No doubt about it: Ajaccio is our kind of cruise port -- easily explored on foot; crammed with good restaurants and well-stocked, unusual shops; and blessed with a harbor so pretty that local artists jostle with each other for a good painting spot from which to capture it.
On a sunny, Mediterranean morning, the harbor sparkles like sapphire-tinted cut glass. Even the poorest history scholar won't take long to work out who Ajaccio's favorite son was: Multiple streets are named after Napoleon Bonaparte, who was born here on August 15, 1769 -- just a few months after the island of Corsica was finally claimed by the French, after being ruled for more than four centuries by the Genovese.
You'll still find Italian influence here in some street names and in the local cuisine; though essentially French, it has a spicy undertone and features pork as a popular ingredient.
In terms of shops and restaurants, Ajaccio feels 100 percent French. Expect pretty patisseries, stylish fashion shops and pharmacy windows, packed with every beauty accessory known to woman -- but at prices so high they would make a Parisien gasp. This is an island, after all; everything has to be imported, and that's reflected in the price tags. So be warned: This is not the place to make major purchases.
Unless you have time to hire a car or take a ferry along the coast (not recommended on a short cruise ship call), you don't need to hang around the Gare Maritime. Instead, head left outside the tender pier and keep going straight along the road to get to the heart of Ajaccio's action: the pretty market square, the hotel de ville (town hall), the lovely Genovese old town and the best shops.
Realistically, it's hard to see much outside of Ajaccio with only a few hours to spend ashore, as the spectacularly craggy and densely forested Corsican interior is not easy to negotiate. If you do decide to venture further afield on your own, allow plenty of time to get back before your ship sails.
Palais Fesch: Arguably Ajaccio's best museum, this art collection -- amassed by Napoleon's uncle, Cardinal Fesch -- includes some wonderful Flemish and Dutch paintings and an array of Italian Old Masters (Botticelli, Bellini). There are also a number of more recent works by Corsican artists, as well as paintings of Napoleon and his relatives. (50-52 Rue Cardinal Fesch; 33 04 95 26 26 26; between May and September open Monday, Wednesday and Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Thursday, Friday and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.; note that Friday hours are longer during July and August, and all hours are shorter between October and April)
Ajaccio Main Market: Pungent and colorful, this market is stacked with great local goodies like fig, myrtle or plum liqueur, prettily packaged maize and honey cakes, spicy Corsican sausage, and melt-in-the-mouth beignets (sugared doughnuts). (Place Foch, open Tuesday to Sunday, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.)
Ajaccio Cathedral: Dating from the 16th century, this high-vaulted cathedral houses both Napoleon's baptismal font and a Delacroix painting entitled "Vierge au Sacre-Coeur." It lies on Rue St. Charles, to the left as you head toward the beach, and is a cool haven on a hot day. Its elaborate chandeliers and white marble altar -- donated by the Empress Josephine -- are well worth a look. (Rue Forcioli Conti; 33 4 09 21 07 67; hours are irregular, and tourists may not visit the church during Mass)
Napoleana: The famous emperor is everywhere in this town. As well as statues of the diminutive Corsican, you can visit his birthplace at Maison Bonaparte (Rue Saint-Charles; 33 04 95 21 43 89; between April and September open Tuesday to Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:15 p.m. to 6 p.m., and between October and March open Tuesday to Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:15 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.). Off the pretty, tree-lined square -- called Place Foch (to the left as you exit the port) -- you'll find a small Musee Napoleon in the hotel de ville, or town hall. (Avenue Antoine Serafini; 33 04 95 51 52 53; between June 15 and September 15 open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 5:45 p.m., and between September 16 and June 14 open Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 4:45 p.m.)
Bastelica: This traditional Corsican mountain village, set 2,500 feet up in the foothills of Monte Renoso, lies about 24 miles east of Ajaccio. The drive there is spectacular.
By Taxi: Taxis are metered, but you can agree on a set price with the driver if you want to hire him or her for a certain length of time. The best way to do this is to walk to the tourist office (just a few minutes from the port) and have them call you a cab; they can make sure you get a fair price and help you communicate with the driver, who typically won't speak English.
By Bus: Ajaccio is walkable enough that most cruise passengers likely won't need to use the local bus service, but it does provide affordable transit to the beaches west of the city. Catch the no. 5 line from Place de Gaulle.
By Rental Car: The nearest rental agency to the cruise port is about a five-minute walk away at the Ajaccio Hotel Kalliste (51 Cours Napoleon; 33 4 95 51 61 81; open daily).
St. Francois Beach: This lovely horseshoe-shaped stretch of honey sand is just a 10-minute walk (heading left) from the tender drop-off.
Other Beaches: Beach babies will be spoiled for choice in Ajaccio, as there are numerous sandy havens within about a 10-mile radius. The easiest ones to reach are the ones west of Ajaccio, which are accessible via the local no. 5 bus. The beaches have limited waves and are safe for swimming.
If you want a true taste of Corsica, try brocciu, the pungent local cheese; it's used to flavor savory pastries or mixed with chopped pork and stuffed into artichoke hearts.
Wild boar, blackbird and thrush pate are also local specialties. The squeamish may prefer the island's pork-based charcuterie; Corsica has thousands of free-ranging pigs, whose acorn and chestnut diet gives their meat a distinctive flavor.
If you're a vegetarian, stick to fritelli (doughnuts made with chestnut flour).
Caffe Romana: Located on one of the main shopping streets in Ajaccio, this is a good spot to try local specialties such as brocciu and figatelli (sausage made with pork liver). Grab a seat on the sidewalk terrace when the weather is fine. (28 Cours Napoleon; 33 09 67 38 48 37; open Monday to Saturday from 8 a.m. until late, closed Sundays)
Brasserie L'Instant: On a quiet side street near Place Foch is this friendly brasserie, offering outdoor seating and a menu of sandwiches, burgers, salads, bruschettas and more. (1 Bis, Rue Emmanuel Arene; 33 04 95 26 48 86; open Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., closed Sundays)
Brasserie du Diamant: This restaurant has a bustling outdoor patio overlooking Place du General de Gaulle. Diners can browse a lengthy wine list plus a menu of pizzas, Corsican meats and cheeses, sandwiches, and other options. (3 Rue Eugene Macchini; 33 04 95 21 04 56; open daily from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.)
Le Passe Temps: Conveniently located right outside Palais Fesch, this cafe offers slightly overpriced sandwiches, salads and crepes, but the food is tasty and you can't beat the outdoor patio on a pedestrian-only street. (37 Rue Fesch; 33 06 22 20 71 22; open Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., closed Sundays)
Brasserie le Globo: Enjoy a burger or salad on an outdoor terrace with a view of the sea at this pleasant restaurant on Place du General de Gaulle. It's also a good spot for coffee and a pastry. (8 Place due General de Gaulle; 33 04 95 24 72 51; open Monday to Saturday from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., closed Sundays)
Smaller ships dock right next to the Gare Maritime, while others will anchor and tender passengers to a nearby location. This large building offers little reason to linger; aside from toilets, snack machines and the booking desks for local ferry companies, there's not much of interest. On weekend mornings, the small Forain Market sets up on the waterfront outside the port, offering bags, belts, clothing and other items.
Heavy traffic! The French will not be parted from their cars, and the Corsicans have obviously been infected by their passion. Given that Corsica is one of the most under-populated islands in the Mediterranean, the level of traffic in Ajaccio defies belief.
The currency in Corsica is the Euro, and credit cards are widely accepted. You can check currency conversion rates at www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
You'll find plenty of banks in town. There are several on or around Place Foch, including Credit Agricole and LCL. Banks are typically only open on weekdays, but their ATMs are accessible 24 hours a day.
French is the official language of Corsica, but there is a local dialect -- called Corsu -- which sounds rather similar to Italian (hardly surprising, given the island's Genovese heritage). Locals will speak some English in Ajaccio but less in the more rustic, outlying villages.
Napoleon famously said that, even far out at sea and blindfolded, his nose would tell him when he was approaching his native land. Myrtle, lavender, rosemary, fennel, honeysuckle, thyme and broom are just some of the fragrant plants that thrive on this island, and their perfume is captured in handmade soaps and bath products. If scented potions are too rich for your nose, take home some delicious local honey instead. Or look for Corsican craftware, particularly art galtique (pictures formed from pebbles or small pieces of wood).
You'll find shops on Cours Napoleon, on Rue Cardinal Fesch and at the market. One store to try is La Maison de Mina, where tempting goodies include local cheeses, breads, tapenades, wine, honey, jam and artisan salt. (64 Cours Napoleon; 33 04 95 23 32 44; open Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., closed Sundays)