I’m going to start this post of with a bold statement: the GR20 is the best hike I’ve done. I’ve loved the Spaghetti Tour in the Italian Alps, Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn, Hardrians Wall, the Coast to Coast, the West Highland Way, but the GR20 is the one that really takes my breath away whenever I think about it. It’s absolutely not an easy walk, in fact it’s the most difficult one I’ve done, but this post will tell you what to expect on the GR20 with the hope that you give it a go yourself.
What is the GR20?
The GR20 two week hike along the ‘backbone’ of Corsica, most commonly walked from north to south. It’s considered as the most difficult hike in Europe, which I think is due to the rocky terrain, steep inclines and the climate (it’s pretty hot there in summer!).
The route starts in Calenzana and heads south with significant ascents and descents but equally spectacular views, winding through rocky ridges, mountain forests, pretty villages and glacial lakes. The first half of the route, the northern section, is the toughest part with the steepest ascents/descents and areas of scrambling, not to mention finding your mountain feet!
After the first week, you’ll find yourself in the small village of Vizzavona, marking the end of the northern section and the start of the slightly easier southern section which continues through to the end point of Conca. From here we got a transfer to the port town of Bastia for a final meal and a night on the town.
We booked through tour operator KE Adventure Travel. In my Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn post, I’ve listed a load of reasons for using a tour company such as KE, but in the case of the GR20 the main reason was that it’s not an easy walk and there are some technical parts, so having a guide who knew what they were doing was really important to us. The fact that we didn’t have to worry about any of the planning, had all of our food provided and didn’t have to carry two weeks worth of luggage was a huge bonus!
It’s important to mention what you should expect in terms of difficulty. The GR20 covers 180km in distance and 10,000m of ascent with tough terrain, including a fair amount of scrambling as I’ve already mentioned. The weather is hot (I got a fantastic tan) and the days are long, and most of the time you’re camping or staying in mountain huts so you can’t even end the day with a hot shower and comfortable bed!
Based on this, I wouldn’t recommend the GR20 unless you have prior experience of long distance hikes and have a good level of physically fitness… I was fairly fit at the time (standard 2-3 times a week gym sessions but nothing major) but I wish I’d be a lot fitter. I was one of the slower ones in the group, but I’d have loved to have been racing up the mountains to be the first one to see the views!
Please don’t let this put you off though, if you want to hike the GR20 just make sure you get in some walking before and train in the gym!
I racked my brains as to best way to tell you what to expect on the GR20, and figured the best way to do this was to share my highlights. Of course there were lows as well as highs, but I’ve already covered the difficultly so I think it’s fair to focus on the highs now!
Ok this one isn’t strictly about the GR20 … and I’m sure that not everyone booking onto a group tour gets company as amazing as we did. Chatting to interesting people from different walks of life was a great way to pass the time, and everyone was so motivating through the harder bits. I laughed a LOT on this trip!
Particular mention needs to be made to my Dad (obviously, because he’s amazing); our incredibly experienced and knowledgable tour guide Coralie; Peter, who was like a second dad to me on this trip (especially on the day that I cried because I was so hungover – those Corsican beers are STRONG); Isabelle, my Australian idol; and Shaun, who is one of the funniest and most interesting people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. But honestly, everyone in our group was amazing!
I appreciate this is a really obvious one, but I’m still going to mention it. There wasn’t a second where the views weren’t stunning, but the moment that sticks with me was when we made it to the top of our first ascent on day one. I wasn’t expecting how magical it would be, and it brought a teeny little tear to my eye. Being constantly surrounded by natural beauty for two weeks puts your life into perspective and, as cheesy as it is, makes you feel very lucky.
I didn’t take my phone with me on the GR20, as there wouldn’t be any signal up on those mountains anyway. This meant two full weeks of being totally disconnected from the world, meaning that I could fully focus on my surroundings and the people I was with. Combine this with sunshine, fresh air, exercise and breathtaking scenery and you have the recipe for complete relaxation… I couldn’t remember what stress even was by day 2! I absolutely felt my best self on this trip.
Our proximity to civilisation varied throughout the trip. Some nights we were in small villages which could be reached by car, meaning that our luggage could be driven to us. This meant that we could get clean clothes and enjoy small luxuries (like moisturiser) that we had sacrificed in the name of a light backpack. In a some of these cases, we were staying in hotels which also meant a hot shower and a comfortable bed!
Other nights, we were either camping or sleeping in mountain huts in the middle of nowhere, with only the things we were carrying on our backs. This meant no hot water (sometimes no showers at all), squat toilets and sleeping on the floor. This might sound like hell, but these were my favourite nights.
The lack of showers meant bathing in natural rock pools (and yes, washing hair under waterfalls in some cases, obviously with environmentally friendly products), always accompanied by a can or several of Corsican beer and good conversation. This was followed by an evening relaxing with new friends over food and beer, admiring the sunsets (another highlight) and reflecting on the day.
The Night Sky
This gets it’s own section because it was my number one highlight. On one of the camping nights the sky was clear and the air was warm so I slept outside. The downside of this was waking up in the morning with a cow standing over me, but the upside was the moment I briefly woke up in the middle of the night and opened my eyes to the most amazing sky. I have never seen that many stars, and it took my breath away. If you’ve never slept outside, I would highly recommend it!
The Sense of Achievement
The GR20 was really hard at times, and sometimes I’d be half way up a mountain and have no idea how I would make it the top. And two weeks is a long time to be doing the same (difficult) thing every day. But the sense of achievement at the end (even the sense of achievement at the top of each ascent and at the end of each day) made it completely worth it. Even better, I made it through the entire trip without any injuries (other than a sprained foot on the last night caused by a night of dad dancing on the beach, for which I fully blame Shaun).
If you’ve hiked the GR20 I would love to hear your experiences so please get in touch! Equally if it’s something you’re thinking of doing and want to know more about my experience of the route feel free to ask me anything.
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