Close your right fist, with your thumb over your fingers. Now point your index finger and you have an almost perfect representation of the island of Corsica – essentially a mountain range jutting out of the Mediterranean, whose highest peaks remain snow-capped well into the spring.
Its people are proud of their island: many consider themselves to be Corsican first and (reluctantly) French second, even though the island’s most famous son, Napoleon Bonaparte, became emperor of France! You’ll see graffiti – usually in Corsican, which is closer to Italian than it is to French – calling for independence in the most unexpected places. The Corsican flag (known locally as A bandera testa mora) is everywhere: a black profile facing left with a white bandana knotted at the back. Why? Nobody is really sure and there are many legends, but the latest academic hypothesis is that the head belonged to Black Egyptian Christian martyr Saint Maurice d’Aguane, whose Latin name Mauritius led to confusion that this was the head of a Moor.
This stunning island has few museums, art galleries, cinemas or theaters. Instead, Corsica is a destination for those who love outdoor activities: hiking, swimming, sailing, kayaking, diving and great food at the end of it all.
Traditional Corsican food is more mountain than maritime. As chestnut trees and wild pigs abound, you’ll find both these ingredients in many a hearty Corsican dish such as wild boar stew or the different varieties of cold meats such as figatellu. You’ll also find chestnuts in many forms in Corsican deserts and pastries. Cheese runs the gamut from mild (brocciu which is the basis for a variety of both savory and sweet dishes) to extremely strong (casgiu merzu or rotten cheese). And you can wash it all down with one of the local wines, which are closer in taste to Italian wines than continental French ones.
Around every corner is another jaw-dropping landscape: a stone chapel perched atop a small hill with sheep-studded fields at its feet and snow-capped mountains behind, or a steep ravine of pink granite with a fast-running river at the bottom. Don’t forget to bring your camera.
1. Hike the GR20 (aka Fra li Monti)
This is the mythical 200km-long (124 miles) hiking route, mostly along mountain ridges, from Calenzana in the north to Conca in the south, that most French people associate with Corsica (along with the beaches of course).
Reputed as one of the toughest hikes in Europe, it will take an experienced hiker 16 days to complete with every night spent in a refuge. Of course, you don’t need to hike the whole length of it. You can just do a small segment in a day and get a taxi to pick you up or end (or start) your hike at Vizzavona where you can get a train. The northern section is the hardest as the path can be steep and rocky – in the south, the path is smoother and a bit flatter.
It's unwise to do this hike unless you are well prepared and it should not be attempted by any child under 12. You should only undertake it between June and the end of August. Earlier in the year you may find sections of the path blocked by snow and the refuges, although open, have no guardians. Later the streams you can drink from might be dry. Detailed information and instructions can be found on this dedicated website.
2. Drive from Francardo to Porto
The narrow D84 road from Francardo to Porto is only 78.6km (48.8 miles) long but driving it non-stop would take two hours – "twisty" doesn’t even begin to describe it. But this road is so spectacular that you’ll make multiple stops, not only to admire the landscape of giant granite fingers, deep gorges, Alpine meadows and lakes but also because you’ll be competing for road space with Corsica’s wild black pigs, cows and other vehicles, particularly in the summer months.
Detour: The road climbs up past the village of Calacuccia and its eponymous lake – a hydroelectric reservoir – to the col de Vergio (Vergio pass) at 1467m (4812ft), where you’ll see an abandoned ski-lift, the only remains of the island’s biggest ski resort before it was shut in 2007. As you head down towards the sea through the pine forest of Aïtone, and before you reach the village of Évisa, you can stop and walk about 600m (1968ft) to some small waterfalls and natural pools that are safe to swim in.
3. Explore the island by train
If the thought of driving along Corsica’s vertiginous roads or hiking the GR20 doesn’t appeal, then the train is the answer. The line heads north from Ajaccio to the central Corsican town of Ponte Leccia (2hrs 40mins), where it branches west to Calvi (1hr 50mins) or east to Bastia (1hr 45mins).
The train winds its way through the mountains giving you wonderful views of Corsica’s highest peak, the Monte Cinto (2706m/8878ft,), stone villages seemingly grown out of granite rocks, fields dotted with sheep and goats whose milk is turned into pungent Corsican cheeses, and across rivers and gorges, sometimes winding back on itself so you can look down and see the railway line below you.
Amusingly some of the stops are optional, so if you want to get off the train at any of these, push the button next to the train door. If you’re at the optional station and want to get on the train, wave at the train driver.
Planning tip: You can buy a €50 Pass Libertà which allows you to travel wherever and whenever you want for 7 consecutive days. Timetables and fares can be found on the official website (in French and Corsican only).
4. Find Bastia’s historic heart
Bastia, Corsica’s economic capital, tends to get overlooked by tourists. And that’s a shame because it's a town designed for its 52,000 inhabitants rather than tourists and has plenty to keep you entertained for at least a day.
Terra Vecchia, the historic heart of the city, brackets the old port. Its landmark building is the church of Saint John the Baptist, the biggest in Corsica and built in the 1600s, although the facade and identical bell towers on either side were added in the 1860s. This part of town is small, so don’t hesitate to turn into the narrow streets to explore and wonder how some of the grey-and-beige crumbling buildings that crowd in on each other are still standing. Look for the small niches in the facades that hold a painted statue of a saint and question the safety of a tangle of electrical wires as you make your way past the vast church and onto the southern side, then up the beautiful imperial staircase known as the Falata à a Gabella into the Terra Nova (there’s also a lift about 150m/492ft beyond the staircase if you prefer).
Planning tip: There’s a bustling market – the locals call it u mercà – just north of the old port on the Place de l’hôtel de ville. Open from 8am to 1pm every day except Monday, it gets particularly animated at the weekend with many Bastiais (residents of Bastia) meeting at the cafes after their shopping for a chat and a drink.
5. Discover seven centuries of island history
The upper part of the city of Bastia, or Terra Nova, with its straight streets and well-kept colored facades, clusters around the Genoese citadel or bastiglia which is where the town got its name. The Governors’ Palace, built in 1530, hosts the lovely city museum covering seven centuries of the city and the island’s history. There’s enough here to keep you busy for about two hours. On a clear day in the terraced gardens, you can see the Italian island of Elba 57km (35 miles) away where Napoleon spent his first exile, and the old port and the city spread out below you like a map.
Planning tip: If you’re in Bastia on the second or third Saturday of July, don’t miss the A Notte di a Memoria (the Night of Memory), a historical reconstruction of the Middle Ages ceremony signaling a change of Genoese governor. It involves a lot of drums and flag throwing and some 200 or so Bastiais in period costume parading from the citadel down to the old port, so you can stand anywhere along the route and watch.
6. Don’t miss Les Calanques de Piana
These red-and-pink calanques (narrow, steep-sided granite valleys or inlets) are part of a Unesco World Heritage site on the west coast between Calvi and Ajaccio and are unmissable. The best approach is from Piana. As you drive carefully north along the narrow road winding its way through rocks and scrub bushes, the rocks will start getting bigger, fashioned into fantastic shapes that every person interprets in their own way: where one will see a lion, another will see a human or yet another a strange gargoyle. You’ll get tantalizing glimpses of the sea far below. In the summer the road gets quite busy, so don’t stop on a bend to admire the view.
Detour: There are a few car parks along the route, notably at La tête du chien (dog’s head) from which there is a 1.2km (0.7 miles) easy path to a rocky platform that provides a prodigious view of the calanques and the Gulf of Porto. There are four other hiking paths through the Calanques – ask the Piana tourist office for a map.
7. Explore the ancient churches of Cargèse
This village, south of Porto, is home to one of Corsica’s most beautiful churches, which also happens to be the only Greek Orthodox church on the island. Saint Spyridon was built by the Greek descendants of the 600 who fled the Ottomans in the 17th century and settled in this coastal village.
The community originally built a small church but by the mid-19th century, they'd outgrown their original place of worship and began the construction of Saint Spyridon in a neo-gothic style. In accordance with Byzantine rite, the altar is hidden from the nave by a wooden partition (an iconostasis). This one is beautifully decorated with icons (some of which were brought by the first Greek inhabitants and date back to the 13th century) of saints and angels on a gold background. The church walls are covered with frescoes and the ceiling is painted dark blue dotted with gold stars – all illuminated by several large, multi-layered brass chandeliers.
What makes Cargèse remarkable is that just across a small gully from Saint Spyridon is the pale yellow facade of the neo-Baroque Roman Catholic church, the Assumption, built in the 1800s. The richly-decorated, colorful interior, recently restored, is also neo-Baroque.
From the photogenic shaded little square in front of this church, there are lovely views of the sea. Take the path that leads down to the port and enjoy lunch at one of the lovely restaurants that are crowded with locals even during the off-season.
8. Get to know Napoleon in Ajaccio
You cannot escape Napoleon Bonaparte in his birthplace. Ajaccio is the capital of Corsica because he decided it should be, switching it from Bastia in 1811. He’s everywhere, in street names and museums and watching mournfully over the pétanques players from atop his pedestal in the Place d’Austerlitz.
The Palais Fesch, so named as it exhibits the art collection of Cardinal Joseph Fesch, Napoleon’s maternal uncle, is the island’s major art museum. Fesch began his collection whilst accompanying his nephew on the two-week Italian campaign in 1796. By the time he died in 1839, he had accumulated more than 16,000 works of art. They’re not all on show but the permanent exhibition has some exceptional works by Renaissance artists such as Bellini, Botticelli, Titian and Veronese, as well as 17th-century artists Poussin and Van Dyck.
Napoleon’s parents, Charles and Letizia Bonaparte, are buried in the imperial chapel in the right wing of the palace.
Detour: A five-minute walk from the art museum will take you to Maison Bonaparte, where Napoleon was born on 15 August 1769 but only resided in until he was nine years old. The house has undergone multiple changes since then and only became a museum in 1967. Written explanations are only in French – use the audio guide for English descriptions.
9. View the clifftop beauty of Bonifacio from the sea
Bonifacio is not only the oldest town in Corsica (founded in about 830 CE), it's also the most spectacular. Perched atop 100m-high, layered white limestone and sandstone cliffs, it boasts phenomenal views south across to Sardinia (only 13km/8 miles away).
For first-time visitors the element of surprise is huge – when you arrive by road, all you can see of Bonifacio are enormous, imposing ramparts and fortifications on a hill to the west of a 1.5km sea inlet. The only way to view the imposing cliffs, and the town's tall houses tethered at the very edge of the escarpments, is from the sea – boat tours depart regularly from the port at the end of the inlet.
When you return from your maritime expedition, wind your way past the restaurants, cafés and souvenir shops that line the port and go up the Rastello ramp ending at the foot of the citadel. There you'll find the much-photographed, white, roofless Saint Roch chapel with its single bell cut out against the blue of the Mediterranean Sea, with Sardinia glistening on the horizon.
You can then turn into the old town through the labyrinth of tight, paved streets lined with ancient, narrow six- or seven-story buildings nestled against each other. Note the aqueducts above the streets connecting the houses and look out for the stone plaque on n°7 rue des Deux Empereurs detailing that Napoleon Bonaparte (of course, who else?!) lived there from 22 January to 3 March 1793 and that it belonged to his ancestors until May 1721.
If you don’t feel like walking from the port to the old town, you can join the families (it's free for under-fives) on the little tourist train.
Planning tip: In summer, Bonifacio gets extremely crowded – you should plan to get here before 10am or you won’t be able to park. Leave your car in one of the two car parks at the port (about €20/ day) or in one of the two (Monte Leone and Valli) on the outskirts of the town (about €5/day). A free shuttle operates to the port from the Monte Leone car park.
If you have a campervan, you can only park at the Monte Leone or Valli car parks and note that the latter is only open in summer. Don’t be tempted to try your luck with the car parks at the top – in summer the town’s population rises from just over 3000 to 15,000, so walking will be quicker! In any case, the old town is mostly pedestrianized. There is also a little road train that goes from the port to the old town, departing every 30 minutes from 9:30am to 9:45pm July to August, 5:45pm in September. Tickets are €5 return, free for children under five.
10. Create rock art on the black sand beach of Nonza
About a third of the way up the eastern coast of the Cap Corse lies the village of Nonza, planted on the edge of a sheer cliff on the northern side. There are dramatic views of the 150m (492ft) drop to the black beach below, one of the few in Corsica that is never crowded in the summer – probably because there are more than 500 steps to reach it! A few hardy souls make the descent to create patterns with the light grey pebbles on the black sand, which you can admire from the top.
There’s a delightful little village square where you can sit under the shade of the plane trees and unwind to the tinkling sound of a fountain, a cool drink in hand as you nibble some delicious Corsican charcuterie.
Planning tip: If you visit Nonza in the summer, it'll be almost impossible to park in the village – leave your car on either side of the village and walk.
11. Follow in the footsteps of the customs officers
If you’d like to hike but find the GR20 intimidating, then try the 25km-long (15.5 miles) Sentiers des Douaniers (customs officers’ path) that runs around the very tip of Corsica’s index finger (Cap Corse) from Macinaggio on the east coast to Centuri on the west. During this eight-hour hike (or you can break it up and do it over two days) you’ll go from sandy beaches and dunes on the eastern coast to the wilder, rockier landscapes of the western coast. Along the way, you’ll see marks of human habitation: old limestone ovens, windmills, and the ruins of 16th-century Genoese towers.
The section between Macinaggio and Barcaggio (a three-hour walk) tends to be more crowded than the section between Barcaggio and Centuri (five hours). From Macinaggio you’ll go across Tamarone beach and have a view of the dust-speck islands of Finocchiarola topped by a ruined Genoese tower. A bit further along you’ll see the picturesque ruin of a tower right on the beach, sometimes surrounded by the sea. When you reach Barcaggio, climb up the dunes for a fabulous view. On a clear day, you can see the coastline of Italy from up there! Come back down for a swim off the lovely beach – you may share the sand with some wild cows. The fully automated lighthouse on the island of Giraglia lies just off the coast – it's one of the most powerful in the Mediterranean.
You can either return to Macinaggio by boat or stay overnight in Barcaggio and carry on the next day to Centuri. This next section is wilder and windier as it's along the very northernmost tip of Corsica and some parts of the path are quite steep and rocky. Look out for the wide variety of seabirds and you may very well spot some dolphins swimming nearby. This part of the hike goes through a lot of maquis and can be a bit scratchy on your legs. Best to wear trousers rather than shorts.
The hike from Macinaggio to Barcaggio is shorter and easier, and many casual hikers generally find it more pleasant than the second section to Centuri, which is more suited to serious hikers.
Planning tip: This is not a particularly difficult hike, and it’s mostly clearly signposted, but you do need a decent level of fitness and there isn't much shade. Don’t attempt it in the height of summer or on very windy days, as there's a greater risk of fires. Spring is the optimum time when the maquis is in full flower and its colors and very particular perfume are at their best. Bonaparte used to say that he could recognize Corsica just by the smell of its maquis!