If exploring beautiful islands, traversing a hundred miles of mountain-ridges, camping under the stars, and finishing Europe’s most challenging hike strikes you as exciting, please read on. If your heart’s desire is to enjoy long days on the beach, consider visiting Corsica, but seek out another article.
Photos by Daniel Shichor
Corsica is a relatively unknown travel destination if you are not of French or Italian descent. It is a splendid island, one with a unique language and culture, breathtaking views and white-sandy beaches. The island squeezes into less than 100,000 sq. ft. and is located south-east of France and west of Italy. While Corsican culture has Italian roots, the invention of the steamboat brought dominant French influences to the island around the 19th century. Today the official language is French, which intermingles with Corsu, an Italian-sounding dialect once the native language of the island. English is rarely spoken among locals, so, it’s best to brush up on some French before making your visit.
The GR trail system, known in french as the Grande Randoneé, is actually a collection of long hiking trails throughout Europe, the majority of which are located in France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and Holland, and stretch over some 35,000 miles in total. The GR20, a section of the trail, comes in at around 110 miles in length and is considered the most difficult of them all.
The trail’s difficult terrain is what gives it it’s demanding reputation. Defeating many challengers every year, it maintains a somewhat mystical status among hikers. The trail spans Corsica lengthwise, crossing many of the mountains on the island, and offers a chance to climb the three highest peaks in Corsica along the way. French Foreign Legion soldiers typically finish the route in a week, and the course record is currently held by mountain runner, François D’Haene, who finished the route in an astounding thirty-one hours.
The typical route begins in the village of Calenzana in the north, and finishes in Conca in the south, but can also be completed the other way around. Many hikers opt to hike half of the trail and begin or end their trip in the village of Vizzavona, the unofficial half-way point. Those who plan on tackling only half of the route typically prefer the northern section, considered to be more mountainous and challenging, rewarding those who conquer it with stunning views.
On the fourth day of my hike, I witnessed a sobering reminder of the dangers of remoteness. As I walked along the trail, I came upon a group of middle-aged Frenchmen sitting in the middle of the path, a strange sight as it is common courtesy that if you stop for a break, you do so alongside the trail so passersby might continue with ease.
As I came closer, I noticed one of the men, a well-built 60-yearold with silver hair, had a bandage wrapped around his left wrist. I asked about their alright-ness and they insisted all was well. After continuing on for about a minute, a feeling came over me that something wasn’t quite right. I turned back and approached the group again. I wrestled with my broken French to get a clearer picture of what had happened and was told that the man fell on his wrist trying to scramble down a bouldery section. I offered to check his bandage, and upon unwrapping his arm, the immediacy of the situation became apparent - his wrist was shattered.
The adrenaline pumping through his system kept him relatively calm, but I knew the clock was ticking. The nearest mountain hut was a two-hour hike away, so, I insisted on reapplying the bandage and heading there immediately. The group let me carry the man’s rucksack, not without a fight, and we managed to arrive at the hut without trouble. The Frenchman, still in shock, wanted to stay the night let things play out in the morning, but I insisted he seek medical treatment. The hut guardian helped us find the nearest road, another three-hour walk, and made arrangements for a taxi to take the man to the hospital from there.
A few months later I received a thank-you card from the man and his wife posted to my home address. They explained he had undergone surgery that night and would have otherwise suffered significant damage to his hand.
Being in the wild outdoors always carries some element of risk, but for some of us,
it’s a price well worth paying. Modern life has brought us away from danger, and
survival is not something we contemplate on a daily basis. So, I urge you, leave
your comfort zone, and explore what it means to be human.