Trekking Corsica’s GR20

The GR20, an epic trail that stretches across the French island of Corsica, is known as one of the world’s toughest treks. But it can be done in style. There are snow-covered, 2,000-metre-high peaks to scramble up, but also food and wine in abundance. Follow Caroline Kong, past chief of Fjällräven Asia and lifetime friend of the brand, as she recounts tackling the rugged route.

Rugged granite peaks rise up against a blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, while stunning cliffs plunge into the Mediterranean. It looks like Disney designed the landscape, with the moon as inspiration.

But this is not the moon; it is Corsica. A rugged French island in the Mediterranean neighbouring Sardinia, it has a distinct identity and independent attitude. Perhaps it is the Corsican temperament that is reflected in its razor-sharp peaks and challenging slopes. After all, the island has been invaded by many empires and nations through the ages. It has, however, always retained its distinctive character. The Corsican flag flies proudly and the impregnable shepherds’ paths in the mountains remain. Those who take up the challenge to trek across the island, north to south, are handsomely rewarded with much more than the lactic acid in their bones.

Caroline Kong knows. As the former chief of Fjällräven Asia, she has accumulated the experience necessary to make such assessments. 

“During my time at Fjällräven, I learned to really appreciate trekking,” she says by phone from Paris, “Not only as a physical achievement or way to be out in nature, but also as a social exercise. It is easier to connect with people when you have the same goal, and so it was on the GR20.”

After spending 10 years in Hong Kong, she is back in Paris, the city of her childhood. Growing up in the city however, the only time she went to the mountains was to snowboard. It would be some time before her love of trekking and the outdoors was rekindled, but she knows when it clicked: “It was when I took part in the Fjällräven Classic Sweden. After that, I started travelling to trek.”

For six years, trekking was part of Caroline’s job and it was rather addictive. She went to Indonesia, Burma / Myanmar, Nepal, China and India. She also helped establish the Fjällräven Classic concept in Asia and introduce a new approach to sustainably minded trekking to the Asian market.

Even after all that experience, her heart still fluttered in Corsica. Looking over the mountain range after another suspension bridge and a few vertical drop-offs, to see the turquoise glacial lakes give way to the deep blue of the Mediterranean 2.000 metres below, there were times she almost pinched herself.

Not just one, but several 2.000-metre peaks.

For this trek at the end of August, Caroline opted to use an event organiser. So, together with a group of 13 other participants, she set off for two-weeks. From Calenzana in the north to Conca in the south, across the high mountain range in the middle of the island.

Sound challenging? It is. There is a reason why the GR20 is considered one of the world’s toughest trails. And it is not just because it is 180 kilometres long. Where traditional trekking is about putting one foot in front of the other, the GR20 demands trekkers use their entire body for long stretches of time. At least in the north. 

According to Caroline, “There is a lot of technical trekking at the start, though you could really call it climbing.”

During the first few days it was often necessary for Caroline to use her hands as well as feet, and in the steepest parts there were chains for support. An experienced trekker who trains a lot, Caroline was well prepared, but reports that it was a technical route. “You probably shouldn’t be afraid of heights if you are going to do this.”

Just as it was necessary for her to climb on the way up, sitting down and using her whole body on the way down was vital. Laughing, Caroline says, “It’s steep and I’m short. And then there’s the backpack to think about. If you are not used to it, balance can be a bit of a problem.”

Those who are prepared to fight both uphill and downhill have something exceptional to look forward to: not just one, but several 2.000-metre peaks. During the trek, Caroline climbed Corsica’s highest peak, Monte Cintu, at 2.706 metres above sea level. The group also tackled Monte d’Oru, Punta Muvrella, Punta di l’Uriente and Monte Renosu. All give trekkers stunning views and a sense of achievement. Though for some, the daily altitude changes were a challenge.

The daily stages were not very long though. Often between eight and 10 kilometres. And the rewards at the end of each were plentiful.

Feasts and other small luxuries.

At the end of each stage, accommodation in a “refuge” or “gîte” awaited. These rustic brick cabins are staffed and waiting with set tables, and those who order dinner in advance can expect a real feast. As Caroline describes, “I have never eaten so much. When you are used to carrying your own freeze-dried food for two weeks, such dinners are almost overwhelming. It is like an orgy of food.”

Corsica is famed for its cheese and cured meats, so trekkers along the GR20 need not be deprived of the island’s culinary delights. The dried meats and hearty cheeses come in handy on the trail too, and once you arrive at your refuge, the food is abundant. 

“First, there is dried meat and very filling soup. Then comes the main course, often lasagne or spaghetti Bolognese. Something full of carbohydrates, and bread is always on the side. Then, comes the cheese and dessert.”

Beer and wine are available with every meal, and Caroline reports never having had access to such good food and drink on a trek.

Overnight stays on the GR20 are arranged in a few ways. There are cabins with accommodation in shared rooms. In many places, there are also tents pitched outside of the cabins so you do not have to carry your own. A third option is to bring your own tent, but you must pitch it close to a cabin. It is not permitted on the GR20 to set up camp just anywhere. 

There is also a car service that can occasionally deliver an extra bag. In Caroline’s case, the bag contained an extra change of clothes and arrived every other day in the north and daily in the south. 

“I didn’t have to do any washing during the trek,” she reports, “I even had some extra food in my pack but didn’t really need it.”

In contrast to the physical exertion and outstanding scenery, the creature comforts of food and accommodation combined to make the experience one of the most incredible in her life. 

Stones, stones, and more stones.

The north’s steep mountainsides with their rushing waterfalls and natural infinity pools were certainly a feast for the eyes. After a week in the rocky landscape however, Caroline was relieved when the harsh conditions and evocative barrenness gave way to the green landscape of the south.

“In the north it is just stones, stones, stones, as far as they eye can see. It is quite steep, so it can be a bit tiring on the legs,” says Caroline. Still, the GR20 was never too physically demanding. Had she gone alone, she may have kept a faster pace, but is grateful the group kept her calm and unhurried. There was time to stop, take a dip, or just enjoy the view:

“My aim was not to get from point A to B as quickly as possible. I was happy to do the trek this way and enjoy my surroundings. It was nice to take my time.”

For those who kept their eyes peeled, there was also wildlife to see. Eagles soaring in the sky and lizards scurrying in the bushes. Plus, domesticated animals like horses, goats, pigs and cows, which roam free in Corsica, crossing roads and footpaths along with trekkers. 

And other hikers? 

According to Caroline, “In July there are a lot of people. Sometimes a couple hundred at dinner. When I went in late August and early September however, it wasn’t so crowded. There were just enough people to have some nice encounters.”

Caroline’s group started with 14 people and finished with 12. One could not make it all the way, and another suffered a fractured ankle. Caroline herself was quite tired when she checked in at the end of each day, but not exhausted. A testament to her experience and training:

“I practice quite a lot, so I was not afraid of not making it. In my group there were several who had specifically dedicated themselves to hill training with their backpacks packed well before departure.”

In addition to the physical challenges and demanding terrain, weather is changeable on the GR20. At high altitudes, it can be cold, windy and foggy, and rain can make rocks slippery. At the start and end of the season, snowfall also happens. Caroline and her group, however, were lucky. The sun shined day after day after day.

Until the final one.

Exploring side trails. 

As the green landscape of southern portion of the GR20 came to an end, the heavens opened and rain poured down in sheets. By that point however, luck had been on the group’s side for so long that one day of wet weather felt just fine.

“I loved the whole trek but may not have appreciated it so much if it had been raining the whole time. Especially in the north where it is harder to get around.”

In that context, access to the occasional hot shower and consistently good food is a major benefit of the GR20. Even for those who manage their own bookings. On the other hand, Caroline found it nice to go through an event organiser, whose guides added much to the experience with their local knowledge. 

“Hiking the GR20 does not always mean following the trail to the letter. There are some variations, and the guides know the best side trails where the views or scenery are better than those on the main route.”

Although an experienced hiker herself, Caroline appreciated the guides’ understanding of the weather, and when they made sure the group started extra early some mornings to avoid fog or incoming hailstorms.

“They also knew where to find the best cottages with the best food. Not all are of the same quality.”

All in all, how would Caroline rate her experience, especially in comparison to other treks? The GR20 comes out on top:

“It scores an eight or nine out of 10. The varied terrain gives you new views every day and the comfort of being able to eat well every night with good food and wine, well, that is very special.”

Get hooked on first-person accounts of other epic trails. All on the Foxtrail blog. Like Ray Mears, who rediscovered trails close to his home – and his heart – in 2020.

Story by Karin Wallén 

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