It may come as a surprise to many, but Corsica, France is no longer a popular holiday destination for residents of the United Kingdom and apart from a few Napoleonic historians almost unknown to many in North America. Rugged and mountainous the island is often known as the Mountain in the Sea, and interspersed with a network of ancient rights of way. Most visitors from our shores are there to complete the GR20, an intrepid long distance trek which stretches from Calenzana in the North to Conca in the South. It is widely recognised as the toughest trekking route in Europe and takes around fifteen days over rocky and arid terrain.
Just looking at the baggage carousel at the airport makes it clear what the aspirations of many visiting the island are there for, backpacks, sleeping mats, sleeping bags and trekking poles are in abundance. Many will spend less than a day either side of their GR20 attempt to visit any of the rest of the island. A few will also ultimately fail and therefore spend a little longer than intended sight-seeing on this jewel in the Mediterranean crown.
History of tourism
This is undoubtedly a bit of a shame, as this lovely place to visit, the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean has a great deal more to offer the savvy traveller. It is also known as the ‘Island of Beauty’ and has a pretty long history of British tourism, with both James Boswell and Dorothy Carrington spending time here and writing what could be described as the first travel guides to the island. It was also a popular destination with the well to do of the Victorian era, but in recent times has suffered from a slide down the average tourists ‘must see’ list.
There are lovely coastal towns, small mountain enclaves, thriving, bustling resort towns and magnificent vistas wherever you look. Whether you wish to explore the other great trekking opportunities, discover the cultural and historical delights, enjoy a latte at a roadside bar or simply top up your tan on an out of the way beach, there are opportunities galore.
Change of itinerary
Okay time to clear my conscience, the original reason for my visit to the island was to complete the GR20, or Jairvan as it is locally known. Sat in the pleasant surroundings of a coffee shop in St. Nicholas Square, Bastia enjoying the first coffee on the island any plans of this however were soon scuppered.
Reading through the pages of a well-known travel magazine, a small news item tucked away in the corner caught my attention It seems that the rules for completing the GR20 had just changed, and all accommodation required pre-booking, and paid for online before setting out!
My guidebook was bought just before travelling and was the latest edition, but as this change had only just been declared it was totally irrelevant. It was likely that it would take some time to actually enforce this new rule, but it seemed an unreasonable risk to starting, and finding that on arrival at the first refuge, accommodation would be unavailable.
It was also a bit disturbing, and not altogether safe, as people who were especially tired or suffering from dehydration might be forced to continue on further than they were possibly prepared for. Attmepting to reach the next booked accommodation, which may still be some distance away. There was also the possibility that the weather might turn threatening, I hoped that some flexibility and common sense would still be used in such cases.
I spent almost a week in the coastal town of Bastia, the second City and then a few more days in Corte while planning an alternative trek through the island.
Mountain in the Sea
Eventually setting out from Corte along the Valley du Tavignau, following the trail of the Mare e Mare Nord (Sea to Sea North). Taking ten days along this route passing through picturesque rural mountain villages and coastal towns like Calaccucia, Evisa, and Porto. Switching to the Mare e Monti Nord hugging the coast and passing through Osani, Girolata before eventually it reaches Calenzana and then Calvi.
The terrain is rough and mountainous as one of its alternative names would suggest, there is a great deal of scrubland and even wild olive trees. This gives way to cactus as the conditions become more arid towards the coast but the maquis which proliferates here is ever present.A combination of a great many species of plant, herbs and heather, including juniper, lavender, rosemary, marjoram, thyme, gorse, mint, myrtle, wild olive and many more all of which give it a very distinct aroma, and provide the island with some of its character.
Swimming in fresh mountain streams, under small waterfalls and sometimes the sea not only provided a welcome break from the hot weather but enabled me to remain relatively clean. Most of the villages provided fresh drinking water in the form of fountains though rationing was still required in the more arid regions. A full body wash, including the clothes I was wearing gave a few people a surprise in Galeria town centre however.
Accommodation is in the form of mountain refuge huts, farmhouse bergeries, campsites and the occasional gité, all were functional and clean. Usually preferring however to sleep out on the campsites though, watching the stars switch on as the clear sky grew gradually darker. Each one appeared to come on individually until eventually there was a twinkling overhead blanket of tiny lights.
The trail is well-marked throughout and generally easy to follow and although it passes through some rough ground it is not particularly tasking. It was with some regret that Calenzana was finally reached and unfortunately the trekking adventure was at an end.
It was not yet time to leave the island fortunately, over a week was spent in the bustling, lively port and resort of Calvi. It is by far the busiest place which I had visited so far, and is teeming with tourists. Of course this means that there is also plenty to entertain them, there is a plethora of restaurants, souvenir shops, bars and other small places of interest to keep anybody engaged for a good few hours or even a day or more. It is always intriguing, trying to work out which came first though, the attractions or the tourists, a bit chicken and egg puzzle.
The time spent in Calvi was great fun, hooking up with a group of Italian lads, and French girls, it was a relaxing, fun time. Usually meeting up for breakfast and then drifting off a in smaller groups, hanging out on the beach and eating out for dinner in the evening. We even had an international fishing competition England versus Italy though it ended in an honourable draw.
After Calvi, a return to Corte for several days before having to finally leave the island. The first visit to this city it had been as a couchsurfer, but this time was by invite and it was an even more pleasant stay. Staying at a châteaux just outside the city owned by a slightly eccentric Baron, he had a few other guests and they were all very friendly making me always feel a part of the group.
All good things eventually come to an end however and this particular adventure was also winding down. Corsica has a lot to offer, a variety of resorts, villages, mountains and sea, plenty to visit on this the Island of Beauty.
There was little doubt that there would be a return journey though after all there was a little unfinished business….the GR20!