"The best way to know Corsica," according to Napoléon, "is to be born there." Not everyone has had his luck, so chances are you'll be arriving on the overnight ferry from Marseille or flying in from Paris or Rome to discover "the Isle of Beauty." This vertical, chalky, granite world of its own, rising in the Mediterranean between Provence and Tuscany, remains France's very own Wild West: a powerful natural setting and, literally, a breath of fresh air.
Corsica's strategic location 168 km (105 miles) south of Monaco and 81 km (50 miles) west of Italy made it a prize hotly contested by a succession of Mediterranean powers, notably Genoa, Pisa, and France. Their vestiges remain: the city-state of Genoa ruled Corsica for more than 200 years, leaving impressive citadels, churches, bridges, and nearly 100 medieval watchtowers around the island's coastline. The Italian influence is also apparent in village architecture and in the Corsican language: a combination of Italian, Tuscan dialect, and Latin.
Corsica gives an impression of immensity, seeming far larger than its 215-km (133-mile) length and 81-km (50-mile) width, partly because its rugged, mountainous terrain makes for very slow traveling and partly because the landscape and the culture vary greatly from one microregion to another. Much of the terrain of Corsica that is not wooded or cultivated is covered with a dense thicket of undergrowth, which, along with chestnut trees, makes up the maquis, a variety of wild and aromatic plants including lavender, myrtle, and heather, which gives Corsica one of its sobriquets: "the perfumed isle."