9 Facts About Corsica That Might Surprise You
Encompassing craggy peaks, blissful beaches, and coastal towns, Corsica is the fourth-largest island in the Mediterranean. Its geographical diversity is matched only by its cultural richness, with the island offering something completely different from mainland France.
Ruled by the Republic of Genoa for several centuries, Corsica has been heavily influenced by Italy and remains patriotic in maintaining its unique cultural traditions. Combined with its natural beauty and superb cuisine, it’s for this reason that it has become such an alluring destination for travelers.
There’s so much that will surprise and intrigue you about the “Isle of Beauty” that it’s hard to know where to start. From its long-established wine-making traditions to its links to one of the world’s most famous sodas, here’s just a taste of what Corsica has to reveal.
Corsica has been inhabited for 5,000 years
Megalithic monuments such as dolmens and menhirs indicate that Corsica has been inhabited since at least the Middle Stone Age and had a permanent human presence since the 6th millennium BC. During the latter part of the 2nd millennium BC, the Torrean civilization prospered in the island’s south.
Corsica was later occupied by the Carthaginians, the ancient Greeks (who founded the town of Alalia), and the Etruscans before being incorporated into the Roman Republic in the 3rd century BC. During this time, the island produced sheep, honey, and slaves who were notorious for their rebellious nature.
Corsica has not always been French
Considering its proximity to Italy, you could be forgiven for thinking that Corsica is part of the “Bel Paese”. But in fact, it is part of France and has been since the 18th century.
Due to Corsica’s strategic position, it has had a tumultuous history since Roman rule and was invaded by the Vandals and the Ostrogoths. It later became part of the Kingdom of the Lombards and was under the influence of the Republic of Pisa from the 11th century.
From the late 13th century, Corsica was ruled by the Republic of Genoa before being ceded to Louis XV of France in 1768. This was part of a repayment of debts that the Republic of Genoa had accumulated after asking France for military help in quashing a Corsican uprising.
Under Napoleon’s rule (and despite him being a native Corsican), the island was somewhat neglected and it wasn’t until the 19th century that Corsicans began to actively participate in the French Empire and feel part of this powerful state.
Corsica has its own language
While French is the most widely spoken language on the island, around 150,000 people still speak the native language of Corsican. It has its roots in the Latin language brought by the Roman Empire and has been influenced by the major powers who have played a role since - the Papal States, the Republic of Pisa, and the Republic of Genoa.
Corsican is related to the Tuscan dialect spoken on the Italian mainland and has been influenced by the French language, although it sounds more similar to Italian. Today, Corsican is taught in some schools, although French remains the most widely spoken language on the island.
Coca Cola has ties to Corsica
While you probably think of Coca-Cola as a distinctly American creation, it was actually a Corsican chemist who first invented the drink. Angelo Mariani was an entrepreneur born in Pero-Casevecchie who came up with a tonic drink known as “Vin Mariani” in 1863.
He imported large quantities of coca leaf and used their extract to make what would later be marketed in the United States as “French wine cola”. Mariana’s drink was a huge success and made him quite rich. In fact, the chemist was even awarded a medal of appreciation from Pope Leo XIII.
Corsicans love polyphonic music
In the 1970s during a period of Corsican nationalism, there was a renewed interest in Corsican folk music and the island’s polyphonic choral tradition. Polyphonic music involves a group of people singing acapella, with songs that are either spiritual or secular. Traditionally, improvised Corsican polyphony was only sung by men, although there were select songs for women.
In addition to hymns and funeral songs, Corsican polyphonic songs are often about freedom, independence, and nature, reflecting the island’s tumultuous history and patriotism. Music has long played an important role in the island’s cultural heritage and is once again a central part of Corsican identity today.
The founder of the world's largest perfume company was from Ajaccio
One of Corsica’s most famous sons is Francois Coty, who was born in Ajaccio in 1874 and went on to found Coty Inc., a hugely successful perfume and beauty empire. After completing his military service, Coty moved to Paris where he met Raymond Goery, a pharmacist who made and sold perfume. Under his tutelage, Coty created his first fragrance known as “Cologne Coty”.
Despite launching his career in Paris, many of Coty’s scents were inspired by the aromatic Corsican maquis that covers much of the island. By the 1920s, he was one of the wealthiest men in France (his fortune was estimated at US$34 million) and he actively supported Corsica in developing electrical infrastructure and affordable housing.
Wine might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Corsica but the island’s mild winters and sunshine make it ideal for the cultivation of grapes. The combination of sea and mountains create the perfect conditions for several grape varieties, with the most popular being Nielluccio, Vermentino, and Sciaccarellu.
Corsican wines remain largely unknown internationally, with most of the wine that’s produced remaining on the island for locals and tourists to enjoy. For medium-bodied reds and roses, head to the Ajaccio region, which is renowned for its granite soils. On the Cap Corse Peninsula is the Patrimonio wine-growing region whose chalky clay soils and limestone are favorable for growing Nielluccio.
Maquis covers the island
Blanketing much of the island is aromatic scrubland known as “maquis”, which has given Corsica the nickname of the “Scented Isle”. It is characterized by plants in the Lamiaceae family, which includes rosemary, sage, and lavender.
There are more than 2,500 varieties of plants growing on the island, including around 150 that are endemic. One of the island’s most distinct flowers is the immortelle, which has bright yellow flowers and a strong aroma. Found up to around 800 meters in elevation, maquis provides a backdrop when hiking through Corsica’s mountains or relaxing on its beaches.
Corsica’s flag depicts a Moor’s head
If you’ve ever seen the flag of Corsica, you might be wondering as to its origin. It depicts a Moor’s head in black with a white bandana, set against a white backdrop. It was adopted by the General of the Nation, Pasquale Paoli, in 1755, although the origins of the flag are believed to date back to the 13th century.
It was during this time that a young Corsican woman was captured by Moorish slavers, only to be freed by her fiance. A battle broke out between the Corsicans and the Moors, whose leader, Mansour Ben Ismaïl, was beheaded. His severed head went on to become a symbol of Corsican strength and freedom.
Interestingly, the bandana originally covered the eyes of the Moor and Paoli asked that it be moved above to symbolize the liberation of the Corsican people from the Republic of Genoa. It later fell into disuse and was only re-adopted as the island’s flag in 1980.