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The GR20 in Corsica - July 2008

Day 2 - Thursday 3rd July
Refuge d'Ortu di u Piobbu to Refuge de Carozzu
(5 miles/8 kilometers)

I woke at 0530 having slept like a log, despite having erected the tent on rather uncomfortable, sloping ground. The morning was bright and dry, and the view down the hill was immediately wonderful. Once again I missed my little camping stove, and I decided that I'll never go backpacking again without it. Sob...

By just after 0700 (not bad for me) I was up in the Refuge having breakfast. It consisted of hot chocolate (not the same as whatever I'd been given the night before: this was a whole sachet of some sort of chocolate flavoured powder), bread, a small pat of jam and a small pat of butter. I enjoyed it, but it was soon over.

Before leaving I spoke briefly to the English TGO-related walkers I'd chatted with the night before, and soon afterwards they set off for Calenzana and I left for the next Refuge.

I don't tend to read the guidebook in great detail before doing the day's walk, but I'd seen that this day, in common with all of them, began with a fairly extensive climb; this time to the Bocca Piccaia. I don't really mind climbs too much, though: I'd certainly rather be walking uphill than stumbling down a steep and rocky descent.

The walk began in a birch wood, and as I left the Refuge I took a picture of what I was heading towards. It all looked wonderful.

I'd finished listening to podcasts by now, and an important decision had to be made about which of my audiobooks I should listen to next. I wanted something entertaining but unlikely to require too much concentration, and so I decided on William Shatner's Up Til Now, having been a Trekkie all my life and being currently addicted to Boston Legal. Bill's smooth, velvety tones provided a soothing backdrop as I made my way steadily up and through the wood.

Eventually I found myself walking along a stony path at the foot of a slabby sort of cliff, and some time after that the path turned left and began to make its way up and over steep slabs and boulders, and eventually up an increasingly steep hillside towards what looked like some sort of distant col. Once again I was very grateful for the grippy soles on my trail shoes, which help me to feel in closer contact with the ground under my feet than I ever feel if I'm wearing a heavy boot.

Some of the faces from the day before were starting to become familiar, and as the morning progressed I gradually passed a few of the people who'd set off earlier than me. From time to time I stopped to look back and take a picture.

Once again there was a profusion of pretty flowers emerging from the cracks in the rocks, and I stopped on several occasions to take a closer look. This one's a bit of a collage.

A bit of a collage

I'm always interested to see in the mediterranean flowers that I commonly see at home, and as foxgloves are amongst my favourite flowers I particularly enjoy seeing them up in the high mountains.

I'm also fascinated by the similarities between our English language and French, and foxgloves provide an interesting example because the French name, Digitalis, is derived from the Latin for 'finger'. Apparently the French pictured themselves slipping foxgloves onto their fingers, whereas over here we imagined foxes slipping them onto their little paws :)

As the morning slipped by the day grew steadily hotter, and I could clearly feel the heat of the sun through the soles of my feet as I made my way up the rocks.

There were craggy ridges all over the place...

...and it struck me that many of my more adventurous walking/climbing pals would absolutely love to take advantage of the great opportunities for climbing and significant scrambling that these mountains provide.

The little white and red signs are normally regular and easy to spot on the GR20, but just occasionally they're less easy to see. There was a point as I climbed towards the col at which they appeared to have fizzled out, but I was relieved to see that Corsicans build cairns too, and after following them I eventually arrived at the top of the first significant climb.

The views were spectacular...

...in every direction...

...and after a minute or two spent ogling them I took off my pack and went to sit on a slightly raised rock for a bit of a breather. From there I took a wee video.

As I scrambled across I spotted more interesting flowers growing in the rocks...

Bladder Campion

...and I looked back with interest to the point at which I'd emerged from the climb.

Sharp, rocky pinnacles and buttresses were everywhere...

...and I was quite relieved that we weren't expected to make our way along the actual crests.

From where I sat I could see the continuation of the path snaking away steeply down the mountainside, and I decided it was probably time to move on.

There's almost always time for another flower piccy first, though...

Phyteuma Sieberi?

...as well as a quick play with the self-timer...

Peewiglet contemplates... something or other

...and time to take a look at small insects investigating tiny flowers.

Cloud was now beginning to rise, and again I experienced a frisson of anxiety as I thought back to last year's scary lightning-related experience, so I fastened my pack, lifted it up and went on.

The path began to descend steeply overy loose, rocky ground. There was quite a lot of this sort of walking on the GR20: narrow paths high in the sides of tall mountains with quite a sharp drop to one side. Happily for me, that particular sort of exposure to height doesn't bother me, and so I made my way steadily along, being careful not to snag my foot on a rock and tumble down the side.

The path continued to wind its way up and down between the craggy outcrops...

...rising a little...

...and then dropping quite steeply down again.

It flattened out for a while--the rare flat bits up in the high mountains were absolute bliss!

And there was a bit of very easy scrambling.

Eventually I arrived at another col (or bocca, as they're known in Corsica), and I sat down for another short rest. I got out my baguette and food bag and enjoyed a delicious lunch: bread and saucisson with onion and cucumber. I absolutely love eating that sort of thing in the mediterranean sunshine, and I decided that the onion and cucumber were definitely worth the extra weight.

I think this must have been the continuation of the path that I looked at as I sat there.

Looking at that, it's easy to see why the GR20 is known as a rocky, scrambly sort of route. At the same time, though, much (in fact most, I'd say) of it isn't difficult or frightening even for people like me who are nervous of heights. However, there was rarely a time in the whole 14 days when it wasn't necessary for me to take great care in placing my feet, as a simple trip on that sort of ground has the potential to end in significant injury many hundreds of feet below.

I sat for a time to contemplate the view, and when it was time to move on I took a picture of my trusty and well-used Osprey Atmos rucksack.

It's only 50L, but I find that it copes more than adequately with all the kit I've ever needed to take on any 2-3 week backpacking trip. One of the things I like most about it is the mesh back, which I find very comfortable. It's actually possible (although not necessary) to carry a water bladder in the back compartment, and I often do that because it frees up space in the pack and is generally quite comfortable (although on a hot day the water does have a tendency to warm up quickly).

As I was preparing to leave some sort of large bird appeared from behind a rocky buttress and began to soar up and down in the updrafts. I've noticed many times birds appearing to play in the wind like that, both in the UK and abroad.

More pretty little flowers revealed themselves as I continued...

...as well as a pretty little lizard minus most of her tail.

La petite lézarde, sans sa gueue

(I say 'her' because later in the trip Freddy, one of 3 Corsican people I walked with for a few days, explained that the female lizards have stripes along their backs whereas the males have little squares.)

More magnificent ridges (or crêtes) appeared--this one reminded me very much of Scotland...

...but eventually the path began to descend into a valley.

As I walked down through the Laricio pines I began to notice a lot of rather odd-looking but interesting nests of some sort, apparently woven into the branches.

I had no idea what they were, and I didn't want to poke one hard in case they turned out to be filled with bad-tempered bees or wasps or other scary stinging things. I asked at the Refuge that night but nobody knew, but I learned some days later--again from Freddy--that they were the nests of the pine Processionary Caterpillar. Apparently these little beasties have done vast damage to established Laricio pines on Corsica, but Freddy told me that new trees have sprung up in their wake and so all is apparently not lost. The caterpillars were long gone by the time I was there, but their nests were fascinating.

The descent had been steep, shaley, ultimately depressing and apparently interminable, but eventually it levelled out and quite suddenly the Refuge de Carozzu appeared before me on a small plateau. By that time it was about 3.15pm, and I made my way round to the front, put down my pack and went in to check that I could camp and eat there that evening.

It appeared that I could, although the Guardian (a young woman, on that occasion) seemed either unwilling or unable to accept or understand that I was walking alone, and cross-examined me persistently about how many people were going to be using my tent. At the Refuges there's a charge for the tent and an additional charge for each person sleeping inside it, so I suppose it's possible that from time to time people attempt to avoid paying the full price by lying about how many people will be sleeping in a tent. Anyway, the charges that night were as follows.

-- Bivvy: 4 Euros
-- Dinner: 16 Euros
-- Beer: 5 Euros

I eventually settled down with a beer and some pistachios at one of the tables behind the Refuge to think about where I might put my camp.There didn't seem to be many spaces left, and after the beeer I spent some time climbing a short way up the mountainside, and then poking around elsewhere in the undergrowth, looking for a large enough flattish spot. Eventually I found one well-concealed amongst rocks next to the toilet block, and so I got out the tent and put it up.

By now I was growing used to the hard ground, and so I looked around for a stone to help me get the tent pegs in. Still, though, there were places were I couldn't manage to drive them through buried rocks, and I spent some time attempting to secure the guy ropes around or under small rocks.

Camp at Refuge de Carozzu

That done, and having learned from my experience the night before, I got my wash kit together and established a place in the shower queue. It wasn't as long this time, and it was no more than about 15 minutes before my turn arrived. In the meantime I sat on a log on the floor, and chatted eventually with an English bloke, Lee, who had started from Calenzana the day before. He was a little demoralised, as he'd gone the wrong way at one stage and almost fallen to his death! He was trying to decide whether to continue or to leave the route and explore the rest of the island. I never saw him again, and so I think he must have taken the latter course.

The shower was freezing, naturally enough, and I was too much of a wimp to actually stand right under it :) Instead I stuck my head in and washed my hair and face, and then spent 5 minutes or so gradually washing my arms and legs, and carefully splashing just enough water onto the remaining bits to get the job done. The experience was very refreshing, though, once it was over, and I retired to my tent to get into my second pair of shorts and my relatively clean travelling/Refuge T shirt. I also put on my Crocs, which were wonderfully comfortable and light, surprisingly grippy and the perfect antidote to walking shoes in the evening.

After that I returned to the veranda at the front of the Refuge with my notebook, to wait for dinner. I was pretty sure that the Guardian had told me that dinner was at 6pm, and in the meantime I chatted a bit with a couple of the French people who'd started from Calenzana the day before. Fortunately one of them--Jerry--had lived in England for a while, and so with his English and my French we were just about able to communicate :) He told me that he and the people he was walking with were eating at the Refuge that evening, but that most evenings they'd be cooking their own food.

I noticed as the walk progressed that probably the majority of the other walkers weren't eating dinner in the Refuges, and as it became clear to me how expensive dinner was, and how little of it was sometimes available, I began to understand why. Many of the Refuges have communal kitchens, which are available to people who've paid to camp (as well as to those actually sleeping in the Refuge), and with the benefit of hindsight I now wish I'd decided to cook most of my own food. Naturally it's possible to take some along, but it's also possible to buy basic foodstuffs like rice/pasta/lentils/canned fish/canned meat etc in the Refuges for cooking in the kitchens. Next time I go I'll take a small stove for morning drinks and maybe some evening meals, but I'll plan to make most of my food in the kitchens.

At some stage as I was reading the 4 young English blokes arrived. We said hello, and as I queued for a second beer they spoke to the female Guardian, attempting to book in for dinner. They were too late, though, and so they retired to the back of the Refuge, presumably to rifle through their remaining food supplies. As they left I stepped forward to ask for my beer, and found the two Guardians giggling together. I have to say that Refuge de Carozzu wasn't exactly the friendliest of the various places I stayed.

I took my beer back to the table, wrote up my notes and then read a bit of my book, but by 6.30pm no dinner had appeared. I poked my head into the Refuge to enquire about it, because I thought I must have misunderstood the instructions about timings, but the response was rather vague and so I returned to the veranda and my book. I eventually became bored and contemplated my feet for a while :)

Zzzzzz.... feed me, feed me! Zzzzzz....

Just after 7pm the second Guardian suddenly appeared with a large tray of bowls of soup, and asked people to put a couple of tables together. Starving as I by then was, I grabbed a seat at one end of the table and tucked into a bowl of soup.

I realised I must have cocked something up when the male Guardian came out, spoke rapidly to the rest of the people on the table (about 14 or so), turned to me and put his hands over his face and then they all laughed. Eventually a woman further down the table explained to me that they were a group, and it seemed that I'd inadvertently intruded by sitting down at the end of the table. I'd just assumed that they were the people eating in the Refuge that night. Sigh... I felt a bit of a prat--it's a little unsettling to be laughed at like that by large groups of people when walking alone in a foreign country--and moved my bowl to another table. There I shed a wee private tear. It's at moments like that that I don't enjoy walking alone.

Dinner was disappointing again that night. The soup was tasteless, and didn't seem to contain anything other than a smattering of lentils, and it was followed by a pile of rice (complete with a pool of grey water from the bottom of the pot) topped with a bit of something orange, sloppy and unidentifiable: I think it must have been some sort of mashed up meat from a can. Whatever it was I ate it, as I was hungry. I hadn't booked breakfast, and at that stage I was quite glad not to have done so. I decided to try to get hold of some hot choccy powder sachets for use in future Refuges, and shed a few further tears (well, metaphorical tears at that point) for my abandoned stove.

After dinner I went back to my tent and settled down again with my book (The Importance of Being Kennedy by Laurie Graham, and an excellent book it was too).

I'd been planning to take my Insul-Mat Ether-Thermo6 3/4 length camping mattress, but although I've only had it since last Autumn it's developed a multitude of tiny punctures, and all my increasingly desperate attempts to repair it had been unsuccessful. I'd therefore bought a second Exped Down Air Mattress just before leaving home--3/4 length this time--and boy! Was I glad to have it with me on the hard and stony Corsican camping grounds! I can't sleep on a Thermarest even on grass, as my hips stick into the ground if I turn onto my side, and I can barely imagine what it would have felt like trying to do so on that bumpy, unyielding clay. If you're thinking of going, and you're ever uncomfortable sleeping on a thin mattress over here, be sure to take a thicker one on the GR20.

I finally dropped off at about 9pm, and slept fitfully until about 5am the next day.

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