(03) 9331 0951

My experience of GR 20 “walk” in Corsica in a Nutshell

Tony and I decided to do this ‘Grand Rondenez’, a 195km challenging trek in Corsica (an island off the south coast of France) but we had no idea what were getting ourselves  into. Of course I agreed as I’m always up for a challenge, and had done many long distance walks before. It had been on Tony’s bucket list for around 25 years, but he’d been put off after seven people died in 2015 on a difficult stretch called the Circ de Solitude, after a small avalanche. But that bit has since officially been closed and all the cables, chains and ladders removed. It means the total distance has increased by around 15km, but there is now less risk of dying. Nonetheless, on average,6 people die on this trek each year (I assume from heart attacks, falls, exposure and the like). We heard the reassuring sound of the rescue helicopter every day.
Despite being a reasonably fit woman in my late 50s, had I known what was involved in this venture,  I would have seriously reconsidered, or at least done more intensive training. But nothing can truly prepare you for the GR20.
This trek over rugged mountains is considered one of the toughest trails in the world. We were amongst a handful of ‘older’ hikers – most were below 35 years of age, super fit and agile!
There are 16 stages between 6 to 19km in length, but with ascents and descents of a few hundred metres to 1.25 km each day (the downhills were almost as bad as the ups on the poor old knees). Don’t get fooled by the seemingly short distances – one 9km day took us over 12 hours as it was literally climbing up and down mountainsides, sometimes with chains and cables. Some fitter people double up stages, and some crazy fit people have run the entire distance in under 32 hours! How anyone could do this without breaking a limb or falling to their death is a mystery to me!
Some tour groups do bits of the walk (the ‘highlights’), some people just do the northern (more difficult) or southern section (still with some difficult days), but us 2 ‘over 58 years olds’ completed the entire trek in 15 days, armed with our bible – the Cicerone guide by Paddy Dillon. It took us 3 days to recover afterwards, and we were still fatigued for several days after that!
Most nights we ended at a Refugio where tents were pre-erected with air mattresses that were reasonably comfy so long as the rocks underneath weren’t too big or in the wrong spots. I was reluctant to stay in the refugio beds  due to a concern with bedbugs but once we had no option & stayed within the refuge – a big room with bunk beds and the comfort of being able to stand up while getting dressed. No bedbugs found us thankfully. 3 times we reveled in the luxury of a bed and breakfast or hotel – fully appreciating having our own showers and flushing toilets with seats and loo paper provided!
We carried very little food due to weight and space constraints leaving us victim to whatever was on offer for meals and the expense of dubious quality food that had mostly been helicoptered in, at great expense. Breakfast in the refuges ranged from fresh baguettes, jam and coffee or hot chocolate, to stale white or long life bread, jam and coffee.
Lunch ranged from a baguette with cheese or charcuterie, pasta or lentil salad with occasional fruit purée (baby food), or shared tin of Nicoise salad or pate and  leftover bread.
Dinners were a tricky thing – most of the ‘guardians’ (the Refuge Fuhrers) fed everyone at 7pm, and if you were late (which we often were) we either had to wait to see if there was enough leftover for us, or it was bad luck! We had brought a couple of freeze dried meals for such occasions and used them once. Once we scrounged several tables for leftovers but after tasting the lentil soup with Corsican sausage and fresh baguettes and  it was well worthwhile!
Vegetarians had less choice, and if you have coeliac or are vegan, BYO  food would be necessary.
We carried a thermos of herbal tea for morning and afternoon tea breaks, enjoying Corsican biscuits, chocolate or muesli-type bars, trail mix with nuts and lovely homemade chestnut cake a couple of times.
The hotels had more choice with meals, and we made the most of their offerings.
We met walkers from Poland, Holland, Britain, Sardinia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, USA, Germany, Ireland, Canada, one Australian and even a couple from Moldavia. Many people did not finish the entire trek due to illness, difficulty or time constraints (as they thought they’d breeze a 9km walk in a few hours but were shocked at the reality).
Highlights:
  • Magnificent views of rugged mountains, waterfalls & mountain lakes
  • A variety of wildflowers, including the heady scented marquis (a mix of Gorse and Juniper)
  • Swimming in delightfully refreshing mountain pools and bathing our tired feet in cool streams
  • Finishing each day and resting our feet
  • Staying at hotels, especially the lovely bed and breakfast (Casa Alta) in Vizzavona run by 2 lovely guys who made a homemade dinner and cake for Tony with Moët & Chandon champagne for his birthday
  • The odd section where we could actually walk on an actual path
  • Hot showers and flushing toilets on the rare occasion
  • Cute cows, pigs, butterflies and goats along the paths and the odd visiting bird eager for crumbs
  • Clean clothes where a launderette was available
Low lights:
  • The relentless uphills, climbing up rocks and mountains
  • The life-threatening downhills where we needed to watch every step to avoid falling or sliding down. We both fell a couple of times & once Tony pirouetted around his poles and sustained minor injuries
  • Squat loos –  there was no chance of getting up once down so I wouldn’t risk it unless their was handholds to get up again
  • The plaintiff – ‘No food for you’ when we got there too late.
  • Cold showers, queues for showers and smelly showers
Comments from others:
  • Backbreaking
  • Toenail removing
  • Life-threatening
  • Relentless (especially walking up Monte Cinto)
  • Low view to effort ratio (I’m sure there are  a thousand other walks in the world with similarly spectacular walks with way less effort)
  • Spectacular!
Top Tips if you are considering the GR 20
  • Do you really want to do this??
  • Take minimal stuff. We had 22 and 24 litre packs (largish day pack size) and took one change of clothes (socks, undies, shirt) and washed what we were wearing most evenings (unless we were super tired). I had long pants with legs that zipped off and could be used as shorts. If the washing wasn’t dry, we’d leave them outside the pack while walking. Thankfully we had great weather every day and only a few spots of rain on a couple of days.
  • Consider how much water you need – if there are ‘sources’ along the route, you may consider taking less water and filling up regularly to minimise weight.
  • Sleeping bags are a must – we had a super light one and a warm liner. In the high altitudes at night we used both with full gear on including long pants, thermal top, thermal puffer jacket and I used the hood while sleeping. Other nights just the liner was enough
  • I felt walking poles (2) were essential for balance and to help with the ascents and to take the weight off the descents. Sometimes they were a hindrance when climbing rock faces, but you can always condense them and clip them to you pack (a time consuming exercise).
  • Leave early to beat the heat of the day. Most trekkers were gone by 6.30 am when we were just waking up, and despite our best efforts, our earliest departure time was 7.50am and the latest after 10am
  • Timing is critical. If you start too early in June, there may still be snow. We started from Calenzana in 9th June but 3 days earlier people had been turned back due to snow and were bussed down and forced to start from the south. Before June most of the Refugio’s are closed. I can’t imagine walking in July and August for 2 reasons – it’s very busy as everyone is on holidays and it’s very hot! September might be lovely too, but we heard there are storms and rain. I wouldn’t fancy any of the climbs along wet rock faces – they were slippery enough!
  • We booked tents ahead do we knew we had somewhere to sleep.
  • Paddy Dillon’s Cicerone guide is essential reading. Even some French people were using it in preference to their local guide book.