Island invasion

The town of Bonifacio on Corsica has repelled many invaders over the centuries. Carolyn Boyd mounts her own assault on this beautiful harbour

The town of Bonifacio on Corsica has repelled many invaders over the centuries. Carolyn Boyd mounts her own assault on this beautiful harbourMany forces have laid claim to Bonifacio over the centuries. The Genoese, the Aragonese, the Turks and various bands of pirates all sought to conquer this magnificent harbour town. These previous invaders were undoubtedly drawn by the town’s position on an awe-inspiring limestone peninsula that shelters a perfect harbour. It’s a spot that now draws crowds of holidaymakers from foreign lands rather than the fearsome armies from days gone by. Indeed, in July and August, there is something of an invasion by these modern visitors, yet visit in May and the town is just reawakening to the new summer season.Unless you are lucky enough to arrive by luxury yacht (many of which bob in the harbour), the town is approached from a large car park behind the marina. It’s from this marina that dozens of pleasure boats depart, bound for Les �les Lavezzi, a group of wild islands about four kilometres off-shore, or for a jaunt around the caves and inlets around the peninsula. By 10am the boats were filling up so, before exploring the town itself, I decided to take a trip around the peninsula to get a flavour of what Bonifacio may have looked like to those marauding pirates as they approached by sea. The boat trips are perhaps the most popular tourist activity in Bonifacio, and the opportunity to see the Haute-Ville perched on its cliffs from this viewpoint is not to be missed. I boarded quickly – the trips run every 15 minutes – and before I knew it I was looking up at the terracotta walls of the Bastion de l’�tendard above me while the boat chugged gently out to sea and around the cliffs to the west. The cliffs themselves are fascinating – the dazzling white limestone has been chiselled and carved by the elements and, while the ripples invite you to reach out and feel them, you know that only the sea and the wind can really do so. Sitting above the cliffs on the other side of the harbour is the Phare de la Madonetta, its red tower standing out from the white base that blends into the rock.The first cave on the itinerary is the most stunning. As we enter through a jagged arch, the Grotte de Sdragonatu (dragon’s cave) envelops the little boat into its jewel-studded interior, the purple, gold and blue walls shimmer as beams of light shine down through the hole in the cave’s ceiling. There is excitement among the boat’s passengers as they scramble to see the stalactites and film the glory on their video cameras. As part of his commentary, the boat’s tour guide invites us, via his booming microphone, to look up at the ceiling and, as the boat manoeuvres into position on the choppy sea, he points out that the hole is the shape of Corsica itself. Camera flashes go off in unison before the boat turns and exits the cave.The trip follows the cliffs further to the west – with the guide pointing out a rock that resembles a pig, le cochon’, en route – and we enter an inlet carved out from the cliffs. The water is a bright turquoise and I feel an impulse to dive in and swim over to one of the yachts gently bobbing here on the calmer waters. But we continue on to the Cala de Paraguane, a much larger inlet, which, although it is just a short distance from the town, feels like a secret hideaway far from any civilisation.The boat turns and heads back towards the harbour, but instead of returning to the marina we cruise past the headland and under those awe-inspiring cliffs. Strangely, the town does not occupy the whole of the peninsula and the far tip is given over to a marine cemetery, separated from the town by a large military zone. From the boat I also spy a cave two-thirds of the way up the 70-metre cliffs that opens out above a detached rock, known to Corsican fishermen as Le gouvernail de la Corse’ (the rudder of Corsica’). The cave is reached, I later discover, by a staircase down from the military zone; the 168 steps were carved out during World War II and they lead to a former bunker.The Escalier du Roi d’Aragon, a staircase leading diagonally down across the cliffs to the water’s edge, is also very visible from the sea – it follows almost the same angle as the natural rock’s strata a few metres to the left. It dates from Neolithic times, and was built to reach the natural spring at the bottom. However, legend tells its story differently, and it is said that the 187 steps were carved out one night by the Aragonese as they overthrew the town in 1420. As part of this invasion, Alfonso V of Aragon together with his fleet held the Bonifacians captive by blockading the port for five months. His intention was to starve them into submission, but the Bonifacians had other ideas and used the town’s prominent position to full effect. Everyone in the town joined forces to pelt the enemy with anything they could lay their hands on: wood, rocks, chalk dust and even cheese were hurled down at the attackers.Eventually, the starving townspeople lowered the boat they had built inside the city walls into the sea and it was sent off to seek help from Genoa which promptly sent seven ships to help. Unfortunately, they were delayed by winds, so to buy time until their rescue, the remaining townspeople wore the armour of the dead soldiers and posed as invaders themselves, parading around the ramparts and ringing all the church bells. The Aragonese were defeated by the deception and the Bonifacians kept their town. Above the staircase and to the right, we approach the view I’ve been waiting for: a crowded row of rectangular pink, orange, yellow and white houses clinging to the cliff top as the edge gently dips into a shallowcrevice and then rises.There’s excitement among the passengers and everyone stands on tip-toes to ensure they maximise their chances of getting that all-important photo. As we sail around the corner under the town, we can see how the houses are even more precarious than we thought – the cliffs curve underneath the houses at the end of the row, leaving them with very little foundation indeed.A little further along we can see perhaps where these cliffs may be destined. The Grain de Sable is a huge lump of rock that looks as though it just recently decided to break away from the mainland and wander out into the sea; its grassy surface seemingly perfect for a picnic if it weren’t for the fact you’d need to build a rope bridge to get there. The truth is, however, it broke away 800 years ago and has been a well-known feature of the coastline ever since.The Grain de Sable is also easily viewed from the Mont�e Rastello – just off the main route up into the old town – where you are able to see the rock formation from the other side. Next to it is another huge rock, called Le Diu Marmilin, which reclines against the rocks and cliffs – its feet paddling in the turquoise water and its strata taking a completely different direction to the neat horizontal lines on the cliffs and the Grain de Sable next to it.Where the Mont�e Rastello meets the Mont�e Saint-Roch – the staircase that leads up to the main entrance to the town – there is a small chapel, the Chappelle Saint-Roch, that was built on the spot where the last plague victim died in 1528. This episode in the town’s history preceded another famous siege that occurred here.As the townspeople recovered from the disease, which claimed 4,300 lives out of the population of just 5,000, Henri II of France sailed into view with the charismatic corsair leader Dragut and his Turkish fleet in 1554. The locals managed to fend off the invaders for 18 days and nights while they were bombarded by cannon fire. They were finally duped into surrendering when the Turks forced Dominique Cattaciolo – an eminent member of the community who was returning from Genoa with aid money for Bonifacio – to carry a forged letter saying Genoa was refusing to come to the town’s rescue.In those days, the Porte des Genes – at the top of the Mont�e Saint-Roch – was the only entrance to the upper town and as you enter the mighty doors you can still see the mechanism from the original drawbridge, which operates with a system of weights and pulleys.Tucked behind the gate here is a little museum that displays four different scenes representing different eras in the town’s history. While a visit is undoubtedly valuable for learning more, nothing beats getting into the heart of the town and becoming lost among the narrow streets.With the buildings towering high above, I weave my way among the alleyways and somehow get away from the galleries and gift shops to see the streets where Bonifacians live. Doorbells and postboxes bear their tenants’ names, a woman disappears through a doorway with a bag of shopping and washing flutters on balconies in the flats above. I enjoy a stolen moment away from the main drags. It isn’t long before I wander back towards the main sights, however, as I can’t help but be drawn down a street by the sight of the buttresses which connect the surrounding buildings to the �glise Sainte-Marie-Majeure, the town’s main cathedral. The structures were partly built for support, but they serve an important purpose in directing rainwater towards the large cistern under the porch which stored water for times of drought or siege.The simple arched porticoes are just one part of the church’s intriguing mixture of architecture that blends Romanesque, Aragonese and Baroque styles. Construction began in the 12th century, before the Genoese claimed the city, and it has been modified and added to throughout the years since. Inside is housed a relic of the True Cross, said to have been brought to Bonifacio by Saint Helena which, when stormy seas or troubled times struck, was paraded out and used to support the townspeople’s prayers.The street alongside the church – Rue du Palais-de-Garde – also bears testament to these troubled times in that the oldest houses did not originally have doors for fear of giving an easy way in to invading enemies. Inhabitants simply used ladders to access their homes on the first floors (the ground floors were used as stables and stores), and pulled them up behind them.The town’s other church is situated further out along the peninsula towards an area known as the Bosco. The �glise Saint-Dominique was built in 1270, supposedly by the Knights Templar, and it boasts a fascinating octagonal bell tower. The church is only open between July and September.Close by are the military barracks, used by the Foreign Legion until they moved operations to Calvi. The huge soulless buildings suggest the town hasn’t yet completely surrendered to the trappings of tourism but you can imagine that, were young Frenchmen not doing their national service here, it wouldn’t be long before hotels sprang up in place of the barracks. For the moment though, they’re typical of the desolate atmosphere of the Bosco, which was a wood before the area was felled in the 18th century. As I wander out across the empty plateau, it’s hard to believe there is such a hive of activity in the town so near by. The wide and dusty path leads ultimately to the town’s most peaceful spot of all: the Cimeti�re Marin.Under a wide blue sky, I stroll into the cemetery and through the white-washed mortuary chapels – each are different in their style. While some are pristine, and obviously receive regular family visitors, others have fallen victim to the wind and salty air and their walls are crumbing away.Many of the newer tombs bear photos of the departed and suggest these members of the community have merely moved up here for a quieter time. Scarlet poppies grow among the other wild flowers and grasses that are strongenough to survive the elements.I exit through a gateway and walk down to where gun battlements were balanced during World War II. Their hard grey concrete surfaces are a stark contrast to the elegant white tombs of the cemetery. I leave via the harbour, packed with restaurants, shops and the town’s aquarium, that brings a little part of the sea into its heart. I feel glad to have staged my own invasion of Bonifacio but, with so much to see and do, it will take a few more visits to feel it has been truly conquered.FRANCOFILEHow to get thereCarolyn Boyd travelled to Bonifacio with Corsican Places. The tour operator offers seven nights at H�tel A Trama from �860 per person B&B board and including return flights from London Gatwick, taxes and transfers.Corsican Places also offers self-catering apartments.Tel: 0845 330 2059 www.corsica.co.ukFly to Corsica with Air France, Thomson Fly, Easyjet, bmi baby and Ryanair.Where to stayH�tel A TramaCartaranaRoute de Santa Manz20169 BonifacioTel: (Fr) 4 95 73 17 17www.a-trama.com or book through Corsican Places.Clean and simple hotel with chalet-style rooms. Swimming pool and restaurant on site.Where to eatL’ArchivoltoRue de L’Archivolto20169 BonifacioTel: (Fr) 4 95 73 17 48This gorgeous little restauranta stone’s throw from �glise Sainte-Marie brims with character. Its interior is packed with bric-a-brac and its small terrace is perched on a narrow alley. The reasonably priced menu offers delicious Corsican specialities.Marina e CavuRoute de Calalonga20169 BonifacioTel: (Fr) 4 95 73 14 13A special restaurant for a special occasion, the centrepiece is a huge rock that reaches into the rafters. Impeccable service and prices to match, but worth the splurge.Boat tripsRocca Crois�resLeaves from the quaysideTel: (Fr) 4 95 73 13 96www.rocca-croisieres.comTourist officeOffice Municipal du Tourismede Bonifacio2 Rue Fred Scamaroni20169 BonifacioTel: (Fr) 4 95 73 11 88www.bonifacio.fr