Corsica is a paradise for walkers. Whether you are into extreme walking or just want a Sunday stroll, there is something for everyone. We are somewhere between the two. Although we have walked in Corsica before, this time we wanted to do some more extensive walks and finish a couple that we had to abandon last time for various reasons.
The scenery in Corsica is breathtaking, whether you are up in the mountains or by the sea. One of the best ways to enjoy it is to get your walking boots on and leave the roads behind. Then you are rewarded with spectacular views, mountain streams and waterfalls and, above all, the aromatic and vivid vegetation of the maquis, which is at its finest in late spring.
The island is criss-crossed by walking trails. Mostly, they are well tended and way marked, especially the long-distance routes. However, on one occasion we had to revert to plan B when the walk we wanted to do was overgrown with an impenetrable thicket. On another occasion, weighed down with heavy rucksacks, we had to scramble up a steep bank and then cut our way through the brambles at the top with a penknife. We were both wearing shorts, naturally, so our legs were cut to ribbons – not to mention the thorns that we gouged out of our fingers for days afterwards. Another time, a walk advertised at our hotel turned out to be out of bounds: a farmer on the other side of the river was grazing his pigs and had closed the footpath.
The GR20 – the ultimate challenge
This long-distance trail runs from northwest to southeast (about 220 km) and is a notorious challenge for seasoned walkers. The first half is said to be the most difficult.
One of our fellow guests at Antoinette and Charles’ chambres d’hôtes, Gérard, had walked the GR20 a few years ago with a group of friends, the oldest of whom was 68. Gérard had put together a diary of their exploits, complete with photos, which I read out of politeness at first and then with increasing interest.
He chronicled not only the events of the walk itself, but also provided notes about all the mountain refuges they stayed at, everything they ate – well, he is French – and all the people they met en route. He also listed all the items he had to take in his rucksack with their respective weights. The total added up to 14.5 kilos, before allowing for water. Gerard said you had to have at least 3 litres per day; 17.5 kilos in total, then. This wasn’t a walk, it was a forced march. But he had done compulsory military service in the days before it was abolished – at le Camp de Caylus, in fact, not far from us.
If hefting that lot up and downhill weren’t enough, there were parts of the trail where you had to haul yourself up and down on chains secured to the rocks with crampons. He had some graphic photos of the group doing it. At this point, I decided that the GR20 would never make it onto my list of achievements.
Less taxing walks
Corsica also has three trails that run horizontally across the island – Le Mare a Mare Nord, Centre et Sud. These are less demanding than the GR20 but pass through some wonderful scenery, nonetheless. The big difference is that they go through villages and hamlets where you can stop over for the night. On the GR20 you are mostly restricted to mountain refuges or tents.
One day we did 17 km on the Mare a Mare Nord, which starts at Moriani on the east coast, goes through Corte in the central mountains and ends at Cargèse on the west coast. Part of it follows an ancient paved mule track. This is one of the walks we had to abandon last time. It was September, it was hot, we had no hats, we didn’t have enough water and it was hard work. So we turned back to Corte and had a beer at a café instead.
After last time’s pathetic performance, we were determined to get as far as the bridge that crosses the River Tavignanu. We picknicked there and then turned back to Corte. If you continue, you are in for a very long hike to the next feasible stop. The round trip from Corte is about 5 hours.
A sense of achievement
Another walk we were itching to get back to was up in the hills above Antoinette and Charles’ B&B near Venaco. This walk climbs 800 metres up from the village to a tiny chapel, La Chapelle de Saint-Eliseo. Every year on 29th August a procession winds up the steep climb from the village to honour the saint.
In 2003 we were within spitting distance of the chapel but were forced back down the mountain by an impending thunder storm, which bubbled up from nowhere, as they can in the mountains.
This year, we made it up to the chapel. It’s a very steep climb through chestnut and beech woods. Just at the point where you are asking yourself if you can go any farther, the bell tower of the chapel peeps over the top of the rocks. Then your fatigue falls away and you feel a sense of achievement. We continued on to complete the circular walk – about 12km but much of it in difficult terrain.
Antoinette’s vin de myrte and her robust cooking were a great comfort after that – preceded by a hot shower and a snooze.
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