When the sun shines, Sartène smiles and welcomes with charm and grace, a picturesque, unspoilt town whose unofficial role as the custodian of Corsican traditions is a draw for curious tourists. When clouds lour low, however, Sartène takes on another guise altogether, and its atmospheric, mountainous, mediaeval roots loom large. When the French novelist, Prosper Mérimée, described Sartène as “la plus corse des villes corses” (the most Corsican of Corsican towns), he was alluding not only to its many traditional charms, but also its darker side, of which more anon.
Sartène rises organically from the granite hillside on which it sits . When seen from afar, it’s difficult to distinguish where the rock ends and the town begins. Red-tiled roofs hint at a sunny Mediterranean setting, but the unusually tall, quasi-fortified, granite grey houses would not look out of place in north European climes.
...Place Porta is the social hub of town, a meeting place where residents come together for a drink in the cafés and bars, dine late into the evening, and shop convivially at the Saturday morning market.
The oldest part of Sartène was built in the mid-16th century by the Genoese rulers of Corsica. They wished to establish a kind of inland refuge, a safe haven away from the coastal raids of the Turks and the Barbary pirates. Strong perimeter walls and defensive turrets were built (some of which survive today) but to no avail: in 1583, Hassan the Veneziano, the Ottoman governor of Algeria sacked the town and enslaved around 400 of its residents.
Sartène recovered quickly from this setback, however and by 1630 work began on a new section of town, south of Place Porta. This triangular, tree-lined square, renamed Place de la Libération by De Gaulle during his visit in 1945 (though locals still refer to I by its original name), is the true centre of town, home to Hôtel de Ville, a 16th century fortified construction once home to the Genoese governor, and the fine, 18th century granite church of Sainte-Marie. This latter boasts a three-tiered bell and clock tower and some beautiful, vibrant decoration inside. Place Porta is the social hub of town, a meeting place where residents come together for a drink in the cafés and bars, dine late into the evening, and shop convivially at the Saturday morning market.
Built on several levels, the streets of the oldest part of town are connected by complex warren of arcane alleyways, mysterious flights of steps and seemingly secret passages, some of which end with solid blocks of granite. In the early decades of the 19th century, a bloody feud between two of the town’s most prominent families was played out amongst this labyrinth. No doubt Prosper Mérimée, who had a literary penchant for bloodletting (Carmen was his most famous work), had these vendetta-busy streets in mind when penning his much quoted description of Sartène.
The 17th century part of town is also worth exploring, not least for its shops and the Musée de Préhistoire et d'Archéologie Corse, home to an excellent collection of finds from archaeological sites nearby, including those of Cauria, Funtanaccia and Paddaghju.
Sitting at 300 metres above sea level, Sartène enjoys enchanting views over the southern hills and mountains of Corsica’s vast hinterland. The island’s interior is a veritable pantry, the proud provisioner of mouthwatering cheeses, cured meats, chestnut-flour bread and cakes, and numerous age-old recipes. Following in this tradition, Sartène boasts an excellent selection of restaurants, butchers’, delicatessens and greengrocers’. There’s wine too: the countryside surrounding Sartène is home to over 2,500 hectares of vineyards producing some excellent appellation AOC vintages. No visit to Sartène, then, is complete without at least a couple of gastronomic treats.
If you’re in the south of Corsica for Easter, head to Sartène on Good Friday to watch the historic Catenacciu procession, which sees a heavy cross and chain usually kept in the church of Sainte-Marie, dragged around town by a hooded penitent. The tradition of pelting the penitent with stones and rotten vegetables no longer exists and it is now an honour to be chosen as the town’s symbolic sinner.