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My hike on the hardest trail in Europe – Corsica’s GR20 | Corsica holidays

My hike on the hardest trail in Europe – Corsica’s GR20 | Corsica holidays

I’m on the easiest bit of one of the easiest legs of the GR20 – the self-styled hardest trek in Europe – so naturally here I am alone, lost in a cloud, with hands so cold I am seriously considering peeing on them.

GR20 Corsica

In the guidebook, this was billed as a shortish, flattish day, a mere 10.2 miles (16.5km) with 670 metres of ascent. I had it circled as one to enjoy. Perhaps if it were warm, I would have a dip in Lac de Ninu, douse the fires in my calves. But when hail came, adding spikes to a slapping wind, and thunder began beating a drum behind the blank grey horizon, I thought: “Better put more layers on than take off.” I struggle with the zips, but just about find enough digital strength without resorting to anything unsanitary.

The mist on the high plain of Bocca a Reta is total, snuffing any flickers, muffling any sound, shrinking the world to an alien dome. A black salamander shivers in a divot. Bells clang softly from the necks of unknown beasts. I stop, just as shadows muster at the edge of my visible limit, and soon a man floats into range. He hurriedly relays directions, scratching a map in a sandy hollow. Finding the next refuge, Manganu, seems to depend on being able to see the lake. A bedraggled teenager trundles towards us and meets us with a wince. I wish them bon courage and march on.

Paliri refuge on the final morning of the final day. Photograph: James Gingell

Soon the mist lifts enough for me to spot a flag of Corsica, suggesting somehow I have made shelter, despite seeing not a drop of a lake. I poke my head inside the shack to see an old man with a cloth cap covering half his face, and a beard covering the rest. He is sipping a morning pastis and staring into a fire that fills the damp air with woodsmoke. I stamp my feet and shake off some rain, but still he doesn’t turn around. This doesn’t feel right. I look into my guidebook and realise this is not Manganu, but just over a mile north at the Vaccaghja Bergerie. This is, in fact, the stone living room of a shepherd called Noel. He’s seen too much for strays to faze him. Every summer, since that beard was adolescent stubble, he’s been practising transhumance, bringing goats up to graze the mountain grass.

When finally I reach Manganu, I open the door to the refuge and feel the warmth of the gas stove. Wet things are…

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