The GR20 is 180km, and when Googled is described as ‘the toughest long distance trail in Europe’. Starting in the northwest of Corsica and running over the mountainous spine of the island, and ending in the southeast. There are dozens of GR (or Grande Randonnée) footpaths all over France, Spain, and other parts of Europe.
I knew none of this when asked if I would like to accompany my friend Neil on the trail. We were on a caving expedition in the Austrian Alps. He was about to embark on a five-day underground camp, but was already thinking about his next adventure. I’d been in the mountains of the Picos De Europa in Northern Spain the month before, so felt fairly fit. Neil had spent the past month climbing at altitude in France and Switzerland, but I might be able to just about keep up. He had no one to hike with anyway and I had nothing planned when back in the UK, so thought why not? I’d not hiked two days in a row since the Duke of Edinburgh weekend in Derbyshire aged thirteen, but how hard could it be?
I booked my flights, slightly concerned that we seemed to have only allowed for twelve days hiking, when most people took 15 to 16.
- Instigating impromptu parties the night before sleeping on the floor of Gatwick Airport about to hike across an entire country is NOT recommended.
- Putting your new tent up for the first time, in a thunderstorm, only to discover the poles supplied are for a tent twice its size, is a bad idea.
- Wearing short shorts makes it remarkably easy to hitch a ride to the start of the trail. The locals are friendly and happy to help anyway.
The first day’s hiking went well- the terrain was steep but not technical and our campsite had an excellent view. I’d brought a tiny 2/3 length inflatable matt that was dismissed on site as a poor choice. I however viewed it as a good one when Neil was forced to wake up each night to re-inflate his cushy thick roll matt that turned out to have a slow puncture.
We thought to get a head start on the first uphill section of day two, and do it in the cool of the morning. We set off at an alarmingly early 6am, headtorches on. Unfortunately, what is relatively easy navigation in daylight- simply look for the red and white painted markers- becomes much harder before the sun has risen. After several false trails and backtracks, it was decided that the extra hours sleep made much more sense.
The northern half of the GR20 is predominantly steep rocky paths, boulder hopping, and scrambling. Technical but fun, and making one very grateful for walking poles. Corsica is gorgeous, and from up high you get at least one glimpse of the sea most days. This does however give the impression of not getting anywhere fast- why can we still see it?? There are many beautiful clear rivers and streams running through the mountains. We were using chlorine tablets, but the locals seemed to just drink straight from the stream. After a hot sweaty day we washed our clothes and ourselves in the river by our camp. It felt great but it’s debatable what’s better: clothes that smell of sweat or clothes that smell of sweat and river water.
We quickly picked up a routine. You cultivate a very particular way of setting up your sleeping area, the order things are done in, who does which task. Up at 6 (6:30 if we’re honest), munch down two bland packaged pain au chocolat, get out of your one set of sleeping clothes, into your one (and increasingly smelly) set of walking clothes. Brace for getting out of the cosy sleeping bag and pack up camp as fast as possible. We’d generally stop for lunch about 12, then push on to the next night’s camp site for 2-5pm, depending on how long that leg was. We made great time on the uphill sections. Unfortunately a year-old skiing injury to my knee made the downhill painful and relatively slow going, but we were still on course for our time limit.
The food situation was expectedly monotonous. Either smash, pasta, or couscous, with tuna (not good) or chorizo (much better), a carrot, and stock cubes. Followed by two chocolate biscuits each. Lunch was bread and cheese. Unfortunately the Corsicans are fond of a very strong, (and very expensive when up at mountain huts) goat’s cheese. It feels particularly sad to be forcing down something that tastes awful, that you know cost you 15 euros, but you need the calories.
We reached the midpoint of Vizzavona at the end of day 6. The village there is tiny, but felt strange after being out of civilization even for such a short time. We took a day off to catch the train to Corte for a break and to restock on food.
So on we continued, knowing the southern half of the trail was meant to be easier, or at least slightly less rugged and mountainous. Though by that time I had stopped thinking ‘just got to get to the top of that hill’. It’s pointless when you know there will just be another one after it.
It doesn’t take long to really miss life’s little luxuries. You don’t realise the joy of sitting on a clean toilet until you and your walking companion both have dodgy stomachs; waiting your turn for the trowel and rationing the last of the loo roll.
The first few days were spent counting down: one day down, loads still to go; two days down, loads still to go. As the end drew nearer I became more focused on the stunning scenery and appreciated the simplicity of just walking each day. I would take my turn on the kindle each evening for half an hour, then be asleep before nine, Neil not much further behind.
The worst part of the southern half was the shortage of water points. There was a night where we went to sleep thirsty, having to ration our water, woke up thirsty, then hiked a couple of hours uphill and in the heat of the sun before we found a dribble running down the rock. Luckily we had a filter straw so took turns sucking up moisture, not bothering to stop for breath. Thirst definitely brought me to my grumpiest. I began fantasising about an ice cold Orangina for hours on end. The final day was a draught day. The last village we’d been in we had taken turns going to the shop and buying a ‘luxury’ item. Neil chose Haribo. I chose a big ripe pear each, for which Neil mocked me. But on that final day when we had no water and the sun was creating an oven out of the valley, that pear was the juiciest, best pear I’ve ever eaten.
The end of the GR20 is fairly anticlimactic. You end up in a small, not very attractive town. But we were happy to be done nonetheless. Ten and a bit days of hiking brought us in well under guidebook time. We had met one of the managers of a mountain hut and discovered that he ran it in three days, but we were still pretty pleased. It’s definitely inspired me to look for another long distance trail to take up. We met a couple out there who were planning the PCT, maybe one day.
Sitting round the pool at our fancy main town campsite the night before our flight, another friend messaged me asking why I wasn’t coming up to Skye the next day. I needed a rest, but the adventure bug was still biting so I booked a connecting flight to Glasgow then and there.
Lessons learnt: Take more than one loo roll between two people, for two weeks. A needle and thread is very handy for stitching together broken tents. It’s a great way to lose weight, I’ve never seen so many of my ribs! And grab every opportunity that presents itself.
All photos taken by Neil Cox