Corsica Walking

Corsica, France

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

21.06.18

The perfect Corsica walking week?  7 days across the northern mountains to the sea

We made this walk in mid May 2018.

Our plan was to walk the best of the Mare a Mare Nord route, with some other special walks added in and a day exploring a section of the famous GR20 route on the high mountains. But to slackpack, ie have our bags transported from hotel to hotel, which precluded some of the high-country options, sections of the GR20 in particular. Corsica Adventures devised what we think is an unbeatable set of walks, which were all sequential except the last day, the Capu Rossu walk, which required a taxi to from Piana to the start.

We started near Corte, the old capital in the centre of the north of the island, walking east to west across the high central ridge, ending up by sea for a couple of very special explorations.

Day 1: Scala di Santa Regina to Calacuccia

We start with a walk up this wild, dramatic gorge in the mountainous heart of northern Corsica, on a section of an ancient trade and transhumance route across the high ridge of the central mountains, between the lowlands of the coastal west and the old capital of Corte and its bowl of (relatively) easy land.

The trail climbs, generally gently, from the road at the Scala di Santa Regina spring, up an embanked and paved mule as it gains height to avoid the once-impassable lower river gorge.

The maquis here is particularly varied and beautiful, in flower when we hit this trail in mid May: white and pink rock roses, vivid yellow broom and gorse, unusual lavenders and peculiar white lily-like things. A volcano of dog roses was about to erupt. Higher up, whole fields were taken over by the not-wholly-lovely tall, white-flowering asphodel.

Waterfalls tumble from the high granite walls. High across the gorge is an area of weird little spires, apparent cousins of the famous Calanche of the west coast.

 You cross an old pack bridge and climb a superb series of switchbacks to a higher hillside, with ever-bigger views. Round a bend, you get your first view of the high central ridge of the island, which was blanketed in fresh snow when we were there. Stunning.

After a couple of very special hours, you get to the spread-out village of Corscia, which was completely silent when we were there. The trail climbs on through pretty fields. While this is relatively easy land here, with cattle and sheep grazing in rocky little meadows, there are still almost no crops growing. 

The path turns into a deep side-valley with the snowy ridge of 2,706m Monte Cintro, Corsica’s highest, looming majestically at its head. The trail drops to a marvellous mediaeval Genoese bridge over a deep pool. After a long climb up a series of zig-zags between parallel walls in a sad but starkly beautiful stand of dead or dying chestnuts (Asian boring beetle (=Yoko Ono?) at least partly to blame), you walk beside carefully tilled (and presumably now threatened) chestnut groves, then down into the village of Acquale and on down to Calacuccia above a pretty reservoir lake.

A really delightful 5 hours.

Day 2: Calacuccia to Col de Vergio

This is a particularly fine section of the Mare a Mare Nord. 

A gorgeous day's walking begins by dropping on old paths to potter above the Calacuccia lake for a couple of delightful kilometres, as the lake narrows into a series of pretty bends.

The views up the Niellu valley, apparently the widest on this island of ravines, are never less than thrilling, with its surrounds of 2,000m+ ridges, still blanketed in recent snow when Walkopedia was there in mid May. 

The trail then turns uphill, climbing to start a long traverse of the northern flanks of the Niellu valley. It turns north to drop into the Viru gorge and cross a graceful Genoese bridge. After a steady climb through open forest, it spends several km on a delightful exploration of wood and heathland, with frequent views across to the high southern ridge, or glimpsing west to the island's central watershed ridge. Ever-present, but usually invisible behind the ridges immediately above us, is the Monte Cinto massif.

The trail eventually turns north-west into the amazingly broken and dramatic highlands to join the steepening Golo valley, which penetrates between spectacular cliffs into the island's highest massif. After an admiration of a vigorous waterfall, it is time to cross the river to turn south towards the Col de Vergio gap in the high central ridge. (When Walkopedia was there, the bridge had gone and we had to cross the swollen river perilously on a fallen tree or leg-soaking teeters between rocks.) 

Thence it is a longish trudge through superb mixed forest, in which huge Corsica pines are the stars, to the Col or the Castellu di Vergio; the former is on the Mare a Mare Nord, the latter on the famous GR20 route, reaching a much-used if tired hotel below the col.

A great day's walking!

Day 3: On the high central ridge

Today should have been the best of the entire week, a wonderful ridge walk to the stunning high Lac de Nino. But snow intervened.

We set out on the famously infamous GR20 trail southward, dropping from the hotel then traversing delightfully though beautiful forest, then climbing to the Bocca San Pedru col on the watershed central ridge to gain fantabulous views in all directions. All marvellous so far.

We start a steady climb up the ridge, enjoying extravagantly distorted trees, blown by the prevailing gales so they lean insanely and flatly to the east. Snow patches appear, which we avoid as they are slippery and can have depths beneath, then we are confined to the path as the snow deepens. We are now traversing behind the ridge on what would be a superb walk, then we start a haul back to the ridge. The only people before us today have evidently donned snow shoes. We feel under-equipped, and have to walk with increasing care although the snow is firmer up here.

We regain the ridge at around 1,750m, and sit on the snow-free south-western side to enjoy wonder-views down the long, hazily green ridges and valleys towards the sea.

We would have continued this magnificent walk on along the high ridges and slopes to a col at 1,883m before dropping to admire the lovely Lac de Nino in its damp high bowl. You can then retrace your steps, or head due north and cross to drop down the wildly beautiful Rau de Colga valley to the road back to the Col di Vergio - only take this route if you have transport from the roadhead. But we have maxed out in these conditions, and gingerly retrace our steps to the Bocca San Pedru, then drop to the woodland traverse path, where we eat out charcuterie and cheese lunch.

We are in luck, as this traverse continues eastward as the Sentier de Ronde de Valdu Niellu, a beautiful and interesting – and delightfully level – path through the mountainside forests to the deep, dramatic Rau de Colga gorge, which I descend to the roadhead – the others started earlier down the Crete d’Orsu Longu crest walk, a comfortably wide crest between steep slopes above the trees, so possessing huge views across the Niellu bowl to Corsica’s highest mountains the whole way down.

7 hrs or so. 

Day 4: Vergio to Evisa

This 8km, 5hr or so, leg of the Mare a mare Nord descends, through fine and very varied forest, from the Col de Vergio to pleasant Evisa, some 600m below. 

We began at the Castellu di Vergio hotel, and traversed delightfully on the GR20 through sparkling early morning forest, north below the high ridge for a km or so, then turning left to plod up to the Vergio col. 

We then took ourselves off-piste, and headed due north on a small path, round the hill above the col to get the best possible views back down the broad Niellu valley and north into the western reaches of the Monte Cinto massif, Corsica's highest area. A wonderful quarter-hour, just admiring the wonders before us.

Then we are back on the Mare a Mare Nord, traversing briefly on a beautiful meadow towards twisted old Corsican pines, then dropping below the tree line into the Aitone forest, mixed pine, birch and beech, for a long and sometimes rough descent on a path which at times doubles as shallow stream bed.

 A good track then traverses for a pleasing half hour to the disappointing Pont de Casterica (no Genoese bridge here), although it has very pretty pools below it.

Walkopedia then made a side walk, which we highly recommend, especially if, like us, you want to bulk out what looked like a slightly short day. We took the track due west, which climbs steadily across a steep hillside, with tremendous views, to the Bocca a u Saltu pass, out on harsh granite highlands sprinkled with hard-scrabbling pines, a rather remarkable area.  You can then scramble up some (or all) of the nearby minor peak, a great heap of bare granite into which extravagantly twisted pines support themselves on absurdly long and twisted roots. We had the huge luck to see a lammergeier (bearded vulture – 4 breeeding pairs left as of 2017) swing round several times below us on its grand wingspan, working its way up the valley towards the highlands. 1.5hr or more.

Back to the MMR, we drop quite steeply, then wind through attractive forest before making another shortish but steep descent to the river, which we parallel delightfully for a few 100m, then turn uphill for another climb to a ridgetop with good views up the valley.

A rough and steep descent gets to a little suspension bridge across the river, from which we climb (passing a trail down to a famous bathing pool) to join a track high above the now deep and dramatic gorge of the d'Aitone river.

We soon join an atmospheric, winding, walled track which descends through overrun groves to a stream, then winds through interesting old farmland, much of it old chestnut groves now sadly afflicted with beetles and canker which also serve as grazing, to the edge of the still cheerful town of Evisa, “pearl of the mountains”, perched above the deep Tavulella river valley, which itself debouchs through a tremendous gorge back into the Spelunca Canyon (see below), the lower version of the Aitone valley we have been walking in today.

Day 5: Evisa to Ota – Spelunca Gorge

This superb gorge walk (on the Mare e Monti route) between Evisa and Ota is one of Corsica’s finest day walks, and that is saying something.

Walkopedia walked it downhill from Evisa. After a gentle stroll down Evisa's main street, you turn right by a large tomb onto a path of such antiquity that, given that it is the best nearby way down into the gorge, it could have been in use for 5,000 years.  A 600m+ descent gets you to the river at 240m, often on fine old paving and some embanked switchbacks, and often hidden in the forest, which breaks up in places to bushy maquis. Viewpoints open up of huge pink cliffs receding to 1,300m or more.

The gorge bottom walk is a delight, shady old paths always enlivened by the rushing river. There are superb swimming spots near the three sets of bridges, the last a slender Genoese effort of sublime grace.

Thence it is a good and reasonably gentle climb to Ota and, in our case, an ecstatically enjoyable lunch Chez Felix, admiring the remarkable view across the river to a vast bowl of dramatic cliffs and towers.

The afternoon is spent descending to Porto on interesting if somewhat choked paths. Not so remarkable. 

Porto has charm, a straggle of buildings along roads above a heavily but generally well developed harbour and river-mouth marina.

Day 6: Porto to Piana: the Calanche

This is a slightly mixed walk, with some less-thrilling climbing in thick scrub and forest to be done before enjoying the fireworks of the Calanche.

From the far side of the Porto beach, we join a pleasing balcony walk above the sea, with clouds of wild flowers and views across the bay. 

Then it is a long and not especially interesting climb up a track then a thickly forested path to the main road, which you have to walk up a way, although it is not as busy out of season as one might think. Another steep path cuts a loop out, then it is another road trudge up to the bend where the rocky ridge trail to the Chateau Fort begins.

The main point of the day is to explore the weird world of the Calanache, an area of sheer spires and peculiar excresences at the seaward end of the ridge to the 1,300m Capu d’Orta peak which dominates the Porto basin. There are plenty such around the world, but what is special, in Walkopedia's experience, is that these are made of granite, which we have never seen so sculpted. We suspect that the vertical strata of the rock here may have something to do with it.

The rough trail to the ridge end is itself interesting, with flowering maquis and gorgeous view-glimpses, but it is the vast views from the far end of the walkable ridge, back to the best of the Calanches, and out across the Porto bay, which are really thrilling.

A bit on up the road, we make an unscheduled hour+ circuit steeply up and over a high and broken Calanche ridge above the Roches Bleues restaurant. It is so steep, and a bit dark in ascent, that, despite the wonders of the ridgetop, it doesn't quite stack up on the pain-to-pleasure calculator.

Back on the road, we lunch at a restaurant (Roches Bleues) on a superb vantage point surrounded by cliffs, but with huge views across the Porto bay. A really delightful interlude, wallowing in well-being.

Then it is back up another steep wood-and-maquis path among the Calanches spires and cliffs, this one that bit gentler, so we trudge to the top of the ridge reasonably easily, considering the demands – or is that the benefits of a glass of wine?

The high plateau above is a different world, dappled light in a stately pine forest; it is littered with orange Calanche lumps among the dark contre jour parade-ground-straight trees, with blue sky showing behind, a Cezanne-esque colour structure if ever there was.

The day finishes with a long but interesting descent in gorgeous flowering maquis, then a traverse on a nice path above the road to the attractive old town of Piana on a (relatively) flat spot amongst the crazy slopes. A VERY delicious supper is had. The big walks are done.

Day 7: Capu Rossu

What a way to finish an outstanding expedition.

This magnificent promonotory is the Corsican mainland's westernmost point, and is topped out by a Genoese lookout tower at 331m. The walk out to the tower and back is quite demanding, with around 530m of ascent and descent, taking 3.5 hours in 6+km.

The first half of the outward leg descend steadily to an old shepherd’s hut, with fine views along the rocky high ridge of the headland to the ever-present tower, and south down the bays and headlands of the west coast towards Cargese. The maquis is at all time beautiful, varied, vivid and sparkling with flowers.

Then it is a tough climb, much on bare red granite, some up a cleft in the cliffs into which a beautifully restored switchback path has been crammed, to the high end of the promontory and the Turghiu tower – and to gasp-inducing views, not least when you lie on the northern edge to gaze 1,000 sheer feet down into the sea. Back inland, the broken cliffs run into the Porto bay, with high ridges behind topped out by the shapely cone of Monte Cinto, Corsica’s highest peak. The views north and south up and down the coast are as beautiful as you could hope.

The tower is fascinating, external steps leading to one big chamber with a flat roof above, all beautifully restored. A watchtower rather than a serious fortification.

The return journey is also to be savoured: while you have seen it all before, the pleasures are often new.

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