Corsica: Stairway to heaven
Corsica's spectacular coast to coast trek takes you through the rugged mountains of the island's maquis-swathed interior. Matt Warren savours a climb into the clouds
Published: 15 October 2005 by Independent.co.uk
I am on the stairway to heaven, but I'm wishing I'd caught the elevator. It's high noon in Corsica and we are a thousand feet above the pretty port of Cargese. We are only two hours into the island's Mare a Mare Nord trek, but a gulf has already opened up between the reality of hiking heavily laden and the gentle yomp we had planned a fortnight earlier in a north London salad bar. The mercury is rising, the rucksack straps are biting virgin shoulders and the raptors are circling overhead. "One step at a time," I am mumbling, "one step at a time." Day one and I am already sounding like a recovering alcoholic. It's going to be a long walk.
I don't know if Led Zeppelin ever travelled here, but there's certainly plenty to sing about. Finding your hiker's stride takes time, sweat and a whole lot of carbohydrate, but once you're in gear, you'll discover a little piece of heaven on every hilltop. The Indian-ink ocean is now a kilometre below us and the bandit-country vistas of the Corsican maquis are in full flush.
This is Napoleon's homeland; stopping for a breather and a peep at the view, it's a wonder the little Frenchman ever left. The road is long here, and dramatic. The Mare a Mare Nord links Cargese on Corsica's western shore, with Moriani in the east, bisecting the island and taking in the storybook villages and rollercoaster mountain ranges of the interior. We are only hiking the five days to Corte, but the first hill is always the steepest and the horizon (the end of day two) looks a mighty long way from the summit.
You can spend hours looking at your feet when you are hiking, and the scenery tends to change in fits and starts, like a jumping record. We start by the sea, among the postcard racks, watch our boots during the first ascent and then look up to find ourselves in a thirsty landscape of rounded boulders, thorn bushes and yawning canyons. At the end of the next climb, and another hour watching the turf, the scenery has changed again: a landscape of bright-green chestnut trees, cool air and rolling mist banks. By the top of the next summit, we could well find ourselves rubbing shoulders with the gods.
Despite it all, the first day of our route is actually the shortest and after a gentle meander along the shoulder of the Crete de Pianu Maggiore, where rocky cliffs barrel down into the valley below, we arrive at our destination: the gite of E Case. A crumbling farmhouse on the flanks of Capu a u Monte, E Case has better views than Olympus, and cold beer to boot. Apart from a couple of dorm rooms, a lilliputian campground and a tap, it doesn't have much else. But after a day in boots this is utopia and the sunsets are to die for: cue a can of beans and a bottle of rustic red.
The hunter appears with the dusk, his potbelly arriving in camp fractionally before the rest of him. He is wearing a camouflage vest and a pair of jackboots, and strides through the camp with a primed hunting rifle. He is bald and the top of his head is a constellation of freckles. He speaks through a scowl and smokes roll-ups; he is a cliché made flesh. "Bonsoir," says the hunter. "Bonsoir," replies the camp. Only two words have been exchanged, but the assembled instantly sense that they are in the presence of the Alpha male: he takes his seat at the head of the table.
Wild boar roam these hills and I'll wager there's a firearm in Corsica for every last one of them. Spent shotgun cartridges pepper the trail and there isn't a restaurant on the island that doesn't serve a mean boar stew. And that is exactly what is on the menu at E Case tonight. As the hunter looks on, we tuck into the previous night's kill before dozing off to the buzz of the cicadas.
Six o'clock in the morning is an ugly hour if you are working in an office. Three thousand feet up into the Corsican mountains, however, it is magnificent. With a tin cup of hot coffee straight off the stove, we change, pack and head off east through the early morning dew. I start to imagine myself as the rugged frontiersman and tell myself that the blisters, already bubbling up on my heel, are simply par for the course. "Think positive," I say, as I struggle to imagine Clint Eastwood kicking off his boot to apply a Compeed blister pack.
The trail takes us along the tight Riogna Valley and then up over the dramatic Bocca d'Acquaviva pass, where a cluster of ancient stone shepherd's huts provides perches for the crows. Nearly a mile high, we stop for a lunch of sausage and cheese and watch giant ants steal away with the crumbs from our table. As bands of fog lick the valley walls, we are, quite literally, picnicking among the clouds. The hills are alive here and teem with wildlife. Turquoise lizards skit across the path and herds of domestic pigs snuffle and grunt through the chestnut groves. In the eerie deserted village of Tassu, between the towns of Marignana and Evisa, goats and pigs explore the empty houses. It is Animal Farm brought to life.
We have been walking for nine hours by the time we reach Evisa, a pretty settlement stretched out across the mountainside like a length of ribbon. It's beef for dinner then bed. The views here are fantastic, we are told, but we entered town with the clouds and they are now rubbing against the windowpane like sponges. The mist is so thick we can't even see the edge of our balcony.
Col de Verghio, the pinnacle of day three, is Corsica's highest car park. Connected to the island's road network, the summit is a magnet for those who can't be bothered to gain altitude the old-fashioned way and is one of the few mountains in Europe to be capped with a shop selling postcards and a stand peddling lollipops. You may pooh-pooh the day-trippers as you first breach the summit, but sit in the café here for an hour, tracing the long, winding route to the third night's stop at Albertacce, and you will soon be wondering why you didn't bring your car. We are, in the end, all built for home comforts and hiking is ultimately about gauging how long we can do without them. The bar and the bus stop at Col de Verghio are simply here to test you.
After a beautiful eight-hour trek to Albertacce, days four and five take us the rest of the way to the historic town of Corte, via the little village of Calacuccia and a night in the woods. We pass between looming mountain peaks and hike through the wilderness that once gave refuge to Corsica's Second World War resistance fighters. As night falls on our tent, pitched in a stretch of dark, scented pine forest, we also feel threatened, and just as excited. By the time we reach our destination, it is impossible not to feel the thrill of a minor conquest.
With the trek behind us, we head south, through the beautiful seaside town of Bonifacio and then back up the coast to the soda-white sands of Palombaggia. This is a very different Corsica, where gin palaces slide in and out of port and the beautiful set baste themselves on picture-postcard beaches. We opt for the halfway house and check into a ranch.
Horses are a Corsican speciality and I get up early to ride down an empty sweep of sand. The horse - a surly grey - is sluggish at first, but livens up as we move into a trot. The trot becomes a canter and then we are galloping down a mile of white sand, like something out of a Celine Dion video. We reach the far end of the beach and stop to regain our breath. I lean down to adjust my stirrup and it is then that the horse bolts, charging back down the beach at full tilt. The horse takes the waves in its stride, thunders past a couple setting up their deckchairs and heads straight for the jagged rocks at the northern end of the bay. I tug on the reins, pull on them and then yank them with everything I've got. Finally, the horse stops; I am terrified, but thrilled. "Well done," says the instructor, "she would have taken you the whole way back up the mountain."
Saddle sore and blistered, I climb aboard the plane home the following Saturday. We float up over Ajaccio and then cut north, back towards the mainland. The hills look small from above, and through the window I can trace much of the route from Cargese to Corte: a fine line measured in inches rather than days. Next time, it seems, we'll have to walk a little further.
GB Airways flies from Gatwick to Bastia on behalf of British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). Flights end two weeks from now, returning next summer (when the airline will also fly from Gatwick to Ajaccio). Air France (0870 142 4343; www.airfrance.com/uk) flies from several UK cities to airports in Corsica via Paris.
There are hotels and gites d'etape at convenient points throughout the Mare a Mare Nord trek.
For good value accommodation and horse-riding near Palombaggia, try Ranch Campo (00 33 4 95 70 13 27; www.ranch campo.com). Double rooms start at €60 (£43) including breakfast. Horseriding from €37 (£26) an hour.
Trekking in Corsica by David Abram (Trailblazer; £11.99) is an indispensable guide.
Corsica Tourism (00 33 4 95 51 00 00; www.visit-corsica.com). Maison de la France (09068 244123; www.franceguide.com).