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The GR20 in Corsica - July 2008

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How difficult is it?
These things are always subjective. However, and for the benefit of people who may be considering the route but are unsure about whether or not it's within their capabilities... I consider myself to be a pretty fit walker, and I'm used to walking with quite a heavy pack over periods of up to 3 weeks in mountainous terrain, both in the UK and in the Pyrenees. I found the GR20 to be a challenging (though not a killer) walk. Almost every day contains a great deal of steep ascent, followed by a significant amount of steep and occasionally soul-destroying descent over stony and/or rocky and/or bouldery ground.

Most people start walking by no later than 7am in order to avoid the 'worst' of the heat, and therefore it's not uncommon to finish soon after lunch. (Some people set off much earlier than that, but the only real advantage I could see to doing that was in having the pick of the camping places upon arrival at the Refuge later on.) Some of the earlier stages are quite short, but they're still demanding due to the nature of the ground to be covered. I found that it was possible to double some stages up if necessary, but it's much more fun not to have to do so. It's nice to be able to relax with a beer in the sun, as you anxiously count out your dwindling funds *g*

I think you need to be pretty fit to actually enjoy the walk. Unless you're a masochist, there's not much to like about endless, exhausting slogs up and down mountains. You also need to have at least a bit of a head for heights--the Cirque de la Solitude is the infamous, most scary part, and (imo) it fully deserves its reputation, despite the safety chains.

This certainly isn't a walk for less experienced people to do on a whim. If you're fit, experienced and either unafraid of heights or prepared to expose yourself to a bit of fear then you can almost certainly do it. It's harder than either of my jaunts along the Haute Route, though. Be warned, and be prepared :)

The Cirque de la Solitude--how scary is it?
This is the part that all the guidebooks refer to as the most challenging bit of scrambling, and rightly so. Nothing else came close. It consists of an extended and steep rocky descent into, essentially, a huge bowl, and then an equally rocky and steep ascent out of the other side. All of the worst bits are provided with chains for protection, and at the start of the ascent there's a very short ladder to get up what would otherwise be a very short climb.

It's not easy--perhaps not even possible, really--to get a good idea of exactly what's involved until one starts climbing down. I was only 5 minutes into my descent, and hadn't arrived at the first chain, when a friendly group of 3 Corsicans, including a very experienced bloke who has sometimes acted as a Guide, came up behind me. Freddy decided I looked a bit nervous (it seems that body-language knows no linguistic barriers :) and so he indicated that he was going to move past me and he then proceeded to guide me down, along with his two less experienced co-walkers.

If I'd been alone I'm sure I'd have done it: slowly and surely, and at my own pace. As things worked out, though, I wasn't alone. I found it a stressful and occasionally frightening experience (a sense of exposure is what scares me about heights, and there's lots of that in the Cirque), but looking back on it I think that was mainly because it goes on for so long, both on the descent and on the ascent. It was like a series of slightly iffy scrambles all joined together, none of which was particularly terrifying individually but all of which combined to produce an experience that lasted, probably, an hour and a half, or possibly two hours. It's probably fair to say that I was also a little more stressed than I would otherwise have been by having to try to interpret instructions in French. At times I was getting my gauche and droit mixed up, and confusing les pieds avec les mains :)

As far as I could tell from speaking/trying to speak with others afterwards, most people were happy enough with it, though. I'm not aware of anyone walking on the same day as me who started the descent but didn't make it.

So! If you're wondering whether or not to give the GR20 a go, but the idea of the Cirque is putting you off, I hope this provides a bit of context and helps you to make a decision. It's full of protection, and as long as the weather is dry the rock underfoot is grippy. The holds are good and strong, and if you get nervous you can always stop for a minute or so to collect yourself. I regard myself as bad at heights--Striding Edge always scares me, even though I've done it many times over the years--but I survived.

(Finally, if you'd like to do the walk but you're still unsure about the Cirque, I have Freddy's contact details and if he's free he'd be happy to accompany you. He lives in Bastia, and he said that if you drop me a line I can send you his contact details.)

At the current rate of exchange, and in the light of current prices in the Refuges, the GR20 can be quite an expensive route to walk.

I've always taken a stove and food when I've backpacked in the past, but this time I left them at home because I had the impression from the guidebooks (and from my earlier experiences in the Pyrenees) that I could eat well, and relatively inexpensively, in the Refuges. There's more info on the pages set out below, but the bottom line is that food at the Refuges was very expensive and, imo, sometimes inadequate. By way of example, in the northern part of the route I commonly paid in the region of 15 Euros (which is currently almost 12) for a bowl of lentils (or pasta) and a piece of cake. Yes, really! Staggering, eh? I thought so too, despite the logistical difficulties involved for the locals in getting food up the hill. A can of local beer was normally 5 Euros (getting on for 4), and a can of Coke 3.50 Euros (about 2.80). I almost wouldn't mind being what felt like ripped-off if I'd been full afterwards but I wasn't, and I'm probably smaller than many of you reading this.

I concluded that the best way was to carry a small stove and some gas for making drinks, and to buy rice/pasta/sardines/whatever at the Refuges and cook them in the communal kitchens (most Refuges have them). (You can get a converter like this in order to use your stove with the French-style gas cylinders in various UK shops.) Rather than pay 7-8 Euros (about 5) for breakfast (which typically consists of one cup of coffee or chocolate, a bit of toast or bread and a small pat of jam), see if you can take some small pats of Nutella/similar and carry a loaf. Bread and saucisson are lovely for lunch :)

Camping was 4 Euros per night everywhere except Hotel Castel di Vergio, where it was 6 Euros. (It was free in the site next to the Hotel when Paddy Dillon was last there, but not any longer. However, there was a truly stonking hot shower: well worth the additional 2 Euros, in my view :)

Many Refuges have communal kitchens and they all had cold showers and outside loos, and those paying to camp (or bivvy, as they call single-night camping in the hills over there) are entitled to use those communal facilities. Note, though, that not all the communal kitchens seem to have communal pans/mugs/glasses/KFS, though I think most of them did.

I don't know what Refuge accommodation cost for sure, as I didn't use it, but I think it was 10 Euros or thereabouts per night.

I took 800 Euros with me, thinking that should be enough to see me through. It was enough for the walk itself, and it would have been a fair bit more than enough had I not succumbed to the urge for a beer/coke (or two) on a daily basis, and the occasional saucisson/piece of cheese from a nice-looking bergerie.

Cash--available en route?
As Paddy points out in his guide, you can't get cash on the route. I stayed in the hotel in Vizzavona and I tried to supplement my dwindling reserves the following morning by withdrawing some cash against my card, but it wasn't allowed. They did allow me to pay with a card, though, as did the hotel in Conca.

I'm an enthusiastic but totally, and apparently irremediably, inept user of map and compass. I've never gone anywhere without them before, though. Still, everything I'd read about the GR20 had assured me that it really was possible to survive without a map, if walking in summer on days with normal visibility. I did make a half-hearted attempt to get hold of the two 1:50k maps that cover the route, but I couldn't find them on the net. I therefore set off without them, and I'm happy to be able to confirm that at no stage in the entire 14 day journey was it ever necessary for me to consult anything other than the local trees and rocks for signs of the next red and white splash. (Do bear in mind that I did the walk in July, though. In poor visibility the situation would be very different.)

(GR routes are regularly way-marked with a sign, which is a broad white painted stripe on top of a broad red painted stripe. I think of it as cream rising to the top, in order to remember which way up the red and white are meant to be.)

Camera batteries
I realised to my cost that it's almost impossible to buy camera batteries (i.e. standard AA or AAA etc) along the route. I stupidly took the wrong sort, and so my batteries only just got me to Vizzavona. I got some more there but they were hopeless too. I'd planned to take a lot of little films, but I had to stop taking them in order to conserve battery power for photos. Learn from my mistake, and make sure you've got long-lasting batteries and plenty of spares. This isn't a problem that can be easily fixed on the GR20.

Do you need a tent?
It's certainly possible to do the walk without one, but it's a great advantage to have one with you. Some of those who slept in Refuges told me that the dormitories were oppressively hot at night (with people packed in like sardines), and there's always the possiblity of being kept awake by snorers/the fear of disturbing others with torches/alarms/late-night frantic searches through the rucksack for the essential bit of kit stuck somewhere at the bottom. I also know that a couple of people were bitten by something (eep...) in Refuges, and I don't like the idea of that. And Refuge dormitories are mixed, so if you don't like the idea of cuddling up next to an unknown member of the opposite sex then the Refuges are probably not for you.

On the other hand, if you do sleep in the Refuges you can save the weight of a tent and mattress, and I suspect that a certain enjoyable camaraderie builds up between those who regularly encounter each other on late-night, semi-clad trips to the loo.

I've read that later in the season space in the Refuges can be at a premium, which can result in people rushing from Refuge to Refuge in order to be sure of a bed. I reckon that most people hardy enough to take on the GR20 are probably hardy enough also to carry a tent, if they wish to do so, so you may wish to take one just to be on the safe side.

Tent or tarp-tent or tarp (or bivvy bag)?
I agonised about this, partly because I haven't got a tarp-tent and this seemed like such a good excuse to get one! In the end, though, I stuck with my Terra Nova Laser Competition and it turned out to be perfect.

The reason it was perfect (apart from the obvious point about it weighing less than 1 kilo, and the other point about it being enormously strong and stable) is that it's a double-skinned tent, and I found that it can get very windy up in the Corsican mountains. Because it's so very hot and dry up there it's extremely dusty, and when the wind got up and created a dust storm I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be reliant on just a mesh outer, or without a sealed inner. At times the wind was so strong that it still managed to blow dust under the outer and through the mesh inner, and that made for a sticky, uncomfortable night in the tent. For that reason I wouldn't want to take either a tarp-tent or a tarp.

Having said that, I did see several people just using either a bivvy bag or sometimes even just a sleeping bag with some sort of space blanket. They all survived, and I reckon that on the windy nights the ones with bivvy bags may even have been more comfortable than those of us wiping dust out of our eyes in our tents, because presumably they just snuggled down into their sleeping bags and pulled them over their heads and at least they had the benefit of the breeze.

For the smokers out there
Sadly I'm smoking at the moment, so here's the gen for anyone else similarly afflicted. It's not possible to buy smokes at the Refuges (at least, as far as I noticed). The best way is probably to get some at the airport on the way in and carry them in your pack. I bought 8 packets in Calenzana, and I bought a few more (for good luck) in Vizzavona.

Biting insects?
There are virtually no biting insects in the mountains! Joy, joy, joy! I think I had only one small bite all the way through the mountains (an ant, perhaps?), but as soon as I got to Bastia I was eaten alive by mozzies when I sat out on a balcony in the evening. I worried in advance that if I bivvied my sleeping bag might fill up with scorpions and black widow spiders, but I realise now that that fear was groundless :)

Transport to your flight home
I decided to go very much on the last moment, and although I did look on the net for info about how to get from Conca back to Calvi I didn't really find it in any detail. That was a source of some anxiety to me when I'd finished the walk, although it all worked out fine in the end.

Try to take Paddy Dillon's good advice and get hold of up-to-date bus and/or train timetables before you leave home. On the occasions when I used public transport it was comfortable and seemed reliable, and the last thing you should do after finishing the walk is subject yourself to a lot of unnecessary stress about missing your flight.

Learn a bit of French!
Finally, Paddy Dillon says in the introduction to his Guidebook that, "...the GR20 is an experience, more than simply a walk," and I feel that's very true. Part of the experience, in my view, is being able to make at least a stab at trying to communicate with others who don't speak the same language. It can feel like a bit of a slog trying to acquire a new language quite late in life, but every hour you put into attempting to acquire a bit of French will be paid back a hundred-fold when you suddenly find yourself able to strike up a relationship you wouldn't otherwise have been able to have with the predominantly French and Corsican people you'll meet along the way. I'm still very much a beginner, because I reckon that to learn to speak a language properly it's probably necessary to go and spend significant time in conversation with locals, but I'm slowly getting there. If you're able to join in, rather than stick exclusively with a group of other Brits who speak English all the time, then your experience is likely to be a hundred times richer :)

Incidentally, if you would like to learn a bit of French then my enthusiastic recommendation would be to check out the series of brilliant lessons on CD provided by the late, but wonderful, Michel Thomas. (You can rip them to MP3 and then listen to them in the car/on the bike/running/walking/in the bath...um...well maybe not in the bath :) There's no homework, no writing and no active attempts to remember stuff, and it truly works. There's a basic course, and then an advanced course. They're one of the best investments I've ever made! You can get them here on Audible.co.uk (great source of books on MP3), or (more expensively) on Amazon or at your local bookshop.

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