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An Introduction to Corsica

GUIDE TO CORSICA

Rare beauty, infinite variety, millennial traditions, charming historic towns, towering mountains, gastronomic delights and a multitude of white sandy beaches: combine all these elements and one comes close to describing Corsica. But of course, it is more complex than that. The more one scratches the surface, the more elusive it becomes. The more one learns, the more one has to study. 

Corsica lies in the Tyrrhenian Sea just 12km north of Sardinia and closer to Italy than France, the nation to which it belongs. This strategic position ensured that its history would be lively and various. Carthaginians, Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards, Franks, Pisans and Genoans all ruled the island until finally, in the momentous year of 1769 (for it was also the year of Napoleon’s birth), it was conquered by France. 

Each governing civilisation left something of their culture on the island and it could be said that Corsica is the “least French” region in France. Some would consider it more Italian than French - the language, Corsu, has evident similarities to Italian, many place names are of clear Italian origin, and many foodstuffs have a distinctly Italian DNA. However, a large proportion of the population would consider themselves neither French nor Italian, just Corsican. 250 years of French rule hasn’t dampened dreams of independence and rarely has the islanders’ relationship with their motherland been plain sailing.

The more one scratches the surface, the more elusive it becomes. The more one learns, the more one has to study.

For many people, Corsica is most famous as the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose west coast home town, Ajaccio, is the island’s administrative capital. Other major cities and centres include Bastia, Saint-Florent and Calvi in the north, Cargèse on the west coast, Corte in the centre, Porto Vecchio in the southeast, and Bonifacio on the southernmost tip. All are worth a visit if you’re in the area, as are many of the characterful, largely unspoilt smaller villages in the hills and mountains, such as the lovely Sartène.

With around 1,000km of coastline, glorious sandy beaches, inviting transparent waters and an enviable climate, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that Corsica is a popular summer holiday destination. Compared to many other Mediterranean destinations, however, there is relatively little mass tourism. The hundreds of beaches offer something for everyone, from child-friendly stretches of sand with shallow waters and lots of amenities, to idyllic, isolated bays ensconced in unspoilt nature reserves. 

Although Corsica is divided administratively between north and south (Haute Corse and Corse-du-Sud), geographically it is divided east and west by a mighty mountain range. More than 200 peaks rise to well over 2,000m (the highest is Monte Cinto at 2,706m) and around two thirds of the island could be described as being “mountainous”. It is, therefore, no coincidence that Corsica is also a magnet for keen hikers. 

Life in the interior has a timeless quality and traditions are jealously guarded there, particularly in terms of food. While on the coast one may feast on deliciously fresh seafood, it is in the hinterland where the island’s signature treats - the wonderful variety of cheeses and cured meats - are still produced. At mealtimes you may have the odd sensation of being in Italy, but this can be explained: many of the island’s gastronomic and oenological traditions have been imported over the years from Il Bel Paese across the water.

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