GR 20 Corsica 2010
The GR20 is billed as “the toughest walk in Europe” and it is certainly pretty challenging. It runs from Calanzana in the North down the mountainous spine of the country to Conca in the South.
We walked/scrambled the GR20 in June 2010 with a couple of friends. There was Jon from New Zealand who we had met when we were trekking in NZ and our French friend Alain from Graulhet. Alain was only able to do the first week but Jon was with us for the whole time.
Martin and Jon
Alain, Martin, Andre and Tilly
We then met lots of people on the way walking for much of the first week with Andre from Bordeaux and Jean Jaques and Yveline from Brittany and then meeting up with a Dutch couple, Jan and Ria in the second.
We chose June because the weather should have been good, not too hot but settled and sunny, in fact the weather for the first week was atrocious with wind rain and snow – but that’s mountains for you.
Not the kind of weather we were expecting!
Up until summer 2010 it was impossible to book refuges in advance which meant that most people carried tents of some sort. However, as we were planning our trek everything changed – the national park authorities, presumably worried about the numbers on the trail and the problem of overcrowding at refuges and campsites, introduced compulsory booking for both the refuges and campsites. We were worried about carrying too much weight so we decided to stay in the refuges and not take a tent. This was not a totally successful decision since the new scheme had been introduced in the face of almost total opposition from the guardians of the refuges. Since the booking was done centrally with the park authorities the guardians had no financial incentive to make the scheme work. Also refuges in Corsica are not like refuges in the Alps or Pyrenees being much more primitive and usually unbelievably crowded.
14th June Bastia to Calanzana
Took the train, bus and train across the mountains and then around the coast - a really pretty journey. Met Jon and Alain as they disembarked from the ferry at Calvi and then took the bus up to the Gite d’Etape at Calanzana. Had a good evening until the meteo was announced. There was an Alerte Orange covering the whole of this part of the Med and the authorities had closed the GR20!!
Ande, Jean Jaques, Yveline and Alain on the road to Bonifatu
15th June Calanzana to Bonifatu
Got up early and after much agonised discussion decided to walk via Bonifatu and then from there to Carozzu. This was a low level route mainly on roads and it meant that we missed out the first refuge. We managed to book into the Gite d’Etape at Bonifatu.
16th June Bonifatu to Refuge Carozzu
Climbed up a steep rocky track towards the refuge across tumbling side streams really swollen by the rain. We started by taking off boots to cross these (not Jon though) but soon gave up and followed Jon’s example - he just waded across in true NZ style. Reached the refuge at 11.30 so spent the afternoon doing part of the route from the Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu which we had missed out on. Climbed up to col called Bocca Inuminata at 1865 metres which gave us a great although rather intimidating view of the GR20 winding up and down what looked like impossibly rocky peaks.
17th June Refuge Carozzu to Haut Asco
The weather had turned wet and misty. We descended steeply to the Ruisseau de Spasimata which we crossed on a wobbly suspension bridge then started climbing steeply over the Spasimata slabs. It was now raining in earnest which made the rock slippery – ok when there were chains and cables to hang on to but a bit scary otherwise. As we rose higher there was a mixture of snow and rock up to the pass Bocca a i Stagni (2010 metres) then it was a vertiginuous descent towards the refuge at Haut Asco.
18th June Haut Asco to Refuge Tighjettu
This was the day everybody worries about – the passage down and up the Cirque de Solitude. Luckily for us the weather had dried up and we had a clear sunny day.
First we had to climb up the rock and neve to the Col Perdu (2183 metres).
Once we had reached the col we could look down onto the Cirque de Solitude. There was a chasm with a huge jumble of rocks and enormous rock pillars on all sides with tiny dots of colour where the streams of trekkers were inching their way down the rock faces.
There were lots of chains which helped but some of the back climbing was a little tricky.
Eventually we reached the bottom of the chasm and then started up the vertical rock on the other side all the way up to the Bocca Minuta (2218 metres). Then it was another steep rocky descent to the refuge.
19th June Refuge Tighjettu to Hotel Castel di Vergio
Unfortunately the good weather did not last. The mist and rain swept in again and it became very cold. We passed down through woods of Larico Pines with wonderful wild flowers before climbing up again.
As we climbed up over rock bands the rain turned to driving hail and snow. We continued in zero visibility to the Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori where we stopped for a break. It was full of dripping trekkers all huddling around the fire.
Then it was on again until we reached the hotel and a welcome hot shower.
20th June Hotel Castel di Vergio to Refuge de Manganu
The weather continued to be testing – driving cold rain and strong winds. The streams we had to cross were very swollen and for one really large one, we took off boots and socks and waded across in bare feet. By the time we reached the Refuge de Manganu, we were cold and wet through. Alain had to stay in his tent as the refuge was full. We were by now getting worried about the next day which was reckoned to be much harder. Would we be able to cope with the scrambling if the weather continued to be so bad?
21st June Refuge de Manganu to Refuge Petra Piana
We started climbing up towards the Breche de Capitellu, at 2225 metres the highest point on the main GR20 route. The weather was bad again, rain which rapidly turned to snow as we climbed. Alain, who was carrying a large pack because of his tent, decided to go back and wait for the weather to improve. The rest of us decided to press on.
We scrambled through rocky clefts and then along narrow snowy ridges with the mist swirling around us to the Bocca a Soglia and then the Bocca Renusu and finally the Bocca Muzzella.
Then we descended to the Refuge Petra Piana where we found that despite having bookings there was no room in the refuge. Eventually the grumpy Guardian found us a damp tent to sleep in but it did not do too much to raise our spirits which were pretty low by this time.
22nd June Refuge Petra Piana to Hotel Mont d’Oro, Vizzavona
We had originally planned to stay the next night at the Refuge d’l’Onda but after our experience at Petra Piana we decided to do 2 sections in one day and push onto Vizzavona. We left about 7.00 am and reached the Refuge d’l’Onda by 11.00 am. After a break for some food we pushed on climbing steeply to the ridge at 2100 metres. Then it was a knee crunching descent initially over huge slabs of rock which seemed to go on for ever. Finally, foot sore and completely exhausted we staggered into the Gite by the Hotel Mont d’Oro.
23rd June Hotel Mont d’Oro, Vizzavona to Hotel Ilaricci, Vizzavona
This was a really short easy day since we just had to walk down the valley into Vizzavona proper and book into Hotel Ilaricci.
24th June Vizzavona
A lazy day recuperating. The highpoint was when Alain arrived at the hotel. He had followed behind us but a day later. He had camped beside Refuge d’l’Onda and said the food there had been spectacular - oh well!! Andre, Jean Jaques and Yveline said goodbye as they were off back on the GR20 the next day.
25th June Vizzavona
Another rest day. We decided to take the bus and visit Corte the old capital of Corsica with Alain and Jon. The weather had finally cheered up – blue skies and hot sun. We had a copious lunch sitting outside then staggered up to look at the Citadel.
26th June Vizzavona to Bergeries de Campanelle
Said “au revoir” to Alain who was going home and then started off back on the GR20. Climbed up through verdant woodland with the path zigzagging and contouring around the hillsides. Reached the col – the Bocca Palmento 1645 metres and then descended to the Bergeries d’Alzeta where we had lunch. During the afternoon we started to get views of Monte Renosu (2352 metres). Tilly fell crossing a stream and the final climb seemed to go on for ever, Then, just as the thunder clouds rolled in, we arrived at Gite U Fugone where we were staying.
27th June Bergeries de Campanelle to Bocca di Verdi
We had originally intended to follow the short low level route which is the official GR20 route. However, it was a beautiful morning so we decided instead to follow the high level route over Monte Renosu. We climbed steeply up a stony path until we arrived at the Lac du Bastani (2089 metres) then crossed a couple of neve fields to gain the ridge leading up to the mountain. We reached the flat rocky mountain top with its big iron cross and then descended over very rough broken ground with very little in the way of markings to indicate the route. Finally we found the official GR20 with its red and white paint fleches and followed that to Bocca di Verdi.
28th June Bocca di Verdi to Refuge d’Usciolu
Climbed up past the Refuge de Prati on what was initially a broad trail then the path narrowed and zigzagged in and around a high rocky ridge so lots of scrambling. The flowers among the rocks were wonderful. After the Col de Laparo we descended through trees then climbed up through juniper, spiny broom and scrub alder to the next rocky ridge. Finally arrived at the Refuge d’Usciolu perched high in the wild mountains.
29th June Refuge d’Usciolu to Refuge d’Asinau
It was a lovely morning. We climbed up onto the ridge then it was hard scramble along it. Then we descended steeply through rocks and beech trees to the Bocca di l’Agnou (1570 metres) and then the Plateau du Cusione which was covered in flowering spiky broom. Here we saw wild pigs rooting around in the undergrowth – they seemed totally unconcerned about us. After lunch we climbed up the ridge (the Crete de la Foce Aperta) towards the summit of Monte Alcudina. As we climbed the sun disappeared and black thunder clouds rolled in which was a bit worrying as the guide book said on no account be on the summit of Monte Alcudina in an electric storm. Of course as we reached the summit sheets of rain started falling, lightening started forking across the sky and the hills shook with the rolls of thunder. We managed to dodge being struck by lightening and then just to navigate our way down the vertical, slippery rocky slope to the refuge. We arrived somewhat exhausted!
30th June Refuge d’Asinau to Village de Bavella
We chose the official low level route rather than the high level one which goes over “Les Aiguilles de Bavella”. After a steep and rocky descent from the refuge we crossed the river in the valley and then wound around “Les Aiguilles de Bavella”. Once again the flowers were lovely. Finally we rounded the end of the Aiguilles and started to scramble over rocks and climb up to the village of Bavella. We arrived in time for lunch and ate a huge omlette paysanne sitting on the terrace at the Gite d’Etape.
1st July Village de Bavella to Conca
Our last day on the trail. The weather was perfect – hot and sunny. We wound up and down and around the mountains on small stony paths. A steep climb led us to the Foce Finosa (1206 metres) – a narrow rocky gap which gave us a wonderful view. Then we descended to Refuge d’ I Paliri (1055 metres) where we stopped for a quick drink. We continued winding our way through the mountains then as we passed another rocky notch we looked down and saw a pool and Jon who had raced on ahead was already swimming in it! After this we had to climb again to pass another rocky notch then it was down all the way to Conca and a celebratory drink.
Some final thoughts
We took 14 days to walk the route not counting rest days which is what the guides suggest as a normal time. Mind you towards the end we met a Swiss couple who were doing the whole thing in 7 days then an American ultra light hiker who was only taking 5 or 6 days!! The route is not a solitary mountain experience in any shape or form the trail is positively crawling with other hikers and this particularly apparent at the refuges. The whole thing is very tough – we felt increasingly tired as we went on.