This is Day Two of our Corsican road trip, and mid-morning by the time we leave the tiny seaside resort of Porto with its monumental Genoese watchtower. At its back, the jagged peaks of the Monte Cinco Mountains are just starting to emerge from the autumn mist.
The Calanches of Piana
The road immediately begins to snake up through a dazzling landscape of wind-carved porphyry cliffs dropping vertically into the dark aquamarine sea. Across a ravine, we catch a glimpse at the sleepy village of Piana, its faded pastel houses clinging halfway up the mountainside to better dominate the gulf in the distance. We are heading south on the coastal road through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Calanches of Piana. The cliffs, eroded into precipitous pinnacles, tower some 300 meters (one thousand feet) above the sea. With each turn, the light changes and the rock formations go from honey to russet to red. This cliff-edge road is not for the faint of heart and I am once again grateful I am not driving! This barely 12 kilometer (7.5 miles) long stretch takes us a solid hour.
South to Sartène
We continue south between the mountain and the sea. The road becomes a bit tamer. The signs that have been warning of possible rock falls are replaced by reminders to beware of sheep crossings as we approach small farming villages. We give a passing look at the enigmatic village of Sartène with its tall houses of gray granite blending chameleon-like into the mountain scenery upon which they are anchored. Its labyrinth of ever-narrower passageways and stairs lend credibility to its long history rife with banditry and vendetta. After a roadside picnic lunch overlooking in the distance the 19th century port of Propriano, we loop toward the southeastern shore of the island and the glitzy resort town of Porto Vecchio.
Like all self-respecting Corsican seashore cities, Porto Vecchio boasts a quaint old town of narrow cobbled streets, strategically perched on a knoll and encircled by imposing Genoese fortifications. For centuries, the city was surrounded by salt marches infested with malaria-bearing mosquitoes that prevented the development of the shore until well into the 20th century. In recent decades, with the marshes finally drained, Porto Vecchio has developed into a stylish seaside resort with a deep natural marina, trendy boutique hotels and lively harbor restaurants. To the south, the area is also blessed with some of the most famous white sand beaches on the island, most notably Palombaggia, lined with ancient umbrella pines, and the mile-long Santa Guilia. Both are big draws with summer tourists
For us, however, what makes Porto Vecchio an especially attractive two-night stopover is its easy access to the legendary cliff-top city of Bonifacio.
A Medieval Marvel
It’s a mere 27 kilometers (17 mile) from Porto Vecchio to Bonifacio, on the straightest, flattest road we have encountered so far anywhere since driving off the ferry in the northeastern port of Bastia. Within forty-five minutes, our car easily parked in the harborside lot, half-empty on this brilliant autumn morning, we board a departing boat for a tour of the coastline.
The oldest fortress city in Corsica, Bonifacio was founded in 828 A.D. by, and subsequently named after, Count Bonifacio II of Tuscany. Upon his return from a naval expedition against the Saracens in North Africa, he resolved to build an unassailable outpost at the farthest marine reaches of his domains. The resulting medieval city is a stretch of tightly packed, narrow houses teetering at the edge of a 70-meter (230 foot) high limestone cliffs riddled with sea caves. Rising straight from the turquoise sea, it offers one of the most dramatic seascape I’ve seen anywhere in the Mediterranean.
Back on firm ground, we take the arduous steps of the Montée Rastello (Rastello Climb) to the Genoa Gate. Until 1854, it was the only access into the citadel and its warren of narrow Romanesque alleys where little has changed in a millennium. Our random wanderings eventually end up on the ramparts. From there, the view of the cliffs extends all the way to Cap Pertusato, five kilometers (three miles) to the southeast and the southernmost point of metropolitan France. A bit further south, across the 12 kilometer (7.5-mile) shimmering expanse of the Bonifacio Straight, the outline of the Italian Island of Sardinia undulates on the horizon.
Good to Know
- Getting there – Corsica is an island located some 200 kilometers(120 miles) off the French Riviera. By air: It is served by regular flights year-round from several French mainland airports to Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi and Figari (north of Bonifacio). From May to September, seasonal low-cost airlines also offer frequent flights to and from other European destinations. By sea: there are three major ferry lines serving the island’s six ferry ports (Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi, Île Rousse, Porto-Vecchio and Propriano, that can be reached from Marseille, Toulon and Nice. There are daily overnight and daytime crossings year round and more during the summer season. We sailed with Corsica Ferries between Toulon to Bastia. However, if Bonifacio is your main destination, its easiest access is via the Italian island of Sardinia. Frequent ferries by Moby Lines and Blu Navy link the town with Santa Teresa Gallura, right across the Straight of Bonifacio.
- Getting Around – There are limited train and bus connections between the main destinations around Corsica. However the majority of visitors travel by car to make the most of the stupendous scenery.
- Staying – To explore the southern part of the island, we made our base in the Porto Vecchio, where a broad range of accommodation options can satisfy all preferences and budgets. We chose the four-star boutique Hotel Le Belvédère , Route de Palombaggia, 20137 Porto Vecchio, for its idyllic waterfront setting immediately across the gulf from the old town. Scattered within a well groomed park, under a canopy of mature umbrella pines and eucalyptus trees, the property consists of 19 bungalow-style rooms and suites with private terraces and garden views. The public areas included a gourmet restaurant, grill and bar. All open onto sprawling seaside terraces. Contact: e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, tel. +33 (0)4 95 70 54 13.
- Visiting Bonifacio – There are several companies running boat excursions out of the harbor. All have ticket booths lined along the quay at the head of the harbor, and offer more or less the same routes at comparable prices. We took the “one hour trip” (actual sailing time about 45 minutes) with the Société des Promenades de Bonifacio (SDPB).Their comprehensive itinerary took us along the cliffs below the old town, the sea caves and inside the one of the bigger ones, to a couple of secluded inlets.