In researching the GR20 I kept on stumbling across quotes such as “The Toughest Trail In Europe” and ‘The Hardest Trek in Europe” but everyone seems to want to be the hardest and the toughest at the moment so I chose to take these quotes with a pinch of salt. I shouldn’t have the GR20 is brutal!
The trail runs from the North West of Corsica to the South East over 190km with over 13,000m of climbing. Most people take on the mighty trail in 14 days but I managed to trick a bunch of hardy souls to try and attempt it in 5 days, easy!
To the start:
Getting to the start was a bit of a logistical nightmare as flights do not run that frequently and after looking at a range of options consisting of boats, planes and automobiles we decided to go with the EasyJet option and fly from Gatwick to Figari. We arrived at 11am on Thursday morning found our hire car (not as easy at it sounds) and then spent the day driving to the north of the island stopping off for a croissant or two an awesome salad and a dip in the sea on the way to Calvi. Once at Calvi airport we dropped the car off and were told just to wait outside and a taxi would turn up. After waiting 15 mins or so we started to loose faith in their fool proof system so we used Seb and David’s french skills to holla a cab instead.
After a rather long day we arrived in Calenzana the start of the GR20. Calenzana is a delightful little french town perrched on the side of hill withe views over the foothills and leading out to the ocean. We spent that evening in the fitting named ‘Bar Restaurant Le GR20’, eating pizza, pasta and bread all in the name of carb loading. There was a bit of nervous trepidation in the air about what was to come.
We stayed in Hotel Bel Horizon. The rooms were hotter than the centre of the earth (I hate being dramatic) but were nice and clean and had everything you needed for a goodish nights sleep.
was simple. We were going to cover the GR20 in 5 days. We broke up each day by the stages set out in Paddy Dillon’s GR20 Cicerone Guide. We would do 3 stages each day except for day 5 where we would do 4 (shhh don’t tell anyone). This gave us something to aim for, mainly a cold can of coke at the end of each stage, as we ambled along the trail.
Day 1: Calenzana to Refuge de Ascu Stagnu
Day one saw us leave Calenzana and head up into the mountains. Today was going to be tough as the day mainly involved climbing as we had to get up into the mountains. It quickly became apparent that we were not going to be doing as much running as we had hoped, as we got further and further along the trails the walkable paths soon disappeared leading to rocks. Lots and lots of rocks! The first refuge we reached on Day 1 was Rfuge d’Orto di u Piobbu. As we arrived we were greeted by a horse tucking into some tortellini which he had found under a rock, clever thing. We grabbed a coke here and enjoyed the sunshine for a few moments before resuming the climb.
The climbing quickly went from a rocky trail to boulders and a cliff face. I wish I was exaggerating. We picked our way up the rocks and were met by cheery bonjour’s from the walkers heading from South to North about to end their journey. The first real descent of the day had started where we quickly lost all the hight we had gained. Alice took a bit of a hard fall but bounced back up like a champ. With cut knees and covered in dust I have no idea how she managed to keep it together as I would have cried! After dusting off and walking around the corner Refuge de Carozzu suddenly appeared. Thank god because we were all starving! We all went for the nutritious option of a coke followed by a cheese and ham omelette and a snickers (a staple of the GR20)!
One final climb and decent to go…fuelled on sugar and eggs we were off. We continued our way up sheer rock faces and back down them again to finally arrive 9 1/2 hrs later to our refuge for the night. Perched in the mountains in a ski resort, we were bundled into a room of bunkbeds all had a cold shower to get rid of the days mud. Once vaguely clean we headed across the road to the hotel restaurant where we had a lovely three course meal whilst we tried to stay awake to enjoy it!
The refuge cost 14 Euros for the night but you are at risk of getting eaten to death by bed bugs if you stay in them! I would suggest taking a lightweight sleeping bag and paying the extra 3 Euros for a tent. This may sound like a more uncomfortable option but trust me it is not. All the tents come with a roll matts in them and not having to worry about what is biting you if defiantly worth the money…but you may have to deal with the feeling that you are getting blown off a cliff with this option, more on that later.
Day 2: Refuge de Ascu Stagnu to Refuge de Maganu
Day two would see us climb to the highest point of the island and then come straight back down to the elevation we had started from…surely there was a way around this rocky beast? All today had to offer was a shit load of rocks. At this point we had transformed ourselves from trial runners to climbers. In the guide book it showed that at the top of the climb was a little lake. As it was nearing 30 degrees we were all really excited to make our way there for a quick dip along our walk. However the lake was not very appealing with its green algae tinge so staring at more rocks it was!
As we started the descent we made a new friend ‘The German’. He would form an honorary member of our group for the rest of the GR20. I didn’t know his name but as he ran off into the distance he shouted you guys can play ‘Catch the German’...his game not ours! So as he disappeared this put a fire into the bellies of Steve and Seb and they were going to spend the rest of the day chasing this guy down.
The last stage of the day arrived and I started to feel pretty horrific but had no idea why. I was struggling to keep up with anyone and suddenly a few bites started to appear on me. I didn’t really think anything of it and carried on making my way to the final refuge of the day. As I approached the refuge The German popped up again next to me having stopped to have a swim in a lake, as you do. Seb and Steve had gone ahead and had brought what was possibly the most expensive meal know to man. For 2 packets of spaghetti, 2 tins of tomato, 2 tins of tuna and for breakfast; 6 baguettes with butter and jam, juice and a fruit compote it cost 90 Euros. Staying in the refuges is cheap by as they have to haul their food up the mountain via donkey or helicopter you can understand why food costs so much.
Day 3: Refuge de Maganu to Vizzavona
I woke up having not really been to sleep. I was now absolutely covered in bites (136 to be precise, yes I counted) and in a serious amount of pain. This would explain why I was struggling a tad on day two. They started to turn into welts and blister which was delightful. At the end of the first stage of the day the man that ran Auberge du Vallone looked at me and quickly dashed inside. He returned with a bottle of vinegar. I doused myself in the stuff which took away the sting for about 10 seconds and then left me smelling of a chip shop…mmmmm chips! It was hurting too much to stand still so I kept on moving down the winding paths and through the woods.
We stopped off at Refuge de L’Onda and had yet another omelette made with the strongest cheese I have ever tasted. Seb and I then continued ahead of the others to hopefully got to Vizzavona and find a pharmacy for me and some superglue for his shoes which were quickly falling apart (note; do not use Hoka’s on the GR20). As we got to the top of the first climb we were greeted by a group of walkers asking if we were the trail runners. We said “Yes, why?”. They replied “The German said you would be coming”. What was this guy on?! We continued to make pretty good time and I was actually really enjoying the decent down the rocks boulders towards the river. Mainly because it was helping me forget about wanting to peel my skin off with a potato peeler. We were not far from Vizzavrona and because we were in such a rush we took a wrong turn. We asked a sabotaging (she probably just couldn’t understand us) local for directions and she sent us 2 miles in the wrong direction. After a U-turn past some fighting pigs we were finally back on track and headed towards our refuge for the night. Turns out there was no pharmacy but the owners of the hotel were so lovely and gave me some cream to put on my bites and gave Seb some superglue to fix his fast perishing shoes!
We stayed at The Vizzavrona which was a lovely little hotel. You could go for the deluxe option of a nice hotel room as Steve had done (I would opt for this when I do the GR20 again) or the refuge option which was still very nice and even had warm showers!
We all sat down to dinner and it was pretty evident that everyone was a bit broken. As there was a train station in the village there was musings in the air of just getting the train to the beach for the rest of the week…I must admit it was tempting. But after a lovely meal of steak and potatoes with a side of pasta, a good nights sleep and waking up to fresh coffee and croissants we were ready to tackle day 4!
Day 4: Vizzavona to Refuge de Usciolu
Starting the day with croissants and tea is always going to lead to a good day! Finally after 3 days of rocks we were greeted with pine trees and the smell of them was amazing as we began our first ascent of the day. We wound our way up and down the paths and even got some shuffling in. As we neared the end of stage one the allusive German appeared again. He had a few blister problems and Seb kindly game him some tape…I had no idea what he was thinking as we had finally levelled the playing field. We Arrived at the refuge and asked for lunch to which the owner replied no but you can have a sandwich (I am pretty sure this constitutes lunch but what do I know). We politely agreed and we a bit stunned when he brought sandwiches the size of heads out, we weren’t going to go hungry anytime soon.
We finished lunch and just as we were about to continue to wind our way up the mountain Alice’s bag broke, luckily I had a first aid kit full of safety pins which up to this point had only been used for popping blisters. A quick bit of DIY and we were off again.
The guardian at Refuge Prati asked if we were staying there. We said we were headed to the next refuge. He just replied with ‘Non’. we thought that he didn’t understand us so we said it again. Again he replied with ‘Non’ but this time said that we wouldn’t make it! Ha! We put some Bieber on the speakers and sauntered away from the refuge up the final climb of the day…the climb that would never end! The boys went off into the distance racing each other with David in tow dragging his poles. He had brought his poles out there and there was absolutely no way that they were getting stashed! Alice and I walked together up the mountain listening to the #ThrowbackThursday playlist on Spotify. This weeks theme was Blonde Bombshells, with us both cover in dust and sweat it was very fitting! We would see some of the effects of the Forest fires on todays route and it was pretty sad to see such a large area of trees that had been burnt down. You could still smell the burning and it made me feel pretty lucky that we had found a window to experience this trail.
After reaching the summit of the climb about 8 times and nearly getting blown off the face of the mountain we arrived at Refuge de Usciolu just as the sun was setting to find the boys starting WW3 with the owners as they were adamant that they wouldn’t show them the accommodation until I arrived with the paper. This was the first time that we had come across this rule but once the magical paper was shown they let us swap from the refuge to a tent so we didn’t have to spend a night freaking out about getting bitten by bed bugs. We would just have to spend a night wondering if we were going to get blown off the mountain. The wind was so strong that it blew the side of the tent into your face as you tried to sleep or lay awake reading your kindle. I was very jealous that Seb had his to read as he lay in his tent.
Day 5: Refuge de Usciolu to Conca
The final day had arrived and it was going to be a long one. We had 50km to cover in order to get to Conca and the end of the GR20 by the end of the day. As we descended from the rocks we were greeted with amazing running trails which we could all bound down and tick of the miles nice and quickly. The trails wound round babbling brooks and fern lined trails with crazy ass wild pigs dotted along the route.
We were headed towards Refuge D’Asinau where we were going to treat ourselves to a spot of lunch. The girls running the refuge had different ideas. One of their friends had just brought the supplies up via donkey and they were planning on having a lovely time gossiping and laughing in the sunshine, they were having a great time. We were going to have to make do with a coke and a chocolate bar before carrying onto the next refuge for a 5pm lunch! We all spread out along this route making our own way connecting the dots along the GR with the white and red flags guiding us to Col de Bevella. About a mile from the end of this climb I spotted The German and took this as an opportunity to beat him up the mountain for a stage win! We all arrived in quick succession at the top of the climb, except for Steve. We had no idea where he was so we took it in turns to go to the restaurant and eat lunch whilst keeping an eye out for him to make sure he didn’t miss us. He turned up about an hour later covered in blood and dust and looking like he had gone 9 rounds in a boxing ring. He said that he has been sick, had a nosebleed and fell asleep on a rock, as you do. He was pretty shattered and was going to start the final 12 miles of the route the next day after some sleep…possibly the most sensible solution. The rest of us decided to put our skates on and get moving along the final stage of the day! At the top of the first climb we were greeted by a wasp infested refuge where the owner had lost his dogs and asked us to send them back to him if we found them. Sure mate! As we got to the top of the second climb the sun started to set and it became apparent that we were going to have to don our head torches as we descended towards Conca in the dark.
We descended slowly for two hours in the dark making sure that no-one died along the way whilst blaring out some Dancing Queen to shimmy along to. We eventually saw the lights of Conca glistening in the distance. Never have I been so happy to see lights! After a gruelling 5 days, 196km and 13,304m of climbing we had finally made it to the end of the GR20. We found our way to Refuge La Tonnelle where we had an awesome three course meal and a warm shower and where we briefly for the night replaced Big Steve with Johannes our token German! He is seriously quick up hill and needs to get involved with some VK racing…I am going to be his agent!
Day 6: FOOOOOOOOOD!
Day 6 was awesome, we spent it lounging in the sun and eating food in Porto Vecchio. We had a lovely lunch in Le lodge and dinner in a restaurant perched on a hill (yes we walked up there voluntarily) called Vistaero. There were no beaches in the immediate vicinity of where we were staying and we were in no position to muster the strength to walk much more than three steps so we lay by the pool in our hotel. We stayed in Hotel Les Roches Blanches which was a delight, the rooms were very nice, breakfast was amazing and it was run by the nicest people on the whole of Corsica, fact!
Do not be fooled by this trail it is brutal and if you are going to do it in 5 days it will be tough, both mentally and physically but it is an amazing adventure and totally worth the pain! Who’s coming next year?
Kit: Trail Shoes (Saucony Peregrine), Bag (Osprey Tempest 20L), Flip Flops, Travel Towel, 2 × 750ml water Bottles, 1 × 2L Platypus, Toiletries (shampoo, shower gel, toothpaste, toothbrush, brush, mosquito repellant, sun block, lip balm, deodorant), First Aid Kit, portable charger, phone and watch charger, plug adaptor, watch, ear plugs, eye mask, buff, gloves, sleeping bag liner, running shorts, running top, sports bra, shorts, t-shirt, leggings, long sleeve top, waterproof jacket, purse, passport, underwear, socks, head torch, 10 x energy bars (BattleOats), Electrolyte Tabs (Nuun), Walking poles (Leki).