Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Thrills, hills and meals on Corsica's GR20

Corsica’s GR20 is billed as Europe’s toughest trek and my pre-trek training regime had centred around drinking pastis and eating tapenade in the Provencal countryside for a month or more this summer.  It came as no real surprise then that on the first day of the trek after climbing 1600 vertical metres my heart attempted to burrow through my chest and descend back down Monte D’Oro to catch the first flight home.  My vision, blurred by soft drifting stars confirmed that the pre-trek training should have stretched to sports more athletic than pétanque.  I think I have a touch of altitude sickness I panted to Francois our guide, a former pompier de Paris.  Altitude is not a problem in Corsica came his swift rebuttal.  Even my cousin, my partner in climb was letting me down – his pre-promised asthma and total lack of conditioning was glaringly absent and I had heard not so much as a wheeze as he passed me up a narrow gulley during our ascent.

That evening as my travelling companions ate seconds of cannelloni stuffed with mint and Brocciu, a beautifully fresh Corsican cheese similar to ricotta I sloped off to my tent on the inside edge of a corral (trekkers were corralled – pigs and goats were free to roam the hillside) to ponder my situation, too exhausted to eat.   The missus was eight and a half months pregnant back in Essex, for the first time ever I had lost my mobile phone…the day before departure, I had open leveraged positions in the financial markets and tomorrow’s journey was even longer than today’s - oh to be back in Provence. 

A beautiful star clustered sky offered little comfort to my anxiety and poor sleep that first night.  Our guide had told us that it takes seven full days to become acclimatized to the physical challenge of walking the GR20, he breezily mentioned that we would have enough endurance shortly before we were due to go home.

The following day was tough…yet we made it, as we did the day after that and as we walked through ancient pine forests; up and down hidden valleys treading from boulder to boulder brushing past wild mint, lemon thyme, myrtle and juniper – their soft scents mixing into the curry caramel aromas of the maquis, the majesty  of the mountains began to unfold.  Errant thoughts subsided and our legs began to ache less, I even began to ‘enjoy’ walking up more than walking down.  The gasping for breath ceased and we walked quieter and felt stronger with each passing day through forests of Chestnut in the heart of wild boar country.  Partridges would scatter as we waded through thickets of emerald fern.  And in the evenings I began to appreciate the simple and special delicacies of the mountains, no longer dog tired from exertion.  Most evenings we stayed in refuges run by shepherds that still practiced the ancient tradition of transhumance grazing, check out the link if you are vaguely interested in that sort of thing.  We ate sublime charcuterie made from the pigs that wandered the refuge grounds and ate cheese made from the goats that grazed in the nearby maquis.  Each shepherd tweaking the cheese and charcuterie methods to create their own styles of produce.  We drank Pietra, a strong local beer made with chestnut flour and quoffed soft red wines produced on the opposite coast of the island.  

Throughout the week our expert guide took us off the GR20 main trail as often as possible to walk on paths long forgotten by many.  Each day we would swim in icy lakes surrounded by carnivorous plants and strange green mottled rocks.  I was beginning to feel like Frodo in a strange land a long way from The Shire.

Can you see the eye? Francois asked over a lunch of dates, spiced salami and cheesy bread made by his aunt’s neighbour.  He pointed to a summit in the distance, Capo Tafunatu and from over thirty miles away we could see a hole that went straight through the centre of this distant mountain.  We have a choice when we reach this place, we were told.  We filled our water bottles with the freshest water I have ever drunk from a secret source and moved on.

We moved closer to the eye with every step and - my cousin and I could feel Francois assessing our readiness for what lay ahead.  Walking on average for 9 hours per day had transformed my cousin - laconic at the best of times,  he was now a bearded, sun baked grizzly of a man moving silently across the barren steppes.  Unexpectedly one lunchtime we strayed upon a group of Corsican wild boar hunters drinking red wine in the midday sun whilst toting shot guns around a wooden refuge in the middle of nowhere.  We stopped for a can of Corsican cola and while I nervously rubbed factor 50 into my beetroot coloured arms my cousin sat amongst the hunters looking like he had caught his own boar that very morning – quite possibly with only his bare hands.

As we climbed towards Capo Tafunatu crushing aromatic Helechrysum under foot Francois asked if we were scared of heights.  Not so far.  The path faded and we began to climb, our choice made - we were going to the eye.  Edging along shoulder width rocky outcrops I began to feel  now was the time to really concentrate.  We climbed higher still and I began to think of my children, knuckles whitening as I gripped ever tighter onto the loose rocks.  This was a long way from my comfort zone.  The path narrowed even more and I could feel my chest thumping.  We turned and climbed into the eye of Capo Tafunatu – straight through the centre of the mountain to behold a view seen by few, an incredible mountain range straight out from our steeply slanting ledge and below us a drop of several thousand feet.  My hands tried to glue themselves to the rocks  but I felt I was slipping as if in a dream, my whole body stiffened.  I could not look over the edge.  As Francois revealed the stunning geology of our environment I failed to retain a single word that he spoke.  Instead, I tried to still my mind from flipping out altogether.  My cousin kindly caught the episode on video.

I asked Francois how many English people he had ever taken through the eye of the mountain before us and he replied: none.  That evening dragonflies darted in the orange, purple dusk as we ate stewed mountain lamb and sipped Mierte, a fierce eau de vie.  My mind wandered back to the eye of Tafunatu - it was a thrilling finale to a truly awe inspiring trek that I will never forget.

Next recipe posting to follow soon.  Inspired by the wonderful people and produce of Corsica.

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