THE birthplace of Napoleon may be part of France, but the beautiful island of Corsica has a very different identity from the mainland.
It was while there, on a narrow coastal path, we encountered a bull. We had walked for more than an hour to reach an historic watchtower which was now within our sights – but the impressively-horned beast might yet stop us from getting there.
Luckily a group of Germans came striding purposefully past all three of us. Defeated, our bull ambled off through the heavy scrub towards the sea, chewing the cud.
The common sight of cows wandering on beaches is one of the things which make the island of Corsica (La Corse) a little special.
Our base in the north was the village of Patrimonio. With panoramic views to the coast, this quiet hillside village has grown up around a 16th Century church, an impressive building which dominates the area.
In the heart of Corsica’s premier wine region, Patrimonio is noted for its many ‘caves’ – where you often find free wine tastings.
Sweet Muscat dessert wine, for which the area is justifiably renowned, is gorgeous, but white and rose wines slip down pretty smoothly too.
Patrimonio also has an annual guitar festival – in a small amphitheatre not far from the church. Near here too is an example of a menhir – a rather spooky ancient stone figure, of which there are many on the island.
Barely 10 minutes drive from Patrimonio is the delightful little port of St Florent, with its citadel and crumbling buildings clustered around a large marina.
The Italian influence is evident in the pizzas and pastas and cheese fans relish the brocciu – ewe’s cheese often mixed with herbs in pasta dishes. Wild boar is on many a menu, and with so many ports, fish and seafood is a must.
Just beyond the marina is a beach, though bathers can be deterred by brown seaweed which sometimes clogs the water.
Plage de la Roya, a little further along, is not as inviting as some spots further down the coast, but not bad nonetheless. From St Florent, boats regularly ferry visitors to beaches accessible only by sea.
For the more energetic, a hike along the coastal path through the maquis – the generic name given to the scrubland which dominates the landscape – is a bracing challenge.
The maquis, in full splendour in the spring and summer months, played a key part in World War Two when local resistance fighters used it to evade detection from the Italian Gestapo. The partisan movement was known as Le Maquis.
Along the coastal path, some seven kilometres from St Florent, is the Tour de Mortella watchtower. This structure was originally built to counter piracy.It later fell into French hands and in the late 1700s was bombarded by the British forces.
Only half of it now remains, but this is one of many Martello towers on Corsica’s coastline, later to be replicated around the south coast of England and Ireland.
A drive here from St Florent took in winding mountain roads with some spectacular views of the two snow-capped peaks of Mount Cinto and of rugged coastline and on through the wild area known as the Desert Des Agriates.
Along this coast are the glorious beaches of resorts such as Ile Rousse, sometimes called ‘the St Tropez of Corsica’, and Calvi, which tourists adore.
A bustling little resort overlooked by a citadel, Calvi is a living, working ‘haute ville’ or upper town built on a promontory, with views across the Ligurian Sea.
This Citadel has an intriguing maze of steps and alleys between tightly packed houses.
Calvi is a magnet for sunseekers, with magnificent beaches of fine white sand. The snag is that trendy beachside bars and restaurants own some of the best sections of beach, leaving those who don’t hire a sunbed squashed into the areas inbetween, or pushed along the bay.
Calvi is a possible birthplace of Christopher Columbus, discoverer of the New World. But a stronger link to history is the formidable Napoleon Bonaparte, born in Ajaccio, the town which he made the island’s capital, further down the west coast.
Finally we arrived at Bastia itself: home to just under 40,000 people, a quarter of the island’s population and once the island’s capital before Napoleon intervened.
This no-frills, hard-working and dynamic city is a jarring contrast to the soothing tranquility of the villages and ports we had passed.
The commercial port is only a stone’s throw from the city’s central hub, Place St-Nicolas, a massive rectangular space with tree-shaded cafes and restaurants lining one side.
An eclectic mix of chic shops and crumbling tenements encircle the old port, but Bastia’s rugged authenticity is part of its charm.