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This extract from chapter X of Homer’s Odyssey remains a mystery. Historians still ponder over the place cited. But in Bonifacio the general sentiment is to take the writer at his word and credit the myth…After all, given the harbour’s central position, at the heart of the Mediterranean’s sea routes, why wouldn’t Ulysses have trodden these dazzling white cliffs and lead his fleet into battle against the fierce Laestrygones? The myth has gone down in the town’s history and one can easily imagine, not without some pride, how this remarkable site was a source of inspiration in ancient times. The port has always played an important role in the day-to-day life of Bonifacio’s inhabitants, essential both for its fishing and trade which brought much needed revenue to the town. But it also represented a danger since it left the town at risk of attack from the sea, coveted by ferocious invaders keen to exploit such a location and its natural advantages. Well before the 15th century, the present day marina was the site of the town’s port, with just a few small breakwaters at the mouth to protect it from the waves. It was during the 15th century that the port developed into the maritime quarter, the “Marina” that we know today.
The maritime quarter, or “the Marina”, played a very significant role in terms of maritime trade between Genoa, Sardinia, Corsica, Marseille, Tunisia, and Syria etc.
The inviting Marina extends for some 500 metres and is particularly pleasant in summer when the atmosphere is lively and buzzing. As with so many commercial ports, its past was rather turbulent, due in particular to the bitter fighting for control of the citadel between the republics of Pisa and Genoa, both of whom recognised its strategic position as a military base and unequalled port infrastructure in Corsica. It was Pisa who first gained control and governed until the end of the 12th century. The island has always been a much sought after possession since antiquity due to its strategic location, the possibility of getting fresh supplies being of more interest than its inhabitants. But the Marina was not always as you see it today.
Before 1900, the bottom of the port was a simple beach where fishermen could lay out their nets on the ground. It was not until the end of the 19th century that the first quays were built, primarily for defence reasons. The Marina, like the upper town though to a lesser extent, was equipped with a defence system (gateway and tower, portcullis, outer walls), which was demolished later on. Furthermore, for safety reasons all the buildings lining the Marina had to be terraced, their walls adjoining and any openings being onto the seafront only. The Marina was completely refurbished in 1990, with a row of cafés and restaurants and their terraces lining the harbour. A pedestrian walkway planted intermittently with trees was added along the quayside. Whilst most shopkeepers and businesses like the new development, it has nonetheless drastically altered life in the community here.
The volume of passenger traffic with Sardinia (250,000 passengers per year) makes Bonifacio Corsica’s 3rd busiest port after Bastia and Ajaccio and the second, after Bastia, for foreign traffic. Another asset is the Cruise ship market. Every year between May and October Bonifacio welcomes cruise ships, lying second in position only to Ajaccio in this sector, the only drawback being the limited size of the harbour. On this front, and in spite of the increase in traffic, the organisation and management of the port has, admittedly, been very skilfully handled by those in charge.
Over the course of the last twenty years quite major works have been carried out: new docking quays and a modern harbour station for passenger and cruise ship traffic as well as new landing stages for pleasure craft. But more or less long-term forecasts predict that the port will be saturated. Up until the start of the 20th century there was even a passenger ferry service from Bonifacio to the mainland and until the 1970’s a cargo ferry to Marseille. The major challenge currently facing the port of Bonifacio is to continue to export its exceptional image (as the Mediterranean’s 1st port in terms of activity) and, by carrying out major works, to increase its capacity.
Text based on the book “Bonifacio à travers ses rues et places” by François Canonici, Published by A stamperia and Alain Di Meglio’s article, “Ulysse comme métaphore”