Fishing Boats in Ajaccio Harbour
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Corsica (Ajaccio) Overview
No doubt about it: Ajaccio is my kind of cruise port -- easily explored on foot; crammed with good restaurants and well-stocked, unusual shops; and blessed with a harbour so pretty that local artists jostle with each other for a good spot from which to paint it.
On a sunny, Mediterranean morning, the harbour sparkles like sapphire-tinted cut glass. On arrival, it won't take even the poorest history scholar long to work out who Ajaccio's favourite son was. A stone pillar that welcomes visitors into the port is adorned with two portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was born there 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, which, though essentially French, 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 chemists' 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.
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Other Western Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Barcelona • Cannes • Capri • Corsica (Ajaccio) • Elba • Florence (Livorno) • Fuerteventura • Genoa • Gibraltar • Ibiza • Korcula • La Palma • Lanzarote • Las Palmas • Lisbon • Madeira (Funchal) • Malta (Valletta) • Marseille • Monaco • Naples • Nice • Palermo • Palma de Mallorca • Portofino • Rome (Civitavecchia) • Saint-Tropez • Sardinia • Sete • Seville (Cadiz) • Sorrento • Taormina (Messina) • Tenerife • Tunis (La Goulette) • Venice • Villefranche
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 bathroom smellies are too rich for your blood, take home some delicious local honey instead. Though at € 8.50 a jar, it really is liquid gold.
Or, look for Corsican craftware, particularly art galtique (pictures formed from pebbles or small pieces of wood). A mark saying "Casa di L'Artigiani" is an endorsement that the work is genuinely local and of good quality. You'll find shops on Quai Napoleon and at the market.
French is the official language of Corsica, but there is a local dialect -- called U 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.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
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 -- head left from the tender berth along the Quai Napoleon, hang a right, and you'll find most of them one street inland on the Rue Bonaparte (as I said, Napoleon is an obsession!).
Business hours (Monday through Friday) are 8:15 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1:35 to 4:45 p.m. (4 p.m. on Fridays); banks are closed on weekends, but most have ATM's outside, so you can get cash at any time.
Where You're Docked
Your tender will bring you into a berth right next to the Gare Maritime, a big building that houses booking desks for a host of local ferry companies -- including SNCM Ferryterreanee and Corsica Ferries -- and local car-hire firms, including Autocars R Ceccaldi (tel. 04 95 21 38 06). The Gare Maritime also has toilets and telephones but no ATM's, though there are plenty a short walk away (see above).
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. 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.
There are taxis at the port, but most aren't metered, so be prepared to haggle. Given high local prices, a fair price would be around € 30 per half-hour for a cab carrying up to four people -- but see if you can do better.
Watch Out For
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 Palais Fesch is arguably Ajaccio's best museum. Its art collection -- amassed by Napoleon's uncle, Cardinal Fesch -- includes some wonderful Flemish and Dutch paintings and an array of Italian Old Masters (Botticelli, Titian), unsurpassed on French soil outside of the Louvre in Paris. Unfortunately, the Palais is closed for renovation until autumn 2009 (50, rue du Cardinal Fesch, two streets inland of the Gare Maritime, tel. 04 95 21 48 17).
Ajaccio's main market is pungent, colourful and 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). You'll find the market opposite the Tourist Information Centre on Boulevard du Roi Jerome. (Head left from the pier, past the Gare Maritime, and you can't miss it.)
Ajaccio Cathedral, which dates from the 16th century, houses both Napoleon's baptismal font and a Delacroix painting entitled "Vierge au Sacre-Coeur." Tall and high-vaulted, the Cathedral (which lies on Rue St. Charles, to the left as you head toward the beach) is a cool haven on a hot day, and its elaborate chandeliers and white marble altar -- donated by the Empress Josephine -- are well worth a look.
Napoleana is everywhere in this town. As well as statues of the diminutive Corsican, you'll find his birthplace in Place Loetitia, off Rue St. Charles (open 9 a.m. until 12 p.m.; 2 to 6 p.m. in summer; closed Sunday and Monday afternoons; tel. 04 95 21 43 89; free). And, off the pretty, tree-lined square -- called Place Marechal Foch (to the left as you exit the port) -- you'll find a Musee Napoleon in the hotel de ville (town hall). It costs just under € 3 and is open 9 to 11:45 a.m. and 2 to 5:45 p.m. in summer. It's closed on weekends.
Been There, Done That
Realistically, it's hard to see much outside of Ajaccio with only a few hours to spend ashore, as the Corsican interior -- though spectacularly craggy and densely forested -- is not easy to negotiate. But, if you do decide to venture further afield on your own, allow plenty of time to get back before your ship sails.
Bastelica, a traditional Corsican mountain village, set 2,500 feet up in the foothills of Monte Renoso, lies 40 km east of Ajaccio. A taxi ride there is spectacular.
Take a boat trip out to the Iles Sanguinaires (Blood Islands), so called because they are composed of granite that glows red at sunset. They're located 11 km west of Ajaccio. Details of ferry services are available in the Gare Maritime, right next door to the tender pier.
Corsica is one port where it's definitely worth taking your bathers ashore. St. Francois Beach -- a lovely horseshoe-shaped stretch of honey sand -- is just a 10-minute walk (heading left) from the tender drop-off.
And that's not all. Beach babies will be spoiled for choice in Ajaccio, as there are more than 20 sandy havens within 20 km of the port. Plage du Picanto (4 km away) and Plage d'Ariadne at Villanova (5 km away) are both recommended for families.
If you want a true taste of Corsica , try Brocciu, the pungent local cheese (used to flavour savoury 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 more than 60,000 free-ranging pigs, whose acorn and chestnut diet gives their meat a distinctive flavour.
If you're a veggie and find all this disgusting, stick to fritelli (doughnuts made with chestnut flour).
Restaurants abound in Ajaccio -- you'll stumble across a whole pile of them as soon as you leave the tender pier. Just head along the Quai Napoleon toward the main town and the beach, and you'll find plenty of options from there to the town hall.
There you'll find a wide array of restaurants, open from noon until 2:30 or 3 p.m. Some -- like S'Alba -- offer basic cafe fare of paninis and crepes, while others -- like the Brasserie du Port, Les Champs de Ble and L'Espirit du Sud -- offer more varied menus.
The attractive restaurants are endowed with enclosed eating areas outside on the pavement (though heavy traffic could make eating out there a bit of an ordeal). They also offer prix fixe tourist menus, advertised on boards outside.
Restaurants with a view of the harbour -- along the Quai de la Citadelle at the end of Quai Napoleon -- are slightly more expensive, but it's fun to watch fisherman cleaning and untangling their nets as you dine (provided you're not put off by the smell).
Staying in Touch
There is an Internet cafe called Bistrot du Cours at 10 Cours Napoleon. Hang a right at the Tourist Information Office, turn onto Avenue Antoine, and walk two streets up from there.
Best for First Timers: An "Introduction to Ajaccio" coach and walking tour (approximately 3.5 hours) will take you along the Cours Napoleon (main street), past the St. Roch Church and to Austerlitz Square, where Napoleon used to play as a child and where there is (not surprisingly) a monument to him. Next, you'll drive about 11 km along Corsica's west coast to the Iles Sanguinaires. The tour ends with an hour-long walking tour of Ajaccio's picturesque Old Town, featuring the cathedral, Napoleon's birthplace, Town Hall and one of the more spectacular Bonaparte monuments -- the four lions fountain.
Best for Nature Lovers: The five-hour "Scented Isle" tour takes you by coach and tourist train along forest tracks to see and (more importantly) smell the plants, which comprise the magnificent Corsican maquis (wild vegetation). The tour ends with a visit to a miellerie to taste local honey.
Best for Active Travelers: The four-hour "Treetop Adventure" tour starts in the Corsican mountain village of Vero. Participants get to zip line through the forest, above thick carpets of fragrant vegetation.
Best for Families: The four-hour "Tortoise Time" tour takes guests to a Tortoise Protection Centre, 40 minutes from Ajaccio. It is one of only three such centres in the world and is home to more than 130 species of tortoises and turtles (known locally as cupulattas). The tour ends with a visit to the seaside resort of Porticcio, with free time to use its attractive beach.
For More Information
Tourist Office, 3 bd du Roi Jérôme Bp 21, Ajaccio (tel. 04 95 51 53 03)
On the Web: Corsica Tourism Agency and Ajaccio Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Mediterranean
The Independent Traveler: France Forum
--by Maria Harding. The work of England-based Harding, a journalist and broadcaster, has appeared in the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express.