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The GR20 in Corsica - July 2008

Getting home Part I - Wednesday 16th July
Conca to Bastia

I woke early--about 6.15am, I think--feeling good, and made straight for the shower. I'd done most of my packing the day before (an almost unprecedented degree of organisation for me) and so by 7am I was out and walking down to the Gite. The walk wasn't likely to take much more than 20 minutes but there had been a lingering element of uncertainty the day before about the precise departure time of the bus, and I wanted to be absolutely sure that I didn't miss it.

Leaving the lovely Hôtel San Pasquale

The walk through the village was lovely. Again I was listening to music, and when I smiled and said good morning to a woman out walking her dog she replied rather stiffly, and didn't smile back. She probably thought I was some sort of dangerous lunatic or vagabond: I've noticed this sort of reaction a couple of times in recent years when walking as a woman alone, scruffily-dressed, carrying a large rucksack and looking very middle-aged, in Catholic countries: particularly last year, in Spain. (I immediately point out that I'm a convent-educated daughter of an Irish Catholic myself, so this isn't prejudice: it's just been my observation.)

I'd noticed a particularly lovely vividly blue-coloured climbing thing the day before, but had omitted to take a picture. I took one now, but unfortunately the colour hasn't really come out since it was still a little dark: yet another reminder to me that one should always seize the moment. Still, here it is in rather faded glory.

And there was another lovely climber a little lower further on.

I turned left down the road that leads to the Gite, and a few minutes later I heard a small car approaching from behind. Rather to my surprise it stopped beside me, and when I looked across I realised it was the proprietor from the bar. He began to speak, and I realised that he was explaining to me that the road to the GR20 was right next to the bar. He pointed back in that direction, and it occurred to me that he thought I'd arrived to start the walk the morning before, rather than to finish it. When I thought further about that it struck me that he must have thought I was pretty grubby for a new arrival! Anyway, I smiled, and thanked him, and after he'd driven off I continued towards the Gite.

I got to the Gite before 7.30am and established a position in front of the reception area, which wasn't yet open. Others began to drift across, including the elderly man who'd advised me at Refuge de Asinau to take the lower, non-Alpine route because of the strong wind. He spotted me, did a bit of a double-take and then smiled across. I was happy to stand around in the early sunshine enjoying the fact that I didn't have to walk any significant distance, and it must have been 20 minutes or so before I realised that I was hearing the sounds of people chatting over breakfast from around the corner. I then spotted the bar owner's little car in the carpark, and I think he must have driven down to serve breakfast to the people staying in the Gite. Had it occurred to me earlier that I could get something to eat and drink I'd very happily have done so, but by now it was nearing 8am and so I decided I'd better stay where I was.

Soon after 8am the doors opened, and the man who'd refused me a place on the bus the day before looked out. He asked me again whether I was staying at the Gite, and again I told him I wasn't. I went in, though, and spotted the young woman. Again she was very friendly. She found my name on the list, asked for 4 Euros and gave me a little token for the bus driver.

I went out and the bloke was now packing things into the back of a minibus. Over the course of the next 10 minutes or so a group of us piled in. I began to think John had changed his mind about leaving because I didn't see him until the last minute, but he arrived just in time and we all set off for the short drive to Saint Lucie de Porto Vecchio.

Pretty early in the trip we became stuck on a narrow, winding road behind a van driven by the butcher I'd seen chopping up a lamb next to the bar the afternoon before. Since we were in a hurry this might have become a problem, but a few minutes later I noticed our driver speaking on his mobile phone, and the next moment the van pulled over to the side of the road to let us pass and everybody laughed. Apparently the driver had rung the butcher to ask him to move over, because we were dashing to catch a bus!

The journey took no more than about 10 minutes, and then we were all decanted at the side of the road. I stood chatting with John, who was also travelling to Bastia, and maybe 10 or 15 minutes later the bus arrived. I meant to make a note for the benefit of anyone reading this who might be planning to make the journey of how much the bus trip cost, but unfortunately I forgot to do so. It wasn't hugely expensive, though: I think it was in the region of 30 Euros, give or take a few.

The journey to my stop, which wasn't far from Bastia, took a couple of hours, or maybe a little longer. At one stage we stopped for a loo and coffee break, and there I met the Australians again. They were on the bus (in fact, they'd waved when I'd first got on), having stayed in Porto Vecchio the night before. It turned out that there were actually 4, and it was lovely to chat and giggle with them in the sun at the rest stop for a while. They'd had a great time, and like me they'd been blown away by the beauty of Corsica. When we started up again I began to worry that I'd not properly explained to the driver, a woman, where I needed to get off, but she was entirely on top of things and at the appropriate place she pulled over and called me to the front. I said a quick goodbye to John, waved to the Australians and then I was on my own at the side of the road, waving as the bus drove on towards its destination.

Freddy had given me his number and instructed me to go into the petrol station and ask to borrow a phone. I'd been intending to use my mobile, but since my battery was almost dead I followed Freddy's instructions. The young man in the garage was very friendly and helpful. He spoke to Freddy for me, and moments later told me that Freddy would soon be there. About 5 minutes afterwards he was, and it was lovely to see a familiar face again :)

We packed my rucksack into the boot, and Freddy then drove us into Bastia. It was almost 12 noon--approaching lunchtime--and Annie, who was working, was going to meet us for lunch. Freddy and I strolled around for 15 minutes or so. He showed me the war memorial...

War Memorial in Bastia

...and then a statue representing Napoleon (who was born on Corsica) dressed in Roman garb...

Napoleon, dressed as a Roman

...and then we met up with Annie, who had walked across to meet us.

Freddy and Annie then treated me to lunch in a really lovely restaurant in the central square. They point-blank refused to allow me to give them lunch, although I had hoped to treat them in return for their many kindnesses to me. Lunch was delicious, and like Annie I had hot goat's cheese salad (Yippee! At last!) and then a traditionally Corsican omelette, which is made with cheese and mint. The wine was delicious too, and afterwards Freddy was outraged when Annie joined me in an illicit cigarette :)

On my arrival Annie and Freddy had immediately made enquiries about my flight time for the following day. When they heard it wasn't until 5pm they insisted that I should stay at theirs that night and travel over to Calvi in the morning. That was enormously kind, and in the end we agreed that that's what I'd do. Annie therefore returned to work after lunch, and Freddy took me round Bastia.

It was a charming and interesting town. We went up to to the high and possibly older part on the hill, overlooking the harbour...

...and Freddy took me round all of the interesting little side streets, and many churches.

There were broad, smart, shopping streets too, but I prefer the narrow old places where I'm able to imagine the crowds who must have thronged them, hundreds of years ago. Those parts of the town reminded me very much of parts of Venice and Florence. I love the heavy wooden shutters, and wish we had enough sunshine in this country to make them a necessity here.

The view across the sea was beautiful...

...and when we got down to the harbour I was fascinated by the sight of Elba, only about 30 miles away. Napoleon was exiled there in 1814, before escaping 300 days later back to France.

Elba: Napoleon's place of exile

Freddy took a picture of me sitting on a wall above the harbour...

...and I took another...

The harbour in Bastia

...and then we dropped down to see it at close quarters.

Freddy took me to the courts at one point, and we slipped in to the back of a courtroom to watch something or other. We were politely asked to leave, though, as shorts weren't allowed :) I have to say I can't imagine standing at the back of the county court in Manchester wearing shorts and a T shirt, and so that seemed entirely fair enough.

We stopped for an ice cream, and then Freddy took me to a little shop he knew where I would be able to buy the yummy things I was hoping to take home for my family. I was certain I'd taken a photograph in there, but I don't seem to have one and so I think I must have imagined it. Anyway, I bought saucisson, and two types of cheese, and honey, and some sort of delicious-looking chestnut puree, and I could happily have spent an hour in there if there hadn't been other things to go and do and see.

Finally we began to make our way back to the car, as it was time to go to the supermarket to buy supplies for dinner.

When we got back to Annie and Freddy's place Annie was already there, and I was shown to a beautiful bedroom and provided with absolutely everything I needed to spend the most comfortable of nights. First we went to sit on the balcony, though, where we drank a mint-flavoured syrup with sparkling water. It was very refreshing, and if we have it over here I've never seen it.

After that Annie and Freddy showed me round their garden, where they had almost every conceivable sort of fruit and vegetable growing on the trees and bushes. It was truly fantastic! There were oranges, lemons, mandarins, grapefruits, kiwi fruits, apples, pears, almonds, artichokes, raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes and, I'm sure, many other things I've now forgotten. Much as I love England, I do regret our miserable, sunless climate. I'll never forget the thrill I experienced when first seeing lemons actually growing on trees in Cyprus many years ago, and I would love to be able to just step into the garden and carry such things in to use in the kitchen, in the way that I can with a bunch of thyme or rosemary here.

After all that it was time for a shower, and as I was drying off I heard the sound of Jacques and his wife arriving. I put on a bit of a spurt--wriggling into the new, clean T shirt I'd bought when I Freddy and I had been at the shops--and soon after that I was back on the balcony, surrounded by wines and an array of delicious foods.

It was lovely to see Jacques again, and to meet his wife, and the 5 of us chatted late into the evening. I've found that it's amazing how much it's possible to communicate with people when even just a few words of a common language are shared, and between my halting French, and Jacques and Annie's English, we were able to talk about all sorts of things, including the Euro, the fact that the English have retained a monarchy and the amazing Yeti sighting described by Slawomir Rawicz in his book, The Long Walk.

Dinner with Annie, Freddy, Jacques and his wife in Bastia

Eventually it was time for Jacques and his wife to leave, and I sat with Annie and Freddy on the balcony for a little while longer, enjoying a delicious liquor that Freddy had made from aromatic verbena growing in the garden. We were all tiring, though, and so eventually we gathered our things together and set off for bed. I fell very quickly into a deep and comfortable sleep, from which I didn't wake until 7am the following day.

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