Author: Lisa and honorary
Bog Beauty Megan
At the end of September Lisa and Megan travelled to Corsica to fastpack the stunning and challenging GR20 in Corsica. This had been on Lisa’s to do list since she first visited the island in 2010 so she was really excited to finally go back!
We completed the trail over 5 and a half days, which we felt was the right balance of challenging and enjoyable for us. We also wanted to keep costs to a minimum. We think everyone should have a go at this stunning trail so to help you plan a trip so we’ve included a section at the bottom of the blog with some logistical details and expected costs.
Arriving in Corsica:
Pisa – Calenzana (Northern Trail Head)
Lisa: After a rushed morning getting from our hostel in Pisa to the ferry in Livorno we enjoyed the relaxing ride across the Med with puzzles, croissants and people watching – trying to spot other hikers in hope of bumming a lift to the trail head. It was a hazy morning but the first view of the Corsican coastline filled us with excitement.
We did bump into a couple of American hikers but they, like us, had planned to get the afternoon train to Calvi. We spent the day passing the time in Bastia, drinking more coffee, eating french bread and stocking up on a few more trail snacks. We also went on a hunt for some poles – we hadn’t risked flying with ours. A fairly extensive search for outdoor shops only yielded €160 Black Diamond poles, no thanks. Hilariously after trapsing around Intemarche for a while we ended up buying a couple of €5 aluminium telescopic mop handles and some little rubber feet that fit perfectly – it was meant to be. Through tears of laugher at how ridiculous this was, we reasoned that we could always ditch them at a refuge if they were rubbish.
The train weaved its way through some beautiful scenery towards Calvi and we got our first view of Monte Cinto. We got off at the GR20 stop a few stops before Calvi and set off to walk the few miles up the road to Calenzana where the trail begins. Within a few minutes, a local lady stopped her car and demanded that she was giving a lift to Calenzana (“c’est trop dangereux”). We gratefully accepted and I had a good go at making conversation in French for the short car journey – luckily we arrived just as I exhausted my french vocabulary!
As we had saved ourselves the walk to Calenzana we decided to set off up the trail for a few kms and find somewhere to bivvy. This is not technically allowed in Corsica, but we decided that as we were arriving late and would be leaving early and leaving no trace we would not bother anyone. In the excitement of setting off up the trail Megan managed to misplace her purse – after a short panic and a quick sprint back into Calenzana (much faster without the bags) she found it near where we had been dropped off – phew! We found somewhere flat-ish on a little path that turned off the main route after about 30mins on the trail. The moon was full and bright and the view back towards Calenzana and the coast was calm and beautiful. We rolled out our mats and dozed off, excited about the adventure to come.
Calenzana – Ascu Stagnu (stages 1-3) 24km 3000m ascent 9:45hrs
Megan: We were awoken early by church bells softly singing from sleepy Calenzana beneath us. With the sun quick to follow, the profiles of the grand granite spires we would soon be traversing were revealed. Stoked on the adventure to come and fuelled on gourmet banana and stale bread sandwiches for breakfast, we skipped onto the trail at an ambitious pace.
Stage one was essentially up; first winding through larch pines to Bocca a u Salta (1250m) before a more exposed and rocky section to Bocca a u Bassiguellu. Less than three hours later and we reached Refuge d´Orto di Piobbu (1570m) where we were greeted by a very hungry horse and a thoroughly confused refuge guardian who wasn’t expecting to see hikers until much later in the day. Managing to keep most of our snacks intact, we filled up our water from a source and eagerly set off onto the second stage of the trail where the challenging nature of Europe’s ‘toughest GR’ became more prevalent. Rock-rabbit Lisa was in her element so I had to find my scrambling legs pretty rapidly.
Stage two was a beauty. We were spoiled with postcard panoramas everywhere, Col de Piciaia (1950m) especially. This also helped distract our legs from the physically daunting ascent. Overly enraptured we were that we neglected to pay attention to trail markers and found ourselves scrambling off-route and off questionable rocky escarpments on multiple occasions…
Unfortunately, we would only realise we had gone the wrong way because of POO. Oh the poo on stage two. People are disgusting. I mean we all occasionally have to poo when we visit the great outdoors, but when you do please DIG A HOLE and BURY IT. Don’t litter the wild with your crap, it’s just ecologically wrong and absolutely gross. End of rant.
After a high-line traverse it was a short but very steep descent to Refuge Carrozzu (1520m). The loose scree-like sections made it a lot of fun and we skidded rapidly down into the depths of the valley to the reward of a cold coke and generous slab of chocolate cake. After seeing hardly anyone all day we were slightly overwhelmed by the hustle of people at the Refuge, many already finished for the day.
Refreshed and caffeinated we left picturesque Carrozzu to tackle the Spasimata Slabs and our final Col of the day. The heat was pretty relentless in the afternoon and Lisa was finding the challenge of scrambling up granite rock faces while politely maintaining French conversation with the local Corsican Mountain folk (Oui, c’est la troisième étape aujourd’hui! Oui, nous courons le GR!) increasingly difficult.
Fortunately, we stumbled across a large glacial Lac below Col de Stagni (2010m) (and a large peak that resembled Sitting Bull) where we chilled our baked legs before the descent to Ascu Stagnu and our camp for the night.
Runnability: First few kms of stage 1 but not much else!
Ascu Stagnu – Castel di Vergio (stage 4-5). 24km, 2150m ascent, 8hrs.
Lisa: It had been pretty windy overnight so we spent a while retrieving our underwear and running clothes that we had hung up to dry from around the campsite. We had a couple of false starts trying to find the way the trail continued from the ski station – why are we so bad at following markers?! The first kilometre or so were fairly runnable along a nice wooded trail and we were quickly surrounded by high mountains on all sides. The only way was up! The trail weaved its way up the steep sided valley with plenty of scrambling, scree and rock hopping. It was incredible, and it was nice to tackle this steep climb in the shade. As usual Megan left me behind on the climb but at least I didn’t need to pay attention to the markers and just picked the best lines towards her.
As we approached the top the wind started picking up. We had overtaken most other hikers on the way up and we were glad to have the final scramble to ourselves as there were quite a lot of loose stones being blown around with the gusts of wind. We finally reached the summit and into the welcome sunshine; it had got quite cold in the wind. The views were incredible from the narrow saddle – mountains as far as you could see in all directions. We had hoped to summit Monte Cinto, it is only about 1km from the saddle with around 200m extra ascent, but the wind was so strong we could barely stand. Oh well, we’ll have to come back to this beautiful island to climb it another day. To traverse the ridge we shuffled along between gusts, crouching quickly every time we were unsteadied by the wind, the steep scree to our left was not looking that appealing. Our mop-handle poles, now loving nicknamed Zeus, really came in handy here, they are definitely not getting dumped at a refuge! Finally we made it to a more sheltered position and started descending down the valley.
The descent was not as fun as the climb but it didn’t take us too long to reach the Refuge and Bergerie at the bottom. We sat down at the Bergerie to have our sandwich, only to be told “pic-nic interdit!” so we sheltered from the now quite strong sun under a tree instead. I’d heard leg 5 was supposed to be much easier than the previous 4 stages but I felt absolutely zonked on the climb, it was so hot and my legs felt empty. Megan was ahead again and shouting encouragement, reminding me to eat, take small steps and keep ticking over – which really helped. Reaching the top felt amazing! We were so excited that we nearly headed down the wrong valley, a short bit of off-roading and we were back on track along a much more runnable trail. We stopped briefly at the mountainside Refuge di Ciottulu di I Mori where we had a rehydration tablet each; that salty water has never tasted so good, I clearly needed it. We ran – actually ran! – along the next section of trail past a large group that cheered us along.
Most of the next section past was relatively easy compared to previous rocky sections but the tiredness was creeping in and following the markers through the forest was a chore. We had planned to do section 6 today as well but when we arrived at Castel di Vergio I didn’t feel like I had another 17km in me. As we were only 5 stages in I wanted to recover a bit rather than burning out too early so convinced Megan, who was still full of life, that having an ice cream and relaxing was better option! The refuge didn’t hire tents so we opted for the luxury option of a bed inside (€18 each) and relaxed eating ice cream, fresh bread and other goodies from the well stocked camp shop. We had another interesting dinner of “Ebli” (still haven’t quite figured out what it is) cooked in vegetable soup with tuna. Finishing a bit earlier also meant we had time to be sociable and spent an enjoyable evening chatting to others walking the trail.
Runnability: Stage 4: minimal, a few kms at beginning. Stage 5: pretty runnable after the main ascent.
Castel di Vergio – Refuge l’Onda (stage 6-8). 36km 2135m ascent, 10hrs.
After the previous nights bivvying, I actually struggled to sleep on a real bed! Fortunately the Gite was next to a fancy (in a GR sense) hotel and we quietly sneaked into the breakfast bar to grab a morning double espresso to shake us awake before hitting Stage 6. It was a misty start, and we stumbled into a large singular of wild piggies casually hanging out on the trailhead. They didn’t seem to expect a couple of humans moving so fast early in the morning and quick scooted out of our way. Under the wooded canopy we had a rather pleasant running along the river track, which then began to climb up to Bocca San Petru. We had had low expectations of Stage 6 after the big bad stages behind us, but as we switchbacked our way onto the mountain ridgeline to our high point, the sun began to burn through the mist and spectacular peaks shyly appeared. The climax was the reveal of Lac de Nino sat beneath us, surrounded by many little ponds (known as pozzines for you geographers) – a landscape I perhaps only envisioned in Hobbiton, Middle-earth, or the land before time. The rest of that stage was like a hippy dream. We gleefully descended to the Lac and ran through lush swirly greenery, through herds of wild horses and bare footed hikers, who were cooling their worn feet in the shallow pools. There are a couple of opportunities to stop at Bergeries for cheese should you fancy, but we were so psyched to be running that we didn’t stop until we arrived at Refuge Manganu. The picturesque refuge was deserted of hikers by the time we arrived at 10am, so we sat outside in the sun and enjoyed second breakfasts until we were surrounded by cheeky and hungry refuge cows! We spotted loads of potential swim spots in the river behind the refuge.
Stage 7 bought us straight back out of our momentary eden and back onto the classic GR20 style boulder fields, and big exposed mountain highlines. Such variation in a day was quite fun, and so the ascent (and scramble) to Boca alle Porte (Brèche de Capitellu) was not as hard as we anticipated. As we rock hopped our way to the Bocca with our walking poles in tow, we spotted two familiar faces descending towards us wearing OMM rucksacks. It was Jude and Spyke, two fellow Dark Peak Fell Runners, who were also running the GR, but from South to North. We animatedly exchanged tales of the trails in front and behind us, lightened our friends load by eating all their Yogurt coated raisins, and then bid each other Bon Voyage. The stage continued along a similar theme, and came to forever be known as ’social stage 7’. Following the high point (2225m) we had a steep and narrow rock portal to negotiate (almost sending our walking poles plummeting to their aluminum mashing death), after which Lac de Capitellu and Lac du Melo greeted us from the rocky hollows in which they hid. It was particularly memorable. The rest of the stage was spent in competition to find the fastest lines across the boulder fields – unsurprisingly the rock rabbit had a natural knack for this game. When we eventually hit Bocca Muzella we could see the iconic Petra Piana refuge ( the first to be built on the GR in 1971) perched in a sun spot below us and with spectacular views of Monte d’Oro. It was a fun scramble down to the refuge, which even had some fresh goats cheese waiting for us!
After a scenic lunch overlooking the southern section of the GR, Lisa spied a cloud and feared THUNDER. Subsequently we decided to drop down off the skyline and take the low route to Refuge L’Onda. We were also super sweaty after all our enthusiastic rock aerobics and fancied a plunge in the valley’s river. In our excitement for a swim, we missed the GR20 markers and took the straight line off the edge of the rocky spur where the refuge was perched (wouldn’t recommend) inadvertently casing hikers coming the other way to try and follow our path. Once back on track we found ourselves in a lush valley of wildflowers and running along side a river with mesmerising cascades. The pine forest track was soft and springy underfoot – it felt a world away from stage 7. After a while we found an icy plunge pool at a bridge near the Bergeries de Tolla (sadly closed) where we had a very quick and bracing dip, much to the amusement of a couple of plump Germans resting nearby. It was starting to get late by the time we got moving again and we had a long steep climb through dark beech woods up to Refuge L’Onda where we passed lots of very tired walkers who seem disgusted by the fact we were running.
The campsite was actually at Bergeries L’Onda, just beneath the refuge. All the tents and campers were penned in a large paddock as if we were like vulnerable livestock, except the goats here got to roam outside the paddock. A bizarre, but beautiful setting and perhaps one of the clearest night skies of the trail. As such it was noticeably baltic. Fortunately you could pay 2 Euro for a lucky dip hot shower – lush. Once settled we cooked up a feast of Spag Bol a la goats cheese a la whatever nibblets we had left in our running packs. The GR munchies were starting to kick in and we were ravenous. This is when Lisa realised that eating spagetti with a spoon is a suboptimal calorie consuming strategy.
Bergerie l’Onda – Prati (stage 9-11 + a bit of 12). 44km, 2880m ascent, 11hr15
Lisa: Another big day ahead so we got an early start. It had been a clear night so it was pretty chilly, neither of us could face taking off our warm sleeping clothes so we started fully layered up. The sky was absolutely stunning as the run rose, with pastel colours all around and the bergerie dog, who we nicknamed Napoleon, bounded around us as we left the camp. After a few attempts to dissuade him from following us we gave up and enjoyed his company for a few kilometres before he took himself back home.
Although it was tempting to take the high level route on stage 9 and summit Monte d’Orro, this would have taken twice as long and we knew we had a long day ahead of us. The low level route was still interesting though, particularly the big slabs of rock that the path passed over in the valley. However, I have to say we were mostly counting down the kms to Vizzavona and thinking about food, we had had a meagre breakfast and had minimal snacks lefts so were HUNGRY! When we arrived we weren’t disappointed. We raided the little shop in the village, had a coffee and Megan devoured a whole baguette!
Stage 10 and 11 were both really runnable and we had a great time zooming along the forest trails, in places we could still see the evidence of last year’s forest fires. It was a welcome change to be moving quickly, the views were still nice and we really enjoyed racking up the kilometres but really we both love being up high on the rocky stuff! At the Refuge de Capanelle, we bumped into another group of British runners while we had our standard coffee/coke and massive sandwich break. We were a little jealous that they were having their stuff transported for them between the refuges, but we managed to catch them up along the trail on stage 11 then played cat and mouse with them on the last section towards the refuge. We did our best to reign in our competitive spirits and not race them up the hill!
The guys stopped at Bocca de Verdi but we had planned to shave some miles off the next days route and stay up high at the mountain refuge Prati instead. We bought some pasta to have for dinner then continued our hike up to Prati, which sits at 1800m. Prati didn’t disappoint and the climb was actually quite fun, with the added bonus of getting us out of the forested valleys and back into the high places we like being the most. The day ended as beautifully as it had started with a stunning sunset, fabulous views right out to sea and a huge red moon. The temperature dropped quickly but luckily the camp kitchen was inside and warmed up nicely and we enjoyed our standard camp meal of copious amounts of pasta, tuna, tomatoes, or something… (only feeling slightly jealous of the other campers who forked out for a catered stay!)
Runnability: lots! All but stage 9 steep bits.
Prati – Bavella (stages 12-15), 36km, 2230m ascent, 11hrs
Megan: Today was the day I found out what ‘entering the pain cave’ really feels like.
Somehow, I had been laughing all the way to Prati. I believed I had this ultra-running, multi day enduring nailed. Sure, the GR20 might have a reputation for being the toughest trail in Europe, but 12 stages down and my legs were still hungry for more. Or so I thought.
Begin the longest day of my running life:
We actually slept a sleep of champions at our 2000 metre camp spot, until an overly curious horse trying to gnaw through the tent wall woke us up before sunlight. Hastily stuffing down the last of our bread and cheese we set off across the plateau to Punta del la Capella and towards Refuge d’Usciolu, the sun warming our backs as it rose lazily behind us. Where would the daylight hours take us today? Three or four stages? Was Conca possible?
Lisa was unusually springy for so early in the morning and appeared to take off as we ascended onto the exposed Usciolu ridgeline. I on the other hand might as well have been running in clown shoes; drunkenly tumbling over the most minor trail obstacles. I decided to put my lack of co-ordination down to caffeine withdrawal, and tried to keep up as best I could.
After several unintentional trail detours I was beginning to wonder if Refuge Usciolu even existed when, suddenly we came to a steep escarpment and saw a hut perilously perched on the mountainside a few hundred metres below. We had been hopeful of a food restock here, but unfortunately the refuge was already closed for the morning by the time we scrambled down. The site was completely desolate, except for a solemn German lady who was wandering around unsuccessfully trying to find signal on her iPhone, and seemed to not know how she got so removed from civilisation.
We filled up on water and accepted we would have to survive on stale peanuts for the next two stages.
Stage 13 and 14 felt very far removed from the rest of the GR. We appeared to tumble (me literally) off the typical boulder fields and steep sided skylines, and straight onto vast grassy meadows that covered the Cuscionu plateau. The change of scenery somewhat provided a brief mental break from the exhausting task of staying upright while rock-hopping. Nonetheless my legs were bamboozled by the sudden change from steep to pancake flat and didn’t quite know how to function appropriately, leading to a weird shuffle that became my main form of movement for the rest of this very long day. As I waddled across the plains, dodging herds of cows, we got our first view of Mont Alcudina in the distance, the fat mountain between us and an ice cold Orangina at the next refuge. I was very thankful for my telescopic mop handle on this ascent. The never-ending ascent.
It was on this ascent that we got complimented on our ‘running pole technique’ by passing hikers. I must have actually looked like I knew what I was doing…
The summit of Alcudina finally greeted us with huge panoramic views and we celebrated with mop handles in the air and scoffed the last of our peanuts. Just as we were readying to descend to Refuge Asinau, a very animated Corsican convinced us to take a direct short cut that he claimed would get us to Asinau in 10-minutes rather than 50. Motivated by Orangina we agreed, and took the sketchiest straight-line route off the side of the mountain that dropped us 600m in less than a kilometre*.
*This where we should probably recommend you (reader) to take the normal-person route, especially if you want your legs to function on the following stages.
Approximately an hour later we made it back onto the actual trail and arrived at Refuge Asinau, also eerily deserted looking. A small wooden hut had been hastily erected beside what must have been the original refuge that appeared to have been ravaged by a fire. A few snoozing hikers lay inside out of the sun, but no owner made themselves known. The site was swarming with flies and extensively littered; it was all a bit of a shambles for an idyllic mountain spot. There was also no sugar coating the fact that we did not have the sugar stop we were expecting and it was still a long way to Village Bavella*. This is the point my hangry alter ego came to join the fun and games.
*We decided to opt for the high-level route to Village Bavella as it was much shorter than the low-level route, and we were (I was) flagging. However, if you were feeling tired, or wanted to avoid the sun, the latter might have been faster as it basically follows a river, whereas we opted for some grade 3 scrambling through the red granite ‘needles of Bavella’.
During this ‘dark time’ the one detail I seemed to recall from the guidebook was that there was a white statue of the Virgin Mary (Notre Dame des Neiges) near the end of the stage. Every step was motivated by the fact Mary was going to appear soon and I wouldn’t be far from the Village. Subsequently, there was a lot of unholy conversation when around each rock spire she failed to appear… My quads were starting to lock out now, making the technical downhills trickier than ever – I began to further regret our scree skiing off Mont Alcudina earlier. In the end Lisa was the only Saint to be present on the stage and she deserves all the Brownie points in the world for hauling my ass over this rocky 8km. When we finally reached the road at Bavella we decided to leave the final stage to the morning, and enjoy a beer and a much-needed meal. Sure enough, Mary was at the roadside to greet us and gestured us towards the nearest Gite. Cheers babes.
Looking back on this day, that final stage was perhaps one of the most exceptional. I would recommend you don’t jump into it after two and a half stages and a bag of peanuts.
Runnability: Most of the joint stage 13/14 was pretty runnable except the main ascent/descent from Monte Alcudin. Stage 12 and 15 (high) were not very runnable.
Bavella – Conca (Stage 16). 17km, 560m ascent, 3hr45
Lisa: After yesterdays adventures we were amazed to wake up feeling not that broken, the copious food, beer and proper beds had clearly done us a world of good. Knowing we only had one section left to conquer we were in no rush to sprint off, so had a leisurely start drinking coffee and eating fresh bread. We topped up on snacks in the village shop (not wanting to repeat a whole day only eating stale peanuts) then set off down the final forest trail full of excitement, but a tinge of sadness, that this was the last stage. For the final descent away from the mountains stage 16 certainly had value for money – it is a great mix of forest trails, cool rocky slabs and balcony paths. On the whole it was pretty runnable and gently downhill with views out to sea the whole way. We saw a lot of people, all with high spirits that they were finally finishing their journey.
It took us just under 4 hours to reach Conca. As always with challenges like this it is a little anticlimactic and we didn’t really know what to do with ourselves. We grabbed a coke from the shop, wandered around a bit then sat in the gite to get some food before heading to Porto Vecchio. We were struck by the truth in what Paddy Dillon had wrote in his guidebook that no-one in Conca cares that you have just finished the trail – and to be fair, the residents here see at least 10,000 people arriving here each season!
One thing I love about these challenges is the sense of purpose it gives you while you are away, but I’ve learnt that the end always feels less exciting than you expect. While it’s amazing to have achieved your goal, that purpose is suddenly taken away and it leaves a hole. The things you dream about doing after you finish when you are on the trail suddenly don’t seem as exciting. You realise you would just rather be back out there and the hardships you felt weren’t hardships at all. But the joy of the challenge cannot be felt without having a set goal to achieve, and the low after finishing is definitely worth it for the amazing highs and the incredible memories.
- The first one is pretty obvious but, pack as light as you can, you’ll be annoyed at any extra item you carry by the end. A luxury item, like our puzzle book was fun though. See below for what we carried.
- Choose durable shoes, the rock is very rough, we were OK with our choices but we heard many tales of soles falling off etc. (again see kit section below)
- There is more variety, although this is still limited, and the food is cheaper at refuges which are served by roads, as a runner you can pretty much cross a road every day so it pays to take advantage of this if on a budget.
- Think about what time you will be arriving at each refuge, many are closed in the middle of the day, don’t rely on these for a snack or you might end having as much fun as Megan on day 5!
- Time of year: we found that late in the season (we went the last week in September) was a good shout. We didn’t need to book anything and the weather was cooler. Early in the season can also be quieter but there may still be snow around.
- It doesn’t make you any friends to tell walkers you meet on the trail that you polished off 3 sections that day while they struggled over doing one – be vague and be friendly 🙂
Getting to and from the Corsica can be a little tricky/expensive. We went for the relatively cheap option of flying to Pisa (~£50 rtn) then catching the ferry from Livorno (short train ride from Pisa) to Bastia (£45 rtn).
To get to the northern trail head from Bastia we got the train from Bastia to Calvi (not many trains per day, worth checking the schedule – €16), then hitched to Calenzana.
From Conca we took a navette (shuttle bus) from Gite in Conca to Porto Vecchio (€8pp, depending on how full the bus is), after a night in a campsite in Porto Vecchio we took a bus to Bastia (€26pp)
Spending on the trail
Food and water
We carried 1.5-2l, there are a few places to fill up on water between refuges but not many. As we were never out for longer than 4hrs then this was adequate for us.
We brought a lot of our hill snacks from home to last us the first couple of days. We stocked up on bread to make sandwiches each day then did a larger re-supply in Vizzavona. We possibly should have taken more as we were running low on day 5 especially as the refuges we passed were not selling food.
We used Mountain fuel recovery fuel (chocolate flavour) each evening as an extra snack and to help recovery – it is delicious!
Kit and Shoes
Megan wore Salomon Sense 6 and Lisa wore Inov-8 Roclite 305s, they were both fairly new at the start of the trip and both fared pretty well on the rough rock.
We both used the OMM 25l rucksack and took:
- Sleeping bag (alpkit pipedream 400)
- Bivvy bag (alpkit hunka)
- Sleeping mat
- Clothes (minimal) – one spare pair of socks/undies that we washed each day, one spare top, warm leggings and warm jacket for the evenings
- Waterproof jacket
- Cap, warm hat and gloves
- Small wash and first aid kit – inc suncream!
- Battery pack/plug/leads. We were found power at the refuges on roads (Ascu Stagnu, Castel di Vergio and in Bavella) otherwise we used a battery pack)
- Luxury item: cards (never actually used), puzzle magazine – used a lot!
- Guidebook (cicerone)
- Compass (for emergencies – not used by us but useful in case of disorientation in fog/storm)