AS every schoolchild knows, Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy. Or was he? Citizens of the small town of Calvi, on the rugged French island of Corsica, think otherwise. Nor can their claim to being the great discoverer's birthplace be dismissed out of hand.
From 1132 to 1768, the town of Calvi was governed by the city-state of Genoa, that bustling seaport on Italy's west coast. During all those centuries, residents of Calvi were legally considered citizens of Genoa. They paid their taxes to Genoa, in return for which they enjoyed Genoan military protection. So when Columbus formally described himself as a Genoan, which he did on more than one occasion, he did not necessarily mean he was born in Genoa. And, curiously, exhaustive research by even the most ar dent skeptics has failed to cite a single verified instance in which Columbus ever wrote or said that he was born in the city of Genoa.
Why did he never make such a declaration during his lifetime, and why does the biography of Columbus, written by his son Fernando also fail to state that he was born in Genoa? The answer, according to the citizens of Calvi, is simple enough: Columbus, they say, was not born in Genoa in 1451, but rather in Calvi 10 years earlier.
If you take your left hand, hold it palm down, and make it into a fist with the index finger extended, you have a rough outline of Corsica. Calvi sits right above the knuckle of your little finger. The town is shaped like a horseshoe, with its lovely deep water bay protected by two arms of land. The right arm consists of a long, unbroken line of pristine beaches, stretched like a white hem along the base of incredibly steep, snowcapped mountains, the highest of which looms more than 8,000 feet into the blue Mediterranean sky. The left arm rises steeply into a high hill, atop which stands the town's ancient citadel.
The first fortifications of the citadel date back to pre-Roman times. Over the years its walls were heightened and strengthened until eventually it could, in time of siege by would-be invaders, shelter thousands of townspeople, sometimes for months at a time.
The house where it's said Columbus was born stood within the citadel walls. Today part of one wall remains standing. In 1892, when a wave of Columbus-inspired research, celebrations, and scholarly dissertations swept the Western world, a marble plaque was fastened to the wall. Translated, it reads as follows: ``The town of Calvi -- here was born in 1441 Christophe Colomb -- immortalized by the discovery of the New World while Calvi was under the domination of the Genoese.''
While historians continue to debate the issue hotly, life in Calvi proceeds, unhurried, unworried, and pleasant. Summer in Calvi stretches into early November. Winter is mild, and spring reappears in late February. Yachtsmen find the town nearly an ideal harbor. There are not many hotels in the town, but the few available are comfortable and well maintained. The waterfront, a half mile of sidewalk caf'es under royal palms with a profusion of flower boxes everywhere, is quite as appealing as anything on the French Riviera, just 100 miles to the north. French is the official language. But Corsican, an ancient language not unlike Latin, is still common. Direct flights link Calvi by air to both France and Italy. In the summer, charter flights run daily between London and Calvi. Car-carrying ferries also serve Calvi from a number of mainland ports.
In a cluttered office, high in the citadel, Blaise Orsini serves as a curator, presiding over a wealth of Columbus-related material. His door is open to all who stop by.
If, however, as Mr. Orsini insists, Columbus was indeed born in Calvi, one wonders, given the beauty of the town and its surroundings, why he ever left.