Notes on...

Napoleon's birthplace feels more Italian than French

Corsica has a complicated history – and some great ice cream

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

Napoleon’s birthplace, Casa Buona-parte, in Ajaccio, Corsica’s capital, is pretty grand. It has high ceilings, generous, silk-lined rooms and a gallery that could double as a mini-ballroom.

The house fits Napoleon’s upper-middle-class roots, as the son of a lawyer and Corsica’s representative to the court of Louis XVI. But the odd thing is, the home town of the world’s most famous Frenchman doesn’t feel very French. Corsica is only 14 miles from Sardinia — and 110 miles from the Côte d’Azur. It only became independent from Genoa in the late 18th century and the place names are still a mixture of Italian and the Corsican dialect. Near Bonifacio, road signs have had the French version of the town names crossed out by nationalists, leaving only Corsican — just like Welsh nationalists used to do with English road signs.

Still, the Genoese bequeathed a decent inheritance — not least excellent pizza and ice cream, or gelati, as they’re still called round here. I had a knockout lemon sorbet at the Gelateria Bonaparte, just next to le petit caporal’s birthplace. And Corsica Radio played a pleasing selection of Italian and French crooners as I swung my hired Citroën around the island’s switchback bends. The roads are good but the mountains make for slow going.

Like their rival Venetians, the Genoese were no slouches when it came to building fortresses. My hotel, the Hotel Genovese, was built within the ramparts of the most dramatic of them all, in Bonifacio. Perched on a natural peak, Bonifacio’s Haute Ville looks over the fortress walls to one of the Mediterranean’s great natural harbours, a steep-sided, flooded valley. This is where Odysseus supposedly landed in one of his more catastrophic visits — to the cannibalistic Laestrygonians and their grotesque wives, described by Homer as being ‘as big as a mountain peak’.

Corsican ladies are more attractive these days. But there is still a wild, gigantic feel to the country — with its forest-carpeted mountains and limestone cliffs. Inland, the skyline is carved into sharp, twisted silhouettes by the mammoth granite boulders that climb above the trees. The granite was used in hefty, square blocks, with little mortar in between them, to produce the robust town of Sartène. Granite hardly ages, so the medieval stone houses — straight out of the Asterix and Obelix school of architecture — look as if they were built yesterday.

Local sensibilities are Italian, too; Neapolitan even, when it comes to celebrating the dead. In Bonifacio, the best views of the sea belong to those lying in the Cimetière Marin, most of them with Italian names — Vacca, Roca, Olivieri… Long, criss-cross streets of pedimented mausolea lie open to visitors, lit at night by flickering candles which illuminate framed photos of the dead playing with their children on fading, white beaches, hemmed in by umbrella pines. All very un-English. Quite un-French, too.

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  • John Carins

    Strangely, Bonaparte does not appear in the book of Italian war heroes.

  • Kitty MLB

    ‘The Corsican ladies are more attractive these days’ ..did they go through a brown
    paper bag over the head period.. how awful, I suppose the chaps were always handsome unlike old Boneparte.. who was short and eyes stuck out on stalks apparently. And as the gentleman said below Boneparte was never in any book in regards to Italian war heroes, how strange.. excuse the sarcasm.

  • Arthur Rusdell-Wilson

    We so easily forget that “Buonaparte” is an Italian name.

  • trace9

    Can you really ‘swing’ a Citroen…

  • The Bogle

    Why shouldn’t Napoleon’s birthplace feel more Italian than French? When Napoleon was born Corsica had only been part of France for three years and his mother tongue was Corsican, an Italian dialect not a French one. When he spoke French it marked his accent.

    Will Corsican remain in Corsica given how all instruction is in French in all French schools and given how other languages such as Alsatian, Basque and Breton have declined and Flemish is now extinct?

  • naigoreip

    Corsica has never been Italian. Genoa was an occupier, they left in 1768 substituted by a new occupier, France. Corsica is Corsican: I fail to understand how the author cannot see this simple fact.

    • GenJackRipper

      Come on, you speak a genoese dialect and your culture and language are a part of Italy, no point in denying it.

  • GenJackRipper

    Despite me liking France; Corsica should become independent and later join a confederated Italy.
    I’d like a restored monarchial Italy with self-ruling regions. Meaning the italian body of culture and language is united; but socialists cant take money from the wealthier regions and give to the poorer.
    This should also dampen the secessionist talk.

    Why not crown it all with a bridge between Corsica and Sardinia?