2003-06 (JUNE, 2003)

The GR20 - Corsica, France

The Grande Randonnée route 20 (GR20): 200km, 15 days and a combined ascent/descent of over 10,000m (from sea-level to the top of Everest plus a bit) traversing the mountainous spine of Corsica. You'd have to be fit to attempt it (I wasn't). And a bit mad (1 out of 2 wasn't bad, I guess).

Tue: The day Andy and I had dreaded began early. It was a day of partings and transport connections that was about to go from bad to worse. We were on the road by 06:30 in order to be at the airport for 07:00. Our first job was to drop off our dented hire car and minimise the financial damage - all in French. Nice. During this conversation the Hertz lady casually expressed surprise that we were flying today, what with the air staff strike and all. Andy and I could not believe it. Sure enough, almost all flights had been cancelled (with the fortuitous exception, for me, of flights to Corsica). Andy's connection to Sydney from London the next morning looked in jeopardy. I checked-in (after a quick coffee and croissant) and we then went off to see what the British Airways desk could do for Andy. It will come as no surprise to most that, on this morning of chronic disruption, the BA desk was unstaffed. I had to abandon Andy in the desolate airport in order to join my flight to Corsica - I was not happy (and neither, I suspect, was Andy). My plane took off just after 09:00 and touched down dead on 10:00. It was a grey and drear day. After collecting my pack I made my way to the bus stop. No signs off life there - so a taxi into town it was. My ride into the centre of Ajaccio was by no means the scariest taxi journey I've ever taken, but it was the most 'interesting'. Thanks to an extensive block of roadworks, coupled with a massive street march, the traffic was at an absolute stand still. My intrepid driver refused to be deterred and our journey into town went via: a petrol station forecourt; a shopping centre carpark; the wrong side of a median-barriered, two-way road; and a stretch of footpath which enabled us to create our very own entrance onto a roundabout. These exciting detours, however, upped the fare for the 8km journey to a hefty €30 (AU$55). Doh! My first destination was the Tourist Information Office which was able to provide me with a map of the town, a train timetable, a pamphlet (in English) on the GR20 and directions to the PNRC office (the office of the park authority that administers Corsica's National Parks). The PNRC office was less useful - they had no maps of the route and only had French versions of the pamphlet that I had already obtained from the tourist office, but they did have an English-language guidebook to the walk (I already had one) and were able to direct me to a map shop (cnr. Rue Cardinal Fesch and Place Foch). After purchasing a pair of 1:100,000 maps of the island I made my way up to the train station via Rue Cardinal Fesch (the main street, Cours Napoleon, was still well and truly jammed with the street march). Upon arriving at the station I decided it was time for a spot of baggage rearrangement and I was distracted by this task for over half-an-hour. By the time I had finished, it had gone midday and the ticketing window was shut for lunch. This was a bit of a blow, as the train to Calvi I wanted to catch was due to depart before the traditional post-lunch re-opening hour of 15:00. I repaired to the station café where I could keep an eye on the ticket window whilst having a (half-decent) pizza. Fortunately the ticketing office re-opened for business at 13:15 and I was able to purchase my ticket without too much drama - the trials of the day were half over. I sat and wrote my diary and read until it was time to board my train North. The journey began with a stretch of lush, virgin forest but quickly ascended into the mountains that the GR20 traverses. Just over four hours later we were in Calvi. And that was it. The GR20 was over for me before it had even begun. The view from the train had revealed wave after wave of the most ferociously brutal mountains I had ever seen. Range upon range of peaks like upturned jaw bones, with wisps of their last meal still staining their teeth, stretched for as far as the eye could see. I've never felt so humbled and silly - thinking I could stroll "the most difficult long-distance walk in Europe". My decision was backed-up by looking over the other hikers in the train - hard, wiry individuals that made the few Corsican Army personnel on board look like couch potatoes. The final blow came in Calvi. With a plan to sleep on my decision, I headed for the spectacularly located Calvi Youth Hostel. Whilst attempting to get myself a room I bumped into two forty-something Englishmen that had just completed the Northern stretch of the hike. We elected to share a room together and I quizzed them on their experiences. I told them of my decision to abandon my hike. Over the rest of the evening they helped to confirm my choice - by trying to talk me into doing it! I got to hear a lot of stuff that was not in my guide book. "A lot of the route is still covered in snow, but you'll be OK if you've had some mountain experience". I hadn't. "There were only two really hairy bits: a 200m ice traverse with a 600m drop to a granite lake bed (a one-foot-wide snow-ledge had been cut in by earlier walkers, though); and the Cirque de Solitude full of snow". The Cirque de Solitude is infamous for being the hardest bit on the whole hike and my guide book states "use caution if the Cirque is wet and avoid it if their is any snow or ice present". As for "ice traverses", these guys looked like they weighed less than 80kgs apiece and they each had packs that weighed under 10kgs. My packed weighed in at 21kgs (without the 2-3kgs of water I would need to carry) which meant my total mass was over 25kgs heavier than theirs. "Ice traversing" over a 600m fall didn't sound like much fun. A final point regarded the level of fitness and experience required. The older guy was flying back to England on Thursday and was going to use his "altitude training" to do a half-marathon on the Sunday. The other guy hiked in the Peak and Lake district every weekend and was a regular visitor to the Alps. Both found the route comfortably challenging, but were glad of their sub-10kg packs. I was hopelessly out of my league. I think the images of that train journey will be with me for a long time. If one entertains the idea that in a multitude of Universes every turn of events gets played out, then I would be very confident in saying that in all the Universes where Chris did start that route, a high proportion had him not leaving Corsica alive. Emotive philosophising perhaps, but what I saw today quite frankly freaked me out. So the evening became one of organising an alternative plan. My budget was based on the very low cost of hiking as a holiday - I simply didn't have enough cash to swan around the Med for very long. I elected to stay on the island until Thursday before making my way back to the UK to see what could be done about bringing my flight to Sydney forward. I spent the rest of the evening in one of the islands only Internet cafés making arrangements.

Wed: The day dawned fine and hot. After a splendid breakfast with my two room mates (I can highly recommend the 'Auberge de Jeunesse BVJ Corsotel' if you are part of a group) I headed off for a spot of sightseeing around the wee port town of Calvi - I had 5 hours until my train to Bastia. Calvi is a glorious place, reminiscent of a cross between Dubrovnik (in Croatia) and Fiskardo (Kefalonia, Greece), two of my favourite places in Greater Europe 📷. An impressive Citadel dominates the harbour and echoes the mountain-scape surrounding the town 📷. The sea is gloriously pristine thanks to the silt-free water, a feature of an island of solid granite 📷. I wandered slowly amongst the lived-in streets of the Citadel for a good couple of hours, pausing regularly to take in the delightful views of the town, the mountains and the little port. From there I meandered through the terraced streets of the town taking loads of snaps. Somewhere along the way I was forced to eat a pain au raisin and a pain au chocolate and reflect on just how gorgeous the food was in a country that values the joy of eating well. At 14:35 I boarded my train to Bastia. I was looking forward to a second chance to see the mountains again, this time in better weather and without the dread of the thought of actually trying to hike over them colouring my view. Unfortunately the route to Bastia did not take in much of the mountain vistas. Instead we had three hours of occasionally interesting lowlands and coastline. The train arrived on time at 17:30. I made it my immediate mission to get myself some accommodation, as Bastia is known to run out during summer. I was lucky on my first try, however, and didn't need to fall back on the Tourist Office to help me out. After a much needed shower and a spot of repacking I went out for a wander to get my bearings. Bastia is second only to Calais as France's busiest port and it (largely) has about as much charm as its rival (at first glance anyway). The marina area is quite cute in a dilapidated way and I dallied there and along the waterfront for a couple of hours 📷. It wasn't a patch on Calvi though. After a long and slightly stressful day, I elected to have an early night (after a bout of French television).

Thu: Today was the day for getting back to London, but before I boarded my ferry for Nice at 14:30 I had a bit of time to spend exploring the real sights of Bastia, the foremost of which is the Citadel, Terra Nova 📷. And that took all of half-an-hour. The 'highlight' was supposed to be Église Ste-Croix with its unusual 'black cross' and impressive ceiling. I strolled into the church with my eyes raised to the roof - the ceiling was indeed impressive. As I lowered my eyes I spotted the 'black cross'. Lowering them further still I spied, directly in front of me, an open casket with a dead person in it - I had strolled into the middle of a funeral. Needless to say I beat a hasty retreat. Luckily I hadn't signed the 'guestbook' on the way in - I'd thought at the time it was an odd thing to have at the entrance to a church. I continued wandering aimlessly, my heart not really in sightseeing, until it was time to board my fast ferry to Nice. We set off at 14:30. The weather was glorious and the sea was completely flat. The three hour boat journey turned out to be four, which put the hour I had spare in Nice (to do a last minute spot of shopping for French stuff) in jeopardy. By the time we docked the rain was rolling in so I decided to head out to the airport directly from the ferry terminal. I was three hours early for my flight - plenty of time to check-in. And with the inevitable three hour delay we know and love when it comes to flying in Europe, I had a total of six hours to kill. "Time for a slap-up meal", I thought. Even in a French airport restaurant the food is great. I began with a stiff G&T followed by a splendid fillet du beof with potatoes and a dense mushroom and truffle gravy washed down with a half bottle of a heady Provencal red. To follow I couldn't decide on a single dessert, so ordered a plate with the lot: a sticky chocolate mouse, a delicate pear sorbet, a berry compot and a mini crème brûleé - all scrumptious. Even the coffee was good. As my first square meal in two days it was most acceptable. Unfortunately my repast only ate up one-and-a-half of my six spare hours, so I bought a magazine and sat down for a bit more waiting - I was getting quite good at it by this time. The plane finally took off just after 02:00 local time and got us in for 02:45 London time. I just hoped that the cab, that Ben had kindly booked for me, showed up. It did - I was back at Mike's as the sun was rising and collapsed into bed fully clothed.

London, England

After getting back from my failed trip to Corsica I got to spend some bonus time in London whilst trying to organise to bring my flight back to Sydney forward. Mike was kind enough to let me stay in his house even though he wasn't even there, so I was again based out of Kingston. During the seven days I was in town I got to see several people that I had missed the first time around (including a whole afternoon and evening in the Poole household - Thomas managed to hold off breaking any bits of his body for a whole 24-hours, despite falling off a bouncy castle and collapsing a deck chair on himself during my brief visit). I also got to catch up with a number of the guys from ABAST, where I used to work, and caught a movie in Piccadilly with Lynda. I fitted in a spot of site-seeing, too (the fascinating 'London At War Museum', for example), and wrote some clues for the London section of my city secret treasure hunt website [now deceased]. All-in-all a splendid bonus week of doing my own thing. I was sad to go, in a lot of ways.

The long journey home was uneventful and Andy met me at the airport - I had missed her a great deal. She brought me a bright yellow Gerbera to welcome me home.