Go beyond this island’s picturesque beaches to discover its storied past.
There’s more to France’s stunning island-region of Corsica than catches the eye of the occasional tourist eager to sunbathe and indulge in succulent cold cuts.
Corsica is one of the world’s most stunning paradise-like islands but it also features remote hilltop villages stuck in the countryside that harbor a dark past.
So, for just a second forget the shimmering beaches, the pristine shores, translucent water, and the tropical vibe—those postcard clichés that make the Mediterranean’s fourth-largest isle a holiday hotspot.
Beyond the popular attractions and picturesque seaside towns loved by tourists, there’s an off-beat, deep, wild, and lesser-known patch of Corsica far from the madding crowd. It’s the so-called “bandit land”, where for centuries outlaws, revolutionaries, secessionists, and common ruffians hid in the wild vegetation and caves, finding shelter in a secluded hamlet, fighting against invaders, and dying for independence.
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Locals here can be fiery, who have a strong sense of identity and are proud to feel and call themselves Corsican, not French. They have their own dialect (more Italian-sounding) and flag. And even though they have a lot in common with Italians living on the nearby Italian island of Sardinia (the two isles were actually stuck together at the dawn of time) Corsicans don’t feel one bit Italian.
Not a surprise though.
Corsica has had a long history of occupation and violence: raided by pirates during the Renaissance, it was taken over by the Italian kingdom of Genoa then sold back to the French for a handful of coins only to be occupied by fascist troops during the Second World War.
As the island passed from one foreign rule to another and in between the invasions, locals were also caught up in territorial feuds among opposing landlords and clans. They’ve had their fair share of bloodshed and still nowadays occasional shootings occur. A sort of small-scale mafia world lingers.
So my first visit to Corsica’s bandit land turned out to be quite an adventure. Leaving behind the gorgeous beaches of Bonifacio, Palombaggia, and Santa Julia swarming with families and kite-surfers, I was in the mood for a bit of silence and peace so I set aside one summer day in June for visiting semi-deserted towns with quirky and spooky writings on the wall in a territory dotted with primitive archaeological sites and miniature Stonehenges.
With a long history of piracy and banditry, Sartène embodies the authentic island identity that used to be bandit capital. In this once gangsters’ paradise, a sleepy, frozen-in-time vibe welcomes visitors.
A bumpy road winding through the wild vegetation of the Mediterranean bush and surrounded by huge rocks with stunning views of the sea leads me to the town of Sartène, dubbed “the most Corsican of all Corsica towns.”
With a long history of piracy and banditry, Sartène embodies the authentic island identity that used to be bandit capital. In this once gangsters’ paradise, a sleepy, frozen-in-time vibe welcomes visitors. Despite rare vendettas between criminal clans, the population today kills time in a more happy and profitable way—producing a premium wine and hosting traditional food fairs.
Sartène’s old part of the village, the borgo, is fascinating. It’s a maze of cobbled alleys with rough, uneven steps connecting tall dwellings built with gray granite rocks from the nearby mountains, clustered at the feet of a 16th-century watchtower which is all that remains of the old defensive walls.
I get lost in the labyrinth of arched passageways with massive, jutting stones. The houses, built within the rocks of the hill on which they are perched, seem part of the landscape. Silence rules. It’s midday and there’s hardly anyone around under the sultry sun, just cats and a few stray dogs.
Founded by the Genoese on the ashes of primitive settlements it looks like the idyllic, picture-perfect hilltop town. But the gangster heritage can be felt and seen. The main public square, lined with shops and cafés, is where the guillotine was once located. Hangings and decapitations were executed in front of the public to dissuade them from committing crimes.
At a certain point I get to a huge wall covered in separatists’ graffiti and read, written in black spray: “Death to all Italians” (in Corsican dialect, of course). I freak out and look over my shoulder, praying that nobody has heard me chatting in Italian with my Italian friends who came along on this journey. We look at each other and keep staring at the wall. Obviously, someone here does not much like Italians despite all the things we have in common (Corsican dialect is almost identical to Sardinian).
But how could you blame locals?
We (Italians) did conquer Corsica and founded this particular town, then sold them over to Paris, and much later occupied their land again during the war, so I understand why they’re still mad at us.
We start debating whether it’s best—you never know!—if we leave straight away and go back to the safe beaches. But our original plan is to spend the night in Sartène, so despite the freaky writing on the wall and the feeling of being “outsiders,” we decide to stick to it and even have dinner in town. Somehow we’re caught up in the thrill of the situation and attracted by the dramatic beauty of the village.
As I wander around I spot old ladies staring at us out of windows or scurrying away in alleys covered in black shawls. None of the residents we come across smiles or says “hi.” I keep anxiously looking over my shoulders and when night falls we’re all a bit scared of going out.
In Sartène there’s a special vibe of mystery imbued with folklore that lures the stranded visitor oblivious to its dark past.
But most villagers are welcoming and willing to rub shoulders with visitors. They rent their private homes and rooms to raise extra money. The bed and breakfast where we stay is part of an old house connected to the main building through an arched, dark passage swarming with hens, chickens, and ducks. The henhouse is at our front door. The rooms are simple, with small beds and little furniture.
The owner is a rather nice lady who keeps to herself but suggests we try out a traditional tavern serving local specialties for dinner. It also happens to be one of the few places open that evening. In fact, there are just two other Corsican diners at the restaurant. The wooden tables are covered in red and white paper cloth and the decor is rustic. The waiter speaks to us in French with a strong local accent and doesn’t dwell too much on the usual chit-chat. Ravenous, we want to have a bite of Sartène’s iconic recipes so we decide to opt for the plate of the day: The Hunter’s Dish, a stew of wild boar with herbs, which we gulp down with a nice glass of local red wine.
The walk back to the bed and breakfast is in utter darkness, but it’s a total throwback. At any minute I expect some bandit to pop out from a street corner, his face covered in a handkerchief, and kidnap us for ransom. It’s actually funny.
In Sartène there’s a special vibe of mystery imbued with folklore that lures the stranded visitor oblivious to its dark past. Despite the eerie feeling of being stuck in bandit land at the end of the weekend, I was won over and didn’t feel like leaving.