“The Grand Object of All Travel is To See the Shores of the Mediterranean.”
So said Samuel Johnson, the famous 18th-century English poet, critic, biographer (and auto-biographer) and traveler. Certainly the Mediterranean has held a place of great importance in the history of the Western world since prehistoric times. My first voyage on the Aegean Odyssey, taking Johnson’s quote as its title, put in at several Mediterranean islands before passing through the northern Aegean and up the Adriatic. The islands in those waters preserve evidence of human occupation in numerous historical periods. Though the advertised focus of the Voyages to Antiquity is ancient material, this cruise and others on their itinerary offer the opportunity to view the remains of thousands of years of history and to become (re)acquainted with a cast of fascinating characters ranging from mythological monsters, gods and heroes to just-as-legendary historical figures such as Crusaders, saints, and many different varieties of pirates.
Our ship set sail from Cevitavecchia, Rome’s harbor, after the passengers had spent two days seeing the highlights of that city (I only arrived on the day the ship left port). Our first stop the next morning was Corsica. In ancient legend, this island was a fearsome place, rocky and foreboding. Odysseus visited it on his long voyage home from Troy and found it inhabited by man-eating giants, the Lystragonians (Odyssey, Book X, Lines 85-149). This is how he describes his impression of the island: “Here, then, we found a curious bay with mountain walls of stone to left and right, and reaching far inland, a narrow entrance opening from the sea where cliffs converged as though to touch and close. All of my squadron sheltered here, inside the cavern of this bay.” His description is apt. Although our ship, being larger than the vessels that enter the harbor, made anchor outside the arms of the cliffs, the island does offer protection for boats between high, imposing facades of rock.
When Odysseus and his men went ashore, they encountered the Lystragonians, who seized a number of their men and ate them on the spot, then gathered on the skyline of the cliffs to hurl boulders down on Odysseus’s ships as they made their frantic escape. Some scholars theorize that the island gained a reputation as the home of giants because men standing on the cliffs cast extremely long shadows down the rocks, making them appear unnaturally tall. It is very likely that the Bronze Age inhabitants of the island did defend their spectacular harbor by lobbing rocks at all unwanted passersby, a xenophobic tradition that continued well into the modern period as the island, which lies in a very desirable location, withstood siege after siege.
The fictional visit of Odysseus and his men is not the first evidence we have for the habitation of the island. In the 1970s, the skeleton of a woman was discovered in the limestone cliffs near Bonifacio. Researchers used carbondating to place her burial around 6570 B.C., some 5000 years before the historical fall of Troy. She is now known as Dame de Bonifaco, “The Lady of Bonifacio,” and her remains serve as proof that Corsica has been a center of human habitation for thousands of years. In some ways this is surprising, given the harshness of the landscape. Although the interior of the island is lush in some places (we did not have time to visit the interior), the areas around the natural harbor are famously covered in a carpet of thick, hearty scrub called maquis. The vegetation provides wonderful cover for those wishing to evade notice (so they can, for example, hurl boulders at ships) and is fine as grazing material for goats, but provides little in the way of human sustenance. (Geek alert: the term Maquis has since been appropriated in the Star Trek universe as the name of a fictional 24th-century paramilitary organization, a name that reflects an association with the guerilla resistance fighters of Corsica and southeastern France who used the scrub to their tactical advantage).
Like many of the Mediterranean islands, the history of Corsica can be traced through military actions. In the late 12th century, the island was taken by the Genoese, who built the near-impregnable citadel that still forms the heart of the town of Bonifacio today.
The Knights Templar passed through Corsica on the First Crusade in 1270 and left their mark in the form of the Gothic Church of S. Dominique. The island suffered many sieges throughout its history, the most famous and terrible of which took place in 1420 when Corsica became the only remaining bit of land standing between the Spanish King of Aragon and complete domination of Europe. Legend has it that after almost 5 months, running low on food and water, the Corsicans constructed a boat on top of the cliffs and lowered it to the water outside the harbor in order to send men for help. By that point, the casualties among the men of the town had already been so high that the citadel was being defended primarily by women and children. In the fine Corsican tradition of throwing things down on their enemies, it is said that the women of Bonifacio bombarded the Spanish forces from above with cheeses, which obviously did little damage except perhaps to wound their pride. The siege was eventually broken and Corsica remained free of Spanish control.
Other sieges followed in later centuries, including a protracted one by a French/Turkish alliance in 1553, at the end of which the Corsicans were tricked into surrendering. The Genoese regained control of the island by treaty a few years later, but Corsica was to become French once again under the Treaty of Versailles, a turn in its history that culminated in the career of its most famous son, Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was born to Corsican nobility on the island in 1769, and although he spent much of his life on the French mainland, visitors to the island today can still see his family’s home, where he spent some time as young child.
Corsica was of great strategic importance in the Second World War, a situation that led to great misery for the Corsican people. Known for their tenacity and ferocity, the men of Corsica were drafted as frontline fighters by the French. All able-bodied men aged 16-60 were dispatched to the trenches and very few returned, leading to their gruesome designation as the “Human Hemorrhage.” Several war memorials stand in the squares of Bonifacio in honor of their great sacrifices. Despite that crushing blow to the populace of the island, Corsica has managed to retain much of its important cultural heritage to the present day. The Corsican language, which lay dormant for many years, has been revived primarily through study of the lyrics of traditional Corsican polyphonic choruses. It is now taught in schools, and all students attending college on Corsica must read Corsican at the university level.
Unique traditions of religion have also been preserved. Notable examples are the dozens of yearly processions that wind through the towns, in which extremely heavy wooden “floats” depicting religious subjects are carried and revered. Here is an example from the church of John the Baptist, depicting that beheading of that saint, with Salome and her mother Herodias waiting behind to receive his head on the silver platter:
The main draw of Corsica today is, of course, tourism. The island’s population of 270,000 swells to six times that number in the summer, as people come to view the evocative Medieval/Renaissance citadel of Bonifacio, to appreciate the rugged landscape of the island’s coasts and interior, and to drink the local chestnut beer and visit the attractive shops.
Having visited for only a morning, our stop on Corsica definitely left me wanting to return and further explore this beautiful and historically important island. For more on Corsica, see Dorothy Carrington’s book Granite Island (London, 1971).
For more on Corsica, see Dorothy Carrington’s book Granite Island (London, 1971).