for the audience to dip their handkerchiefs into the blood as an omen to ward off a similar fate.
Around Bastia, there is plenty of graffiti showing Corsica’s continuing fight for greater autonomy from France. But for us, like many of the ships departing from Bastia’s harbour, it is time to sail east to Italy and the island of Elba.
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On 12th July 2024, The Star Flyer will offer a 10 night French Riviera and Corsica Cruise starting from £2,799
Riviera will fly guests to Rome before departing for Portoferraio, Bonifacio, Alghero, Ajaccio, Calvi, St.Tropez, Cannes and finally Nice.
The price includes flights, transfers, full breakfast, buffet lunch, afternoon tea and a la carte dinner whilst onboard, breakfast with hotel stays and an expert tour manager.
For more details on the sights mentioned in the insider guide to Corsica and more about the island, please go to Visit Corsica