Mountain walking on Corsica
GR20: hiking 200 km in the central massif
Four men and a dog hike 200 kilometers in the central massif across Corsica in 2 weeks: the GR20. From cabin to cabin along deep canyons, over blocks and slabs, in stormy winds on hands and feet over the ridge, via klettersteige up and down straight walls; Cirque de la Solitude is conquered and Monte Cinto is climbed. GR20 is the most demanding and most beautiful hiking route of Europe, with different views every hour.
Travelogue & photos: Jo De Smedt
I drive to Nice with Louis Vromans and Ora, my Swiss white shepherd dog. There we meet Guido Claesen and Jan Wauters, who arrive by plane. We leave the car behind in Nice and together take the ferry to Corsica.
The ferry takes us to Calvi in the north of Corsica, where we take the bus to Calenzana, 13 km inland at 300 m, at the foot of Monte Grosso.
Calenzana is the starting point and finish of the GR20, known as the hardest Grande Randonnée (long-distance footpath). GR20 is 200 km long and leads over the central massif across Corsica.
In Calenzana I pitch my tent in an unpleasant heat. Guido, Jan and Louis sleep in the gîte (lodge). This will be the scenario for the largest part of the GR20. I brought my tent, because I found out in advance, by telephone, that dogs are not allowed in most gîtes. Nor in refuges (mountain cabins). Calenzana is a small village, but still has a few restaurants to cater to GR-hikers.
Calenzana - Refuge Piobbu
Foggy woods with fairy-tale views
We leave at 6:30 AM on our first day of hiking. We will arrive in the Refuge d'Ortu di Piobbu at 1,570 m only by 4:15 PM. Today it's not too hot, as opposed to yesterday in Calvi and Calenzana. When we are half way, clouds move in and by the end we even get 5 minutes of rain.
The path goes up and down. It's going to be a tough day, hiking with a heavy backpack. Apart from my own stuff, I carry food for Ora for 16 days, a little under 7 kilos. My backpack weighs 23 kilos. Fortunately, Louis and Guido each carry one kilo of dog food for the coming days.
There are frequently beautiful views, alternated with foggy woods that look like fairy tales. Mountain goats watch us from rocks. The rough terrain is a taste of what's to come.
Refuge Piobbu - Refuge Carozzu
Climbing on huge blocks and gigantic slabs
Today we leave even earlier, at 6:15 AM. That means I have to get up at 4:30, to take down the tent, prepare and feed Ora. By 5:15 I have breakfast with my three companions in the cabin. With so many people inside, it's a mess.
It's a little cooler and during the first few hours we get ahead nicely. Today we have to climb blocks. These big blocks remind me of moraines. The path is clearly marked with white and red paint. Sometimes we have to climb or traverse gigantic slabs. If those were wet...
Half way we have a view of the sea. We're overwhelmed by the wonderfull panorama. The hiking is quite pleasant, the path is not flat, but leads over hilly ground, with light climbing next to deep ravines; not hard, but not recommended for people with vertigo.
A long descent over blocks takes us to the Carozzu cabin at 1270 m. There is dinner, but it's not much to write home about.
In the evening a helicopter lands on the square behind the cabin. It causes a strong wind and my tent, which is only attached with a few spikes, driven only half-way into the rocky ground, caves in.
Fortunately all my stuff is inside, weighing down the tent. If not, I would have had to go looking for it. Grit is blown everywhere. I keep Ora with me, so she won't get grit in her eyes.
Refuge Carozzu - Ascu Stagnu
After a sporty climb, a steep descent
On the third day of hiking it feels like home already. Right at the beginning, we cross a wonderful suspension bridge, the Passerelle de Spasimata. After that, a sporty climb on slabs. Every now and then I have to assist Ora.
A steep descent takes us to Ascu Stagnu, a little mountain village and ski resort at 1422 m, where we stay in the refuge (cabin). Ora can come in, "of course." There is a Corsican dog, Parisse. The cabin hostess is very dog-friendly. So I won't have to pitch my tent tonight.
The cabin has a large space where one can cook. But we have dinner in the gîte (lodge) across the street. Room prices here are ridiculous, but the food is good. Ora stays in my room.
Ascu Stagnu - Refuge de Tighettu
Cirque de la Solitude, the hardest part of the GR20
Today we see snow, even though it's alread mid-June. A few big patches of snow remain in the shadow. Ora is delighted. Totally enthousiastic she jumps around in the snow.
Today we have to conquer the Cirque de la Solitude; this 200 meters deep canyon is the hardest part of the GR20.
I gave a lot of thought to what I would bring to secure my self and Ora. A complete Klettersteig set is a lot of weight to shlepp during the rest of the GR20.
GR20 still is a GR, so it's meant for hikers. Anyone with alpine experience, or used to Klettersteige (Via Ferrata) in the Dolomites, shouldn't experience problems.
For Ora I only brought a chest strap. It turns out to have been the right estimate. But for hard stretches, one also needs a strap in which the dog can sit, especially if you have to carry it. Just a chest strap is unsafe, because the dog could fall out if one lifted it.
Here, on Corsica, it's a borderline case. If your dog is not used to this, it's better to bring both a chest and a sit strap.
To be able to secure my self and to tie Ora to me, so we can move "in cordee" (connected with ropes), I use a sling as a belt and fasten it with a bajonet catch. Apart from the rope for Ora, I also bring 4 meters of guiding rope.
Upon arrival at the Cirque de la Solitude there's a great view of the valley. I actually imagined it to be grander. We have to descend 200 meters and then climb the same distance on the other side of the canyon.
It's very steep and the rock is not very rough, the slabs are rounded. But there are sufficient chains to secure one self to or to hold on to.
If there are a lot of people here, there will probably be a traffic jam, because everyone will need the chains.
Ora has to wait every time until I have descended 1.5 m and then she jumps down. I hold her by her chest strap with a bajonet catch, so she won't disappear in the deep, because there isn't much room for her to land. I also do this to spare her legs and joints, because jumping for a whole day is not something to do every day.
As a whole, though, the stretch isn't too hard. There is only one ladder in the Cirque de la Solitude, and it's only 3 meters high. Upon arrival we see it is a straight wall, but it has a few rock protrusions.
Quickly I get the guiding rope and connect it to Ora's rope. I climb the ladder and have to command Ora not to follow immediately after me. When I call Ora, she jumps up the wall. She uses the protrusions, so I don't have to pull her up very much. Louis has stayed behind and helps.
After the ladder ends, there is a stretch of smooth slabs, at an angle of 45-50 degrees, that one has to climb using friction. Fortunately there are also small ridges or protrusions to put one's feet on.
A long descent takes us to the Tighettu cabin at 1640 m. This simple cabin has its charms, thanks to the host, who even provides for a dance show on the table.
Climbing Monte Cinto
The 2706 meter high peak lies behind a series of lesser peaks
Today we climb the highest mountain of Corsica: Monte Cinto, 2706 m. Guido and Jan stay in the Tighettu cabin to rest. Louis and I want to go to the top.
The cabin host shows us our first destination: the mountain pass between two mamelons, two bumps on the ridge. From there Monte Cinto should be visible.
What we don't know yet, is that it's not the peak one sees there, but one of the gendarmes on the ridge to the peak.
When we arrive there, we first have to find a place to climb down toward Lac Cinto. We find a spot where we can climb down 20 meters and then traverse horizontally to the ridge of Monte Cinto.
We walk a long stretch upward and then the climbing begins. We think we are climbing to the peak, but we have to descend and then find a sign to a lower top. First we have to descend and then climb up again.
In this heat that's not encouraging, especially if one is under the impression of seeing the peak one is climbing toward. Again we descend, but still we don't see the peak. There are red circles everywhere, but they are confusing. We climb in the wrong direction for a while and then notice that there are more circles in the right direction.
Finally, after another descent, we climb the peak. There are first and second level climbs. It's the same as or even harder than Cirque de la Solitude, only there are no chains here.
The climb is harder than we expected. Also because we already thought to see the peak when we were on the mountain pass between the mamelons. There was a little disappointment every time we had to descend, which also made the hike longer than we expected.
We reach the top. The view is great: we even see Asco Stagnu, the ski resort where we spent the night yesterday. Even at the top it's hot. Usually I don't drink a lot, but now all my water is gone. At the peak, Ora gets water from another couple. Louis gives me some of his water.
Only when we're half way on the slope toward the cabin, there is water: a fast-flowing brook. We make it to the Tighettu cabin safely.
Refuge de Tighettu - Mori - Castellu di Verghju
Lots of restaurants and a refreshing bath on the way
While I have breakfast, Ora guards my backpack. Without a leash, as always. We leave a little later. It's 7 AM already. After a little over half an hour we arrive at the Refuge du Vallon. A sign tells us that there is food and breakfast and free lodging. It's too inviting: we have eggs and ham with bread.
Yesterday afternoon I put on shoes on Ora's feet. The rocks are getting too rough. She held out really well, but her soles are beginning to wear out.
Suddenly Louis walks very fast. A little farther we see him again. He urgently needed refreshment. And he's not the only one. We take a long break on and in the refreshing water of a mountain stream.
On the way we pass by the Mori cabin, where we have a sandwich with sausage. It's amazing how many restaurants we pass on our way today.
Our arrival in Castellu di Verghju is less fun: everything is booked up. The gîte (lodge) looks like a big hotel, but even so there are no rooms available.
Guido brought a sleeping bag with a canvas cover. Louis sleeps in my tent. But Jan doesn't have a tent, nor a sleeping bag.
Eventually Jan is allowed to sleep inside the building, "under the stairs." All considered, he's probably best off with the amount of space he has.
Castellu di Verghju - Refuge Manganu
Horses and grass meadows around Lac de Ninu
Today the landscape is mellower and reminds me sometimes of Austria, at other moments of our own Ardennes (the author is Belgian, ed.). On the way we encounter a caravan of horses and mules, accompanied by a pack of dogs. They announce themselves from afar with an incredibly loud noise.
The horses carry "cowboys" on their backs, in Wild-West style. If you want to, they'll carry your luggage for you, but that service is extremely expensive.
When we're half-way, it starts to rain a little. Too bad, because we just pass a large lake, Lac de Ninu, surrounded by grass meadows. We have little choice and continue to walk. A few horses and their owners stand by the lake, waiting, apparently, for customers. They walk this route every day, on horseback.
Half and hour before we reach the Manganu cabin, we pass by a ranch which offers space to camp out in tents.
When we arrive in Refuge Manganu (1520 m), again there is no room for us. From now on, this will be a frequent experience. Fortunately, every refuge rents out tents and mattresses. Guido, Louis and Jan sleep comfortably in a rented tent. As usual, I sleep in my trekking tent with Ora.
We meet Ludwig and Ivan, our Flemish friends, who are hiking the same GR20, but in the opposite direction: from south to north. We have dinner together and exchange experiences. There's not much choice in terms of dinner, but it's tasty. We take eggs with a small piece of bread.
We buy a large sandwich for provision. They know how to charge; the bread is four times as expensive as yesterday in Verghju.
Refuge Manganu - Refuge Petra Piana
The cabin is beautifully located at the foot of Monte Rotondo
I get up at 4:45 AM and have breakfast at 5 AM with the others. We hike from 6:10 AM to 2 PM. There is some climbing and here and there are spots where you have to pay attention to what you're doing. There are wonderful views as well, one of them of two large lakes in the deep.
In Petra Piana (1842 m) grows grass, it's good to sleep on soft ground in the tent. Petra Piana is a small mountain cabin (refuge) with a dorm in the front and in the back a small kitchen/dining room. There are a few annexes. But its location at the foot of Monte Rotondo is spectacular!
Refuge Petra Piana - Onda
An adventurous route "par les crêtes," over the mountain ridge
We hike from Petra Piana to Onda. There are two options. The path through the valley we don't want to take. We choose the somewhat more adventurous route "par les crêtes," over the mountain ridge. Again there is some climbing involved, sometimes level 2. At times it's a little cooler, when the wind blows over the ridge.
Onda (1430 m) has a wonderful camping site with grass (every now and then there may be wet spots). It also has a refuge, hundred meters or so higher. Actually, it's more like a bivouac, because it only has a place to sleep and primitive cooking facilities. We can get a meal in the camping site cafeteria. Jan, Guido and Louis rent a tent. I sleep in my own tent with Ora.
The friendly camping site in Onda is filling up. The pigs, horses and goats will have to stay outside the fence. Late in the afternoon I take a nap. Like yesterday, it's windy, so I can stand wearing my long trousers and sweater. But in the afternoon it still gets hot. The wind is a sign of things to come in the next few days.
Onda - Vizzavona
Waterfalls and waterpools between the rocks
From Onda we walk to Vizzavona, the end of the northern part of the GR20. There is a commemorative plaque with these words: "Here alpinist Jean Pierre Etienne and his dog Lola disappeared during a trekking on skis on the GR20, in April 2003, at an altitude of 2141 m."
Apparently I'm not the only one who brings his dog to the GR20...
The GR20 has its own, unique character and up to the last minute in the northern part of the GR20, we keep experiencing that: the path itself, the surroundings, the views and panoramas. The surroundings change from hour to hour.
Today we take breaks often, not only on the Agnone brook, but also on the Cascades des Anglais, the local tourist attraction, which has a small fast-food restaurant. There are beautiful waterfalls and pools in the rocks, which provide a kind of beach.
It's not too hot and that makes us feel as if we're in (northern) mountains. The last part of the hike is much more like being in the Ardennes.
We have a bite a the fast-food restaurant and then need another hour to reach Vizzavona (920 m). There we stay in Hotel de la Gare, where Ora unfortunately is not allowed inside. There is no real camping site, only a bivouac where on can pitch a tent, 300 m from the hotel.
But here is the upside of having Ora with me. She has conquered the heart of the hostess. She is allowed to stay in the backyard, where I can pitch my tent for free. My situation is almost better than that of my three companions, who sleep inside, in a room. I have privacy and a lot of room outside.
Our accomodation includes breakfast and dinner. The host is very friendly and sociable. After dinner, he treats us to myrthe, a regional liquor, which turns out to be stronger than it tastes.
After a second myrthe my thinking abilities are severely reduced and back in the tent it doesn't take long for me to fall asleep...
Vizzavona - Bergeries de Capannelle
Nature along the GR20 sud looks like the Ardennes
The first day trek on the lower lying southern part of the GR20 goes from Vizzavona to Bergeries de Capannelle (1586 m). The signs show clearly that we're on the GR20 Sud.
This hike is a walk in the forest, like in the Ardennes. Here and there are brooks with little waterfalls.
Martine wants to clim Monte Renoso tomorrow, which is a detour. Louis and I want to come with. It would be a ten-hour hike to the Prati cabin. In the evening Wim notices that Ora limps. Martine also sees it. So I don't go with them to Monte Renoso, it's hard enough for Ora as it is.
In hindsight it was nothing serious, probably she was just a little stiff after the last few days of hiking, and she recovers quickly.
Bergeries de Capannelle - Refuge Prati
In the wind over Col de Verde
I watch Martine and Louis leave for Monte Renoso and follow them with my eyes for a while as they're hiking up the mountain. They go fast. It looks as if Louis is competing, so I'm glad I didn't go with them. The regular GR20 route for today is a long hike, as usual.
In the afternoon we arrive in Col de Verde (1289 m), where we have lunch in the refuge. It's another 2 hours to the Prati cabin (1820 m).
Toward the end of the hike we have to cross a high pass. After that follows a horizontal stretch to the refuge. While we're resting, Louis and Martine show up. They had to hurry on Monte Renoso because of the weather. Sometimes they had to hold on to things not to be blown away by the wind.
There's a strong wind here, too and it gets remarkably cold. As we progress, the wind increases. Toward the pass it gets worse. At a certain point, the wind gets under my backpack and lifts me. I use it by running up the mountain while keeping my backpack in the wind. That's the way it always should be...
When we arrive at the Prati cabin, we see that the wind meets no obstacles on this high plain. Everyone flees inside the cabin, which quickly fills up. Most people are afraid to pitch their tents, because the wind could rip them.
At 150 m from the cabin I find a wall of stacked rocks. Behind it I pitch my tent. Fortunately, Louis lends a hand, so the tent doesn't get blown away to the sea. He will join us in the tent tonight, because the cabin is full.
The cabin host brings order to chaos. The only way to prevent chaos is to eat in shifts. And the food even tastes good.
From the cabin and from the plain where my tent sits, there are great views all the way to the Mediterranean, both in eastern and southern direction.
Even though the stormy wind lasts all night and the canvas of the tent keeps flapping, Ora and I sleep well. Louis doesn't sleep so well, though.
Refuge Prati - Refuge d'Usciolu
On hands and feet to keep us from being blown from the ridge
During breakfast Guido tells us that he won't join us today, when we will hike over the mountain ridge. He feels it's not safe to weather a stormy wind on a narrow ridge. He will descend toward the east and then try to reach Zicavo on the west side by public transportation.
Jan, Louis and I want to continue over the ridge in southern direction, so we agree to meet tomorrow in Zicavo. We will reach the Usciolu cabin today and tomorrow we will descend in half a day via the Bocca di l'Agnonu to Zicavo. There we will meet in Hotel du Tourisme.
It indeed is a tough and adventurous hike. The rocks are difficult to climb and remind us of the northern part of the GR20. There is a strong, stormy wind with a speed of over 150 k/p/h.
For security I tie Ora to me. I won't take the risk that she, with her small weight, will be lifted and blown away. It doesn't take much to fall and disappear in the deep. In some places we can only move forward by leaning on our hands and feet, to keep us from being blown off our feet.
We regularly change sides, but we stay close to the top of the ridge. On both sides there are sometimes steep slopes. On the east side the wind is bearable. But it's quite different when we have to pass on the west side of the ridge for a while.
We expect it and brace ourselves time and again to weather the cold, strong wind storm.
At last we arrive at the Refuge d'Usciolu (1750 m). There's not a lot of space to pitch a tent. There are lots of spots, but the good ones are taken already. There is only a small, rocky spot left.
Refuge d'Usciolu - Zicavo
Over the windy ridge to Bocca di l'Agnonu
We don't care that the spot for our tent is small. Next morning waking up is glorious, with a sun that brightly illuminates the valley.
Today we cross the ridge to Bocca di l'Agnonu (1570 m). Here we descend to Zicavo. We have to get past l'Arête des Statues, de "statues" mountain ridge, but we didn't notice anything.
As soon as we start descending at Bocca di l'Agnonu, the wind is gone. We hike mainly through forest and cross one plain with fewer trees. There is a "giant mushroom" there and Louis and I can't withstand the temptation to practice our climbing skills.
After this, we stay in the forest, where we admire giant trees. Eventually we arrive in Zicavo, a small mountain village. We find Hotel-Restaurant du Toerisme soon. Guido has been there sinds 10 AM.
Here it's hot again. The hike is over. We're still in the mountains, but slowly but surely we become aware that the atmosphere is no longer the same. We have exchanged the rough GR20 for comfy tourism...
It doesn't take long to explore the village. The church is typical and there is a beautiful garden around it. We check into the hotel, which provides us with a wonderful meal.
Zicavo - Ajaccio
The adventure on Corsica is over
Next morning at 7 the bus arrives; we arrive in Ajaccio 9:30 AM. I already booked rooms in Hotel Le Dauphin from home. We leave our backpacks in the hotel and explore the port town.
We wander around in our trekking outfits, we are not dressed for a tourist town. There is enough to see, though: alleys, the port, the local market, where we buy Corsican cheese. We have a drink on a terrace in the port.
At 8.10 next morning the ferry leaves for Nice. Our Corsican adventure is over.