Ajaccio: haute culture in Corsica

by alicia

Its uncrowded coastline, rugged mountains and warm Mediterranean climate make Corsica one of the most popular islands in the sun. But it also has a rich cultural heritage, best explored from Ajaccio

Guidebooks describe the remoteness, the rugged beauty and the superb beaches of Corsica. But there is more to this beautiful island. There is the rich historic past, Napoleon, and the Corsican people. My stay in Ajaccio, the capital, allowed me to discover a little of the island's rich, unique culture.

Around town

Ajaccio is Napoleon’s birthplace. The great man might not have stayed here very long but there are reminders everywhere - statues, street names, monuments, even cafés, are named after him.

Le petit train in Ajaccio is a rubber-wheeled people-mover, an ideal means of discovering the city. I opted for the shorter of two guided visits, which took me to the main beaches, the town centre and the port. This is a neat way to get a feel for the city and noting where you want to go. What’s great is that everything in Ajaccio is within walking distance; you don’t need a car here.

I started my cultural visit with one of one of Ajaccio’s main museums, Maison Bonaparte, situated near the city centre in 18 Rue St Charles. Originally from Tuscany, the Bonaparte family settled in Corsica at the end of the 15th century. This large but simple storey house contains family furniture dating from the 18th century, portraits of various family members, memorabilia, weapons and important documents relating to the historical facts about Napoleon and his family.

Locating the daily open-air market is easy: it’s pungent, it’s noisy. This is where you can sample the different types of Corsican cheeses, mountain charcuterie, local pastries, wine, and all types of fresh fruit and vegetables. Make sure you try Brocciu cheese, made from sheep or goat’s milk; this soft white cheese is often used in Corsican dishes. The Tourist Information Centre is conveniently situated just opposite the market, should you need guides, maps and train timetables.

Out of town

I took the other little train, the U Trinighellu (little train, in Corsican) from Ajaccio to Corte. Be warned, though: there’s only one train in the morning. I’d already done this trip by car but only by train can you really appreciate the rugged beauty of the mountain ranges, the thick green forests and the impressive viaducts high above the valleys - all the wilderness of the deep interior. Dubbed the trembler, the two-car train screeched and juddered every time we stopped at the stations and, at least twice, when some lost animals were attempting to cross the single track. But my fellow passengers doing the day trip were not in a hurry; we were much too busy taking in the views, clicking away on our cameras and talking to our videos.

Our train screeched to a halt two hours later at Corté. This little town right in the heart of mountainous Corsica used to be the capital (1755-1769). The citadel perched high on a rock is a little way from the town itself but the views of the surrounding mountain areas were well worth the climb. Today, it is home to the University of Corsica and another main museum, the Museum of Corsica, where the many exhibits give a clear picture of the economy and cultural traditions of both past and present Corsica. I spent at least three hours in this fine modern building, learning about the Greek, Roman and Middle Age periods.

Eating and drinking

I knew I was heading for pure gastronomic delight when I located Le Bilbouquet (0495 513540) at 2 Rue Glacis, near the port of Ajaccio; Ajaccians rave over this restaurant and even President Sarkosy paid a visit earlier this year. My main course, a generous portion of lobster and pasta in a delicious, slightly spicy sauce, was perfection itself, and my dessert, a home-made vanilla flan, was equally divine. And €50 for a sumptuous main course and dessert in one of Corsica’s most reputable restaurants was truly good value. Photos of visiting French celebrities splashed around the walls confirmed that I wasn’t the only one to appreciate Jean Panette’s fine cuisine.

There are loads of cafés, bars and restaurants and no one seems in a hurry in Ajaccio. Corsican cuisine is a mix of French and Italian but some dishes are pure Corsican. Veal with local olives and wild boar (sanglier) often figure on the menus. For local desserts, try fiadone, a cheesecake made from Brocciu cheese, and chestnut-flour doughnuts called beignets. For aperitifs, try Cap Corse, a fortified wine and crème de chaitaigne (chestnuts). Corsicans drink mostly rosé and red wines produced throughout the island.

Where to stay

I stayed at the Hotel Albion (0495 21 66 70), five minutes from the beach and 10 minutes from the town centre. This quiet hotel was good value at €70 for a double room. I recommend La Dolce Vita if you want something more luxurious and romantic. The four-star hotel is right on the water front, tucked away on the Route des Sanguinaires. With a dining room set on the terrace and views of the open sea, this is the perfect place to watch the setting sun over the stunning Iles Sanguinaires - they turn red as the sun sets, hence the name (Bloody Islands).

Getting there

EasyJet, Aer Lingus and Air France fly from London to Ajaccio.

Corsica Ferries' overnight services leave from N ice and Toulon, while Mega Express can cover the same distance in a little over five hours.

Flying from Nice to Ajaccio takes only one hour.