Traditional Culture in Corsica

Bonifacio—The comic-strip character Astérix is a household name in France, as well known as the Smurfs or Tintin. Astérix, who celebrates his 50th anniversary this year, is a first-century B.C Gaul. Along with his best friend, Obélix, he spends his time fighting back the encroaching Roman Empire, which has conquered the rest of his country. Back in 50 B.C., Astérix lived in Brittany. Today, however, he would certainly be a proud Corsican.

In principle, France belongs to the global village like the rest of mankind. But in practice, the country’s island territory, seven miles north of Italian Sardinia, continues to resist globalization. Corsica, also known as L’Ile de Beauté, has a special status within the French republic, expressing a culture that is firmly attached to its traditions. This is a part of the world that forges characters that are every bit as powerful as its cheese and liqueurs. Napoléon Bonaparte was born here. Nicolas Sarkozy is a frequent visitor; in fact, his first wife was Corsican.

As I approach the coast, heading for Bonifacio, the town at the southern tip of the island, it becomes clearer by the minute that even topographically Corsica is radically different from other places. The land here has its own pungent and particular scent: a blend of oak, heather, lavender, rosemary, and juniper that comes from the maquis, the layer of brush that grows in the hills above the island’s inlets and narrow beaches. Thickly mantled by southern flora, the country here offers a paradise for hunters of wild boar and gatherers of chestnuts, and a refuge for Corsican separatist fighters.

Ulysses himself is said to have taken refuge in the harbor of Bonifacio, looking out on a sea lashed white by the mistral. Indeed, the view from Bonifacio is unforgettably beautiful, encompassing fold upon fold of craggy cliffs etched with sea caves. The cape here has been both longed for and dreaded by the seafarers who round it, for the winds are notoriously fickle and violent in the narrows where the Mediterranean and Tyrrhenian seas collide.

I climb the 187 steps cut into the limestone cliff to the topmost point of this town of 2,500 souls. Walking along a street as calm as the ten churches and convents that surround it, I spot a charcuterie. Directly opposite it is a café whose furniture seems to have remained unchanged since 1945. I enter the charcuterie, eager to savor the delights of coppa, figatelli (sausage made from fresh dried pig’s liver)…and the divine surprise of a pâté de sanglier (wild boar pâté). It isn’t official hunting season, so technically fresh wild-boar products should not be available. But people here do not easily adapt to rules handed down from above, and this small act of defiance reminds me that, at least in one part of France, the spirit of Astérix lives on.

Flights from Paris to Figari Sud-Corse, the airport closest to Bonifacio, take about an hour and 40 minutes. From there, it’s a 20-minute drive to Bonifacio. Neutres recommends staying at the U Capu Biancu hotel (from $360; Rt. Canetto; 33-4/95-73-05-58), which has a private beach. His favorite restaurant is Cantina Doria (dinner, $70; 33-4/95-73-50-49) on Rue Doria, for authentic Corsican cuisine. As for the charcuterie, he refuses to give up its location.