The GR20 (one of the grandes randonnées, great walks) of France is actually in Corsica, switch-backing over the wild mountains that form the spine of the rocky island.
It’s a famous route, and as I discovered it’s actually rated the number one long-distance trek in Europe. And oh, how it shows. Outdoor types flock to it. Mostly as bands of youngish men, striding under heavy rucksacks, leaping up in the mornings to be the first off and therefore the first to finish the day’s étape. This tended to be hours ahead of my own departure, once I’d struck my little tent and fumbled the bits of an overnight bivouac into my heavy rucksack, so I was invariably a couple of miles and lot of metres of vertical ascent/descent behind the leaders.
Looking up as I toiled up a steep gully I would sometimes see tiny figures outlined against a burning sky, visible for a few seconds as they teetered on the col before vanishing into the plunge down the other side. Coming along at a slower pace allowed me to admire the scenery: stopping for breath I enjoyed clumps of hellebores bathing in a cup of shade, laricio pines pasted against the horizon, the maquis emitting sharp gusts of scent, and there were often distant views of blue sea behind us or rock spires crazily rearing ahead. Usually however the uphill scrambling and the necessity of keeping a sure footing limited perspectives to close-quarters views of the rock. And what gorgeous rock, for a climber. The baked granite was bleached pearl in full sun or deepened to purple and charcoal in shade. It was crusted with quartz and seamed with dolerite, and all the way it was flagged with painted route markers in bands of red and white – in the brightest light the slash of scarlet gleamed like spilled blood (that’s maybe a mood indicator of my own). Underfoot the rock’s dry, grainy warmth offered excellent friction to feet and fingers. The days of walking were tough, but always pleasurable. It was the nights that provided the significant hardship.
Out on the mountains there was enough space to swallow the crowds. There were the horizon glimpses and the floating sound of distant voices from a picnic on a plateau high above, otherwise only emptiness. Unfortunately in the evenings, hundreds of dirty and hungry trekkers would converge on a series of mountain refuges, none of them any bigger than a hut. The morning’s early departers had smugly arrived hours ago and bagged the few beds in the hut dortoirs, as well as the best camping spaces within reach of the single standpipe and the iffy lavatory block. Their laundry would be jauntily pegged on the hut terrace. For the later arrivals, it meant pitching a tent on a rocky incline or a long stagger through pinewoods alive with ants. A late sign-up indicated a long wait for the third – once fourth – sitting for dinner in the crowded hut. Even if very hungry, you lose your appetite for a bowl of cold tomato penne by 9 pm when everyone else is fed and getting noisily stuck in to the Corsican beers.
Come the morrow, brushing off the remaining ants I’d unzip my tent to blink at the early birds yet again steaming up the mountain, poles briskly clacking on the shale slopes. An hour later, breakfasted on the leftover bread crusts and a blob of jam someone had dropped on the table top, I’d follow them. It would take as much of an hour of crystal air, cistus blossoms and the lovely rhythm of uphill climbing to restore my spirits. I’d even overtake the languid French couple in matching Lycra, the pair of doughty helicopter nurses from Seattle and perhaps the Austrian guy with the 25kg pack, and be glad to see them, but on the whole I’d rather have had the hills and the huts to myself.
There’s a lesson. Don’t choose no. 1, whatever it is. Everyone else already has, obviously. Next time I’ll go for 7 or 8. See you there.