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The GR20 in Corsica - July 2008

Day 1 - Wednesday 2nd July
Calenzana to Refuge d'Ortu di u Piobbu
(12.5 miles/20 kilometers)

I slept quite well until about 4am, but at about that time I began to hear people getting up (um... at 4am? Just how hot can the sun get??) and so I didn't sleep deeply after that. In the end I gave up at about 0540. That wasn't a problem, though, since I was excited and looking forward to the day ahead.

The night had been warm, and I'd thrown off my sleeping bag after an hour or so. The morning was warm and dry, and I decided to pack up early and wait in the village for the cigarette shop to open, before setting off up the hill. I immediately missed my camping stove, as without it I couldn't make a drink in bed, and I wondered with a pang whether I should have taken it with me after all.

I'm not very good at packing up fast but I did my best. Even so, though, it was 0650 by the time I was ready and making my way back up the hill to the village.

In the process of packing I encountered a very interesting bright green creature hiding in the folds of my tent.

Any idea what this is? Please let me know!

I have absolutely no idea what it was, despite extensive attempts to look up Corsican insects and arachnids on the internet since I got home. It doesn't seem to have either 6 or 8 legs, and the things at the front look more like pincers than anything else. I can only think that it must have been some sort of cunningly disguised crab spider. If anyone has any idea then please do drop me a line! I think it was probably about an inch or so across: maybe a little larger. Anyway, I carefully moved it into the undergrowth and then pressed on, taking a last look at breakfasters at the Gite before starting up the hill.

Breakfast at the Gite

View up the hill into Calenzana

As I was leaving I spotted Simon just packing up his bivvy in a different part of the campsite, next to the little road. He spotted me too, and we had a brief chat before I continued.

I'd initially intended to follow a sign I'd noticed the night before, which cuts all or part of the village out, but Simon had told me that it was possible to walk back up the hill after visiting the bakery, following the road and meeting the GR20 further up. That's what I now decided to do, and I was very pleased to find the boulangerie open when I arrived just after 0700. The woman there told me that the tobacconist next door would be open at 0730, and so I set off happily round the corner to see if I could get a coffee.

In the event I found a small church round the corner, and so I took off my pack and went in.

After that I went over to a cafe where local men were already sitting around browsing through newspapers, and ordered a coffee. As is sometimes the case when I've walked in the Pyrenees, I felt a little conspicuous and out-of-place when sitting alone in a village cafe with my walking kit and large pack, surrounded by local men. There were no other women present. The proprietor was friendly, though, and the coffee was very welcome. I thought about having some sort of breakfast but decided to get something from the boulangerie instead, when I returned for my week's nicotine fix.

Soon afterwards I paid the bill and set off back around the corner. The tobacconist was open and I bought my cigarettes. The group of young English blokes was standing around outside the baker next door, and I went in and bought two lovely fresh baguettes, hoping that they might see me through lunch for the following few days. I managed to squeeze them into one of the mesh side pockets on my rucksack, and then I hoisted it up and set off up the hill again.

By that time it was 0800. My pack felt pretty heavy, equipped as it was with the usual stuff plus 2 litres of water, a large cucumber, 3 onions, a saucisson, a fairly big piece of cheese, 8 packets of cigarettes and two large baguettes. I generally find that it takes a day or two for my pack to settle back into the contours of my back and hips, though, at the start of any longish walk, and so I fiddled a bit with the waistband and straps and then carried on.

I'd seen a sign indicating the presence of a shop selling local foods further up the hill, and although I didn't have room for any more I was still keen to see it, if it was open. Disappointingly, though, it was closed. Still, I very much enjoyed walking through the higher part of the village, which was extraordinarily pretty.

It took a couple of minutes to wend my way through the village. A couple of people were already hozing down the street outside their houses with water, and as I walked I wondered how it would feel to be a child born in such a lovely place, for whom the experience of untidily beautiful, pastel-coloured houses baking quietly in bright, hot sunshine was simply the daily norm. I wondered whether I'd have noticed the beauty of it as a child, if I'd been born there.

Soon the GR20 really began, with a short climb up an overgrown slope, straggly with bushes, and the path made its way up into the surrounding hills.I quickly came across the 4 young English blokes taking a photo near a small shrine next to a stream, and offered to take one for them. After that I pressed on up along what was initially an easy climb on rolling hillside. A short time later I stopped to look back down towards Calenzana...

...now fast receding behind me.

I'd read that the first day of the GR20 is sometimes considered to be the most difficult, because although it doesn't contain any significant scrambling it's uphill all the way. I was thus conscious of a need to take things steadily, but at the same time I was also mindful of the summer lightning storms that regularly strike the Corsican mountains later in the day, as moist air rises and condenses into hugh, black clouds. I had a terrifying experience high in the Spanish mountains last year when I awoke in the middle of the night to the worst thunder storm I've ever encountered, so I was very keen to get to my destination before anything similar could blow up around me.

As I climbed steadily higher interesting vistas opened up both behind...

...and in front of me.

The 4 young blokes had passed me a little earlier on the path as I'd stopped to take a photo, and in due course I turned a corner to find them standing on a rock surverying their surroundings. I took another picture for them, and they took one of me.

Looking at the picture reminds me that I was listening on my MP3 player to a few of Podcast Bob's backpacking-related podcasts, including the one he and I made a few years ago about my first experience of a longish backpacking trip (the Pennine Way). It was fun remembering how I prepared for my first long trip, and comparing it with how I do things now :)

At some stage soon after that the route began to move up...

...with increasing steepness...

...passing pretty little lizards...

...towards what eventually turned out to be a lovely plateau, where I stopped for a bit of a break and ate some bread and saucisson with cucumber and onion. Mmmm :) By that time it was 11am, and in the end I stayed for an hour, basking in the sun and taking in the impressive sight of the new mountains that had now been revealed ahead of me.

I remembered that my camera makes little films, and so I got it out.

Various other walkers arrived as I was sitting there, and I was curious to see exactly where they were going next, as I'd learned from Paddy's book that the next bit involved the first little scramble, and I wondered just how difficult it was going to turn out to be. After my lunch I therefore set off towards a little wooded area, and soon afterwards I came to some little rocky bits. I was enormously relieved to find that there was nothing in any way scary about them--phew!--and so I pressed on up.

In the wood I was surprised to find a malignancy of small bullocks standing on the path, staring me out. I'd expected to encounter pigs, and possibly even wild boars, in the woodland, but I thought I'd left mischievous groups of bullocks behind me at home, psyching out walkers on the Coast to Coast and the Pennine Way. I'm always a little nervous around them, having been chased a couple of times, and so I lurked around on the path pretending to examine some pretty flowers and vegetation until the next group of walkers should come by. That turned out to be a couple of the young English blokes, and they bravely shooed the bullocks away :)

After a bit of a rocky climb the path dropped down into a sort of gully, and that was the only point that day at which I experienced any sort of scramble-related anxiety, as it was necessary to lower myself down a very short stretch of rock (only a few feet) with the aid of a short plastic-coated wire. I took a picture somewhere around there of the rocky slabs I was then encountering.

Some of them were quite steep, but the soles of my Roclite 315s are very grippy and so I had no difficulty at all.


...and hellebore...


...are very common sights throughout the Corsican mountains, though by the time I was there the Hellebore was no longer flowering.

As I climbed higher, and the day grew later, clouds began to form below me and rise up the mountain. I was a little anxious in case they turned out to be the terrifying thunder clouds I'd read about, but happily they weren't.

After some more steep and unremitting climbing the path eventually levelled out onto a second small plateau. By then it was 1310, and I sat down for a drink and a brief rest and got out the guidebook. A group of young French students was sitting around, laughing, and when they saw me fiddling with the timer on my camera...


...one of them dashed over and offered to take a piccy for me.

Unfortunately, almost as soon as I sat down I began to feel unwell, with a sharp cramp in my tummy and some sort of pain in my back. I lay down for a while and dozed off, in the hope that it would go away, but it didn't entirely clear up. I decided I'd better press on again, and so I got back into the rucksack and headed on up the hill as others were arriving.

I stopped a little while afterwards in an attempt to distract myself from tummy-ache by taking a piccy of a pretty insect on a little flower.

I wasn't entirely successful, though, and I accidentally made things worse by dangling my Tilley hat from the front strap of my rucksack, where it poked me in the tummy each time I took a step. Doh...

By now I felt sick, and it eventually became clear that the only way I was likely to feel any better was by puking, but almost all the other walkers were spread along the path some distance behind me, and I didn't really like the idea of standing at the side of the path throwing up while groups of people filed past and peered at me curiously. I therefore took my pack off and crawled up the hillside a little onto a large, warm rock, and from that position I watched as over the course of the next 30 minutes or so the others trailed past below me.

Eventually everyone was gone, and I sneaked back down into the undergrowth to do what I'd been wanting to do for about an hour. I puked vast quantities of dark green liquid! I've no idea where it came from, or what caused it. I'm entirely sure, though, that I was better off without it! Almost immediately I began to feel better, and so I got back into my rucksack and continued towards the Refuge.

The Refuge fairly soon appeared before me, and it was still only 3.30pm despite my fairly prolongued puke stop.

Refuge d'Ortu di u Piobbu

I made my way up onto the balcony and asked the Guardian if I could camp and eat there. The answer was yes, and so I celebrated with a beer (believing that it would settle my tummy, yeah right... :)

Prices for the night were as follows.

-- Bivvy: 4 Euros
-- Dinner: 15 Euros
-- Breakfast: 8 Euros
-- Beer: 5 Euros

After that I went to put up my tent. Once again I was struck, and a little disconcerted, by how hard the ground was. The camping spots extended down the hill in front of the Refuge in a terraced sort of fashion, and I found that many of them consisted of a small area of bare, sun-baked clay surrounded by small rocks. I picked what looked like the flattest of the places that remained (my puke-stop having deprived me of any extensive sort of choice) and started banging in the tent pegs.

Lovely place to camp!

My tummy still wasn't quite right, and so I decided next to get a hot chocolate back up at the Refuge. Sitting on the balcony whilst nursing my drink (which came out more like warm milk than hot chocolate) I heard some new English people speaking, and noticed 3 blokes sitting together at one of the tables. I went over to say hello, and soon fell into earnest and interesting conversation about tents and backpacking. The blokes were not walking the whole GR20--they'd done part of it before, and this time they'd done something else--but they were moving South to North, and planning to walk down to Calenzana the following morning.

Talk about walking in the UK turned to Scotland, and when it turned out that one of the blokes had a lot of experience in the Scottish hills it shifted fairly naturally to mention of the TGO Challenge. At that stage I discovered that I was talking to a Challenge Legend, who's done the thing 14 times! With my usual facility for names it seems that I may have written it down wrong in my notebook, but I think he was Alan Carr. Anyway, it was great fun to meet a fellow Challenger unexpectedly in the wilds of somewhere-other-than-the-UK, and we chatted away happily for quite some time :)

After that I decided I'd better get into the shower queue. For fairly obvious reasons, all the showers at the Refuges are cold. Still, though, after toiling uphill for hours in 85F, and smearing myself liberally with suntan lotion, I definitely needed to try to get clean. It was 5.40pm when I got to the shower queue, but I didn't make it into the (single) shower until 6.30pm. Dinner was at 6.30pm, and so as I eventually neared the front of the queue I was a little anxious that I was going to be late. Having spent so much time waiting, though, I wasn't willing to relinquish my place. I therefore managed to have just about the quickest shower that's ever been had in the whole history of humanity, and 15 minutes later I was trotting up the Refuge steps in my clean(er) shorts and T shirt.

Because I've had such great experiences eating in Pyrenean Refuges I'd expected the food in Corsica to be similar, and so when I noticed that people were sitting with empty bowls of what looked like it might once have been some sort of lentil stew I wasn't concerned, since I thought I'd probably just missed the first course. I approached the young woman near the kitchen, apologised and attempted to explain, and she told me to sit down and then brought me a bowl of lentils with a small piece of sausage in it, and some bread. I ate it pretty quickly--I didn't actually time it, but at a rough estimate I reckon it took approximately 30 seconds--and then settled back to wait for the rest. All there was, though, was a piece of cake. It was nice cake, but in combination with the lentils it wasn't enough after 7 hours of climbing in the hot sun. At the current rate of exchange, I think my bowl of lentils, 2 inches of sausage and piece of cake cost approximately 12. Phew...

After dinner I retired to the hill for a cigarette, and then fell into conversation with two Danish woman: Ulla and Lene. They were camping just across from me, and they'd done part of the walk the previous year. I shared my surprise about the near-starvation rations with them, and they told me that there was normally more to eat than that. I hoped they were right!

By that stage it was getting on for about 8pm, and I was beginning to think about getting to bed and reading. First I took some pictures of the view down the hill, though. The clouds sitting over the distant mountains were absolutely beautiful.

Clouds over distant hills at Refuge d'Ortu di u Piobbu

The night was so still, clear and warm that I was tempted to bivvy--I'd taken a very lightweight little bivvy bag with me (the Equinox Mummy Bivvy) and was keen to try it out--but I seemed to have used up all the flat space on my patch with my tent, and so I got in instead and settle down to read. The evening had become cooler once the sun had set, but it was still very warm in my tent. I started out lying on top of my sleeping bag, but an hour or so later I began to feel a little chilly and so I crawled into it, warmed up very fast and dropped happily off to sleep.

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