Exploring Corsica’s capital
Behind the beaches of Corsica lies a rich cultural and gastrnomic heritage, as Eve Middleton discovered on a tirp to Ajaccio, the island’s largest town
Mention of Corsica usually conjures up images of warm, golden sands and crystalline, turquoise waters, but there is another side to the Île de Beauté and it can be found in the fascinating towns that are a testament to the island’s complex and often turbulent history. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the capital, Ajaccio, where beautiful buildings and magnificent sea views sit alongside winding alleys with cobbles worn smooth by the passage of time.
Around a quarter of Corsica’s 300,000 inhabitants live in Ajaccio, which still makes it relatively compact and ideal for visitors to explore in a day. Famously known as the birthplace of Napoléon Bonaparte, the present town was founded in 1492 by the Republic of Genoa. Over the centuries it has also been ruled by the French, the Corsicans themselves as part of an independent republic and even the British, at the end of the 18th century.
Approach Ajaccio along the western coast and you will soon see why its past still echoes in the present. The impressive fortified citadel stands proud on the headland and marks the centre of town, referred to in its various incarnations as the Genoese quarter, or imperial city. The thick stone walls were put in place shortly after the foundation of Ajaccio, and remain a focal point, although the citadel itself is now a military complex and not open to the public.
Tourists often stop and photograph the goats and donkeys that make an incongruous sight grazing in the citadel’s grounds, but locals prefer to find a place on Plage Saint-François, which lies in the shadow of the watchtower. A high stone wall shelters it from the road above, making it just as appealing as beaches in more remote parts of the island.
Whether you choose to soak up the sun or take a cooling dip, make sure to gaze out to the other side of the waters. Here you can take in the Route des Sanguinaires, a coastal path lined with sandy coves, reaching around 12 kilometres towards the eponymous archipelago. There are plenty of places where you can hire a bike and explore more beaches, but it would be a shame to miss what Ajaccio itself has to offer if you have only one day in the town.
Time a visit to coincide with the annual Fêtes Napoléoniennes, which marks the birth of the city’s most famous son on 15 August 1769, and you will be caught up in celebrations that culminate in a breathtaking firework display that lights up the skies. Aside from the big day, the Emperor’s presence is still keenly felt throughout the city; behind the warm terracotta walls and pale jade shutters of the townhouse where he was born, a museum displays a collection of memorabilia, including the sedan chair that is reputed to have transported his mother back from church when she was about to give birth.
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Elsewhere, the warm coral façade of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, where Napoléon was baptised, is the centre of attention on 18 March every year during the Procession de la Madonuccia. Ajaccio honours its patron saint, the vierge de la miséricorde, who is credited with saving the city from the plague in the mid-17th century. A statue of the virgin is held aloft as a cortège wends its way through the crowd-lined streets to the cathedral, where worshippers attend a Mass.
Whether the streets are filled with processions or pedestrians, Ajaccio’s thoroughfares lend themselves to wandering and soaking up the atmosphere. The long and straight Cours Napoléon takes visitors past designer shops and straight to Place de Gaulle, which is set back from the citadel. Also known as Place Diamant after the Diamanti family, who owned large sections of the town, the square features a famous bronze sculpture of Napoléon on horseback in Roman dress.
The square is charming, but head down one of the narrow streets leading off it and you will get a glimpse into the daily life of the inhabitants. Beyond Rue du Rome, with its restaurants and bars, lie the ruelles, where washing is strung high across the streets as youngsters lean against their scooters, and neighbours call out to one another. It’s in one of these narrow streets that the famed one-dish Le Bilboq restaurant serves its iconic pâtes aux langoustes (pasta with lobster) – including, it’s said, to presidents and royalty – either at inside tables or in the adjacent little square.
Ajaccio first became a popular tourist destination at the end of the 19th century, thanks in large part to its pavement cafés and boulevards lined with palm trees. Today they continue to draw admirers from the cruise ships docked next to brightly coloured fishing boats bringing in the day’s catch. The port is named after Tino Rossi – the city’s other famous son – singer of the classic Christmas track Petit Papa Noël, the best-selling single of all time in France.
Food-lovers do well here; the fishermen’s haul has little distance to travel to the halle aux poissons next to Place Foch, which itself hosts the artisanal food market every morning except Mondays. To satisfy any immediate cravings, head off the square and into Rue Cardinal Fesch, where the Chez Galéani boulangerie has been run by the same family for five generations. Mother and daughter Marie-Antoinette and Anaïs serve traditional baked goods including beignets au brocciu (sweet balls of fried dough stuffed with fresh goat’s cheese and dredged in sugar), canistrelli (similar to Italian biscotti) flavoured with lemon, aniseed and other parfums of Corsica, and frappes doughnuts. Their revival of the historic innuliada galette, a Corsican speciality made and sold only at Easter, is a particular highlight for inhabitants and visitors alike.
Further along the same road, cultural appetites are catered for at the Musée Fesch, which holds old masters that are said to be among the finest in France outside the Musée du Louvre. The museum was founded on the orders of Cardinal Joseph Fesch, Archbishop of Lyon and uncle of Napoléon, to house his huge collection of paintings, which he left to the town on condition that it created an academy of arts in his name. His fondness for Renaissance works, including Botticelli’s Virgin and Child and Titian’s Man with a Glove, is shared by many of today’s visitors.
The next time Corsica crops up in conversation, spare a thought for those in awe solely of the island’s pristine plages – as a day’s visit to Ajaccio will testify, they are merely a starting point for the rich mix of history and culture that lies away from the shore.