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Corsica On Assignment

Corsica On Assignment

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French Confection

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By Peter Ross RangePhotographs by Bruno Barbey

On the map, the Mediterranean island of Corsica belongs to France. In their hearts, many Corsicans aren't so sure.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

François Santoni's funeral was not what I'd come to Corsica to see. But here it was, the story of Corsica and France all laid out before me, just as Santoni himself was laid out in his home above a sun-hammered mountain hamlet, awaiting burial. After a few days on the island I was already confronting the history and the politics, the vendettas and the violence, the tangled drama of Corsican life and its uneasy relationship with France 234 years after being annexed by the mother country. The island's split culture, part French, part Corsican, and its habit of settling scores by violence, was summed up in a tense village funeral at the end of a high granite valley where, on this day, everything operated according to the rules of classical drama.

We were all playing our roles. Old widows in black stood silently on scrubbed doorsteps. Gnarled men in stiff suits whispered under acacia trees. Prolific families slid silently into the meager August shade of the hard stone church. As though sent from Mediterranean central casting, thick-necked friends of the dead man patrolled the streets, scowling like ravens at journalists and photographers.

And François Santoni, the murdered mafioso, the small-time extortionist, a tough guy in Corsica's clandestine separatist movement, did his part by being, at 41, stone-cold dead. A burly man with an engaging smile, Santoni had met his end three nights before when his enemies in the murky underworld of Corsican nationalism had gunned him down. Revenge, it was said, for two books he'd written about some of his former friends.

The church bell began to toll.

The man pulling the bell rope seemed as ancient as the stones themselves. As he pulled, the village was so still I could hear my own heart beat. Suddenly the bell ringer stopped, and shooting tore the air. RRRRRRP! Again RRRRRRRP! It was a machine-gun salute from atop the hill, near Santoni's house, to a fallen soldier in Corsica's long-running turf and identity wars. The drama was being played out today just as it had been for decades—even centuries before—in a setting of soaring mountain ridges and fragrant wild shrub called maquis.

The venue would have been perfect for a wedding.

That's the surprise of Corsica. The island leads two lives: one as offshore paradise where couples often come to be married, the other as France's perennial problem child. French vacationers flock to Corsica's mountains and beaches, but the island is also home to a small but violent separatist movement that has kept the political pot boiling for a quarter century.

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Corsica's persistent and violent movement to separate from France has made its way to the top of the country's political agenda. What are the pros and cons of Corsica becoming an independent nation? Share your thoughts.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Napoleon Bonaparte's relationship with Corsica—his birthplace—was a defining factor in his life from childhood to death. He spent his youth hoping for Corsica's freedom and despising the French, the island's new rulers.  "On Corsica I was given life, and with that life I was also given a fierce love for this my ill-starred homeland and fierce desire for her independence," he once said. The child who would become the emperor of France spent his adult life trying to reconcile his hositility toward the island.

Napoleon was born in Ajaccio, Corsica, only three months after France defeated Corsican patriots led by Pasquale Paoli, a good friend of Napoleon's father, Carlo. While many Corsicans continued their fight for independence, Carlo embraced the French and their way of life. He also began to flaunt his family's noble origins. (The family was of ancient Tuscan nobility and had come to Ajaccio in the 16th century.) Napoleon perceived his father's behavior as a betrayal of his Corsican heritage.

Carlo's behavior angered Napoleon, but his newfound connections helped Carlo secure a scholarship for his nine-year-old son to attend Brienne, a military academy in France. Napoleon arrived in 1778 and was promptly ridiculed by fellow classmates for his Corsican heritage. Napoleon remained aloof from the other students, though his military career advanced. His loyalties to France grew as he spent more time in the country, but his primary passion was still Corsican independence. At the age of 23, as the French Revolution got under way, he took a leave of absence from the French army and went back to Corsica, where he became involved in the island's politics.

When Paoli, Napoleon's childhood idol and now governor of Corsica, broke away from the French revolutionary government and declared the island independent, Napoleon found himself and Paoli on opposing sides. Paoli thought Napoleon had become too sympathetic to France, as well as too ambitious.

The rivalry between the Paoli and Bonaparte clans intensified with time. When Paoli's partisans ransacked the Bonaparte's house, Napoleon and his family fled the island out of fear for their lives. Napoleon never forgot this humiliating experience, which seems to account for why, as emperor, he did not do more for the island. Four years after being hounded off Corsica, the family returned—but without Napoleon. He went back to his birthplace only once, while traveling to France from Egypt in 1799.

Yet Napoleon seemed to make peace with his birthplace before his death. During his days in exile on St. Helena Island, he asked that he be buried beside his ancestors in the cathedral of Ajaccio, if denied burial in Paris.

Napoleon died on St. Helena Island on May 5, 1821, six years after being exiled, and was buried there. His remains were moved to Paris 19 years later, in keeping with his wishes.

—Cate Lineberry

Did You Know?

Related Links
Corse (Corsica) Web
Learn more about Corsica's history and culture.

Corsican Traditional Music Introduction
Discover traditional polyphonic Corsican music and the musicians who keep it alive.
Explore Corsica's cuisine, its industries, and its geography.


Abram, David. The Rough Guide to Corsica. Rough Guides, 2000.

Eyewitness Travel Guides Corsica. DK, 2003.

Facaros, Dana, and Michael Pauls. Cadogan Guide Corsica. Cadogan Guides, 2001.

Schauseil, Alphons. Insight Pocket Guide Corsica. Insight Guides, 2000.


NGS Resources
Cairns, Robert. "Sunny Corsica: French Morsel in the Mediterranean," National Geographic (September 1973), 402-23.

Williams, Maynard Owen. "The Coasts of Corsica: Impressions of a Winter's Stay in the Island Birthplace of Napoleon," National Geographic (September 1923), 221-312.


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