Corsica is famed for mountain hiking. The 180km GR20 which runs diagonally north-south through the island’s mountainous spine takes an average of 16 days to complete and has a reputation as one of the longest and toughest hikes in Europe. We weren’t quite up for that one! Instead we combined two classic trails – Mare e Mare North and Mare e Monti North – for a nine day hike beginning in the centre of the island, trekking through the mountainous interior to the west coast and then north through the mountains which plunge into the sea along the coast.
It looked fairly benign on paper. It turned out to be one of the most challenging hikes we’ve done. Firstly because of the terrain. As the days progressed, it seemed like the whole trail was a series of long steep inclines and declines. Much of it was difficult underfoot, with loose rocks, slippery gravel slopes or boulder outcrops to be clambered up or down.
And secondly because it was ridiculously, energy-sappingly hot.
Corte & Tavignano Gorge
To begin, we caught the train from Bastia to Corte, Corsica’s capital during its short-lived independence from 1755 to 1769.
We had time for an afternoon warm-up walk through the Tavignano Gorge which starts from the edge of town. Basically, steep rock walls run for kilometres either side of a narrow gorge, with a river down in the ravine below. We were supposed to take a path which led high along the top for views over the mountains.
There were trails criss-crossing everywhere, some leading up and some down. These old paths were used by shepherds until the 1950s to bring sheep up from the lowlands in the summer months. Crumbling stone terraces and enclosures left over from those days can still be seen.
It was baking hot. There were quite a few people on the trails, all kitted out for swimming and all headed down, not up.
We missed a turn we should have taken to go up, so we tried ascending on one of the lesser paths, but it was overgrown and slippery. We could hear the siren sound of gurgling water below.
The Rugby World Cup is about to start and David wisely observed that we didn’t want to be like two of the English team who can’t play, suspended due to brain-snap infringements in warm-up games. Crediting ourselves with being smarter than the average rugby player, we didn’t want to ruin the main walk with an injury in a warm-up.
And did we mention it was hot? That rushing water sounded truly inviting.
We backtracked and headed down to the bottom of the gorge to cool off and lounge by the water. A much better idea. And clearly a popular spot with the locals.
Day 1: Scala di Santa Regina to Calacuccia
A taxi dropped us at the start of the walk, a small spring-fed fountain on the side of a mountain road high above the Scala di Santa Regina gorge. Here we joined the transhumance path linking the east and west coasts, this section of which was used by shepherds for thousands of years to bring their herds in and out of the valley below at the changing of the seasons.
The path was fairly flat but even at 9am, it was edging 30 degrees Celsius.
Far below we could see the road snaking along beside the Golu River which flows through the gorge.
The terrain was dry and for the whole day we were almost always in the full sun. It kept getting hotter. The views were striking.
We came to the village of Corscia where in 1720, a shepherd wrote and sung for the first time a hymn to the Virgin Mary which became the Corsican national anthem during the island’s brief independence. There’s not much going on there now.
In the afternoon, as we started to descend, things were getting a bit greener. We passed through some chestnut groves. Chestnuts were introduced to Corsica in the 10th century and today they are still widely grown. Cakes and desserts containing chestnuts or made on chestnut flour can be found everywhere.
It wasn’t a long distance – just over 11km for the day – but the heat was cruel. We were relieved to arrive in Calacuccia where a cold shower and even colder beer revived us.
Total walk distance: 11.2km. Ascent 700 metres, descent 340 metres.
Day 2: Calacuccia to Vergio
Leaving the village, we dropped down to skirt around Calacuccia Lake, created by a dam upstream of the Scala di Santa Regina gorge.
After the dry and dusty landscape yesterday, it felt less harsh and there was some shade, but still not much relief from the heat.
We passed an ancient chestnut flour mill and a bridge built in the Genoese period.
Then out of the forest and back in that blazing sun. Flat for a while, but we could tell it wasn’t going to last.
When we reached the mountains in the background of the above photo, we climbed a steep rock cliff from the river to the top of the Radule Waterfall.
Near the top we discovered idlers lolling in the higher pools. A track from a road comes in from the other side!
Continuing up, we eventually reached the top where the flows feeding the falls seems little more than a trickle.
There, a metal bridge crosses the stream and the trail joins the infamous GR20 for several kilometres up to meet the road.
Those last kilometres were not any harder than the trail we’d been following, but the last hour of any 19km walk in the heat is exhausting. Meeting the road, we walked a short distance to Vergio, a settlement consisting of little more than a hotel servicing walkers in summer and skiers in winter, a camp ground and a small shop. Beers all round.
Total walk distance: 19.2km. Ascent 890 metres, descent 310 metres.
Day 3: Vergio to Evisa
From the hotel we followed the road up to the Col de Vergio, a mountain pass at 1,477 metres, marked with a 25 tonne, 6 metre high pink granite statue of Christ the King. Not sure why he appears to have no face.
Once again the track headed up into the mountains.
Then we seemed to be scrambling down through boulders and on a slippery rough track forever. And, oh joy, Julie’s least favourite walking experience – a suspension bridge.
But the views from the lookout point a little further on were worth it.
Shortly after that, the route joined a day walkers’ track and it was easy going through the Aitone Forest along an art trail with quirky stuff like a poem dedicated to the wild mountain boars.
And into the village of Evisa where the Auberge Aitone turned out to be our favourite accommodation of the walk. A pool to cool off, a cracking view of the mountains from the restaurant, and for dinner, a stew of wild boar and myrtles (a berry which grows wild in Corsica and Sardinia and looks like a blueberry but with dark red flesh and a firmer texture). Poems aside, boar is one of Corsica’s staple meats. Very tasty it is, too.
Total walk distance: 11km. Ascent 240 metres, descent 790 metres.
Day 4: Evisa to Porto
Light rain had begun late the previous afternoon. In the evening, thunder storms rolled in and the rain increased to a torrent which went on all night. In the morning it was obvious the heavy rain would persist. Thunder and lightning were still crackling around as well.
Today’s walk was down into a gorge, losing 1km at a 1:2 gradient on rough track. It wasn’t a question of the rain making it unpleasant. We were reluctantly forced to accept it would have been potentially dangerous. So for the first time on any hike, we abandoned the walk altogether and arranged a transfer to our next town, Porto.
The rain continued unabated. The sea was rough. The beach was closed. From Porto, lots of operators run boat trips around the coast. All the boats were cancelled.
We felt like the kids in Dr Seuss’ Cat in the Hat:
Too wet to go out. And too cold to play ball.
So we sat in the house. We did nothing at all.
All we could do was to sit, sit, sit, sit.
And we did not like it. Not one little bit.
We had coffee and looked at the rain. We trudged around town in the rain. Julie wrote some blog. But in the late afternoon, the weather improved. Blue sky above the Genoese tower gave us hope it would be fine by tomorrow.
Day 5: Porto to Piana
It didn’t exactly dawn ‘bright and clear’, but good enough to get going again.
One minor problem, though. The trail commenced with a clamber along the rocks around the far end of the bay, but the storm-driven seas were still crashing over them.
The work-around was a long walk on the winding road up and along the cliffs, which added a few kilometres to our day, but after an hour or so we were back on track.
The coastline here is a UNESCO listed site of natural beauty, mainly for the blood red calanches (that’s Corsican for calanques – but unlike the ones we saw around Marseille, the cliffs on these rocky coves are red).
The skies cleared. The heat returned. Once again, it was up, up, up old mule paths to the top of the mountains.
From the top, the views were spectacular.
And then just a gentle few hours’ stroll down to the town of Piana, perched on the cliffs looking out to the calanches and the Gulf of Porto.
Total walk distance: 13km. Ascent 520 metres, descent 70 metres.
Day 6: Piana to Serriera
This morning we started our walk in Ota, a mountain town inland from Piana and Porto.
It was about now we discussed that we should call this post ‘no flat bits in Corsica’. Up we went again.
The rock formations were interesting. This one looked like a gargoyle.
We whinged about the heat and the climb, but the rewards were obvious.
And then the descent to Bussaglia, a seaside enclave hidden behind the ridge in the foreground of the next photo, toward the sea from that town you can see in the valley. More down than up today.
Total walk distance: 13km. Ascent 880 metres, descent 1,150 metres.
Day 7: Capo Razzuzu to Girolata
Today’s trail began on a ridge high above Bussaglia.
A farmer whose land abuts the start of the trail had obviously had enough of inconsiderate walkers.
This was one of our favourite days. The trail skirted around several quiet coves, climbing up over the headlands in between.
The water and sky were amazing shades of blue.
At the last of the bays, the trail was underwater from the recent rain.
We backtracked and took a different path to Tuara Beach.
And from there, a final push up and over the hill to Girolata, a tiny harbour overlooked by a restored Genoese tower.
This quiet village is accessible only on foot or by boat. Cows lounge on the shore.
We stayed in a beachside wooden cabin.
“Where’s dinner?” We asked our host. “Le table bleu” was the reply. A fancy French restaurant? No. Quite literally, the blue table in front of his kitchen-cabin.
Total walk distance: 12km. Ascent 710 metres, descent 890 metres.
Day 8: Girolata to Galéria
Another day of glorious views of the coast and the red calanches. Somehow, Julie managed to lose almost all her photos due to a technology malfunction, so we only have a few to show how beautiful it was.
Total walk distance: 10.6km. Ascent 780 metres, descent 780 metres.
Day 9: Calvi to Revellata Loop
We were driven from Galeria to Calvi, a buzzy resort town on the north east coast of Corsica.
Our last walk was a loop along the coast to a lighthouse at the end of the Revellata Peninsula.
Walk done, we headed to the town beach, one of the few long sandy strips on Corsica.
We were going our seperate ways tomorrow. David and Noreen were heading to Ile de Rousse and a ferry to Marseille, and we were catching an early morning train to Ajaccio, Corsica’s capital, for a few days. We celebrated the end of the walk with a mighty fine meal – wild boar again! Heading back to the hotel we were lured into a bar by the sound of achingly melodic Corsican ballads. These guys really knew how to sing. A perfect end.
And many thanks to Corsica Aventure, the local Corsican company through which we organised the walk. Logistics worked without a hitch. Hotels were good. Walk info was fine. Even an app that chimed if we went off course, solemnly advising “you are off track since 20 metres”. Hard to get lost with that handy tool!