Cours Napoleon is Ajaccio’s central thoroughfare, built on the orders of the Emperor himself. Maison Bonaparte is the Emperor’s family home and birthplace, now a museum dedicated to his life. Monuments, streets, squares, hotels, bistrots, bars, cafés and even the airport bear Napoleon’s name. And then there are the statues: Napoleon dressed in Roman garb on horseback in Place De Gaulle; Napoleon in a heroic military pose on a pyramidic plinth in Place d'Austerlitz; and Napoleon towering above a fountain in Place Foch. Although nearly 250 years have passed since his birth in 1769, Napoleon is still very much at the heart of Ajaccio’s identity.
While Napoleon is inextricably associated with Ajaccio (which, curiously, is said to have been named after another military legend, the Greek warrior Ajax), the city’s history stretches out long before and after the time of “Little Boney”, as the British disparagingly called him.
Indeed, Ajaccio’s history probably begins some time around the 2nd century AD, as a Roman port on the trade routes between Italy, France and the Iberian Peninsula. By the 6th century, the town was important enough to become a diocese, and one of the first documented mentions of Ajaccio was written with the quill of Pope Gregory the Great in 591. With the fall of Rome, Corsica, like so many former provinces of the great empire, went into decline. Then, in the 13th century, the great Maritime Republic of Genoa began to show an interest.
In the 15th century, the Genoese rebuilt Ajaccio on a new site, where the old town centre stands today. The Ligurian superpower wanted little to do with the local populace and the new town was populated exclusively by Genoese colonists. They built an impressive citadel and a belt of impregnable defensive walls to keep out both marauders from overseas and the indigenous islanders. The Genoese were in Ajaccio to stay, and stay they did, right up until the late 18th century.
After a brief French interregnum in the 1550s, the Treaty of Cateau Cambresis returned Corsica to the Genoese. The incomers were viewed with suspicion by the islanders, and by the mid-18th century this dislike and distrust boiled over into armed rebellion under Pasquale Paoli and his Corsican Republicans, who took control of much of the island. Paoli’s forces were unable to dislodge the Genoese from the main fortified towns such as Ajaccio, however, and an uneasy stand-off ensued. Then, in 1768, the Maritime Republic identified an exit strategy and promptly sold Corsica to France. By a curious historical coincidence, one year later Napoleon Bonaparte was born a French citizen in Ajaccio. What might have been had he been born Genoese?
In the second half of the 19th century, Ajaccio became a winter sun destination for Europe’s upper classes, especially the English, who saw the Corsican capital as a viable alternative to Nice and Cannes. So popular did it become, that an Anglican church was built in 1878 and part of the old town became known as le quartier des étrangers. Most of the city’s finest buildings date from this time, including the Ex Grand Hotel (1869), Château Conti (1878), and Hotel Palace-Cyrnos (1880).
Ajaccio’s next brush with European history came in September 1943, when the city became the first in France to be liberated from Nazi occupation.
Today, Ajaccio is a very pleasant city to visit, whether you’re interested in Napoleon or not. Its old town centre flanks the port and marina on the western side of an upturned horseshoe bay. Tree-lined boulevards and streets meet at wide-open squares that offer vistas out to sea. Restaurants, bistrots, cafés and bars spill out onto the pavements in typical French style, and a daily market in Place Foch fills the morning air with fragrant temptations. The southern tip is home to the mighty walls of the 16th century Genoese citadel.
In terms of culture, the most obvious point of departure is the museum of Maison Bonaparte, Napoleon’s childhood family home. If your thirst for knowledge, learning and pleasure is as yet unquenched, the art gallery of Musée Fesch is highly recommended. Amongst its highlights is a wonderful collection of Italian masterpieces, including works by Botticelli, Perugino, Michelangelo, Fra Bartolomeo, Titian, Veronese and Vasari.
Ajaccio is also a city for sea lovers, and there is a great selection of sandy beaches to choose from, including one right below the citadel. Finally, as if there weren’t already enough to see and do, Ajaccio caters for walkers too. A path, the Chemin des Crêtes, leads from the centre of town up into the fragrant, maquis-carpeted hills to the west, from where spectacular vistas stretch out from Ajaccio across the sea to the Iles Sanguinaires, an archipelagic continuation of Tour de la Parata, a slender promontory at the southwesternmost tip of Ajaccio’s territory.
Ajaccio is a pretty, charming and intriguing city that we love exploring. Other French cities might be more beautiful, more fascinating or more romantic, but none has the spirit of Napoleon Bonaparte coursing through its streets.