Corsica: Cruising a scented isle of spectacular panoramas

Michael Edwards takes in the turquoise waters, historic mountaintop citadels and lush gorges full of chestnut trees and maqui on a tour of beautiful Corsica.

Travel on Corsica, an island of canyons and peaks and ridges is challenging. Essentially it is a mountain range that rises out of the Mediterranean, whose vertebrae run from north west to south east: peaking with an extinct volcano of Monte Cinto at nearly 9,000 feet. With 117 peaks over 7,000 feet, on an island 112 miles long and 52 miles wide, driving is difficult. Corsica knew slow travel long before it was fashionably trendy.

Spectacular panoramic views over seas of Caribbean blues and white sand coves, aromas of almond and orange blossom, make it a bikers’ and hikers’ paradise. Unless the hikers are trekking the notorious GR 20. An exhausting hike of 112 miles that only one third of those who start complete.

Bonifacio - Corsica
Beautifully picturesque Bonifacio on the southern tip of the island.

White spinnakers on the sea and in the marinas, suggesting that this is an island best explored from the sea. On this Riviera itinerary, the Star Clipper moors up at the Ile de Rousse, Ajaccio – pronounced like a long sneeze – Bonifacio and Bastia. Anchor is also dropped for a beach morning of swimming, snorkelling and water sports in the clear seas.

Corsica’s flag, a severed Moor’s head, warning invaders of their fate, says much about the island’s turbulent history. Moreover it is not a national flag. Corsica is still a reluctant French department.

That tough vertiginous terrain has shaped the Island’s history too. Through the ages the Corsican people have headed inland to escape Barbary, Moor and Saracen raiders. In the Second World War, the terrain was ideal for guerrilla warfare versus the German and Italian occupying troops.

Napoleon statue - Place Saint Nicolas - Corsica
Napoleon: An understated statue at Place Saint Nicolas in Bastia.

Forever a valuable strategic island, Corsica was occupied by 85,000 Italians and 25,000 Germans. Quickly organising, the Corsicans provided dynamic resistance. In Bastia, our guide points out the Lycee Jean Nicoli, a school whose name pays tribute to a resistance leader, a former teacher, who was beheaded at the Place Saint Nicolas.

We also see the tower of the French Casabianca submarine that had escaped from Toulon. Six clandestine missions from the sub provided the Corsican resistance with the arms to liberate themselves. Without help from the Allies, Corsica was free in the autumn of 1943, long before the D-Day landings.

One interesting footnote to the Second World War is Ajaccio’s graveyard. The terracotta tiles of its tombs above the ground shrines deceiving German bomber pilots. When they bombed the graveyard, rather than the city, the locals said that the dead had saved the living.

Globally, Corsica and its capital of Ajaccio, is renowned as Napoleon’s birthplace. One of the ironies of history is that if he had been born a year earlier, when Corsica was a Genoese territory, Napoleon would have been Italian and history may have been very different.

Bust of Pasquale Paoli the author of Corsica’s constitution.

Walk through the streets of Ile de Rousse, no longer an island of reddish rock since Napoleon built a causeway, and you will discover that Pasquale Paoli is Corsica’s true national hero. He led the resistance against the French and for two brief years, 1794 -1796, Corsica was independent. Paoli wrote and voted in Corsica’s constitution and women were given the vote. One of the great heroes of democracy, Paoli has a handful of towns named after him in the USA.

From the Ile d Rousse, a coach tour takes us into the hills and mountains to the village of Sant’Antonino, built high inland to provide defence against the raiders from North Africa. At times there were over 6,000 captured Corsicans held as slaves in Africa and the villagers fought for their freedom.

Above the clouds: The medieval mountain village of Sant’Antonino.

These are quieter times for a small settlement now classed as one of Les plus beaux villages de France.

When the Star Clipper sails south to Bonifacio, there are more spectacular views. This time of the limestone cliff that cradles the harbour. A road train collects us from ship-side to climb 600 metres for a walking tour of a town built for defence.

The ground floors of Bonifacio’s houses were given over to livestock with a steep staircase up to the first floor. If invaders breached the town’s walls, the house’s occupants had the advantage of height as they defended their homes.

Yet another reminder that Corsica’s history has been violently turbulent. Throughout the island graffiti demonstrates that many Corsicans still believe that their island should receive greater autonomy from France.

Star Clipper at sea - Corsica
Star Clipper off the Corsican coast.

Corsica cruise fact file

On July 12th 2024, Riveria will offer another French Riviera and Corsica trip, this time on The Star Flyer. Beginning in Rome, the 10 nights journey concludes in Nice, calling at Portoferraio, Bonifacio, Alghero, Ajaccio, Calvi, St Tropez and Cannes. 

Prices begin from £2,799, which includes flights, transfers, full breakfast, buffet lunch, afternoon tea and a la carte dinner whilst onboard, breakfast with hotel stays and an expert tour manager.

Browse the full itinerary for this cruise.

Visit Riviera Travel for more travel options. 

You can read more about Michael’s time on the Star Clipper here.

Tags: , , , Last modified: August 29, 2023

Written by 10:39 am Cruising