(as told in offline tweets)
I was going to go trekking in Sapmi ("Lapland") again this year, but all of a sudden September was nearly a third of the way over, and with fall casting long shadows over Estonia, I had a feeling I would get snowed on this time if I tried to brave the Arctic again. I had read about the GR20, a long-distance hiking trail in Corsica, and it seemed perfect... if a bit of a challenge. Comparisons are often made with the NE part of the Appalachian Trail or Snowdonia, where glaciers and erosion have stripped the mountains to the raw and trails often follow bare rock slab and couloirs.
Tearing myself away from work and family to take a week-long backpacking trip is hard. Whether Lapland, the Tatras or parts beyond, reaching mountains from Estonia generally involves two days of travel on each end, so basically the trip starts pushing two weeks. The whole undertaking is like trying to reach escape velocity. Even until the last minute, it's not clear whether something will pull you back to earth at the last moment -- a request from a client to look over one more document, a minor family emergency.... the possibilities are endless.
Ryanair continues to come through for me. I don't know what I would do if it didn't offer its Bergamo route. It's a great gateway to Southern Europe, and it's now available from Tampere, Tallinn or Riga -- the Tallinn flight being the highest-priced of the three, of course; how could it not be?
From Bergamo, cost-effective Italian trains and a slightly less cost-effective French regional train (pink pastel and frosted glass) get me to Nice. At one point I look up and notice the station is Monte Carlo. A guy in the Depardieu mold and a gorgeous black woman board, it's just commuter traffic, but the people (other than Depardieu) look very beautiful. Even the Depardieu does nothing coarse but just engages in eloquent small talk.
I arrive in Nice, no sign of Le Pen or anything reactionary. ALso, people wear loud Bermuda shorts here -- in the city. This isn't Italy. I stay the night in a train-station hotel, actually had to use the AC in the hotel room.
I raid an nearby Indian store for all sorts of snack mixes...Makai mixture etc, all with about 20 ingredients in them and based around rice, gram flour and potatoes, oil and spices...perfect trail food. You have to have respect for a country -- India, I mean -- whose junk food contains watermelon seed and spinach and a perfect balance of protein. I also found cute tubes of creme de marrons de l'Ardeche -- the sweet French chestnut spread -- perfect for backpacking or kids.
Arrived in Calvi, Corsica, the next afternoon - just as beautiful an arrival by ferry as they say, with the citadel perched high over a white arc of bay.
Arrive at Calinzana, a slightly inland small town, the northern trailhead of the GR20.
Mystified that it costs 8 euros to go 14 km from Calvi, but there you go. Unlike say Sicily, rural public transport is irregular and expensive in Corsica. It's only the population of Iceland and they all have Citroens.
I start ascending the trail that Friday night. The maquis (sagebrush/heather smells intoxicating. Probably is. Notes of wild thyme, but it's heady creosote and myrrh fragrances that predominate. Can't ID them. Exotic. Never smelled anything like it. Guess that's why they even have a Corsican beer flavored with aromes du maquis.
Heat is a major factor. It's perhaps only 24 in the shade, but the brilliant white Med light pours down -- until it doesn't anymore, and the sun rather abruptly sets. I had forgotten that September is still a summer month. I'm not sure August really is, in Estonia.
Overall I'm happy with pack weight, but all but impossible to get it under 20 kg. No camping fuel, so I'll eat dry food and whatever the refuges offer.
I stash my laptop on the back side of a rock outcrop, but I don't use GPS. I'm confident I can find it again based on landmarks.
Blackberries all over the place on the first kms of trail. I must be the only one who gobbles handfuls as I go. Old obsessive habit from Oregon.
First refuge is Piobbu and despite being the first one on the trail, it's remote, high up and rustic and family-run. Menu is lentils figatellu. (Figatellu would appear over and over in various combinations, it's halfway between liverwurst and boudin noir sausage.)
I'm sitting at a picnic table on the shady side of the refuge when someone shouts to me. One of the refuge horses is ransacking my backpack. Luckily not a whole lot of damage it could do, but one of the zippers is open and the horse is pushing a freeze-dried food envelope along the ground.
I reluctantly fork over 6 euros, the cost of pitching a tent outside the refuge. Level ground is expensive in Corsica. Wild camping is illegal everywhere in France, but I don't really see any way to do it anyway in this area. You would think there would be some level patch, maybe curled up by the roots of a tree, but there really isn't.
Despite the lack of fair warning about their horses and dogs roaming around looking to steal hikers' food, I decide I like the refuge proprietors and that it's not a scam.
A Corsican sandwich at the refuge costs 8 euros. Sure it's generous enough, but I'm sure its no bigger or richer than a pane cunzatu in Scopello, Sicily (a tad over 2 euros, also in quite a remote place).
Economics are making me a Sicilian patriot all over again. The prices in France and Corsica have been astronomical.
DAY 2: HIGH COUNTRY
Day 1 was just relentless uphill, but day 2 is a taste of the classic GR20. All granite ridges. The forest, and any kind of soil for that matter, is now far behind. Just knife-edge scrambles over rock, no sign of trail on the ridges ahead, it doesn't look possible: But it never becomes too extreme. No cables or chains, nothing death-defying.
I do two stages of 4 or 5 hours each, stop at Refuge Carrozzu (1200 m) for lunch, get an omelette with mint and brocciu (a fetalike sheep cheese). Nine euros. Apparently the hike up from a place called Bonifatu is easy, place starts filling up with retirees pretty quickly around noon. I push on.
It's a double-day. Don't know how many km, because everyone and all the guidebooks measure the trails in hours, without exception.
From Carozzu, back up to the high country and another similar stage of granite and scrambling, finally a 2000-ft steep descent to Haut Asco, a ski station. It's line-of-sight with the ski station nearly all the way, but the destination is pretty much at a 45 degree downward angle.
Haut Asco isn't too bad. It's a bit functionalist with a lot of gravel, the way most ski resorts are after the snow melts, but the place has a nice cozy ambience and feels very far away from the rest of the world.
A fox invades my backpack at 5am and makes off with some charcuterie. Good riddance, with regard to that particular piece of saucisse. I got lucky, though. Would had to miss a day of hiking waiting to resupply if it had gotten into the main part of the provisions.
DAY 3 -- MONTE CINTU TRAVERSE
I decide not to do the most famous part of the GR20, the Cirque de Solitude. It involves a descent of several hundred meters with ladders and cables into a chasm and then back out again. The reason is not so much fear of heights as the fact that there are lots of people. I think I could keep a cool head, but I can just see myself getting hit by a rock or getting stuck behind someone on a ledge.
I climb Corsica's highest mountain, Cintu, instead, planning to do a traverse and rejoin the GR20 after the Cirque de Solitude. Weather is nothing but sun and have map and compass.
The opening sections of the climb are slightly beyond scrambling and more into the realm of light mountaineering. Don't think I could retraced my way back down with a backpack. Not without a rope. A bit of a queasy feeling. But the rest is OK. I get to a 2600 m saddle just below the summit, where I descend 300 m through loose scree (like poor man's skiing) to a lake at 2300 m.
After a nice lunch, I strap on my backpack and make my way over large boulders to the trail on the other side of the lake when yow, my ankle suddenly gives, for no seeming reason. Must not have been concentrating or sleepy. The endorphins rush to the scene but it's clear after a few minutes that the pain isn't going away and that the outside spur of the ankle is going to swell up. It's happened before. Fourth sprain of this ankle in my life, I decide to pop two Advils and keep walking as long as I can - a big descent separates me and the next refuge.
Walking is not fun, I have to concentrate hard to avoid worse injury, and I'm dreading how much it might stiffen up overnight.
Rest, Ice, Compression,Elevation. Well, not much rest.
The shelter is unmanned/creepy but it allows me to rest up and do things I ordinarily wound't do, like elevate my feet up on the table and relieve myself not too far from the hut on Depardieu-like demand. I sleep in a bunk on a mattress and it costs nothing, for once.
DAY 4 - LIMPING TO CIVILIZATION
I tape my ankle with loops of duct tape to just under tourniquet tension and set off. Not too bad really. It feels very tight, but it's not just the duct tape. The ankle doesn't want to pivot very much, not that it should. Luckily the trail joins an access road to an abandoned auberge and serpentines down the mountain to the village of Lozzi.
Lozzi has two incredibly restful looking campgrounds under chestnut trees with deep shade, but so I continue 3.5 km to Calacuccia, a bigger sort of regional small town with maybe 1000 people, set on a reservoir.
This is the central highland valley (900 m), between towering Monte Cinto on one side and the fourth-highest peak on the other.
I walk the level 3 km to the next village, Albertacce, and check into the gite d'etape (€16), which is a simple convent-like hostel. No one is here, but I relax, make myself at home, call the posted tel. number to check if there is vacancy.
A sign says l'accueil se fera a partir de 18 hrs, words and grammar that stump me. Later the host does show up at 6pm to welcome us (which is what the sign meant) and take our money and orders for breakfast. There's a lot of fuss over breakfast and what will be served, I can't make out all of the French, but it sounds shady. The breakfast costs 8 euros but I have a hunch that it will be Melba toast in cellophane and prepackaged little jams. It is, so I'm glad I opted out.
A SURPRISINGLY BLAND MEAL
The meal with the local restaurant that is partnered with the gite is pretty bad, bland food. A 20-euro menu fix with a saltless soup (only some kind of sorrel-like herb saves it), then a huge portion of veau in sauce, also over the same soggy fettucine that was in the soup. But for a hiker, I guess it's good, and the portions are massive.
DAY 4 - THE LONG WALK
I walk 3 km back to Calacuccia wait in front of the Hotel des Touristes for a bus that will take me up to the pass at Col de Vergio. I figure I can do what I do yesterday with a heavily taped ankle and make my way back to my starting point using another alternate route. The GR20 would be too rocky and rough.
The bus never comes. I go into the hotel and ask, the administrator says the driver is sick. There will be no public transport today.
I walk. It's the Sentier de la Transhumance, and it's a beautiful section, all through deep forest, steadily uphill, but not steeply. Unfortunately I use up much of my energy on the 12 km up to the low pass at Vergio.
From there, it's a brief 1 km on the GR20 and then the Sentier de la Transhumance splits off to the west over the great divide, for a route that parallels the GR20 back north but which I imagine will be more rolling.
I split off the GR20 at the junction and climb a 200 m pass to the island's divide at 1800 m as afternoon dark clouds build around the summits... and to my dismay, on the other side, I see not rolling dun hills, but craggy, high mountains as far as the eye can see, dotted with nary a farm or anything man-made. I'm wondering when I will get back now.( I'm only 18 km or so from my starting point as the bird flies, BTW.)
The descent from the divide pass is another killer one. I can't believe this is the trail shepherds used for their migrations.
Eventually after 2 hours I reach a refuge in a deep valley, where a strange man with white hair is the gardien. He seems a little like Assange, a little like something out of the Enlightenment. There is a satellite dish mounted on the refuge and he is working at a Mac Pro with a million windows open, with classical music blasting and bars on an equalizer in one of the windows blinking.
He says enthusiastically that it is only three and a half more hours to Monte Estremu. It's about 5pm. At this point I am off my only IGN quadrant map. I figure Monte Estremu is the name of the next refuge. (I ask questions, but don't think to ask everything - I'm however sure it's not an actual mountain, as I am not in a state to climb anymore.) There is a low pass, but only a 200 m ascent. Then, a 900 m descent to the valley of the Fango River.
I push on, as I have a lot of ground to cover if I am to arrive back on day 6/7. After a long, long descent I finally get to a tributary of the Fango, and find myself on a gravel road that goes on and on, again with no place to camp. I probably do 25 km this day, I finally have to camp on a wider shoulder of road. I put some brightly colored bags between the tent and the carriageway on the very unlikely chance that anyone will be driving up here in the absolutely desolate forest. Another fox comes at nightfall but I'm ready and I stamp my feet and throw pebbles. It's all pretty deplorable but sleep comes quickly and it doesn't matter.
DAY 5 - BIRTHDAY
I push on down to Monte Estremu, which is not a refuge but the first of a string of villages.
I feast on figs growing semi-wild below the village. Apparently the minerals are what the doctor ordered. I still need a coffee like all get out, though.
I reach a cafe that doesn't seem like it should be there (by the laws of economics and demand) and have a double coffee, which is superb, the friendly but very peasant-like proprietor sits down at my table and we have a nice conversation in French-Italian pidgin.
Then a road walk to Tuarelli, elevation only 90 m. The Fangu is a beautiful river, clear as all the rivers on Corsica. I have a good meal -- trout with ratatouille (15 euros) at a idyllic auberge. I may embarrass the owners with my compliments, but rarely has food tasted so good. Certainly the fish is fresh and local.
Two more stages to go until Calenzana, where i started the hike. But another miscalculation -- the maps show only a 590 m pass -- small beans. I meet two other hikers coming down just before the pass. They assure me that after the pass the trail follows the contour lines. But what's this, 90 minutes after the pass at about 6 km/h, I have been relentlessly climbing. After the good meal, I drank about 1.5 litres of water. I'm carrying 2.6 litres of water but now 2 of that is gone...and it sure looks like I will have to get into the high country again. How high, is the question.
1200 m is the answer. Much more than I had thought. Then a 600 m descent. This I can do. To Bonifatu and another roadhead. This is a swanker auberge. It's only 18 km by road from Calvi. I have a Pietra (chestnut national beer), €3. I camp "illegally" in the vicinity and have a nice night of sleep. One more stage to go.
DAY 6 - I set off at 5am on the last stage: The ankle seems to be getting stiffer every morning, though usually an hour of walking tends to loosen it up. Luckily after a murderous section to cross the creek near Bonifatu, the trail joins a forest road and follows an easy grade. I keep on worrying whether the trail will split off the road again (it's still dark) but luckily everything is so well-marked with orange blazes.
I pass another fig tree. Good timing. Then, finally, I rejoin the GR20 where i started, drop my pack, hike up to the rock outcropping...and CAN'T FIND MY COMPUTER. Nothing is backed up.
It looks like someone has moved the rocks I placed on top of the cavity. The hills have eyes all of a sudden. I pace, retrace, curse, mutter and rave. Two German hikers -- morning departures on the GR20 trail are picking up -- are resting on the other side of the outcrop probably wondering what is going on. In the end, though I glimpse the laptop bag peeking out about 10 feet from where I thought I had stashed it. Everything is OK and intact.
The way back to Estonia, though -- that's another post, or three.