Corsica – ancient and modern

For a long time I’ve wanted to visit Corsica (and Sardinia), above all to hike in the rugged and remote mountains – and that desire remains. When I did finally get there recently, family constraints meant that we managed one half-hour hike and barely stepped upon the legendary GR20, the trail that runs the length of Corsica’s mountains. We were based half an hour inland from Ajaccio, on the west coast, so there’s a lot of the north (apart from Bastia), east and south I haven’t yet seen.

Bastia (in the north) and Corte (in the centre) are small but reasonably interesting towns, but Ajaccio (in the southwest) has less going for it – the tiny old town is surrounded by a wide belt of big-box shops that generate ridiculous amounts of traffic. A Californian lifestyle is all very well when it refers to climate and outdoor activities, less so when it means a car-dominated sprawl. The smog over the Ajaccio area is very obvious from the hills.

Apart from urban services in Bastia and Ajaccio, there seem to be virtually no buses in Corsica – trains (operated by the Chemin de Fer de la Corse) link Bastia, Calvi, Corte and Ajaccio with reasonable efficiency, but they’re pretty slow (100km/h maximum in theory, and 50 or less on the tight curves of the central mountains) and a bit bouncy too. In fact many visitors come by ferry with motorbikes – there are far fewer cyclists, perhaps because they have a choice of the busy coast road or the hilly interior road, neither with any cycle facilities. In addition to the various ferry routes from France and Italy, there are four airports – the Ajaccio and Bastia airports are about a mile and a half’s easy walk from the railway stations at Ricanto and Lucciana-Olivella respectively (these are request stops – don’t forget to press the button in good time) – there are also buses to both. The other airports are less well served – Calvi, 7km from the town, is only reached by taxi, and Figari, in the far south, has a roughly hourly bus (not Sundays) to Porto-Vecchio and nothing at all to Bonifacio, the port for Sardinia. There are two buses a day (not Sundays) from Ajaccio to Porto-Vecchio, with connections to Bonifacio.

Megalithism and more modern history

The most worthwhile sight, for us, was Filitosa, a couple of hours south of Ajaccio, one of Europe’s major megalithic sites – not as huge as Carnac, not as imposing as Stonehenge, not as haunting as some of the stone circles such as Castlerigg or those in Orkney and Shetland, but almost unique because of its sculpted megaliths, standing stones with weapons and human features carved on them. These 2 to 3-metre-tall statue-menhirs were erected around 1500 BC, but then largely overthrown by a mysterious people now known as the Torréens, after the Torre or towers that they built – these are better known as nuraghi in Sardinia (and talayots in the Balearic islands). These people may be the same as the Shardanes or ‘people of the sea’ who are recorded as attacking Pharaonic Egypt in the same period, and who may have given their name to Sardinia.

Whereas at Carnac archeologists were scrupulous in recording which stones have been re-erected, at Filitosa it’s not at all obvious, though it seems clear that the site has been considerably tidied up since it was identified by the landowner in 1946.

After the megalithic period, the Greeks established coastal trading settlements, surviving for five centuries, despite Etruscan and Carthaginian incursions, until the Romans arrived in 238 BC, when the defeat of the Carthaginians in the First Punic War led to Corsica and Sardinia becoming a Roman province. This also marked the start of Roman domination of the Western Mediterranean (although Corsica was not wholly subjugated until 162 BC). From AD 450 regular Vandal raids became an invasion, although the Byzantine Empire ejected the Vandals in 534; Christianity, which first appeared here in the third century, was established in the seventh, and from 758 Corsica was under the control of the Pope, who first entrusted it to the Bishop of Pisa to administer, and then shared its six dioceses between Pisa and Genoa. In 1297 the Pope gave the island to the King of Aragon, then from 1358 it put itself under Genoese protection; from 1530 the Genoese erected 90 towers, many of which still remain, along the coast as a defence against Barbary pirates.

1729 marked the start of 25 years of sporadic uprisings against Genoese rule, and a fascinating series of experiments in democracy, including electing the German adventurer Theodor Neuhoff King in 1736 (he lasted 7 months), an Anglo-Sardinian intervention in 1745-48 followed by French intervention (on behalf of Genoa) from 1748 to 1753, and from 1755 independence under Pasquale Paoli (1725-1807), who created Europe’s most democratic constitution, with a National Assembly, a ban on blood vendettas. In 1768 Genoa finally ceded the island to France, which had taken total control, closing down the Assembly and university and banning the Corsican language, by 1769 (also the year in which a certain Napoléon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio, although he left Corsica when he was nine, and his last visit to Corsica was in 1799). They were briefly evicted in 1794 with the help of the British (mainly Nelson and his naval gunners – it was at Calvi that he lost his eye), and a peculiar Anglo-Corsican kingdom was established with Sir Gilbert Elliot, later (as Lord Minto) governor-general of India, as viceroy. An early Brexit in 1796 let the French take full control, and they’ve been in charge ever since, apart from the Italian/German occupation of 1942-43.

After the French surrender of 1940, Corsica was initially left under the control of Pétain’s Vichy regime, but after the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942 it was occupied by the Italian army, which failed to control the centre of the island, although there were soon almost 85,000 troops here, against a population of just 220,000. After the Italian surrender of September 1943, 12,000 German troops arrived, but many of the Italian forces sided with the local resistance, and Free French troops began to arrive to join the uprising. The situation was complicated by German and Italian forces retreating from Sardinia to Corsica, but the last German units left from Bastia on 4 October 1943, making Corsica the first part of France to be freed from Axis occupation.

Since the 1970s the generation that protested against the Vietnam war has also demanded independence for Corsica, and there were bombings and shootings for several decades. By the 1990s there was infighting between the various separatist factions, while  the security forces had ever more efficient electronic surveillance, much as in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the assassination of the préfet, effectively the French governor, in 1998 was a major shock, and the central government soon offered limited autonomy in return for a cease-fire. This was blocked by the courts as breaching the principle of national unity, although it was permitted to teach the Corsican language (closer to the Genoese dialect of Italian than to French) in schools. A referendum in 2003 rejected proposals for further autonomy, as Corsicans refused to support the separatist Front de Libération Nationale de la Corse (FLNC), increasingly entangled with organised crime – finally in June 2014 the FLNC called a ceasefire. Times have changed – on the one hand a tourism boom has shown the economic benefits of sticking with France, but the threat of violence has prevented over-development along the coast,pleasing the Corsicans who are very proud of their island and keen to preserve its beauty. Even if the younger generation is less interested in separatism, there’s still a lot of anti-French graffiti and road sides are pitted with shotgun pellets.

 Bastia, Corte and Ajaccio

Bastia was founded as a strongpoint in about 1378 – its name comes from bastiglia (Genoese for fortress) and has the same derivation as the Bastille in Paris – and the citadel was rebuilt in 1519-21, with ramparts added around the Terra Nova or upper town in 1576-1626 – the lower town or Terra Alta clusters around the little port and is the most picturesque part of the city. The citadel is now home to one of Corsica’s better museums, which explains much of the city’s history, notably its development from the 1830s, fuelled by vast fortunes made in Venezuela and by the production of the quinine-based Cap Corse apéritif from 1894. However there’s nothing on the British siege and capture of Bastia in 1794. There’s also a room of second-rate Italian art donated by Napoléon’s uncle, Cardinal Fesch – the bulk of his collection, with some far more interesting works, is in Ajaccio (see below). Bastia is the best base for visiting Cap Corse, the island’s northern promontory, and the Désert des Agriates, but there’s little else of interest here – other than the conning tower of the submarine Casabianca, next to the tourist office – she carried out seven missions from Algeria, bringing agents and weapons in the run-up to the island’s liberation in October 1943 (see above).

The ferry port is immediately north of the centre, with Avis, Hertz and Europcar offices nearby as well as a fairly notional bus station outside the Hotel Riviera, a decent ‘budget’ place to stay (there is nowhere cheap to stay on the island – I’ve no idea why no-one has opened hostels in the major towns).

Corte, the main town in the interior of the island, was capital of Corsica from 1755 to 69. It’s dominated by a dramatic citadel, with the Anthropology Museum of Corsica (opened in 1997) alongside it in a former military hospital. My ancient 1999 Rough Guide does mention the new Museu di a Corsica, but laments that ‘the exhibits – largely run-of-the-mill geological and ethnographic material such as farming implements, traditional costumes and craft tools – fail to measure up to the state-of-the-art design and decor’. You’ll be glad to hear that all traditional costumes and the like have been swept away, and the museum now claims to be aware that laying anything down as a definitive account of ethnography and folklore is impossible, so it offers a more tangential approach. To be honest I’m not sure what’s really gained by this. The focus is on the collecting activities of Père Louis Doazan, from the 1950s on.

One display did catch my attention – Père Doazan visited Corsica’s last transhumant goatherds in the Niolo valley southwest of Corte in 1974, when there were still ten flocks making the two-day (60km) trek over some high passes to spend the summer in the high pastures. The transhumant herders were apparently key to the rural culture of Corsica in the same way as they still are in Romania, which I’m far more familiar with. And in fact I did find that the Col de Vizzavuna, between Corte and Ajaccio, reminded me of Romania, with its extensive beech forests and the rather scrappy parking and snack stalls at the pass. Anyway, I was pleased to see signs at the Col de Vergio (Corsica’s highest road pass at 1478m) for the Sentier de la Transhumance, a hiking trail created in 2007.

From the Col de Vergio we continued west down to the dramatic Gorges de Spelunca, which my geologist brother-in-law said were as good as anything he’s seen in the US, apart from the Grand Canyon (the name does come from the same root as spelunking, the American word for pot-holing – the Latin (from Greek) spelunca, meaning cave or cavern).

We did discover an excellent little restaurant in Corte – A Casa di l’Orsu, at 4 rue Monseigneur Sauveur Casanova (halfway down the steps between the two touristy squares), serves remarkably good authentic Corsican food, and is not expensive at all, with good service.

In Ajaccio the only new feature of interest is the remains of Napoleon’s port (1814), discovered under a car park (in the manner of Richard III) opposite the tourist office. Otherwise, the old town is small and unexciting, the cathedral is Baroque (like every church we saw in Corsica) and unexciting, and the citadel is still occupied by the army, and is small and unexciting. The town does have a proper art museum, however, with the bulk of Cardinal Fesch’s collection (see above) in the Musée Fesch. The highlights are on the top floor, mainly Italian Renaissance art, above all a Giovanni Bellini and a Botticelli, as well as paintings by Nicolo Pisano and Lorenzo di Credi. There’s a fairly standard painting by Cosimo Rosselli, but the portrait of a woman discovered on its rear is stunning for the sense that this is a REAL person. There are also some interesting portraits by Carlo Portelli. From a slightly later period there are two Titians, one by Veronese and his studio, a Lodovico Carracci, two Luca Giordanos, and a big hall of dull altarpieces. Corsican art is hidden in the basement, but the main names are Jean-Baptiste Bassoul (1875-1934) and Lucien Peri (1880-1948), both pretty good (although Peri had a much more modern style). On the ground floor there’s some Napoleoniana on show, including a Canova bust of Fesch. Also in Ajaccio there’s the Maison Bonaparte, a museum in Napoléon Bonaparte’s birthplace – we didn’t visit, partly because we were uncomfortable with the Napoleonic cult. Actually Corsicans aren’t that bothered about him, seeing he left the island as a child – Ajaccio’s Campo dell’Oro airport has now been named after him, but that was controversial.

We did drive out along the coast road to the Parata peninsula, where one of the Genoese watchtowers sits on a lump of gabbro opposite the Îles Sanguinaires, also studded with towers – we saw Corsican finches here, as well as huge piles of a rather odd seaweed (we think) washed up onto the beaches.

Help – can anyone identify this?

We ate in Ajaccio at A Casa Leca, a good little organic restaurant on Rue de l’Assomption, actually a flight of steps off the pedestrianised Rue Cardinal Fesch. They wish you bio appetitu! which is a nice little pun – enjoy your organic meal.

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