Corsica is an island situated 100 miles long by 50 miles wide. From the sea to the watershed divide of the hulking mountains the elevation change is extremely dramatic. Overall, the GR20 loses and gains some 19000m in elevation in a little under 104m. The change baffles the mind. At times, I find myself a tad befuddled as to where exactly I am in the frame of reference of granite. More often than not the high mountains of Corsica resemble some high alpine terrain, a world of steely rock. In fact, the mountains here are in an alpine environment except about 6000-7000ft lower in elevation than the alpine area I am used to. To my point, the elevation change is so drastic from the sea to the mountains you forget you are on an island. Then, upon a cresting of a pass you can virtually have a vantage point of seeing both coasts of the island at the same time.
The island of Corsica is a place where weather is unpredictable, undetermined by what is currently in front of you, and is affected by the sea and mountains. Almost daily low lying clouds ooze into the steep valleys of the east coast. Then, up on the divide, a daily smattering of thick clouds that turn into wispy puffs dissipate as they slam into the divide. The winds up high on the ridgeline flow from the west while down on the Tyhrrean Sea side the wind crams its way from the east. It's a spectacle to behold actually and you feel to be in an unique situation in observing Mother Nature and all her quirks.
From our descent from the Refuge a Mori the mountains afforded us more panoramic views of open green valleys and further tall, spired peaks to the south. We rapidly dropped in elevation as we passed a slew of cascades that tumbled into pools of aqua-teal water. We even had an easy trek on a forested trail until we hit Castel di Verghio where we had a cafe au lait and some apples. After our break we scampered up some switchbacks lined with mossy crib-rock walls and from the high perch of another pass we set eyes on Lac de Nino. The oval lake is settled in a lush, flat and grassy valley between two giant peaks and is backdropped by the skyline of the Monte Rotundo massif. A little later we came upon some bergeries, or cottages that usually sell fresh goat's cheese and offer an affordable bivouac, tucked in a bulging rocky outcrop with tiny goats bleating as they stuck their heads through chicken wire. The main chimney fluttered up in smoke and the ubiquitous Moor's head, the iconic symbol on the Corsican flag, whipped in the wind. Across another small valley, up and over a small watershed depression, and we settled into another refuge, de Manganu.
Another epic climb and some superb scenery awaited us the next morning from Manganu. After nearly 650m up we wedged ourselves through a notch between two pointy turrets. Down in the other basin two alpine lakes, rather large and flanked all around by precipitous granite bluffs, glistened in the afternoon sun. We would eventually traverse the skirt of this massive basin along a knife arête. Little did we know that this was our truly last scrambling experience on the GR20. We had some minor scrambling situations later on but none so dramatic and exhilarating.
At Refuge de Petra Piana we made the decision of following the normal red and white waymarks down into the forested drainage of Manganello rather than take the high variante. The southern half of the GR20 high variantes become an option, at least 3, in which we took 2 lower ones, that I feel stay truer to the theme of the route and Fabrikant's original vision and intention. However, as I say this, venturing into a woodland domain only made us explore more of the island and culture. Within the forest we saw the edifices of shepherds, the cottages of fromageries, and walked along an actual path that was either an old mule cart path or an old 'transhumance' route.
At the hovel of Vizzavona we obtained a room for the night at the charming Hotel U Castellu. The place looked like a castle from the outside and was even more elegant on the inside. The hosts were wonderful and ensured us a very quiet and relaxing night. April and I both loved our stay there. Sadly, the next morning we had to leave out for trail, however, our hearts were content. From Vizzavona we ambled through beech and birch forests that all were in the garb of Autumn. Sprinkled in the mix, laricio pines stood tall on particular aspects of sun-facing slopes. We marveled at the dank woody hollows and the leaf riddled trail. The sun hung at a lower angle in the sky but with the warm temperatures we were fooled into thinking of the time of late summer.
More and more Fall foliage roused our spirits until we climbed up to the Bocca d'Oro. The scene changed back into alpine and upon ascending the pass early one morning we caught sight of something magical. On the eastern horizon, thousands of feet below, we could trace the Tyrrhean Coast of Corsica. The sun slowly rising and creeping up against a mirage of a defining line of sea and sky. Smeared grey clouds daubed the vast sky in feathered shapes. The occasional billow of smoke plumed up from vineyards and cornfields down below while the haze from a thick sea air settled in and around low lying hills. I sat mesmerized, inspired profoundly. I looked at April and said, "No matter what we ever say to each other I want us to think of this moment, of what we saw."
The next day, at a cross mounted atop Monte Alcudine, I could see the phantasmagoric shapes of Les Aiguilles de Bavella. We trudged down the domed peak and had lunch at Refuge Asinao. We continued to descend and entered a pine forest upon which I took a high variante of the GR20. The variante took me up into the hoodoo pillars of Les Aiguilles. Spackled and smeared like stucco-plaster the texture of the rock was frozen in a stone thaw. The rock resembled the stucco on some of the ancient buildings we would see in the interior villages. The wind was ferocious, blowing and whipping in all directions. The gusts would whistle through the porous rock that resembled reefs from the sea floor. In the distance, around a giant pillar, the wind would crash into another rock tower in which the sound would reverberate similar to the crashing of sea waves upon craggy bluffs. I imagined these eerie, warped rock formations were once of the sea. The intense noise at first made me shudder, the gusts would force me to lean into the heave and brace myself so I would not tumble over. Surrounded by the immense spooky rock towers, I spotted in the western horizon grey cumulus clouds forming and building and pushing their way towards me. The power of the sea and mountains, together, transfixed me; I was part of the rock, a breath of the sea-wind. Corsica's high mountains are truly sprouted out of the sea.
At the Col de Bavella, we had our last night on the GR20 at the l'Auberge. Before dinner, suddenly, everyone ran out of the restaurant. On the hillside a mouflon, or Corsica's version of the bighorn sheep, nibbled at the forest floor. A man, nudged me in the back and in a Corsican tongue said, "This is cool, yea?!" He said that it is a rare sight to see a mouflon so low as they usually stick to the high rocky terrain and alpine environments. We then sat down to a dinner of wild boar stew and a huge portion of lasagna. The photograph on the wall showed a large, round man, a rifle in his lap, looking like a traditional Corsican hunter; another large, rotund man sat at a table petting a hunting dog while eating a bowl of pasta. The barkeep looked just like the other two men but younger. The family lineage, a proud history, lined the walls and floors of this establishment, the food recipes held sacred, and the dog probably the same lineage as the previous hunting dogs. We were among pure tradition.
Fueled up for the next day we crushed our way through more spooky rock formations with exuberance and perpetual curiosity although we could taste the end. The sea kept getting closer and closer and at the Bocca d'Usciolu we wedged through a notch, a portal of sorts to the town of Conca, the end of the GR20. Down the steep trail we went until we hit the fontana symbolizing the end. After a short descent down a windy paved road we found a cafe with a sign praising our efforts. We sat down and smiled and cheered our accomplishment over a couple of Pietra's, Corsica's home beer. Job well done.
The train, sea-tarnished in a rusty blue and a dingy white, clanked along a narrow railway overlooking the teal blue sea. We swayed left and right, a contrast to the ferry's up and down motion. Spanish tiled homes and sheltered coves with beaches lazily rolled on by. Occasionally, I spotted a Corsican man, swarthy, stained from the sun, ambling along the coastline, his arms strung behind his back, hands in clasp; a cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth.
Upon arrival in Calvi, the appearance of a reticent lifestyle soothed a traveller's mind. We lingered about in Calvi taking care of last minute chores before hiring a taxi to take us to the quiet hovel of Calenzana, which is dwarfed beneath the massive spired peaks of the backbone of Corsica.
The start of the GR20 ambled up a short stairway and, then, meandered through alley ways until reaching a fontana that heralded the end of concrete and the start of a dirt foot path. Up the path went until a junction split the foot travel in two. On the top of the rocky outcrop a large cairn, say 5ft. tall, pointed the way, as well as the ubiquitous red and white waymarks, the slashes that would guide the whole way. The Gran Randonee 20 (GR20) continued straight up. The notion of a lazy Corsican life soon upended in our heads as we laboriously plodded up hill. Bocca a u Saltu signified the first of many passes that would not disappoint in the vista department. To the west we could see Calvi and its half moon gulf littered with a few sailboats, Ile de Rousse, where we arrived via ferry, lay further north arched in its cape, and Monte Grosso and Capo Dente shot straight up into the sky. The orange stained rock basked in the afternoon sun appearing to get more rusted while Calenzana, the start of the GR20, sunk in the valley below tucked neatly under a hill, seemed perpetually frozen in time.
Through the laricio pine forest, the trail descended the pass only to abruptly climb through fins of rock and spines of lumpy granite shooting straight down the mountainside. About halfway up we encountered our first set of chains, albeit a small set, that supported trekkers through potentially dangerous positions. After negotiating the tricky climb we attained another pass that afforded us views of the rugged interior of Corsica. From the pass it was a short traverse to the first refuge of the GR20.
The GR20 is roughly 170km and connected by 15 stages, or etapes, where at the end of a stage a refuge, or hut, awaits a weary trekker's arrival. The GR20 is the brainchild of Michel Fabrikant, who in the 1970s conceived the notion to create a precarious path across Corsica's rugged mountain spine and watershed. His vision puts the trekker over severely exposed drop-offs and cliffs, traverses spiky ridge lines and loose debris in couloirs, and tests not only the trekker physically with the massive ascents and descents but holds the trekker at bay to the fear he/she can withstand, for the term 'trekker' on this trail should be dubbed 'climber' or 'scrambler.' The route is slow going and rather than leg out the stages in miles the guidebooks and Corsica's Parc Natural Regional set the stages in hours. For instance, the Cirque du Solitude is no more than a mile long distance-wise, however, the series of chains down an abyss of a couloir wedged between orange-stained and green lichen towers in which a hiker will utilize all fours including a butt slide here and there, only to boulder hop down loose scree, then climb immediately up a series of exposed ledges and shelves using more chains and even a ladder, will take a suggested 'clean run' of 90 minutes.
So with that in mind, we left our first refuge and suddenly plunged ourselves into the heart of the GR20. A 500m slog of a climb put us on top of Bocca Piccaia. I had gotten to the top before April did and took coverage from the wind behind some rocks. For about 20 minutes I sat in disbelief at the landscape in front of me. Dizzying cliffs fell straight down to deeply gouged chasms, spires of rock, granite towers and block monoliths, serrated ridge line after ridge line, and the Cinto massif dominated the horizon to the south. Intimidated by the views, I could not fathom where this route would take us. April finally clambered up and not seeing where I was sitting blurted out, "Oh my fucking God. Holy shit!" The scene was that dramatic, that insanely beautiful.
More great views and challenging obstacles ensued including a high traverse of an arête, more scrambling up and down steep shelves and outcrops, and a terrible crumbly descent on loose shale. Nevertheless, we made it to the next refuge, soaked up on water, and decided to push on up and over to Asco, a run down ski resort where we could get more food, some 700m up and a knee crunching 600m down.
Up and up we went scrambling on and over polished granite shelves. Up high in the lofty canyon walls above the rock seemed crumbly. But down in the chasm the rock was smooth and tarnished where water would seep across shelves and spill into the gorge below. Because of this type of travel we gained elevation quickly. Before we knew it an enveloping cloud bank oozed its way into the canyon. Mist hung in the air, as the rock became crumbly. As the rock dampened a murky metallic green stained the cirques above. We scampered over rock and climbed steeply up a chute before we decided to hunker down in case water fell from the sky in an unpleasant fashion. At Lavu di a Muvrella, about 300ft shy of the pass, we set up our tarp and fell asleep. Mist pelted our tarp throughout the night.
After a well rested day at Asco, a day that eventually surprised us in its overpricing; we hiked swiftly up the abandoned ski run. The morning brought a cold wind coming down from the pass. No matter to us. Actually, I enjoyed the hike immensely as the scenery resembled a jaunt into the High Sierra. But we knew why we were excited: the Cirque du Solitude.
At Col Perdu, nearly 800m higher than Asco, we peered over the ledge and saw the upper portion of chains bolted into a pleated wall of rock. Looking back across the valley from whence we came an enormous block tower illuminated a purple-red in the morning sun. I assured April she could do this. The other side of the cirque at Bocca Minuta seemed so close that you should be able to leap across the gap. The rock that stood in between was a sheer face of a mountain pinnacle towering hundreds of feet above. The cirque plummeted 200m straight down. After tricky and careful negotiation of the sheer steep rock we made it to a jumble of rock, oven-sized boulders, still at the same precipitous level as the chains above. We hopped from one to the other, moving like a frog.
The other side of the cirque managed a route through exposed shelves and heart thumping ledges, however, the ascent went a little higher up. At Bocca Minuta we rested over some goat cheese, dried sausage, and French bread while admiring the interior of Corsica which now seemed to open up a bit. A long gradient down a ravine awaited us. The descent seemed never-ending, as the 800m or so, toiled on our knees, although the total time it took to negotiate was a lot quicker than it felt. After an hour's tame amble through a laricio pine forest we again had to go straight back up another 600m. We both began to tire after such a strenuous day. Then, the Bocca di Foggiale which is a long stone's throw from the mountain refuge Ciottulu a i Mori. At the pass, Paglia Orba, Corsica's third highest peak and most distinguishable due to an uncanny likeness to a shark's fin, and Capu Tafonatu, another extremely conical peak, backdropped the mountain hut amid peach sun rays from a mega-glowing sunset that flamed the dying day in supreme glory and tranquility. Superb scenery, some of the greatest I have witnessed. To make matters even more dreamy, the gardien of the hut was on duty and cooked us up macaroni di mori. The gardien cooked us up our meal with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and with a Che Guevara flag overhead. His eyes crinkled from years in the mountains; the sun and wind had hardened this man. What a treat to receive a meal from a spirit sprouted within these Corsican mountains. We lined our empty bellies with the delicious meal as the peach of the sunset dimmed through the refuge's tiny windows.
The hardest of the scrambling and the slowest of goings is behind us, though from the flank of Paglia Orba a sea of mountains awaits us ahead. I am baffled, astonished really, at how the outlines of ridges seem to layer with no end, at how elevation here is so distorted at how drastic the terrain changes in in so little time and distance. This ruggedness, this violently eroded terrain, is soothing and tranquil.