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7 Oct, 2003: Ajaccio

I was in Ajaccio for the Cabernet Radicals workshop, and on the penultimate day we had a little guided tour around various points of interest. A lot of the time we were in the bus, with a lot of blah blah from a tour guide on a PA system. Mostly it was about insisting how uniquely Corsican everything in Corsica was. Not French. Anything but French. "What do Corsicans eat?" "Oh, in Corsica we eat breakfast in the morning, and then lunch in the afternoon, and dinner at night. This is typically Corsica. Nowhere else in the world do they do this." I exaggerate but slightly. We also learned that Corsican youth are most respectful to their elders (not like the French youth), and that you would never find graffiti on the walls in Corsica. So of course when the bus passed a wall with some graffiti on it, somebody yelled out "graffiti!". This quieted her for a while but not for long.

The tour included a lunch stop at a winery (whee!).

And a scramble up a hill somewhere.

8 Oct, 2003: Ajaccio

I wandered down to the harbour in the evening and took some snaps.

9 Oct, 2003: Corte

The next day I caught the train to Corte in the middle of Corsica where all the good trekking is. There was a German feller from Cabernet who was also going down for a bit of trekking, so we wandered about Corte together, and found a gîte d'etape called U Tavignanu (which is also the river that runs through Corte). Shared a room with the German dude and a German (Austrian?) couple who seemed to be halfway through a serious-sounding hike (GR20 maybe).

Now I had to plan my route for the next three days. I had intended to do the "Tra Mare e Monti", but a bit of phoning the previous evening had ascertained that most of the gîtes on that route were already closed. So I switched plans to do the "Mare a Mare Nord Variant". All this based on the "Trekking in Corsica" Trailblazer Guide by David Abrams, super book (as I thought then. On a later trip it proved less useful. Of course now all the fabulous IGN Blue maps that I had got for the Tra Mare E Monti were useless.

10 Oct, 2003: Vivario - Pastricciola

I was at the Corte station by 8:15, but of course the dinky little train was late, and I only got to Vivario at 10:00. I promptly wasted another half an hour by turning the wrong way and not finding the trailhead. I found one guy in this otherwise deserted "town", but the phrase "Mare a mare nord" only produced a blank stare. Thinking quickly, I riffled through the book, found the next village on the funny little skotch map, and asked him for the "sentier pour Canaglia", and I was on my way.

By now I was seriously behind schedule, but I paid it no account. The sun was shining, I was hiking, and I was feeling great. I stopped often to take sphotographs, and even did a little detour up to the Fortin de Paschiola, "a square tower erected by the French in 1770 to imprison Corsican rebels". No rebels in sight, but nice views.

After the Fortin, the waymarks disappear "for a while", so I followed the directions in the book and of course got it wrong. I hit the railway line from the wrong side, which really confused me. I then did some cunning calculations involving a compass, but to tell the truth I found the path again more through chance than anything else. In any case, I made it to Canaglia at about 12:15, so I was two hours behind schedule (an hour waiting for the train and another on the trail).

Another hour of quite pleasant trails and I was at the Passarelle de Tolla, where the trail merges for a while with the GR20, where I saw the famed red-and-white waymarks for the first time. And somewhere between here and the Bocca d'Oreccia, I had my pig encounter.

Les cochons

I was going along quite happily when I saw this tribe of about 10 pigs sprawled all across the trail in the sunshine. There was really never any thought of picking my way between them. They were large, black, and mean looking, and there were piglets as well, and my only thought was to get past them without pissing them off in any way and ideally without being noticed at all. Fat chance.

I climbed up the hillside for a bit, hoping to traverse around them and drop back on to the trail further on. A fine plan, except the bloody things followed me uphill. Casually yet efficiently they encircled me. At this poit I coolly considered my different options and decided to go with panic. I yelled at them, I waved bits of wood threateningly at them, but they were not impressed.

Now I was really starting to lose it. I pulled out my mobile phone and dialled 112. Yes, you laugh now, but believe me, you'd have done the same. Them pigs were scary. And I wasn't entirely sure that they just garden variety (so to speak) pigs, or maybe they were wild boar? What do I know from pigs, I'm a city kid. As it turned out, there was no signal up in the mountains, so I couldn't get through. Just as well: someone had picked up, I'm not sure exactly how I would have explained myself.

By now I'm repeating to myself like a mantra "Pigs don't eat people, people eat pigs". I only half believed it. Maybe this was some little known Corsican wolf-pig. But thinking about pigs and their diets, I through perhaps, they're used to hikers feeding them. Maybe I can bribe my way out of this one. So I open my rucksack and they all come even closer. In a feverish hurry I pull out a food packet and throw it up the hillside, hoping they would all rush off towards it. Did they hell. They just sort of glanced at it and then turned their attention back to me. I then realized what I had thrown away was a packet of ham. So not cannibal pigs then. I tried an apple next, but with the same conspicuous lack of success.

At this point I hear voices below me on the trail, and I start yelling. There are confused voices below, but eventually I see a couple of hikers on the trail lookup up at me. The guy yells up to me in French. I'm normally pretty decent at foreign languages, and I had been practicing my français, but in that moment of stress I forgot it all. Anyhow, clearly he was saying something roughly corresponding to "What the f*** are you doing up there?" and all I could respond with was "Les cochons ...", pointing about me in a despairing sort of way.

They were really nice people, these two. The guy kept trying to convince me that the pigs were "pas méchant" and I should just come down, but I wasn't having any of it. Finally he had to come up to show me, and you know what ... he was right! He walked right between the pigs and they ignored him. As they did me when I went back down. He explained later that they were indeed just domestic pigs, and they were just curious. Indeed their reaction to humans was very nonchalant, much more what you would expect from domestic animals than wild ones. Still, you see something big,black and hairy wandering around the forest, you don't really think "Babe" (the movie), do you? I still suspect those pigs have a little bit of wild boar in them.

During this rescue operation the guy's girlfriend took a photo of the crazy Indian dude surrounded by pigs. I gave her my address and she mailed me a copy a few weeks later, thanks Martine.

So I decide to stick with these nice people, they were going the same way as me: out of gratitude, because it's nice to have company and also to be perfectly honest in case of more pigs. We finally made it to the Refuge de L'Onda at 3:45 in the afternoon, which was supposed to have been my lunch stop. The French couple were camping there, but I didn't have a tent or anything, so after wolfing a Corsican farinata (about the only thing I had left to eat, after my failed pig-feeding endeavours), I decided to press on. After Onda there's a bit of a climb to Bocca d'Oreccia, and I could look out across the pass and also back down on the the refuge/campsite.

Then there was a pretty steep descent across some rocks and gullies, I would probably have gotten lost except I kept meeting people going the other way. Some of whom sounded a bit surprised that I expected to make Pastricciola (or, as the French would have it, "Pastricciole") that day. But I pressed on nevertheless, and soon I was walking through a forest along a stream, and it stated to get dark.

So I kept going, and it got really dark, and I started asking myself why the hell I had started on this mad adventure. At these sorts of times you always ask yourself these questions. The trail was marked by orange splashes of paint on the tree trunks and I cannot describe the relief every time I saw one of them. At one point I did completely lose the trail, wandered about desperatedly until I saw an orange mark again, and was so happy that I kept going for another few minutes until I stopped suddenly. Previously I could hear the torrent to my left, and now it was on my right. I spent another few minutes agonizing over whether I had in fact turned myself right around, decided I had, and headed back. I was hoping to find something I'd already seen, so I could make sure, but all trees are alike in the dark. Or is that cats?

I finally reached some signs of human habitaiton; at one point there was even a street lamp, so I pulled out my book and I figured I must be at Chiusa. I followed the path through there, onto the road, and eventually plodded into Pastricciola. There was an old dude pottering around the village, and I checked with him to make sure of the place. It must have been around 11pm. The gîte was a bit beyond the village, so I had some more walking to do before I finally knocked on the door. I had called on the previous day and said, I'll be there at 6, please to reserve a place. I figured, so I'm a bit late, but I'm going to sleep in a real bed tonight. After a hot shower. Yeah right.

I knocked. I hammered. I yelled. To no avail. No one was around. There were various signs taped to the door, but nothing useful like opening hours, just instructions for proper use of the laundry facilities. I was tired, hungry, and now very pissed off. I pulled out my sleeping bag, laid it out on a bit of knobbly ground between the gîte and the road, and slept as best I could.

11 Oct, 2003: Pastricciola - Soccia

The next morning I woke up cold and stiff. I was trying to bring some life back into my limbs when I see this guy come down from a house up on the hill. He asked me if I had slept "dehors", and I, not trusting my French, just made a "what the hell do you think?" gesture with my hands. Then he tells me his brother is the guy what runs the place ("gérant" I believe is the technical term), but he lives in the village proper, he goes home at night, but he leaves his brother (this guy) a key, I should just have come gotten it from him. And I'm trying very hard not to say out loud look her Einstein, not everyone is from your inbred little icommunity where everyone knows everyone else, in a lot of places if you knock on stranger's doors late at night demanding keys, they call the police or maybe they just shoot you, how about your brother puts up a damn sign with this vital information instead of the stupid washing machine manual. But I didn't say that. Just "merci beaucoup".

The guy was very nice though and he let me use the showers etc., wouldn't take any money, I'm guessing because he felt a bit bad about my avoir dormi dehors. So I head on out back through the village and some guy leans out from the balcony and yells to me, are you the guy that slept outside the gîte last night. I'm famous now in this little village, I guess. I say, yes that was me, and he says, oh right, I'm the guy who runs it, but I live here see, but my brother, he has a key .... anyway, he's very friendly as well, offers me coffee and all, but I want to get cracking since it's already 10am.

I kept meaning to write the trailblazer people and ask them to put in a little correction about the gîte, to the effect that if there's nobody there you should try the house up the hill, it's the gérant's brother, he has a key, but I never got around to it, oh well.

From Pastricciola there's astiff climb through a pine forest, but the sun was shining, I was climbing through a pine forest, I could feel my leg muscles working and my heart pumping, I wasn't lost in the dark, I felt great! I made it up to Bocca Messicella around 1pm, just before the pass there was a rock with a great view looking back. That's the Gruzini valley and somewhere back there is Monte d'Oro.

And here I was at the pass itself, had to take a photo to prove it to myself.
A fairly uneventful descent and I was at Guagno around 2-3pm. I kept following the orange bits of paint, they led me down a tarmac road which became a dirt road, and then just stopped, no trail, no markers or nothing. I went up and down this damn road trying to figure out what was going on. I wasted quite a lot of time on this, I finally went into a house and asked directions of an aged Corsican feller. What with my bad French and his Corsican accent, this was slow going until I noticed that occasionally he would use very Italian-sounding words, like "castagna" for chestnut tree (the French is "chatâignier").

So I switched to Italian and he to Corsican which improved things somewhat. Turns out he was telling me to go down the hill side to where the big chestnut tree was, and I'd find the trail. I had to press him to be a bit more specific, Corsica has more than one chestnut tree. Maybe as many as five. So with all that sorted out, I pressed on, left Guagno about 3:45 and crossed the Fiume Grossu at around 5:20.
I was determined not to trek in the dark again, so I climbed hard up the steep hill to Orto and made it at 5:45. Then more climbing up through dense maquis, my first time of seeing this famed vegetation. And justly is it famed. Dense, impenetrable, springy bushes ranging from waist-high to above your head, that punish the least digression from the path by ripping at your clothing, and with this wonderful indescribable aroma. I was always sceptical about the stories about all these people "disappearing" into the maquis but now I believe it.

By the time the path started to level off it was getting dark. I descended through more chestnut forests, occasionally cutting across the tarmac road that was also descending at a gentler gradient. The first time it did this I was able to walk up and down the tarmac until I found the trail again. The second time I couldn't, I decided to give up and just follow the road instead. I came to a big dam sort of thing, and doubts began to assail me. I walked back to a house where I'd seen some lights and rang the bell, there were some people inside having drinks and looking very comfortable. One guy came out and looked at me funny, and then told me to just follow the road across the dam and I'd find the hotel U Paese, which was the only thing listed in my book. He didn't offer me a drink (or food!), which I was kinda half-hoping for (ever the optimist, that's me). At this point it was 7:30pm.

So I checked in to the U Paese and had a hot bath. Normally I would just shower but the luxury of hot water, clean sheets, etc. turned my head. Positively decadent. I went down to get some food and the restaurant was closed but the friendly chap at the bar rustled up some food and (there is a God in Heaven) a beer, and even made me a sandwich for the next day. So that was allright.

12 Oct, 2003: Soccia - Letzia

According to the trailblazer guide, Pastricciola - Letzia is actually a single stage. Adding that you have to be up early and made of sturdy stuff to make it in one day. I wasn't up early, I had no idea how sturdy my "stuff" was, and anyway I guess the third unspoken requirement was, you have to not get lost all the time.

I left Soccia at 8:45 (a good night's sleep helped me to get a slightly earlier start), and the first 2 km are along tarmac road, not very exciting, until I reached the helipad at 9:10. Some nice views from there back up towards the village.

At 10:15, I reached Guagno-les-bains, just after I'd met an old hunter dude with some kind of rifle and a bag. He told me he was hunting "sanglier" (wild boar), though the bag didn't look anywhere near large enough to fit a whole one. I'm thinking he was really after rabbits. I told him I was trying to make Letzia, was it far, and he said, oh, a few kilometres and smiled strangely, I know not why.

Then there's a nice walk along the Guagno river, through (I found this later from the book; like I would know) a holm oak forest. Somewhere along the way though, I managed to lose the trail (you saw this coming, right?) and go right down to the river, which was all wet slippery boulders. I did my usual frantic casting about to find the trail, but found bupkes. So I'm trying hard not to panic. I figure, I went down to the river, so if I go up now I'll eventually hit the trail. Except of course I might go right past it and keep climbing, if I miss the waymarks. Luckily though this half-assed plan worked and I was back on track. Then I realized I'd dropped my sunglasses (I'd stuck them in my rucksack waist strap) somewhere down there, but I didn't really feel like going back down. So I left not only my heart in Corsica, but also something a bit less biodegradable.

After crossing a couple of bridges ("passarelles") and a really stiff climb, I made it it up to the top at about 12:30 and took the customary photographs.
I reached La Porta at 13:00, where there was a very welcome spring, since I was running low on water. By now I was feeling very tired and a bit feverish. I missed where it said in the book "waymarks lead you up past empty houses and between switchbacks of the main road". So I started walking up the main road which took ages. I did stop at one house to ask directions to the "Centre Équestre" and of course they gave me directions via the main road (I think they did try to explain the "sentier" to me but gave up because my French was not up to the challenge, especially given my very degraded state at this point).

As I plodded I heard a vehicle behind me and made desperate hitch-hiking signs. So this 4x4 pulls over with some hunter-looking dudes inside. I ask them if they can take me to the Centre Équestre, and they go, oh, it's just up the road, you can walk there in no time, but I put on my most pathetic face and they gave me a ride. So I was at the Centre at 1:45pm, and had to hang around for a bit waiting for the lady who ran the accomodation side of things. She got me into a little log cabin, pretty basic facilities but I definitely wasn't complaining. I collapsed and slept for a few hours and then felt well enough to walk about and take a few photos. I think I managed to force myself to eat some bread (stale and unappetizing by now) and ham that I'd bought in Ajaccio.

13 Oct, 2003: Cargèse

I'd slept well, the fever was gone though I was still a little weak, and the next morning I headed out at 7. The plan was to finish the variant that day at Marignana via Renno and catch the bus back to Ajaccio. The book even said "presents no real physical challenges" and "superb views". Way fucking hay.

But (surprise!) I lost the trail pretty soon and instead clomb up a dirt road and eventually ran into a shepherd on a dirt bike (he was bumping down the road while whooping his sheep down the hill). He said I was going completely the wrong way, Renno was back down there and there was nothing the way I was going for the next 50 km (!) He gave me a scary ride (while continuing to wave and yell at the sheep) back down to a clearing with multiple forking paths. You'd think this was where I'd gone wrong, but apparently I'd missed the trail even earlier. But still, he pointed out a path that allegedly led to Renno.

The path became indistinct pretty soon, and I kept running into fences (to keep pigs out, or in, or something) that I had to clamber over. Also mud, puddles, and I started to feel weak again and my left knee began to give me gip. So I said, screw the alleged superb views I'm going back. I met the same shepherd again near his hut, and also an old guy in a pickup who gave me a lift to Cargèse. That took only 45 min (Corsica is small ... if you're not on foot), and we chatted amicably the while in Italian, which he spoke quite well, his wife was Sardinian I think he said. AT Cargèse I checked into a hotel whose name eludes me and ate my sandwiches from the U Paese, which I had forgotten all about until now. Took some photos from my hotel balcony ...
At around 4pm I sauntered out and headed for a beach the hotel guy had recommended but of course I walked for ages without finding it. I kept running up against hotels with "private property" signs and had to walk around them. Turned out the beach itself wasn't private, but you could only get to it by walking through one of the hotels (which was allowed). Huh.
Then I walked into town, and found a Greek church and a Latin church facing each other. Apparently there were Greek refugees (fleeing the Turks?) and no one would take them in except the hospitable and welcoming folks of Cargèse. Funnily, if I recall correctly, the Latin church was to the east of the Greek church ... the photo is of the Latin church.
... and also took some photos of the Golfe de Sagone and some other stuff ...
... and that darned beach again. Never managed to get there.

14 Oct, 2003: Ajaccio

I caught a bus to Ajaccio in the morning, found a hotel, and slouched about town for the rest of the day, the photo is from the Quai de la Citadelle. I hung around Ajaccio for a couple more days since I'd originally budgeted more trekking days plus a safety margin.

I came back from Corsica many pounds lighter (what with the hiking and the fever) and the determination to go back there again and do it properly. Like, the whole GR20. Which I'm still going to do. Some day.