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Napoleon's birthplace feels more Italian than French

Corsica has a complicated history – and some great ice cream

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

Napoleon’s birthplace, Casa Buona-parte, in Ajaccio, Corsica’s capital, is pretty grand. It has high ceilings, generous, silk-lined rooms and a gallery that could double as a mini-ballroom.

The house fits Napoleon’s upper-middle-class roots, as the son of a lawyer and Corsica’s representative to the court of Louis XVI. But the odd thing is, the home town of the world’s most famous Frenchman doesn’t feel very French. Corsica is only 14 miles from Sardinia — and 110 miles from the Côte d’Azur. It only became independent from Genoa in the late 18th century and the place names are still a mixture of Italian and the Corsican dialect. Near Bonifacio, road signs have had the French version of the town names crossed out by nationalists, leaving only Corsican — just like Welsh nationalists used to do with English road signs.

Still, the Genoese bequeathed a decent inheritance — not least excellent pizza and ice cream, or gelati, as they’re still called round here. I had a knockout lemon sorbet at the Gelateria Bonaparte, just next to le petit caporal’s birthplace. And Corsica Radio played a pleasing selection of Italian and French crooners as I swung my hired Citroën around the island’s switchback bends. The roads are good but the mountains make for slow going.

Like their rival Venetians, the Genoese were no slouches when it came to building fortresses. My hotel, the Hotel Genovese, was built within the ramparts of the most dramatic of them all, in Bonifacio. Perched on a natural peak, Bonifacio’s Haute Ville looks over the fortress walls to one of the Mediterranean’s great natural harbours, a steep-sided, flooded valley. This is where Odysseus supposedly landed in one of his more catastrophic visits — to the cannibalistic Laestrygonians and their grotesque wives, described by Homer as being ‘as big as a mountain peak’.

Corsican ladies are more attractive these days. But there is still a wild, gigantic feel to the country — with its forest-carpeted mountains and limestone cliffs. Inland, the skyline is carved into sharp, twisted silhouettes by the mammoth granite boulders that climb above the trees. The granite was used in hefty, square blocks, with little mortar in between them, to produce the robust town of Sartène. Granite hardly ages, so the medieval stone houses — straight out of the Asterix and Obelix school of architecture — look as if they were built yesterday.

Local sensibilities are Italian, too; Neapolitan even, when it comes to celebrating the dead. In Bonifacio, the best views of the sea belong to those lying in the Cimetière Marin, most of them with Italian names — Vacca, Roca, Olivieri… Long, criss-cross streets of pedimented mausolea lie open to visitors, lit at night by flickering candles which illuminate framed photos of the dead playing with their children on fading, white beaches, hemmed in by umbrella pines. All very un-English. Quite un-French, too.

Double rooms in Hotel Genovese start from €215 a night.

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