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Come wander the island of Corsica with me, following the fabled footsteps of Napoleon


A statue of Napoleon Bonaparte on the island of Corsica in the city of Ajaccio, France.

By Robert Damien Santagata

I had always wanted to visit the island of Corsica, not only because it is Napoleon’s birthplace – I am obsessed with this man! – but because of its great beauty, art, and, well, slightly confusing culture. It is a unique mix of French and Italian – the language (Corsu) being closer to Italian; the nationality being “officially” French.

The waters surrounding Corsica are pristine and inviting, but as I sat on the ferry en route, acidulous juices creeping
up my throat – I always get seasick on a boat – I was far from enthusiastic. Indeed, I wanted to blow the chow that I had eaten before departure from Genoa. But I didn’t. We ultimately docked, and, no sooner had I touched land, the mal de mer released my head and stomach … and I was hungry for some Corsican food. What to eat? I asked myself. Corsica offers some great street food, pizza no exception. I approached a vendor and ordered a slice of the four-cheese. I ate with gusto as I walked through the town of Bastia, the financial capital. I next bought the ever-popular, ever-Corsican figatelli, a smoked pork-liver sausage nestled in a bun – reminiscent of a hot dog but much more delicious. Corsican food is simple and rustic, unlike the cuisine of the mainland, which can often be pretentious. Much of the meat is free-range, and the charcuterie (dried meats) of Corsica are out of this world. Honeys and jams abound; pastas are sold everywhere; the wines are very respectable, even by French standards. Let me not forget the seafood, which, needless to say, is fresh and abundant but only recently appreciated, thanks to centuries of invasions and a deep-rooted aversion to the coastline, where Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Franks, Goths, Pisans, Genovese, and finally, the French arrived without invitation.

I was tired after the five-hour trip from Genoa and was looking forward to a little break. Luckily, my hotel was not too far from the debarkation point. The Bonaparte Hotel is centrally located, clean, and air-conditioned. And though the lady at the reception desk was a little less than friendly, she did, nonetheless, check me in, hand me my key, and give a perfunctory smile as I headed for my room, where I napped and recharged in preparation of the evening’s festivities.

As it was early August, and thus high season, it was hot and crowded on the beautiful island. Corsica’s population is only 275,000, but during tourist months, that number soars. Most of the tourists are French and Italian, with a smattering of Germans.

The symphony of languages – French, Italian, Corsu, German, English, etc. – was anything but soothing as I entered the night and headed toward a little restaurant that my best friend, Hervé, had recommended to me. A Casarella serves hearty, traditional Corsican fare at reasonable prices. The cool, pastel-colored interior offered an ideal escape from the throngs of tourists partaking in Corsica’s answer to Italy’s passeggiata – strolling along the streets, Italianate buildings on either side of them, aromas emanating from dozens of eateries, pubs, and taverns. I ate grilled catch of the day, which, it embarrasses me to say, was never identified for me. It was delicious, nevertheless, and went down nicely with the local patrimonio wine. Dessert was the ubiquitous fiadone, a soft cheese tart that is soaked in liquor and ignited. It was simple yet heavenly. Happily stuffed and feeling like an engorged tick, I reentered the night and the parade. I craved a coffee and a digestivo. I didn’t know where to go, so I walked … until I came to a bar called Le Marcana. I peeked inside and noticed that the clientele was relatively young. I entered anyway. I immediately ordered an espresso and a shot of sambuca. I looked around and, it pains me to say, deduced that I was perhaps the oldest person in the place. My psyche jarred, I sipped my espresso and nursed my Sambuca, and I was enraptured – I had actualized my goal to walk in the footsteps of Napoleon!

The following day, I awoke early, for I had a train to catch. The famous Micheline connects Bastia with Ajaccio – Napoleon’s birthplace and home to the Casa Buonaparte, or Maison Bonaparte, which is where the young “Nabulio” spent his first nine years, before he was shipped off to France and the military academy. The four-hour trip (about $30) was anything but boring. Indeed, the scenery along the way was breathtaking.
I saw wild, rugged mountains, graceful bridges, and a sky that was bluer than any
I had ever seen. This was nothing short of paradise. I imagined what Nabulio must have fantasized about while beholding this sky, and I grew increasingly anxious and excited. After all, I was on my way to his ancestral home, where he ate, played, slept, cried on his mother’s lap, and presumably, where he cursed his father upon learning that he was being sent to study military art with those hated French on the mainland – they who had invaded and seized his beloved island the year before he emerged from his mother’s womb.

As I stood in front of the Casa Buonaparte, I again felt compelled to pinch myself, much as I did when I first stepped foot inside the Colosseum in Rome. Once I entered, I was struck with awe. I knew that I was surrounded by history. The house was grand. People were whispering all around me. I grew increasingly excited over the prospect of seeing where the boy was born, where he slept, etc., and I passed from one room to the next. I entered one room – called “The Trap Door Room” – and was told it was where, in 1799, the general snuck out through a trap door and rendezvoused with a ship that would take him to the continent. I was not told the circumstances under which this furtive act was carried out, aside from the fact that he had returned from his Egyptian campaign and spent some time at his ancestral home … presumably to disconnect for a while. At last, I had arrived at the room about which I had been obsessing for days, weeks, months: The Birth Room, where the future emperor, king, dictator breathed his first. I was dumbstruck! Not because the room itself was so extraordinary; it absolutely was not. The room was sparsely furnished, with the exception of a couple pieces of very important furniture, most notably the yellow and white Louis XIV canapé, which is where Letizia Buonaparte gave birth to Napoleone di Buonaparte. This was one historic room! I thought to myself. The walls were nearly bare – no portrait of baby Nabulio to be found anywhere – and a light yellowish-tan in color. There was one piece of furniture which I thought was very interesting and evocative: the secretaire (desk) that was given to Letizia after the Revolution and where Nabulio likely sat at night and plotted his conquest of the world. This is where the young Corsican boy sat and listed the goals, dreams, and
aspirations that, once attained, would make him one of history’s greatest figures and undoubtedly its greatest military general – even greater, in my opinion, than Julius Caesar. The rest, as they say, is history.

The author of this series, Robert Damien Santagata, is a “rabid Italophile” and the author of the 2020 book “The Paradise of Exiles.” This series presents his vivid, evocative descriptions of his search for the soul of Italy – rapturous descriptions that the author attributes to Stendhal syndrome, a psychosomatic condition in which overexposure to any form of great beauty induces a state of euphoria that can include elation, dizziness, confusion, hallucinations and even fainting.

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