Aerial view of calanques de Piana, where the sea meets the rugged coast
Schroptschop | iStock

The Best of Calanques de Piana: By Boat, Car, or Foot

Red cliffs, Mediterranean charm, boat tours, and stunning hikes on Corsica’s rugged west coast. 

Fascinating, tumultuous Corsica is not just the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. Its strategic location has consistently placed it at the center of historical conflicts. Coupled with dramatic landscapes, gorgeous beaches, and beautiful architecture, Corsica is a unique island destination for those who want an atypical French holiday. It’s also worth adding to your list if you’re exploring the south of France on a longer trip.

No trip to the “île de beauté” is complete without exploring the calanques – unique geological formations that form deep, steep inland valleys, typically found on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. On a road trip between Ajaccio and Calvi or during a weekend escape in beautiful Piana, find out how to explore and make the most of the Calanques de Piana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Calanques with mist over the sea and mountains in the background
Digitalchateau | iStock

The Beauty of the Calanques de Piana

Calanques are as beautiful as they are unique. In western Corsica, the Calanques de Piana (Calanche de Piana) stand apart from their more renowned counterparts in mainland France’s Marseille region. Unlike those gleaming white limestone cliffs, the Piana formations boast red ochre hues, creating a mesmerizing contrast against the sunlit sky and sea.

UNESCO has deemed the Calanques de Piana and the Gulf of Porto in general to be part of its World Heritage collection. This celebrates both the stunning geological formations and the biodiversity of the Scandola Nature Reserve where the cliffs are situated. Red porphyritic rocks catch the eye and create beautiful coves to explore by boat. Below them, the clear waters in the area are home to diverse marine life. All around, the shores are covered in unique vegetation.

The maquis scrubland that’s found across Corsica is a fragrant Mediterranean plant mix giving the island the nickname “Scented Isle.” It includes myrtle, arbousier, and curry plant among others, all with different colored flowers and perfumes. 

Sea cave of the calanche from a boat tour
Sasha64f | iStock

Exploring the Calanques by Boat

While you can marvel at the seascapes and the rocks from the shore, there’s nothing quite like views from offshore. From this angle, visitors can fully appreciate the intricate rock formations and the caves and coves created over the years. 

Several companies organize boat tours and day excursions in the Gulf of Porto, allowing you to explore the calanques at leisure. Some boat tours, like those run by Corse Emotion, use semi-rigid boats to navigate close to the rocks and through the coves along the shore. If you have more time, drive to Tiuccia and join Mare Bellu Corse for a full-day boat trip through the Scandola reserve, with a 4-hour stopover in picturesque Calvi and a swim break at the Calanques de Piana. 

Although boat tours are a fantastic way to get close to the calanques, we need to note the importance of being respectful of the environment in the Scandola Nature Reserve. The rich marine life and birds can be easily disrupted or even endangered by reckless activity, so please check your tour organizer’s credentials before you book. 

View of the cliffs and shores below from capo rosso near the calanques de piana
ODrachenko | iStock

Hiking Adventures in Calanques de Piana

On the ground, hiking allows you to take in beautiful views and experience first-hand other sensory delights (like the perfume of the maquis). Corsica is extremely popular with hikers, its GR20 trail attracting people from all over the world (up to 20,000 visits annually). But the Calanques de Piana offers a wilder, more rugged experience.

The Tourist Office recommends a number of itineraries to explore the area on foot. The most rewarding (albeit challenging) track is the 5-mile walk to the old watchtower of Turghiu—the Capo Rosso (Capu Rossu) hike. You’ll cross the fragrant maquis as you walk alongside one of the highest sea cliffs in Europe to reach the tower. From the tower, enjoy 360-degree views of the Gulf of Porto and the dramatic seascapes. 

Some insider hiking tips:

  • Start the Capo Rosso hike from this free parking spot.
  • Bring plenty of water with you. It can get very hot and there are no water sources along the way. 
  • Allow up to 5 hours for the out-and-back trail.
  • Pack snacks and sun protection. 
  • Leave earlier in the morning to avoid the hottest part of the day, or go for a late afternoon hike to make the most of the soft lighting.
  • Ensure you take all your trash with you and respect the nature reserve.
The village of Piana in corsica
Eugenesergeev | iStock

Exploring The Village of Piana

The Calanques de Piana can be reached by driving on the winding road between Ajaccio and Calvi. While a day trip is possible, you may wish to make the most of the scenery by overnighting in the quiet, picturesque village of Piana.

The Capo Rosso hike is only a 10-minute drive from the town and you’ll be well placed for exploring the calanques from your base at the aptly named Hotel Capo Rosso. The village’s top attraction is its surroundings, but it’s also worth visiting the old Baroque church featuring typical Corsican paintings inside. 

To the northeast of Piana, a short but steep walk from the Tête de Chien car park (literally “dog’s head,” named for the rock that looks exactly like one) takes you to what’s known as the Château Fort de Piana — the fortress. This is not a medieval fort, but rather an impressive geological formation. You will also get exceptional views of the area around the village from here. 

While in Piana, don’t forget to sample some high-quality Corsican cuisine, a blend of Italian and French with local flair. The Chalet Les Roches Bleues offers an appealing menu featuring traditional dishes, cocktails, and artisanal ice-creams. The Corsican burger, served at lunch, is particularly tasty.  

Corsica is also a fantastic wine producer. Start your exploration with an apéritif of cured meats (coppa, saucisson, and prisuttu ham) paired with a sweet Muscat du Cap-Corse. The local go-to: the épicerie Castellani, where you can delight in sweet pastries and cakes, and also have a romantic drink and light bite in the evening. 

Aerial view of boats docked by a white sand beach and blue waters near the calanche
Schroptschop | iStock

Amazing Beaches and Views

Southern French beaches are notoriously beautiful. But, while the glitz and glamor can become a bit loud in famous places like Cannes, Corsica retains a peaceful, undiscovered vibe. The small but beautiful beach at Ficajola can be reached after a short walk from the car park. It’s surrounded by red rocks and covered in a mix of sand and pebbles. Swim in the pristine blue water and admire the landscape.

A slightly bigger, but still charming option, is the Arone beach, easily accessible by car in 20 minutes from Piana. This quiet spot manages to stay laid back throughout the summer months. After the Capo Rosso hike, it’s a perfect way to end the day with a swim, as you will already be halfway to Arone on your return. 

sunset colors highlight the red ochre colors of the clanques hues
Firebird007 | Shutterstock

Captivating Sunsets and Beautiful Views of Calanques de Piana

Thanks to the multiple shades of red, orange, and pink displayed by the calanques, sunset is a particularly beautiful time of day to view the rocks. Warm lighting brings out the ochre colors against the blue backdrop of sky and sea. Moreover, it’s the perfect time to observe all the cracks and features on the rock walls, since the light isn’t as harsh as in the middle of the day.

Take an afternoon stroll on the beach or go on an evening boat cruise to take in all this beautiful place has to offer. You could spend hours making out the shapes created by centuries of erosion. It’s also a good idea to bring binoculars to explore the nooks and crannies, where you may see local birds like cormorants and sea eagles. 

View of the road D81 surrounded by the red-orange calanques
ChiccoDodiFC | iStock

If you’re short on time, an evening drive on the D81 will also allow you to take in exceptional views. The road cuts through the spectacular rock formations in a few places, which makes for some great scenery. It is even scenic in bad weather, when the fog makes the landscapes look particularly dramatic. It’s a twisty, narrow road, so be aware of other drivers, be ready to stop, and use the passing places to drive through the tightest sections. 

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