In the birthplace of Napoleon, history abounds and nature is never distant. Slow down and soak in the small textures of a life far apart from yours.
Some cities are charming in every way, wowing each traveller who reaches them: Florence, Paris, Ghent. And some have hidden charms, their fascination much more subtle, their appeal in what they reveal about their context.
Ajaccio is just that: this tiny fishing village grew up around a Genovese fort and was raised to inadvertent regional capital by virtue of its most famous son, Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon didn’t spend a lot of his life in Ajaccio, but he didn’t forget his birthplace: he gifted it with its first sewer system, planted some eucalyptus trees to drain the marshy areas, and made Ajaccio the capital of Corsica. Today’s 65,000 Ajacciens thrive on summer evenings, when every restaurant and wine bar comes to life and the streets hum with al fresco dining, music and events.
Here’s a short list of our favourite things to see and do in “the Imperial City.”
Visit Palais Fesch – Musée de Beaux Arts
Cardinal Joseph Fesch was well-positioned, as Napoleon Bonaparte’s uncle, to indulge in his excellent artistic taste. He appreciated Italian primitives before anyone else, and made off like a bandit with Napoleon’s Italian campaigns.
Peek in at the ex-votos at Saint Erasmus chapel (Rue Forcioli Conti): each boat dangling from above was gifted by a grateful seafarer who survived calamity on the Med.
For history buffs, the small community-run Musée A Bandera (1, Rue du Général-Levie) shares Ajaccio’s story from prehistoric times through the second world war. Anything but high-tech, but with some fascinating artifacts (ask to borrow the English pamphlet).
Go local: Slow down and look for the little details. Stroll the markets, especially the fish market of Place Foch (whose famous statue of Napoleon is pictured below). Wander the little streets and alleyways of the old town. Try one of the unique ice-cream flavours (fig? brocciu cheese and honey?) and people-watch: chic locals, socks-and-sandals backpackers, baseball-capped cruisers on shore leave. Wander the ports, guess at the yachts’ registries and watch the fishermen repair their nets.
Soak up Ajaccio’s stunning natural setting and leave the centre-ville behind! You could walk south to reach beaches, or hike the Sentier des crêtes (the crest trail), which starts from the Bois des Anglais and leads out the peninsula towards the Îles Sanguinaires (pictued above).
Or take to the bay: several boats offer day and evening cruises out to the red Îles Sanguinaires islands. Nave va is one of the best, offering sunset cruises with a tasting of AOC Ajaccio wines to toast the beauty.
Ajaccio is a reflection of Corsica: a small place, far from the continent and far from wealthy, but big-hearted and full of authenticity. A place where nature is never distant and where, if you slow down and soak in the small textures of a life far apart from yours, you just might find yourself enchanted.
About the Author
Having lived in both mainland France and Italy’s Piemonte region before moving to Corsica, Trip Planner and veteran B&R Guide Marya Valli believes the best way to get in deep and up close in a region is to pick up and move there. The second best way? A B&R trip, of course.