We left Marseille on the night ferry to Bastia in Corsica. As the city receded into the distance, the sea was like glass in the rosy twilight.
As France’s gateway port to its colonial holdings in North Africa, Marseille has for centuries been more multi-cultural than the rest of the country. You don’t have to go far beyond the Euro-centric ring around the Old Port to find a trove of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian shops, restaurants and cafes.
We sat on the deck with a bottle of red and a picnic of goodies we’d picked up in a Tunisian bakery and watched the light fade away.
After a great night’s sleep in a comfortable cabin, we woke on dawn, just as the ferry reached Bastia.
Located on the north-east coast, Bastia is Corsica’s principal port and second largest town. Having said that, it has a population of only 44,000.
It feels distinctly different from mainland France. As we subsequently found throughout Corsica, people seem more laid back, service is more informal, traffic is light, no one gets wound up about anything.
The traditional architecture is more Italian than French, and there’s a strong Italian influence in menus all over town. That’s not really surprising. Corsica is geographically closer to Italy than to France: just 90km from the Italian coast but at its closest, 170km from mainland France. Perhaps more importantly, it’s because the Genoese ruled the island militarily and economically for over 400 years. It’s ‘only’ been French since 1796.
There’s a strongly independent spirit here. It feels like many think of themselves as Corsican first and French second. Indeed, later in our journey, a barber told John they ‘don’t like the French. They come to Corsica and all they do is complain that everything is too expensive’.
Corsica has its own flag and coat of arms, bearing the symbol of the Moor’s Head, which can be found also emblazoned on boats, private properties and public buildings.
The image of a black head bearing a blindfold on a white background is an ancient symbol. It was adopted as the national flag during a brief period of independence in the 1700s, but with the blindfold lifted, symbolising freedom from oppression.
It fell into disuse with the failure of independence, until being resurrected as the official Corsican flag in the 1980s. There’s a rumbling independence movement on Corsica, sometimes eloquently expressed.
Sometimes, more crudely so. Not sure if they realise how Monty Python’s Life of Brian this sounds!
Bastia’s lovely little Vieux Port is stuffed with pleasure craft and surrounded by old buildings with distinctly Italian styling.
And towering over the port is the Governor’s Citadel and Palace. Built in the 15th century as a home for the ruling governors, it was the seat of power of the Genoese in Corsica during their 400 year domination of the island. It’s now the municipal museum, with a really informative, easily digestible walk through of the island’s history.
A small section of the old ramparts is still intact.
Within the ramparts, a maze of laneways snakes through old residential apartments, former convents, clergy houses and churches.
Believers come to Bastia to venerate the Black Christ of Miracles, a wooden cross ‘miraculously’ found by two fisherman floating in the sea off the coast of Bastia in 1428. The cross is housed in the Oratory of the Confraternity of the Holy Cross, and brought out once a year for a procession through the streets of Bastia.
We met up with our friends, David and Noreen, who had flown in from the UK. The four of us are off for a nine day hike through the Corsican mountains.
We had a day to spare before heading to Corte to start the walk. The mercury was in the 30s Celsius and we decided a swim was necessary. Bastia gets 340 days of sunshine a year, and like the rest of southern Europe, this summer has been swelteringly hot. We caught the bus to nearby Erbalunga in search of a swimming beach.
Erbalunga is an ancient fishing port about 10km north of Bastia. Believe or not, this harbour was once the most important on the north east coast. Very sleepy now.
Like all of the towns established by the Genoese, there’s an old tower at the entrance to the port.
The beaches, to be honest, are not great. A thin strip of pebbled shoreline with boulders or shelving rock. But the water was deliciously cool, a welcome respite from the heat.
And it did provide an excuse for a long, lazy lunch at one of the restaurants in the town square. What better way to spend our last afternoon before the exertion of a challenging hike in the mountains?