Ajaccio is the capital and largest city of Corsica. Sunny, picturesque, bustling but cozy, Ajaccio is a witness and keeper of a history that tells the dramatic and epochal stories that have marked the face of this Mediterranean island and the legendary temper of its inhabitants.
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Today, mountainous Corsica, whose proud beauty was admired by the ancient Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, is the territory of the French Republic. Iberian and Ligurian tribes once lived here, and later, in the III-II centuries B.C. the island was conquered by the Romans. In the VI-VIII centuries, Corsica belonged to the Byzantine Empire. Corsica belonged to Byzantium, and it was in this period that written sources first mention Ajaccio.
In 601, Pope Gregory the First wrote in a letter to his representative in Corsica about the city of Adiation (Ajaccio). The document refers to the city as the center of an ecclesiastical diocese and the seat of a bishop.
The popular local interpretation of the name Ajaccio, which associates it with the name of the ancient Greek hero Ajax, is more likely to be from the realm of mythology. A more plausible version is that the name comes from the ancient Greek Αγαθή (“good”, “good”, “comfortable”).
From the Genoese to Napoleon
Ajaccio is situated on the southwestern coast of Corsica, at the foot of wooded hills. The city owes its fortified position to the Genoese, who, with greater or lesser success, held Corsican territory for more than five hundred years, from the 13th to the 18th centuries.
The Genoese Tower of Ajaccio
Constantly under threat of capture by other Mediterranean powers as well as Berber pirates, the Genoese Republic built citadels in the island’s coastal towns with enviable persistence. In 1492, under the direction of the Italian architect Cristoforo de Gandino, a fortress was also built at Ajaccio. At first its fortifications were very weak, and during the Italian Wars they did not deter the French troops, who easily captured the city. But after the return of Corsica to Genoa, the citadel was strengthened, rebuilt, and it acquired its modern look.
You would be surprised, but the fortress of Ajaccio is a military facility even today. The citadel is closed to tourists, but nothing prevents a walk by its walls or admire from afar the fortress bastions and towers, which look especially romantic at sunset.
Ajaccio in the mid-twentieth century
Perhaps the Genoese fortress would still be the main historical site of Ajaccio to this day, if it were not for the birth of a great man – a talented politician and a brilliant military leader Napoleon Bonaparte – on August 15, 1769 in this city. It is said that as a child, the future emperor loved to watch the changing of the guard at the gates of the Genoese citadel.
In Ajaccio every street, park and square is in one way or another associated with the great French emperor and his family. The famous family name is reminded in the names of fountains, squares, museums, and sculptural statues of Napoleon himself are literally everywhere, and the exact number of them no one knows.
Sights of Ajaccio
The most interesting historical sites are located in the Old Town area. Among them is the Town Hall, which houses the Napoleon Museum. It contains the emperor’s personal belongings, valuable historical documents, as well as paintings and works of art of that era. The museum owes this collection largely to the uncle of Napoleon – Cardinal Joseph Fesch, because originally many of the exhibits were in his Roman residence.
The best art gallery in Ajaccio bears the cardinal’s name. At one time, the emperor’s uncle invested almost all of his capital in art, and today the Musée Fesh boasts an impressive collection of paintings, which includes works by masters of the French, Spanish, Flemish, Germanic and Dutch schools. The cardinal was particularly fond of Italian paintings from the Renaissance. The most valuable painting in the museum is Botticelli’s Madonna and Child. The museum ranks second in France for the number of collected Italian paintings, second only to the collection of the Louvre. They are represented in four thematic areas: religion, mythology, history and still life.
Another pilgrimage destination for tourists in Ajaccio is the Bonaparte House on the Place Laetitia. Napoleon was born here and spent his childhood years. The atmosphere in the house is as close as possible to that which reigned within these walls during his childhood. The museum also has an excellent collection of weapons, paintings, miniatures, historical documents and personal correspondence. Entrance to the museum is free on Sundays, but on weekdays you have to pay 7 euros.
It is also worth visiting the private museum Capitella. Its exhibits illustrate the history of the ancient families associated with Ajaccio from the Genoese times to the present day. The museum is located on the street named after Daniella Casanova, the legendary heroine of the French Resistance. Those who are interested in this period of history can visit her house, which is not far from the fortress.
Also worth a visit is the Millelli Museum, where you can get acquainted with the local traditions of decorating houses in the Tuscan-Corsican style. Here you will see items of folk art, antiques, and ethnographic exhibits.
Another important landmark of Ajaccio is the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. It was built at the end of the 16th century, during the Genoese domination, and in 1771 Napoleon Bonaparte was baptized here. Today the church has the status of the cathedral of the diocese of Ajaccio. The architectural design of the church was by architect Giacomo della Porto and is a striking example of Renaissance architecture.
Ajaccio, like any other coastal Mediterranean city with its narrow streets and bustling port, is a perfect place for leisurely walks.
Monument to Napoleon on Place Foch
The traditional tourist route winds its way between the Cité, the Port, Place de Gaulle and Place Foch.
Make a pleasant shopping in the Napoleon’s Alley and rue de Fauche. Here are tourist offices, cafes, a square and one of the many monuments to Napoleon, at whose feet peacefully settled not at all menacing, good-natured lions.
The neighboring streets are almost entirely occupied by crowded restaurants and cafes with cozy terraces.
Fans of Napoleon are pleased to discover another statue of the French emperor on Austerlitz Square. Here he is depicted in his typical military surcoat and the famous triangle. The figure itself is mounted on a high pedestal, which resembles an Egyptian pyramid.
If you like peace and scenic views, take a walk from the port along the coast, just beyond the fortress, between the naval station and Napoleon’s Alley. Here you will feel the real atmosphere of a southern Mediterranean town, where the narrow streets are constantly filled with the laughter of children and the shouts of their mothers, and the conversations of the neighbors are very emotional.
In the garden at Miot square, next to the Air Force headquarters, it’s nice to sit in the shade and take a break from strolling around the city.
There are lots of lovely beaches around Ajaccio, set in beautiful coves. You can drive towards the airport where there are long, sandy shorelines next to the Mezzavia shopping center. This is where recreational runners (joggers) usually train.
From Ajaccio you can take a catamaran trip, motor boat or excursion to the very beautiful Sanguinaries islands, so called because of the color of the rocks that form them. Here excellent beaches, and especially spectacular look islands at sunset. The cost of the tour – from 17 euros per person.
Casinos and restaurants in Ajaccio
There is a casino in Ajaccio, the only one in Corsica. Here you can spend your time with both avid gamblers and those who are not attracted to gambling pleasures. The casino is in a spectacular historic building and has been open for decades. The atmosphere is exquisite and historic and many people come here just to enjoy the elite drinks at the trendy bar.
Gourmets love to hang out at Le Grand Napoleon which has been in continuous operation in Ajaccio since the Second World War. Many adventurous stories are associated with this establishment, which attracts a large number of curious visitors. The cafe has a wide representation of national cuisine, and the first, second courses and desserts, created according to ancient recipes, are simply delightful. The cost of a hearty lunch will be from 20 to 40 € per person. There are also excellent vegetarian dishes. If you wish to have such a lunch or dinner, you should warn the administrator by phone beforehand. Lovers of refined alcoholic beverages won’t be disappointed either: in the cafe you can get a taste of the best local wines.
Every restaurant in Ajaccio that serves national cuisine offers visitors an incredible array of seafood dishes that the local chefs create in a variety of ways. Sea bass stuffed with vegetables, trout and salmon cooked on coals, all kinds of salads with squid and mussels, lobsters, sea urchins – everyone can choose a dish to match their own idea of Corsican cuisine.
Hotels in Ajaccio are mostly three- and four-star. Regardless of the hotel category, tourists can count on excellent service. Ajaccio, as in France as a whole, has a developed system of renting inexpensive apartments.
The highest ratings from travelers received Villa Aiaccina. The hotel is 5 km from the Sanguiner Islands and Parata Tower. You can walk to the beach in just 1 minute. There is a garden with a terrace and every morning guests can enjoy a traditional Corsican breakfast with meats, cheese, pastries and fruit.
Good value for money is demonstrated by the three-star Hôtel Du Golfe, located in the center of Ajaccio, next to the main market square. The hotel overlooks the sea, which can be accessed through a beautiful flower garden. Directly in front of the hotel is a paid city parking lot.
The French-style Loft Barbicaja Plage has also earned the love of tourists. It offers free bike rentals, a private beach and a sun terrace with an outdoor canopy bed. The apartments feature a private kitchen and free Wi-Fi. Barbecue facilities are available. Grocery deliveries are available as well. Active guests can go fishing, hiking or cycling.
How to get there
Ajaccio Napoleon Bonaparte Airport Napoleon Bonaparte airport is located 8 km east of the city center. Since 2013 there are charter flights from Moscow airport “Domodedovo” (once in 11-12 days). You can get to Ajaccio from the airport by car, cab or by bus, which stops in particular at the bus and train stations.
Take a bus to Ajaccio from Bastia (3 hours, 18€ ticket), Bonifacio (4h, 19,5€), or a connecting train from Calvi (2,5h, 20€).
French Ajaccio capital of the island of Corsacci
Ajaccio is the birthplace of a man whose military victories made Corsica and France famous and almost everything in the city is related to his famous countryman.
Ajaccio (Aiacciu in Corsican) is the largest city of the Mediterranean island of Corsica, and the administrative center of the French department of South Corsica. Ajaccio occupies the western shore of the island, which is twice closer to Italy than to France. The population is 70 thousand people.
The name comes from the Latin word Adjaccium, meaning “resting place”, where local shepherds used to take their winter walks down from the mountains. Corsicans are inclined to consider the founder of the city the ancient Greek hero, Ajax. The current place of the city was founded by the Genoese in the late XV century. They had dominated in the city for several centuries. The island of Corsica was annexed to France in 1768.
Corsica and France
Corsica’s current relationship with mainland France can be called integration without assimilation. The locals consider themselves a people separate from the French and Italians. The Corsican language is a dialect of Italian. In turn, one of the dialects of the Corsican language is spoken in Ajaccio. However, it is inferior in prevalence to the French language. Some part of the population holds separatist views. This can be seen in Ajaccio, where bilingual signs and signs in French are occasionally smeared with black paint.
Ajaccio and Napoleon
The city and Corsica as a whole are primarily associated with Napoleon. He was born in Ajaccio and lived here for the first nine years. His father, Carlo Buonaparte, was at first a close associate of Pasquale Paoli, leader of the Corsican independence movement. At a young age, Napoleone Buonaparte shared separatist views and disliked France. At that time it was difficult to assume that this young man, speaking French with a strong Corsican accent, would become the greatest Frenchman in history.
The attitude of the countrymen toward Napoleon was ambivalent. On the one hand, there is a cult of personality in Ajaccio. Almost at every step are his monuments, many streets are named after him and his family, he is the main theme of the design of hotels, cafes, and local souvenirs. On the other hand, the nationalist-minded townspeople believe that he forgot Corsica when he left Ajaccio, though he could have done much for it.
What you should know about the city
The climate of the city is Mediterranean. Winters in Ajaccio are mild and quite rainy, while summers are dry and hot.
In summer, charter flights from Moscow to Ajaccio are organized periodically (about once every 10 days). The local airport Aéroport d’Ajaccio Napoléon Bonaparte is located 7 km from the city. From there, buses run to the main street, cours Napoleon, three times an hour during the day. The trip takes 20 minutes and costs 5 EUR. Intercity transport is represented by 12 bus routes.
The main city holiday is Napoleonic Celebrations. Citizens celebrate the birthday of the famous countryman from August 13 to 15. The last of them – an official non-working day.
Popular among tourists in Ajaccio are night boat trips. During the day you can book a tour along the coast or a fishing trip. Lovers of traditional nightlife will be interested in the best dance bar 1er Consul (what else could be called a bar in Ajaccio?). The town also has Corsica’s only casino.
There are many picturesque coves with sandy beaches around Ajaccio, particularly towards the airport. There are more than a dozen equipped beaches in and around the city. Beach Trottel is located in the city limits. A comfortable and free Plage de Marinella with fine gray sand, often shown in brochures, is about a 15 minutes drive. To get there, as well as to other city beaches, is a bus number 5. The ticket price is 1 EUR.
Excellent beaches are on the Sanguinaries islands. The frightening name “Bloody Islands” was given to them by the color of the rocks that form them. You can get to these islands by catamaran or motor boat as a part of pleasant excursion. It costs 17 EUR. Tickets can be purchased at the pier in front of Fosh Square (see below).
Where to stay
Hotels of 3-4 stars prevail in the city. I was looking for a suitable option among 2 and 3 star hotels:
- Hôtel San Carlu Citadelle;
- Hôtel Fesch;
- Ibis Budget Ajaccio.
I stayed at the two-star Hôtel le Dauphin. It is centrally located at 11 boulevard Sampiero. Single room which I booked in advance at the beginning of May cost 61 EUR per night. For extra 6 EUR I got in the morning “continental breakfast”. I chose tea (I don’t like coffee), boiled egg, cheese or cottage cheese, pastry and grapefruit or lemon juice.
Places to eat.
Corsican cuisine is characterized by an emphasis on fish and seafood. I tried trout and salmon with pleasure, and I also remember the perch stuffed with vegetables. I was surprised by an unexpected ingredient of ordered bean soup – dandelions. Fans of exotic seafood could taste dishes with mussels, squids, lobster, sea urchins. Local goat cheese Brocciu is peculiar. Honey and fruit jams made by many townspeople are of excellent quality.
Catering establishments of Ajaccio with moderate prices include, in particular:
- Café Le Grand Napoleon at 10 cours Napoleon;
- Café Le Menestrel – 5 rue Cardinal-Fesch, with performances by local musicians;
- Cafe La Rade – 1 place Foch, with a view of the seafront;
- L’Amiraute restaurant – Port de Plaisance Charles-d`Ornano;
- Les Halles restaurant – Rue des Halles.
Tourists who are willing to pay more can recommend the original restaurant Le 20123, decorated as a village tavern. The menu offers delicious dishes of the level of home dinners.
What to see in the city
The small old town of Ajaccio consists of several blocks of old buildings and cobblestone streets leading to the waterfront and the port. The central square is Place Foch, named after Ferdinand Foch, French marshal during the First World War. In its center there is a majestic monument … no, not to Foch, but to Napoleon. He is depicted as a Roman emperor on a pedestal, surrounded by four lions. There are beautiful palm trees growing along the perimeter of the square, and the locals often refer to the square by its former name of Place de Palmier.
On the same square, in the building of the City Hall, is the Napoleon Museum. Here are his personal belongings, a copy of the death mask, a model of the ship that delivered Napoleon’s body from St. Helena, documents, and paintings. Many of the exhibits were previously kept at the Roman residence of Cardinal Fesch, Napoleon’s maternal uncle.
The cardinal was a great lover of art, and assembled a fine collection of paintings of European painting. It became the basis of the local art gallery. Italy is particularly well represented in the exposition. Suffice it to say that works by Raphael, Veronese, Titian and Bellini are exhibited. The pride of the collection is the “Madonna and Child” by Botticelli. Among French museums, the Fesh collection has the second largest display of Italian paintings after the Louvre. Behind the gallery’s courtyard is the Chapelle Imperiale, where the ashes of all members of the Bonaparte family except Napoleon were transferred under the Cardinal’s will.
After Place Foch, I was not surprised by the equestrian statue of Napoleon at Place de Gaulle. This time the emperor is not surrounded by lions, but by his four brothers.
From Place de Gaulle begins the main street of Ajaccio. It’s not hard to guess whose name it’s named after. And then there are the streets of Bonaparte, Madame Mother, King Jerome, the Imperial Prince.
On another square, Place Austerlitz, Napoleon in full dress uniform stands on a stone pyramid, built in the manner of Egyptian pyramids. The names of the great commander’s battles are carved on it. The only exception – the battle of Waterloo.
Not far from the monument there is a grotto where in his childhood the future emperor often liked to retire.
There’s a large Bonaparte museum on Place Laetitia, named after Napoleon’s mother. It recreates the setting of the house where Napoleon spent his childhood years. The last time he was here was in 1899. The exhibition includes many documents, letters, maps, weapons and portraits. You can visit the museum on Sundays for free, but on the other days you will need to pay 7 EUR.
On the opposite of the museum there is a fortress that was built by the Genoese at the end of the XV century. The contemporaries said that the little Napoleon liked to watch the changing of the guard. Interestingly, the fortress continues to be a military facility to the present day.
The Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption d’Ajaccio is also associated with the name of Napoleon. It was built under the Genoese, at the end of the XVI century. In 1771 Napoleon was baptized here two years ago. In La Chapelle Impériale to the left of the altar is Delacroix’s famous painting “The Virgin with the Sacred Heart”.
Ajaccio is inseparable from Napoleon. The uninformed person entering the city may get the impression that the emperor continues to rule France. A visit to Ajaccio will be of interest especially to fans of this historical figure. In the summer they can combine an educational holiday with a beach holiday.