Day 6: The View towards Col Saint Georges
|Text By Art Simon|
Photos By Andrea Beck and Art Simon
Corsica is a great destination for hiking, with many long distance paths across the island. My wife Andrea and I spent three weeks in Corsica in June 2001 and the highlight was a 7 day hike following the Mare A Mare Centre (Sea to Sea center) route. We got the idea after reading Lonely Planet Corsica, a guidebook which I highly recommend. While generally good, the trail description in the first version has a few frustrating errors and omissions which I've described below. Apparently, there is a new second edition (as of July 2001) that has corrected most of the errors from the first edition. Michael Radtke has posted a page with his trail notes to the Mare a Mare Centre with some corrections and clarifications to the latest Lonely Planet guide.
Other than Lonely Planet, there isn't much in English describing Corsican long distance footpaths. There are some brief descriptions in the Rough Guide to Corsica, but these are insufficient to find your way around. There is one out of print book, Walks in Corsica (still available through Magellan Travel books) which is out of date and not as descriptive as Lonely Planet. As Lonely Planet only describes the GR20 and Mare A Mare Centre, it's really your only choice if you are going to hike one of the other trails. Corsica is still an unusual destination for English speaking hikers, but it is very popular with French walkers and there are several French guidebooks.
I put up this page since I couldn't find that much information. One of the difficulties I had was choosing a route. There are at least 6 marked long distance footpaths in Corsica. The most famous is the GR20, a difficult two week long hike that crosses Corsica lengthwise, north to south, through the islands highest mountains. There are two Mare a Monti (sea and mountains) routes and three Mare a Mare (sea to sea) routes which all run generally cross-wise, east and west. The GR20 gets a lot of foot traffic. People we met described it as crowded and a bit competitive (at least for bed space at the refuges), but with outstanding scenery. Since the GR20 doesn't pass through many villages it requires hikers to be more self sufficient and carry more gear. It attracts a more "hard-core" mountaineering crowd. The other hikes travel through mountain villages and offer more amenities.
Beech Forest on day 3
If you are considering walking the Mare A Mare Centre let me start by saying Go for it! It's a great walk. Don't feel obligated to do the whole walk however. Not all of the stages are equally interesting. My favorites were the middle stages, especially Days 2 and 3, and the first and last days were the least interesting. If I had it to do over again, I'd consider walking part of the GR20 as well as the part of Mare A Mare Centre. We met a Dutch couple who started from Vizzavona. Vizzavona is reachable by train. From there you could walk to the junction with Mare A Mare in three days. This would give you three days of high mountain scenery before dropping down and touring some of the villages. After our walk we rented a car and drove around the island for a couple of weeks. I was also very impressed with the area around the villages of Ota and Evisa which are visited by Corsica's first long distance foot path the 10 day Tra Mare e Monti.
Here's a tip that's not in the guidebooks: Send the rest of your luggage ahead by train! We were able to send our two backpacks ahead of us to Ajaccio (a short bus ride from the end of the hike) for about 100 francs. This left us to carry only what we needed for the hike. I was able to cram a change of clothes, a sleep sack, a rain jacket, my toothbrush and a couple water bottles in a large fanny pack. Andrea carried a day pack. You could carry more but there is really no need to. Tent camping is generally restricted to areas around the gites and on the edge of town. While you could cook your own meals outside, the food in the villages was one of the highlights of our trip. We stayed at a gite d'etape (a sort of mountain hostel with bunk beds) or an auberge (bed and breakfast) every night. We bought everything we could: breakfast, a packed lunch, dinner, drinks and snacks and never spent more than 500 francs a day for the two of us. That's about $35/day per person. This was easily the cheapest part of our vacation.
It's worth calling ahead to reserve a place in the gite or auberge. Not so much because they fill up (though that was case one night in the small 10 place gite in Guitera-les-Bains) but rather if they aren't expecting anyone the gite may be empty and closed when you arrive! English is not commonly spoken. If you aren't comfortable speaking French, you can ask the gite's owner to phone ahead to the next gite for you. The people we met along the way were universally friendly and helpful.
Hiking in Corisca is significantly different than hiking in the states. First, these aren't long distance trails, but rather routes that follow a variety of local trails in a variety of conditions. The routes are marked with splashes of paint, in this case orange for the Mare A Mare centre. We spent more time route finding than we would have in California. We frequently came to unmarked forks where we would have to explore a bit to find the trail markings. New forest roads that have been built since the Lonely Planet trail descriptions were written also complicated route finding.
Day 1: Sign at trailhead
The trailhead for the Mare A Mare Centre is reachable by bus from the town of Bastia. You want the Porto Vecchia bus which leaves from across the post office. As I remember, it leaves at around 9 am. Buy a ticket to the town of Ghisonaccia (80 francs), but ask the bus driver to let you off a the trailhead by the bridge over the Abatescu river which is a few kilometers past the town (you won't be the first hiker he has dropped off here). The bus ride takes about 3 hours which leaves plenty of time for the 3 hour hike to Serra di Fiumorbu. The hike isn't very interesing, it's really just a way to get from the bus stop to the first nights lodging.
The trail markings start off yellow. The route takes you to the Abatescu river where the trail has been washed away. There is no easy way along this part. When the trail ends abruptly at the river, don't cross it. Make your way as best you can along the bank of the river to the left. After a hundred feet or so the trail will reappear. Our foray along the river resulted in lots of scrapes from brambles and barb wire. The only alternative is to follow the road rather than the trail to Sualellu and pick up the trail there. Besides the brambles and the barb wire, I found the oat seeds really annoying as they kept working their way inside my boot along this stretch. The only good news is that this is the worst part of the whole trip, it only gets better.
Andrea and Madame Guidicelli
From Sualellu, the trail begins a tunnel like climb up the hill through the maquis (the dense follage characteristic of Corsica) up to the first nights stop at Serra di Fiumorbu. The town seemed exposed and deserted during the day, but by dusk it became charming. The lights of the neighboring villages twinkled from mountains. Madame Guidicelli couldn't have been friendlier and she fixed us what might have been the best dinner of the trip. The huge sandwiches she made us for our lunch the next day were wonderful.
Correction to description in Lonely Planet Corsica 1st edition: On page 146 the description says "After 45 minutes the path reaches a tarmac road; turn left here and follow the road for about 20 m before rejoining the path up the mountainside to the left". This makes no sense for a number a reasons: First, you can just cross the road and pick up the path (up some steps carved in rock) on the other side. Second, as an alternative you could also turn left for about 20 m along the road and then rejoin the path to the RIGHT, but there is really no reason to do this.
The gite at Catastaju is a converted power station
This is a great stretch of trail. It's scenic, not too difficult and ends at a wonderful swimming hole next to a nice gite. Madame Paoli and her husband run the gite, and they are about the nicest people you could hope to meet. The food was wonderful, the couscous that she prepared for our lunch the nest day was excellent.
Since the description in Lonely Planet (1st edition) was written there is a new forest road before the last two cross juntions. The trail is marked--so just keep your eyes open. The book says this stretch takes 4 1/2 to 5 hours. It took us more like 6 hours. Some Canadian hikers who missed the sign at the new forest road spent 9 hours hiking this stretch.
This was the longest, hardest day of the hike, but it was also my favorite. The trail goes through some spectacular forest, past the ruins of some old shepard's huts and climbs up to the Mare a Mare centre's high point at Bocca di Lapru, the junction with the GR20. The book says this takes 6 to 6 1/2 hours, but it took us nearly 9. The last stretch leading into the town of Cozzano seems to last forever.
In Cozzano you have a choice of two places to stay: The gite and the Auberge A Filetta. We stayed at the auberge and I highly recommend it. The shower in our room was strong and hot. The dinner of roast pork was excellent and the price for the two of us wasn't much more than the bunks in the gite.
Correction to the description in Lonely Planet Corsica 1st edition: The book implies that it is 2 1/2 to 3 hours from Bocca di Laparu to Cozzano, but it is actually closer to 4. After descending from Bocca di Laparu for 2 hours you will reach a forest road. From here it is another 2 hours to town. Follow the road for a good distance, there is a sign to the RIGHT where you leave the road for the trail. After another good distance, you rejoin the forest road (this stretch is apparently newly constructed since it is not described in the guidebook and is not shown on the map). Again you follow the road for a good distance (there are no orange markings along the road for nearly a kilometer) and again leave the road to the RIGHT at the sign for the trail into town.
Bar des Amis in Sampolo
This day was a little different than the previous two. The hiking was at a lower elevation and passed through several villages. We stopped first for a drink at the bar in Sampolo, Bar des Amis. From here we continued on to the Village of Tasso. We were able to get lunch at the auberge in town, but we seemed to have taken them by surprise. It might be smarter to carry a packed lunch rather than count on eating in town.
Gite de Guitera-les-Bains
Correction to description in Lonely Planet 1st edition. On Page 150 the guide reads "You go through a wooden gate and then navigate your way through a veritable labyrinth of little paths until you reach two pretty house overhanging the valley". After the wooden gate the guide mentions, the path leaves the dirt road on the right. The turn is marked with a cairn (pile of rocks). From here the path isn't too hard to follow to Sampolo and on to Tasso. From Tasso the description is generally correct. There are two juntions and in both cases you take the left fork. Shortly before Guitera-les-Bains there is a shiny new fence and gate. You should go through the gate. If you look carefully ahead, you can see the orange trail markings on the tree twenty feet or so beyond the gate.
This was a nice short day through some pretty scenery. We stopped for lunch in the village of Frasseto. The trail was easy to follow except for one frustrating typo in the lonely planet guide (1st edition): at the top of page 152 it says "turn right and you will soon be in Frasseto". It should say LEFT. Interestingly, this seems to be a poor translation, the French version of the Lonely Planet Corsica guidebook correctly tells you to turn left.
There was some great scenery on this leg. Check out the photo at the top of this page.
Corrections to Lonely Planet description (1st edition): The book omits the phone number for the gite at Col Saint Georges. It's 04-95257006. The book implies that the two high points of the leg, Bocca di Sant'Antone and Punta Maggiola are about an hour apart. It took us twice as long to get from one to the other. At the bottom of page 153, the book describes a "path [that] turns off sharply to the right". This path joins a new forest road that has been built since the book was written. A little ways after the road passes through a shiny new gate, the trail leaves the road to the left. After about a half hour the trail passes through a brown gate, the gate described by the book.
I found this leg disappointing. While there are some good views of the ocean, it is hot, dusty and exposed. It requires 2.5 km of road walking on a busy highway. Finally, it deposits you at the end of the trail behind the dumpster of the Porticcio town cemetery.
Corrections to the Lonely Planet (1st edition) description: The trail begins up the road that is on the left side (as you are facing it) of the Auberge de Col Saint Georges. The guidebooks description of how to get from the cemetery to Porticcio is confusing at best. When you arrive at the cemetery, take the road to the LEFT that is lined with trees. You will go up a bit and then down to a four way intersection. Continue straight through the intersection and down. You will shortly come to a round-a-bout. From here you can follow the signs a short distance to Porticcio. When you arrive at the beach, the Hotel-Motel de Porticcio is a short distance to your left. They have "economical rooms" not mentioned in the guidebook for 200 francs.
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