The medieval citadel of Bonifacio appears impregnable – balanced on a cliff, backed by wilderness, built for defence. It’s well worth finding your way in
Standing on top of Il Torrione, Bonifacio started to make sense. The 360° view from the restored defensive tower allowed me to get my bearings on this ancient city, which teeters at the very bottom of Corsica.
Looking south, there was just the turquoise Mediterranean and then Sardinia, barely 12km distant; dramatic white limestone cliffs, up to 100m high and riddled with caverns, flanked the coast to the east and west; inland, across the town’s terracotta rooftops, the terrain rose to the aromatic, vegetation-cloaked slopes, known as the maquis.
Bonifacio perches like a wedding cake amid all this natural drama: a precarious-looking stone citadel looming over a 100m-long fjord that provides a perfect natural harbour.
There’s evidence that people have lived hereabouts since 6350BC, but it was in AD 828 that Tuscan Count Bonifacio officially founded the town. Occupying a strategic location in the Med, it was a place built with defence in mind – there were 16 towers, thick city walls packed with 10m of earth and, until 1854, only one entrance gate.
There are two ways into the citadel now, but the medieval buildings remain tall and imposing, the alleys squeeze-belly narrow. The oldest houses had no doors on the ground floor; instead, locals used ladders, which they pulled up behind them to protect against attacks. Now, staircases have been built, leading right up from the streets, but they’re precipitously steep. “You quickly learn to come down them backwards,” smiled my guide Pierre as we watched an old lady laden with salami start her careful, well-practised ascent.
Despite all the fortification, the city has changed hands several times over the years, sequentially ruled by the Genoese, Pisans and French; the Spaniards laid siege to Bonifacio for five months in 1420, but didn’t manage to get in. These days, it’s tourists that invade – in July and August, the population booms from just 2,700 to 60,000. But visit in spring or autumn and you avoid the crush; the delis selling honey, Corsican charcuterie and brocciu (the local cheese) will be all the easier to browse.
I strolled around with Pierre, past the old Foreign Legion barracks (destined to become a posh hotel), by the simple St John the Baptist chapel, the 12th century church and cafés where old men sipped espresso and surveyed a game of pétanque. We also passed Stella d’Oro, an oil-mill-turned-restaurant where that evening I would stuff myself with mussels, aubergines à la bonifacienne and local rosé wine.
Before then, though, I left Pierre for my own wandering, setting out along the clifftops towards Cape Pertusatu. Here, it was just me and some lizards – and a rather fabulous five-masted yacht, moored just offshore.
I picked my way over the chalky rocks and amid the succulents, until I reached a little lighthouse. And then I turned, to see Bonifacio in all its glory, stone aglow in the late sunshine. It looked to all intents like it was about to tumble to its doom – and yet, after 1,200 years, it’s still going strong.
Stroll the teetering citadel, sail out to protected islands and head for the hills
When to go: Jul-Aug is hot and heaving: avoid. May-Jun and Sept-Oct are best – warm and quieter.
Getting there: BA flies to Nice from London City and various UK airports from £82; from Nice, Air Corsica flies to Ajaccio, Bastia, Figari and Calvi; returns from €128. Figari is 20km from Bonifacio; it takes around 3hrs to drive from either Ajaccio or Bastia to Bonifacio.
Getting around: Car hire is available from all airports; it’s possible to pick up a vehicle from one airport and drop off at another. Public transport is limited. Bonifacio is easily walkable.
Where to stay: Hotel Genovese overlooks the harbour, with a dramatic pool; doubles from €140. Comfy L’Hôtel Augustin Marie has doubles from €70.
Where to eat: Stella d’Oro (7 rue Doria) is family-run and serves up local specialities. Or try ‘generous and odorous plates’ at Cantina Doria. Wine bar/bistro Kissing Pigs (15 quai Banda del Ferro) does good charcuterie.
Further info: Corsica (Rough Guide, 2009); www.bonifacio.fr; visit-corsica.com.
First, take a stroll. Bonifacio’s narrow, historic citadel is a delight to amble.
Walk in via the pedestrian-only Genoa Gate; duck into the 12th-century Sainte-Marie-Majeure Church (don’t miss the loggia out front and aqueducts off the sides) and browse the shops: charcuterie from Roba Nostra (15 rue Doria) and all things Corsican from Le Comptoir Bonifacien (9 rue St-Jean-Baptiste), which hosts free weekly wine-tastings.
Next, descend the King of Aragon Stairway (€2.50; right), 187 cliff-cut steps leading down to the sea; legend has it the King’s troops carved them in one night during the siege of 1420.
Climb back up, cross town and follow the Patrol Path walk around the ramparts (from the Tourist Info office), to the tip of the headland, and the Marine Cemetery.
An even better walk is the clifftop path out to Cape Pertusatu (around 3hrs return). Starting from the St Roch Chapel, follow the coast south, wending through the fragrant low-laying maquis, to the signal station and lighthouse. From here you can drop down to the hidden-away white sand of Sainte-Antoine Beach, where there’s a rock arch just offshore. Or just enjoy the lookout from up top: the views back to Bonifacio are spectacular.
For more guidance, the tourist office runs a range of tours. On Tues/Thurs evenings, its sunset city tour (6pm; €5) finishes up at the usually off-limits Il Torrione, a Tuscan tower (originally built in 1484) with panoramic views. Pierre Gazano is a good English-speaking guide (email@example.com).
Really, the best way to see Bonifacio is from the sea. There are several options – you could try windsurfing or paddle-boarding, or rent a motorboat or sailing dinghy – with or without skipper (www.ecole-windsurf.com).
If the weather’s fine, board one of the boats at the harbour bound for the Lavezzi Islands, a protected cluster of low-laying boulder islets 4km offshore; boats depart hourly, 9.30am-3.30pm, returning hourly 12.30-5.30pm (€35; www.spmbonifacio.com).
Pack a picnic (perhaps bread, local brocciu cheese, Corsican charcuterie) and some form of shade (there’s none on the islands) so you can stay all day.
Also take a mask and snorkel – the fish-life here is abundant. Or do a dive – even novices can book a Lavezzi scuba trip (€55; www.plongerencorse.com); expect to see grouper, barracuda, bream and more.
The islands have many tiny crescents of sand, perfect for relaxing. To stretch your legs, walk the island trail (3hrs), which passes sculptural boulders, unique flora and a small cemetery, resting place of the 750 sailors who drowned when the French frigate Sémillante sank here in 1855.
Don’t miss the last boat back to Bonifacio! The return trip sails round Cavallo Island (where billionaires build their summer pads) and nips into some grand grottoes.
Options, options... Walkers will most likely want to hike the wild coast paths that lead west of Bonifacio: the Strada Vecia loops from the city to Paraguan Beach (3hrs return); the new Capu di Fenu walk continues on to Tonnara Beach (5hrs one way from Paraguan; you’ll need to arrange transport back from the end). Get maps and information from the Bonifacio tourist office (2 Rue Fred Scamaroni).
Alternatively, take to the water again. Bonif Kayak rents boats by the hour (from €12) and runs guided half-day trips (€35) around the ridiculously turquoise shimmer of Piantarella Bay, just east of Bonifacio. On these excursions you can paddle into caves hung with stalactites and spot an array of wildlife, as well as hauling up on white-sand beaches.
It would be a shame not to head inland, however. Corisca’s rugged interior is traversed by hairpinning roads on which journeys are measured in time not distance. The brave could hire a scooter (3 quai Banda del Fero; from €40/day) and explore some of the hinterland, taking little tracks to secret beaches amid the bush. If you hired a car at the airport, make for the unspoiled Valley de l’Ortolo, where forest, beach and vineyard meet.
Another option is to take the bus to Sartène, a medieval hill-teetering town known as the ‘most Corsican town of all’, 52km north-west; the road there is pretty special. In summer buses leave Bonifacio at 9am and arrive in Sartène at 10.25am; they return to Bonifacio at 3.05pm and 6pm (www.eurocorse.com).
Snorkel the Lavezzi Underwater Trail with a guide. The Office de l’Environnement de a Corse arranges free tours; contact the tourist info office.
You’ll see hand-shaped pendants and paraphernalia for sale in the shops – this is a popular good luck symbol on the island. Specifically, it’s the fingers and fist folded in a bull-horn shape, ‘horns’ facing downwards.