From The Times March 25, 2006Corsica's rocky mountain highCorsica's GR20 is a marvel, says Stephanie Debere - as long as someone else carries the stuff. Plus, Corsica's coastal hotels
The Cirque de la Solitude, a boulder-strewn valley-head that most mountaineers would consider a challenge, is the triumphant finale to Corsica’s GR20 — Western Europe’s toughest hiking route. It, and the rest of this 105-mile (170km) route through the island’s mountainous heart, is legendary among walkers and part of France’s Grande Randonée network of long-distance trails.
I had always liked the idea of trying it, but had been put off by having to carry everything I would need on my back. Nor did I want to fill an entire two-week holiday in the process. But a small Corsican company, Tour Aventure, avoids both problems, offering guided or self-guided walking along all or parts of the GR20, and arranging meals and accommodation in shepherd’s huts, ski hotels and mountain refuges.
Best of all, you don’t have to walk laden like a mule. The company transports your main baggage, reuniting you with it every couple of nights. You just carry a small pack containing a sleeping bag and two days’ gear. This makes the GR20 accessible to anyone who is reasonably fit and has a head for heights, so I asked a sturdy-legged friend to join me and booked a six-day self-guided walk through the ruggedly beautiful northern GR20.
The self-guided option allows you to set out when you want each morning and walk at your own pace. But we still felt trepidation about the challenge ahead as we approached the nationalist stronghold Corte on the single-track train that traverses Corsica. We met one of Tour Aventure’s founders, Sarah Quee, to collect maps and walking notes before joining the GR. An Englishwoman resident in Corsica for ten years, Quee is brimming with infectious passion for the mountains. She dropped us as far above Corte as the road went, then we scrambled up a rocky route to join the GR20 on a granite ridge overlooking seven further layers of mountains.
It was soon apparent that the route is not overrated, neither in terms of scenery nor difficulty. Some of the young Euro-hikers we passed looked miserably weighed down by bulging kit. The route demands concentration and the gradients challenged our legs and lungs, but our light backpacks allowed us to enjoy the breathtaking landscapes.
Following the route marked by red and white paint daubed regularly on rocks, we scrambled up and down mountainsides for hundreds of metres, passing tumbling streams and mountain ashes hung like Christmas trees with scarlet berries. The scenery varied wildly: vertical boulder-fields, forests of beech and pine; moorland grazed by wild pigs and ponies; and knife-edge ridges overlooking the spectacular west coast (a Unesco world heritage site).
Quee has persuaded several shepherds to feed her clients and let her pitch tents for them around their huts. This injects cash into the local economy and gave us insight into traditional Corsican life. Sometimes there were warm showers and lavatories; sometimes there were cold showers and no lavatories. We drank water from springs and pichets of Corsican wine with fellow walkers, ranging from young academics to a Swiss couple in their seventies. All agreed that Tour Aventure made the GR20 accessible without removing the challenge.
Our meals were prepared by leathery-skinned old men who drank pastis and talked animatedly among themselves. “Corsica is like a woman, always changing. You never get bored with her,” pronounced Théo in heavily accented French, before serving platters of superb charcuterie (Corsica’s speciality), bean soup-stew, and omelettes stuffed with mint and brocciu (like mozzarella).
Noël, who had just taken his flock down the mountain for winter, showed us his cellar, where about 150 fromages were ripening on gingham-lined shelves. After veal and pasta (Corsica was run by Genoa for centuries before France took over), we tried the pungent cheese, while round the camp fire visiting villagers sang haunting liberation songs. Mountain culture is Corsica’s true culture: traditionally, people inhabited the interior to avoid coastal invasions.
Although we never covered more than eight miles a day, the gradients and rough terrain made the walking deeply satisfying. We felt increasingly fit and agile, despite a few discomforts, including some dreadful picnic lunches (tired rice salads and leftovers), and long, chilly waits for dinner. The hotels where we accessed our baggage were comically dated (though the best available in such remote locations), but these irritations paled alongside the privilege of crossing such wilderness.
The Cirque was the final day’s challenge. After a gruelling two-hour climb to 2,200m we reached the rim, before the nail-biting descent and climb out of the far side with the help of chains. The sense of disbelief at having crossed such terrain was electrifying. I’ll soon be back to tackle the GR20’s southern section.NEED TO KNOW
Stephanie Debere travelled with Corsica Tour Adventure (00 33 4 95 50 72 75, www.corsica-adventure.com
), which has a seven-night package including accommodation, baggage transfers and meals from £400pp. The season is from June to September; a good standard of fitness and walking experience is needed for the GR20.