In September 2014 Ironman and I decided to take-on the challenge of the hardest long distance walk in Europe – the GR20 – across the Corsican mountains. The trek can be completed either south to north or north-south, but only a third of those who start at either Calenzana or Conca each year actually complete the walk’s 15 stages.
This was to be the second time I’d attempted the walk. In 2008, with my mum and two of her friends we managed around 8 stages before bad weather forced us to abandon the route. Since then my ambition to complete the 190 kilometre challenge had steadily grown.
Our preparations started in early 2014, when we realised that getting to and from Corsica with enough days to complete the walk would require some careful logistics. Flights to Corsica from the UK generally only go from Sunday to Sunday, but we needed at least two additional days to give us at least 15 days with a day at either end for flights and transfers. In the end we decided to fly to Nice (from Gatwick) where we could get a ferry across to Ile Rousse which is at the northern end of Corsica. Doing this gave us the added bonus of a day in Nice, including time to source some camping Gaz (bought from Alticoop store, a long-ish walk from Place Messina). We arrived into Ile Rousse at 11pm, but I’d booked a cheap hotel in advance (Maria Stella – very basic, but reasonably priced and central). At this stage we didn’t know how we were going to get to Calenzana the next day other than that the first leg of the journey could be done by train from Ile Rousse station.
On Saturday 13th September we made porridge in our hotel room using the camping stove, then walked to Ile Rousse train station. The train took us to Dolce Vita which is on the line between Ile Rousse and Calvi (6 euros each). We started walking up the road to Calenzana which was a good 5-7km away. It was pretty hot and walking along the roadside wasn’t enjoyable, so we started trying to hitch-hike. After about 20minutes a taxi pulled over and we hopped in (about 20 euros to Calenzana). I got the impression that taxis regularly travel along this route which is why we didn’t have to wait long.
We asked the taxi to drop us off at the well-stocked Spar where we loaded up with all sorts of goodies and delicious fresh bread. Calenzana was bustling with walkers and we passed many more as we started our first ascent of the trip along a dusty trail onto which the blazing sun was unrelenting.
Outside the Spar at Calenzana – Day 1
I won’t be describing each day in detail, but here’s a summary of the remaining stages until our final day. The timings are how long it took us to complete each stage, including breaks. The stages I refer to are those in Paddy Dillon’s guide book.
Day 1 : Calenzana to Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu (high level route)
- Started 10:30am. Arrived 3:15pm. 4H45. Only stopped for 20mins.
- Camped. Cooked our own food bought in Calenzana.
Day 2: Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu to Refuge de Carozzu (high level route)
- Started 8am. Arrived 1:35pm. 5H35. Only stopped for 25mins.
- Porridge for breakfast – cooked on camp stove
- Chorizo, haricot vert & cous cous for dinner – bought in Calenzana
- Got a very good camp spot because we arrived so early, but it really filled up later in the afternoon.
- For reference: evening meal – 17 euros. Breakfast 8 euros. Camping 7 euros per person.
Day 3: Refuge de Carozzu to Haut Asco
- 4H10. Only stopped for 10mins.
- Arrive at Haut Asco at 11:55am. Couldn’t get into the Gite D’etape for a number of hours, but we were happy sitting on the veranda drinking coffee and pottering about. When we were able to check-in and find our beds we were pleased to find that they were comfy and clean with scalding hot showers.
- Spend 35 euros in the small shop stocking up on tuna, bread and rice for the following days.
- 1/2 pension in the Gite D’etape : 40 euros each. Panini 5 euros. Café au lait 3 euros.
Day 4: Haut Asco to Refuge di Mori (we combined stage 4 with half of stage 5)
- My favourite day of the whole trip because it includes the Cirque de Solitude.
- Setoff at 7am. 5H. Only 15min break at Bergeries de Ballone
- Took us 2H30 from Bergerie de Ballone to get to Refuge di Mori.
- This was Ed’s favourite overnight camp stop – great views down the valley and sheltered camp areas. Very quiet too. Free outdoor gas stoves.
View from campsite at Refuge di Mori – end of day 4
Day 5: Refuge di Mori to Refuge de Manganu (we combined half of stage 5 with stage 6)
- Stopped at Hotel Castel de Vergio for a break where there’s a café for hot drinks and pre-prepared sandwiches. Note that there’s also a little grocers just 100m down the road which has much more food and fresh bread.
- Manganu camp site was very busy indeed and the camp spots were really uneven. But free outdoor gas stoves.
Day 6: Refuge de Manganu to Refuge de Petra Piana
- Started at 7:15am. Arrived at 12:30. 5H15. Stopped for 20mins.
- Breakfast in the dark with lots of other walkers also cooking at the free outdoor gas stoves.
- Camped and there were a fair number of camp spots.
- Really hard day, especially the morning ascent which is really steep, but rewarded with lovely view of lakes.
- Wine 1/2 carafe 4 euros. Camping 7 euros each.
- Okay little shop in the refuge with tinned tuna, sweetcorn rice, pasta.
Sunny spot at Petra Piana
Cloud inversion – Petra Piana
Day 7: Refuge de Petra Piana to Refuge de I’Onda (low level route)
- Started at 8:10am. 4H30.
- Not an enjoyable day because lots of traversing across boulders and we’re tired from the two previous long days. Also we’d planned to stop for a bite to eat at Bergeries de Tolla, but it was closed when we got there at 10:30/11am – very disappointed. This meant we didn’t really have enough calories in our system for the afternoon uphill struggle.
- Camped – nice flat grassy field and loads of camp spots, so don’t worry about getting here too early.
- We cooked our own evening meal on the free outdoor gas stoves, but reports from other campers were that the lasagne cooked in the refuge was fantastic.
- Good well stocked shop at the refuge.
Spacious campsite at de I’Onda
Day 8: Refuge de L’Onda to Vizzavona
- Started at 7:25am. 5H20. 20min stop.
- Windy day as we traverse across a ridge. Long and difficult descent to Vizzavona.
- Stay at Hotel I’Larrici. Very basic (I think they invented the original shabby-chic, but without the chic). But it has hot water which means we can wash our clothes.
- There are three or four restaurants in Vizzavona and a little shop.
- Would recommend the pizza place – we couldn’t eat it all, but they wrapped it in foil and it was delicious the next day as a mid-morning snack.
Hotel I’Laricci, Vizzavona
Day 9: Vizzavona to Bocca di Verdi (we combined stage 10 and half of stage 11)
- It was a good idea to combine these stages because it meant we got to stop at U Fugone for tea and cake before carrying on.
- Took us 4H from Vizzavona to U Fugone. Then 3H45 from U Fugone to Bocca di Verdi (setoff from U Fugone at midday).
- Camped but ate in the restaurant at Relais San Petru di Verdi which does great food in a nice rustic building.
- There were plenty of camp spots and there’s also the option of staying in the dormitory.
On the way to Bocca di Verdi
Day 10: Bocca di Verdi to Refuge d’Usciolu
- Started at 7:50am. 6H50.
- Again we were lucky that we could stop at Refuge Prati for a tea-break mid-morning.
- Very windy walking along the ridge after Refuge Prati. This is where I’d had to abandon the trip a few years before due to a storm. The ridge is dangerous and walkers have been struck by lighting here before, so take care and speak to the guardian at Refuge Prati before setting off for advice.
- Refuge D’Usciolu has an amazing shop with lots of food and drinks – so it’s a good place to stock up.
- Camped. Free outdoor gas stoves, so we cooked our own meal.
Just before Refuge de Prati
Menu at refuge d’Usciolu
Day 11: Refuge d’Usciolu to Refuge D’Asinau
- Deliberately set off early at 7:10am because we’d heard that a storm was brewing for the afternoon.
- 6H total walking time.
- Rained all afternoon, cold and windy.
- Note: the new GR20 goes to Matalza – i.e. it splits this stage into two and takes a slightly different route to that suggested by Paddy Dillon. We however followed the yellow flashes for the old GR20 to Asinau.
- Stayed in the refuge overnight because it continues to rain into the evening.
- Cooked our own food on the inside gas stoves. The shop here has very limited supplies.
Where the old GR20 and the new route diverge.
Day 12: Refuge D’Asinau to refuge the I’Paliri (low level route)
- The village of Bavella has lots of restaurants and shops, so it’s perfect for a lunch stop. It’s not far from here to I’Paliri, so it doesn’t matter if you’re a bit full from eating.
- The campsite at I’Paliri is really scenic and it was quiet with plenty of space.
- Free outside gas stoves.
Sheltered cooking area at Refuge d’I Paliri
View to the coast
Day 13: Refuge I’Paliri to Conca (final day!)
- I wouldn’t recommend the campsite at La Tonnelle – the showers were filthy and there were flies, but the food in the restaurant was lovely.
- I expected Conca to have lots of shops and restaurants, but everything seemed to be closed in the evening.
View towards Conca on the final day
Happy to have finished. Sitting in a bar at Conca
The next day we got a lift from the minibus at La Tonnelle to meet the bus travelling north to Bastia. The bus travels up the N193 and we decided to get off at the junction with the D507 near a big Carrefour. We had identified that there was a campsite near the airport – Camping L’Esperanza(a nice campsite with good showers, but plagued with mosquitoes and absolutely nothing else to see or do in the nearby area apart from a stretch of disappointing beach). But stupidly we decided it would be fine to walk there, but we then proceeded to get lost. In hindsight we should’ve just stayed in Bastia at a hotel somewhere, but we were trying to save some money. The next day we got a lift from the campsite owner to the Bastia bus for some sightseeing. The return bus dropped us off at the Carrefour again, so we had another long walk back to Camping L’Esperanza
Our flight back to the UK was on Sunday 28th September departing at 10:05am. We walked to the airport from the campsite.