GR-20 – when you bite more than you can chew // Crossing Corsica from South to North

Second year in a row due to the pandemic we’ve decided to stay close by, limiting our possible destinations within a reasonable drive in case the flight would be cancelled. After an extensive search our eyes got caught by a little French island in the Mediterranean sea. It is well known between French hikers for its ultimate GR-20 route – the toughest multiday hike in Europe.

“The harder the better!” we thought.

Knowing how important is to be well prepared (which includes being well informed) for the hike, we’ve read loads of information, bought a guidebook, joined a Facebook group for resolving some last minute doubts, etc. We were very well informed. Can’t say the same about our physical shape though. Second season of pandemic without any decent exercise could clearly be noticed on our softer than ever bodies. There were loads of comments and warnings that physical preparation is crucial to hike this trail successfully, many of them talking about few months of extensive preparations. We’ve analysed the trail gpx files and the profiles of each section. It did look challenging but not impossible. Worst comes to worst, we can always go to the beach and enjoy the Mediterranean!

What we did improve for this trip a lot was our equipment: new tent, sleeping mats, sleeping bags, backpacks… All new and most importantly – significantly lighter than what we used before. If in Lofoten our backpacks on day 1 were above 25 kg, this time they both were only 10 kg of base weight, plus the weight of water for the day. When doing the packing exercise we still saw some options to optimize the weight for the future trips, like investing in lighter clothes and some other small details. Every little counts! It is definitely important to go as light as you can for this trip and we couldn’t be happier about every piece of our new equipment!

So, the backpacks are ready, let the adventure begin!

Day 1. Mission – arrive the trailhead in one day.

In the map Corsica looks so close by and so small, that we could never imagine it would be so difficult to get to the starting point. To start with, there were no direct flights and no properly connecting flights either, which meant we had to do a longer scale, pick up our backpacks, check them back in, etc. Traveling inside Corsica is complicated as well. Our plan was to arrive Corsica around 2 p.m. take a bus or taxi to Porto Vecchio, buy gas in Intersport, take another bus to Sainte-Lucie de Porto Vecchio and then either walk to Conca, or take yet another bus.

Everything went well up to Porto Vecchio, but once there, we realized there was not a single bus heading North until next morning! And it’s not that we haven’t checked the info beforehand…

After a good walk to Intersport, getting the last supplies, and not really seeing any taxies in the area, we’ve decided to try hitch hiking. Not the best practice in times of pandemic, to be honest, nor our favourite way of moving around, but the choices were either this, or we loose one day. And days were very precious. We got lucky with the driver who stopped to give us a ride in just few minutes. He almost killed us with his driving, but was very friendly and took us directly to the trailhead in Conca, passing through the camping and going straight to the bar where everyone who finishes the trail sits down for a cool drink. We saw quite a big group of hikers freshly arrived from the mountains, all dirty, tired and in bruises. “OMG… where are we going??”

After having a refreshing Corsican beer we walked back to the camping. It was a fairly nice place, with very friendly staff who like Portuguese. We had a good dinner in their restaurant with incredible amount of cats (I hope they don’t cook them) and went to sleep right after sunset. The anxiety was piling up and we wanted to hit the trail with the first light. No time to loose.

Day 2. Let’s see how bad it is

Conca – Refuge Paliri
15,5 km, 1242 m up, 454 m down

The first day of the hike was kind of a try out of the mountains, climate, our physical shape, speed and routines.

From the information we’d gathered, we knew that the hike was challenging due to steep and long ups and downs, and because of the hot days with minimal shadow. Thus, everyone doing this trail was getting up early to take advantage of the fresh morning hours.

We’ve set our alarms to get up before sunrise, but were kind of slow on packing things up and having our breakfast in a refuge. It was absolutely bright when we started the hike, yet quite fresh in the shadow. The freshness didn’t last long. At 7:30 we were already all sweaty!

Today was all about climb. Couldn’t really expect it to be anything else as we had just entered the mountains. The path wasn’t bad at all: super well marked, hard and not too rocky terrain, only a few sections of a bit more technical climb where you’d need to mind your steps. Overall, Pedro qualified the first section as “easy hike” (I’d classify it as moderate having in mind the accumulated ascent).

The mountains in South Corsica are surprisingly green and provide quite a lot of shadow on the trail. But even with the shadow Mediterranean heat and moist was tiring. Not sure why, but we didn’t think through the meals of the day and left Conca with only a few cookies, dried meals, and 4,6 litters of water for the two of us. 6 hours of hiking without decent meal were quite challenging, and water was barely enough to drink, thus cooking dried food wasn’t an option. We had to save water during the hike as there were no reliable water sources on the way.

Not having food to eat made our stops on the trail very brief, thus we arrived Paliri before 1 pm – just on time for lunch! Extremely expensive spaghetti Bolognese didn’t have any meat and the amount of sauce was also minimalistic, but the dish itself had loads of pasta so it served us well.

Having finished the first stage so early we thought of continuing to the section 16a, but to our great disappointment we’ve learned that next village is the only place in the whole gr20 where you don’t have any option to camp. An idea of staying in a hostel on the very first night of the hike didn’t sound appealing. Joining sections 16a and 15 would mean an extra 7,5 hours of hiking, which was clearly beyond our capacity for the first day. Thus, we decided to stay in Palini, relax and enjoy the views which were truly amazing.

The hours went slowly and we had enough time to explore the area of the hut or try out the so called shower. I mean… we’ve seen some quite outstanding (not in the best sense) facilities during our hikes but this one beat them all! A tiny cabin with half broken door, a tube for water that didn’t have a showerhead nor anything to hold it up, and very…very cold water. Well, at least it was a nice refreshment on a very hot day and something to laugh about!

In the afternoon we got offered to get free dinner if we’d help to serve food for the crowd (they were clearly lacking staff that day), but we refused and had our dried food dinner instead with amazing views of the sunset.

Day 3. The undulating path (thank god we didn’t go for it yesterday)

Paliri – Les Aiguilles de Bavella – Refuge d’Asinau
19,2 km, 1209 m up, 793 m down (9,5 hours)

The morning went as planned. We woke up at 5 am, quickly packed our backpacks and set off before 6 am without even having breakfast. Fresh air and beautiful light of sunrise colouring the mountains was giving us more energy than any food.

After an hour of a climb, we stopped for a quick snack (two chocolate bars we bought at the refuge last night) and continued to Les Aiguilles de Bavella – a small village that has a good road access but doesn’t have a campsite.

We stopped there to have a proper breakfast and refill our food supplies. I think it was the best resupply spot we had in all the hike.

After the village we continued to section 15 and chose a classic trail which is longer than alpine variant. The description of the alpine variant was very straightforward – people with vertigo should not take it. So we didn’t.

The classic trail took us mainly through the forest – a very monotonous and tiring hike with constant ups and downs. Even if the difference between the two refuges in altitude was barely 500 meters, the accumulated climb was 1200 meters. The book warned that this section was going to be tiring, but you only believe it when you experience it.

The forest was actually our salvation, as it provided loads of nice shadow, which is really appreciated in hot weather hikes. When we were approaching the end of the section, it still felt like we were going down instead of climbing up, and the closer we got, the scarier it was, as we knew the altitude of the refuge we were going for. We knew that the last section would be tough. And so it was.

There is a gorgeous river just before the final climb where many hikers stop to have a refreshing swim. Really beautiful place (therefore quite packed too), but the only thing we could think of at that moment was reaching the refuge, so we continued without stopping.

On one hand I regretted that a lot, as resting and refreshing yourself before that final very hot climb would have been a good idea and probably would have made a difference. Yet, the refuge site was so small and so extremely packed, that if we had stayed at the river, we would have had problems finding where to pitch a tent. Due to the complicated landscape, this refuge had very limited amount of space where you could possibly pitch a tent. If you are going with your own tent – you should definitely try to reach this place as early in the day as possible.

Overall, according to the book, it was supposed to be a 7,5 hour hike, but with all the stops it took us 9,5 instead. Quite a long and tiring day indeed.

Nevertheless, starting early has its benefits – even after a long day we had plenty of time for having a shower and arrived on time to book a dinner in the hut. Most of the hikers barely carry their own food and usually have meals in the refuges, thus dinners are very social moments on GR-20. If you speak French, of course. People from other countries or the ones who at least speak English were clearly outnumbered, so we felt a bit lonely in that sense. Nevertheless, having a decent meal in a warm room is always pleasant.

Day 4. Surprise!!

Refuge d’Asinau – Refuge de Usciolu
22,9 km, 1450 up, 1323 down. 12 hours.

Today was the day we planned to merge sections as we didn’t have enough days to do the full trail otherwise. Having seen the initial part of the climb from the refuge and having read about it in the book we made sure to start the day early. Alarm was set to 4:30 and at 5:15 we already left the refuge.

The day started with a huge climb – 2 km of distance to climb 500 meters up.  It was very steep and with quite some scrambling (which is just a nice word for crawling). In general the scrambling wasn’t difficult but the climb was a lot. It took us 2 hours to do those first 2 km. But we knew it, we were rested, fresh, morally prepared and with no heat at the first hours of the morning.

The first pass, Bocca Stazzunara, was beautiful – a good reward after a demanding climb. There were signs to our today’s refuge for two different routes. We somehow missed information about the variant in the book and thus decided to take the path as planned. The variant apparently took straight to the refuge without passing through the villages. It is more demanding, has more climbs etc, yet everyone who took that route arrived much earlier than we did.

However, our route was nice too. The descent from the first pass was ok – not too steep nor very demanding. We stopped for breakfast with nice views and rested our sweaty feet. By the way, the fingered liner socks was one of our major discoveries on this trip that prevented blisters almost up to the end of our whole hike.

Soon after that, it got quite flat – a nice and easy walk. We stopped in bergerie de Crosi to eat, refill and use a proper bathroom before we continued. The next two sections passing through the refuge de Matalza and bergerie de Basseta were very short but beautiful, with many nice trees, Corsican black pigs and relaxing walk rather than a hike.

We did quite a few km at those parts, which really didn’t feel tiring, but at the end were extra km that drained our overall energy. We also stopped at the river to have lunch, soaking feet in cold water, eating nice food we just bought in bergerie.

And then we started climbing the second climb of the day. Majority of the climb wasn’t very bad, except for the heat. Thankfully we had plenty of water refill places on this day and were well hydrated throughout the day. We had aprox 5 litres of water each and I couldn’t imagine doing this section with less.

The climb was steady but not very steep. We were approaching the second pass knowing that after that we would only have a fairly flat walk to the refuge. The book, descriptions or gpx files were not showing anything complicated. But once we reached it… it stroke us hard.

The pass itself was beautiful, but once we passed it, very soon we realized that there was an adventure park waiting for us. And it lasted for 4 km… a walk on the ridge with many steep rock formations (outcrops), constantly climbing and descending, crossing from one side to another of the outcrops. We called it Corsican variant of the 7 peeks (a hike in Sierra de Guadarrama, Spain) but in a much more extreme level and countless peeks. Loads and loads of scrambling, sometimes very difficult or even on the limit of being dangerous. There were no support chains in all this section either (which could have helped). And, of course, we don’t have photos that would represent this section well enough as we simply were too nervous to take any.

It was super challenging to us because of two main reasons:

  • we didn’t expect it
  • accumulated tiredness.

We started that final section after having done 18 km already, thinking that the last 4 km would be a piece of cake. So it was hard to cope with a surprise. Besides, it wasn’t just one challenging moment but 4 km of constant fear, not knowing what we would find behind the next outcrop. It was beyond my imagination. Adrenaline rush helped not to feel tired, but I didn’t feel safe in this part because a fall could be very serious. I ended up with just a couple of scratches, no big issues, but it didn’t feel good. And I could bet that majority of the hikers we saw during the previous couple of days going the oposite direction got their countless scratches here as well.

The first time we saw the refuge it was still more than 2 km away, and there would still be many ups and down to reach it. Funny enough, the book didn’t make a big deal out of it. Actually… not funny. We got worried that if an author of the book did’t bother to name this section as challenging, how the f*** the challenging sections would be? I guess we would soon find out, as the next section was one of those that did deserve to be mentioned as one. So, tomorrow we expect to be tough, but at least we hope we will be mentally prepared for it. Not like today.

Overall it wasn’t difficult in a sense that we were trashed. The start of the day was very strong, but then we took our time, stopped a lot, had much variety and most of the time the trail was quite relaxing. However, the end of the day was a killer surprise. We arrived the refuge just before 6 pm – too late to book the dinner. The campsite was already very full and it took as a while to find a spot for our tent. But it was a beautiful spot and our dried food dinner accompanied with a cold beer felt just right what we needed at that moment.

Day 5. Give me a break.

Refuge de Usciolu – Refuge de Prati
12,2 km, 942 up, 897 down. 7 hours.

The first climb wasn’t as bad as yesterday, but nevertheless a strong climb with a very cold wind, followed by some quite exposed sections and a lot of scrambling on the outcrops along the crest. Here they call it scrambling, but really… it’s crawling. The outcrops were more exposed than yesterday, but overall this section was shorter and we were freshly rested and mentally prepared, thus, didn’t suffer as much.

As usual, the climb was followed by a steep and long descent back into the forest, where the path got a bit flatter. Then we got more climb, more descent, more scrambling – well, a bit of everything. We were clearly marked by a surprise day and were constantly feeling anxious and thinking “OMG, what’s behind that rock? What’s behind that hill?”.

It wasn’t an easy hike, but not as shockingly difficult as the day before.  It took us longer than the book said as I started having lots of pain on the steep descents and we took our time to stop and relax once in a while.

We reached the refuge very early in the day and quite a few hikers continued to the next section but we decided to stay and give ourselves a bit of a break. It gave us plenty of time to relax, have a shower, do laundry, book dinner and just enjoy a beautiful day. This refuge had a nice grassy field to pitch a tent, quite good facilities, very good food, very nice sausage and definitely the best bread of the hike. We stocked up well even if it meant we’d need to carry more weight for the next couple of days.  

After just 4 days of the hike we started realizing how demanding this hike is for the joints and I was not sure how much more my body would resist. It started feeling that doing the full trail without skipping anything might be just a bit too much this time. But admitting that, even if only to yourself, is more difficult than one can think (especially when you see groups of grannies or families with kids doing the hike and sometimes even overtaking you…). However, doing almost 70 km with 4865 meters of accumulated climb in just 4 days is a lot. Period. No wonder our bodies started complaining… The upcoming days will show how much we can stretch the limits.

Day 6. Active relaxation.

Refuge de Prati – Bergeries de Capanelle
20,2 km, 902 up, 1192 down. 8:15 hours

The night was very windy and cold. The altitude was starting to show its’ face. Unexpectedly, it rained as well and I was already thinking of finding all our things wet in the morning. But it wasn’t as bad as it sounded from the inside of the tent.  

We had a late morning with breakfast still in the campsite (some very nice dried rice pudding with berries). It felt somewhat more difficult to set off this morning.

We started the hike with a small and cold climb, followed obviously by the steep descent which we didn’t want to do the day before (there was an option to stay in another refuge after the descent, where majority of the hikers went). I knew this descent would have been very challenging yesterday, but today, after a good rest it was totally ok.

Afterwards it was a lot of flat walking, fast and easy. We stopped to rest and to eat several times and even caught up the rest of the hikers we lost the day before. We also had an unexpected encounter with the Corsican cows and a traffic jam on the trail. We were about to cross a small river when we saw some cows coming our direction. They caught us right in the middle, forcing us to stand still and wait for them to pass, while each and every one of them would stop to drink from the stream. I got impatient and climb a bit uphill to overtake the queue of the cows that didn’t look very friendly with their horns pointing at us.

Arriving to the refuge was a bit more difficult, as the final climb was somewhat steeper. Yet, compared to other days it wasn’t too bad. The path went just by the river with some beautiful waterfalls, and the views compensated the effort. It wasn’t that difficult after all.

The refuge was quite big, with good road which meant good facilities and good food. It was so windy and cold that we decided not to use the shower, yet spent an evening in the terrace having an amazingly tasty pizza and chatting with our German hike companion Oliver whom we’ve been meeting every evening since we’ve started the trail. It was his last evening as his shoes started falling apart and was forced to quit the trail in Vizzavona.

The night was even colder and it was the first time we actually closed the sleeping bag from both sides.

Overall, it was an active relaxation day. Even if it was 20 km, the terrain was much easier and it felt relaxing compared to previous days.

Day 7. Getting lazy.

Bergeries de Capanelle – La Foca
14,6 km, 426 up, 938 down. 4 hours.

Another day of active relaxation. In the morning we slept over. Instead of waking up at 4:30 we got up at 5:20! Outrageously late! (Feel the sarcasm in our tone?)

We packed up and left rushing as the plan was to join two stages again. Thus, we tried to do the first stage really fast and we definitely succeeded. We did 14 km in 4 hours (including the stop for breakfast) and arrived La Foca just before 12.

It was a fast and easy hike. It started as always with a climb, then some descent, then some more ups and downs. But overall it was even easier than the day before. 

We arrived a campsite, stopped for a lunch break, and realized that everyone was staying there. This made us wonder why and reconsider. We realized that next stage would mean at least 6 hours with a climb in pure sun and then descending another 1000 km still the same day. Therefore, we’ve decided it’s not wise to join the stages and we stayed. The laziness after eating waffles with ice-cream might have also played its role in decision making…

The campsite was located right next to an adventure park and a well known waterfall in the area (Cascade des Anglais), which we decided to visit in the rest of the afternoon. It was right on the route we’d pass tomorrow, but we knew, we wouldn’t stop to enjoy it that much when hiking and it was really worth stopping at.

We grabbed our swimsuits, went for a calm stroll to the waterfall (1,5 km to reach it),  had a quick fresh swim, soaked our feet, sunbathed, and just enjoyed this gorgeous place until it was time to get back for our pre-booked dinner.

The camping once again had very good facilities, showers with hot water, normal (not squat) bathrooms, etc. Besides, it had ice-cream. You can’t wish for more. The only disadvantage was that it was located by the road, but being so tired I would sleep well even next to a railway.

Tomorrow we would enter the Northern part of the trail, which is supposed to be even more challenging than the Southern part we’d just finished.

Our aim for the next day – arrive the refuge before 4 pm to order the famous lasagne for dinner.

Day 8. Salto mortale.

La Foca – Refuge de l’Onda
10,9 km, 1091 up, 890 down, 7 hours.

The alarm was set for 4:30 again to avoid hiking in pure sun. The schedules on this hike are absolutely crazy…

After a couple of fairly relaxing days we had a strong entry into the Northern side of Corsica. A long, long, very long, never ending climb. 4:15 hours to climb one thousand meters up. It was fresh in the morning, we didn’t have any sun for almost 3 hours of the climb, and even when it did show up it was quite ok, as it was still early. We climbed with barely any stops and did it better than the book predicted. Instead of 4:30 we did it in 4:15 – quite an improvement on our timings. We must be getting fitter! Yet grannie group somehow managed to take us over… Every time we face them we would comfort ourselves that they go without heavy backpacks and probably have a guide who takes them through shortcuts or easier paths. Afterall… we need to maintain our self-esteem somehow.

The views up in the pass (Bocca Muratellu 2120m) were amazing so we stopped for quite some time to relax and refill our energy with a small snack.

And then the descent began. Very beautiful, very scenic descent. However, I wouldn’t say the same about the trail – lots of loose rocks, sandy, sometimes slippery. My knees started hurting with a sharp and intensive pain from the first steps down, making it very difficult to enjoy the views. Moreover, around halfway down the hill I had a fall. A slip, a trip, and a touchdown with my face (literally) on a big rock. No Bueno. First time ever I had such a strong fall in the mountains and got pretty scared during the first minutes while trying to figure out the level of injuries. Luckily enough, nothing was broken, except my self-esteem (and a few bruises here and there). Sorry, no photos of my disgrace.

We had a forced stop to disinfect and treat some wounds and dry my tears, but then continued the descent on our own. I got pretty scared but GR-20 wasn’t over for me just yet.

After reaching the hut, we rested for the rest of the day without doing anything, not even laundry or shower. Nothing. Even if we were going slow on the last part of descent, we still arrived fairly early to choose a good spot for the tent and book the dinner at the refuge – the famous lasagne. We didn’t expect it to be a veggie lasagne, but it was still very tasty and filling.

The camping was in a nice place, surrounded by mountains and very peculiar in a sense that all the hikers or camper were closed in a small area that used to be for keeping animals, and the horses were roaming free outside of it. Ironic… isn’t it?

We went to sleep a bit worried about my knees. Every day it seemed more and more difficult to imagine where to squeeze two days into one. The stages were getting shorter but with steeper ascents and descents and the joints were starting to fail seriously. Not to mention that in two days we are supposed to face one of the stages described as not suitable for people with vertigo. The doubts about completing the full trail grew stronger with every day. But let’s try to resist one more… One stage at a time…

Day 9. Show time.

Refuge de l’Onda – Refuge Petra Piana
13,6 km, 970 up, 531 down, 6:36 hours

Today we started late – left the camping around 6 am. My knees felt better in the morning and my face (luckily) didn’t get blue or swollen (quite a miracle to be fair). We started walking down while eating leftovers of bread from the dinner, not to waste time for proper breakfast.

We got down into the forests again and the path was easy and beautiful, taking us by the river with quite some waterfalls. Still early in the morning we managed to get lost (something not that easy to do on GR-20 as the paths are very well marked), but got rewarded with an extra waterfall.

Finally we reached a bergerie  where we planned to stop for breakfast. It was opened, but very empty and the gentleman wasn’t very collaborative on selling us food. Nevertheless, we managed to get some cheese and bread with hot chocolate and eat it calmly in a company of a dog.

The hike continued with the climb, which wasn’t too complicated. A moderate ascent in a forest which provided plenty of shadow. A path was going by the river with numerous places to stop and enjoy the views.

Then the final climb began. Not very technical, but very steep. We climbed like 600 meters in a couple of km, this time with very limited shadow. Luckily there was a river to provide us with some fresh water and beautiful scenery. I suffered with my knee on this climb. The pain was bearable, but definitely slowed us down.

Right after this mega climb we saw a tent. That was quite a pleasant surprise. We had arrived our next stop – Refuge Petra Piana.

It was early enough to get lunch – eggs with French fries and cold beer accompanied with outstanding views of the mountains. The best lunch we had on GR-20 by far.

Afterwards, we put the tent up, which wasn’t an easy task to do. The ground was so hard that we couldn’t pinch anything  into it so we had to tie it to the rocks – the tent almost flew away in the intent! Keep in mind: when you want to pinch a tent somewhere on the cliff with the very good views – hold your tent well!!! Anyway, we managed and got amazing views through the window.

And then, all of the sudden, military started showing up. A lot of them. With guns, big backpacks, and serious looks on their faces. The number was countless and they started settling all over the campsite. It felt like we were being surrounded!!!

After a short uncomfortable moment, we got used to the company and went to have showers before the queue got too big. Again with hot water! Not very common to find on the trail. As i was “lucky” to get a cabin with a window, it came without the glass, so I had very hot water pouring on me and very cold wind getting through the window at the same time. Far from relaxing!

Then we went for a walk, had another coke, and another show began. A rescue helicopter showed up. First we thought it was related with the army, but no, there was an injured hiker who couldn’t continue the trail (foot injury). So they took him in the helicopter and off they went. The exit of the helicopter was even more impressive than the arrival! It went a bit up and then with the sudden move and a turn it went straight down! Few seconds of uncomfortable silence… and it showed up already quite far between the mountains.

Seeing that poor hikers get rescued for small injuries was quite reassuring. If you need to be rescued you will be rescued.

The funny thing was that it landed where I planned to put our tent! You shouldn’t put a tent on a flat, square cemented surface in the mountains! Though in our second refuge, the one super crowded, there were people putting tents on it (but now we know it’s a landing place for helicopters).

Once again, this was another active relaxation (GR-20 type) day with super intense morning and plenty of time to recover in the afternoon, spiced up with some military and a rescue show.

We had another nice dinner in the refuge and got back to our tent. But… the wind got so strong that it was impossible sleep! After evaluating the situation for a few minutes for both our and tent’s safety in this wind, we decided to give up on good views (it was getting dark anyway) and move to another spot before it was too late. Afterall, we needed a good night rest before the most challenging section of GR-20.

Day 10. The military training.

Refuge Petra Piana – Bergerie de Vaccaghja
13 km, 753 up, 1018 down, 8:52 hours

We woke up early (4:30) as we wanted to join two stages, but started around 6 anyway. Apparently, we got slower getting up because of pain and tiredness.

The hike started with a military training: a very steep climb (though not something worse than we’ve seen so far). After a few moments, the French military guys started taking us over (their backpacks were lighter I guess), though didn’t run far away for the next few hours.

Find the military

We climbed. Then we climbed a bit more. Not too steep, more like undulating, with some steeper sections and quite some boulders to pass. The views were clearly different from what we’ve had so far – basically rocky mountains and a bit more spectacular views to all directions due to higher altitude. We passed through some lakes and very beautiful circus.

Then we’ve reached one of the sections marked as ridge walk (which was scaring us due to vertigo issues we get in such situations). But to be fair, it wasn’t a problem at all this time. Wasn’t scary or difficult, but rather beautiful.

There was one section right after the ridge walk with two paths. We took the one that was marked as GR-20. But there was another path a bit below, which we were not sure where it was going as it wasn’t marked in the map. So, we took the original one, but if you go there… really… take the lower one, unless you really want to practice some scrambling. (Thought Pedro liked it and would repeat it!!). At one point we even had to remove the backpacks and go one by one because it was impossible to pass otherwise. Meanwhile, some x meters below, we saw quite a few hikers going the oposite direction and looking very relaxed. We met one guy equally crazy or just lost on the original path… It was fun.

See the two paths? Take the lower one…

Then we went to the supposedly most challenging part of the GR-20 almost a vertical climb/descent. It is quite exposed, not totally vertical, but really quite steep and a fall would be very serious. We saw a group of people trying to descent it using the chains installed for safety. But they were soooooo struggling (mainly because they were doing it wrong…). We also saw some hikers climbing it up a bit to the left of the chains with some challenging scrambling. There is no path there and we thought they were idiots for doing so.

Tiny hikers on the left

But once we approached, we saw it was doable. Not wise. Not safe. But doable… especially to climb (wouldn’t descent through there by any means). Pedro just followed the other hikers going North direction and jumped on without consulting me (he says he asked me if it was OK and I supposedly said yes, but I can assure you he imagined my positive response). The problem was the queue on the top who were trying to get down with not much success and we saw it would take them ages. Pedro enjoyed. Me – not so much. But we did it. It is a tough section. Be careful. But really doable and we did it even without suffering with vertigo.

Then we had more climb, more boulders, rocks, snow sections and other regular mountain fun. It wasn’t ever too difficult (or we got stronger by then). But all this part was really fun and entertaining, with lots of diversity and anxiousness about what’s coming next. Finally, we stopped on the pass with some birds and outstanding views to recharge our energy before the descent.

And then, the descent started. And it felt like it will never end. It was sooo long. So tough. All these big steps with the backpacks… boring… super difficult to keep up, not to stumble, knees hurting more and more on every step. Feet burning. It took us ages and it started getting into our nerves, when you think you are getting closer and there are still 3 km of the descent left. We arrived to the pass faster than I expected, but the descent took us much much longer than predicted. The lower we went, the worse the pain got. I really struggled a lot and Pedro started having first blisters. It was really the worst part of the whole hike. The closer we were getting to the refuge, the clearer it got we will not be able to do the whole GR-20 as my knees where literally falling apart. Nor we were sure we would be able to add at least one small part of the next section that we initially planned to do today.

But to be fair, at the beginning of the day we were not sure if we would be able to do the full section 7 at all, due to all of its challenges described in a book and warnings that this section is not suitable for people with vertigo. The day before, we studied well all the possible escape routes in case we’d decide the trail is too difficult from vertigo perspective. So just completing the stage 7 was an achievement in itself.

Finally, we arrived to refuge (Manganu) and had a couple of cokes (not even a beer!!) to recover our mood. This was a refuge with the most impressive can smashing system (a huge hammer) and impressive collection of all kinds of separatists flags from all over the world. They must be real supporters of the National Liberation Front of Corsica.

After a short break we’ve decided we wanted to continue to the next stop which was just a couple of km away. It was the most basic bergerie we’ve seen. Normally refuges have better views and bergeries have better facilities as they are private farms, usually closer to the road, etc. But… not this time! It was the wildest bergerie we’ve seen! It was written “Bergerie de Vaccaghja – comme si le temps s’était arrêté”. And yes, it was like if time stood still. Cows everywhere. Shit everywhere. No toilet and not many trees, bushes or bigger rocks to find one. “bathroom everywhere” wasn’t that easy to find. We didn’t check the shower due to outrageous queue. I still wonder what we would have found there.

The views were quite ok, the field was green and soft to sleep, the dinner was good (charcuterie, peas with meat and carrot, cheese and some lousy desert). We went to sleep knowing that tomorrow we would surrender. However, I wasn’t feeling sad or bad about it. It was a natural conclusion due to the state of my poor knees (which took several months to recover) and the time limit. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to squeeze in more days to complete the full trail and risking our health to “almost” complete GR-20 was simply not wise. So, we accepted the defeat and went to sleep in peace.

Day 11. La grande finale

Bergerie de Vaccaghja – Castel de Vergio
15,1 km, 383 up, 632 down, 5:14 hours.

We started super late and lazy. Probably because we knew GR-20 would finish today. This is it. This is going to be our last stage of GR-20. We had a lazy chocolate muesli breakfast and started the hike.

The start was very easy, with a slight climb and easy terrain. In general, it was the easiest day of them all. We passed through the lake (Lac de Nino) with a few horses roaming free on the other side.

The day started to be a bit grey and humid. We climbed a fairly steep but short climb to the top of the mountain right next to the lake, as the weather was getting worse every minute. We could barely see anything once we reached the top and the hiker would emerge out of the fog unexpectedly.

Then we had a lot of descent in an area that seems to be quite exposed but we couldn´t see a shit (probably for the better this time!). It was quite and easy descent, although the weather was getting impressively bad: moist, wind, and even some rain.

We knew that on this path we would find a very famous tree bent and shaped by strong prevailing winds. Even though I was afraid that with such a low visibility we would miss it, we finally saw it and, of course, took loads of photos. Yet, something didn’t feel quite right… duh, it was a wrong tree!

Fake

The real famous tree was just a bit further ahead on the trail, so we had another stop and took some more foggy photos.

Real

Almost completely down to the valley, we stopped to have our last hot meal (just not to bring it back home). It was a very romantic lunch under a tree, with rain pouring like hell, windy and freezing. GR-20 really wanted to give us a proper goodbye.

The last few km were super easy and flat, even the weather got a bit better. By then, we were already convinced we wouldn’t continue.

We reached Castel de Vergio which is basically a hotel and a camping right next to a road. We had our refreshments and started looking for the options to get any kind of transport. Anywhere. But it wasn’t as easy as one could think! The bus was going only once a day and quite early in the morning… calling a taxi looked like a crazy expensive deal as we were quite in the middle of nowhere… Thus, I had to convince Pedro to try hitchhiking again.

He was very sceptical about it as the road wasn’t a busy highway (to say the least). But we tried. And tried. Waited about and hour just to see those few cars passing by, loaded to the top with no space for extra travellers or simply in too much of a hurry. Time was passing and we started losing hope to get a lift. And just when we turned to go to the hotel for a hot drink, three more cars showed up in the road and… one of them stopped! A French couple, also on holidays, heading to Corte which was exactly where we wanted to go! It was quite a long ride, a bit more than two hours to get to Corte due to very curvy mountain roads. We had a good chat with them as their English was better than our French and the ride passed by very fast. They were very nice and took us all the way to the train station and car rental spot.

Our idea was to rent a car (there was Europcar rental office in Corte), but it turned out to be very complicated. The manager wasn’t very helpful, didn’t speak English and in general wasn’t willing to rent a car as we wanted to return it at the airport. Thus, we’ve decided to go to Bastia airport by a train and rent the car there.

The train was going to Bastia, not to Bastia airport. We were supposed to take a bus to the airport afterwards. But as the train was passing fairly close by the airport, we hopped off at Borgu train station with an idea of getting a taxi or (worst case scenario) walking from there. We managed to get a taxi, but the driver explained that if you ever want to do that, it’s better to hop off one stop earlier.

Getting the car at the airport took us quite some time, even though we had a reservation done just before we boarded the train. But once it was done, we started a new chapter of our trip in Corsica. We drove up to the North, passed Bastia and continued same direction until we finally reached camping A Casaiola, that caught our eye when exploring options during our train ride. A very nice camping, run by a nice lady from New Zealand.

So, our last and very long day of GR-20 started in the field full of cows in the middle of nowhere and finished in a very nice camping up in the North of Corsica, having a dinner at a beautiful restaurant right next to the sea, listening to the waves and looking to the starts. What a hectic day!

We still had 4 days left in Corsica, but what happened during them is a different story 🙂

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