A cynic may suggest that the main reason Napoléon Bonaparte made Ajaccio the capital of Corsica in 1791 was because he’d been born there. Before that, Bastia held itself pre-eminent for centuries, and it retains an aura of quiet dignity, culture and good looks.
During Roman times, the first seaside colony here sprang up by the glorious 11 kilometre-long freshwater lagoon at Biguglia, which is framed by a sandy beach and lies just south of Bastia. I’m torn between wishing that they had built Bastia here instead, but also pleased they didn’t – it’s a twitchers’ paradise, with over 100 species of aquatic birds wading around eel-filled waters surrounded by tamarisk, cork oak and eucalyptus.
Bastia sits between the Med and the scrubby green slopes of the Serra di Pignu, 20 miles from Corsica’s northern tip, and still feels like the Italian city it was from medieval times, when island rule was dictated by Pisa, later Genoa. The latter’s 500 years in charge left the strongest imprint – ranging from ornate churches to the narrow alleys echoing Genoa’s historic ‘caruggi’ district.
The ville began as Porto Cardo, providing fish for the hill town of Cardo, which is still a worthwhile jaunt and perches on an ancient Roman route above the coastal plain. But the decision in 1380 to build a bastiglia (Italian for citadel) to protect the harbour eventually provided both a new name and fresh status. Bastia’s Citadel still towers over what the Italianate locals call the Terra Vecchia, and is set back from what – in typical ‘are we French or Italian?’ Corsican style – is known as the Vieux Port. The old harbour is now a picturesque haven where yachts have replaced the trading ships of yore, ringed by tumbledown 18th-century tenements and terraced waterside restaurants.
The Terra Vecchia is a hymn to picturesque atmospheric decay, the soaring facades of ancient tenements adorned with drying washing and bird cages alive with chirruping. Once grand houses crumble gently on Rue Général Carbuccia, with plaques revealing august past inhabitants. Corsican independence leader Pascal Paoli lived at No 7, while Balzac stayed briefly at No 23. The young Victor Hugo was another old town resident, after his father became military commander here.
Gorgeous churches provide brilliant contrast. The 17th-century Oratoire de St-Roch is a wood-panelled Baroque extravagance, while the riot of velvet and gilt in the neighbouring Oratoire de L’Immaculée Conception feels more flashy opera house or classy brothel than a church. The Église St-Charles provides a reverential counterbalance with its austerely beautiful Jesuit interior. St-Jean-Baptiste, meanwhile, is Corsica’s biggest church, an ochre edifice looming by the Vieux Port whose twin campaniles are a Bastia icon. Sadly, the 18th century Rococo interior doesn’t match the bold exterior.
Within the Citadel, the 15th-century Oratoire St Croix is the city’s oldest church, and home to the blackened oak crucifix known as Christ des Miracles, which was reputedly found floating by local fishermen in 1428, surrounded by a luminous haze. Each May, a festival celebrating its supposed miraculous powers sees local fishing families lug it around town.
Alongside Italianate DNA, Bastia has absorbed influences from North African incomers and the whole culture is topped with 250 years of Gallic icing. This cultural mélange is evident on menus, where Corsican names often replace French – for example, gàmbaru instead of crevettes for shrimps, muvrone rather than dourade for sea bream. Along the lively Quai des Martyrs, between the old port and new, restaurants vie to serve the best aziminu, Corsica’s bouillabaisse.
I tuck into pizza better than any I’ve had in Italy at La Braise, an unshowy little diner up the slope behind the old town, where Corsican herbs plucked from the maquis are served from the searing wood-fired oven by an owner whose description as a “Russian-Indian retired boxer” makes him something of a cross-cultural symbol.
Wandering the Saturday food market on the Place du Marché, I nibble on delicious slivers of brocciu, Corsica’s AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) goat/sheep milk cheese, then snap up three jars of distinctive seasonal Corsican honey (see box above) to liven up breakfast back in Blighty. On a nearby stall, a young woman busies herself over a hot plate rustling up migliacciola. As she ladles out the flavoured pancake-ish mix, I read the sign beside her, which is at pains to explain what this Corsican speciality is not: “Je ne suis pas un crêpe! Encore moins un blinis! Et pas du tout une galette!” Though not a crêpe, blini or galette, it is most definitely a deliciously filling snack.
With some of the island’s best vineyards just south of Bastia, I scout for choice Corsican wines – labels such as Patrimonio and St Florent. Intense flavours and herby notes entice me over the next couple of days, inspired by grape varieties like Sciacarello – a succulent red unique to the island, whose Corsican name translates as ‘the grape that bursts under the teeth’. Who could resist?
To feed my mind, I climb a winding path through a little park clinging to the cliff above the Vieux Port and dive into the Museum of Bastia. Set within a bright orangey-yellow 14th-century edifice that was once the Governors’ Palace, its rocky eyrie – especially the beguiling rooftop garden – provides grand views. The displays score on eclectic charm – a 16th-century four-poster bed here, evocatively painted sailors’ chests there. An original 1755 Flag of Independence from Corsica’s brief flurry of freedom under revolutionary Pascal Paoli intrigues with its Moorish emblem, while the 20th century drinking paraphernalia nods to Bastia’s passion for the locally-made pastis (see the box on page 30).
Entering a room where the strains of God Save The Queen play faintly, I discover that the English briefly ruled Bastia after forces part-led by Admiral Nelson set the Union Jack fluttering above the Citadel in 1794, though a tactical decision saw them withdraw two years later, to go take on the Spanish. I’m transfixed by a portrait of Our Man In Bastia – Sir Gilbert Elliott – gazing coolly down at me, with a bulldog at his feet.
I muse on what might have been if England had kept Corsica as I potter round the cobbled streets, pausing at various majestic viewpoints, before heading downwards, to grab some chestnut ice cream on the Place St-Nicolas then toast a sort-of English triumph with a cold Corsican Pietra beer at one of Café des Palmiers’ shady tables.
On my last day, I’m back for the fantastic Sunday morning flea-market that fills the grand square. I snap up lurid-covered French editions of classic 1950s sci-fi novels plus old Corsican railway memorabilia, then gaze one last time at the giant statue of an imperious Napoleon looking down on a city which everyone else should really look up to.
For more information, visit www.bastia-tourisme.com