Monumental ... Foch Square, Ajaccio.

Monumental ... Foch Square, Ajaccio. Photo: Getty Images

Phoebe Smith eschews Corsica's gruelling GR20 hike for the gentler pace on the island's coastline.

There's a protest in Ajaccio and things could get ugly. Not because of rioters objecting to frozen pay and pensions, or students demanding an end to tuition fees. No, here in the Corsican capital, the furore is over a car park and it's not the demonstration that could get ugly, but the town centre itself.

In central Cesar-Campinchi square, a planned 678-space multistorey car park would mean a patch of trees being cut down. It's the sort of thing that happens in cities across the globe, but here protesters are hanging signs on the tree trunks that read "CUNDANATU A MORTI" (sentenced to death).

A spokesman for the group describes cutting down the trees as a form of "slaughter".

It's protests such as this that explain why I go walking in Corsica. Here, they don't just love nature - they love it and will do all they can to protect it. Eco-projects abound, from plans for a marine reserve on the coast to stop overfishing and protect key species - which, miraculously, is supported and even called for by resident fishermen - to an ongoing program that recently saw the reintroduction of red deer (poached to local extinction in 1969).

The passion is hardly surprising. Corsica is beautiful, with wonderful beaches, pretty villages, natural pools and hilly woodlands veined with meandering streams. The best-known way to explore its interior is the challenging 180-kilometre GR20, one of Europe's famed walking trails. It stretches from Calenzana in the north to Conca in the south and is considered one of the most difficult long-distance treks on the continent (there are exposed scrambles and, at some points, ladders and steel ropes to assist walkers). The hike can take weeks, with stays in refuges or camping on the way.

However, coastal Corsica also has a lot to offer walkers. Ajaccio is flanked by green foothills covered in an aromatic carpet of vegetation and herbs. Beyond them, a rocky ridge line dramatically pierces the sky and below are beaches of golden sand. Around here are short, easier hikes.

As I head through suburban streets to the trail head of my chosen route, the Chemin des Cretes (Path of the Ridges), I pass statue after statue of Ajaccio's famous son, Napoleon Bonaparte. Given the hero worship of this leader, the fighting spirit of its eco-activists begins to make sense. The Path of the Ridges begins opposite the Bois des Anglais, a patch of woodland left over from the island's short stint as a British colony more than 200 years ago.

Less than 10 kilometres long, the route cuts along the peaks above the coast and offers stunning views for very little effort. At walk's end a very civilised drink can be found in a bar in the seaside village of Vignola.

Along the sandy path, lizards dart about my feet and birds perch on the edge of spiky cacti.

The sign at the start promised that blue arrows would line the walk, but these seem to have been worn away or covered by scrub. A crossroads offers a choice of direction, but sure that height equals views, and in spite of the intense sunshine, I opt to keep climbing. Thankfully, intuition turns out to be an accurate navigation tool and I reach a wider forest track and the chemin proper.

Here the views begin to open up, back to Ajaccio and over to the sea. The land is carved into an elaborate jigsaw of beaches and inlets in a delicate mix of blue and gold. And as I move through the bushes, a eucalyptus haze adds its shades of blue to the air in front of me.

My pace is slow; a mountain biker whizzes past me, his spokes clattering as stones ricochet off. Then two glamorous joggers trot up, speaking in their unique Corsican tongue, obviously in training. Every April, locals and competitors from further afield run the Napoleon Trail on this route. It's a great racetrack, but I think going at a leisurely pace is the real winner. You have time to explore oddities along the way, such as the bizarre rock formations, some like bony fingers reaching to the sky, others resembling faces with stony gazes fixed out to sea.

Who could blame them? With the full extent of the gulf of Ajaccio revealed, and the Iles Sanguinaires creeping out on to the horizon, my gaze, too, is fixed on this tiny, rocky archipelago that breaks off from the mainland at Pointe de la Parata. They're called the Isles of Blood because of the reddish colour they reflect into the sea.

You can get a good look at the islands' wind- and-spray-scoured shapes on another, shorter walk here. Take the number 5 bus from Ajaccio to the start of the waymarked path (in the car park) and it's a 40-minute round trip to the end of the Pointe de la Parata peninsula. Come in the early evening to avoid the tour buses.

The next day I opt for an even more relaxing stroll: following the promenade west from Ajaccio until it becomes the Route des Sanguinaires. This is coastal walking at its best - no complicated navigation, no hills to climb, just a pleasant walk beside the beach. I find myself lingering at St-Francois beach, just 10 minutes into the stroll, to dip my feet in the water.

As I sit staring out to sea, I consider how, tomorrow, I may drive 20 kilometres to the mountain village of Vero for its one-kilometre waymarked Casteddu Loop or head a little higher to Bastelica (about 30 kilometres) for some real mountain scenery on a four- or five-hour circular route from the ski resort of Ese. I could even bag the 2352-metre peak of Monte Renoso. Or maybe, as the waves lap at my feet, just linger on Ajaccio's beaches a little longer.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates has a fare to Ajaccio from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2497 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Nice (7hr 10min), then on CCM Airlines to Ajaccio (50min); see emirates.com. Ferries from Marseille, Toulon and Nice run regularly to Ajaccio's port.

Staying there

Ajaccio has a wealth of hotels, holiday residences, B&Bs and self-catering accommodation, and there's a network of camping sites across Corsica.

More information

See corsica.forhikers.com; www.visit-corsica.com/en.