I had been interested in the GR20 for a couple of years, but somehow never got round to having a go at it. But phrases from various books and articles like "the toughest of the GR routes", "unrelenting changes in altitude", "should not be taken lightly", and "near mythical status" (!!) finally reeled me in! I didn't have a huge amount of spare vacation to play with, but I booked 8 days at the start of June, which adding in the weekends gave me 12 days, which seemed like it should be sufficient.
Getting there seemed a bit hectic. I was up very late the night before, packing, weighing, re-packing all my stuff, then a minor crisis at work had me working flat out all day, which I only just managed to resolve before slipping off early at 4 pm to get the train to Gatwick. I had tried to avoid wasting a whole day travelling, so I took an evening flight to Marseille, where I had booked an airport hotel for the night. it was quite late when I finally got there, and I made it into bed at 1 am. Then an early start the next morning to get the first CCM flight to Calvi, arriving at 9:45 am, and taxi up to Calenzana. It meant a bit of a late start for the first day, but the stage to Ortu di u Piobbu didn't look too bad, so it all looked reasonably manageable.
It all went quite smoothly, and I was in Calenzana by about 10:30 am. I stocked up on a few things for the walk (dried bananas, bottle of energy drink) at the small Spar supermarket, had a quick tray of tabouleh for lunch, reassembled my trekking poles, repacked my rucksac, and got going about 11 am. Full day-by-day notes and pictures below (click on any picture for a bigger version)....
The first stage goes from Calenzana (255m), up to the refuge (1570m), with 1480m of total ascent (according to my altitude watch). The route climbed through the narrow streets of Calenzana, and then quickly joined the trail. The path climbed past tall charred pine trees, and rock slabs covered with small plants that gave them a pink hue. It quickly reached a saddle and then traversed under some interesting pocketed rock outcrops.
It then climbed through pine trees, zig-zagging on a stony path, occasional hemmed in by thick bushes, before arriving at a grassy saddle at Bocca a u Saltu (1250m). There was quite a chilly wind at the saddle, and I had to put my waterproof top on. But there was a nice little sheltered area behind a stone wall, so I sat in the sun for a while and had a couple of dried bananas. Leaving the saddle, the path traversed through tall pine trees under cliffs, after a while starting to climb, picking its way through small cliffs on the hillside, with easy scrambling over rock slabs, and great views back to the coast, before coming to another grassy saddle at Bocca a u Bassiguella (1486m).
Refuge d'Ortu di u Piobbu (1570m) became visible across the other side of a valley, perched on the hillside. The path contoured round to the head of the valley, through a small birch forest, and then a short easy scramble up to the refuge. It wasn't too busy, so I got a bed OK, and ordered spaghetti with pesto for tea!
There was lots of early activity in the refuge, most people were up at about 6 am and making breakfast. After the couple of previous late nights, I could have happily stayed in bed for another few hours, and lay about for a while. But eventually the dormitory was almost empty, so I packed up and got going at about 7 am. I filled up my camelback as I passed the water source a few hundred metres from the refuge, then climbed uphill through trees, with great views back down to the refuge. The path climbed up towards the gap at Boccia Piccaia (1950m), starting off skirting the edge of large rock slabs, then clambering up easy slabs, and up a rocky path through scrubby trees. At the gap, excellent views suddenly opened up of steep cliffs and rock spires below, with clouds swirling about.
From Bocca Piccaia, the path turned and climbed towards the peak of Capu Ladroncellu. It was quite misty and atmospheric, there was a very light dusting of snow over everything, and more great views down onto rock spires below. It started to descend on a steep and rocky path, then an interesting section traversing underneath huge cliffs looming above, constantly having to scramble up and down tight gullies. The route entered the Carozzu valley at the gap of Bocca Carozzu (1865m), and there were impressive views of the towering rock walls flanking the sides of the valley. I got down to the Carozzu refuge (1270m) at about lunchtime. It was a bit too early to call it a day, so I had a quick snack and pushed on. The gardien very helpfully pushed my food request to the front of the queue of people already waiting when I mentioned I was continuing on to Haut Asco!
Two Italian guys at the reguge warned me that they had been up to the slabs earlier, but they were very wet and a bit dodgy, and they had come back. It seemed to be drying off though, so I went up to take a look. Only a few minutes after the refuge, the path crossed a very wobbly suspension footbridge, high over the river. The rock slabs started straight after the bridge, and climbed up the right hand side of the impressive gorge. The slabs are technically easy, but there are a few bits where you might drop off into the gorge if you slipped so you need to concentrate a bit. They were mostly dry apart from the occasional stretches, but they would be a bit more tricky if they were very wet. There are some safety wires attached in places, but some of them had come undone and had been refastened by just knotting the wire round the nearest bolt, so its worth looking carefully before pulling on them!
The path crosses the gap at Bocca a i Stagni (2010m) before dropping down to the small ski station at Haut Asco (1422m). Literally just before arriving at the gap, you pass a path traversing off to the right, beside a wooden post, which is actually the course of the 'old GR20'. You can still see the faded red and white flashes on the rocks. The old route avoids Haut Asco and stays high to push on along the crest past huge rock towers, to rejoin the current GR20 below the start of the Cirque de la Solitude. It was a bit late to push on, but if I had started off from Carozzu that day, then I would have been very tempted to take the old route with its better scenery and push on through the Cirque to the Tighjettu refuge.
But it was too late in the day, so instead I continued down the rough descent down to Haut Asco. There were rumbles of thunder behind me, and I timed it quite well, it was just starting to drizzle as I reached the pine trees, and then just starting to chuck it down as I arrived at Haut Asco itself. I booked into the PNRC refuge, because it was the first place I came to, then adjourned to the bar for some food.
I wanted to get an early start to try and avoid any crowds on the scrambling in the Cirque de la Solitude, and set my alarm for just before 6am. I'd forgotten to pay the night before, and couldn't find anyone, so I slipped the 10 euros under the door of the guardiennes office with a note, and hoped she found it! It was a lovely sunny morning as I followed the easy path up the valley. There were already a few people on the move, and I passed a couple of parties on the way up to the site of the old Altore refuge and the small lake. There was a long snow covered section on the last steeper climb up to the Col Perdu (2183m).
At the col, the superb view of the Cirque appears. Part of the interest is that it all looks so improbable. Looking across to the other side of the Cirque, its hard to imagine where the route could possibly go, without turning into a serious rock climb. There was some snow on the top moves, which required some delicate traversing with a bit of exposure, and some wet patches on the descent made it a bit more tricky. It descended on chains for a while, followed by some easy scrambling. I passed another party, with huge rucksacs, making their way down the chains. At the bottom of the slab, the path continues descending on rock scree slopes. At the other side of the Cirque there is a short ladder to cross a small face, which is immediately followed by two long chained sections which steadily climb up the slabs. There were some wet patches where I was quite glad of the chains. Then there was a final slab that wasn't chained, a bit wet in places, but which had more positive juggy handholds. The other parties were still crossing the scree, and there was nobody else in front, so it was nice to have the slabs all to myself.
The slabs finally popped out behind a big rock spire, and went up a steep rocky bouldery slope, to a gap at Bocca Minuta (2218m). There were great views back across to the other side of the cirque and the entrance at Col Perdu. At the gap I stood and looked back down into the cirque for a couple of minutes. It was such superb walking and scrambling, and I was really pleased to have got through it, and slightly relieved that the weather had held out and there had been no problems. It was getting a bit chilly at the gap, so I put my waterproof top on, and pushed on down the rocky slope. The path descended over large rocky slabs that you could just walk straight down. I half expected to go flat on my back at any moment, but they turned out to have very good friction. The Tighjettu refuge (1683m) appeared just in time for a late breakfast! Interestingly I could feel that the muscles in my legs had worked quite hard going through the Cirque de la Solitude, which I put down to the repeated high step ups, and steps downs, as I had clambered up and down the slabs in the cirque.
I pushed on past the Auberge u Vallone, where I refilled my camelback, then towards the Ciottulu di I Mori refuge (1991m). It was easy walking through trees to start with, past big boulders, piles of pine cones scattered about, and sometimes scrabbling under fallen trees. After a while the path started climbing, and it started drizzling, then raining harder, and I had to put full waterpoofs on. The path got rougher as it climbed, often clambering over slabs. It was absolutely chucking it down on the last bit, the gullies I had to climb through had turned into fast moving streams and waterfalls. Eventually the path crossed a large patch of snow, and then I started descending through the cloud, to reach the Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori (1991m) quite wet and cold. There were only a handful of people in the refuge so I was able to get a bed without a problem. The two Italian guys were already there, although one of them mentioned that he suffered from vertigo, so had found the Cirque rather heavy going. It wasn't that warm in the refuge, and I was already a bit chilly, so after a snack I adjourned to the dormitory and lay in my sleeping bag for a while to warm up!
I got woken up by lots of activity in the dormitory, and was packed and on the move by 6am. It was a bit chilly, and I needed all my clothes on, plus my fleece hat. I didn't bother with breakfast, but had some dried bananas on the move instead. I seemed to have gained a dog. It was an alsation that had been hanging round the refuge, and it followed me down the valley. Looking back there was a good view of the refuge underneath the towering rocky peak of Paglia Orba (Corsicas 3rd highest mountain, at 2525m). An easy path led down the valley with impressive rock slabs on both sides, and huge pine trees, and then through thicker trees to reach a rather deserted looking Hotel Castel di Vergio, where I got a quick breakfast.
The path continued through forest, very easy walking, and I was able to go at a good pace. There were occasional grunts in the trees, and sights of wild pigs quickly disappearing before I could get my camera out. The path started climbing in easy zig-zags up to a small shrine, with great views back to the mountains. The path climbed further, past cattle with big horns, and up to a small gap followed by a very pleasant rocky section. Superb views opened up of the Lac du Ninu valley, with its little meandering stream, rich green grass, horses wandering about, and the small lake itself. The path followed the stream downhill from the lake, there were lots of boulders, and it was quite waterlogged in places. Suddenly the Bergeries de Vaccaghja appeared, and views across the flat valley to the Manganu refuge (1601m).
There were lots of people at the refuge, many of the beds seemed to have already have peoples stuff on them, and more people were arriving all the time. The guardien seemed to have disappeared, and a bit of a free for all developed with people just laying out their stuff on any bed that didn't look taken. I followed suit, but eventually the guardien appeared. I had a word with him, and he sorted me out with what appeared to be the very last free bed, so I seemed to have timed it rather well. More people turned up later on, and in the end the refuge was about doubly oversubscribed, despite having 31 beds in 3 storeys of bunks! Most people ended up camping instead, although the guardien let a few people sleep on the floor of the kitchen. I didn't sleep very well though, with 31 sweaty bodies stacked 3 storeys high in a small room, you could cut the atmosphere with a knife, not to mention the constant snoring from all directions.
There was a lot of early activity in the refuge, in fact the whole dormitory was almost empty by quarter to six. It only took a few minutes to get packed up and I was on the move by 6. From the refuge, the path climbed up towards the rocky gap at Breche de Capitellu, the highest point on the GR20, at 2225m. There were more sections of very waterlogged path, at times it was like walking along a stream, hopping from rock to rock. As the path climbed a bit more, there were patches of snow, which got longer as the gap got nearer. I passed a few other people on the way up. After one final longer and steeper stretch of snow, the path popped out at the gap. There were superb views down to the two rocky lakes below, and the snow covered rocky scenery all around.
From the gap, the path traversed across snow slopes. The first one needed a bit of care, it was quite steep and led straight down to an almost vertical gully, so I didn't fancy slipping. I was glad of the trekking poles. After that there were a few more snow patches to cross, although with much less exposure, and some rocky gullies to scramble down. Another gap appeared, after which the path picked its way along the side of a ridge, with more snow patches to negotiate. The path then turned and traversed along a contour, sometimes clambering over jumbles of huge boulders, and with fantastic views back to the snow slopes under Breche de Capitellu.
I made it down to the Petra Piana refuge (1842m) just before 11, so I filled up with water and pushed on. The path was quite rocky underfoot at first, and there were a couple of stream crossings, but it got much easier later on, on a flatter path through trees. The Bergeries de Tolla (1000m) seemed a bit deserted, so I pushed on down to a small bridge with a sign forbidding ponys from crossing. The path slowly climbed, following the rocky gorge of the Ruisseau de Grottaccia, with lots of rock pools. Later on it crossed over the stream and climbed up through trees, it was sometimes hard to spot the path and I made a couple of wrong turns but soon got back on track again. There was some light drizzle just starting as I reached the small Refuge de l'Onda (1431m). The guardien seemed to have a rather dry manner, but most importantly he booked me a bed, and then knocked me up a cup of tea and a snack.
The refuge only had 15 beds, and it quickly filled up as more people arrived. The two Italian guys that I had seen off and on since Carozzo turned up. Then a team of 4 people who I had passed on the snow slopes under the Breche de Capitellu. It was really chucking it down by this time, and the people just arriving were very wet. There was someone playing an acoustic guitar in the kitchen, and I very pleasantly fell asleep to tunes drifting through to the dormitory.
There were a few people moving about quite early and I was awake before my alarm went off. I packed up in about 10 minutes and got going about 6am. The path climbed up a long shoulder from just above the refuge, with lovely views back down. I seemed to have gained another dog. He had been hanging round the refuge and set off when I did, walking about 50 metres ahead of me. I passed a plaque bolted to a rock commemorating a man who had died, with his dog, while skiing the GR20 in winter. I was up at the top of the shoulder, where the path skirts Punta Muratello (2141), by 8am.
From the top, the path descended, it was quite rough, and occasionally went over bare rock slabs. There was great excitement as I came across a salamander standing in the middle of the path at 1700m. The path went into trees, with huge rock outcrops on either side of the valley. I felt a bit rushed, as I didn't want to arrive at Vizzavona while everything was shut for a long lunch, so I made a brisk pace along this stretch. It seemed to take a long time to reach the Cascade des Anglais, but eventually I got there. The Cascade Bar looked like a nice spot, and very tempting, but I pushed on over the footbridge instead. The last bit to Vizzavona was on wider tracks. The dog walked just in front of me, and barked at everyone we came across, which didn't exactly endear me to the passers by. Eventually the path popped out the road above Vizzavona (920m), where it was just a short walk down past the hotel to the station and shop.
The village was a bit smaller than I expected, but most importantly, the little shop was still open. I stocked up on lots of snacks, figs, dried bananas, crisps, and a tin of ratatouille, and most crucial, some fresh batteries for my camera. I sat down in the sun outside the station and got stuck into the can of ratatouille. The dog wandered off to have a look round the village. Some dutch tourists came over and sat beside me. They bemoaned the weather, and closely scrutinised and discussed everything that I did. I got going again just before 12. I had hoped that the dog had found something more interesting in the village, but at the last moment he noticed me leaving and came running over, much to the amusement of the dutch tourists.
I walked back up the road for a short distance and joined the path, which climbed on easy track through forest. It started to drizzle, then got heavier, and eventually I had to put full waterproofs on. It looked like there were great views back down to the valley, but they were only occasionally visible through gaps in the low cloud which had descended. The path left the forest and climbed across scrubby slopes, before reaching the gap at Bocca Palmento (1645m), where there were spiky rocks scattered about, then started descending. It passed a group of stone huts with bright red doors and window frames. It was still raining quite heavily at this point, and I still had full waterproofs on. It was easy walking, through some huge pine trees, then the path turned sharply and made a very steep ascent up a rocky slope, which was rather unwelcome at this late stage of the day. It went through beech trees, before easing off and reaching a very sandy patch, then popped out at a deserted road. From there it was a short downhill to the Bergeries d'E Capanelle (1586m), and the Gite d'Etape U Fugone. Some blokes doing some repairs outside asked me if the dog belonged to me, then they found a number on his collar and set about calling the owner. I imagined somebody all the way back in Calenzana wondering where his dog had gone, and then getting a call saying it was six days walking away, half way across Corsica! The gite wasn't exactly the most picturesque of spots, surrounded by ski lifts and strips of bare earth where the ski slopes went, but they seemed friendly enough and got me booked in swiftly, 31 euros for demi-pension.
I was sharing a room with a couple. They were doing the GR20 in the other direction, heading north, but she was having some problems with her feet - she had huge red raw blisters on her heels that looked really nasty, and worse still the whole of her foot from the arch back was starting to get hot and inflamed. She put the problems down to the poor weather, and having spent too much time walking in wet socks and boots. I felt really sorry for her, it looked unlikely they could continue. After a shower I adjourned to the dining room for the evening meal. I passed on the main course, which consisted mainly of large chunks of meat in a huge bowl shared over the whole table, but this was more than compensated for by the equally huge bowl of thick vegetable soup for the first course.
I got going about 6am, everyone else was still fast asleep as I slipped out. It seemed to be a much nicer day, no rain, and clear skies. There was a mixture of stony paths, sometimes walking on a carpet of pine needles, or a thick layer of beech leaves. After the poor visibility of the previous day, there were superb views down into the valleys and across to distant tree covered peaks. I came across 4 salamanders on this stretch, all of which were just standing around on the path, apart from the last one who was slowly crawling under a rock. I passed a group of 18 nordic sounding walkers, and was very glad that I hadn't overlapped with them at any of the smaller refuges. I reached the little restaurant and gite at Bocca di Verdi (1289m) just in time for a cup of tea and a mid morning snack.
From the restaurant the path climbed up through forest, and then steeply zig-zagged up towards the gap at Bocca d'Oru (1840m). I could see what I thought was the gap and half expected it to be a false summit, but no, I popped out exactly at the gap, where there was a cairn and lots of cattle hanging about. Then some easy walking down to the Refuge de Prati where I filled up with water and pushed on. After the refuge, the route traversed an excellent rocky ridge through boulders, crossing some slabs, skirting past the peak of Punta Capella, then started a descending traverse, wandering through huge outcrops of rough grey granite. I eventually reached the saddle at Bocca di Laparo (1525m) where there was a bunch of wooden signposts. Worryingly I could hear rumbles of thunder behind me. The path headed into trees below the ridge, and it started raining quite heavily, so I had to put full waterproofs on.
I pushed on through the trees. The thunder was getting louder, and I hoped that the path would start descending soon. But it rose and fell, and occasionally left the trees to go across exposed hillside. The rain got heavier, and I could hear thunder and lightning crashing all round. The next bit climbed up an exposed hillside onto a shoulder, and I waited under a boulder for the thunder to pass. It started hailing, big hailstones the size of frozen peas. I was getting quite cold and wet waiting for the thunder to calm down, but eventually it eased off a bit, and I headed up towards the next ridge past Monte Furmicula (1950m). Everything was coated in deep piles of hailstones, and some of the rock slabs were quite slippery.
Eventually the path started descending, and the Refuge d'Usciolu (1750m) came into view. It was was very busy, and it looked a bit touch and go on the beds, but the guardien was unphased, and casually got a party of 6 people to squeeze up into 5 beds to make room for me. I felt a bit guilty for taking their bed, for about 30 seconds. Another lone person turned up and he tamped them down even further, into 4 beds!! The rain eased off a bit and people wandered outside to catch a short period of evening sun. The refuge had prayer flags hanging from the roof, and the guardien put on some rhythmic music which echoed across the hillside. The two Italian guys turned up. They had been caught by the lightning on the top of the ridge, and ended up crouched beside a rock as the lightning bolts crashed around them. Later the guardian came round giving people shots of spirit from a bottle. Just as everyone was getting tucked into bed, he came round and warned everyone to get going at 6am, as there were storms forecast for the afternoon.
Someones alarm went off at quarter to five. It played a little tune followed by a cock crowing, repeated a few times. This very efficiently woke up the entire dormitory. After yesterdays excitement, and especially after the guardiens warning, I didn't fancy getting caught in a thunderstorm again, so got up and got going quite quickly, I was on the move at 5am, it was only just light enough to walk without a headtorch. From the refuge there was a short climb up to a rocky ridge, which it then followed. The path picked its way along the ridge, skirting round big outcrops of grey rock, often walking over bare rock, and occasionally switching sides of the ridge through small rocky gaps. It was well waymarked with lots of red and white flashes and arrows, which I missed a couple of times and ended up heading down into the beech trees below, but quickly got back on course. There was quite a lot of the ridge, it took more than an hour to get along it. There had been cloud and mist about when I started, but it was starting to burn off, and turning into a gorgeous morning, with sunshine and clear blue skies.
After the ridge the path descended through thick bushes which crowded in over the path, and efficiently deposited water over my legs as I brushed through them. It continued descending into a lovely area of beech trees, where I met two more salmanders wandering along the path, and then over the rolling scrub of the Plateau de Cuscione. After a river crossing, and short bit of rather dank forest where I lost the path briefly, it passed by the I Pedinieddi bivouac site (1623m), which looked like it would be a nice spot to camp.
I continued on and the path started gradually climbing up to a saddle, where it turned and followed an increasingly rocky shoulder towards the peak of Monte Alcudina (2134m). The top appeared quite suddenly, bare slabs of granite and scattered boulders, and a huge cross that had fallen over. The was a steeper side of the peak, where I peered down into the cloud filled drop, with pinnacles appearing now and then out of the cloud. I could hear bird song echoing up from deep below, and it all felt a bit eerie. From the top, the descent down to Refuge d'Asinau (1530m) was rather slow going, clambering down slabs and over rocks, but I eventually got there just before lunchtime. There was a big party of Italians who were just setting off towards Bavella. I filled up the camelback and pushed on.
From Asinau the path headed down the valley, through forest, there was a lot more vegetation and flowers than higher up, and thick shrubs crowding in the path in some places. Near the end it started to climb up towards the Col de Bavella (1218m), with superb stretches clambering across rough yellow rock. The path popped out at the col, where there was big car park and a statue on a cairn. There was a lot of noise from a procession of vintage cars that were crossing the pass, it all looked a bit touch and go as they careered down through the tight hairpins. I was a bit disappointed to find that the two gites on the col were both full, so I pushed on towards the Refuge d'I Paliri which was another 90 minutes away.
The track leaving the col didn't seem very promising at first, starting out on a wide jeep track. Soon after leaving the col I ran out of water too, which was a bit worrying. But after a while the path left the jeep track and climbed a steeper rockier path up to the gap at Foce Finosa (1206m), which was surrounded by spectacular pinnacles of orange rock, and superb views. It was lovely walking, and I soon reached Refuge d'I Paliri (1055m). There was a water source just before the refuge, and I stopped for a good drink to make up for the lack of water for the last 90 minutes. Paliri was a lovely spot, perched on a shoulder with rocks slabs all around, towering pinnacles overhead, and great camping spaces dotted about amongst the pine trees. The guardien was in the middle of a game of boules with some of the punters when I arrived, but there were a few free beds and he pointed me towards the dormitory. It ended up being quite a long day, what with the early start, and the unexpected extra bit from the col, 13 hours of walking in the end.
I was getting quite used to the early starts by now, and was on the move by 6am. The path was now well and truly out of the mountains, and it felt a lot warmer than up high, but the scenery was still stunning, with huge rock spires all over the place, crumpled rock slabs, huge boulders, lots of bushes and trees, and occasional patches of ferns. There were lots of lizards about, which I had realised I hadn't seen for days up in the mountains. As I descended towards Conca, it got warmer, and the vegetation got thicker. Further down I passed a lot of people starting out in the other direction with unfeasibly large looking rucksacs. The path finally popped out at a road, and down to the rather sleepy village of Conca. I arrived about 11am, and headed straight down to the gite at the bottom end of the village for a celebratory lunch.
The gite also does a minibus down to Porto Veccio. It waits until enough people turn up, so after lunch I made a few phone calls and lazed about. The two Italian guys that I had seen off and on for most of the trip arrived. They had also found everything to be full at Col de Bavella, but had been able to camp there. The minibus eventually went about 3 pm. It was about a 40 minute trip down to Porto Veccio in the minibus, but as long as there are more than 4 people then its only 7 euros per person. It only remained to spend the rest of the afternoon looking round Porto Veccio. My extra lightweight approach didn't stretch to any spare clothes, so I bought some cheap shorts and a T-shirt (with GR20 written on the front!) for the flight back.
The GR20 has a bit of a reputation as one of the more spectacular trails in Europe. I certainly wasn't disappointed, I found it to be absolutely superb, with consistently rugged scenery and paths throughout its length. The weather was a bit mixed, with quite a bit of rain, especially in the afternoons, but all in all it wasn't too bad. There is a lot of scrambling, every day, and most sections have some scrambling. Very good advice is to keep gear as light as possible, although very few people seem to take this approach, I saw many people with (full) 70 litre rucksacs. I took a very lightweight approach with waterproofs, light sleeping bag, thermarest, bivi bag (in case any of the refuges were full), and other bits and pieces in a 30 litre day sac.