Exploring Corsica’s cultural treasures
Written by Irene Chuang
On 24 May 2024

From the rhythmic beats of traditional polyphonic singing to the tantalising aromas of local cuisine, Corsica is an island full of hidden treasures.

Corsica is a charming French island located near Italy. It is renowned for its captivating history, culture and stunning landscapes.

Due to its geographical location, Italy and the Mediterranean Sea have had a significant impact on Corsica’s culture. Different to mainland France, Corsica has developed a unique culture, music, language and cuisine.

Corisca has its own language, Corsican, which has a close connection with Italian and French. The music and dance on the island are best known for their polyphonic choral tradition. On top of that, cheese, fresh seafood and the famous smoked salami are symbolic of its diverse food culture. 

The best way to immerse yourself in Corsica’s vibrant culture is to dive into the traditional festivals. Corsica has a lot of various traditional festivals that can immerse you in Corsican cuisine and heritage.

Throughout the year, Corsicans celebrate different festivals in different seasons including the Feast of Saint John, the Wine Fair and Assumption Day. When planning a trip, make sure not to miss out on these festivals.

Fête de la Saint-Jean (Feast of Saint John)

It is a traditional festival that takes place on June 24th. It highlights Corsica’s significant religious tradition by celebrating Saint John the Baptist, the island’s patron saint. It represents the arrival of summer and is thought to offer good luck and protection from evil spirits.

During the event, people kindle bonfires on beaches, town centres, and hills. People gather around to enjoy food, drinks and live music. It is one of the most significant times in Corsica throughout the year. Henry Walker, an Ajaccio resident said: “It’s an amazing night that everyone should definitely join to immerse in one of our important cultures in the city.” When you walk on the street, you can see people surrounding the bonfires and dancing together. 

Many women and men dress up with the traditional customs, holding palm leaves and dance in front of the fire. On the eve of the feast of Saint John, the fire is made from aromatic plants — arbutus, lentisk, rosemary and the incense-scented immortelle, collected by the boys of the village in the maquis during the day.

Henry said: “It’s a truly unique experience that showcases the rich history and traditions of Ajaccio. The atmosphere is filled with joy and camaraderie as everyone comes together to celebrate this special occasion.”

Rencontres polyphoniques de Calvi

Rencontres Polyphoniques de Calvi is a highly acclaimed musical and cultural event in Corsica, held every year in mid-September. This event not only showcases the talent of local musicians but also highlights the importance of preserving Corsica’s cultural heritage through music.

This tradition started in September 1989, when the group ‘A Filetta’ organised the event. They have been consistently holding the concert for about 30 years.

Calvi hosts concerts in stunning venues such as the town’s citadel, the Cathedral of St-Jean-Baptiste and the Saint-Antoine oratory. Its festival attracts a diverse array of musicians from all corners of the globe, representing Inuit, Mongolian, South African, Cuban, and Bulgarian cultures.

Henry enthusiastically described it as an opportunity to immerse oneself in the captivating world of polyphonic music. He said: “It is one of my favourite times of the year. During the festival time, many restaurants will play traditional Corsican music. It is so good to listen to the music with my favourite wild boar stew in U CANTONU restaurant.” 

Meanwhile, in Calvi’s citadel, live music fills the streets, creating an enchanting atmosphere that captivates everyone who experiences it. Henry said: “Last year, the Trio Mandili and Cadira trio were invited to present at the concert. I could never forget the moment when everyone lit up their flashlights and swayed to the music.” Corsican polyphonies are a part of the island’s identity and culture.

If you are a music enthusiast, you should never miss out on this festival. He added: “The best thing to do at this festival is to have a city walk. Fortunately, if we are lucky, we’ will find some traditional polyphonic choirs rehearsing or performing when we walk on the streets.”

Fete de l’Assomption (Assumption Day)

Just like other European countries, Corsica celebrates the birth of Emperor Napoleon in mid-August during the vibrant summer season in Ajaccio. Ajaccio being the city where Napoleon was born, you can explore this significant French history easily within the city. Particularly during the festival, all residents would gather around for the celebration. 

Lucy, an Ajaccio resident said, “Every time the festival comes, there will be a lot of fireworks in the city. Don’t miss the spectacular fireworks display happening at Saint Francois Beach at 10 pm. 

“The August 15th party last year was full with an incredible crowd; I have never seen so many people!” This celebration holds a special significance for Corsicans as the island has been under the protective embrace of the Virgin since December 8th, 1735.

During the festival season, the island normally would be full of visitors. Jules said: “Remember to plan your trip early to secure your favourite hotel or Airbnb! The price will also increase when the time is closer, so it is important to book everything early if you can.”

Insider travel tips

If you have a passion for religious culture, September in Corsica is an excellent time to visit. If you are interested in immersing yourself in the world of traditional music and performance, the Rencontres Polyphoniques de Calvi would be an excellent choice for your trip. 

If you can’t make it to these festivals in Corsica, do not worry though. There are numerous ways to immerse yourself in a rich cultural experience. Jules recommended that visitors should consider spending a day in Bonifacio, exploring the charming streets of Genes and marvelling at the breath-taking L’escalier du Roy d’Aragon.

“Trust me, they would bring you an unexpected surprise with their unique history” she said. With Jules’ recommendation, enjoy the perfect ending to your day with a delightful dinner at restaurant Lan’k, where you can savour a traditional French meal. She added, “Seafood is a must to try in this restaurant. Their shrimp risotto always hits the spot.”

Exploring Corsica by car offers the utmost convenience. Jules pointed out that the public transport system is not very well-developed, and the train service is limited to a few cities. If you have enough time, taking a scenic drive would certainly be an excellent choice.

She said: “It is quite time-consuming to take a train on tour; a lot of beaches and sightseeing spots are far away from the train station or located on the coastline, which makes it difficult to take public transport.” 

Corsica has about 1000km of coastline and close to 200 beaches. Palombaggia Beach has been ranked as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It is located in the northwestern part of the island, and be aware that there is no public transport available; driving is the most convenient way to reach it.

Jules added: “My all-time favourite is the route between Calvi and lle Rousse on the northern coast, particularly the town of Algajola. It is not only because of the beautiful beach, but also because of the convenience of the close proximity to the three towns, which makes it so easy to enjoy it all.”

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