So now we have finally arrived at the “Med” portion of the “Moscow to the Med” summer trip and I couldn’t be happier! For the next two weeks it’s all about the islands of Italy, France and (mostly) Greece. We had three nights and two full days in Sardinia which is not even close to enough time to see this very large island.
So what do you do when you’re already short on time to see a place? Add in a full day trip to a completely different place, of course! (On paper, this logic made perfect sense.) We decided to squeeze in a day trip to the neighboring island of Corsica because it seemed too close to pass up. And in our defense, on the map it is right there, just begging for a side trip.
Who are we to argue?
Just a 1-hour ferry ride from Santa Theresa Gallura on the northern tip of Sardinia, the stunning town of Bonifacio Corsica makes for a terrific day trip if you’re staying on the northern end of the island, as we were in Olbia. Sardinia is big enough that it needs two airports, one in the south and one in the north. Shannon and I had decided to stick to the northern end of the island primarily because we were hoping to visit Corsica while in the neighborhood.
The guy working the rental car counter at the airport was so happy to see us (we were obviously his last reservation of the night) that he offered to lead us right past our hotel on his drive home. A nice touch since it definitely saved us some navigation time at that late hour.
Our rental car was one of those itty-bitty Smart Cars and remarkably, I’d never driven one before. It was more of a pocket-sized, “isn’t that adorable” kind of car than an actual car and it was touch and go as to whether we could get our luggage loaded into what passed for a trunk (and remember, we’re only traveling with carry-ons…what do people with real luggage do with this car?).
We had booked a 10:00am ferry over to Bonifacio with a return at 5:00pm figuring that would be enough time to see the sights. On our map, it looked like the ferry terminal in Santa Teresa Gallura was pretty close to our hotel so we hoped we might get to sleep in a little after our long flight from Vilnius.
But no such luck, when we inquired at the hotel what time we should leave for a 10:00am ferry, the front desk clerk said it would take us about 90 minutes as the road to get there was of the windy, mountain variety. So much for sleeping in.
The ferry to Bonifacio
Since our ferry tickets said we needed to check-in 30 minutes before departure and the drive would take 90 minutes, we left the hotel in Olbia at 8:00am the following morning in our ridiculously tiny rental car and began weaving our way through the mountains under overcast skies.
Since I was basically driving a golf cart with an airbag, curvy mountain roads full of aggressive Italian drivers weren’t my idea of a good time. Additionally, the Smart Car has a fun feature where if you should decide to stop for even a second – like, say, at a stop sign – it assumes you’re done driving and shuts itself off (this is called “eco mode” and luckily it could be switched off but you had to remember to disengage it every time you started the car).
Amazingly, we made it to Santa Teresa in just over an hour and found the port without any trouble despite the aforementioned automotive challenges.
The ferry ride was an enjoyable 60 minutes and in no time we were docking in the impossibly gorgeous French harbor of Bonifacio. Unfortunately, the gray skies persisted overhead but it didn’t dampen our spirits to venture out and explore the town. We wandered the harbor for a bit admiring the expensive yachts parked side-by-side and then began the climb up the hill to see the fortified town edging the cliffs high above.
Bonifacio is Corsica’s oldest town and was founded as a fortress by Boniface of Tuscany in 828. The geographical location of this medieval city is truly remarkable, townhouses 5 to 6 stories high and just one room wide are literally perched right on the edge of the cliffs making you marvel that they haven’t managed to slide off the cliff into the turquoise sea below over all these years.
The soaring white limestone cliffs are accented by the occasional sea stack formation just off shore. When we reached the top of the hill and entered the town through an arch in the city walls we were completely charmed by its beauty. Narrow paved lanes lined with shops and wafting aromas of crepes pulled us deeper into the labyrinth of the town center. Arches that ran across many of the lanes were originally used to carry water throughout the town and provided a glimpse into what life must have been like so long ago when the locals’ biggest concern was foreign invasion.
The King of Aragon’s Stairway
After wandering the cobbled streets a bit we ended up at the entrance to the King of Aragon’s Stairway. Sculpted into the side of the cliff entirely by human hands, the stairway runs in a diagonal from the town all the way down to the sea. Legend has it these 187 steps were carved by the Aragonese in a single night in a failed attempt to invade the town in 1420.
Those 187 steps felt more like 1,187 steps by the time we climbed back up them. 187 doesn’t sound like a lot but I’m telling you, each one was so steep it was like 3 normal steps.
The stairway led down to a secured pathway constructed from a natural rift in the cliff and eventually to a grotto that was once used by the locals for a supply of fresh water. I can’t imagine having to go up and down that staircase every time you needed fresh water (much less carrying it back up) but I guess that’s the price you pay for the safety and security of living in a fortified city on the top of a cliff.
After climbing back up the stairs, we rewarded ourselves with a little ice cream before walking over to the ruins of the battery of St. Antoine on the other side of town. Near the ruins, there was a beautiful cemetery facing the sea that reminded me a lot of Buenos Aires’ majestic Recoleta Cemetery.
After a complete circumnavigation of the old town and hiking around the top of the cliffs, we headed back down to the harbor in search of a well-deserved good French meal with a sea view. After lunch we shopped for a few souvenirs and then headed back to the ferry for the short ride back to Sardinia and the long drive back to the hotel.
Though the clouds never parted, we were at least thankful that it never rained. Our trip over to Bonifacio was a terrific way to spend a day in Sardinia and as we sailed away we enjoyed our last sweeping views of this fortified town on a cliff.
Tomorrow, back to the business at hand…seeing the actual island of Sardinia!