This was a post I started to write back in 2018. Life happened and I never got it finished. During this time of isolation, I have been reminiscing about some of the amazing trips John and I have had. It was about time I got this published!
I was introduced to the GR 20 by a friend and the moment I started to read about it I instantly wanted to run it. The record for the route being 31 hours and 6 minutes by Francois D’Haene in 2016….having now run it, an amazing achievement.
For those unfamiliar with the GR 20, it is a long-distance trail across the mountains of Corsica, mostly completed by walkers over anything between 14 days to 3 weeks depending how long they wanted to be out for each day. The route is generally split into 2 sections, the northern being rockier, slightly more technical and generally has more ascent. The southern section is just overall much easier. Historically going north to south was the way to go however there seems to be more and more people opting to go the other way.
Following an ‘incident’ in 2018 which made me stop a while and consider life, I decided that life really is to short and I decided to get Corsica booked.
We had 9 days to complete the GR 20 and instead of thinking lets have some relaxing days at the end of the trip I utilized everyday so we could experience as much as possible out in the mountains. The plan was never to attempt to go as fast as possible, I wanted to enjoy every moment. In hindsight however, as much as this was lovely, 7 days would have been more than achievable given we finished most days by midday and would have given us some time at the end to relax a little before the trip home.
I could go into the stats for each day, where we went, how hard it was, but quite frankly this would probably make for quite boring reading. If anyone does however want a copy of our itinerary, kit list etc. (it really did surprise me how much some people carried!) I am happy to share however, for the purpose of this article a few key points for each day!
Day 1 – Calenzana to Refuge de Carrozzu
The introduction to ‘Rainbow hills’ …when you think you are at the top, you really need to think again. Not only that, you most probably have the most epic of descents coming up…steep lessons for day 1. To top it off, those blogs you read before hand that warn you of beg bugs. They really weren’t making that up. A night of terrible sleep and dreaming of creepy crawlies…It will be a while before I consider staying in a refuge again!!
Day 2 – Carrozzu to Refuge de Tighjetti
Day 2 included not one vertical kilometer but 2 with a little stop in-between for chocolate crepes and coffee. When I planned this day I hadn’t really considered how hard this might be over the rocky terrain. It was quite a tough day with Via Ferrata and scrambling thrown in too.
It was a claggy and windy day and the epic amount of scree, chains and scrambling made for a pretty big day to get to the summit of Corsica’s highest mountain, Monte Cinca.
We stayed in a refuge called Tighjetti with one of the coldest showers I have ever had in my life, the only silver lining was the view across the valley, it really was something else.
Something that really amazed me throughout this trip was the cooking in such remote places. Here we had cured meat…they love cured meat and spaghetti which was then followed by a dessert of what I can only describe as apple sauce. It was however home made and simply delicious.
Some of the guide books miss out this hut in their itinerary but when we were planning our trip this one fitted better. It was such a fab hut, slightly different to the others, made of wood and slightly suspended meaning it swayed if it was windy. The hosts were also bonkers. At the end of our meal, they brought out a cleaning bottle, I presumed to wipe down the tables until he demanded you opened your mouth in which he then squirted grappa! It was quite hilarious, I am sure he probably does it every evening but it made for a lot of fun and there was no point in trying to avoid it, you would just be covered in grappa!
Day 3 – Tighjetti to Castellu di Vergio
A fab start to today, beautiful woodland trails and the sun had made another appearance. The terrain up until this point had all been really rocky and really quite challenging so as we headed in to woodland we really stretched out our legs and ran. It doesn’t really matter where I am in, it always pleases me to pass people and we passed a lot of people today.
John was constantly reminding me that we still had a long way to go and this wasn’t a race!
After the runnable section the climbing started again to reach a col. We arrived to be greeted by some pretty strong winds so layered up and took shelter to get some food in. It was at this point we discovered our kitten that I had rescued had teethed on John’s waterproof!! Not ideal, the zip at the bottom was unusable and so John spent the rest of the trip marginally concerned that if the weather really did get bad… the cause of his demise would have been a kitten!
During this section we came across beautiful clear rock pools to cool down in and crazy mountain cows randomly roaming around… they would just suddenly appear on the side of a mountain that you would never once think possible for a cow to be standing. We never quite understood how those cows were there.
We arrived at our destination in good spirits and enjoyed our first beer.
Day 4 – Castellu di Vergio to Refuge de Petra Piana
I woke up tired on day 4. I think we had completed about 6,000m at this point. I reckon it took me about an hour to get going but once we were off we were off. It probably hadn’t helped that we set off super early and both thought we would be ok on a cereal bar and a banana… this was most definitely not the case.
We were both pretty silent for that 17km and as we arrived at refuge de Manganu decided that we really needed to sort out our nutritional strategy…basically we needed to eat more! The host at Manganu made us probably the best omelette and cup of coffee I have ever tasted and we were fortunate to have made it there just as we had our first proper storm.
We sheltered for an hour with a guy in a straw hat before starting off on the rockiest of ascents out of the valley…just another vertical kilometer out the valley. The guy in the straw hat slowly disappeared, we never did see him again, we presume he turned around and went back… failing that, he may still be out there!
We appeared at the col and then contoured around a basin with beautiful lakes far down below.
As per most days we thought we would just pop over another col and be at Petra Piano but this would not be the case and there was more scrambling to be done. It was here that I was amazed to pass a lady having a real epic on some of the terrain. There were huge boulders to hop along with steep descents either side to some degree so I suppose there was some exposure but she was having real trouble. I was just amazed given what she will have covered in the days before, they must have had some really long days.
It was at this point we looked back and could see the clag coming towards us. We made a swift move and carried on quickly to the refuge. Petra Piano was the first refuge we came across that had actually shut due to the bed bugs. We did however note that later that day when all the tents had gone, people were then going into the refuge which I thought was pretty bad…no wonder they were spreading to all the huts!
Day 5 – Petra Piano to Vizzavona
This was probably my favourite day. I woke up snug in my tent, I opened the tent door and looked out to a stunning sunrise. We were pretty high up at Petra Piano (1842m), and as I sat there looking out across the mountains with a coffee I felt pretty content with life.
That day we were off to Vizzavona, the half way point. There was a lot of rocky climbing again but as ever, this was awarded with stunning vistas.
There was also beautiful woodland trails and this is where you started to see the landscape slowly change from the northern harsh and rocky terrain to the southern rolling hills.
En route to Vizzavona we stumbled across this small farm where we were sold some local cheese and freshly baked bread which set us up for the rest of the journey that day before plunging into some rock pools on the descent.
We treated ourselves to a hotel and paid to get all our clothes washed. Its funny how happy this made me, a whole rucksack of clean clothes…bliss!
Day 6 – Vizzavona to Refuge de Prati
I sat there at breakfast on day 6 and looked around at the room of fellow GR20ers and found it somewhat amusing. Everyone looked utterly dazed and beat, I guess for some of them they had been on the go for significantly longer than we had. We watched a guy put his arms through the straps of his rucksack, take a huge sigh, before then hauling his bag back up on to his back. Poor guy, he was clearly having a rough time and it highlighted again the importance of only packing essentials! I also noted everyone with knee supports on too or simply stuck together by tape… I guess the relentless rocky terrain was starting to take its toll on some.
We stopped off at the first hut we came across, ate possibly the biggest salami sandwich I have ever eaten, before heading off again to the final hut of the day, Pratti.
On route we had a few rain drops which got heavier and heavier. We decided to take shelter before we got utterly drenched. We found shelter under a derelict hut with a few others to wait out the storm.
It was here we came across what we now know was a Salamander. I was convinced it was out to get me. It was black and yellow and as I kicked dirt at it to scare it and hope it moved, all it did was turn its head and then slowly returned it to look back at me, I was getting ready to run. To put in to context this creature was only about 4 inches long!
Eventually we made it to Pratti, there was the usual climb to get to but now this climb was easier going that the first half of this trip, and we were greeted by the host. Lovely guy but I could have been in the depths of Salford. A Chelsea smile, tattoos on his hands and a T-shirt saying ‘f**k off’….I most definitely made sure I ate all my dinner that evening!
Day 7 – Refuge de Prati to Refuge de Matalza
After spending most of the night trying desperately not to slide away…it appeared our tent was on a bit of a slant. We were greeted with another stunning sunrise and for breakfast the usual dry bread, jam and the most unspreadable butter you could ever find making the use of a spork very difficult since I had snapped the knife bit off!
The run started with some scrambling and of course, climbing before opening up into some small, rocky, runnable sections. We came across a small hut in the woods which we thought was the next stop but on closer observation wasn’t the hut at all and looking at the map noted we probably had a few more kilometers to run. I was quite hungry at this stage but as we weren’t so far away I didn’t really think much of it.
Those kilometers however were relentless, still beautiful but I needed fuel…I had the worse bonk I have ever experienced half way up. We had to stop so I could eat a load of nuts and sweets in the hope it brought me out of it and on top of this it was an absolute scorcher of a day… progress was slow! John got me moving again referring to a group up ahead as another ‘rucksack train’ to motivate me to get moving and stir that inner competitive edge and off we plodded… we needed to pass them.
On arriving at the hut we ate an almighty amount of bread… a whole loaf in fact, a huge block of cheese and some cured meat… for dessert a huge block of chocolate! I was ready to go! The rest of the trail was beautiful, a bit more scrambling, a traverse and then a lovely forest trail. We had a swim in some rock pools then headed off to Refuge de Matalzza. Matalzza was again very different in terms of landscape and reminded me of the terrain a little back home in the lake district. We had warm showers, a beer and a chill out in a deck chair…amazing!
What made me laugh here was that we were fenced in and the cows and horses around us were roaming free. There were a lot of them about now and it was another difference to the start of this trip, we had a lot more wildlife.
A cow did break in and was very insistent he joined us despite being run out numerous times by the host, it was quite entertaining. We also stopped to chat to a German guy in Matalzza who was walking the trail at the age of 69 having previously completed it 30 years earlier. He was an absolute legend, not a dry bag or waterproof in site just plastic carrier bags and his things were just randomly stuffed in a rucksack that had definitely seen better days. When we asked how long he had been walking for he had absolutely no idea!
We don’t actually have any pictures of Matalza. When I asked John about this I described it as the place where the German guy had his off white Y fronts drying outside his tent, John explained this is probably why we don’t have any pictures!!
Day 8 – Matalza to Village de Bavella
It is funny the GR20, you look at the map before setting off and note that the second half definitely has less ascent and in my head was clearly going to be much easier and therefore mean much quicker days. How very wrong I was as I had clearly failed to consider that we would have been on the trail for 7 days at this point. Day 8 involved more undulations, more scrambling but not as hard as the first half and more of those beautiful woodland trails that suddenly open up to the most amazing views. It is these views that keep you going and moving.
We arrived at our final destination for that day in Col de Bavella. Bavella is a tourist hot spot and it was strange to all of a sudden be surrounded by people… All of a sudden became acutely aware that we probably looked and smelt pretty bad! I had booked us a hotel for this evening and we treated ourselves to a lovely 3 course meal and had an amazing storm to watch….I was glad we were in a hotel that night!
Day 9 – Bavella to Conca – The penultimate day
Another gorgeous sunrise to start the day, I miss those sunrises, they were really something else. My knees had started to ache a little by day 9 but that was ok, I had prepared for some aching given the challenge and was quite happy that I had got that far before having any issues. I was pretty disappointed this was the last day, I was tired and the climbing was becoming a little relentless but it was amazing and everyday really felt like an adventure. I really didn’t want it to end.
A forest trail started the day before opening up on to more rocky terrain. This however was very runnable and we loved rock hoping and watching the kilometers pass freely compared to those earlier days.
Out of all our days in Corsica this was probably the most actual running we had done since we started. We arrived in Conca and had a celebratory photo:
We then had a massive beer…we had made it! Conca is a little unassuming village and as the guide book said, locals really were not that interested, they had seen and heard it all before!
This type of trip, running between huts, travelling light was amazing. As I said at the start, 7 days would probably be sufficient but the whole adventure was a lot of fun.
The biggest thing I would change if we did it again would be to take our own tent…I really hadn’t appreciated how bad the bed bug situation would be. I would also definitely factor in more food stops, I definitely underestimated how much fuel we were going to need!
Our stats: 132 miles, 13,112m Ascent in 55 hours and 5 mins.