Corsica floats serenely in the Mediterranean between France and Italy, with the island of Sardinia to its immediate south. Along the centreline of the island rises a chain of mountains, falling away on both sides to fragrant marquis vegetation at lower elevation and thence to the sea. Inhabited since the Mesolithic era, it’s inhabitants have paid dearly for the strategic value of their island, having been invaded, attacked and or colonised by the Carthaginians, ancient Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards, Saracens, the Papacy, the Genovese, Barbary pirates, Pisans, the Spanish, a military Bank, the French and (during WWII) German and Italian axis troops. Nomadic shepherding was the way of life in Corsica until the late Middle Ages when various powers (notably the Genovese) encouraged land enclosure and the take up of sedentary farming. From this arose a landowning elite. Corsica’s nobility was known both for its poverty and it’s bloodthirstiness – the noble houses engaging in a series of vendettas that effectively ruined all of them. Vendettas, also became popular among those lower in the social strata and the populations of entire villages were decimated. Throughout history, Corsican men have been stereotyped as being violent, swaggeringly proud and overweening and of treating their women very poorly. Strict social norms prevailed until WWII (women seemingly bearing the brunt of the restrictions) but these collapsed with the influx of foreigners and mainland French who began to holiday and make homes on the island after this period. Today, while the island retains many elements of local culture (including two native languages) the island is culturally very similar to France. Although, having said that, I found the men to be a lot more like the Frenchmen I endured ten years ago than the reformed Frenchmen of 2014.
The GR20 is touted as being the hardest of the GRs: the “Grand Randonnes”.
These are long, marked European walking trails. It winds its way almost the entire length of the island of Corsica (about 180km in total) and traverses a number of high mountain passes, many of which can be snow covered well into the short summer season.
In keeping with the success of earlier European walks with attractive, vivacious blondes, the GR20 plan was hatched with my delightful friend Dr Wonderland. I was pretty happy to have a doctor along in case anything went wrong and she expressed enthusiasm for pocket knife style emergency surgery. Oh goody.
We agreed that as we were starting out on the first day of the official walking season (1 June) and that as we didn’t have time to do the entire walk, we should only attempt the ‘easier’ second half of the trail – from Vizzavona south to Conca. The northern half would reputedly be much too covered in snow for safe and comfortable walking and we would likely need to re-route several times. The official GR20 website (unhelpful, terribly slow and only available in French) says that booking accommodation in advance is mandatory and so we had reserved all of our accommodation (including a night off the trail at Zicavo) in advance.
This mandatory booking is unquestionably, a total pain. It means that if you have bad weather, injuries or just feel tired and need a rest day, you either have to stick with your bookings (which could mean foolishly exacerbating an injury, walking in unsafe conditions or re-routing) or stay put and loose all your future bookings (which are fully paid up). A ticket system (a la New Zealand) and better planning and co-ordination between the refuges could easily solve this problem.
In any event, Dr Wonderland and I were feeling both organised and optimistic as we flew into Bastia. We were picked up from the airport by our glamorous, flame haired AirB&B hostess. She and her incredibly cute son drove us into town to the studio apartment we had rented for two nights. After winding up the narrow staircase, tugging open the heavy wooden door and stepping through the green velvet stage curtains to our studio we were questioning our sanity regarding the whole walk thing – why on earth would one ever wish to leave this apartment? It was full of eclectic bibs and bobs, theatrical thingawhatsists, delightful curios, creature comforts and delightful design features (like the window frame door to the bathroom) all charmingly puzzled together. It was like living in a particularly clean and enjoyable circus tent (it turns out, of course, that our hostess was a circus performer).
The first afternoon was gloriously sunny and so we decided to have a mini exploration of the city. Bastia lies by the blue of the Mediterranean: it was founded by the seafaring and mercantile Genovese in 1380. It served as their colonial capital until, after various battles and endless political intrigue, they rather bizarrely assigned the island to the Office of St George, a powerful corporation with its own army, in 1453. The city was taken and retaken by various armies and factions during the course of Corsica’s turbulent and bloody history. Most recently, it was occupied by the Italians and then the Germans in the Second World War. It was the only Corsican town to suffer serious damage during the war, having been bombed by the Americans during the German occupation. Due to a military blunder, the worst of the bombing took place after the German retreat – killing civilians who were busy celebrating their liberation.
Today Bastia has a languid, romantically crumbling, almost piratical, Caribbean flavour. The stucco from the medieval and renaissance buildings has fallen in parts – exposing brick and stone. From the cracks and crannies verdant greenery tumbles in profusion. Vines grow high between the buildings, elegant tendrils trailing down towards the cobblestone streets. Trees cling improbably to ancient guttering and pipes. From the windows, plump-armed women lean out to gossip with passers-by or roll in their washing which flutters gaily in the glow of the late afternoon sun.
We woke the next morning to the excellent news that Dr Wonderland had passed her final exams for her specialisation. We celebrated with french toasted croissants topped with rich fruit and yogurt before heading out for a day at the beach, complete with sandwiches by the water and a glass of white in the warm afternoon sun. In the evening we returned to Bastia and went out to see the promised ‘spectacular’ at the citadel. We must have misunderstood the instructions as the citadel appears to be entirely bereft of any ‘spectaculars’. We were however well and truly compensated for our effort of leaving the comfort of the apartment when we ran into the hostesses son and his friend in the square. They took us on a tour of their favourite places in their quarter of the old town, complete with enthusiastic re-enactments of pirate stories, James Bond adventures, cat chases (and cuddle captures), visits to old trees (allegedly of astounding antiquity), ventures through old and spooky tunnels and forays into dark shadow filled gardens.
The following morning we said a sad goodbye to our lovely apartment but, excited by the next stage of the trip, rather jauntily headed off by train to Vizzavona, our start point for the GR20. Here it rapidly became apparent that our planning had not been as complete as we had earlier imagined it to be.
Investigating the tiny ‘village’ (really no more than the train station, two restaurants and a hotel) we suspected that we might not be able to acquire the four days of fresh food we had planned to purchase or the cash that Dr Wonderland needed for the rest of the trip (there being a complete lack of ATMs). Dr Wonderland looked up at the rain and also considered that perhaps there was a glove and pack-cover shaped hole in her ultra-light packing plan.
Not ones to panic unnecessarily, we returned to the train station and after studying the timetables calmly bought tickets for Corte (the nearest big town), relieved that there was still one more train out and one back that day. We went to the coffee shop to escape the downpour while waiting for the next train. While sipping our drinks we saw a train go past “Huh, that’s odd. Why is there a train at this time?”. Suffice to say that holiday makers are liable to forget what day of the week it is. Which can be problematic on a Sunday.
So we trudged off in the rain out to the main road to try and hitch a lift – figuring that we could still get the last train back (yes, we remembered to check the correct day’s timetable!). A number of cars whizzed unkindly past us but eventually a shiny new VW sedan stopped and an older couple gestured smilingly for us to jump in. Dr Wonderland (who, unknown to herself, had retained an awful lot more from her one year of university French than she thought she had) explained our situation. Ah, they were going home – only halfway to Corte – were we still interested? Of course!
The driver stopped at every bar along the way for his wife to run in to see if anyone could take us to Corte. It seemed that no one was going that way. So, despite of protests that soon someone would come along, they insisted on driving us all the way to Corte – at least a 40km round trip out of their way – and refused any petrol money. Thank you hitch hiking gods.
Laden with fresh food, extra socks (to serve as mittens), cash and large garbage bags (to serve as high-tech pack covers) we entered the train station, carrying our spoils in a santa sack of garbage bag and feeling kind of bad-ass.
Typically, we immediately met a smiling eyed and bearded young wanderer (complete with cow-skull roped to his pack) who probably had more bad-ass in one little finger than we could muster between us. He was a fascinating character who had been travelling for years with a tiny backpack and tent (and recently, the skull) and he appeared to shun such luxuries as cleanliness and warm food. He was also headed to Vizzavona and we volunteered to show him the way to the magical half ruined hotel on the forest edge, that we had espied earlier. Sure enough there was more than enough to keep the rain off and our new friend was extremely happy about the prospect of a dry night’s sleep.
The day ended with cannelloni (the only vegetarian option), a glass of wine and a perfect creme brûlée.
Day one of the actual walk dawned with perfect scrubbed blue skies, crisply outlining the previously invisible Mont d’Oro. We began the ‘hardest walk in Europe’ with a stroll through gorgeous tall green and silver forest: innumerable diamonds of water suspended on unfurled leaves. There were tiny white bells, buttercups, moss and ferns all straining freshly upwards to the dappled light.
We followed the upward slope through the forest and on reaching the first baby-sized summit enjoyed the panoramic views with some slices of cheese and green apple. We continued past Bergeres d’Alzeta, crossing two small streams. We paused somewhere near the Valle Longa with healthy appetites for a lunch of baguettes with lemon infused tuna, mayonnaise, tomato and rocket. The afternoon sky threatened rain but nothing eventuated and we reached the comfort of U Fugone at Capanelle (a small ski resort in the winter) without suffering a drop.
Dr Wonderland was bursting with excitement at the patch of snow visible up on the ski run. I am afraid that recent mountain walks had somewhat reduced the novelty value of small patches of snow for me and so I lazily waved her off to make her snowman and decided to have a hot shower. I had decided to forego deodorant on this walk figuring that I didn’t need the extra weight and as I’m not particularly smelly it wouldn’t bother me. I was wrong: there is a profound difference between not smelling very much and smelling at all. I borrowed Dr Wonderland’s until I came across a shop.
U Fugone has an excellent unisex bathroom for refuge guests (not open to campers, who must use the other facilities – probably less comfortable). The shower cubicles do however lack hooks or a shelf on which to put one’s garments and thus one should be prepared for any eyeful of middle aged German sausage in the change room. I ensured my modesty with the endlessly awesome silk robe.
The dinner was very tasty (including the very predictable omelette vegetarian dish) and we shared our table with some older Frenchmen who flirted outrageously with the blushing Doctor.
We woke to perfect blue skies and set off on the short days walk to Bocca di Verdi.
The forests were mostly mature beeches and chestnuts, interspersed with pines – all thick and towering above us.
The years of fallen pine needles and leaves gave the air a delicious rich fragrance and the earth a delightful bounce underfoot. The spreading branches dappled the strong sun and it was an absolute delight to spring long legged through the morning. We followed a sunny stream for quite a while until the urge to splash in the inviting, dancing brook overcame us – so off with the packs and clothes and giggling and gasping into the icy water. We dried off perched on rocks in the stream, sunning ourselves for a bubble and babble filled meditation.
The rest of the day’s walking was also quite easy – through fairy glades, flickering light filled forests, under quivering leaves and across rocky creeks. We had some chestnut cake for morning tea. It is a local speciality – the medieval Genovese overlords mandated the the subject Corsicans plant and cultivate the chestnut trees). For lunch we enjoyed crunchy, fresh salad wraps in a daisy filled meadow with views of imposing mountains all around. It was a glorious day of companionable walking.
Bocca di Verde is another private refuge, rather than an ‘official’ trail stop. The bunk house is quite basic but hot water is sometimes available in the shower block. The major selling point of de Verdi is the wonderful old timber restaurant complete with enormous open fire, ambience and wine. We retreated inside with the coming of the afternoon rain.
Our little vegetarian mouths salivated as the huge trays of Corsican pork steaks were slid in to cook on the fire and we were repenting of our decision to cook our own dinner. At about the moment these thoughts were dancing in our minds the local Lothario, cousin of the restaurant’s owner, invited us to share dinner with the staff. We accepted greedily. By the time the staff dinner was served we had enjoyed (or, to some extent, endured) about four hours of solid drinking and attention from our Lothario and his increasingly drunken cousin. The highlights included descriptions of Corsica in the autumn “luminous forests and hard crystal skies”, an initiation into local folk wisdom “life is too short to be small” and the general amusement that comes from conversing with a chain smoking, hand waving, bouffant haired caricature of French manhood. We were also invited to prepare the first course – some fresh caught local trout. Our frying of the delicacy was carefully and approvingly overseen by the fisherman himself. It was a very interesting evening.
We cautiously opened our eyes to day three of our walk and were surprised and pleased to find that we had somehow, miraculously, escaped a well deserved hangover. Buoyed by this unexpected boon we set off uphill towards Prati. The trail leaves the forest soon after de Verde. Taking a break on the slopes we met with two Frenchmen who shared with us some of their colossal stash of chocolate bars.
The final stretch towards the refuge is delightfully wild and exposed. We drank in the almost Scottish scenery and were buffeted by bracing mountain winds. From Refuge de Prati the GR20 winds its way even higher to the Punta della Cappella (2041m) and then along a series of ridges towards Refuge de Usciolu, which was where we were headed.
By the time we made the first summit, grey and black clouds had almost surrounded us – although we could still make out the silver grey of the sea far below us. The roar of thunder was awesome and I was intensely conscious of being nought but a mere speck on the side of the mountain. With incredible luck we seemed to pass right through and under the storm without ever feeling a drop of rain or seeing an uncomfortably close flash of lightning. The afternoon included quite a bit of walking over grey granite slabs and rock hopping and scrambling, so it would have been quite unpleasant and slippery in the rain.
The dark and cloudy sky deeply intensified the colours of the landscape. The giant troll’s teeth of upthrust granite gained a spectacular iridescence and the greens of the clinging slopes were brought to an incredible brightness, richness and vibrancy. Our luncheon view was particularly spectacular.
By the time we were negotiating the final descent (down never being my favourite direction anyway) I was quite tired. The path was terribly eroded and so people had created new paths, increasing the erosion. No effort had been made to address the problem, which I thought was a bit remiss – especially so close to the refuge.
At the refuge we met again the chocolate laden Frenchmen. They had neglected to book a tent space in advance and the guardian had told them that there was no room for them to pitch anywhere that night. They looked quite miserable at the prospect of a further five hour walk.
We were shown to our rent-a-tent and pointed in the direction of the cooking facilities and bathroom. The camper’s bathroom consists of two outdoor toilets (for over 70 people) and one ice cold shower. Surprisingly this seems to work reasonably well and there were no awful odours or long lines. My robe caused quite a stir, gaining cheers from irritating Frenchmen.
Despite the reasonably easy access to the GR20 – there are refuges to sleep in and buy supplies every night and none of the refuges are further than a days walk from a tarmac road – walkers seem to have the idea that they are in the utter wilderness and so things like robes and proper food constitute wild and frivolous luxuries. I was constantly amazed to see French walkers (not a nationality known for an indifference to food) heating up a packet soup to have for dinner, along with a few a
ncient dusty crackers.
Although, having said that, we had somehow inherited a mushroom packet soup and so cooked that up (topped with fresh mushrooms fried in garlic butter and wild herbs) as a first course. It was quite tasty and the heat (plus the dancing that accompanied the cooking) kept out some of the chill that attends cooking on a windswept hillside (the ‘kitchen’ consisted of a table in the open air topped with a two burner gas cooker – still better than lugging your own stove and gas canister around). The mushroom pasta main course was also quite delicious.
As the sun set gorgeously over the hills we were pleased to hear that the chocolate Frenchmen would be admitted to the refuge kitchen to sleep, after all. After a bit more vista gazing Dr Wonderland and I snuggled into our sleeping bags for a little torchlight reading before sleep. I had the joy of dipping into Dorothy Carrington’s ‘Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica’, which Dr Wonderland had insisted I buy for the walk, back in Bastia. As usual she was completely correct – I would have been bereft without a book and Granite Island is a particularly fascinating read.
Day four was to be a short and lazy stroll down the hill to the mountain hamlet of Zicavo. We had booked a night there in a little B&B and planned on having the next day off from walking to enjoy a rest and see something more of the island. We accordingly slept late and unhurriedly packed our bags in the deserted campground. We chatted with Sylva, who encouraged us to take the old path of the GR20 after our rest day as the newer path isn’t as scenic. Looking at the map I asked if the new path had been marked to increase traffic to the Refuge de Matalza, he responded “you said it, not me”.
Thanking him for the advice we sauntered off up to the Punta d’Usciolu. Walking along the ridge there was quite a bit of slab walking and rock scrambling, which continued as we began descending. I was quite grumpy after an extended period of this yucky descent and furious when my camera refused to take a photo of come particularly photogenic cows. Fortunately I remembered by training in time (thank you, The Climber) and stopped for an emergency snack. This dramatically improved my mood and the rest of the morning’s walk was a lot more enjoyable. This was followed by lunch in a wonderful open meadow where we lazed in the sun reading our books. Following the main GR20, we came to an absolutely beautiful and sunny creek crossing and decided that a little swim was in order. I even had a short meditation on a grassy tuffet. From the creek we followed the level trail along an achingly pretty green meadow to Bergeries de Pinettu. At the bergeries we stopped for a cold drink. From here it would be a simple stroll down the hill to Zicavo.
That was not exactly how it worked out. To begin with we couldn’t find the turn off to the village at all and ended up walking back and forth along the trail where we thought it should be. I eventually espied it when the Doctor had stopped to take a photo of some wildflowers.
The sign was aged and decrepit. Not promising.
Thereafter followed a four hour mission that involved treasure hunting for faded yellow markers through dark scrub, back and forwardsing along pig tracks, criss crossing creeks and frustrated consultation with our 1:50,000 map (much too small). Possibly the most ridiculous moment involved trying to find the yellow markers in a field of flowering yellow broom. By the time we had been walking downhill through a creek for half an hour we had convinced ourselves that we had somehow misread the map and that we would be doomed to bivvy in the forest which somehow seemed a hilarious prospect at the time. Fortunately our map reading skills were better than we gave ourselves credit for and we blessedly popped out onto the road. The resident pigs looked at us with mild interest.
We made Zicavo by dusk but foolishly followed the barman’s directions to our B&B, which led us to the very bottom of the village where a helpful woman told us to turn around and trudge all the way back up the hill. We finally reached le Paradis after dark. We were anticipating a rather grumpy hostess (we were about three hours late) and dreading the prospect of being sent to bed with no dinner. Lousie however gave us a hearty welcome and, after each zipping through a hot shower, set before us an even heartier dinner. We easily devoured three bowls of soup (each) and forsaking our principles wolfed down slabs of rabbit terrine (possibly the best example of it’s kind I have ever encountered) followed by zucchini stuffed with creamy saffron rice, a generous cheese platter and a whacking great serve of chestnut cake. We slept plump and happy between clean sheets that night.
Our rest day involved some pressing administrative tasks, a wander around the village, a huge salad lunch and a gorge under a very fine cherry tree. At dinner that night a friendly couple offered to drive us up to Refuge de Matalza to re-join the GR20 – avoiding the horrid path of yellow marker doom. From there we had decided to take the new GR20 path after all, having had quite enough of badly marked trails. After dinner Louise showed us all the charcuterie in her back shed. It was fascinating in a macabre sort of way.
Day five began with the drive up to Matalza. Here we set out with Jean-Michelle and Nathalie on the new GR20 path (they were doing a day circuit). After less than a kilometre we saw the potential turn off to join the old trail. It was just too tempting and so we waved goodbye to our new friends and began our navigation. We crossed an expanse of marquis, two rivers and a few little hills before gaining the reassurance of the red and white GR markers. We were pretty chuffed with ourselves. After crossing a delightful suspension bridge we followed the (thankfully well marked) trail uphill, headed for the summit for Mont Incudine. We had lunch on a promontory with incredible views of the lower mountains and the sea of clouds that were floating around them.
The summit was quite impressive, with expansive views of the granite mountains all below us. From there we had a seemingly endless downhill on fairly terrifying grey slabs. I was quite pleased with my lack of an emotional breakdown.
The refuge at Asinau was quite basic and the guardian was rather creepy. We were given a tent to set up which we later had to move to escape a pervasive odour of urine at the first pitch. The showers apparently had hot water earlier in the afternoon (a German girl spoke of massaging her legs with the hot water!) but by the time it was our turn they were frigid. I found the Doctor’s shrieks in response to the water quite amusing.
The following morning we were yet again among the last to leave. We decided to brave the alpine path, and so we set out that way for the Refuge de Paliri via Bavella. The path climbed up to the northern approach of the Aigulles (needles) de Bavella. Although steep and rocky, the path was fairly good and the views back down the valley and across to Mount Incudine were quite spectacular. We had a very enjoyable rest, with that view for morning tea. At our back was the tall form of the summit cliffs, which had an imposing and decidedly death choss appearance. We headed west around the needle to be further impressed by free standing, sculptural rocks. These grew twisted and smooth, upright from the ground, carved presumably by wind and rain from gorgeous red brown and caramel rocks. We stopped for lunch just under a particularly impressive specimen and, once nourished, were irrepressibly drawn to clamber up the rocks to sit, windswept, free and laughing on what felt like the roof of the Aigulles. It was incredible.
From here we anticipated a steep but short descent into Bavella. As it turned out, this was yet another afternoon where we cursed the 1:50,000 map. The path down to Bavella was in fact an epic adventure of lost trails, faint or overgrown markers, blank looks, sweat, aching calves, hot sun and screaming thighs. At one memorable point we came to a steep five metre boulder, protected by a chain and apparently part of the trail. We trundled over it (the brave Doctor leading the way), thanking what gods there be that we had both, one way or another, had quite a bit of practice with rock climbing. As we passed the boulder a group of haggardly tired middle aged people came towards us. One anxious woman whispered “is it hard from here?”: considering that they would have to go down the boulder, always worse than up, I suggested that after the next bit, the rest of the day would be easier. Which was both strictly true and a significant falsehood by omission.
After further frustrating navigation and tough terrain (including an accidental summit of a hill not named on our map) we finally began the true descent to Bavella. By this point my knees were killing from the steep, slippery descent and I think we had both had more than enough fun for one day. The last stretch of green, lush path was a welcome relief from the hot, stoney mountains.
In Bavella we turned to tiredly admire the view. As Dorothy Carrington so accurately put it the string of peaks is “…less suggestive of needles than a jawful of monsters teeth”. The mountains are cruelly impressive: jutting and soaring spires crowd together, spiking into the blue of the Corsican sky. We mere ants at the foot of the mountains gratefully retreated to the civility of a cafe and celebrated our arrival in the fleshpot of Bavella with espressos and pistachio ice creams. Possibly one of the greatest combinations ever discovered.
At last, with the greatest of difficulty we dragged ourselves from the cafe and, after pursuing the little convenience store (very little fresh food on offer) we took the path to Paliri. Comparatively, it was a very easy walk and we were led on by the beautiful wildflowers in cool green shaded ways, fresh with birdsong. At one turn I saw a grey hind leg flash out of view – was it a hare? The refuge was beyond a last turn through a field of ferns.
The Refuge de Paliri boasts both a refuge building and a stand alone bunk house and kitchen area. The showers had quite impressively cold water and incredibly unimpressive water pressure. Not an ideal combination, but a good conversation starter. We met a Corsican man, back for the holidays with a few colleagues from work. They had come from Conca and the terrain had already taken its toll – with his friends begging to end their three day trip early! We dined in style again that evening and slept in well deserved peace in a comfortable and dry tent.
The final morning of our walk began with a convivial breakfast with our new friends from the evening before. They had a quite incredible range of packaged snacks with them, although in keeping with my ongoing observations of French hiking food, none appeared to be particularly tasty.
The final day’s walk was reasonably short and easy and offered some truly lovely scenery, although subdued from the magnificence of the preceding day. The open skies, wide endless hills and rough brushed low flora put us in mind of Yorkshire or Scotland. We had stopped to admire some wildflowers when a flash of movement caught my eye. A Mouflon!! The entrancingly gazelle-like wild sheep, ancestor of those first brought to Corsica in the neolithic, was racing the wind down the fold of the hill. By some miracle I had my camera in hand and snapped him quickly then enjoyed the rest of his flight, fleet of hoof and wild into the distance.
I had thought that that glorious morning moment would be the highlight of the day. In fact, there were a few other contenders. The next piece of magic appeared around a bend late in the morning. We had passed through the gap at the Bocca Villaghello and came upon a spectacular rock garden. Gorgeous rock sculptures, from tens of metres tall down to smaller, intimate and exquisite pieces provided the perfect backdrop and cradle for an explosion of spring colour: the surprisingly robust purple of the wild lavender, white and pink rock roses, elegant flowering grasses in every permutation of green, a wave of grey curry plants, the pale yellow of fenouil, the bright canary of the native aster and the pretty mauve-pink faces of tiny wild carnations. We wandered smiling in this unexpected bower and lingered for morning tea to better enjoy it.
After a warm few hours of walking we were nearing the end of the trail and thinking about lunch when we rounded another magical bend and came upon a view of a series of waterfalls and swimming holes below us. As the sun was shining in a blue sky it seemed only appropriate to have a quick change behind a bush to join the other walkers who had suddenly appeared from nowhere and who were splashing around in the crystal cold water. After a lazy afternoon sunbathing on the rocks and floating in the clear ponds we regretfully left paradise and headed for Conca.
The trail had one last gift for us though: as we entered the first streets of the village Dr Wonderland espied a ginger kitten. Could life get any better?
Yes actually, it could. After a bit of wrangling we somehow acquired both ice-cream and a driver to take us to our B&B. We eventually wound our way up to Brelinga where Claude and her husband Patrick welcomed us with open arms and, holy of holies, a light filled bedroom and a steaming hot shower. Magically refreshed after a thorough scrub, we were taken down to Porto Vecchio to indulge in a slap up Corsican dinner. Porto Vecchio was originally a Roman port town and was re-colonised by the Genovese several times during the 1500’s. Malarial outbreaks from the marshy surrounds drove out the colonisers in each case. During WWII the Americans eradicated malaria in the area with a combination of spraying and drainage and today Porto Vecchio is a busy tourist hub. On the night we visited the pretty old town, complete with old stone church, pedestrian streets and charming alleys and twinkling with fairy lights, was magical.
After sleeping in the luxury of a real bed with real sheets, we woke to fresh homemade pastries and a selection of teas and the offer of espresso. We did justice to all of the above while drinking in the view of the sea from the sun drenched patio.
Celebrating the end of our hike, we decided to indulge in a shiny new hire car (Dr Wonderland drove, thank God). This gave us the va-va-vroom to explore the area over the next few days. We squealed like schoolgirls when we first saw the aquamarine perfection of the curve of Santa Giulia bay glittering before us and spent a delicious afternoon frolicking in the warm water and basking in the sun.
The citadel of Bonafacio, clinging to the white cliffs at the end of the island, was as impressive as the guidebooks promised and twice as pretty. The cliffs have been inhabited since 6570BC and numerous scholars have pointed out that the geography of the area, particularly the Goulet de Bonafacio, perfectly matches Homer’s description of the land of the Laestrygonians, so disastrously visited by Odysseus:
“When we reached the harbour we found it land-locked under steep cliffs, with a narrow entrance between two headlands. My captains took all their ships inside, and made them fast close to one another, for there was never so much as a breath of wind inside, but it was always dead calm. I kept my own ship outside, and moored it to a rock at the very end of the point; then I climbed a high rock to reconnoitre, but could see no sign neither of man nor cattle, only some smoke rising from the ground. So I sent two of my company with an attendant to find out what sort of people the inhabitants were…they found (Antiphates’) wife to be a giantess as huge as a mountain, and they were horrified at the sight of her. She at once called her husband Antiphates from the place of assembly, and forthwith he set about killing my men. He snatched up one of them, and began to make his dinner off him then and there, whereon the other two ran back to the ships as fast as ever they could. But Antiphates raised a hue and cry after them, and thousands of sturdy Laestrygonians sprang up from every quarter- ogres, not men. They threw vast rocks at us from the cliffs as though they had been mere stones, and I heard the horrid sound of the ships crunching up against one another, and the death cries of my men, as the Laestrygonians speared them like fishes and took them home to eat them. While they were thus killing my men within the harbour I drew my sword, cut the cable of my own ship, and told my men to row with alf their might if they too would not fare like the rest; so they laid out for their lives, and we were thankful enough when we got into open water out of reach of the rocks they hurled at us. As for the others there was not one of them left.”
Despite this ancient history, and some Roman occupation, the town of Bonafacio itself was ‘only’ founded in 828AD by Count Bonafacio of Tuscany. During the course of it’s turbulent history, the cliff top fortified town was ruled by Pisans, the Genovese, Turks and finally by the French. In recent decades the town has been the subject of much careful restoration and is now a very popular tourist destination. We enjoyed meandering through the curling streets lined with tall, clinging buildings but the highlight was the Escalier du Roi d’Aragon, a walkway around the cliffs below the town, said to have been built in one night in 1420 by the Aragonese who were besieging the town. In reality the steps pre-date the Aragonese but in any event they offer splendid views down into the brilliantly clear sea and out across to the white cliffs.
We also hired canoes off the beach at Piantarella and paddled out to Ile Piana and swam and sunbathed off our own private island. One evening we munched hot chips as the sunset over the horseshoe bay at Rondinaria and on another we enjoyed the delicious food and hospitality of our hosts. At the end of our stay we drove back up to Bastia, our Cyndi Lauper theme song blaring from the radio and happy tears rolling down our cheeks. It was a very very enjoyable way to end ‘the toughest walk in Europe’: except that I hadn’t yet finished. I had got an email from another doctor (one I had met back in Kalymnos) and we’d come up with a plan to take on the first half of the GR20…