Bonifacio enjoys a superbly isolated location at Corsica's southernmost point, a narrow peninsula of dazzling white limestone creating a town site unlike any other. The much-photographed haute ville, a maze of narrow streets flanked by tall Genoese tenements, rises seamlessly out of sheer cliffs that have been hollowed and striated by the wind and waves, while on the landward side the deep cleft between the peninsula and the mainland forms a perfect natural harbour.
A haven for boats for centuries, this inlet is nowadays a chic marina that attracts yachts from around the Med. Separated from the rest of the island by a swathe of dense maquis, Bonifacio has maintained a certain temperamental detachment from the rest of Corsica, and is distinctly more Italian than French in atmosphere. the town retains Renaissance features found only here, and its inhabitants have their own dialect based on Ligurian, a legacy of the days when this was practically an independent Genoese colony.
Such a place has its inevitable drawbacks: exorbitant prices, overwhelming crowds in August and a commercial cynicism that's atypical of Corsica as a whole. However, the old town forms one of the most arresting spectacles in the Mediterranean, easily transcending all the tourist frippery that surrounds it, and warrants at least a day-trip. If you plan to come in peak season, try to get here early in the day before the bus parties arrive at around 10am.
The most vivid view of Bonifacio is from aboard a boat in the sapphire-blue Bouches de Bonifacio (Strait of Bonifacio). This stunning 12km strait channels between Corsica’s southernmost tip and the Italian island of Sardinia. From the water, the tall, sun-bleached buildings of Bonifacio’s citadel appear to morph seamlessly into the serrated white limestone cliffs rising up from the sea. Within the clifftop citadel is a charming maze of alleyways with a distinct medieval feel.
A sheer 70m below, on the northern side, is Bonifacio’s vibrant port, which spills over with café terraces, shops and – as Corsica’s most visited town – more than a few tourists in summer.
Several notable sites can be seen in the town, including the 'Staircase of the King of Aragon' cut into the stone to reach the old town above; the monument to the dead; and a sprinkling of attractive churches among the medieval buildings.
The town is a major centre for sea based leisure activities sich as yachting and diving. Be aware that the success of the yachting is partly due to the fact that Bonifacio is one of the windiest places in France! Note that all this excess of activity and pleasure does mean the town gets rather busy in the summer months - not unusual in many of the towns in Corsica - but it is still highly recommended.
Places to visit near Bonifacio
The region around Bonifacio is perhaps best known for having some of the most magnificent beaches on the island - indeed some of the best in the Mediterranean (see also Corsica beaches) - including those at Palombaggia and Saint Giulia. Tear yourself away from the beach to visit:
- The Lavezzi Islands, a designated marine preserve, are just off Bonifacio and can be visited by boat.
- Places of natural beauty in the region include the Col de Bavella and Alta Rocca
- The prehistoric sites at Filitosa, Casteddu de Cucuruzzu and Palaghju provide an interesting insight into Corsica's long and colourful history.
The cafés around the port are an excellent place to watch the world go by, and there are numerous restaurants. There's also a tiny but interesting aquarium on the port which children and adults enjoy. Walk or take the tourist train from the port up to the old town at top of the hill. Look over the wall here and you'll see the grain de sable, a massive chunk of limestone cliff that's fallen into the sea, which is the subject of thousands of postcards. The steps here seem never-ending but do lead down to a tiny scrap of beach where you can then turn left to start the clifftop walk.
Alternatively, you can drive up to the old town and leave the car in one of the car parks by the cemetery. From here it's a flatter walk into the old town, which is a delightful place to explore. The view from the cliffs is superb. You can visit the churches and ramparts with narrow streets full of shops and cafés. The marine cemetery at the far end of the cliff top by all the car-parks is much visited as it's full of extraordinarily elaborate mausoleums.
Heading north up the coast from Bonifacio is a series of spectacular sandy bays, all breathtaking in their natural splendour. The closest being the hamlet of Santa Manza, set 10 kilometres east of Bonifacio. With a family friendly beach and a gently shelving shore it is perfect for children and popular with watersports enthusiasts, particularly windsurfers due to the favourable winds.
Rondinara is a natural formed horseshoe bay with fine white sands which slope gently into the turquoise waters. A simply stunning beach, it is flanked on one side by pine trees and a protected nature reserve on the other.