Corsica’s capital, Ajaccio is a really pleasant place to spend a few days. Good restaurants, plenty of old town to explore, a buzzy food market filled with good snack-sized local foods to graze through, and a conveniently located town beach to cool off after a day’s wanderings.
In the 15th century, the Genoese built a citadel here. Happy to exploit the island but wishing to keep the locals out, its defensive walls faced the sea to repel invading marauders and the land to exclude the local ‘barbarians’. It worked. Even during Corsica’s short lived independence, the revolutionaries never captured Ajaccio.
Corsica’s most famous son, Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio to parents of Italian heritage in 1769, the year after Corsica passed to French rule.
According to tradition, his mother was attending mass at the 16th century built Cathedral Saint Marie when she went into labour. Completing the circle of life, on his deathbed, Napoleon expressed the wish to be buried in the cathedral (request was denied).
She rushed back to the family home just a couple of blocks away but he wasn’t waiting. She gave birth on the sofa as she didn’t make it to her bedroom on the second floor. Maison Bonaparte, where he lived until being shipped off to school on the mainland at the age of 9 is now a museum. Complete with the sofa in question, allegedly.
A somewhat confusing audio guide runs visitors through the twists and turns of Napoleon’s life, focussing on the times when he returned to live here. It’s decorated in period style, but the house changed hands within the family several times and was much altered even during his lifetime. It’s dubious how much of it reflects his experience of living here, but the audio does its best to invoke his presence. He may or may not have slept in this bed. Well, he was renowned for being short.
For all his power and achievements, Napoleon remained at heart a mummy’s boy, declaring later in life that “the future destiny of the child is always the work of the mother”. A park across the lane is dedicated to the long-suffering Maria Letizia who was twice forced to flee Corsica with the rest of her brood when Napoleon fell out of favour with the French leadership on his way to the top job. Of course, she did ultimately become ‘Mother of the Emperor’ for her troubles.
He may have come to an ignominious end but Napoleon’s star shines bright in Ajaccio today. The airport and main street are named after him, shops flog Napoleon branded souvenirs and there are statues of him dotted around town, including this unusual one depicting him dressed as a Roman emperor.
Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Josef Fesch grew rich and comfortable as a senator and diplomat during his nephew’s reign as emperor. He retreated to Rome following Napoleon’s fall from power, where he lived out his days in comfort. He amassed an impressive collection of Italian masterpieces and bequeathed a trove of these to the city of Ajaccio when he died. Palais Fesch has the largest collection of Italian paintings in France outside the Louvre as well as several rooms of exhibits on ‘Old Boney’ as the British nicknamed Napoleon, and other family members.
It’s co-located with the Chapelle Impériele containing the crypt of the Bonaparte family. Napoleon’s parents, at least one sister and other relatives are here. Napoleon isn’t. He‘s sealed up tight in an enormous stone sarcophagus in Les Invalides in Paris.
The most recent incumbent is interesting. Had the family dynasty not been overthrown, he would have been Napoleon IV. Born and raised in Belgium, he was banned from France by a law preventing the heads of former ruling families from setting foot in the country. When WWII broke out, he sought permission to join the French army but the President refused. Using a false name, he fought in the French Foreign Legion in Africa and later joined the French Resistance where he narrowly escaped death in combat with the Germans. Risking his life for a country who would not have him. He moved to Paris when the exile law was finally repealed in 1950. He must have the longest name of any Bonaparte!
Ajaccio became a winter sunshine destination for wealthy French in the late 1800s and the old town still reflects that.
It’s a really pleasant town with lots of lanes filled with small restaurants and cafes. There’s a good indoor/outdoor food market on the port which opens most days.
And a small strip of beach directly beneath the citadel with clean, warm, sparkling blue water. Nice for a dip.
In fact, there’s a series of beaches stretched out along the coast heading away from the centre of town. Lined with apartments and holiday homes, it’s been called a mini Cote D’Azur.
In summer, a beach bus zips along dropping sun bunnies at each. And at the end of the arc is Pointe de La Parata. From here you can follow a walking trail around the tip of the peninsula with its, yes you guessed it, crumbling Genoese tower.
From the point, you can see the Iles Sanguinaires (the Bloody Islands), an archipelago of four islands just off the coast. The name might be because of the lives lost in the many ships wrecked on the jagged rocks of their shores before lighthouses were established on the islands. Or it might be because the rocks appear blood red on sunset at certain times of the year. Or it might be because the prickly shrubbery which covers them has reddish leaves. Take your pick.
Protected since 1935 as a Grand Site of France, the islands once housed a quarantine station but are uninhabited now.
After walking around the point, we had lunch at the area’s only real development, a most agreeable balcony restaurant overlooking the bay. And that was Corsica. Tonight, a ferry back to Marseille and on to Greece for the next instalment of our summer travels.