Historic ports, narrow streets and walled cities enchant visitors to the Côte d’Azur of Southern France. We found all of these, and more, on the mountainous island of Corsica.
A cruise of 140 miles southeast from Nice is Bastia, the northernmost port city on this 112-mile-long Mediterranean island.
Once a bastion of the Genoese empire, the small and somewhat sleepy town of 43,000 has been an integral part of France since 1769, the same year Napoléon Bonaparte was born on Corsica. But the historic influence of Italy, whose coastline is twice as close as that of France, is undeniable. Indeed, the Corsican dialect itself is an archaic blend of Italian and Latin.
Only recently did Windstar Cruises add Bastia to its southern France itineraries, and it has been a popular choice among travelers.
Disembarking from the Wind Surf, we had hours to explore the community, squeezed into a narrow coastal plain between the Ligurian Sea and a steep-sided, 3,200-foot peak known as Serra di Pigno. I enjoyed wandering the Vieux Port (Old Port) and Citadelle (walled fortress), while Barb joined an excursion to the lovely resort town of Saint-Florent.
We had joined the Wind Surf the previous afternoon, when the vessel was docked in Nice. We were assigned a comfortable cabin toward the bow of the ship, on the starboard side four decks below the bridge. Veteran British Captain Gerry Hogan steered our course to various “Hidden Harbors of the Côte d’Azur,” as this week-long voyage was labeled.
Following a safety briefing on the use of life jackets and life boats (god forbid we should ever need them), we sat down to dinner at AmbrosiA, one of several dining rooms on the ship. There we enjoyed a gourmet meal highlighted by an entrée of flaky black cod with a buttery California chardonnay.
We expect to be using the word “gourmet” often on this cruise. Windstar is the official cruise line of the James Beard Foundation, the measuring stick for food-and-beverage industry success in the United States. On this voyage, we were accompanied by two acclaimed Beard awardees, chef Maxime Bilet of Seattle and sommelier Belinda Chang of Chicago. You’ll hear more about them in upcoming blogs.
Most of the ship’s crew is made up of contract employees from The Philippines and Indonesia, including servers, bartenders, room attendants and front-desk staff. Others come from Australia, Uruguay and Brazil. English is the lingua franca on board, much to the delight of a large contingent of South Africans who were noisily celebrating their corporate success.
I was pleased to spend the day in town after disembarking at the commercial Terminal Sud. Almost directly facing the terminal is Plâce St. Nicolas, featuring a statue of Napoléon dressed as a Roman emperor. The west side of the paved plaza, three blocks long, is lined with a series of sidewalk cafes, all of them packed from morning espresso to afternoon wine with soccer fans.
Our visit coincided with the quadrennial World Cup tournament. Never mind that today’s match pitted Denmark against Australia, neither of them a power, neither with a strong following in Corsica. The simple fact that it was soccer — futbol in French or Italian (or Corsican!) — assured a vocal crowd.
I meandered through a maze of narrow streets to Plâce Hotel de Ville, at the heart of the Terra Vecchia (Old Town) neighborhood. I descended through a sinister passageway (a sign in English urged me “to join the Revolution”), emerging through a Mexican restaurant to the Old Port. Packed with private sailboats, the keyhole harbor was tightly encircled by a colorful wall of apartment blocks. Above them rose the imposing cream-colored towers of the Église St.-Jean Baptiste.
The ground floors of many apartments were occupied by outstanding brasseries and restaurants like Chez Huguette and La Barcarolle. Local specialties, I learned, included Alziminu, a Corsican version of bouillabaisse, and anchovy à la mode de Bastia.
Leaving the Old Port, I strained to ascend the steep Rue de Pontetto to the Citadelle. It was founded by the Genoese in 1386 on a bluff overlooking the port. Bastia’s city museum is just inside its ramparts. Beyond, a warren of small lanes, packed with cafes on intersecting squares, soon open to memorable viewpoints north across the port and Old Town to the Wind Surf’s harbor berth.
Barb, meanwhile, had boarded a bus that carried her 25 kilometers (15.5 miles), over mountains green with ferns and shrubbery, to Saint-Florent. The charming village lies on the southern end of the Golfe de Saint-Florent, and it takes little imagination to guess why this is a popular launch spot for diving trips: The water is clear, calm, and aquamarine above its sandy bottom.
Open-air cafes nestle along the promenade that faces the harbor. Above them, just to the north, are the narrow streets of a traditional Genoese “old town,” with its restaurants and shops. One merchant, Barb noticed, sold everything pork. Just pork. Another specialized only in honey.
Rising above all is the community’s circular fortress. Below it, Barb discovered a marvelous seaside restaurant, Le Crique, specializing in giant lobsters plucked from the waters that washed the shores just below it.
The return drive to Bastia wound through the Patrimonio wine region, best known for its Nielluccio grape, a relative of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. Evident on hilltops were clusters of ancient homes, built during a medieval era when agricultural families sought mutual protection from slave traders and other maritime marauders.
Returning to the Wind Surf, we spent a pleasant evening in Candles restaurant as the ship set sail to return to the French mainland.