Retrospective on: The ‘Quartier des Etrangers’ in Ajaccio

                                                   

What is generally known as the ‘Quartier des Etrangers’ in Ajaccio remains even today, one of the most attractive and esthetic parts of the town. With the following account, I propose a retrospective of the birth of this international district, as the historical story behind the creation is indeed generous with thought-provoking ideas.
We will be travelling back in time to the birth of tourism in Corsica. And, rightfully so, you may wonder why choose this particular district.
After Napoléon’s death, and for various reasons, authors and artists start coming to Corsica – Balzac, Flaubert and Mérimée come to mind immediately.
Mérimée was an inspector of historical monuments. Flaubert came for his personal pleasure, and Balzac on a stopover. They all had one thing in common; they wanted to see Napoléon’s house ! And, it is also because of Napoléon, that a port was constructed, resulting in steamboats arriving progressively from the mainland in order to visit his birthplace – Balzac would say it was a poor house, because at that moment half of it was still in ruins.
Here, we need to take into account the natural environment of the island – sea, sun and endemic landscapes were more than inviting to those from abroad, who found within, the advantages of a small island, and a new seduction.
During the second empire, the first phase is carried out by Napoléon I, whose initiative is to be continued by Napoléon III. His desire is to make France as appealing as England, and he also wishes to catch up on the tardiness.

Now, Napoléon III has many Corsican friends.
Félix Bacciochi is the son of the Mayor of Ajaccio, and nephew of Elisa Bonaparte. He will achieve three undertakings.
Towards 1840, the Bacciochi family settles into their castle ‘Chateau Bacciochi’, and sets up a weather station – very soon it is observed that the climate is warmer than elsewhere over the summer months, with a difference of 2° between Nice and Ajaccio. He wanted to work hand-in-hand with the botanical gardens that were right beside him. However, when Napoléon III came to power, he is asked to become his secretary in Paris.
Once together, they understand the advantages at stake, and see how tourism flourishes in Nice, the Basque Country and in Normandy. “Why not develop it right here” proclaims Napoléon III, and in 1863 he decides to make Ajaccio a luxurious coastal resort.

Mainly because of the pure air and water that can be found here, structures begin to take position. Napoléon III takes the urbanisation of the town into his hands. For example, a museum, chapel and library are built. The restoration of the family house and chapel are also looked after, with an acting guardian as a guide for tourists. Little by little, a new district will see the light of day between the Place Diamant and the Casone – this will be the international quarter.
But, a property scandal will also be revealed, coming from Mr Ceccaldi who was a public advisor in the opposition at that time. This part belonged to Cardinal Fesch, who had given it to the town in 1839 in his testament – and when the town starts to sell parcels in 1863 to developers, the first one so happens to be Félix Bacciochi – who buys for little or nothing.

Cottages would be built. Individual ones with sea views, access and required domestic services including just about everything that would be necessary – all destined to the wealthy English, who were also at this time very friendly with France. They were searching for exoticism and a change of scene, and with Corsica they would be generously served. Today, one can find a notary office and the Direction du Patrimoine de la Collectivité Territoriale de Corse in their place. The last two cottages were destroyed during the 60’s.
You may remember in the recent past, I wrote about Miss Campbell and her major role in bringing the English to Corsica. She arrived from Scotland around 1860, and stayed at the Hôtel de France (which is the Bar des Sports and the Brasserie du Diamant today). She simply loves Ajaccio, and discovers plots on the way to the Casone, that are still available – she buys two: La Tour d’Albion in 1868, and around the same time the Anglican Church would also be built, because Ajaccio is now starting to have quite an English community and up to this moment, they had been using a room in the Hôtel de France for religious services.

In 1869, Empress Eugénie comes to Corsica for her last visit, with her son the Imperial Prince. His great-oncle Napoléon I used to play at the grotto (Casone), so he was really looking forward to the discovery. It will be literally transformed into a sanctuary, and the Bois des Anglais becomes a favourite walking destination – an unbelievable spot for tourists, offering a wonderful view of the Gulf of Ajaccio. At this point, a savoir-faire has been imported from Switzerland, Paris and Germany, and nothing is left at random.

We’re arriving at the beginning of the Third Empire.
Ajaccio becomes an attraction. New hotels are built, the Cyrnos Palace in 1891 and the Grand Hotel Continental – which is now the headquarters of the CTC (Collectivités Territoriales de la Corse), with exotic gardens leading straight down to the sea. Palm trees are planted on Boulevard Lantivy around 1880, and it becomes a promenade, which I may add is still extremely popular today.
Then, what we know as the Sanguinaires Road is developed – this used to be a shepherd’s path leading to a granite quarry, filled with surrounding vines.
Barbicajhga will also be transformed, with orange trees growing for making jam and candied fruit and horse-drawn carriages will delight the population.

At this moment, tourism has arrived at a peak; there’s a Palace, Café Napoléon (also remaining significant today), and a renowned bakery ‘Mille’ on the Cours Napoléon (which I will be telling you about, at a future date).
Beginning of the 20th century, a project is considered for the Casone area, keeping in mind that Trottel and the Place Miot are nearby, taking the form of a triangular design, including a hotel for thermal baths and a casino. However, the unexpected arrives in the form of a war – WW1 1914-1918 – this puts an end to the expansion and modification of this district, which will resume after WW2. Interesting to note all the same, all of the above took place over forty years. With culture and nature being proposed at their advantage – museums, chapels, a theatre and a library inviting tourists to come and spend their money in enticing comfort – with the sea, right at their doorstep.

Once again, my thanks to Philippe Perfettini historian at the Fesch Museum, for his time, help and willingness in accompanying me through these captivating historical times and events. Looking back today, one cannot help but be amazed at imagining how life once was, and how many changes have indeed altered the Corsican way of life.

Photos credit: Philippe Perfettini

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