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The GR20 in Corsica - July 2008

Day 8 - Wednesday 9th July
Refuge de Petra Piana to Bergeries de l'Onda
(6.75 miles/11 kilometers)

The wind was so strong during that night that I woke several times. On one occasion I woke from a dream that the wind had blown the various rocks with which I'd anchored the guy lines off the wall and into the tent--I can still vividly remember waking crouched in a little ball with my arms over my head, to protect myself--and I actually got up and dressed, and went out to put them back. Only then did I realise I'd dreamed it!

On another occasion I heard what sounded just like footsteps around the tent. It might have been somebody from one of the tents nearby, or then again it might just have been the wind. I suppose it could have been a pig, but I think a pig could only have made a noise like that if it had been wearing large shoes (or stolen sandals)...

Anyway, I woke for the final time at 5.43am, tired. It was still very windy indeed, and I realised I was going to have to leave the ascent of Monte Ritondu and the higher-level journey to Refuge de l'Onda for another occasion.

During the night my little Ajungilak pillow also went down quite suddenly and unexpectedly. That was rather a sad development, as I've had it for a couple of years now and it's by far the most comfortable thing I've ever slept on in my tent. Rolled up clothes stuffed into a stuffsack don't work for me, as my ears grow painful when the clothes compress in the night. Sigh... I realised I should probably throw it away immediately, but I didn't like to do so because I've grown rather attached to it. I decided to have a fiddle with it that evening, and it's only now, several weeks later, that I find myself wondering why I didn't try to fix it with one of the mattress patchy things I was carrying.

I was packed up and having breakfast by 7.20am, in the little kitchen. It had been so cold the night before that I hadn't taken a shower, and as I stood at the tiny sink outside the toilet block cleaning my teeth and washing my face my fingers grew so cold in the water that I thought they might actually fall off! Well, almost.

Packed up and ready to go

I'd passed Veronique's tent on the way to the Refuge, but I hadn't liked to call her in case I woke her up. Because I didn't have any drinks with me I had to make do with water, but I really didn't mind that and I enjoyed the tail-end of the bread I'd bought the night before with some of the cheese I'd bought at the bergerie.

It was quiet in the little kitchen, but I was glad to be out of the dusty environment the wind had created in the tent. After eating I went outside to the balcony for a cigarette and ran into Jean-Marc, who took a photo for me.

Windy morning at the Refuge de Petra Piana

Looking at it now I remember that my eyes and face felt swollen: I think it must have been as a result of all the dust in the tent the night before.

By the time I'd finished my cigarette it was about 8am, and as I glanced back over towards the camping spots I saw Veronique making her way to the kitchen. She had tea and very kindly offered me some, and so we sat together in the kitchen and drank it. It was a cozy little kitchen adjoining the dormitory, and I'd have been quite happy to hole up there for a couple of hours with a book in grotty weather.

Veronique in the kitchen at the Refuge de Petra Piana

After my cup of tea I went back outside for a second cigarette, and there I ran into a British couple: a Scottish woman and her English husband. They were from Kelso, and I have a guitar-playing friend who lives there, and so we chatted away for some time. I'd noticed them in the food queue the evening before, and had been very impressed by the woman's accomplished sounding French. She explained that she was a French and German teacher, which made me feel slightly less inadequate. They were only walking a few days in the mountains, and were also heading for the Refuge de l'Onda that evening.

After a while Veronique brought out a second cup of tea for me, and we went back inside to finish off our breakfast. By now it was getting on for 8.30am or so, but it was only a relatively short day and therefore I wasn't concerned about our late start.

After brekky I helped Veronique to take down her tent, and we eventually left together at 9.15am. There was a sharp, rocky descent to the Bergeries de Gialgo a short way down the mountain, and as much out of curiosity as anything else we stopped for a moment to ask whether they sold cheese or saucisson. They didn't, but as a matter of pure hospitality the two shepherds offered us a cup of coffee, and we sat down gratefully to drink it.

Shepherd, Shirl and Veronique with traditional saucisson and bread at Bergeries de Gialgo

In the end we stayed at the little bergerie, chatting, for over an hour, and it was one of the greatest experiences I had on the whole trip. The shepherd explained the workings of his farm to us. I'd assumed that the bergeries were all milking the sheep daily and making cheese, but they're not. The ewes are kept up on the mountain for half of the year as they wait to have their lambs, and at the end of the season the shepherd decides which of the new flock he's going to keep, and sells the rest. I didn't follow everything (although Veronique translated a lot for me) and so I'm not sure exactly how a profit is made from the farm with the new system, but I assume it must be.

Veronique and I were both interested in the cheese-making that used to happen on the bergerie, and so after our coffee the shepherd showed us round the little farm, and took us into one of the caves that used to be used to mature the cheese. The caves are built into the side of the mountain, and we had to get down on hands and knees and crawl in. Sadly they're not used any more, but the shepherd explained that the process had become too expensive and that the market for the cheese produced there had dropped off, even though it had been very highly prized. There were metal trays for the cheeses to sit on--not unlike a large stack of oven racks--and the shepherd told us that there were mushroom spores scattered into the earth underneath to help the rind develop and to add an interesting taste.

After that we saw the stream that ran through the bergerie, and the shepherd explained that the cheeses differed significantly from cave to cave, depending upon how close to the stream the cave was. That was because the caves closer to the stream were cooler, and air temperature affected the development of the cheese.

Finally, the shepherd showed us another cave. This one had a larger opening and so we didn't need to crawl to get in, although we did have to stoop. Inside, though, it was exactly like a cheese cave, except that it was slightly larger. The shepherd explained that 4 brothers had lived in that cave whilst running the bergerie until 1973! They used juniper and other local plants to create mattresses for their beds. They'd lived there, I think, for all of their adult lives, and they'd been present when tourists first came to the mountains. Apparently they used to enjoy sneaking up to tourist tents at night and taking a sandal, so that they could laugh at the sight of the tourist limping down the mountain on one foot the following day. I heard that story and remembered that a cyber-friend of mine 'lost' a sandal in the night to something--he thought it must have been a pig--on the GR20 about 3 years ago, and I wondered whether the spirits of the 4 brothers were still inhabiting the mountain side, persecuting tourists :)

After that we went back to the table, and the shepherd brought out some excellent saucisson with bread and wine, so that Veronique and I could taste the difference between the real, traditionally produced thing and the more common mass-produced ones available all over the island. The saucisson was truly delicious: studded with pepper corns, and full of flavour.

It would have been lovely to have stayed even longer, but eventually we felt we'd better press on if we were ever to get to Refuge de l'Onda. We were invited to stay for lunch, but sadly we had to decline. We therefore gathered our things together, shook hands with the shepherds and went on down the mountain.

As we pressed on down we entered a wood which ran alongside a river in a sort of gorge. We'd heard that there were swimming pools along the way, and we were keen to try them out. In fact we passed many pools over to our right as we followed the path down through the wood, and we weren't sure whether those were the ones we'd heard people referring to or not. We concluded that they probably weren't, though, as we'd have needed to climb down to them, and so we continued in the hope of finding something more accessible further along.

At one stage I spotted--joy of joys!--a lizard with a moth in its mouth on a rock next to the path. I was terribly excited, and pursued the lizard with my camera in an attempt to get a picture. Although I managed to get the lizard the picture didn't include the moth, which was still wriggling. Sigh! Still, here's the picture just to remind me of the excitement of the moment.

Lizard with moth in its mouth (hidden, sadly, behind a leaf)

The path was easy underfoot, but eventually it broadened out and there was an area of tarmac. On the other side was another pool, and as I was looking over to see whether it was the pool we'd been seeking I somehow managed to trip and dive face-first towards the ground. Fortunately it was actually my leg that hit the ground first, and so I ended up with nothing worse than a few scrapes. Poor Veronique looked a bit shocked as she helped pull me to my feet, though. It would really be very easy to fall and break some bones at just about any point on the walk. Naturally I'd waited for the almost entirely flat bit before making my move!

The guidebook had told us that there would be a little bergerie selling food and drinks a little further along the path--the Bergeries de Tolla--and eventually we arrived there. For a few heart-breaking minutes it appeared to be closed, and I almost regretted our slightly late start. Happily we were just at the wrong building, though, and minutes later we pushed through the little wooden gate and put our packs down at one of the shaded tables outside. We each had a Coke--thanks, Veronique!--and I bought a loaf, as one never knows when it's next going to be be possible to buy bread in the mountains.

On returning to our table we found a huge pot of Nutella. It was almost empty, but there was a liberal scraping to be found around the edges of the jar. We reckoned that a group of walkers had probably jetissoned it there, feeling that they could no longer justify the weight in their packs. Either that or it was provided by the Bergerie for the benefit of the customers. In either event, I got out my loaf and we both enjoyed bread and Nutella with Coca Cola in the hot afternoon sunshine. Mega-yum!

There were pigs grazing just outside the fence. At one stage one of them came in through the gate, and one of the dogs chased it out again, barking wildly.

Wee piglets at Bergeries de Tolla

We chatted for 10 minutes or so with a Dutch family before we went on. They were travelling with a car, and had walked up to the Refuge with their little daughter. They'd been seeking a lake that neither Veronique nor I had seen mentioned in the guidebook or on the map, but Veronique spotted a valley on her map with a similar name and eventually the lake was located.

We actually arrived at the swimming pool not long after leaving the bergerie, and found a bunch of other GR20 walkers lounging around on the rocks absorbing the sun. I asked whether they'd swum, but they indicated that it was too cold. Very sensible! Veronique was determined to swim, though, and I felt that the honour of the English required me to join her :) I therefore got out of my walking kit and into my evening shorts and T shirt, having failed to remember to pack a swimming costume, slipped my Crocs onto my feet and began to paddle wimpishly around at the edges of the pool, trying to acclimatise to the freezing temperature in there.

It really was freezing in the little mountain pool, and Veronique was in and swimming while I was still wading around in a nesh sort of fashion at thigh depth. I remembered my recent dip in a Yorkshire river one warm June afternoon with pals John and Steph, though, and I was pretty sure that no pool of water in Corsica could possibly be as cold as that had been! I therfore steeled myself, and eventually managed to tip forwards and get under the water. It was still bloody freezing, but I waved my arms around frantically and tried not to look as though I was drowning, and eventually the cold-induced pain factor fell from 10+ to no more than 8.5 :) If I'd been able to speak better French I'd have asked one of the others basking in the sun on the rocks to take a piccy for me, but I couldn't and so I'm afraid you're going to have to take my word for it!

There was actually a series of small pools, and Veronique--who was extremely intrepid in everything she did--had climbed out of the first and up to the second. I followed, and then we moved up again to a third. There was a bridge crossing the river above us, and it was quite good fun to look smugly up at the walkers gazing down at us, whilst attempting to look hardy and conceal my shivers.

I crawled out of the third pool, arranged myself on one of the large, smooth boulders at the side, and spread out like a salamander to soak up the sun. It was absolute bliss! I think we lay around like that for 10 or 15 minutes, but eventually it was necessary to slip back into the freezing water in order to make our way back to our clothes. My leg had begun to sting and throb after my earlier fall, and I think the swim did it quite a lot of good. Certainly it cleaned it up very thoroughly.

Back at the first pool I got out and climbed up onto the rocks again. The group of young French students arrived shortly afterwards, and started getting ready to swim. One of them--the young girl who'd dashed across to take a photo for me on the way up to the Refuge on the first day--borrowed my Crocs, and 20 minutes or so went by very easily as I soaked up the sun to the happy sound of laughter and splashing from the water. Eventually we began to make a move, though, and I peeled off my soaking shorts and T shirt and got back into my dusty walking clothes.

Packing up after the swim

The guidebook indicated that it should take us about 1.75 hours from the bridge to the bergerie, but--invigorated, perhaps, by the water--we made excellent progress up through the wood and arrived about 30 minutes faster than that. By then it was about 5.30pm, and we weren't sure whether to dash up to the bergerie to book dinner (since it was relatively late in the day) or to grab a decent camping spot first. In the event we put up the tents, and then I dashed up the hill to try to book dinner for both of us. Veronique had heard that there was a very special lasagna with home-made cheese available, and we were both anxious not to miss it.

Once again my lack of fluency proved a problem, as I tried to explain to the proprietor that I'd like to pay for one bivvy and meal, and also to book dinner for my friend who was putting up her tent. It was all rather confusing, and involved him in writing Veronique's name into his dinner book, scratching it out and then writing it down for a second time. Eventually, perhaps, he just gave up in the face of my obvious inability to say exactly what I needed to say, and indicated that Veronique's place had been reserved and that she should come up ASAP to pay. It wasn't until later that night that it was explained to me that the proprietors at that particular bergerie don't actually take bookings for dinner: they won't normally write somebody's name in the book until they've been paid. Doh... There was a little sign about it on the wall, which included a play on words: not something that I'd ever have been able to interpret for myself in a month of Sundays!
  • Bivvy: 4 Euros
  • Dinner: 18 Euros
  • Beer: 5.50 Euros
Anyway, after my dealings with the proprietor I was feeling a little frazzled, and so I retired with my can of beer to a rock in the field above the camping field for a cigarette. From my vantage point I looked down on the tents. The field itself was pretty flat, and grassy, and it was fenced off because next to it was a second field, in which a number of rather attractive pigs and some cows were living. There were many mouchons swarming about near my rock, attracted, no doubt, by the pigs and cattle, but I didn't mind since they weren't attempting to suck out my blood.

Camping field at Bergeries de l'Onda

As I sat on my rock, admiring the grunting and very business-like pigs, I browsed through the guidebook, because only after my conversation at the bergerie had I remembered that there was actually a Refuge just a couple of hundred metres away up the hill, and I began to worry that I might accidentally have booked dinner at the wrong place, thus depriving myself, and possibly also Veronique, of the decicious Lasagna a Bracceai (as it later turned out to be called) that we had intended to eat. I felt an immense weight of guilt descend upon me... and so I finished my beer, went down to the tents and confessed what I thought was my mistake to Veronique. Happily, it turned out that I hadn't cocked things up after all. It's a little confusing, but although there is a Refuge up the hill (actually the Refuge de l'Onda) the food (like the camping) is provided at the bergerie. Phew! And even as I stood outside watching Veronique explaining things to the proprietor I noticed a sign on the wall advertising lasagna, and realised that all was well.

After that I went for a wash and brush up, and at the appointed hour I made my way up to the bergerie and sat down at a small table with Veronique. By that time the little room was filling up, and it seemed clear that word of the excellent cooking at the Bergeries de l'Onda had spread through the GR20 walking community. The British couple I'd met earlier that morning were also there, and they told me that they intended to camp in one of the pre-erected tents available for hire on the camping field. They'd expected to be able to hire sleeping bags from the Refuge, but there hadn't been any available, and both Veronique and I worried a little that they might be in for a cold night in the tent.

Veronique spotted Ursula at the long table and invited her over to sit with us. I made a quick loo-dash down the hill just as the first course was imminent, and jogged back up just in time to be served with a bowl of steaming soup Corse (or Corsican soup). Soup Corse seems to be a semi-generic description for just about any kind of vegetable-based soup provided on Corsica. Earlier in the trip I'd had it with a smattering of lentils, and this time it came with pasta. It's never very highly flavoured but it was warming and good.

The second course was the lasagna, and it well deserved the reputation that had preceded it. It had been cooked in large trays, and the proprietor and his wife carried the trays to each of the tables, digging out a large square portion for each of us and levering them onto our respective plates. It was full of delicious home-made cheese and also plenty of spinach and pasta, and I think there were even some seconds available to finish it off.

(It seems to be the case that individual Refuges and Bergeries on the GR20 cook the same meal every night, which is why the Bergeries de l'Onda is famous for lasagna, so anyone planning to stay there in future stands a very good chance of finding it there.)

After the lasagna came huge home-made cheeses, left on the table so that we could help ourselves. We tried two: a young one and a slightly older one. Both were delicious, and for the first time at any of the Refuges I was truly full once the meal was over. There was even an apple, and after that the proprietor brought round a bottle of L'Eau de Vie with mandarin, and gave each of us a drink. It was très, très bon :)

Aftermath of wonderful meal at Bergeries de l'Onda (showing home-made cheese)

As we were eating Ursula, Veronique and I grew a little intoxicated--more with the joy of a truly excellent meal and convivial company than from any alcoholic substances we'd consumed, as we didn't drink much--and began to joke about our experiences on the walk. I told them that I thought it would be fun to write a novel about the GR20, and we began to think of some chapter names, based on interesting places we'd stayed and things we'd seen. We came up with:
  • La Bergerie Bizarre
  • Le Dead Veal, and
  • Le Refuge de Pourbelle
...and I think there may have been others that have now had to be censored for the good of Corsican/English relations slipped my mind :)

After that, talked turned (as it naturally does...) to ghostly, scary things, and Ursula told us a most interesting story about an experience she'd had several days earlier. I missed the beginning, but I think the point was that she'd been walking with friends, who had then left the route, and she'd had to walk along a road and up through a wood in order to make her way back up to the GR20. As she was doing that she arrived at the ruins of a building, with some sort of stone memorial built into a wall. The atmosphere was somehow uncomfortable, and for a period of 10 minutes as she made her way up through the wood she could hear a woman's voice continually calling, "Mon cherie, mon cherie!" Although she'd stopped to look and listen several times, though, she hadn't been able to see anyone, and there had been something indefinably creepy about the experience that had left her slightly unsettled.

Veronique mentioned this to the proprietor, identifying the place where it had happened, and asked whether anyone else had reported anything similar. The proprietor indicated that he had no time for ghostly, creepy stories, and insisted that there must have been a perfectly innocent explanation. Veronique was made of sterner stuff than that, though, and called for a map :) When the map was produced Ursula identified the wood in which she'd been walking, and there on the page, and just a short distance away from the wood, we all saw a mountain top called (when translated from the French) "The Point of the Dead Woman". Eep!!! Okay, so there could well be a natural explanation for what Ursula heard, but even so... the 3 of us were a little chilled by the coincidence, and went on to swap a few more creepy stories, finally reaching the point where we were afraid that we wouldn't be able to sleep in our tents! Heh...

I almost jumped out of my skin when, just at that moment, one of the little dogs from the bergerie suddenly leaped from its chair and ran barking out into the field. None of us could see anything, but a few minutes later a very tall man arrived with an enormous rucksack, and told us all that he'd come that morning from Milan! He paid for his bivvy and went off to plant his tent (as they say in France), and although I didn't actually see him until I eventually arrived in Conca he was the person who ultimately took the photo of me sitting at my table at the Bar du GR20 a week or so later, sipping at a celebratory pastis :)

After all that excitement we were reluctant to disperse, but eventually it had to be done. I'd been wanting to sleep out in my bivvy for some time, but I hadn't really felt able to do so, due in part to the lack of space in my little camping spots once I'd put up my tent and also to a concern that the stony ground might puncture my mattress. This night was different, though, as there was plenty of space and I was camping on grass. I therefore got out my sleeping and bivvy bags when I arrived at the tent, arranged my mattress on the grass and slipped in. It was a little windy but nothing like the gales of the night before, and I enjoyed the feeling of the breeze on my face as I lay snuggly ensconced in my sleeping bag, looking up at the stars above me. Despite the creepy talk, and the excitement of sleeping outside, it didn't take me long to drop off, and I slept quite well until 5.40am the following morning.

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