The GR20 is a 180km multi-day hike that traverses Corsica’s mountainous spine, from Calenzana in the northwest and to Conca in the southeast. It is renowned for being Europe’s toughest hiking trail. We would soon find out how fitting this reputation is.
Car, minibus, plane, bus, bus, tram, boat, train, train, train, walk, lorry and finally car. After two days of solid travelling, we were at the trailhead. Easy!
Day 1 – Stage 1 – Calenzana to Refuge de l’Ortu di u Piobbu (11.9km)
Having missed one of our trains the day before, we were late in setting off. Fortunately we managed to hitchhike from Calvi to Calenzana, neither of us could face an additional 20km on top of what was to come.
The first day was all about gaining height as we were to spend the best part of the next fortnight above 1,000m. So it was vital that we were on top form, especially with temperatures over 35°c. It was only 9am!
You can imagine how we felt then, as prior to departure Cristina received a message from a friend she had just had visited advising her that she had COVID. After much debate we decided to press on, despite Cristina’s newly discovered symptoms.
After an excruciating 1,500m climb, where we seemed to stop every 50 paces, we finally arrived at the refuge. Our reward, a fantastic pitch with our very own cowpat. It didn’t matter, we had started. Only 14 days to go…
Day 2 – Stage 2 – Refuge de l’Ortu di u Piobbu to Refuge de Carrozzu (8.2km)
We awoke to our alarm at 8am and on exiting the tent we were astonished to find the whole refuge empty. We soon realised why, as it was already above 30°c. It was a mistake we would not make again.
After filling up our water bottles from a stream we started our second day on the trail. We only needed to ascend 800m!
Cristina seemingly recovered, we managed to walk for two hours before stopping to take shelter under the first piece of shade we encountered. We fueled up on electrolytes and Kendal Mint Cake before beginning the first of the many brutal climbs / scrambles that would become synonymous with the GR20. Day 1 was starting to feel easy!
After 5 hours of walking we were delighted to see the refuge in an idyllic forest setting half way down the valley. We agreed that it was no more than 30 minutes away and set off at a blistering pace. Two hours later we finally arrived, nothing is easy on the GR20.
After yesterday’s cowpat debacle we were determined to find a better pitch but it wasn’t to be. The whole refuge was infested with ants. We ended up pitching our tent next to the refuge itself, or should I say, Corsica’s highest nightclub! Despite the incessant noise we were knackered, what a sleep.
Day 3 – Stage 3 – Refuge de Carrozzu to Haut Asco (6.1km)
Day 3 started with one of the most emblematic photo opportunities of the whole GR20. Crossing the suspension bridge over the Spasimata River.
By now we were starting to recognise familiar faces on the trail and our stops were punctuated with tales of the trials and tribulations of our new friends. The stories sounded all too familiar. It was really hot and no one could remember what life in the real world was like anymore… and would we ever stop going up!
Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for. After another 850m climb we finally descended into the ski resort of Haut Asco. Down proved to be just as hard as up!
During the summer months, in the absence of snow, the whole area was full of tents. We were extremely grateful that they’d kept the restaurant open to milk a few more tourist dollars. Real food finally and a local Corsican beer with honey!
Day 4 – Stage 4 – Haut Asco to Refuge Tighiettu (9.4km)
Day 4 was without doubt the most brutal ascent of our lives, but my god it was worth it.
Refreshed from last night’s meal, we were up at the crack of dawn. We then proceeded to walk, scramble and sometimes even crawl up a mixture of bare rock and skree. After rising an additional 1,200m we reached one of the highest points of the GR20, Bocca Minuta where we caught our first clear glimpses of Monte Cinto, Corsica’s tallest peak at 2,706m.
I couldn’t resist, I had to scale it and after speaking to a group of French lads I knew it would add another hour and fifty minutes to our day. Cristina on the other hand did not feel the same. So I dumped my bag, downed a bottle of electrolytes and grabbed a handful of dates. I was off.
After a very technical climb I reached the peak after 38 minutes. The views were spectacular. The peak afforded a near perfect panorama of the island. An hour and twenty minutes later I was back at the Bocca, Cristina was asleep!
Now to get down. Fuelled with saucisson, we embarked upon a gruelling knee-cruncher of a descent stopping only to bathe in the crystal clear water of one of Corsica’s many mountain streams. A perfect afternoon until we realised that Cristina was carrying unwanted passengers. Her bottom was full of tiny leeches!
Day 5 – Stage 5a,5b,5c – Refuge Tighiettu to Castel de Vergio (16.6km)
Fuelled by the disappointment of yesterday’s swim we set off to find ourselves a decent mountain pool. After a quick lunch of gourmet tinned sardines in a refuge, the trail led us to a series of plunge pools and rapids that did not disappoint.
The second of which was like nature’s very own aquatic theme park. Everyone on the trail was there! After diving from every feasible point (and some that were not) we were finally feeling cool. Incidentally it was also here that we met the first English people on the GR2 since setting off. They were travelling in the opposite direction and thankfully they informed us that the southern section of the trail involved less scrambling. We also received a tip off about the lasagne in Croci – more on that later.
We stopped to swim in nearly every pool on the way down. Unfortunately we would find out that evening that we had missed an amazing waterfall. Anyway after close to eight hours walking we were not going back! The campsite was relatively luxurious as they had hooked it on to the side of a hotel on the ‘main’ road through Castel de Vergio. We had our first hot showers for 5 days and it was glorious!
Day 6 – Stage 6a,6b – Castel de Vergio to Refuge de Manganu (17.3km)
Day 6 started with a lazy descent through forested ground where wild pigs had been left to forage. This explained why the campsite had been raided the evening before! After a relatively easy first 5km the path started to rise again, passing the most spectacular windswept tree we had ever seen. A relic of the harsh winter weather that hits the island.
On reaching the peak we caught our first glimpses of Lago de Nino where we stopped to eat lunch. We did not stay too long as Cristina was keen to reach the refuge and swim in the stream that skirted around the pitched tents. I had a siesta on a rock!
After yet another bowl of chicken broth and noodles we were asleep by 8pm!
Day 7 – Stage 7 – Refuge de Manganu to Refuge de Petra Piana (9.3km)
On exiting the tent in a rather unglamorous manner I felt a massive snap in my back. I didn’t want to tell Cristina, however I suspect my high pitched squeal may have given the game away! 7 days in and I was crocked. I couldn’t believe it….we hadn’t even completed the northern section.
We needed a plan, so I did the only thing I could think of, I carried on. Cristina had to help me swing the bag on to my back and I quickly learnt it was best to leave it there. As the pain slowly subsided it all became worthwhile as we popped out of yet another Bocca to be met with a stunning view of two mountain tarns. Simply amazing!
Day 7 is marked as one of the vertigo-inducing stages of the GR20. We were used to it by now and lapped up the views it afforded. It really was glorious walking. By the end of the day I had forgotten about my back and even finished by running the final descent, overtaking our trail buddies and grabbing our best pitch of the trip in the process. I wanted to sleep with the door open but Cristina made me see sense!
Day 8 – Stage 8 – Refuge de Petra Piana to l’Onda (10.9km)
Today was probably Cristina’s favourite of the north. She can spot a mountain pool from miles away and on the way out of Petra Piana she found a natural water slide that would have kept her entertained for days if I had not pulled her out!
After a good hour in the river we carried on to a Bergerie where by chance we bought the nicest cheese we would have the entire trip. Don’t be put off by the crust, it was glorious! We arrived at the refuge relatively early where we would have our first pitch on grass!!
Day 9 – Stage 9 – l’Onda to Vizzavona (11.9km)
We woke up before sunrise, we were too excited to sleep any longer. Day 9 marks the end of the northern section and for us the opportunity to sleep in a real bed. We had booked ourselves into Vizzavona’s only hotel.
After 6 hours walking we finally descended into the village where locals and tourists alike were bathing in the stream. It was such a shock to the system to be surrounded by so many people again after our relative solitude in the mountains
The food was rather disappointing but it didn’t tarnish our sense of achievement so far. We had absolutely smashed the north and we only had 6 days left! The beer helped too!
Day 10 – Stage 10 – Vizzavona to Campannelle (15km)
We were looking forward to the easiest day of the trail so far and we were rewarded. We managed our first flat 2km stretch! We were also boosted by our fresh bodies. This was the first time we had showered before setting off. At 30°c though, it makes no difference. We were melting again after the first hour!
After a relatively easy morning the trail started to ascend into a near vertical climb. The GR20 is the gift that keeps on giving. This was supposed to be an easy day! Campanelle was a disappointing refuge and we ended up pitching our tent in a dust bowl. This said the transition to the south of the GR20 had served to weed out some of the less hardy walkers and from this point we enjoyed getting to know those who were left on a more personal level.
I never did find out why I wasn’t allowed to stroke that brown cocker spaniel…
Day 11 – Stage 11a,11b – Campannelle to Refuge de Prati (19.2km)
The days were all starting to feel the same. Brutal climb out of the refuge. Knee-jerking descent into the valley floor. Always finishing with a near vertical climb onto one final Bocca before dropping back down into the next refuge.
Day 11 was no different. The only thing of note was the first change in weather we had experienced since setting off. As we popped out of our final climb the whole of the mountain ridge was enveloped in a thick mist. It was the first real resbite we had had from the sun. The views were terrible though!
Day 12 – Stage 12 – Refuge de Prati to Refuge d’Usciolu (11.3km)
Our alarm clock had been getting earlier and earlier, culminating with us waking up at half past three on the morning of day 12. The sunrise was spectacular. Just as we thought it couldn’t get better we saw the shadow of a fox racing along the mountain ridge. When people ask us why we do it – this is the answer we give!
We would follow this ridge for the next two days and the views were stunning. We could see the surrounding villages to the west and the sea to the east. Most importantly we were starting to feel like the end was in sight!
Day 13 – Stage 13a,13b,14a – Refuge d’Usciolu to Bergerie de Croci (14.7km)
We spent the morning of Day 13 walking the remainder of the ridge before we started to drop out of the mountains for the first time in two weeks. Again it did not disappoint as we exchanged the greys of the rock for the greens of meadow grass. The water was crystal clear.
Of course Cristina was in again…until she waded into the rotting corpse of what we suspected was a drowned pig. A stark reminder as to the importance of filtering all water.
Back on the road again we walked the last hour to what would be our first night in a Bergerie. It was glorious. We had half board and words could not describe how much I was looking forward to that lasagne. My god it was good. The portion was bigger than my head and it was cooked to perfection. Needless to say I regretted it later as I rolled around on my mattress, stomach too engorged to sleep!
This would be the last time we would camp on the trail.
Day 14 – Stage 14b,15 – Bergerie de Croci to Bavella (19.5km)
Still stuffed from what felt like our first real food for weeks we struggled to get going on Day 14. It didn’t matter now, surely we had reached the part of the GR20 where it gets easier. Of course we hadn’t.
The trail is normally completed in 16 days; however, we had condensed Day’s 14 & 15 to save time. This meant that when most people would be finishing we would still have another three hours. This was a mistake. I remember Cristina using less technical vocabulary!!!
Anyway we had no choice but to get it done. We climbed out of Bergerie de Croci to Bocca Stazzunara where I had been informed that you could scale Monte Incudine. The sign said 20 minutes – I did it in 12! All was going well so far, but we still had to descend.
I don’t know if it was the compound fatigue we were feeling after so long on the trail or the descent itself but we struggled. It was hot, the trail was poorly marked and the only way down was to walk vertically over vast slabs of rock hoping that your shoes still had grip. How on earth do people do that in the rain.
We arrived at the refuge where we should have stayed and instead devoured a whole bar of chocolate before setting off for the final push. A gentle descent into Bavella, a mountain village where we would sleep in a bed. It turns out I had invented the path in my mind. It was neither gentle nor down. How were we still going up?
After a brief sun induced paddy where Cristina announced she would never walk again, we finally arrived at Bavella. You can imagine my surprise then, when after showering Cristina announced that she was ready to walk back up the hill and do some sightseeing. Madness!
Day 15 – Stage 16a,16b – Bavella to Conca (18.4km)
The last day. We felt as if we had been on the trail for a month. We were lower now and the sun was brutal. New groups and couples setting off from the south passed us, fresh faced and raring to go. It made me wonder whether we looked like that when we had started?
The stage was long and relatively unspectacular in terms of incidents however we didn’t care. We were nearly there and we knew it. The final two hours dragged as we played cat and mouse with a group of lads, who like us, were making mad dashes from one piece of shade to the next. And then just as we were beginning to lose hope we rounded a corner and there it was Conca. The end of the trail.
So that was it, words can not describe the sense of achievement we were feeling. We had completed Europe’s toughest hiking trail and earnt every single millimetre. I would recommend it to everyone, but it’s not for the faint hearted!!