After waving farewell to Dr Wonderland in Bastia, I unsuccessfully attempted to drown my misery in a glass of rather pleasant wine. I proceeded to clump around the town thinking dark thoughts about the evils of employment and resupplying my food stash. I then plopped, tired, grumpy and bereft of friends, onto the train.
It was however impossible to maintain a proper spirit of dejectedness on the ride out to Calvi. The scenery was absolutely magnificent – mountains, ravines, pretty farms, aching forests all flashed by. As we swung towards the town the sea glittered out to the right and pine forests darkened to the left. Ahhh! A new adventure.
The town of Calvi has a number of claims to fame, not least it’s glorious long white beach and the imposing stone citadel.
The town also has the dubious honour of being the scene of the battle in which Admiral Lord Nelson lost an eye an of being one of the places the dashing (alleged) killer of Rasputin came to party and plot following the Russian Revolution.
I only spent a half hour or so exploring before heading to the hotel to meet up with Dr Newcastle, who was to be my walking partner for this first (although my second) half of the GR20. We had an excitable reunion, involving a lot of packing and repacking, before I luxuriated in a hot shower and we settled down for our last sleep in a proper bed.
The next morning, a perfect blue sky smiled on us and day, a rather fancy taxi picked us up. Although, to my mind, the rich leather interior didn’t entirely justify the €50 fee for the 14 minute trip to Calenzana. Lighter of pocket, we found our way from the village square to the first of the GR20’s red and white markers.
The trail began with a gentle ascent through the gorgeously scented marquis. Behind us were bright views of the sea – which stretched ever further, the higher we climbed. We had morning tea at Bocca u Saltu, enjoying the slightly hazy view of the watercolour ocean and the and the palette of greens before it. Our eyes dwelt on all sorts of rock flowers and grasses, a few wind twisted trees (suggesting the cruelty of the winter air up here) and a myriad of weather shaped stones and clinging mosses.
In the passing morning we had some fun little scrambles over the first of the trail’s granite outcrops. Later we passed near the summit of Capu Ghiovu, where we stopped for lunchtime sandwiches. From there we could see the tiny form of the Refuge d l’Ortu di u Piobbu across a yawning ravine. It took quite a while to walk around the feature but we were rewarded at last with a warm welcome and a clean tent. That evening I enjoyed some light yoga and then supped like a Queen on a hearty cream of mushroom soup topped with mushrooms fried in a wild herb butter and a crumble of hard cheese and all served with a small loaf of warm crusty bread: delish! Dr Newcastle ate Deb (rehydrated potato). I had discovered, to my dismay, that Dr Newcastle was of the firm opinion that food, when hiking, should be considered as fuel and nothing more – eek!!! We agreed to disagree.
Our walk the next morning began with a stroll through a young birch forest.
Silent opals of dew and clinging crystals of overnight rain shivered on every leaf.
The path then turned upwards, becoming steeping and rockier as we went on. There were very pretty wildflowers dotted about, including bright purple stands of a kind of hollyhock or Canterbury bell sort of flower. There were also lots of ants. I sat on some.
We came eventually to an imposing cliff face, but it was easy enough to pick our way around the base and scramble across the rocks. A stream that trickles down the granite is slowly carving it’s way into the rock. Enough dirt has washed or blown into the crevices near to stream for some determined marquis plants and certain well resolved but stunted trees to grow. The spring green is a boon on the granite path and we stopped for a very pleasant apple and cheese morning tea to enjoy it. Afterwards we continued up what feels like a stone staircase, unfortunately sized for giants, and thus involving quite a bit of scrambling. As the path moves through some scrub we came across some absolutely gorgeous crocuses nodding, bright eyed, out from around rocks and stones.
We continued uphill until we reached the gap at Bocca Piccaia which offered a wonderful view of soaring jagged mountains and rock spires rising up above the Ladroncellu valley, far below us. The rolling white, grey and black clouds added a frightening intensity to the scene.
From the bocca there was a fun scrambly section with some cute bouldery moves and a little bit of exposure. Despite a bit of rain, I quite enjoyed myself on the rocks, buoyed up every now and then by a glimpse of crocus and of the mountain views as the clouds parted.
Eventually of course, all good things must end and our days walk did with an absolutely disgusting, slippery, scree-ish, spiky-plant infested steep descent. To add to my good humour, a bouncy French teenager helpfully suggested that I should have used my poles differently in the morning so that I too could run down the hill like he was doing now in the afternoon. I left many responses unspoken.
When we finally reached the refuge at Carozzu I was somewhat mollified by the amazing views of the mountains from the deck. There was also a wonderful sunny little nook that I found to dry my things out and have a quiet little meditation.
Dr Newcastle’s morning began with another run-in with the grumpy guardian (the guardian
had managed to enrage peaceful Dr Newcastle the night before by refusing to let us swap our zipless tent for a zipping one). She hissed at the doctor (you need to imagine this with a french accent and evil glare) “you have left it too late to leave now, you will never make it” (insert manic laughter). Not an auspicious start to the day.
Fortunately, the grumpy guardian was entirely wrong and we were to end up at Haut Asco well before dusk, although it was indeed a solid days walk. It began with a steep and rocky descent through pine forest, with a few slabby parts protected by cables. We then came to a suspension bridge that crossed the Ruisseau de Spasimata – an absolutely gorgeous river and series of pools carved out of the grey stone by the river. Once across, we were at the foot of the Spasimata slabs, a series of huge granite plates toppled on top of one another to form a giant’s causeway up into the sky. Fortunately it was a dry morning and so the slabs really weren’t too bad to navigate despite my paralysing fear of grey slabs of doom. In fact, the thing that actually slowed me down was the magnificent scenery. I couldn’t help pausing every two seconds to look around at the pinnacles of rock, the huge sky and drink in the mountain air.
After quite a bit more climbing on a path through scrub we came to the little Lac de la Murvella, held in the bowl of a mountain’s hand. We stopped to have a snack and watch how other walkers tackled the snowy ascent up the north facing gully to the gap. While there was still plenty of snow, it was mushy and brown in places and looked terribly uninviting. In the end, it wasn’t all that difficult to make our way up, we just followed the main track and felt clever about bringing walking poles on the hike. At the gap there was a lovely view upwards to the peak of Muvrella and after a scramble around the corner we could see, way down in the valley, the buildings at Haut Asco.
After a long descent, we managed to get into the refuge, grab a big tent and even shower before the rain came (and when it arrived, it poured). We had booked here for two nights, to provide a rest day, so we weren’t too worried about the likelihood of poor weather on the morrow. The refuge dining hall was quite cosy and there was a little shop. It had some basic resupply items but almost no fresh food (I bought and ate all the fruit I could lay my hands on). So, a little sadly, I used up the last of my fresh food stash to make an absolutely delicious dinner of ratatouille and a smoked almond cous cous.
The next day, as predicted, was terribly rainy. We entertained ourselves with books in the dining hall and forays to the hotel across the way to investigate their culinary offerings (nothing fresh). The views up to the mountains as the clouds winged across the sky were quite impressive and I whiled away an hour or so with a coffee and an upward gaze. We also, like all the other walkers, spent quite a bit of time thinking about what to do the following day. We were supposed to be taking on the Cirque de la Solitude, a sustained bouldery traverse. However, the rain was forecast to continue and in rainy conditions with snow underfoot the Cirque was generally considered to be quite dangerous (a German had fallen and died earlier in the season). I was of the opinion that we’d almost certainly be able to do the climb but if it was wet and cold and entirely without views, I couldn’t really see the point. Dr Newcastle agreed, even though deep down in her masochistic heart she probably did want to spend a day thigh deep in squishy snow.
That evening Dr Newcastle, a walking Englishwoman and I had a convivial glass of red and game of scrabble. I put down the word ‘dirk’.
The next morning we, along with a rag tag bunch of other walkers, took the (terribly expensive) bus to the village of Calasima. Right up until the last minute we ummed and ahhed over whether we ought to start walking or get on the bus. In the end the rain decided us and we hopped on. The drive took in some great scenery and it was fun to see it whizzing by rather than lingering in view at a walking pace.
At Calasima we had a long wait for the bags to catch up with us (sadly the little village patisserie I had been dreaming of failed to materialise). We then set out for Tighjettu by way of the Bergeries du Vallon. It was an easy walk through the forest and meadows to the bergeries. We fell in with another group (two older frenchmen kindly but rather self importantly shepherding a younger woman) and we all walked together for a bit. We somehow found a bright green car abandoned in a field of bright green ferns, it was a perfect scene in a dishevelled sort of way.
Rather than continue with our would-be guides, Dr Newcastle and I stopped at the bergeries for a hot chocolate. Our timing was impeccable and the rain began to properly pound down as we chatted with some friendly Italians. Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from the cosy nook and we set off for the refuge.
The rocky trail was criss-crossed by newly sprung creeks and I eventually had to give up jumping from dry rock to dry rock and just splosh though the water.
We were very lucky however to meet an Englishman jogging down the path (as you do).
He told us to take the green waymarked trail off to our left rather than continue on the GR20 to the refuge, as the creek crossing that way had become impassable. We took his advice and so found our way to the refuge with only a slow (but thigh-deep) icy creek to overcome. Our friends from earlier that day were not so lucky. They had taken the GR20 and gotten stuck on the wrong side of what had become a raging torrent. Rather than backtrack to the bergeries and ask for advice they had waited there, waving their arms to try and attract attention, until the guardian of the refuge had come down with a rope to help them cross the river. The two gentlemen were rather cross that it had taken the guardian so long to rescue them. The girl just looked wet.
Our campsite was just out the backdoor of the refuge and was more or less dry (the tent was put up on some pallets). The shop in the refuge was reasonable and I was talked into buying a can of Niçoise salad for lunch the next day, which was nowhere near as bad as it sounds. The people staying in the refuge were unusually friendly (so far we’d found the mainly french walkers to be a bit unwelcoming) and we enjoyed chatting with some new friends. However, the German family with two young children (the youngest nine) plunged Dr Newcastle into deep disappointment when she was told that they had easily crossed the Cirque that day!
Stage five of our trip was the short walk to the Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori. We walked back to the bergeries, crossing the now only ankle deep stream as we went. The morning’s path was gentle, through a forest of laricio pines before it turned uphill after morning tea. Along the stony track there were plenty of pretty little wildflowers and in sections there were some fun little rock scrambles and detours to cross rain filled new baby waterfalls. Up on the Bocca di Foggiale there were still mammoth crusts of snow, slowly dripping down into the valley. The view from the curve of the Bocca back down the green and rocky valley was really beautiful and the highlight of the day. We reached the refuge early in the afternoon.
As we walked in we saw that the tents were pegged out close to the stream. With the dark thunderclouds gathering overhead we asked the (creepy and sleazy) guardian if there were any beds left in the refuge we could take for the night, rather than the tent we had booked?
So I asked if we could just stay on the refuge kitchen floor, or even just leave our bags there?
Ok then, Mr Obliging Guardian, we’re out to the tent.
We had a scope around and found one tent up next to the refuge that had pallets under it. So of course we started putting our gear in there. The guardian came out and angrily told us that we couldn’t use that tent and to go down to the watercourse. Sighingly, we chose the tent that seemed least likely to flood and put our gear inside before heading off to have a shower.
You can see where this is going can’t you?
While we were showering there was an almighty storm, complete with biblical hail, and the tent was completely flooded.
My camera was completely ruined and our sleeping bags and mattresses were drenched. The upshot of my apoplectic fit was that we were given beds in the refuge, which as it turns out, were available all along. I was torn between loosing my shit again and taking the bed. I took the bed.
I was very happy to leave the next morning. My grumpy-camera-ruined-stompiness wore off pretty quickly as we walked the green ridge away from the refuge. As the path descended into the valley there were gorgeous views back towards the rocky peaks of Capu Tafunatu and Paglia Orba, clear cut against a blue and smiling sky. Once in the valley the path meanders back and forth across a very pretty little river, easily crossed each time with well built bridges. Along the water are smooth sculpted boulders, shaped and hollowed into bowls, ridges and waves. We were disappointed on reaching the Bergeries de Radule to discover that it was closed, with nobody home. It looked like a cute spot for a cup of coffee or to buy some cheese. The waterfall behind it was particularly pretty.
From there we continued downhill, entering a fairyland of slim feminine birches, bouncy moss underfoot, fronds unfurling and birds dancing between the branches, giggling brooks swirling and babbling across stones and under earth archways. It was delightful and such a refreshing change from the grim handsomeness of the mountains.
Soon after we reached the Hotel Castel di Vergio, where we were booked in to stay in the bunkhouse. This was quite clean and reasonable, although it wasn’t opened until later in the afternoon. While waiting we managed to more of less dry all of our things in the delicious afternoon sunshine by the picnic tables in front of the little grocery store. I was wildly excited by this shop and promptly purchased and ate a tub of fruit yogurt, an apple and two oranges. I then spent ages agonising over my menu for the forthcoming days before hesitatingly making my purchases.
We then had ringside seats for another huge thunderstorm that conveniently arrived after everything was dry. We splashed out (literally and figuratively) for dinner up at the hotel – multiple courses! multiple vegetables! wine! I slept like a well fed angel.
The next morning we woke to a well scrubbed sky and set out for Refuge de Manganu. We began with a gentle descent through a forest of laricio pines, interspersed with a few slim birches and solid beeches. As we turned uphill there were some huge views of the mountains in the distance behind us and of the valleys stretching out on either side below us. Climbing along a green ridge, we came across a few fantastically shaped beech trees – growing almost sideways, bent by the prevailing winds. I can imagine that at night in a howling wind they could be terrifyingly goblin-like. But under a sunshiny sky they are cute, more than anything. Like friendly little garden gnomes tilting their heads quizzically at you.
From there it was a fairly gentle and easy uphill walk (popular with day-walkers) towards Lac du Ninu. Despite being comparatively easy going, the scenery has an epic harshness about it. The goblin trees are sentries that guard a landscape of tumbling boulders, bleached trees their limbs frozen in a death cry and solitary pines dark and brooding. All of this makes the spectacle of the lake, as one comes over a last rise, even more unexpected. For here on the roof of the island is an improbably joyous, glittering amethyst lake set in the curve of an impossibly green meadow, cropped short by photogenic cows, calves, horses and foals. As you descend into the bucolic fantasy, the gentle turf receives ones weary feet like a benediction. Faces and hands can be washed in the many bubbling rivulets and companionable pats had from the approachable horses.
The lake lies on the Sentier de la Transhumance, a shorter alternative to the GR20. That trail follows, in part, the ancient transhumance routes of the shepherds of Corsica who led their flocks up the mountains each spring and down again to the milder coast each year. The lush meadows of the lake did and do provide excellent summer pasture.
As we continued to walk we came across two working bergeries, the summer headquarters of grazing families. At the second of these, Bergeries de Vaccaghja, we stopped for a taste of some delicious home made cheese and a glass of wine. From the bergeries you look out across the flat, welcoming and rich grasslands and the refuge is just beyond those, following a rocky climb to 1601m. I was to get to know this part of the path rather well. Perhaps under the influence of the strong wine, I managed to leave my wallet on the table at the bergeries. Of course, I failed to realise this until I was searching for my booking papers at the refuge. So back I ran all the way to the bergeries. They, with evident amusement, gave me my wallet and a glass of water and then – looking up worriedly at the rolling black clouds, I ran back to the refuge. I managed to get into the shower before the heavens opened. I think that’s probably the furthest I’ve run since the year 9 cross country.
The rain was fortunately only intermittent and we managed to cook dinner on the outside stove-tops with ease. I had a vegetable and garlic broth followed by fresh cheese and seared tomato spegattini. We also made friends with three Lithuanian ladies (one of whom looked like a slightly bedraggled young Geena Davis) and a darling Irishman, all of who would be continuing in our direction. It was really quite wonderful to meet with some friendly folk again.
Our eighth stage was to take us to Refuge de Petra Piana over the highest point of the GR20, the Brèche de Capitello at 2225m. We began with a stony ascent to a series of waterfalls and tiny lush green meadows, rivuleted with cold streams. Continuing ever-upwards we came to a series of boulders and slabs that were soon lost in snow. The trail was quite busy so there was a clear path for us to take. The snow was reasonably good – not too icy or slushy. So on we slogged, up and up and up. At long last we reached the brèche and sat down to enjoy the stupendous view of soaring rocky pinnacles around and above and the twin deep circular pools of the Lac de Capitellu and Lac du Melo below. The snow and rock continued to the limit of the eye’s gaze. With a hum that swiftly became a clattering roar, an oversized wasp of a helicopter shuddered into the skies above the pools. It drew up to the cliffs to our left, then circled out then back again, brightly clothed paramedics leaning out into the wind. Some walkers had (rather improbably) lost the trail though the snow and somehow popped out over the ridge line further to the left. They’d attempted to walk over the shoulder of icy snow to rejoin the path but someone had slipped, down, down, down over the snow and !stopped! just on the lip of the ice. A dizzying fall off the mountain somehow avoided and a leg shattered.
The thought of a horrifying fall into space and the cruel rock below was not exactly comforting as we walked on across the rotting snow. The melt created baby ice cliffs against all rocks as well as unexpected voids here and there in the day. Occasionally I’d think that we must have come to the end of the snowfields and then another would be upon us, slippery, skiddish and wet. The solidity of rock and scrambling was a welcome (if infrequent) respite from the black magic of water frozen in the sunshine.
We eventually scrambled over some final boulders to reach Bocca Muzzella and its impossible view back towards Brèche de Capitello. It seemed entirely incredible that we could have walked over such vicious granite teeth. From there it was downhill, zig zagging across stony slopes to the refuge.
The refuge grounds were green turfed and pretty, although a bit wet. We took a tent as far from the stream as possible. The little shop stocked a few dry goods and, glory of glories – oranges! We ended the day with drinks with our young Irishman from the from the night before along with some elderly and mirthful compatriots he’d found along the way. It was a glorious blue afternoon.
The next morning we set out for the Refuge de l’Onda. Dr Newcastle was keen to take the high-level alternative route rather then the main GR20: it was a great decision. The path began with a scrambly ascent up a rocky slope before the path evened out to follow the crest of the mountains towards l’Onda. At times the path and surroundings were quite rocky but then we would find ourselves following a smooth ribbon of grey as masses of green turf dropped off on either side of us. Again there would be a short scramble and then back to a path. It was a perfect days walking – interesting for the feet but not cruelly taxing – and a luscious indulgence for the eyes. Monte d’Oro and Monte Ritondu rise imposingly, glorying in their broken rock, airy arêtes, ambitious pinnacles and clinging snow. We had lunch on a windswept height, drinking in the view.
The descent towards the refuge was badly eroded by goats and sheep and not particularly enjoyable walking. However we were amply repaid for our efforts by the amusements the little meadow before the refuge had in store for us. We stopped to rest and to make friends with some horses and chit chat in the sun. We were merrily gabbling away when from across the fields, or from some alternative universe, a bluff Dutchman stumbled into our reality. He was rigged up under a thirty kilo pack with multiple cameras, water bottles, maps and thingawhatsits dangling off his person. With his huge smile he looked like no one so much as Bert (Dick Van Dyke) from Mary Poppins in his one man band getup. He had somehow managed to completely loose the very well marked trail and had nevertheless gamely traversed the wilds of Corsica – even crossing a stream that was up to his ankles! We liked him a lot.
The l’Onda refuge campground is downhill from the refuge itself and contained within a big wooden pen. This is to keep the goats and sheep out. At some unheard signal every evening hundreds of animals trot downhill and past the campsite for milking in another fenced off pen.
That night, our last on the trail, I had fun with the Lithuanian ladies and we met a slightly eccentric Melbourne hipster who had an evangelical zeal for barefoot running. I dinned on a very tasty pasta with orange rind, pecorino and wild herbs – liberally drizzled with the last of my delicious fresh olive oil. Dr Newcastle decided to indulge in Deb in a cup with a can of cold sardines stirred through. We were both quite impressed that she managed to eat it.
The path from l’Onda began with a farewell wave to the goats and sheep and then a steepish but fairly easy path uphill and then along a ridge. About halfway to the crest at Punta Muratello we stopped for a snack, to rest our tired bodies and to enjoy the scenery. A fit looking man came upon us and immediately started talking about his previous three completions of the GR20 and his ever improving times and fitness. I’m afraid we were not a terribly receptive audience.
From the crest itself we started the descent across a series of slabs. Some kind of army training exercise was taking place and we stopped to watch them marching up the hill. It turns out that the French army use the €22 pop-up tents from Decathlon.
We followed the slabs a little further, until about morning tea time, and then began a series of creeks and streams and gorges and waterfalls. They were absolutely gorgeous: sparkling liquid diamonds in the sun and cool glittering emeralds hidden under the foliage of laricio pines and elegant beeches. It was a warm day and I couldn’t resist a little swim. The pool I chose was quite spectacularly cold, but I could gasp one breaststroke in the icy water then flick myself up onto a warm stone and be sun-warm before the goosebumps had time to rise. It was glorious. If only there hadn’t been so many walkers I feel certain we would have met with some dryads or wood nymphs or fairies. It was that kind of place.
We continued through the forests and rockpools until we reached the Cascade de Anglais – a series of quite spectacular waterfalls and pools hollowed out of the granite. The glacial water was again incredibly clear and inviting and so we stopped to refresh our souls and our soles.
Not being in any particular hurry, we lingered along the cascade walk for some time. Just drinking in the scenery and trying to delay the unavoidable – the end of our walk. Fortunately for this purpose the path from the cascades towards Vizzavona is dotted with park benches, which are perfect for resting and contemplating, for looking upwards through heavenwards seeking branches and around at all the lovely wonders of a European forest in the flush of early summer.
But, inevitably, we crossed one last bouldery river (marvelling at it’s shining, jumping denizens), took one last curve through the woods and found ourselves back where I had started. In charming, tiny, little Vizzavona.