Corsica, 8th-22nd September 2002
We decided we wanted to walk the GR20 on Corsica - a mostly high level, multi-day trail that runs down the central watershed of the island by way of mountain ridges and passes, taking in most of the length of the island from the North West to the South East. Although it's under 200km long it has about 12,500m of ascent on it, and the ascents (and descents) are often very steep. It rises above 2000m at several points, and there are also a few sections of fairly easy scrambling on some of the stages. The North section (a little more than half the length) of the trail is the most spectacular, and our original plan was to do that plus, if possible, to ascend Monte Cinto - the highest mountain on Corsica. We had 13 days (and one to fly there and one to fly back), and we weren't sure whether this was long enough to do the entire trail then travel back up the island.
We didn't have a digital camera at the time - the photos were taken on disposables, and we got copies on CD.
After a day hillwalking in the Scottish Highlands on Saturday we flew out on Sunday from Edinburgh to Calvi and got a taxi to Calenzana, where we stayed in a hostel. As the flight was delayed we arrived after the shop had shut and had to do our food shopping in the morning instead - and the shop didn't open until 0900, a couple of hours later than we'd have liked to start
After walking up through the woods for a while the track split in two - the GR20 keeping left and heading up into the hills, and the Tra Mare e Monti heading right around the base of them. We headed on up.
It was already warm, and our rucksacks felt pretty heavy
Looking back down towards Calenzana
The woods thinned out, and there were lots of dead trees where fire or lightning had killed them. We had a real feeling of heading off into the unknown at this stage, heightened by the unfamiliar rock formations and unfolding views
It felt quite a slog up the first stage, and we were glad when we got to Refuge d'Ortu di u Piobbu and could set up the tent. We had dinner in the hut and used the showers (most huts on the trail have showers outside them, free to use but very cold), then retired to bed. During the night we were woken by a spectacular thunderstorm off to the North, the lightning dancing around the sky and the thunder echoing up to us
We set off in the next day alongside quite a few others, but quickly found ourselves overtaking them. It was quite cloudy to start with, and the trail wound up a ridge crest amongst spectacular rock scenery. As the morning warmed up the clouds dispersed and the views just got better and better
At the top of the first major descent on the trail, down to Refuge de Carozzu. This refuge is at the end of the second stage of the trail, and we got there in time for an early lunch of omelettes and crusty bread. We realised that we were going quite a bit faster than we had expected to, and decided to push on to the next stage
Crossing Spasimata Bridge
After the bridge the trail ascended a series of granite slabs by the side of a gorge, then up a wooded corrie and across some screes
A poor photo, I know, but it shows the 'Indian Head' above the corrie. The trail then descended steeply down to the ugly Haut Asco village and ski station, where we stayed in the gîte and enjoyed warm showers. The plan had been to attempt Monte Cinto from there, but after some discussion we decided to press on with the trail instead - we realised that we could probably manage the whole trail rather than just the North part if we kept our speed up
We set off early the next morning. Stage 4 crosses the Cirque de la Solitude, the most sustained scrambling on the route, and we wanted to be ahead of most of the queues
Approaching the start of the scrambling. The GR20 has many variants, alterntives and side trips along its length - one of them avoids Asco by coming along the ridge behind me here. This used to be the 'official' route, but it was diverted to try to bring more money into Asco
Entering the Cirque de la Solitude. The route scrambles down into the corrie then back up the other side, and has many fixed wires in place to protect it. We found that by avoiding the wires and scrambling on the slabs nearby instead we could avoid the rest of the queues and keep out of the way of dislodged rocks
Across the Cirque, looking onwards
Across the Cirque, looking back
After the Cirque the route descended slabs down a valley past Refuge de Tighjettu and the Bergeries de Vallone - the end of the fourth stage. We pressed on to the next stage
Mouflon - a Corsican mountain sheep
The 'official' trail cut around the top of a corrie to Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori - a good base for an ascent of Paglia Orba, the third highest Corsican mountain. Those of us pushing on with the trail, however, could cut the corner and head straight down the corrie through this amazing split boulder and down to the river
A gorgeous pool for a dip
Wild pigs in the woods lower down. We followed a confusing section of the trail, where it had been diverted by the owner of the hotel at Castel di Vergio to go to his establishment! The GR20 is marked at intervals along its length by red and white painted marks on rocks, trees and whatever else is handy (variants are marked with yellow paint). This man had painted his own red and white marks, and replaced the original ones with yellow, but some of the originals can still be seen. The food and service were very poor at the Gîte, but at least we got warm showers again
We set off early again the next morning, into the woods. It was pleasantly cool and misty
A beautiful Fire Salamander - unique to Corsica and Sardinia. They only came out when it was cool and damp
A little later we stopped at a bergerie and bought the most fantastic cheese. It was taken from a small cave out the back, and its rind was covered in bright orange mould. Once we cracked it open, a soft, almost runny inner was revealed, which tasted fantastically rich. There is no way it would have passed any EU food safety regulations, and Jen tells me it's the only thing she's ever known to smell worse than my feet
Looking back towards the Northern part of the trail, with Monte Cinto the highest point to the right and Paglia Orba the highest to the left
Horses grazing by Lac du Ninu
Looking on towards the hills of the next stage whilst heading gently down through woods towards Refuge de Manganu
A coo's erse
We passed Refuge de Manganu and headed on, steeply up. This dog followed us up many hundreds of metres of ascent.
It was getting cloudy on the hilltops
On the ridge in the mist. There were several short scrambly sections on this stage, interspersed with rough but easy rocky paths
Above Lac du Melo. 'Please don't take another photo of me'.
Shortly after this we had a bit of a fright. We were nearing the end of the ridge, with just a plateau crossing under Monte Rotondo before the descent Refuge Petra Piana, when thunder exploded nearby. This was followed by many more. It started to hail heavily and quite painfully.
We had read in our guidebook that the single biggest cause of death on the GR20 was lightning strike, and were pretty concerned to be caught up in the mountains during a thunderstorm. We decided that the best bet was to get to the refuge as quickly as possible, but it was still some distance away, so we started jogging.
In retrospect, after we left the ridge, we were probably fairly well shielded by Monte Rotondo - upon which most of the lightning was striking - but it was still pretty scary. We were very glad to get to the hut, although it was full and we had to pitch our tent. They did serve us food, though, and the pasta with pesto tasted fantastic
Petra Piana in the morning. The tunderstorms had continued all night and were still going quite enthusiastically. We had wanted to do the 'Alpine Variant' of the next section of the trail - along a sharp ridge - but it was clearly not a good idea, and we settled for the normal route down into the valley then back up the other side
The descent was quite rubbly
Mushrooms in the woods on the way back up. We stopped at a bergerie for refreshments, then pressed on to Refuge de l'Onda - the end of stage 8. We stopped there and ate bread and cheese at an outside table, whilst pigs tried to persuade us to feed them, and considered whether or not to head on. The weather had improved considerably, and there had been no thunder for some time. The refuge was quite dirty, and the campsite nearby was muddy and overrun by pigs. We decided we would head on towards Vizzavona - the end of the North part of the trail.
This proved to be a very bad idea.
As we were heading up the ridge, some way above the hut, another thunderstorm hit - the lightning strinking very nearby. Lots of people started to pass heading the other way - hurrying. It would take us almost as long to head back down as to press on and get over the crest of the hill, so we stupidly kept going. The ridge crest was very exposed to the lightning, and we headed up it as fast as we could manage - but Jen kept getting hypoglycaemic and slowing down, and needed to keep swallowing sugar tablets. As we walked, I watched her hair gradually stand up, and when it got quite high up I shouted for us to hide in whatever scrub was available. Lightning then struck very nearby, her hair dropped, and we got up and raced on again. I thought to myself that, on the plus side, if we were struck we probably wouldn't know anything about it. This was repeated many times before we reached the top of the hill and dropped down into the corrie on the other side
We were very glad to start descending
We felt a bit safer in the corrie, but didn't really relax until we reached the woods lower down. We realised that we were quite lucky to have gotten away with our mistake
The Fire Salamanders were out en masse in the wet woodland
After what felt like a long slog along forest tracks we arrived at the main road by Vizzavona - we'd headed a bit too far downhill. We walked up the road to Hotel Monte d'Oro, a gorgeous building dating back to Victorian times. The dining room ceiling was beautifully decorated with ivy growing in from the outside. The lounge had a mix of 100 years of styles of different sofas - eccentric, but in a good way! We ate dinner and spent a luxurious night there.
Unfortunately, during the night, I fell quite ill and started projectile vomiting. I don't know whether it was food poisoning or some infected water that I'd drunk, but Jen was fine. By morning I was very weak and dehydrated, and couldn't eat much breakfast. Jen insisted on heading on - I just wanted to sleep!
The next stage was pretty boring, being little more than a slog uphill through woodland, with little in the way of views. It was also raining heavily for most of the day and we were soon soaked to the bone. I was slow, and didn't feel up to a second stage, so we stopped at E Capanelle, where we got a place in the gîte at the ski station
A cute wee dog in Gîte d'Étape U Fugone. I stepped on it a little later, and it didn't forgive me
Sunset from the gîte.
We got chatting to a pair of Dutch hikers, who were heading South to North along the trail. They bashfully told us that they had been badly informed that food was hard to get on the GR20, and were carrying 15 days dehydrated provisions each! They had passed a German group that had an unusual take on how to deal with thunderstorms in the hills - when the previous day's storms had hit they had got their camping mats out and sat on them for hours until the lightning passed. We all found this most amusing
The next stage was a little more interesting, being higher in the hills and having more frequent views out of the trees, but it was still essentially just a walk in the woods. I still felt rotten, too. We stopped for lunch at Relais San Petru di Verdi then headed on to the next stage
The trail rose out of the woods back onto the mountain ridges through some much more interesting scenery. The views opened up again
Fly agaric mushrooms at the edge of the woods
Part way through the stage we arrived at Refuge de Prati. The clouds had enveloped the ridge ahead, and we decided to stay at the refuge rather than risk being caught out in a thunderstorm again. These horses were used to ferry provisions up to the hut, and whilst they look quite peaceful here they kept trying to kick each other! We had a lazy afternoon at the hut and I started to get a little strength back
We started early the next day. I felt a bit better, but still knackered. This stage, the 12th, headed along a lengthy ridge with open views
For much of the day the cloud was pooled against the West side of the ridge and it was clear on the East side. We were running a bit low on food when we arrived at Refuge d'Usciolu, and we were delighted to find it extremely well stocked. I bought huge quantities of mini Mars bars, which I ate for most of the rest of the trail in order to avoid having to eat any more cereal bars (having had several every day so far). We also bought more cheese and bread, then headed on to the next stage
The trail continued along the watershed ridge and was much the same as it had been on the previous stage. In places the path left the crest to turn crags and pinnacles. When the cloud thinned we could see the Mediterranean Sea on both sides
There wasn't as much ascent on this day as we'd had on many others, but it was quite a long way and it took us over 12 hours. By the time we reached the top of Monte Incudine (2134m above sea level) I was exhausted. The cloud dropped down again, and I almost wished to be struck by lightning
We headed on down towards Refuge d'Asinau. The main thing keeping me going was looking forwad to doing the 'Alpine Variant' of the next stage through the spectacular scenery of the Aiguilles de Bavella, and I was dismayed to see them enveloped in cloud - it looked like we might have to take the boring low level alternative through the woods below them the next morning. It was getting dark and the refuge was full, so we pitched our tent as the rain came on
We awoke the next morning to a beautiful day! The cloud was gone and the Bavella looked inviting. We headed down across the valley, then up the trail onto the high route
The start of the Aiguilles de Bavella
The trail wound around various pinnacles and buttresses, through spectacular rock scenery and curious pocketed weathering features. There were some short and pleasant scrambly sections
Arriving at Col du Bavella was a bit of a rude shock! It was busy and unsightly, with huge numbers of tour busses and bars and shops. We took refreshments and pressed on as quickly as possible
Passing Refuge d'I Paliri, the last on the trail. We kept going, as we thought the final stage would be easy and pretty much all downhill, if a little boring
We quickly realised that it wouldn't be boring at all. The scenery was just as good as any of the other stages, with granite spires rising above woods and fire-blasted scrub
It began to get very warm as we lost height. There was considerably more reascent than we had imagined, too. It isn't very clear, but a keyhole through the mountain at the top of this picture (Punta Tafunata) is just visible as a white dot - actually a large archway dissolved from the rotting granite
The combination of the warmth and the wet has caused much of the granite to rot into forms more commonly associated with limestone landscapes. At this point it was having quite an effect on our feet too!
Really dropping down now, and getting hot - the final ridge visible in the distance
A lizard basking in the heat
The last slog up to the Bocca d'Usciolu - a notch in the final ridge - seemed a huge effort. The trail headed through this pass, and the mountains were lost from sight
On the other side we looked down at the town of Conca - the end of the GR20. This was a huge relief, but also quite saddening
We staggered into the gîte, and were lucky to get beds. Later we headed out and got pizza for dinner. We had finished the trail in 9 days of walking - earlier than we had thought. We could have taken in an ascent of Monte Cinto too!
The next morning we took the minbus down to the main road, then a bus to Sainte-Lucie-de-Porto-Vecchio, then walked a few kilometres down to a campsite by the beach resort of Pinarellu
We pitched the tent and headed for the beach
A wee mouse on the road in town. It didn't run away, so we reckoned it had been poisoned
A tomb with a view
Moonlight dinner on the waterfront. Check the sunburn out!
The moon over the harbour. The campsite was OK, but it was beside a lagoon and there were a lot of mosquitos. We packed up the next day and headed North by bus to see what Bastia was like
It was like this. We stayed the night in a hotel, but wished we had headed on to Calvi instead.
The next day we took the rickety mountain railway over to Calvi, a worthwhile experience in itself. At Calvi we got a room in an apartment at a reduced rate, as the owner had it lying empty with people booked to arrive a couple of days later. We poked around town a bit and ate out. The next day we joined a boat cruise to the Scandola nature reserve
Heading out from Calvi
The Scandola reserve has some very colourful and spectacular coastline
The boat chugged around, in and out of various inlets
A natural arch
We spent the last day relaxing and exploring Calvi, then headed back to the airport. Our flight was cancelled due to high winds and we were transferred by bus to Bastia airport where we joined a larger flight and headed home