Royal, sapphire, cobalt, turquoise … nowhere else in Corsica is this kaleidoscope of colors more evident than in the Straits of Bonifacio, the windswept waterway that separates the southernmost tip of the island from the coast of Sardinia.
Built atop of towering limestone cliffs and surrounded by the Mediterranean on three sides, the town of Bonifacio offers spectacular panoramas, hikes along the coast, boat rides, historical monuments and great dining, all within walking distance of a medieval fairy tale–like village. Bonifacio’s harbor, lined with a string of hotels, cafes and restaurants, is the ideal spot to begin an exploration of this intriguing place.
At the tiny grocery store next to our hotel, my sister Marcia and I buy warm chocolate croissants, fresh cheese made from ewe’s milk, thin slices of cured ham, a loaf of bread and two bottles of water. With our daypacks loaded, we climb aboard a tour boat to explore the nearby Lavezzi Islands, a protected natural reserve and part of an international marine park jointly shared by Italy and France.
The boat tours leave in the morning and drop off tourists at the reserve, returning later in the day to take them back to Bonifacio.
On these uninhabited islands, visitors can bathe in secluded coves with white sandy beaches teeming with sea anemones and tiny fish.
The return trip to Bonifacio includes a visit to several inlets and caves carved by the sea and accessible only by boat. The most striking cave is Sdragonatto (little dragon), with its narrow entrance that, curiously, resembles the shape of Corsica.
The city of Bonifacio is split into two levels: the harbor and the old town, or Upper Ville (Upper Town).
A steep climb from the harbor via the steps of Montée Rastello leads to a lookout point, and one of the most stunning views in the Mediterranean: the island of Sardinia on the horizon, just 11 km (7 miles) to the south and the emerald waters of Sutta Rocca Beach below, adorned by the Grain de Sable (Grain of Sand), a massive rock fallen from the cliffside that sits in the ocean, and one of the most-photographed natural wonders in Corsica.
Continuing our ascent to the Upper Town, we reach the drawbridge that leads to the entrance of the fortified Haute Ville. To cross over the drawbridge that guarded the only entrance to this ancient city until 1854 is to journey into Corsica’s medieval past. Named after Count Bonifacio of Tuscany in AD 828, the city was coveted for centuries by Genoa and Pisa for its strategic location and naturally protected port.
In the 12th century, the Genoese drove out Bonifacio’s inhabitants and established it as a colony of Genoa, ruling over much of the island through most of the 18th century.
The Genoese strengthened the Upper Town with fortifications on all sides, and in times of battle, the city’s inhabitants would raise the drawbridge and lock themselves inside the village to protect themselves from invaders. After years of attempts at independence, Corsica was sold to France, and was defeated by France’s army in 1769.
Bonifacio’s old town is perfect for wandering through its maze of cobblestone streets; admiring the mixed architecture of its homes; and visiting centuries-old churches, tiny boutiques and cafes. You can walk through a tunnel, built inside the fortified walls surrounding the town, which offers great views of the marina and the sea from several windows.
Near the church of St. Dominique, an open-air market gathers every Wednesday, featuring crafts, clothes, souvenirs and local food: fresh produce, cheese, charcuterie, fruit preserves and a variety of honeys perfumed with a mix of indigenous herbs, including myrtle, rosemary, thyme, juniper and other endemic plants knows as maquis. For this reason the honeys of Corsica can be simultaneously sweet and bitter.
For lunch, Cantina Doria, a rustic pub in the heart of old town Bonifacio, serves Corsican specialties at unbeatable prices in a family atmosphere.
For dinner, Les Quatre Vents, on the harbor, serves fresh, delicious seafood and steaks.
Leaving the old town and returning to the lookout point at the top of Montée Rastello, we descended a winding stairway to the beach of Sutta Rocca (Under Rock), a great spot for bathing and snorkeling. I found the water here to be the warmest on the entire island.
Bonifacio’s harbor, with its sidewalk cafes and candlelit restaurant tables overlooked by the mighty 16th-century fortress Le Bastion de l’Etendardis, is the perfect place to spend an evening. For food lovers seeking new and authentic flavors, Corsica offers an abundance of traditional products prepared according to ancient techniques.
Quietly installed on their boats with their nets, local fishermen continue to bring in excellent fish and succulent lobster. The charcuterie, the cheeses, the wines, even the local beers — brewed with Corsican chestnuts, wildflowers and herbs — are exquisite. Sitting at a café just two doors from our hotel, I realized we had not stepped into a car since we arrived.
The next morning we drove north on route N198 to the beach of Santa Giulia, about 15 miles (24 km) north of Bonifacio, where we bathed and relaxed in a translucent turquoise lagoon with calm, shallow waters bordered by pines and a sandy beach.
The water was impeccably clean and clear, with no seaweed or rocks, and the bright blue colors seemed unreal. According to guidebooks, Santa Giulia is one of the most unspoiled beaches in all of Corsica.
While the beaches were enticing, we were eager to explore the interior of the island. The following day we headed north on N198 to Solenzara, 41 miles (66 km) from Bonifacio, to experience the mountainous region of Alta Rocca (High Rock). From Solenzara we drove to the interior of the island on route D268.
A few minutes later, we were splashing in the fresh waters of the Solenzara River, which looked more like a natural swimming pool under the shade of pine trees.
After driving through deep forests and granite peaks, we reached the Auberge du Col de Bavella (Mountain Pass of Bavella Inn), a popular stop for hikers, and the starting point of many nature trails.
Our next stop was the village of Zonza, located at the foot of the Bavella Mountains. This remote area, with its landscape of oak and Corsican pine, intersects the renowned Grand Route 20, considered one of the most demanding long-distance hiking trails in Western Europe. The trail runs much of the length of Corsica from north to south, with altitude differences reaching 2,600 feet (792 meters) at some points.
The 40-minute drive back to the coast on route D368 revealed superb views of the Gulf of Porto-Vecchio and the farm fields of the lower Ortolo Valley.
That night, back at the marina, Bonifacio seemed worlds apart from the traditional rural life in the rugged mountains.
Bonifacio is 76 miles (122 km) from Ajaccio, the capital of Corsica, and 10 miles (16 km) from the nearest airport, Figari Airport. A taxi ride from Figari to Bonifacio costs about 35-45 Euros.
Driving in Corsica is easy, and the best way to explore the island. Auto Europe offers great rates on car rentals; they have locations in all major cities and airports in Corsica.
Where to Stay
The following hotels are conveniently located on the harbor:
Hôtel du Roy d’Aragon
Offers affordable rates and comfortable rooms.
La Caravelle Hotel
A special amenity in this hotel is a former 13th-century fishermen’s chapel that has been converted to a lavish piano bar.
Bonifacio Tourist Office