Calenzana, Corsica; a small town rich in history

Photo of Calenzana

Visit Calenzana

Calenzana, or Calinzana in Corsican, is a small town which today is probably best known for being the starting point for the GR20 long distance footpath across Corsica, however it also has a very turbulent history.

Calenzana is one of the Balagne villages and is situated about 13 km to the south east of Calvi in a beautiful mountain setting.

A little history

Calenzana was originally the Roman town of Olmi and developed due to its surrounding fertile fields. It is still known today for its wine and its cheese. However Calenzana is mostly visited because it is the starting point of the GR20 and the Mare e Monti long-distance walks. It does though have a fascinating history.

In the 18th century Calanzana was a proudly Corsican town whilst neighbouring Calvi was firmly Genoese. During the War of Independence the Genoese hired 8000 German mercenaries and 600 of these were sent to overpower Calenzana.  Calenzana heard about the upcoming raid and prepared an interesting defence. The German mercenaries were allowed to march right into the town with no resistance and then they were ambushed by Corsican rebels whilst Calenzana townsfolk poured boiling water on them, threw rocks and burning torches and even beehives!

When the Germans tried to escape the bees a stampede of enraged bulls coated in flaming pitch was set upon them. Only 100 of the 600 Germans survived. The 500 dead are buried under the bell tower in the main square.

calanzana bell tower

2 decades later and Calenzana was again embroiled in historical events. Calenzana is the birthplace of the Guerini family who were the godfathers of  an important milieu (mafia-style) family in Marseille in the 1930s and 1940s. They have even been linked to the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963. Many of the larger houses in Calenzana belonged to the Guerini family and their associates and lawyers.

The family did though redeem themselves somewhat in the second world war when they were active with the Resistance, although they did also profit from trading with the occupying Germans.

Explore Calenzana

The most interesting site in Calenzana, apart from its magnificent mountain backdrop, is the church and belltower on the main square of the town. The belltower has a plaque commemorating the burial here of the 500 German mercenaries. The church of Saint Blaise was built int the 17-18 th centuries.

The town has a fair number of quite large and attractive buildings but much of the town has a rather shabby look and looks in need of some renovation and an influx of cash.

Sainte Restitude Chapel

On the edge of Calenzana on the road leading to Zilia is the little Chapel of Sainte Restitude. The chapel is dedicated to Saint Restitude who, with her 5 companions, was martyred in the year 304. In the middle of the 4th century during a period of peace their remains were brought to the cemetary here. In 1951 a 4th century sarcophagus was discovered under the altar containing 6 bodies believed to be Sainte Restitude and her companions. This is now in the crypt.

You can pick up a key to see the inside of the Romanesque chapel from the village tabac at St-Blaise. Inside the chaple you can visit the crypt and the sarcophagus. There are also some fine 14th century frescoes depicting Sainte Restitude's story. Strangely there is also a menhir inside the sacristy of the chapel.

Sainte Restitude converted to Christianity and was denounced. Various tortures were carried out to persuade her to denounce her faith including: flogging with a pizzle (bull's penis); gouging her skin with iron combs (which drew milk rather than blood); stoning; being burnt in a furnace (which she survived); drowning at sea (which she survived but not her torturers). This extraordinary resilience led to some of her tormentors converting to Christianity. Finally she and her 5 companions were beheaded.

Even if you don't get the keys to the chapel it is worth stopping to admire the incredible ancient olive trees in the grounds of the chapel.  The size of their trunks and their craggy appearance is remarkable. Sadly there were once many more but in 2005 many were burnt down by arsonists in a series of fires in the locality.

A statue of Sainte Restitude and a wooden reliquary containing her bones is paraded around the village twice a year during the festival of Sain

olive trees at saint restitude chapel

te Restitude on the 21st May and during the Easter procession.

The GR20

A stunning long-distance mountain walk considered to be one of the most beautiful in Europe.

The GR20 is a long distance mountain path which starts at Calenzana in north-east Corsica  and ends in Conca in south-west Corsica. Its 200km are nearly all at altitude and it passes very few towns. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful walks in Europe but it is also one of the most difficult and should only be attempted by experienced walkers.

For more information you can visit the Maison du GR20 at the Gite du GR20 in Calenzana.

Places to Visit Nearby

Montemaggiore is another of the Balagne villages and is close to Calenzana.

Sant'Antonino is another of the villages and is also classified as a 'most beautiful village of France'.

For more Balagne villages see our Balagne villages guide.

South of Calenzana and about a thirty to forty minutes drive away is the Cirque de Bonifato a beautiful formation of rocky pink granite spiky mountains.

See also:

Map of Calenzana & places nearby

Selected places to visit in or near Calenzana, Corsica