The Climber's Wife


Posted on August 8, 2015

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In the Frankenjura (or, Franconian Switzerland, if you will) the state of bucolic bliss is occasionally interrupted with grunts and squeals.  You would be forgiven for wondering what had upset the wild boar, but in fact this is the ritual call of the ascending (or rapidly descending) sport climber.

The last time we visited we had stayed in Egloffstein, which is a gorgeous little village, complete with tiny castle.  As we had the van, this trip we stayed in forests and tucked away meadows.  I love the area, it is just so incredibly pretty: there are sweet little farms, fields of ripening wheat and barley, lowing fat cattle, dripping fruit trees, forests of beech, steep valleys and spires of rock.

There is a ridiculous amount of rock to choose from in the Frankenjura and there are grades to suit all levels.  The Climber enjoyed the cave at Wolfsberg (which was handy because we needed to visit the mechanic there anyway) and I loved all the easy grades around Barnfels.  In Barnfels village we made a lovely friend, who offered us water (German villages lack the village drinking fountains that are ubiquitous throughout France and Spain).  The crag at Wolfstein had something for both of us.  Kuhlochfelsen was beautifully situated in a forest of tall beeches and had some harder routes that the Climber approved of.  We visited a bunch of other crags but I’ve forgotten the names of them (!).  The climbing is usually on sharpish pocketty limestone (no tufas here) and single pitch sport climbs are the norm.  Belaying is awesome because you are almost always standing on flat ground with nice soft leaf litter and plenty of shade (although, having said that, you need extra layers even on sunny days because of the shade).

Of course Frankenjura isn’t just about the climbing, it’s also home to some quirky customs and lovely people.  We were passing through one little village and saw that they were erecting a Maibaum (which was a bit odd, considering it was July).  Of course we decided to stop and watch their efforts and have a delicious German beer in the little festival area.  Their Maibaum was basically an enormous pine tree that had been stripped off all of its branches, save about 6 feet worth at the top – a little Christmas tree perched on a big stick.  It was decorated by three hanging rings, encircling the trunk.  Sadly, the top part (the Christmas tree bit) had half snapped off and was dangling dramatically on the half hoisted Maibaum.  An elderly man, wearing a proper Bavarian hat, filled us in on the action.  The top part had been insufficiently reinforced having suffered a crack in the felling process and had, predictably enough, snapped.  He was deeply unimpressed by the shoddy workmanship of the youth of today but seemed resigned to the shame that would fall upon the village when these young fools completely failed to erect the Maibaum.

The young men (well, young-ish) weren’t having a bar of it and called in reinforcements.  A gigantic front loader crawled its way over from the far meadow and was greeted enthusiastically.  After much discussion, and a complete disregard for occupational health and safety, one of the men jumped into the bucket with a chainsaw attached to a pole (not just sticky-taped on, it’s a proper attachment for pruning trees).  He was hoisted into the air and bravely sawed away until the Christmas tree crashed to the ground.  It did look quite a bit like cheating.  In any event, they were then able to continue the process of hoisting the Maibaum upright using the traditional long poles.  Our elderly friend was hugely amused.

Back to Milan

Posted on August 8, 2015

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After leaving Ceuse, we headed to Milan for a lovely few days with one of the Climber’s sisters, Miss Moneypenny the accountant.  While waiting for her we stayed in the carpark of a suburban Burger King, which was actually a lot more comfortable than it sounds.  Nevertheless we were quite pleased to move into the comparative luxury of an AirB&B apartment. Toilets! Showers! Standing room!

Our little city break was mostly taken up with strolling around the centre of town.  The area is perfect for peramulation – so many wonderful buildings, so many fashionable people, so many amusingly indiscrete tourists.  I also stopped by the stylist I raved about last year and got my hair cut.  It was absolutely wonderful, again.  You really ought to visit if you’re in Milan dahhhrling.

The Duomo annoyed me by refusing entry (my arms were bare).  Why can’t they have robe thingies like most major mosques do?  I also got pooped on by a bird, which really didn’t help my mood.   I almost didn’t go in the next day because I was still annoyed.  I can be so delightfully childish sometimes.

While the Duomo was obviously impressive, I much preferred our trip out to MA*GA which is a contemporary gallery in the City of Gallerate (a suburb of Milan).  The exhibition was drawn from the collection and had some really interesting work, especially the sculptures. We had a lovely little picnic in a nearby park afterwards.  When we returned to the van (parked at the gallery) we discovered that the empty carpark had been turned into a cricket field.  Apparently there are a lot of Pakistani immigrants in Milan (predominantly single young men) and they don’t have anywhere to play cricket, so they use the car park.  The Climber was thrilled to be invited to join in and spent the rest of the afternoon playing while Miss Moneypenny and I had cups of tea and played the uke.

We also had an excursion out to Lake Como.  We had a very enjoyable banana mash fight on the train.

I didn’t see George at Como, but the Climber is handsome enough anyway so I just gazed at him adoringly.  I also saved some gazing for the lake itself, which is quite romantic.  Elegant 18th century buildings sun themselves between the water’s edge and the mountain’s feet and unhurried pleasure seekers stroll the promenades.   We found a lovely little private beach/pool sort of place and the three of us spent most of the day on sun loungers pretending to be famous.

After waving goodbye to Miss Moneypenny we headed to the Dolomites.  Unfortunately rain had by then set in in northern Italy.  We nevertheless spent a couple of days pleasantly mooching in the mountains, enjoying the gorgeous scenery: jagged silhouettes glimpsed between clouds and occasional impressive vistas down into valleys dotted with doll’s houses.  I stocked up on good quality pasta and amusing gnocchi type things.

We made an executive decision to head north to Germany, to try and escape the rain (which I know sounds quite odd).  We were starting to run out of time – my visa was expiring in four weeks and I had a flight to Kathmandu booked out of Paris via Berlin.

Buoux and Ceuse

Posted on October 5, 2014

I like boats. There is something about sailing away into the (literal) sunset that just seems so right. It’s even better when you’ve sailed away (a little sadly) from Corsican paradise and you end up in a tiny, rambling Provençal village bowered with flowers, holding hands with your lover and waiting for delightful friends.

We were meeting the French Chef and the Irish Yogini, a sunshine-y couple I had met in Nepal on my yoga course. We were to stay in their family summer house. If you just let your mind wander to the subject of honey coloured homes in Provence, bathed in the lavender light of the long twilight and you’ve probably got an excellent idea of their place.

That first evening we were whisked away to dine with a gregarious bunch of friends – all laughter and waving hands and glasses of pastis and fields of dripping cherry trees. Over the next few days we entered into the summer lifestyle – late rising, delicious breakfasts, short walks through fragrant fields to the local matriarch’s pool and long luxurious meals under a generous tree. There were World Cup games, tipple in hand and me slightly confused about what was going on, games of Patonque (my new favourite summer sport), excursions to achingly scenic medieval villages and monasteries (my god! the lavender fields!) and even a few yoga practices in the cool of the morning or afternoon. The light was golden and mellow and perfect.

We were left far too relaxed to bother much with climbing, though we did though take a day trip to Buoux.

Buoux is in a very pretty little valley – a small stream runs along the valley floor and cliffs rise up on both sides. The walk-in is quite short but the crag seems to have fallen from favour and thus the tracks are getting a little overgrown. Navigating without a guidebook can be a bit tricky and one should be careful not to accidentally lead one’s wife up a ten metre vertical scramble, unless one has a plan for getting her back down again.

Other than the polish, the climbing was reported to be very good and the view was charming. We probably would have spent a few more days there except that we had some delicious french food and a pool to return to.

In the fullness of time we did eventually tear ourselves away from the Chef and the Yogini to head to Ceuse. Unfortunately, by the time we got to this legendary crag the Climber had managed to pick up a disgusting bug and wasn’t in much shape to climb. Nevertheless we spent two days there and he got to touch the rock and say hi to a few Spanish climbers who had also come up.

Ceuse is a big horseshoe of cliff, thrust up from the surrounding low hills. From the campground or the carpark (we stayed in the campground for the fun of having hot showers) it is about an hour walk uphill to the crag. I was dreading this as I’d envisaged a revolting climber style path scrambling it’s way up a slippery hill. However, up until the last 200 meters or so, the walk-in is along a properly marked and reasonably maintained walker’s trail and so, although steep, it is quite easy going. The scenery as you ascend and at the crag is lovely. Green rolling hills, with mountains off in the distance and trees and ferns and wildflowers at your feet. Very romantic, if you like your romance tinted with the odour of sweat, climbing chalk and shoes…

GR 20 Part 2

Posted on October 1, 2014

After waving farewell to Dr Wonderland in Bastia, I unsuccessfully attempted to drown my misery in a glass of rather pleasant wine. I proceeded to clump around the town thinking dark thoughts about the evils of employment and resupplying my food stash. I then plopped, tired, grumpy and bereft of friends, onto the train.

It was however impossible to maintain a proper spirit of dejectedness on the ride out to Calvi. The scenery was absolutely magnificent – mountains, ravines, pretty farms, aching forests all flashed by. As we swung towards the town the sea glittered out to the right and pine forests darkened to the left. Ahhh! A new adventure.

The town of Calvi has a number of claims to fame, not least it’s glorious long white beach and the imposing stone citadel. The town also has the dubious honour of being the scene of the battle in which Admiral Lord Nelson lost an eye an of being one of the places the dashing (alleged) killer of Rasputin came to party and plot following the Russian Revolution.

I only spent a half hour or so exploring before heading to the hotel to meet up with Dr Newcastle, who was to be my walking partner for this first (although my second) half of the GR20. We had an excitable reunion, involving a lot of packing and repacking, before I luxuriated in a hot shower and we settled down for our last sleep in a proper bed.

The next morning, a perfect blue sky smiled on us and day, a rather fancy taxi picked us up. Although, to my mind, the rich leather interior didn’t entirely justify the €50 fee for the 14 minute trip to Calenzana. Lighter of pocket, we found our way from the village square to the first of the GR20’s red and white markers.

The trail began with a gentle ascent through the gorgeously scented marquis. Behind us were bright views of the sea – which stretched ever further, the higher we climbed. We had morning tea at Bocca u Saltu, enjoying the slightly hazy view of the watercolour ocean and the and the palette of greens before it. Our eyes dwelt on all sorts of rock flowers and grasses, a few wind twisted trees (suggesting the cruelty of the winter air up here) and a myriad of weather shaped stones and clinging mosses.

In the passing morning we had some fun little scrambles over the first of the trail’s granite outcrops. Later we passed near the summit of Capu Ghiovu, where we stopped for lunchtime sandwiches. From there we could see the tiny form of the Refuge d l’Ortu di u Piobbu across a yawning ravine. It took quite a while to walk around the feature but we were rewarded at last with a warm welcome and a clean tent. That evening I enjoyed some light yoga and then supped like a Queen on a hearty cream of mushroom soup topped with mushrooms fried in a wild herb butter and a crumble of hard cheese and all served with a small loaf of warm crusty bread: delish! Dr Newcastle ate Deb (rehydrated potato). I had discovered, to my dismay, that Dr Newcastle was of the firm opinion that food, when hiking, should be considered as fuel and nothing more – eek!!! We agreed to disagree.

Our walk the next morning began with a stroll through a young birch forest where silent opals of dew and clinging crystals of overnight rain shivered on every leaf. The path then turned upwards, becoming steeping and rockier as we went on. There were very pretty wildflowers dotted about, including bright purple stands of a kind of hollyhock or Canterbury bell sort of flower. There were also lots of ants. I sat on some.

We came eventually to an imposing cliff face, but it was easy enough to pick our way around the base and scramble across the rocks. A stream that trickles down the granite is slowly carving it’s way into the rock. Enough dirt has washed or blown into the crevices near to stream for some determined marquis plants and certain well resolved but stunted trees to grow. The spring green is a boon on the granite path and we stopped for a very pleasant apple and cheese morning tea to enjoy it. Afterwards we continued up what feels like a stone staircase, unfortunately sized for giants, and thus involving quite a bit of scrambling. As the path moves through some scrub we came across some absolutely gorgeous crocuses nodding, bright eyed, out from around rocks and stones.

We continued uphill until we reached the gap at Bocca Piccaia which offered a wonderful view of soaring jagged mountains and rock spires rising up above the Ladroncellu valley, far below us. The rolling white, grey and black clouds added a frightening intensity to the scene.

From the bocca there was a fun scrambly section with some cute bouldery moves and a little bit of exposure. Despite a bit of rain, I quite enjoyed myself on the rocks, buoyed up every now and then by a glimpse of crocus and of the mountain views as the clouds parted.

Eventually of course, all good things must end and our days walk did with an absolutely disgusting, slippery, scree-ish, spiky-plant infested steep descent. To add to my good humour, a bouncy French teenager helpfully suggested that I should have used my poles differently in the morning so that I too could run down the hill like he was doing now in the afternoon. I left many responses unspoken.

When we finally reached the refuge at Carozzu I was somewhat mollified by the amazing views of the mountains from the deck. There was also a wonderful sunny little nook that I found to dry my things out and have a quiet little meditation.

Dr Newcastle’s morning began with another run-in with the grumpy guardian (the guardian had managed to enrage peaceful Dr Newcastle the night before by refusing to let us swap our zipless tent for a zipping one). She hissed at the doctor (you need to imagine this with a french accent and evil glare) “you have left it too late to leave now, you will never make it” (insert manic laughter). Not an auspicious start to the day.

Fortunately, the grumpy guardian was entirely wrong and we were to end up at Haut Asco well before dusk, although it was indeed a solid days walk. It began with a steep and rocky descent through pine forest, with a few slabby parts protected by cables. We then came to a suspension bridge that crossed the Ruisseau de Spasimata – an absolutely gorgeous river and series of pools carved out of the grey stone by the river. Once across, we were at the foot of the Spasimata slabs, a series of huge granite plates toppled on top of one another to form a giant’s causeway up into the sky. Fortunately it was a dry morning and so the slabs really weren’t too bad to navigate despite my paralysing fear of grey slabs of doom. In fact, the thing that actually slowed me down was the magnificent scenery. I couldn’t help pausing every two seconds to look around at the pinnacles of rock, the huge sky and drink in the mountain air.

After quite a bit more climbing on a path through scrub we came to the little Lac de la Murvella, held in the bowl of a mountain’s hand. We stopped to have a snack and watch how other walkers tackled the snowy ascent up the north facing gully to the gap. While there was still plenty of snow, it was mushy and brown in places and looked terribly uninviting. In the end, it wasn’t all that difficult to make our way up, we just followed the main track and felt clever about bringing walking poles on the hike. At the gap there was a lovely view upwards to the peak of Muvrella and after a scramble around the corner we could see, way down in the valley, the buildings at Haut Asco.

After a long descent, we managed to get into the refuge, grab a big tent and even shower before the rain came (and when it arrived, it poured). We had booked here for two nights, to provide a rest day, so we weren’t too worried about the likelihood of poor weather on the morrow. The refuge dining hall was quite cosy and there was a little shop. It had some basic resupply items but almost no fresh food (I bought and ate all the fruit I could lay my hands on). So, a little sadly, I used up the last of my fresh food stash to make an absolutely delicious dinner of ratatouille and a smoked almond cous cous.

The next day, as predicted, was terribly rainy. We entertained ourselves with books in the dining hall and forays to the hotel across the way to investigate their culinary offerings (nothing fresh). The views up to the mountains as the clouds winged across the sky were quite impressive and I whiled away an hour or so with a coffee and an upward gaze. We also, like all the other walkers, spent quite a bit of time thinking about what to do the following day. We were supposed to be taking on the Cirque de la Solitude, a sustained bouldery traverse. However, the rain was forecast to continue and in rainy conditions with snow underfoot the Cirque was generally considered to be quite dangerous (a German had fallen and died earlier in the season). I was of the opinion that we’d almost certainly be able to do the climb but if it was wet and cold and entirely without views, I couldn’t really see the point. Dr Newcastle agreed, even though deep down in her masochistic heart she probably did want to spend a day thigh deep in squishy snow.

That evening Dr Newcastle, a walking Englishwoman and I had a convivial glass of red and game of scrabble. I put down the word ‘dirk’.

The next morning we, along with a rag tag bunch of other walkers, took the (terribly expensive) bus to the village of Calasima. Right up until the last minute we ummed and ahhed over whether we ought to start walking or get on the bus. In the end the rain decided us and we hopped on. The drive took in some great scenery and it was fun to see it whizzing by rather than lingering in view at a walking pace.

At Calasima we had a long wait for the bags to catch up with us (sadly the little village patisserie I had been dreaming of failed to materialise). We then set out for Tighjettu by way of the Bergeries du Vallon.. It was an easy walk through the forest and meadows to the bergeries. We fell in with another group (two older frenchmen kindly but rather self importantly shepherding a younger woman) and we all walked together for a bit. We somehow found a bright green car abandoned in a field of bright green ferns, it was a perfect scene in a dishevelled sort of way.

Rather than continue with our would-be guides, Dr Newcastle and I stopped at the bergeries for a hot chocolate. Our timing was impeccable and the rain began to properly pound down as we chatted with some friendly Italians. Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from the cosy nook and we set off for the refuge.

The rocky trail was criss-crossed by newly sprung creeks and I eventually had to give up jumping from dry rock to dry rock and just splosh though the water. We were very lucky however to meet an Englishman jogging down the path (as you do) who told us to take the green waymarked trail off to our left rather than continue on the GR20 to the refuge, as the creek crossing that way had become impassable. We took his advice and so found our way to the refuge with only a slow (but thigh-deep) icy creek to overcome. Our friends from earlier that day were not so lucky. They had taken the GR20 and gotten stuck on the wrong side of what had become a raging torrent. Rather than backtrack to the bergeries and ask for advice they had waited there, waving their arms to try and attract attention, until the guardian of the refuge had come down with a rope to help them cross the river. The two gentlemen were rather cross that it had taken the guardian so long to rescue them. The girl just looked wet.

Our campsite was just out the backdoor of the refuge and was more or less dry (the tent was put up on some pallets). The shop in the refuge was reasonable and I was talked into buying a can of Niçoise salad for lunch the next day, which was nowhere near as bad as it sounds. The people staying in the refuge were unusually friendly (so far we’d found the mainly french walkers to be a bit unwelcoming) and we enjoyed chatting with some new friends. However, the German family with two young children (the youngest nine) plunged Dr Newcastle into deep disappointment when she was told that they had easily crossed the Cirque that day!

Stage five of our trip was the short walk to the Refuge de Ciottulu di I Mori. We walked back to the bergeries, crossing the now only ankle deep stream as we went. The morning’s path was gentle, through a forest of laricio pines before it turned uphill after morning tea. Along the stony track there were plenty of pretty little wildflowers and in sections there were some fun little rock scrambles and detours to cross rain filled new baby waterfalls. Up on the Bocca di Foggiale there were still mammoth crusts of snow, slowly dripping down into the valley. The view from the curve of the Bocca back down the green and rocky valley was really beautiful and the highlight of the day. We reached the refuge early in the afternoon.

As we walked in we saw that the tents were pegged out close to the stream. With the dark thunderclouds gathering overhead we asked the (creepy and sleazy) guardian if there were any beds left in the refuge we could take for the night, rather than the tent we had booked?


So I asked if we could just stay on the refuge kitchen floor, or even just leave our bags there?


Ok then, Mr Obliging Guardian, we’re out to the tent.

We had a scope around and found one tent up next to the refuge that had pallets under it. So of course we started putting our gear in there. The guardian came out and angrily told us that we couldn’t use that tent and to go down to the watercourse. Sighingly, we chose the tent that seemed least likely to flood and put our gear inside before heading off to have a shower.

You can see where this is going can’t you?

While we were showering there was an almighty storm, complete with biblical hail, and the tent was completely flooded. My camera was completely ruined and our sleeping bags and mattresses were drenched. The upshot of my apoplectic fit was that we were given beds in the refuge, which as it turns out, were available all along. I was torn between loosing my shit again and taking the bed. I took the bed.

I was very happy to leave the next morning. My grumpy-camera-ruined-stompiness wore off pretty quickly as we walked the green ridge away from the refuge. As the path descended into the valley there were gorgeous views back towards the rocky peaks of Capu Tafunatu and Paglia Orba, clear cut against a blue and smiling sky. Once in the valley the path meanders back and forth across a very pretty little river, easily crossed each time with well built bridges. Along the water are smooth sculpted boulders, shaped and hollowed into bowls, ridges and waves. We were disappointed on reaching the Bergeries de Radule to discover that it was closed, with nobody home. It looked like a cute spot for a cup of coffee or to buy some cheese. The waterfall behind it was particularly pretty.

From there we continued downhill, entering a fairyland of slim feminine birches, bouncy moss underfoot, fronds unfurling and birds dancing between the branches, giggling brooks swirling and babbling across stones and under earth archways. It was delightful and such a refreshing change from the grim handsomeness of the mountains.

Soon after we reached the Hotel Castel di Vergio, where we were booked in to stay in the bunkhouse. This was quite clean and reasonable, although it wasn’t opened until later in the afternoon. While waiting we managed to more of less dry all of our things in the delicious afternoon sunshine by the picnic tables in front of the little grocery store. I was wildly excited by this shop and promptly purchased and ate a tub of fruit yogurt, an apple and two oranges. I then spent ages agonising over my menu for the forthcoming days before hesitatingly making my purchases.

We then had ringside seats for another huge thunderstorm that conveniently arrived after everything was dry. We splashed out (literally and figuratively) for dinner up at the hotel – multiple courses! multiple vegetables! wine! I slept like a well fed angel.

The next morning we woke to a well scrubbed sky and set out for Refuge de Manganu. We began with a gentle descent through a forest of laricio pines, interspersed with a few slim birches and solid beeches. As we turned uphill there were some huge views of the mountains in the distance behind us and of the valleys stretching out on either side below us. Climbing along a green ridge, we came across a few fantastically shaped beech trees – growing almost sideways, bent by the prevailing winds. I can imagine that at night in a howling wind they could be terrifyingly goblin-like. But under a sunshiny sky they are cute, more than anything. Like friendly little garden gnomes tilting their heads quizzically at you.

From there it was a fairly gentle and easy uphill walk (popular with day-walkers) towards Lac du Ninu. Despite being comparatively easy going, the scenery has an epic harshness about it. The goblin trees are sentries that guard a landscape of tumbling boulders, bleached trees their limbs frozen in a death cry and solitary pines dark and brooding. All of this makes the spectacle of the lake, as one comes over a last rise, even more unexpected. For here on the roof of the island is an improbably joyous, glittering amethyst lake set in the curve of an impossibly green meadow, cropped short by photogenic cows, calves, horses and foals. As you descend into the bucolic fantasy, the gentle turf receives ones weary feet like a benediction. Faces and hands can be washed in the many bubbling rivulets and companionable pats had from the approachable horses.

The lake lies on the Sentier de la Transhumance, a shorter alternative to the GR20. That trail follows, in part, the ancient transhumance routes of the shepherds of Corsica who led their flocks up the mountains each spring and down again to the milder coast each year. The lush meadows of the lake did and do provide excellent summer pasture.

As we continued to walk we came across two working bergeries, the summer headquarters of grazing families. At the second of these, Bergeries de Vaccaghja, we stopped for a taste of some delicious home made cheese and a glass of wine. From the bergeries you look out across the flat, welcoming and rich grasslands and the refuge is just beyond those, following a rocky climb to 1601m. I was to get to know this part of the path rather well. Perhaps under the influence of the strong wine, I managed to leave my wallet on the table at the bergeries. Of course, I failed to realise this until I was searching for my booking papers at the refuge. So back I ran all the way to the bergeries. They, with evident amusement, gave me my wallet and a glass of water and then – looking up worriedly at the rolling black clouds, I ran back to the refuge. I managed to get into the shower before the heavens opened. I think that’s probably the furthest I’ve run since the year 9 cross country.

The rain was fortunately only intermittent and we managed to cook dinner on the outside stove-tops with ease. I had a vegetable and garlic broth followed by fresh cheese and seared tomato spegattini. We also made friends with three Lithuanian ladies (one of whom looked like a slightly bedraggled young Geena Davis) and a darling Irishman, all of who would be continuing in our direction. It was really quite wonderful to meet with some friendly folk again.

Our eighth stage was to take us to Refuge de Petra Piana over the highest point of the GR20, the Brèche de Capitello at 2225m. We began with a stony ascent to a series of waterfalls and tiny lush green meadows, rivuleted with cold streams. Continuing ever-upwards we came to a series of boulders and slabs that were soon lost in snow. The trail was quite busy so there was a clear path for us to take. The snow was reasonably good – not too icy or slushy. So on we slogged, up and up and up. At long last we reached the brèche and sat down to enjoy the stupendous view of soaring rocky pinnacles around and above and the twin deep circular pools of the Lac de Capitellu and Lac du Melo below. The snow and rock continued to the limit of the eye’s gaze. With a hum that swiftly became a clattering roar, an oversized wasp of a helicopter shuddered into the skies above the pools. It drew up to the cliffs to our left, then circled out then back again, brightly clothed paramedics leaning out into the wind. Some walkers had (rather improbably) lost the trail though the snow and somehow popped out over the ridge line further to the left. They’d attempted to walk over the shoulder of icy snow to rejoin the path but someone had slipped, down, down, down over the snow and !stopped! just on the lip of the ice. A dizzying fall off the mountain somehow avoided and a leg shattered.

The thought of a horrifying fall into space and the cruel rock below was not exactly comforting as we walked on across the rotting snow. The melt created baby ice cliffs against all rocks as well as unexpected voids here and there in the day. Occasionally I’d think that we must have come to the end of the snowfields and then another would be upon us, slippery, skiddish and wet. The solidity of rock and scrambling was a welcome (if infrequent) respite from the black magic of water frozen in the sunshine.

We eventually scrambled over some final boulders to reach Bocca Muzzella and its impossible view back towards Brèche de Capitello. It seemed entirely incredible that we could have walked over such vicious granite teeth. From there it was downhill, zig zagging across stony slopes to the refuge.

The refuge grounds were green turfed and pretty, although a bit wet. We took a tent as far from the stream as possible. The little shop stocked a few dry goods and, glory of glories – oranges! We ended the day with drinks with our young Irishman from the from the night before along with some elderly and mirthful compatriots he’d found along the way. It was a glorious blue afternoon.

The next morning we set out for the Refuge de l’Onda. Dr Newcastle was keen to take the high-level alternative route rather then the main GR20: it was a great decision. The path began with a scrambly ascent up a rocky slope before the path evened out to follow the crest of the mountains towards l’Onda. At times the path and surroundings were quite rocky but then we would find ourselves following a smooth ribbon of grey as masses of green turf dropped off on either side of us. Again there would be a short scramble and then back to a path. It was a perfect days walking – interesting for the feet but not cruelly taxing – and a luscious indulgence for the eyes. Monte d’Oro and Monte Ritondu rise imposingly, glorying in their broken rock, airy arêtes, ambitious pinnacles and clinging snow. We had lunch on a windswept height, drinking in the view.

The descent towards the refuge was badly eroded by goats and sheep and not particularly enjoyable walking. However we were amply repaid for our efforts by the amusements the little meadow before the refuge had in store for us. We stopped to rest and to make friends with some horses and chit chat in the sun. We were merrily gabbling away when from across the fields, or from some alternative universe, a bluff Dutchman stumbled into our reality. He was rigged up under a thirty kilo pack with multiple cameras, water bottles, maps and thingawhatsits dangling off his person. With his huge smile he looked like no one so much as Bert (Dick Van Dyke) from Mary Poppins in his one man band getup. He had somehow managed to completely loose the very well marked trail and had nevertheless gamely traversed the wilds of Corsica – even crossing a stream that was up to his ankles! We liked him a lot.

The l’Onda refuge campground is downhill from the refuge itself and contained within a big wooden pen. This is to keep the goats and sheep out. At some unheard signal every evening hundreds of animals trot downhill and past the campsite for milking in another fenced off pen.

That night, our last on the trail, I had fun with the Lithuanian ladies and we met a slightly eccentric Melbourne hipster who had an evangelical zeal for barefoot running. I dinned on a very tasty pasta with orange rind, pecorino and wild herbs – liberally drizzled with the last of my delicious fresh olive oil. Dr Newcastle decided to indulge in Deb in a cup with a can of cold sardines stirred through. We were both quite impressed that she managed to eat it.

The path from l’Onda began with a farewell wave to the goats and sheep and then a steepish but fairly easy path uphill and then along a ridge. About halfway to the crest at Punta Muratello we stopped for a snack, to rest our tired bodies and to enjoy the scenery. A fit looking man came upon us and immediately started talking about his previous three completions of the GR20 and his ever improving times and fitness. I’m afraid we were not a terribly receptive audience.

From the crest itself we started the descent across a series of slabs. Some kind of army training exercise was taking place and we stopped to watch them marching up the hill. It turns out that the French army use the €22 pop-up tents from Decathlon.

We followed the slabs a little further, until about morning tea time, and then began a series of creeks and streams and gorges and waterfalls. They were absolutely gorgeous: sparkling liquid diamonds in the sun and cool glittering emeralds hidden under the foliage of laricio pines and elegant beeches. It was a warm day and I couldn’t resist a little swim. The pool I chose was quite spectacularly cold, but I could gasp one breaststroke in the icy water then flick myself up onto a warm stone and be sun-warm before the goosebumps had time to rise. It was glorious. If only there hadn’t been so many walkers I feel certain we would have met with some dryads or wood nymphs or fairies. It was that kind of place.

We continued through the forests and rockpools until we reached the Cascade de Anglais – a series of quite spectacular waterfalls and pools hollowed out of the granite. The glacial water was again incredibly clear and inviting and so we stopped to refresh our souls and our soles.

Not being in any particular hurry, we lingered along the cascade walk for some time. Just drinking in the scenery and trying to delay the unavoidable – the end of our walk. Fortunately for this purpose the path from the cascades towards Vizzavona is dotted with park benches, which are perfect for resting and contemplating, for looking upwards through heavenwards seeking branches and around at all the lovely wonders of a European forest in the flush of early summer.

But, inevitably, we crossed one last bouldery river (marvelling at it’s shining, jumping denizens), took one last curve through the woods and found ourselves back where I had started. In charming, tiny, little Vizzavona.

The GR20 Part I

Posted on September 11, 2014


Corsica floats serenely in the Mediterranean between France and Italy, with the island of Sardinia to its immediate south. Along the centreline of the island rises a chain of mountains, falling away on both sides to fragrant marquis vegetation at lower elevation and thence to the sea. Inhabited since the Mesolithic era, it’s inhabitants have paid dearly for the strategic value of their island, having been invaded, attacked and or colonised by the Carthaginians, ancient Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards, Saracens, the Papacy, the Genovese, Barbary pirates, Pisans, the Spanish, a military Bank, the French and (during WWII) German and Italian axis troops. Nomadic shepherding was the way of life in Corsica until the late Middle Ages when various powers (notably the Genovese) encouraged land enclosure and the take up of sedentary farming. From this arose a landowning elite. Corsica’s nobility was known both for its poverty and it’s bloodthirstiness – the noble houses engaging in a series of vendettas that effectively ruined all of them. Vendettas, also became popular among those lower in the social strata and the populations of entire villages were decimated. Throughout history, Corsican men have been stereotyped as being violent, swaggeringly proud and overweening and of treating their women very poorly. Strict social norms prevailed until WWII (women seemingly bearing the brunt of the restrictions) but these collapsed with the influx of foreigners and mainland French who began to holiday and make homes on the island after this period. Today, while the island retains many elements of local culture (including two native languages) the island is culturally very similar to France. Although, having said that, I found the men to be a lot more like the Frenchmen I endured ten years ago than the reformed Frenchmen of 2014.

The GR20 is touted as being the hardest of the GRs: the “Grand Randonnes” – long, marked European walking trails. It winds its way almost the entire length of the island of Corsica (about 180km in total) and traverses a number of high mountain passes, many of which can be snow covered well into the short summer season.

In keeping with the success of earlier European walks with attractive, vivacious blondes, the GR20 plan was hatched with my delightful friend Dr Wonderland. I was pretty happy to have a doctor along in case anything went wrong and she expressed enthusiasm for pocket knife style emergency surgery. Oh goody.

We agreed that as we were starting out on the first day of the official walking season (1 June) and that as we didn’t have time to do the entire walk, we should only attempt the ‘easier’ second half of the trail – from Vizzavona south to Conca. The northern half would reputedly be much too covered in snow for safe and comfortable walking and we would likely need to re-route several times. The official GR20 website (unhelpfully, terribly slow and only available in French) says that booking accommodation in advance is mandatory and so we had reserved all of our accommodation (including a night off the trail at Zicavo) in advance.

This mandatory booking is unquestionably, a total pain. It means that if you have bad weather, injuries or just feel tired and need a rest day, you either have to stick with your bookings (which could mean foolishly exacerbating an injury, walking in unsafe conditions or re-routing) or stay put and loose all your future bookings (which are fully paid up). A ticket system (a la New Zealand) and better planning and co-ordination between the refuges could easily solve this problem.

In any event, Dr Wonderland and I were feeling both organised and optimistic as we flew into Bastia. We were picked up from the airport by our glamorous, flame haired AirB&B hostess. She and her incredibly cute son drove us into town to the studio apartment we had rented for two nights. After winding up the narrow staircase, tugging open the heavy wooden door and stepping through the green velvet stage curtains to our studio we were questioning our sanity regarding the whole walk thing – why on earth would one ever wish to leave this apartment? It was full of eclectic bibs and bobs, theatrical thingawhatsists, delightful curios, creature comforts and delightful design features (like the window frame door to the bathroom) all charmingly puzzled together. It was like living in a particularly clean and enjoyable circus tent (it turns out, of course, that our hostess was a circus performer).

The first afternoon was gloriously sunny and so we decided to have a mini exploration of the city. Bastia lies by the blue of the Mediterranean: it was founded by the seafaring and mercantile Genovese in 1380. It served as their colonial capital until, after various battles and endless political intrigue, they rather bizarrely assigned the island to the Office of St George, a powerful corporation with its own army, in 1453. The city was taken and retaken by various armies and factions during the course of Corsica’s turbulent and bloody history. Most recently, it was occupied by the Italians and then the Germans in the Second World War. It was the only Corsican town to suffer serious damage during the war, having been bombed by the Americans during the German occupation. Due to a military blunder, the worst of the bombing took place after the German retreat – killing civilians who were busy celebrating their liberation.

Today Bastia has a languid, romantically crumbling, almost piratical, Caribbean flavour. The stucco from the medieval and renaissance buildings has fallen in parts – exposing brick and stone. From the cracks and crannies verdant greenery tumbles in profusion. Vines grow high between the buildings, elegant tendrils trailing down towards the cobblestone streets. Trees cling improbably to ancient guttering and pipes. From the windows, plump-armed women lean out to gossip with passers-by or roll in their washing which flutters gaily in the glow of the late afternoon sun.

We woke the next morning to the excellent news that Dr Wonderland had passed her final exams for her specialisation. We celebrated with french toasted croissants topped with rich fruit and yogurt before heading out for a day at the beach, complete with sandwiches by the water and a glass of white in the warm afternoon sun. In the evening we returned to Bastia and went out to see the promised ‘spectacular’ at the citadel. We must have misunderstood the instructions as the citadel appears to be entirely bereft of any ‘spectaculars’. We were however well and truly compensated for our effort of leaving the comfort of the apartment when we ran into the hostesses son and his friend in the square. They took us on a tour of their favourite places in their quarter of the old town, complete with enthusiastic re-enactments of pirate stories, James Bond adventures, cat chases (and cuddle captures), visits to old trees (allegedly of astounding antiquity), ventures through old and spooky tunnels and forays into dark shadow filled gardens.

The following morning we said a sad goodbye to our lovely apartment but, excited by the next stage of the trip, rather jauntily headed off by train to Vizzavona, our start point for the GR20. Here it rapidly became apparent that our planning had not been as complete as we had earlier imagined it to be.

Investigating the tiny ‘village’ (really no more than the train station, two restaurants and a hotel) we suspected that we might not be able to acquire the four days of fresh food we had planned to purchase or the cash that Dr Wonderland needed for the rest of the trip (there being a complete lack of ATMS). Dr Wonderland looked up at the rain and also considered that perhaps there was a glove and pack-cover shaped hole in her ultra-light packing plan.

Not ones to panic unnecessarily, we returned to the train station and after studying the timetables calmly bought tickets for Corte (the nearest big town), relieved that there was still one more train out and one back that day. We went to the coffee shop to escape the downpour while waiting for the next train. While sipping our drinks we saw a train go past “Huh, that’s odd. Why is there a train at this time?”. Suffice to say that holiday makers are liable to forget what day of the week it is. Which can be problematic on a Sunday.

So we trudged off in the rain out to the main road to try and hitch a lift – figuring that we could still get the last train back (yes, we remembered to check the correct day’s timetable!). A number of cars whizzed unkindly past us but eventually a shiny new VW sedan stopped and an older couple gestured smilingly for us to jump in. Dr Wonderland (who, unknown to herself, had retained an awful lot more from her one year of university French than she thought she had) explained our situation. Ah, they were going home – only halfway to Corte – were we still interested? Of course!

The driver stopped at every bar along the way for his wife to run in to see if anyone could take us to Corte. It seemed that no one was going that way. So, despite of protests that soon someone would come along, they insisted on driving us all the way to Corte – at least a 40km round trip out of their way – and refused any petrol money. Thank you hitch hiking gods.

Laden with fresh food, extra socks (to serve as mittens), cash and large garbage bags (to serve as high-tech pack covers) we entered the train station, carrying our spoils in a santa sack of garbage bag and feeling kind of bad-ass.

Typically, we immediately met a smiling eyed and bearded young wanderer (complete with cow-skull roped to his pack) who probably had more bad-ass in one little finger than we could muster between us. He was a fascinating character who had been travelling for years with a tiny backpack and tent (and recently, the skull) and he appeared to shun such luxuries as cleanliness and warm food. He was also headed to Vizzavona and we volunteered to show him the way to the magical half ruined hotel on the forest edge, that we had espied earlier. Sure enough there was more than enough to keep the rain off and our new friend was extremely happy about the prospect of a dry night’s sleep.

The day ended with cannelloni (the only vegetarian option), a glass of wine and a perfect creme brûlée.

Day one of the actual walk dawned with perfect scrubbed blue skies, crisply outlining the previously invisible Mont d’Oro. We began the ‘hardest walk in Europe’ with a stroll through gorgeous tall green and silver forest: innumerable diamonds of water suspended on unfurled leaves. There were tiny white bells, buttercups, moss and ferns all straining freshly upwards to the dappled light.

We followed the upward slope through the forest and on reaching the first baby-sized summit enjoyed the panoramic views with some slices of cheese and green apple. We continued past Bergeres d’Alzeta, crossing two small streams. We paused somewhere near the Valle Longa with healthy appetites for a lunch of baguettes with lemon infused tuna, mayonnaise, tomato and rocket. The afternoon sky threatened rain but nothing eventuated and we reached the comfort of U Fugone at Capanelle (a small ski resort in the winter) without suffering a drop.

Dr Wonderland was bursting with excitement at the patch of snow visible up on the ski run. I am afraid that recent mountain walks had somewhat reduced the novelty value of small patches of snow for me and so I lazily waved her off to make her snowman and decided to have a hot shower. I had decided to forego deodorant on this walk figuring that I didn’t need the extra weight and as I’m not particularly smelly it wouldn’t bother me. I was wrong: there is a profound difference between not smelling very much and smelling at all. I borrowed Dr Wonderland’s until I came across a shop.

U Fugone has an excellent unisex bathroom for refuge guests (not open to campers, who must use the other facilities – probably less comfortable). The shower cubicles do however lack hooks or a shelf on which to put one’s garments and thus one should be prepared for any eyeful of middle aged German sausage in the change room. I ensured my modesty with the endlessly awesome silk robe.

The dinner was very tasty (including the very predictable omelette vegetarian dish) and we shared our table with some older Frenchmen who flirted outrageously with the blushing Doctor.

We woke to perfect blue skies and set off on the short days walk to Bocca di Verdi. The forests were mostly mature beeches and chestnuts, interspersed with pines – all thick and towering above us. The years of fallen pine needles and leaves gave the air a delicious rich fragrance and the earth a delightful bounce underfoot. The spreading branches dappled the strong sun and it was an absolute delight to spring long legged through the morning. We followed a sunny stream for quite a while until the urge to splash in the inviting, dancing brook overcame us – so off with the packs and clothes and giggling and gasping into the icy water. We dried off perched on rocks in the stream, sunning ourselves for a bubble and babble filled meditation.

The rest of the day’s walking was also quite easy – through fairy glades, flickering light filled forests, under quivering leaves and across rocky creeks. We had some chestnut cake for morning tea. It is a local speciality – the medieval Genovese overlords mandated the the subject Corsicans plant and cultivate the chestnut trees). For lunch we enjoyed crunchy, fresh salad wraps in a daisy filled meadow with views of imposing mountains all around. It was a glorious day of companionable walking.

Bocca di Verde is another private refuge, rather than an ‘official’ trail stop. The bunk house is quite basic but hot water is sometimes available in the shower block. The major selling point of de Verdi is the wonderful old timber restaurant complete with enormous open fire, ambience and wine. We retreated inside with the coming of the afternoon rain.

Our little vegetarian mouths salivated as the huge trays of Corsican pork steaks were slid in to cook on the fire and we were repenting of our decision to cook our own dinner. At about the moment these thoughts were dancing in our minds the local Lothario, cousin of the restaurant’s owner, invited us to share dinner with the staff. We accepted greedily. By the time the staff dinner was served we had enjoyed (or, to some extent, endured) about four hours of solid drinking and attention from our Lothario and his increasingly drunken cousin. The highlights included descriptions of Corsica in the autumn “luminous forests and hard crystal skies”, an initiation into local folk wisdom “life is too short to be small” and the general amusement that comes from conversing with a chain smoking, hand waving, bouffant haired caricature of French manhood. We were also invited to prepare the first course – some fresh caught local trout. Our frying of the delicacy was carefully and approvingly overseen by the fisherman himself. It was a very interesting evening.

We cautiously opened our eyes to day three of our walk and were surprised and pleased to find that we had somehow, miraculously, escaped a well deserved hangover. Buoyed by this unexpected boon we set off uphill towards Prati. The trail leaves the forest soon after de Verde. Taking a break on the slopes we met with two Frenchmen who shared with us some of their colossal stash of chocolate bars.

The final stretch towards the refuge is delightfully wild and exposed. We drank in the almost Scottish scenery and were buffeted by bracing mountain winds. From Refuge de Prati the GR20 winds its way even higher to the Punta della Cappella (2041m) and then along a series of ridges towards Refuge de Usciolu, which was where we were headed.

By the time we made the first summit, grey and black clouds had almost surrounded us – although we could still make out the silver grey of the sea far below us. The roar of thunder was awesome and I was intensely conscious of being nought but a mere speck on the side of the mountain. With incredible luck we seemed to pass right through and under the storm without ever feeling a drop of rain or seeing an uncomfortably close flash of lightning. The afternoon included quite a bit of walking over grey granite slabs and rock hopping and scrambling, so it would have been quite unpleasant and slippery in the rain.

The dark and cloudy sky deeply intensified the colours of the landscape. The giant troll’s teeth of upthrust granite gained a spectacular iridescence and the greens of the clinging slopes were brought to an incredible brightness, richness and vibrancy. Our luncheon view was particularly spectacular.

By the time we were negotiating the final descent (down never being my favourite direction anyway) I was quite tired. The path was terribly eroded and so people had created new paths, increasing the erosion. No effort had been made to address the problem, which I thought was a bit remiss – especially so close to the refuge.

At the refuge we met again the chocolate laden Frenchmen. They had neglected to book a tent space in advance and the guardian had told them that there was no room for them to pitch anywhere that night. They looked quite miserable at the prospect of a further five hour walk.

We were shown to our rent-a-tent and pointed in the direction of the cooking facilities and bathroom. The camper’s bathroom consists of two outdoor toilets (for over 70 people) and one ice cold shower. Surprisingly this seems to work reasonably well and there were no awful odours or long lines. My robe caused quite a stir, gaining cheers from irritating Frenchmen.

Despite the reasonably easy access to the GR20 – there are refuges to sleep in and buy supplies every night and none of the refuges are further than a days walk from a tarmac road – walkers seem to have the idea that they are in the utter wilderness and so things like robes and proper food constitute wild and frivolous luxuries. I was constantly amazed to see French walkers (not a nationality known for an indifference to food) heating up a packet soup to have for dinner, along with a few ancient dusty crackers.

Although, having said that, we had somehow inherited a mushroom packet soup and so cooked that up (topped with fresh mushrooms fried in garlic butter and wild herbs) as a first course. It was quite tasty and the heat (plus the dancing that accompanied the cooking) kept out some of the chill that attends cooking on a windswept hillside (the ‘kitchen’ consisted of a table in the open air topped with a two burner gas cooker – still better than lugging your own stove and gas canister around). The mushroom pasta main course was also quite delicious.

As the sun set gorgeously over the hills we were pleased to hear that the chocolate Frenchmen would be admitted to the refuge kitchen to sleep, after all. After a bit more vista gazing Dr Wonderland and I snuggled into our sleeping bags for a little torchlight reading before sleep. I had the joy of dipping into Dorothy Carrington’s ‘Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica’, which Dr Wonderland had insisted I buy for the walk, back in Bastia. As usual she was completely correct – I would have been bereft without a book and Granite Island is a particularly fascinating read.

Day four was to be a short and lazy stroll down the hill to the mountain hamlet of Zicavo. We had booked a night there in a little B&B and planned on having the next day off from walking to enjoy a rest and see something more of the island. We accordingly slept late and unhurriedly packed our bags in the deserted campground. We chatted with Sylva, who encouraged us to take the old path of the GR20 after our rest day as the newer path isn’t as scenic. Looking at the map I asked if the new path had been marked to increase traffic to the Refuge de Matalza, he responded “you said it, not me”.

Thanking him for the advice we sauntered off up to the Punta d’Usciolu. Walking along the ridge there was quite a bit of slab walking and rock scrambling, which continued as we began descending. I was quite grumpy after an extended period of this yucky descent and furious when my camera refused to take a photo of come particularly photogenic cows. Fortunately I remembered by training in time (thank you, The Climber) and stopped for an emergency snack. This dramatically improved my mood and the rest of the morning’s walk was a lot more enjoyable. This was followed by lunch in a wonderful open meadow where we lazed in the sun reading our books. Following the main GR20, we came to an absolutely beautiful and sunny creek crossing and decided that a little swim was in order. I even had a short meditation on a grassy tuffet. From the creek we followed the level trail along an achingly pretty green meadow to Bergeries de Pinettu. At the bergeries we stopped for a cold drink. From here it would be a simple stroll down the hill to Zicavo.

That was not exactly how it worked out. To begin with we couldn’t find the turn off to the village at all and ended up walking back and forth along the trail where we thought it should be. I eventually espied it when the Doctor had stopped to take a photo of some wildflowers. The sign was aged and decrepit. Not promising. Thereafter followed a four hour mission that involved treasure hunting for faded yellow markers through dark scrub, back and forwardsing along pig tracks, criss crossing creeks and frustrated consultation with our 1:50,000 map (much too small). Possibly the most ridiculous moment involved trying to find the yellow markers in a field of flowering yellow broom. By the time we had been walking downhill through a creek for half an hour we had convinced ourselves that we had somehow misread the map and that we would be doomed to bivvy in the forest which somehow seemed a hilarious prospect at the time. Fortunately our map reading skills were better than we gave ourselves credit for and we blessedly popped out onto the road. The resident pigs looked at us with mild interest.

We made Zicavo by dusk but foolishly followed the barman’s directions to our B&B, which led us to the very bottom of the village where a helpful woman told us to turn around and trudge all the way back up the hill. We finally reached le Paradis after dark. We were anticipating a rather grumpy hostess (we were about three hours late) and dreading the prospect of being sent to bed with no dinner. Lousie however gave us a hearty welcome and, after each zipping through a hot shower, set before us an even heartier dinner. We easily devoured three bowls of soup (each) and forsaking our principles wolfed down slabs of rabbit terrine (possibly the best example of it’s kind I have ever encountered) followed by zucchini stuffed with creamy saffron rice, a generous cheese platter and a whacking great serve of chestnut cake. We slept plump and happy between clean sheets that night.

Our rest day involved some pressing administrative tasks, a wander around the village, a huge salad lunch and a gorge under a very fine cherry tree. At dinner that night a friendly couple offered to drive us up to Refuge de Matalza to re-join the GR20 – avoiding the horrid path of yellow marker doom. From there we had decided to take the new GR20 path after all, having had quite enough of badly marked trails. After dinner Louise showed us all the charcuterie in her back shed. It was fascinating in a macabre sort of way.

Day five began with the drive up to Matalza. Here we set out with Jean-Michelle and Nathalie on the new GR20 path (they were doing a day circuit). After less than a kilometre we saw the potential turn off to join the old trail. It was just too tempting and so we waved goodbye to our new friends and began our navigation. We crossed an expanse of marquis, two rivers and a few little hills before gaining the reassurance of the red and white GR markers. We were pretty chuffed with ourselves. After crossing a delightful suspension bridge we followed the (thankfully well marked) trail uphill, headed for the summit for Mont Incudine. We had lunch on a promontory with incredible views of the lower mountains and the sea of clouds that were floating around them.

The summit was quite impressive, with expansive views of the granite mountains all below us. From there we had a seemingly endless downhill on fairly terrifying grey slabs. I was quite pleased with my lack of an emotional breakdown.

The refuge at Asinau was quite basic and the guardian was rather creepy. We were given a tent to set up which we later had to move to escape a pervasive odour of urine at the first pitch. The showers apparently had hot water earlier in the afternoon (a German girl spoke of massaging her legs with the hot water!) but by the time it was our turn they were frigid. I found the Doctor’s shrieks in response to the water quite amusing.

The following morning we were yet again among the last to leave. We decided to brave the alpine path, and so we set out that way for the Refuge de Paliri via Bavella. The path climbed up to the northern approach of the Aigulles (needles) de Bavella. Although steep and rocky, the path was fairly good and the views back down the valley and across to Mount Incudine were quite spectacular. We had a very enjoyable rest, with that view for morning tea. At our back was the tall form of the summit cliffs, which had an imposing and decidedly death choss appearance. We headed west around the needle to be further impressed by free standing, sculptural rocks. These grew twisted and smooth, upright from the ground, carved presumably by wind and rain from gorgeous red brown and caramel rocks. We stopped for lunch just under a particularly impressive specimen and, once nourished, were irrepressibly drawn to clamber up the rocks to sit, windswept, free and laughing on what felt like the roof of the Aigulles. It was incredible.

From here we anticipated a steep but short descent into Bavella. As it turned out, this was yet another afternoon where we cursed the 1:50,000 map. The path down to Bavella was in fact an epic adventure of lost trails, faint or overgrown markers, blank looks, sweat, aching calves, hot sun and screaming thighs. At one memorable point we came to a steep five metre boulder, protected by a chain and apparently part of the trail. We trundled over it (the brave Doctor leading the way), thanking what gods there be that we had both, one way or another, had quite a bit of practice with rock climbing. As we passed the boulder a group of haggardly tired middle aged people came towards us. One anxious woman whispered “is it hard from here?”: considering that they would have to go down the boulder, always worse than up, I suggested that after the next bit, the rest of the day would be easier. Which was both strictly true and a significant falsehood by omission.

After further frustrating navigation and tough terrain (including an accidental summit of a hill not named on our map) we finally began the true descent to Bavella. By this point my knees were killing from the steep, slippery descent and I think we had both had more than enough fun for one day. The last stretch of green, lush path was a welcome relief from the hot, stoney mountains.

In Bavella we turned to tiredly admire the view. As Dorothy Carrington so accurately put it the string of peaks is “…less suggestive of needles than a jawful of monsters teeth”. The mountains are cruelly impressive: jutting and soaring spires crowd together, spiking into the blue of the Corsican sky. We mere ants at the foot of the mountains gratefully retreated to the civility of a cafe and celebrated our arrival in the fleshpot of Bavella with espressos and pistachio ice creams. Possibly one of the greatest combinations ever discovered.

At last, with the greatest of difficulty we dragged ourselves from the cafe and, after pursuing the little convenience store (very little fresh food on offer) we took the path to Paliri. Comparatively, it was a very easy walk and we were led on by the beautiful wildflowers in cool green shaded ways, fresh with birdsong. At one turn I saw a grey hind leg flash out of view – was it a hare? The refuge was beyond a last turn through a field of ferns.

The Refuge de Paliri boasts both a refuge building and a stand alone bunk house and kitchen area. The showers had quite impressively cold water and incredibly unimpressive water pressure. Not an ideal combination, but a good conversation starter. We met a Corsican man, back for the holidays with a few colleagues from work. They had come from Conca and the terrain had already taken its toll – with his friends begging to end their three day trip early! We dined in style again that evening and slept in well deserved peace in a comfortable and dry tent.

The final morning of our walk began with a convivial breakfast with our new friends from the evening before. They had a quite incredible range of packaged snacks with them, although in keeping with my ongoing observations of French hiking food, none appeared to be particularly tasty.

The final day’s walk was reasonably short and easy and offered some truly lovely scenery, although subdued from the magnificence of the preceding day. The open skies, wide endless hills and rough brushed low flora put us in mind of Yorkshire or Scotland. We had stopped to admire some wildflowers when a flash of movement caught my eye. A Mouflon!! The entrancingly gazelle-like wild sheep, ancestor of those first brought to Corsica in the neolithic, was racing the wind down the fold of the hill. By some miracle I had my camera in hand and snapped him quickly then enjoyed the rest of his flight, fleet of hoof and wild into the distance.

I had thought that that glorious morning moment would be the highlight of the day. In fact, there were a few other contenders. The next piece of magic appeared around a bend late in the morning. We had passed through the gap at the Bocca Villaghello and came upon a spectacular rock garden. Gorgeous rock sculptures, from tens of metres tall down to smaller, intimate and exquisite pieces provided the perfect backdrop and cradle for an explosion of spring colour: the surprisingly robust purple of the wild lavender, white and pink rock roses, elegant flowering grasses in every permutation of green, a wave of grey curry plants, the pale yellow of fenouil, the bright canary of the native aster and the pretty mauve-pink faces of tiny wild carnations. We wandered smiling in this unexpected bower and lingered for morning tea to better enjoy it.

After a warm few hours of walking we were nearing the end of the trail and thinking about lunch when we rounded another magical bend and came upon a view of a series of waterfalls and swimming holes below us. As the sun was shining in a blue sky it seemed only appropriate to have a quick change behind a bush to join the other walkers who had suddenly appeared from nowhere and who were splashing around in the crystal cold water. After a lazy afternoon sunbathing on the rocks and floating in the clear ponds we regretfully left paradise and headed for Conca.

The trail had one last gift for us though: as we entered the first streets of the village Dr Wonderland espied a ginger kitten. Could life get any better?

Yes actually, it could. After a bit of wrangling we somehow acquired both ice-cream and a driver to take us to our B&B. We eventually wound our way up to Brelinga where Claude and her husband Patrick welcomed us with open arms and, holy of holies, a light filled bedroom and a steaming hot shower. Magically refreshed after a thorough scrub, we were taken down to Porto Vecchio to indulge in a slap up Corsican dinner. Porto Vecchio was originally a Roman port town and was re-colonised by the Genovese several times during the 1500’s. Malarial outbreaks from the marshy surrounds drove out the colonisers in each case. During WWII the Americans eradicated malaria in the area with a combination of spraying and drainage and today Porto Vecchio is a busy tourist hub. On the night we visited the pretty old town, complete with old stone church, pedestrian streets and charming alleys and twinkling with fairy lights, was magical.

After sleeping in the luxury of a real bed with real sheets, we woke to fresh homemade pastries and a selection of teas and the offer of espresso. We did justice to all of the above while drinking in the view of the sea from the sun drenched patio.

Celebrating the end of our hike, we decided to indulge in a shiny new hire car (Dr Wonderland drove, thank God). This gave us the va-va-vroom to explore the area over the next few days. We squealed like schoolgirls when we first saw the aquamarine perfection of the curve of Santa Giulia bay glittering before us and spent a delicious afternoon frolicking in the warm water and basking in the sun.

The citadel of Bonafacio, clinging to the white cliffs at the end of the island, was as impressive as the guidebooks promised and twice as pretty. The cliffs have been inhabited since 6570BC and numerous scholars have pointed out that the geography of the area, particularly the Goulet de Bonafacio, perfectly matches Homer’s description of the land of the Laestrygonians, so disastrously visited by Odysseus:

“When we reached the harbour we found it land-locked under steep cliffs, with a narrow entrance between two headlands. My captains took all their ships inside, and made them fast close to one another, for there was never so much as a breath of wind inside, but it was always dead calm. I kept my own ship outside, and moored it to a rock at the very end of the point; then I climbed a high rock to reconnoitre, but could see no sign neither of man nor cattle, only some smoke rising from the ground. So I sent two of my company with an attendant to find out what sort of people the inhabitants were…they found (Antiphates’) wife to be a giantess as huge as a mountain, and they were horrified at the sight of her. She at once called her husband Antiphates from the place of assembly, and forthwith he set about killing my men. He snatched up one of them, and began to make his dinner off him then and there, whereon the other two ran back to the ships as fast as ever they could. But Antiphates raised a hue and cry after them, and thousands of sturdy Laestrygonians sprang up from every quarter- ogres, not men. They threw vast rocks at us from the cliffs as though they had been mere stones, and I heard the horrid sound of the ships crunching up against one another, and the death cries of my men, as the Laestrygonians speared them like fishes and took them home to eat them. While they were thus killing my men within the harbour I drew my sword, cut the cable of my own ship, and told my men to row with alf their might if they too would not fare like the rest; so they laid out for their lives, and we were thankful enough when we got into open water out of reach of the rocks they hurled at us. As for the others there was not one of them left.”

Despite this ancient history, and some Roman occupation, the town of Bonafacio itself was ‘only’ founded in 828AD by Count Bonafacio of Tuscany. During the course of it’s turbulent history, the cliff top fortified town was ruled by Pisans, the Genovese, Turks and finally by the French. In recent decades the town has been the subject of much careful restoration and is now a very popular tourist destination. We enjoyed meandering through the curling streets lined with tall, clinging buildings but the highlight was the Escalier du Roi d’Aragon, a walkway around the cliffs below the town, said to have been built in one night in 1420 by the Aragonese who were besieging the town. In reality the steps pre-date the Aragonese but in any event they offer splendid views down into the brilliantly clear sea and out across to the white cliffs.

We also hired canoes off the beach at Piantarella and paddled out to Ile Piana and swam and sunbathed off our own private island. One evening we munched hot chips as the sunset over the horseshoe bay at Rondinaria and on another we enjoyed the delicious food and hospitality of our hosts. At the end of our stay we drove back up to Bastia, our Cyndi Lauper theme song blaring from the radio and happy tears rolling down our cheeks. It was a very very enjoyable way to end ‘the toughest walk in Europe’: except that I hadn’t yet finished. I had got an email from another doctor (one I had met back in Kalymnos) and we’d come up with a plan to take on the first half of the GR20…