Nothing on Earth can prepare the eyes for the entry by sea into Corsica’s Bonifacio harbour. Towering white cliffs, reminiscent of those at England’s Dover, are in this case topped with medieval stone walls, bastions and fortifications, arising dramatically out of the Straits of Bonifacio.
This stunning medieval vista atop limestone cliffs is suddenly interrupted by our landing at the maritime terminal, where a string of up-market restaurants, wine bars and perky boutiques spread out along Quai Comparetti. Nearby Two Emperors’ Street commemorates the visits of both Bonaparte and Charles V and dates back to ancient times when the Republic of Genoa ruled Corsica. The nearby Genoa Gate features a drawbridge built in 1830, when French domination commenced.
Notwithstanding the beauty of the water’s edge and its buildings, without a doubt the jewel of Bonifacio is its Haute Ville in the Old Town. One of its most ancient buildings is the Torrione, built in 1484 as a fortification and originally erected on the Casteletto built by Boniface, Marquis of Tuscany in the 9th century, and who gave his name to the town. Nearby is Escalier du Roy d’Aragon, the Stairway of the King of Aragon, sculpted steeply into the cliffs. Legend has it that the 187 steps were built overnight during a siege in 1420.
Near our cliff-top hotel is a square with a monument brought back by the French Foreign Legionnaires in 1963, another example of the town’s history which straddles so many centuries.
Hotel Genovese stands in an exquisite location in the Quartiere de la Citadelle, with 180-degree vistas of the water below. Recently renovated with style and aplomb, it offers everything from state-of-the-art suites and balconies outlooking the harbour to a magnificent pool area surrounded by a medieval stone wall. Bliss! And to add to the appeal, the hotel cats languish on couches, roam on the terracotta roof tiles (or are they on guard against pirates??) and explore the garden terraces in the pool area, representative of this oh-so-laid-back sanctuary.
The Office de Tourisme, located in Rue Scamaroni, named after a Resistance hero, is adjacent to an ancient steep walkway, the Patrol Path or Chemin de Ronde. This medieval promenade of the ramparts lies in the heart of the Old Town upper city, and leads both down to the waterfront as well as to the Marine Cemetery at the far end of the Promontory overlooking the Straits of Bonifacio.
Medieval history is everywhere, including the arsenal built in 1492 at the site of the Saint-Laurent Chapel built by the Knights Templars during the Crusades. Today it is the site for the weekly local market. Another 12th century chapel of Saint-Jacques is today an auditorium for local events and cultural exhibitions. Yesteryear and today, blending seamlessly, a la Bonifacio.
The city’s shops sell an interesting collection of fashion and household goods, from those with a nautical flavour to casual bags and gear, and even specialised knives and cutlasses – perhaps from those heady pirate days!
While Ajaccio may be the capital of Corsica, without a doubt its Picturesque Capital is the historic town at the extreme south of “The Island of Beauty”, a true open-air museum. Beyond the town lie 20 finely-sanded beaches and rare landscapes with protected national parks on land and sea. The waters off the island are a yachtie’s dream, not to mention larger cruise ships that populate the Mediterranean during the warmer months.
Take a tip and visit places like Bonifacio and Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda during the spring and autumn before the hungry tourist hordes materialise and when the locals are relaxed and super-friendly, emitting that warm Mediterranean charm before the high season commences “en force”.