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by bootsandpaddles » Wed Jun 27, 2012 8:50 am
Date walked: 27/06/2012
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First of all, thanks to Dave and Gaffr for information about Corsica and the GR20. We had a great time and would like to share our experiences and reflections on our trip. And a few photos.
We thought that early June was a good time to go: the weather was really hotting up as we got towards the end of the route and although we had a couple of colder days with low cloud early on and one very windy day we are well used to that kind of thing! There were still some sizable patches of snow in places but also plenty of water for replenishing water bottles along the way – and for the odd refreshing dip!
The refuges were quite busy but if you want to use them you can now book. They also have a lot of ready-pitched tents available which can be booked. They seemed to be providing inflatable mattresses too so you would only have to take a sleeping bag if you chose that option. Sometimes there were so many tents for hire that they took up a lot of the camping spaces that we expected to be available for the likes of us who chose to take our own tent. But there was never a problem getting a camping spot although people who arrived late in the day sometimes had a less than ideal pitch.
The all important food
We catered for ourselves throughout, apart from a couple of times when we had to buy the petit dejeuner provided by the refuge because we couldn’t buy any bread. We usually carried a 500g bag of pasta and had it with saucisson (always available at the refuges) or sardines in tomato sauce or whatever else they had such as packets of soup. On one occasion we shocked a group of French people by eating tinned cassoulet with boil in the bag rice. This seemed to be some kind of major gastronomic faux pas – clearly elegance and quality are more important to our continental friends than quantity! And you could get always get large bars of chocolate for pudding not to mention cake. At some refuges they baked their own delicious cakes. We once bought a whole fruit cake the packaging of which stated it would serve 10 and demolished it between us as a snack! Fresh fruit was a bit of problem but we discovered compote, which is apple puree in little individual sachets, and this was excellent squirted on to bread for breakfast. Goat’s cheese was fairly readily available and very tasty too. You can get Coleman gas at Calenzana (the start of the GR20 if doing it from N to S) and at Vizzavona (the half way point). Most of the refuges have gas stoves available for campers so we didn’t need to use our own stove a lot although it was good to have as a back up. Vizzavona also has an excellent restaurant in the station building and a good choice of supplies. And the Refuge d’Usciolu (half way through the southern half) had a good shop too as did Haut Asco (3 days into the northern half). So you won’t starve and won’t have to carry tons of food as long as you are not too picky.
The trail itself
We took 13 days to complete the GR20 which I think is about average. I’m not saying this to brag or anything but we didn’t find it as tough as it is often made out to be. So if you have been put off by descriptions of the route being really hard I think that if you are used to walking, scrambling and backpacking in Scotland you shouldn’t have any trouble at all. Whilst not wishing to sound at all “ageist” it is perhaps worth pointing out that an awful lot of people (including me!) that we met were in receipt of their pensions and managed very well indeed!
There were some sections that were very steep and these were hard work in the heat and there was lots of sustained, rough scrambling along ridges but this was very enjoyable. I think the most testing parts of the route were some of the long descents which were rough and bouldery. But by and large the days were quite short. Unless you run a couple of sections together the days are rarely longer than 6 hours and some are even shorter. I think the longest day we did was about 9 hours which was the day from Haut Asco that includes the Cirque de la Solitude. We pushed on to the Refuge Ciuttulu di i Mori which made for an excellent and varied day. It was not always possible to extend the length of the days though because you can only camp at the refuges so it was often either a case of having a rather short day or a very long day.
In view of the short days it was surprising that most people seemed to set off at the crack of dawn, usually making a great deal of noise – why do people have to shout at 5am?? We generally looked out of the tent at about 7am to find that everyone else had already gone! This then gives you a rather long afternoon and evening at the next refuge. I think for us this was definitely the one big downside of the GR20. We haven’t done any other long distance routes in France but I expect they would be similar. I guess we are really lucky here in that you can divide your journey up as you please and put up your tent wherever you like. The other negative point for me was the number of people on the route. I am used to walking all day (or even sometimes 2 or 3 days) and not seeing anyone or very few people anyway. I found constantly having to “Bonjour” hoards of people rather wearing, particularly in the southern section where there were lots of large guided groups who seemed to want about 20 “Bonjours” apiece. On the plus side however we did meet some very nice people as well.
If you can possibly avoid it I would not recommend camping at the Bergeries de Capannelle, the first refuge after Vizzavona. They clearly don’t want campers. The campsite was very poor and had no gas supply for campers. And the only beer they had was Heineken! And don’t camp in the woods at Refuge de Carrozzu. Our tent filled up with ants – thousands of them! In the end we had to move to a more open pitch behind the refuge and turn the tent inside out and shake them all out. Corsica’s answer to midges, perhaps. In fact it would be quite feasible to miss out Carrozzu altogether and go on to Haut Asco. This would give a day of about 8 hours.
I hope this doesn’t sound too negative because the route itself was brilliant. Loads of scrambling but also a lot of variety with lovely beech woods, laricio pines, beautiful spring flowers, rivers and waterfalls and lakes and bergeries selling cheese. We saw mouflon (wild sheep with huge horns) and loads of lizards and on one occasion a snake. Beware the horses that roam around the campsites, however! They are inclined to help themselves to any food left outside the tent. And there is a horrible dog at Bocca di Verde that has a penchant (I picked up some French along the way you will note!) for cocking its leg up your rucksack.
There have been a few changes to the route since our Cicerone guide was published (we did meet someone – one of the very rare Brits we encountered – who had a guide published in 1960!). The main route change is between Refuge d’Usciolu and Refuge d’Asinao. Most people however seemed to stick to the original route. We did the new route which I can thoroughly recommend. It is a bit longer but made for a very good day with a lot of variety. It initially follows the path from Bocca di l’Agnone to Zicavo before branching south along a lovely river (requiring a bit of a paddle to cross) to the refuge at Matalza. After that the route still follows the river (good pools for a dip) before going to a bergerie (Croce Berg. on our map) where they actually had bread and fresh fruit. Then the path climbs to rejoin the main route again and ascends most of the way up Monte Alcudina. We dumped our rucksacks and went up to the summit before dropping down a very rough to Refuge d’Asinao.
After completing the GR20 we got the bus to Bastia and found a nice hotel (Hotel Napoleon) for a few days. It was 62 Euros a night for a double room which wasn’t too bad really and I must say I enjoyed the spring-interior mattress and having our very own hot shower. And, of course, the food and wine in Bastia was excellent, too.
And don’t worry if your French isn’t very good. Although I always tried to speak French at the refuges and in shops etc everyone seems to want to try out their English. We met a couple of Germans whose only French phrase was “A tout a l’heure!” and they seemed to manage OK.
by gaffr » Sat Jun 30, 2012 4:23 pm
What about the changes to the route before you ascend to monte Alcudina? I have been reading on the 'corsica for hikers' site that the bridge has been cut down? and that the route reaches the col above Asinau by a different route? Maybe you could put some comments on the site.....it does seem a friendly, no hassels kind site to write to. You must look at the two videos made by Michele, a real corsica enthusiast, who did the route over two holidays while making the film.......I think that they do give a real flavour of the journey......fun....music...chat....the lot. I must agree about the crowding but we left later each morning and didn't see too many folks until we reached the next overnight place.
by ChrisW » Sun Jul 01, 2012 1:31 am
Great photos, great tale really enjoyable
by gaffr » Sun Jul 01, 2012 11:03 am
by bootsandpaddles » Sun Jul 01, 2012 4:45 pm
by gaffr » Tue Jul 03, 2012 7:49 am
On another issue. I read that you were looking for ways of training for the MM. My daughter Mel, although not a competative runner.....her times are like 150% of the elite folks, does enjoy running in some of the events on the scottish hill runners calendar.....e.g. Slioch, Lairig Ghru, Beinn Rinnes, Glamaig etc....maybe these would be useful as training?
by bootsandpaddles » Tue Jul 03, 2012 8:16 am
but I don't want to let the side down. So thanks for the training tips.