Monday, September 27, 2010

caught with the flame of the upper earth


Bastia, nowadays capital of the department of Haute-Corse, was the capital of the entire island under Genoa’s colonial administration, and it was the Genoese who laid the foundation of northern Corsica’s prosperity by encouraging the planting of vines, olives, chestnut trees and other more experimental crops – there’s even a village called Sparagaghiju (Asparagus) in the hills above St. Florent.

Paradoxically, the dominant tone of Corsica’s most successful commercial town, Bastia, is one of charismatic dereliction, as the city’s industrial zone is spread onto the lowlands to the south, leaving the centre of town with plenty of aged charm. This charm might not be too apparent from the vast place St-Nicholas and the two boulevards parallel to it, which, though flanked by faded Art Deco shop fronts, are choked with expensive cars and busy shoppers. But to the south of here lies the old quarter known as Terra Vecchia, a tightly packed network of haphazard streets, flamboyant Baroque churches and lofty tenements, their crumbling golden-grey walls set against a backdrop of maquis-covered hills. Terra Nova, the historic district on the opposite side of the old port from Terra Vecchia, is a tidier zone that’s now Bastia’s yuppie quarter, housing the island’s top-flight architects, doctors and lawyers.

Young upper-crust Bastiais always used to be sent to Italian universities for their education, a traffic that has had a marked effect on the city’s tradition of professional success and on its cultural life – it’s here that you’ll find Corsica’s only purpose-built theatre. Modelled on Milan’s La Scala, it was regularly visited by the great Italian opera stars, and nowadays, even though some of the gloss has gone, the place fills up for occasional concerts by touring companies or for one of Bastia’s film festivals. Nothing packs in the crowds quite like the recurrent nationalist rallies, however, for Bastia is something of a centre for dissidence. Discontent with the way the city is run is a constant feature of life here, as highlighted in 1989, when Bastia’s civil servants rioted over the mysterious disappearance of local government funds – the disturbances culminated soon after with the razing of the local tax office by a nationalist-terrorist bomb. Highly politicized and busily self-sufficient, Bastia may make few concessions to tourism, but its grittiness makes it a more genuine introduction to Corsica.

In the 12th century, when Corsica was under Pisan control, wine was exported to the Italian mainland form Porto Cardo, forerunner of Bastia’s Vieux Port. Moorish raids made the area too vulnerable to inhabit, however, and it wasn’t until the Genoese ascendancy that the port began to thrive. At first the colony was governed from the former Roman base at Biguglia, to the south, but in 1372, when the fort was burned down by Corsican rebels, the Genoese abandoned the malarial site in favour of Porto Cardo, a spot close to Genoa and within easy trading distance of the fertile regions of the eastern plain, Balagne and Cap Corse. Before the end of the decade the governor Leonello Lomellino, had built the bastiglia (dungeon) which gave the town its name; ramparts were constructed high on the escarpment above the port, and Genoese families, attracted by offers of free building land, began to settle within the fortifications in an area which became Terra Nova.

The 16th century saw the rise of a new class of merchants and artisans who settled around the harbour on the site of Porto Cardo, the area now known as Terra Vecchia. The boom lasted until 1730, when Bastia was raided by an army of four thousand peasants, following similar attacks on Aléria and the Balagne settlements. Provoked to desperation by the corrupt despotism of the Genoese republic, the paesani went on the rampage for three days, annihilating most of the population of Terra Vecchia, who lacked the protection of the upper-class inhabitants of Terra Nova. Peace was finally restored by the intervention of the bishop of Aléria, but the remaining Genoese merchants promptly left for the safer ports of Bonifacio and Calvi, and Bastia went into decline.

During the Wars of Independence (1729 – 96) Bastia became a battleground. Pascal Paoli coveted the town for its strong position facing Italy, but it took two attempts and the efforts of the British fleet to take the citadel - the second assault was led by Nelson and Hood, who though outnumbered by tow to one, overcame the defenders in a long and difficult siege. In 1794, in the wake of this victory, Bastia became home to English viceroy Sir Gilbert Elliot, who lived here for two years of the Anglo-Corsican alliance. Basita’s hour of glory was short-lived, howver, as the French finally gained full control of Corsica in 1796, and the island was dicided into two départments.

Despite the fact that in 1811 Napoléon appointed Ajaccio capital of the island, initiating a rivalry between the two towns that exists to this day, Bastia soon established a stronger trading position with mainland France. The Nouveau Port, created in 1862 to cope with the increasing traffic with France and Italy, became the mainstay of the local economy, exporting chiefly agricultural products from Cap Corse, Balagne and the eastern plain. During World War II Bastia was the only town on Corsica to be severly bombed- ironically, by the Americans. On the day after the island’s liberation in 1943, a squadron of B52s belatedly launched an aerial attack against the non-existent Germans, Von Senger und Etterlin’s Ninth Panzer division having already completed its withdrawal across the Ligurian Sea. With many people in the streets celebrating the retreat, civilian casualties exceeded the total sustained throughout the occupation and many buildings were destroyed, including much of the old governor’s palace; the consequences of the bombing can still be seen in Terra Vecchia.

Today Bastia’s population has grown to forty thousand, with the long-standing industries of freight handling and small-scale manufacture providing most of the employment, augmented by the burgeoning bureaucracies of local government. The city has also become a hotbed of nationalist activity, with more than its fair share of political assassinations and bombings in recent years; among these was the explostion in July 1996 in the Vieux Port, which killed a prominent Cuncolta leader.

Grazie mille to