More than three million people visit Corsica each year, drawn by the mild climate and some of the most diverse landscapes in all Europe. Nowhere in the Mediterranean there are beaches finer than the island’s perfect half-moon bays of white sand and transparent water, or seascapes more dramatic than the red porphyry Calanches of the west coast.
Sandy beaches and rocky headlands punctuate the west coast all the way down to Ajaccio, Napoleon’s birthplace and the island’s capital, where pavement cafés and palm-lined boulevards teem with tourists in summer. Slightly fewer make it to nearby Filitosa, greatest of the many prehistoric sites scattered across the south. Propriano, the area’s principal resort, lies close to stern Sartène, former seat of the wild feudal lords who once ruled this region and still the quintessential Corsican town.
The cliffs, mountains, gorges and towering pinnacles in Corsica’s extraordinary landscapes can almost look impenetrable. But if you’re persistent and love hiking rocky trails or driving precarious mountain roads your sense of adventure will lead you to some of the most beautiful locations imaginable.
You can hire a boat and set sail for tropical-style beaches with pure white sands and crystalline seas, or push yourself on treks to discover glittering highland lakes or the best views of the calanques, tormented rocky curtains that drop to the sea on the west coast.
Places to visit in Corsica
Calanques de Piana
On Corsica’s west coast the road from Calvi to Ajaccio will make you feel very small, in the best possible sense. The most awe-inspiring part is when the D81 wends its way south towards Piana, and gnarled and warped spires of rock, some hundreds of metres in height, pitch down to the sea.
There are rest stops next to the road where you can step out for photos, but if this isn’t enough the tourist office in Piana will hand you a map with walking routes. Sentier Muletier is a path that follows a ridge high above the D81, and a marvel in late-spring when the harsh landscape is flecked with wildflowers.
Walking into Calvi’s walled Haute-Ville always feels like a momentous event: You have to pass below the imperious walls erected in the late-15th-century by the Republic of Genoa to ward off the fleets of the Franco-Ottoman alliance.
After making your way through a tunnel that was once defended by a drawbridge you’re free to potter around the cobblestone streets and get up to the ramparts for amazing panoramas of the bay. The citadel is a proud symbol for Calvi with three bastions, an elegantly-weathered baroque cathedral and a historic house once occupied by Christopher Columbus.
Plage de Palombaggia, Porto-Vecchio
Many people have Palombaggia down as the best beach on Corsica, and it has an alluring tropical quality to it: The sand is white and luxuriously soft, and the beach is on a very slight slope so even grown-ups will have to wade out a long way for the light blue waters to reach waist-height.
There are also hardly any signs of tourism apart from a few isolated beach bars. This all comes at a price, as sun-seekers travel from far and white to unwind on Palombaggia, but the good news is that the beach is long enough to accommodate everyone, even in peak season.
Maison Bonaparte, Ajaccio
This house is the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte and was in the hands of the family from 1682 up to 1923. You can visit the room in which Napoleon was born in 1769 and get all sorts of snippets about the Bonaparte family and events during Napoleon’s youth.
Non-French speakers can make use of a multi-lingual audioguide, and although almost none of the house’s original furniture and art remains, the house presents a carefully-researched reproduction of how it would have been in the late-18th century.
Close to southernmost Corsica, the small harbour town of Bonifacio was once a prized strategic location and in the late-middle ages it came under attack from the Kingdom of Aragon and Turkish corsairs. In the mid-16th the Genoese took over and constructed this hardy walled quarter.
That the walls hardly seem to have aged is proof of the quality of Genoese engineering, and you can get up to the canon positions to look out towards Sardinia, which is just a few kilometres away. These battlements envelop an imperfect grid of townhouses as tall as six high, on gorge-like streets so narrow you can hardly spread your arms.
Food and drink in Corsica
It’s the herbs – thyme, marjoram, basil, fennel and rosemary – of the maquis (the dense, scented scrub covering lowland Corsica) that lend the island’s cuisine its distinctive aromas.
You’ll find the best charcuterie in the hills of the interior, where pork is smoked and cured in the cold cellars of village houses – it’s particularly delicious in Castagniccia, where wild pigs feed on the chestnuts which were once the staple diet of the locals. Here you can also taste chestnut fritters (fritelli a gaju frescu) and chestnut porridge (pulenta) sprinkled with sugar or eau de vie. Brocciu, a soft mozzarella-like cheese made with ewe’s milk, is found everywhere on the island, forming the basis for many dishes, including omelettes and cannelloni. Fromage corse is also very good – a hard cheese made in the sheep- and goat-rearing central regions, where cabrettu à l’istrettu (kid stew) is a speciality.
Corsica produces some excellent, and still little-known, wines, mostly from indigenous vine stocks that yield distinctive, herb-tinged aromas. Names to look out for include: Domaine Torraccia (Porto-Vecchio); Domaine Fiumicicoli (Sartène); Domaine Saparale (Sartène); Domaine Gentille (Patrimonio); Domaine Leccia (Patrimomio); and Venturi-Pieretti (Cap Corse). In addition to the usual whites, reds and rosés, the last of these makes the sweet muscat for which Cap Corse was renowned in previous centuries. Another popular aperitif is the drink known as Cap Corse, a fortified wine flavoured with quinine and herbs. Note that tap water is particularly good quality in Corsica, coming from the fresh mountain streams.