Ancient citadel on a rock in Corte, Corsica

Corsica: Rugged landscapes and timeless charm

Whether exploring ancient citadels, savouring local cuisine or soaking up dramatic scenery, the Mediterranean island of Corsica promises authenticity and diversity

by Ros Woodham
Words and photos Ros Woodham

Known for its stunning contrasts, the Corsican landscape comprises a mix of lush valleys, majestic mountains, pristine beaches and ancient forests. Two-thirds of the island is a crumpled mass of granite peaks and valleys formed 250 million years ago. The terrain is therefore often rugged and is criss-crossed with narrow, winding roads that offer breathtaking views. Corsica has been ‘on the list’ for many years and, given its diverse landscape and short driving days, it seemed like the perfect destination for a summer family adventure.

Getting there

The island has four airports – Calvi and Bastia in the north, and Figaro-Sud Corse and Ajaccio in the south – which connect it, year-round, with France and other major European cities. As we were travelling from Spain and intended to tour extensively during our stay, the best option was to take our 4×4 on the ferry from Barcelona, first, to the Italian island of Sardinia, and then on to Corsica. 

After a twelve-hour night crossing, the ferry docked around lunchtime in Porto Torres on the northern coast of Sardinia. We then had a few hours to reach Santa Teresa Gallura to catch the second ferry to Corsica. The road was by no means direct, so we were able to take in plenty of Sardinia’s rolling pastures and lush vegetation. A hilltop restaurant provided a break, with an incredible sea view and some fantastic Italian pizza – there really is no other quite like it! A final dash through the quaint backstreets of Santa Teresa Gallura led us to a short queue for the ferry. 

Pretty harbour of Bonifacio with ancient citadel in the background

Arriving at Bonifacio

With the vehicle stowed in the car deck, we took our places up top for the one-hour trip across the Strait of Bonifacio. Immediately we could see the impressive towering limestone cliffs of Corsica’s south coast growing nearer. Natural erosion has carved incredible formations into the rocks and left much of the medieval clifftop architecture hanging over the edge. The citadel of Bonifacio is an imposing and majestic sight. In contrast, the town’s natural harbour, filled with elegant yachts and surrounded by vibrant buildings, is a picturesque setting. 

We took the tourist train from the harbour up into the medieval streets of the citadel, a jumble of cobbled streets and ancient buildings full of boutique stores, restaurants and clifftop terraces, setting the scene for the next seven days’ adventuring.

Language and culture

Although Corsica is now a French island, its history is a blend of different influences from various civilisations, including ancient Greeks, Romans and medieval powers like the Genoese, whose strong presence has had a lasting impact on the language, culture and, most notably, place names. The Corsican language, known as Corsu or Lingua Corsa, is similar to the dialects of central Italy and remains a vital component of the island’s identity, alongside French.

The citadel in Ajaccio, Corsica, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea
La Citadelle d’Ajaccio, built in 1492, is a fortress in Corsica’s capital

Ajaccio

We found accommodation just outside Ajaccio, which gave us an opportunity to slow the pace for a couple of days. The following morning, we drove into the city itself, a busy capital with a scenic waterfront and bustling markets. It’s the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte and features his childhood home, as well as monuments and statues honouring him. However, having ticked the ‘city’ box, we were keen to escape the intensity of the urban hubbub, and so we retreated to our peaceful hotel for a barbecue dinner.

Outdoor activities 

Corsica is a paradise for outdoor adventurers and offers tremendously varying opportunities, ranging from all kinds of water sports and scuba diving to hiking, rock climbing and paragliding. Keen to keep the kids’ enthusiasm lifted, we identified an outdoor adventure centre near a tiny town called Vero up in the mountains and spent a magical day deep in the pine forests, watching them navigate zip lines and rope ladders and climb walls up in the treeline. 

With our adventure buckets brimming, we followed an inland route that laced its way through sleepy mountain communities and around incredible gorges and valleys. It took a lot longer than anticipated, but it allowed us to see an authentic rugged and rustic part of the island away from the coastal regions.

Traditional orange-roofed buildings of the village of Évisa in Corsica
With its traditional stone dwellings, the village of Évisa hugs the hillside in the west of Corsica

The north-west coast

The drive between Piana and Porto on the west coast of the island is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its red granite cliffs. It’s considered one of the most scenic routes in Europe. Natural rock sculptures known as calanques frame the winding coast road, which looks out across glistening aquamarine coves and white sandy bays. We set out early, but as the morning pressed on, the road became heavy with tourists who, like us, wanted to get their photo memory, making the blind bends quite treacherous to drive.

Travelling northwards along the coast road – the only road – connecting Porto and Calvi, we concluded that if you’re looking for flat and straight, Corsica is definitely not the place to come! Up there, it’s easy to understand the slow pace of life on the island; although distances are not large, such remoteness makes it impossible to hurry. Our roadside restaurant stop also reflected an unrushed attitude as the local restaurateur offered us wonderful seafood and local meats with warm hospitality.

That evening, we checked into our hotel in L’Île-Rousse, and after dinner we wandered through the charming streets of the old town for a glass of wine followed by a moonlit dip in the Med before bed.

Huge rock formations called calanques along the coast of Corsica
The calanques of Piana are an impressive series of red rocks and cliffs that plunge into the Mediterranean below

Saleccia Beach

Known only to locals and savvy visitors, Saleccia Beach is a secluded and pristinely white sandy strip on the north coast. Reached only by boat or via a 4×4 track through the desert of Agriates, its relative inaccessibility means that this beach remains mercifully unspoiled. The bumpy, dusty, 12-kilometre trail was absolutely worth the effort, and we whiled away a lazy afternoon, soaking ourselves in the warm turquoise waters and sifting through countless tiny seashells.

An old lady walking through a medieval old town
 The medieval streets of Corte in the heart of Corsica

Corte

Turning our backs to the coast, we took a southerly route towards Corte in the heart of Corsica. Two nights in our rustic accommodation would allow us to explore both the city and the surrounding landscape. Corte, once the island’s capital, lies at the confluence of several rivers. Its dramatic 15th-century citadel perches on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Restonica Valley and surrounding mountains. 

Following the river, we drove the narrow road that twists through the Restonica Gorge, flanked by sawtoothed mountain ridges and dramatic pine-forested slopes. With the Land Rover we were able to deviate off-piste into a clearing in the forest, the perfect setting to dip our toes in the crystal-clear river and fully appreciate such natural beauty.

Having worked up an appetite, we headed back to town and wandered through the vibrant historic quarter at the top of the city, picking one of the lively restaurants to enjoy an excellent and atmospheric lunch. 

With a ferry to catch, we were forced to press on southwards to Bonifacio, then retrace our steps through Sardinia back to Spain. Corsica had truly delivered. We had been fully seduced by the delightful port towns, postcard-perfect beaches and the simple Corsican way of life, yet we were fully aware that the island still has so much more to offer

Sun shining through the trees with a river in the foreground
The pure, transparent pools of the Restonica River 
Two people beside a Land Rover enjoying a sundowner drink
  • ‘Corsica: Rugged landscapes and timeless charm’ is published in Anthology Volume 20. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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