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Bonifacio: City of Cliffs is France's best-kept secret

Updated 4:56 AM ET, Wed June 13, 2018

(CNN) - An undiscovered beach town in Mediterranean Europe? Well, almost.

Perched high up a white limestone cliff on the southern coast of Corsica lies the medieval town of Bonifacio.

Known as the "Mediterranean's Sentinel," or simply, the "Citadel of Cliffs," it's arguably the best-kept secret in France. It's untroubled by summer crowds despite being in possession of beautiful cobblestone alleyways and a shoreline of sparkling waters.

Bonifacio is on the southern coast of Corsica, separated from the Italian island of Sardinia by the 11-kilometer-long Strait of Bonifacio, which is named after the town.

The two islands were once joined, but volcanic activity tore them apart, leaving huge shards of granite rock in the turquoise waters.

The sea floor here is now dotted with wrecks of pirate ships and ancient vessels which crashed against the many crags, and has become a mecca for divers.

"During the harshest winds, fishermen boats can't get out of the harbor because of the high waves and strong currents," says local wood artisan Pietro Borsu while surveying the mouth of Bonifacio.

But the occasionally unforgiving sea has played a huge part in keeping this southernmost tip of Corsica so pristine.

"The crags, carved by the millinery joint action of sea and strong winds, are a natural fortress that has kept the village safe across centuries," adds Borsu proudly.

Protected fortress town

Bunifaziu, as locals call Corsica's oldest town, has much to protect.

Forget mass tourism, packed beaches and English-speaking travelers, this secluded town features an ancient citadel, narrow streets, colorful houses and fiery separatist locals, who speak in a unusual dialect comprised of Italian and French, and dream of independence.

With its myriad of monasteries, chapels, prehistoric sites and Roman cisterns, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in Italy rather than France.

L'Arinella, a secluded beach, reachable via a panoramic coastal hiking route, is one of the town's highlights.

However, locals prefer to go to the multi-layered cliffs to sunbathe in caves or skinny dip in hidden coves, with the view of Sardinia's La Maddalena archipelago out in the distance.

Poetic history

Founded at around 830 A.D., Bonifacio is Corsica's oldest town and is believed to have been referenced in one of the most ancient -- and popular -- poems ever written.

According to legend, it's the land in Homer's "Odyssey" where Greek hero Odysseus runs into a local tribe called the Laestrygonians, who are described as giant cannibals. Luckily, the cunning warrior manages to escape before being eaten.

Nowadays Bonifaciens have decidedly different dietary preferences.

Honey-roasted baby piglet covered, clams stuffed with grated sheep cheese and aubergines cooked the Bonifacio way are among the local specialties.

Brocciu, fresh ricotta served with platters of strong-scented salami and hams that compose local "terroir" products, is also a favorite, as is Figatellu, a pork and liver sausage.

Restaurants of note include U Castillé (7 Rue Simon Varsi; +33 4 95 73 04 99), offering great views of the cliffs, Ciccio (Rue Saint-Jean Baptiste; +33 6 16 98 81 68), which is enclosed by old stone walls and Stella d'Oro (7 Rue Doria; +33 4 95 73 03 63), featuring an old olive mill.

Locals tend to spend their evenings in cafés and pubs, with Café de la Poste (6 Rue Fred Scamaroni; +33 4 95 73 04 58) in the main piazza a top draw as well as La Caravelle (Quai Comparetti; +33 4 95 73 03 18), which is also a hotel and fish tavern, overlooking the town's picturesque port.

Legendary sites

Many of the town's main gems lie beneath the surface, but you have to work hard to reach them.

The Staircase of King Aragon Alfonso V features 187 steep steps, carved inside the flanks of the cliff, that descend to the sea.

With an inclination of 45 degrees, dizziness and painful thighs are almost guaranteed.

Legend has it the staircase was built by the King of Aragon's guards in one night during the failed siege of Bonifacio in 1420, though it's most likely to have been constructed by residents to collect fresh water from a spring.

This is a killer path, especially the climb back, so it's best to avoid tackling it throughout the hottest hours of the day.

Once at the bottom, you can refresh with a nice dive into the turquoise waters.

Then there's the chemin de ronde, which runs inside the fortified walls surrounding the citadel and is a great place to escape the scorching sun.

The walkway leads to the sailors' graveyard (Cimetiere Marin), with its stunning views of the strait.

From the tiny chapel of St. Roch, a narrow stair descends to the equally tiny pebble beach of Sutta Rocca facing the Grain de Sable, huge lump of fallen rock face which local youngsters love to dive from.

It's also a great snorkeling spot thanks to the blue and red starfish swimming a few feet from the shore.

Other activities include a three-hour randonée, a mix of "trekking and bathing," from the chapel to the areas many pirate coves and beaches, including La Catena and L'Arinella.

But the best way to explore the "Citadel of Cliffs" is by sea.

Gina Croisière organizes boat trips inside the Bonifacio Straits International Marine Park, stopping in various caves and grottoes.

Waters of paradise

Bonifacio Plongée takes expert divers to Mérouville, the renowned underwater "City of Groupers" off the paradise atolls of Lavezzi.

Here you'll likely find yourself staring into the eyes of 50 kilogram heavy marine giants as friendly barracudas swirl around.

Bonifacio is also in close proximity to many of Corsica's top beaches, which are far more remote than those of neighboring Sardinia.

With its strong winds, Piantarella beach, renowned for its majestic lagoon, is a paradise for wind surfers. Visitors can also rent kayaks and paddle boards to explore its sparkling waters.

Then there's the crescent moon-shaped Rondinara beach, which has a fabulous tropical vibe, while scenic Palombaggia stands out thanks to the pine trees that jut out into the sea.

Guided quad and jet ski tours can be taken into the wilderness around Bonifacio, all the way to the tip of Sperone.

Ranch San Diego organizes three-day horseback adventures across dunes and the rosemary-scented maquis plants, where travelers camp at night time and cook their meals over a fire.

You can let the quadruped do the swimming for you during the daytime.

As for hotels, Western Hotel du Roy d'Aragon (13, Quai Jérôme Comparetti; +33 495 730 399) offers a cozy sojourn in Bonifacio's picturesque harbor while Hotel Version Maquis Citadelle (Quartier Brancuccio Lieu dit Padurella; +33 4 95 71 05 30) is a luxury boutique resort facing the shimmering cliffs and the Lavezzi islands.


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