Corsica may be part of France, but soon after touching down I realised it was very much a case of being Corsican first and French second.
Everywhere I went, people emphasised their sense of Corsican patriotism and identity on a Mediterranean island that boasts its own political assembly, flag and bilingual street signs.
The Greeks were the first to eulogise Corsica as the ‘most beautiful isle’, and the Etruscans, Romans, British and Italians have all battled for control of it over the centuries.
No wonder, as this strategic and stunning island lies in a pivotal position between Europe and Africa, and also boasts beaches as good as you will find on either continent.
This strong sense of Corsican identity and spirit is most evident in the old hill town of Corte. Here sits the island’s university, which was originally opened thanks to the stirring efforts of Pasquale Paoli, one of the great Corsican heroes.
Today his legacy helps keep the language and culture alive for young Corsicans.
Corte is also home to the Museum of Corsica, which showcases Corsican culture and the struggle to preserve its identity as part of France.
In recent decades the desire among some more extreme Corsicans for independence has led to bloodshed, but this museum focuses on the positives of Corsican culture rather than the independence struggle.
The lofty ‘Eagle’s Nest’ opens up remarkable views of the surrounding mountains that are as impressive as any of the displays.
Bonifacio, perhaps the most beguiling of all the Corsican towns and cities, lies further south.
It enjoys a spectacular setting atop vaulting limestone cliffs, which adds to the drama of the tales of bloody battles that ripple through its history. The winding streets of the old town ramble over the crags in a warren of stone streets while the Mediterranean surges far below.
Bonifacio’s restaurants are among the best on the island. Here you can sample a cuisine that reflects Corsica’s myriad influences, with dishes that are often as Italian as they are French.
Traditional hearty cooking from the interior is also popular, a rustic style bursting with flavours almost in defiance of the delicate sauces and intricate styles of mainland France.
The wines too stand apart, alive with minerals blown in from the sea.
While the past is never far away in Corsica the locals could not be accused of failing to enjoy life in the present.
Their island boasts some of Europe’s finest beaches, swathes of unspoilt countryside and a mild Mediterranean climate.
The pace of life is measurably slower than on the mainland, something most visitors appreciate as they ‘slip back into Corsican time’ – as one Australian visitor I met in Bonifacio put it.
Throw in some of the most challenging hiking in Europe on the island’s spiny bone of mountains and surfing off its coast, and it is a compelling mix.
Staring out over the mountains and beaches it is easy to see why the Corsicans are fiercely proud of their ‘most beautiful isle’.
Best beaches in Corsica
Rondinara: Voted France’s finest beach, the crescent swirl of white sand sweeps around shallow balmy waters.
Calvi: this northern beach is well set up
for tourism with loads of water sports, sun loungers and the like.
Cupabia: A bijou contender with golden sand and crystal clear waters. The effort of getting to this remote hideaway is worth it.
Petit Sperone beach: Just outside Bonifacio this gorgeous inlet lies apart from the town’s bigger beaches.
Lavezzi Isles: Another southern gem just off the coast of Bonifacio, these isles are home to a sprinkling of unspoilt beaches.