Corsica: my best blind date

Corsica, seriously, j’adore.

Funnily enough, I  was not planning to become so ecstatic about you. Actually, I was not even planning to land in Ajaccio Napoleon Bonaparte Airport. Ever. It is just that we’ve got those free tickets (Volotea airline draw) and thought: hm, why not? Which just proves that an accidental encounter often gives a start to great love story, and not only in Woody Allen movies.

Speaking of whom…

The aftermath of five days in Ajaccio, the capital of Corsica (for those, who are bored to read any further):

  • a day-long boat trip to The Scandola Nature Reserve, Girolata and Calanches de Piana,
  • a hiking trip to the Sanguinaires islands and the Genovese Tower (La Parata) – 19k with all the twists and turns of the mountain,
  • a crash course on Napoleon, with a homework in a form of a 976 pages “Napoleon The Great” by Andrew Roberts (Penguin),
  • a gastro marathon with no rules and no regrets,
  • and a lot, a lot, a lot of sitting and staring at one point (make no mistake: a very picturesque point) in a state of a complete Zen.

1. Seascape & Nature

No matter how much you enjoy blissful idleness but hiking and a boat trip is a must in Ajaccio. Otherwise, it’s like you went to Paris and ignored Montmarte wine-drinking (whaaat?). My favourite moment was a seemingly never-ending walk to the Genovese Tower: it included Corsican flora wonders, like the dead horse arum lily or the spiny boom, and pu-pu-pu and hididididi songs of the Corsican nuthatch (you won’t hear this track anywhere else, limited edition!).

Then a trip to the west coast of the island – the Scandola Nature Reserve, Girolata and Calanches de Piana. Yes, it is 4-6 hours on the boat (opt for the smaller one – you will see more and closer) and all the commentary is in French, but no words needed to gasp at the islets and granite rock mass peppered with hidden caves, crevices and occasional goats – almost every bit of the sea and landscape, that will appear within your eyesight, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage.

Spoiler: Homer’s Odysseus landed in Corsica on his way from Ithaca. And from the description of the overhanging cliffs it can be argued this the boat trip takes you somewhere close to the place where his fleet was attacked (and pretty much destroyed) by the dreaded race of Laestrygones – men-eating giants. Sweet. Think of it while drinking coffee on the upper deck.

Photo: Ksenia Kosheleva


2. Light & Color

Ajaccio is a capital of bright, even exuberant, colors. And if you don’t believe my humble opinion  – believe the one of Henry Matisse, who spent his honeymoon in Corsica in 1898. It is telling, that instead of simple romantic/touristic pleasures, like munching langoustines, buying up Napoleon magnets or writing on the sand “Henry + Amelie = Love”, Matisse… could not stop working. In fact, he painted about 50 (!) paintings.

Colors of Ajaccio. Photo: Ksenia Kosheleva

“In Ajaccio the light is everywhere, everything is shining!”, – tried to justify his not-so-honeymoon-ish behavior the artist. In a few years, still inspired by the southern light, he came up with the wild, dissonant colors of Fauvism. And this is exactly the feeling you get in Corsica, whenever you are sailing or walking: like you are in the halls of The Hermitage or The Musée d’Orsay  – just the paintings are unframed.

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Fauvism in Corsican landscape. Photo: Ksenia Kosheleva


3. Napoleon 

Corsica obviously has two cults – personality and gastro.

Personality cult is all about Napoleon. He was born in Ajaccio and spent in Corsica most of his youth being consumed with 1. the idea of Corsican independence and 2. the intolerance towards everything French. Until one random day the idea of becoming an Emperor consumed Napoleon a little bit more (though he continued speaking with the strongest Corsican accent and had quite a few mistakes in written French).

You will notice fast enough that Ajaccio’s toponymy is very straightforward: in fact, there are three name choices available – Napoleon, Bonaparte and Emperor (Imperial). Combined at random or used separately. Movie theatres, shopping malls, streets and squares bear the name of the capital’s most famous resident, and Napoleon watches you from a wall of an ice-cream kiosk, beer brewery and sushi place. (I have to say that Napoleon with an ice-cream somehow causes less cognitive dissonance than, let’s say, Napoleon with unagi).

For more insight I recommend to visit Casa Buonaparte (7€) – the very house where Napoleon was born in 1769. The story of the big Corsican family is narrated by Napoleon’s old nanny and the tour does not take more than an hour. Be ready to see a lot of chairs, really a lot of chairs, as Napoleon’s mother – Letizia Ramolino – had a thing for furniture.

Napoleon with an ice-cream causes less cognitive dissonance than, let’s say, Napoleon with unagi. Photo: Ksenia Kosheleva

4. Food

The second cult is gastronomic. Ajaccio heaps your plate with the local delicacies and it really helps if you are not restricted by paleo/vegan/pegan diet. Try local charcuterie, game, fish, honey, goat cheese (Brocciu), Corsican nougat, olives, Corsican peaches and cherries and the salty pastries with chard that every old lady in the market sells. Whatever can be seasoned will be seasoned with the local herbs: Corsica is a very flavoured island. Its hills, shores and streets smell of laurel, myrtle, rosemary, nepeta and immortelle – I just wanted to bottle Corsican air up and carry in the pocket of my skirt. Which is, in a way, possible: a few immortelle sachets for the wardrobe and a small bag of nepeta for seasoning salads and meat and voilà!

One more gastro-peculiarity – Corsican chestnuts. I was under the illusion that the culinary usage of chestnuts is limited by the Christmas market. Nah. The amount of chestnuts groves all across the island explains why their smokey-sweet taste is everywhere: chestnut flour (for cakes, crêpes, bread – anything), chestnut beer (local brewery, very subtle taste), chestnut biscuits, polenta, ice-cream, warm chocolate cream with chestnuts, chestnut cereals, chestnut aperitif – digestif and even…chestnut Chupa Chups.

3 Ajaccio restaurants that left me euphoric and slightly breathless:

  1. Le 20123 (2 Rue Roi de Rome) They serve a set menu (37€): two starters, one main course, cheese and dessert. Delicious and (!) heavy. Opened daily, from April to October, booking is essential.
  2. Da Mama (Passage Guinguette) – 25€ Corsican menu
  3. Azuru (rue des Anciens Fosses) – my favourite
Dorada VS Lupo di mer, as nicely explained by the owners of Azuru. Photo: Ksenia Kosheleva

5. Ajaccio cityscape and…the goats!

A mAst is a mUst, if you live in Corsica. Photo: Ksenia Kosheleva
Ajaccio Municipal Library has 29 incunabulas!!! (I am a daughter of a librarian, forgive me the unnecessary exclamation marks). 8000 books were donated by Cardinal Joseph Fesch, Napoleon’s uncle. Photo: Ksenia Kosheleva
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On the left you can spot the Cathedral where Napoleon was baptised. Photo: Ksenia Kosheleva

The last but not least: this is the 15-th century Ajaccio citadel that was built by the Genoese, retaken by the French and witnessed some dark moments during the Italian occupation. Now its peace and harmony are protected by admirably brave and silly city goat, happily trotting along the fortified walls. The truth is, Corsican cityscape implies the presence of goats. And the soundtrack of braying donkeys.

You will love it.

You shall not pass (c) Photo: Ksenia Kosheleva

Instagram @ksenia_kosheleva

#corsica #travel #france

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