Corsicans are a tough lot. Often stout, always respected, unfailingly as rugged as their mountainous maquis terrain. They’re revered and renowned for their courage and conviction to all they call their own. Their land. Their family. Their island. Their history and heritage. The people of Corsica live, breathe and celebrate their nationalistic pride in all they do. That evidence swirls all around, enveloping visitors like their national flag.
And Speaking Of Corsica’s Flag
Called the Testa di Moru or Tête de Maure, the Moor’s Head features a distinctive profile of a black Moor, often sporting a white bandeau, also called a tortil. Some historians report that it was in 1762 that the great Corsican patriot Pasquale Paoli declared this the official emblem, representing an independent Corsica. Today’s depiction shows the man wearing the bandeau as a headband though initially it served as a blindfold. Some will tell you this represents freedom from slavery. Others say it confirms the Corsicans’ clear view. And there are those who claim it was actually imported by the kings of Aragon. As with so many bits of history we encounter in our world travels, the origin of the flag is debated. No matter which theory you support, you’ll soon discover this bold image is indelibly tied to this island and her people.
The National Anthem
The Corsican national anthem, Dio vi Salvi Regina, was written by Francesco di Girolamo in approximately 1675. A Jesuit priest and missionary, canonized by Gregory XVI in 1839, his musical composition is really a hymn to the Virgin Mary.
Traditional music heard on the island is considered polyphonic, meaning “of many voices.” Often, men can be heard huddled together lifting their voices in chorus literally calling on their forefathers to guide them. With luck, you’ll be able to hear some of this magical music.
Corsu is the Corsican language and is taught in the schools. While the language sounds very different from Italian to the untrained ear of an outsider, the written word is much closer. For the record, French is the island’s official language. This language carousel happened because of the island’s proximity to her powerful neighbors. The island of Corsica is a mere 105 miles across the sea from the French mainland and only 55 miles from Italy. Sardinia, for the record, is a mere seven miles away.
A mighty cuisine from a meager chestnut grows. Along with the mulberry, fig, olive and grape vine, the chestnut was planted long ago to sustain islanders from food shortages. Meat dishes include local wild game, for example, wild boar served as a stew called Tianu, and farm raised animals such pigs whose diet consists mainly of … chestnuts. Stewed with red wine, or drizzled in pibronata sauce, the meat is delicious. A glorious specialty called caprettu is a leg of lamb that’s been dotted with bits of garlic and drizzled with a type of bacon grease, called panzetta, cooked directly on the glowing embers. A prizzutu smoked ham or figatelli sausage is always a family favorite. Local wines complement these fine offerings. Many come from the Figari Plain.
The standard offerings the sea, especially lobster, is complemented with trout and eel cooked atop glowing pebbles. Aziminu is a tasty fish stew that resembles bouillabaisse. And locally-grown tangerines find their way into many Corsican meals. A fine sheep-milk cheese is called brocciu and serves as an ingredient in many dishes. And a chestnut flan caps many meals.
A Bit About Bonifacio and Its Surrounds
The town itself is really two towns in one. The first is Old Town (Vieille Ville also called la Haute Ville). Much of it dates back to 828 AD when it was founded by Count Bonifacio of Tuscany, with important religious sites all around including the Church of St. Marie Majeure, the St. Francis Convent, and the St. Dominique Church from 1270. Of course, it’s hard to escape the nod to Napoleon Bonaparte who was born in Corsica though in Ajaccio, 80 miles away. A maze of narrow streets threads through Bonifacio’s Old Town, the centerpiece being the Place d’Armes. There’s also the area close to the harbor, known as la marine. Beaches, marinas and waterfront eateries are a definite lure. Limestone cliffs loom above topped by the 9th century Citadel walls. These cliffs are dotted with caves including the Grotto Sdragonatu where some claim the opening in the dome overhead mirrors Corsica’s contour. The Old Town and the sea are connected by the Staircase of the King of Aragon, cut directly into the stone façade.
The village of Sartène, between Ajaccio and Porto-Vecchio, speaks to the medieval times and man’s early conquest of the island. Their motto is “Sartène is the most Corsican of the towns in Corsica.” Tight alleyways lead to the Clock Tower, one of its highlights.
Corsicans will welcome your return visit when you have time to delve more deeply into the island’s history. Till then, you’ll have to savor the sampling afforded by your brief visit to Bonifacio.
Karyn L. Planett