Meeting A Milestone!
Day 5 on the GR20 wasn’t particularly tough, it was just incredibly long, as we embarked on another double stage to meet the demands of our tight schedule. It wasn’t the dizzying heights or exposed scrambles that affected us today. On a mission to reach Vizzavona before dark – Vizzavona being classed as the half way point between the north and south stages – it was in fact our long descent into the village itself, walking downhill along a series of steep switchbacks (which literally seemed never ending), that really put our knees to the test.
(So much so, that this had a lasting impact on our progress throughout the northern half of the route… But more of that later!) Choosing to hike in the reverse direction, going south to north, this was one of the compromises we had to make. Ultimately, whichever way round you choose to hike the GR20, there will be long and arduous descents to contend with at some stage along the way!
A wonderful sunrise moment as we reached the Bocca d’Oru, perfectly framed by this sign. This is one of our favourite shots from Day 5!
Friday 7th August 2015 – Stage 5 – Refuge de Prati to Vizzavona – 6:00am – 20:00pm (14 hours)
A shorter hiking day yesterday, allowing us a little relaxation time during the evening and consequently a good night’s sleep, surprisingly made all the difference to both our morale and resolve. For the fifth morning in a row we faced an early alarm call, but we now welcomed the halo of stars above us and the cool, crisp temperature that the night sky provided. Not wasting any time, we were up and on task. Donning our head torches, we expertly packed away our belongings, under the watchful eye of the moon. Our routine was becoming more refined each day. After a quick breakfast of muesli with powdered milk, our final task before we set off was to replenish our daily water supplies from the mountain ‘source’ that thankfully each refuge is located by.
Then we were on our way… And happy that we were the first to leave camp AGAIN! Feeling well rested for once, we were unequivocally ready to meet the challenges of a new day on the trail!
We must have had between 8 and 9 hours of sleep as we had not read more than a couple of pages of our Kindles before rapidly nodding off… – This was long before ‘hiker midnight’! It’s amazing what an early night can do for your body and spirit! We were raring to go and welcomed the new day.
Our first glimpse of the sun from Bocca d’Oru. It confirmed our theory that this time of the day is often the best time of the day to be on the trail!
Bocca d’Oru is basically a broad and stony gap along the mountain ridge. It’s approximately 15 minutes away from the Refuge de Prati. From here, in good weather you are treated to great views of the sea and the fertile coastal plain near Ghisonaccia. With a beautiful morning such as this, how could we not head down to the Bocca di Verdi without a spring in our step!
Early morning is a calm and serene time to be out in the mountains. Juniper, spiny broom and a wealth of colourful flowers covered this bouldery slope. We remarked several times that we could smell an intense aroma of thyme on the GR20 trail.
Wayne looks out across the forested valley, taking in the excellent view of the distant mountain ranges. It was downhill from here along a stony track through pine forest and mixed woodlands to reach the Refuge di Verdi.
We were greeted by some excited, wild pigs as we came to the road leading to the refuge!
As far as we could tell, having not stayed there ourselves, the Refuge di Verdi situated on the Bocca di Verdi is a popular overnight spot for hikers going in both directions. If you are pushing on from the Refuge de Prati (going south to north), it takes an additional 1 and a half hours to get there, which is easily done if you have both the energy and enough daylight hours! Similarly, for hikers starting in Vizzavona heading south to the Bergeries d’ E Capanelle; if the low level route is taken from here, it is only approximately 4 and a half hours further to reach the Refuge di Verdi, (which can save you a whole day in terms of hiking time if you are aiming to complete the GR20 in less than a fortnight, like ourselves).
Based on information provided in our guidebook indicating that the refuge has its own bar-restaurant serving meals, snacks and drinks throughout the day, we thought this would be a good place to enjoy our first rest stop. However, arriving just after 8am in the midst of the breakfast rush, we were quick to feel the effects of the refuge’s popularity as we discovered they were completely sold out of both bread and saucisson. All they could offer us, apart from a ‘Café au lait’, was a few basic food supplies that could be purchased to take away. As we needed to stock up with something for lunch, we went inside to peruse what was on offer. Happy with what we saw, we proceeded to indulge in our latest hiker food fad – tinned sardines! They had 3 different varieties, alongside a limited selection of other tinned foods, as well as our other firm favourites – packets of crisps and cans of pop! So we stocked up with some goodies, and left feeling not too disappointed about the fact that we didn’t get to sample an authentic ‘petit déjeuner’. We were still wary of anything ‘fresh from the farm’ so to speak having been slightly put off by the presence of a maggot in yesterday’s cheese! We’re not particularly fussy, but we have our limits.
Cute signs showing us which way to go after we left the Refuge di Verdi.
Spying a spot in the shade, we were soon indulging in our treats for the day!
Whilst discussing our plans for the rest of today’s walk, an inquisitive donkey came to say hello!
Heading towards the Plateau de Gialgone, we stopped for another drink and made use of the bush facilities as nature was calling, before reaching the ‘Casetta di Ghjalcone’ refuge. This was not listed in our guide book but looked an inviting place to stay, complete with a refurbished terrace area and toilet/ shower block. There were a few tents dotted about the place even at this time of the morning, so we assumed it was being used by all manner of hikers, not just thru-hikers on the GR20. The highlight of this rest stop was when a friendly donkey came along and was happy to let us give him a rub behind the ears! He was intent on nibbling my backpack however, so we wondered whether the lingering smell of French cheese is what in fact enticed him over!
Although not listed in our guidebook, we discovered the presence of the ‘Casetta di Ghjalcone’ refuge. This would be a good place to stock up with supplies if you are running low on essentials.
Crossing the footbridge over the river as we headed towards the Plateau de Gialgone.
We opted to take the low-level route to the Bergeries d’ E Capanelle as it was 2 miles shorter in distance than the high level route. Not only this, the estimated time to complete the lower-level route was also 3 hours less than the high level variant, which would have been much more taxing with us having to cross Monte Renosu at 2352 metres.
It didn’t take us long before we were tucking into our tin of sardines in tomato sauce. Luckily we still had some bread left over from the previous night, seeing as the Refuge di Verdi had completely sold out that morning!
Water was plentiful along this section of the trail, so we could top up our supplies regularly. We still used our Sawyer Squeeze Filter when filling up with water from rivers or streams just to ensure that our hike was not blighted by giardia. However, if we had access to a direct mountain source, then we generally trusted it and filled our bottles straight from the source.
We welcomed the shade and enjoyed walking through woodland areas such as this.
Our route to the Bergeries d’ E Capanelle basically followed the contours of the forested mountainsides, however the rises and falls today were quite gentle. Despite it being another gloriously sunny, and very hot day, there was good shade to be had and a number of streams from which to replenish our water supplies. We opted to take the low-level route again, not only to avoid crossing Monte Renosu, but this was also the route that was supposed to take the least amount of time, thereby aiding our efforts once again to double up two stages.
As we came out of the trees, we were wowed by some beautiful mountain scenery.
Although there were some steep and rugged ascents at times, these were short and over quickly compared with what we had already faced on the previous 4 days.
A firm contender for one of the ‘tallest trees in Corsica’!
Our first glimpse of the Bergeries d’ E Capanelle. We would have camped here overnight if we had not already decided to double up two stages.
We arrived at the Bergeries d’ E Capanelle before 2pm and thought we had made good time. However, as we did not end up leaving there until around 3:30pm we had lost any advantage that we’d gained towards our next stage, continuing on from here to Vizzavona. The reason for our late departure was not only indulging in ice-creams and sunning ourselves whilst sat on a picnic bench outside the bar-restaurant, but we also spent some time catching up with a few hikers who could actually speak English! You’ve got to grab these opportunities whilst you can as we found that English speakers on the GR20 can be few and far between.One of these was Dave, whom we mistakenly thought was French due to his fantastic accent and excellent grasp of the native language, despite him actually being from Lancashire, around 150 or so miles north west from where we live in England. The other hikers that joined us were Alison and Katie, Aussie sisters, whom we had already met on Day 2, and had continued to see day by day at various points along the trail. We had even offered to share with them our ripened cheese, minus the maggot of course, but respectfully they declined. They obviously weren’t as hungry as us! Anyhow, it was good to talk and we quickly lost track of time…
But we couldn’t rest on our laurels. Despite wishing our hiking day was over, we still had 4 and a half hours of hiking to get to Vizzavona before dark… So off we went once more. At the time, we hadn’t realised that this was to be our longest hiking day of the entire GR20 trail. 14 hours after setting off from the Refuge de Prati, we finally reached Vizzavona at 8pm.
Part 2 of a very long day began at 3:30pm after we left the Bergeries d’ E Capanelle heading for Vizzavona, the halfway point on the GR20.
And the long, winding descent began…
We discovered on the GR20 that there was usually a lot more cloud cover during the afternoons, which offered us a little respite from the sun.
A perfectly placed sign just to ensure we were on the right track!
During this stage we passed both the Bergeries d’Alzeta (1553 m) and Bergeries de Scarpaccedie (1470 m), which were both in fact closed, to the dismay of several other hikers intending on camping at either one. It was here that we met Arthur, a french guy not from Corsica but from mainland France, who was topping up his water supplies, before pushing on to reach the village. He impressed us immediately after explaining that he’d left the Refuge d’ Usciolu just that morning – thereby completing 3 stages in only one day! Wowzer, that definitely deserves a medal or something! Unfortunately however, Arthur was now feeling the effects of his mammoth mission to reach Vizzavona and was struggling to walk. Ever the trail angels, we gave him some pain killers from our first aid kit (and now feeling responsible for his well-being and wanting to make sure he actually made it down to the village), we all walked together. Thankfully we all made it just before dark, and just before the little village shop shut for the evening, which meant we could stock up with a good selection of hiker goodies. On tonight’s menu it was cheesy smash potato with ‘cassoulet’ – basically a tin of baked beans and sausages poured over the top!
We’re now experts at this rock hop malarkey!
The beautiful scenery is what literally kept us going… That and the thought of a well-stocked village complete with shops and restaurants… Mmmm tonight it could be pizza on the menu!
Enjoying the more gentle gradients before the main set of switchbacks.
Crepuscular rays in the early evening.
The closer we got to Vizzavona, we faced switchback after switchback. The paths were so well trodden it was easy to power on ahead and pick up the pace – however our knees were not happy with a 700+ metre descent from the 1647 metre Col de Palmente. We slowed down a little to help a hiker in need and made friends with a great guy named Arthur.
We spotted a variant route down into the village and began to follow this – however we turned back and followed a set of yellow flashes instead as this looked the shorter route having checked it on our map and with GPS on Wayne’s phone. With the shorter route came the steeper switchbacks however.
In good spirits to have reached the road leading into the village centre. We, as usual, were staying at the local campsite, whereas Arthur was treating himself to a hotel and a proper bed for the night! We think he deserved it after a triple stager!
The campsite in town is the Refuge L’ Alzarella, which was a hive of activity when we arrived around 8pm.
We resisted pizzas and a chicken curry special from the restaurants in the village centre, instead opting for a ‘hot’ shower and a hiker meal back at camp. The campsite is situated along a windy road a few hundred metres away from the centre and we simply couldn’t face walking there and back again after stocking up first at the little shop in the village. We hadn’t realised that the campsite itself has a fantastic shop on site, stocked with all manner of essential supplies, including fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as freshly baked bread, perfect for breakfast. This is an excellent place to re-supply, and probably one of the best options on the entire GR20.
The campsite itself is basically a large gravelled car park – however the plus points were that there are several picnic tables and benches you can make use of and move near to your tent, the showers are hot and include both a light and a mirror (seriously, I think this was only the second time I had actually looked in a mirror in 5 days!), and there are lots of electrical sockets and extension leads for charging phones and cameras free of charge. It’s the little things in life!
Jubilant we had reached the halfway point in just five days and content we were on track, we pitched the tent in no time and made use of those showers! We were also ravenous for our hearty hiker dinner.
We wanted to catch up with Arthur the following day to see if he felt any better and whether he had managed to see a doctor in the village. Our own knees felt extremely overworked so we really understood how much he was struggling, but how much he wanted to complete the hike. Find out how we all fared the following morning in our next trail report…