Exploring Corsica on a self-guided 'walking' trip

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If you go

Flights

Ajaccio is served from a number of French cities, including frequent flights from Paris and Marseille, via regular air service by CCM Airlines (codeshares with Air France, see www.aircorsica.com), and from a number of European cities (visit www.airninja.com to find discount flights from London and other cities). Ajaccio also is reachable by ferry from Nice, Marseille and some cities in Italy.

Tour operators

We used Tour Aventure (www.tour-aventure...) and were generally pleased with the experience. However, make sure that they understand your hotel and dining preferences when you make your reservation - the hotels in Ajaccio and Porto were subpar at best, and we had to pay an upcharge at Les Roches Rouges to get the regular dinner service.

Ajaccio restaurant

We passed over some of the places recommended in tourist guides and wandered into Chez Paulo, a locals' place in the old town at 7 Rue Roi de Rome (+33 4 95 21 32 38). Try the soupe de poissions (fish soup) and the seafood pizza.

The idea of a walking tour across some part of Europe always intrigued me, except for one major factor - such tours include other people. I'm sociable enough, but the prospect of having to walk or otherwise hang out for several days with a group of people I might not like makes me queasy.

So I was naturally interested when my wife, Nancy, read a blurb in the Sunday travel section about a self-guided trip on Corsica's famous GR20 trail. Interested because we had never been to Corsica (a mountainous and rugged Mediterranean island and region of France, west of Italy and southeast of mainland France, with a population of 275,000 people) and because I had no idea what a self-guided trip entailed. Some quick Internet research showed that in a self-guided trip, the outfitter arranges everything - maps, route details, accommodations with breakfast and a multi-course dinner - and the traveler simply walks or hikes at their leisure from village to village. The outfitter also transports all baggage, leaving you with little more than a day pack with your map, route information, foul weather gear, water and a picnic lunch.

We decided to give it a try, settling on Corsican-based Tour Aventure (www.tour-aventure.com/gb/), a company that offers guided and self-guided holidays in Corsica, Sardinia, the Pyrenees and Provence. After a series of e-mails and phone calls, we signed on for the luxury "Corsican Island Mystery" trip. I'm still not sure what the mystery is, and for 800 euros per person for a week, we didn't expect much luxury - and frankly, we didn't get it. What we did get was a week of beautiful trails through extraordinarily scenic countryside, clean sheets and a hot shower every night, and hearty and delicious meals. The blueprints of each day's hike were easy to decipher, and our baggage was always there at the end of the day.

A Sunday morning flight from Paris brought us to Ajaccio, the largest city in Corsica (population: 55,000). Best known as the birthplace of Napoleon, Ajaccio (pronounced Uh-jah-see-oh) has a pleasant old central section around the port, with narrow winding streets containing a jumble of restaurants, shops, homes and apartments surrounded by more modern neighborhoods with apartments and houses overlooking the sea.

We spent the day eating at one of the many seaside cafes in the old town, buying our picnic lunch for the next day at the well-stocked street market near the ferry port and walking throughout the old town and the coastal road. Perhaps we were just itching to start our walk the next day, but one afternoon in Ajaccio was enough.

We didn't expect anything strenuous - the trip was graded "moderate," meaning "you need to be used to walking and take regular exercise to enjoy this holiday." Because Nancy and I are active forty-something Steamboat residents, it seemed like a pretty low bar. But as Bogart said in "Casablanca," "We were misinformed."

We left Ajaccio on the Monday morning train. The two-hour ride took us northeast through the interior of the country to the town of Corte, where we were met by Etienne, who would shuttle us to the trailhead and our bags to our lodging for the night. Like almost everyone on the island, Etienne was nice and accommodating despite our total inability to speak French and his to speak English. We piled into the taxi and drove to the beginning of what we assumed would be an easy walk. Only it wasn't a walk, and it wasn't easy.

Our nearly five-hour trek on La Scala Santa Regina, a traditional shepherds trail, started straight uphill and continued that way for about two hours. We wound through a gorge, crossed rivers on ancient "genoise" bridges (from when the Italian city-state of Genoa controlled Corsica), and followed a balcony path along the cliffs that provided excellent views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains. After the week's first of many run-ins with animals - a herd of skinny, short-horned cattle that refused to move off the trail - we collapsed trailside to eat our picnic lunch of Corsican cheese, wild boar sausage, bread and fruit. After lunch, the trail leveled until we entered a chestnut forest.

Despite the surprising difficulty of the hike, it was a great first day on the trail. The countryside was spectacular, and the solitude that came from being the only people on the trail was invigorating. And the weather was perfect - blue skies and 70 degrees.

At day's end we arrived at Casa Balduina, our seven-room boarding house on the outskirts of the tiny (population: 300) village of Calacuccia. We were greeted by Jeanne, the owner, who spoke perfect English and was happy to drive us to town to buy provisions for the next day's hike at the sparsely stocked local store.

Casa Balduina was charming - tidy, comfortably furnished and made complete with Jeanne's spectacular dinner.

The next morning began with a shuttle ride to a French foreign legion camp, where we began a 10-mile hike to the town of Evisa. We walked a mile or so through a pine forest before crossing a road and rejoining the path that leads to a large statue of Jesus at the top of the Col de Vergio, a mountain pass that divides the north and south of Corsica, and the highest altitude (roughly 5,000 feet) we would reach during our trip. The path down from the top of the pass was steep and loose and ran alongside a shallow stream. We stopped for a picnic lunch before resuming our hike, which included crossing a precarious swing bridge over a river.

We arrived at our hotel in Evisa, a pretty little mountain-top resort town, in mid-afternoon and were seemingly the only two people there. The hotels in Evisa are generally open between April and October, and while there were some day-trippers around, the town was empty. We drank pastis and beer on the balcony of the local tavern while the locals played cards inside. Even in a town of just 900, one of the card players had a sister in Richmond, Va., and another had a wife from San Jose, Calif.

Sitting on our hotel balcony looking across the valley and down to the sea, we were happy and pleasantly sore - the hikes had all been fun and strenuous but not over-the-top difficult. After three days alone on the trail, we were still enjoying great conversation and superb silence. The interior portion of Corsica was rugged and beautiful, with friendly but unobtrusive people.

Thursday was yet another beautifully sunny day as we set off on the 10-mile walk from Evisa to Porto Marina, a small tourist town at the sea. Walking out of Evisa, we turned onto the well-marked Spelunca Gorge Trail, which took us quickly down a series of switchbacks through the gorge. We were effectively walking down one edge of a canyon. It was a great trail with dramatic views across and back up the gorge. Exiting the gorge, we headed straight downhill to Porto Marina.

The Marina is where the river that creates the Spelunca Gorge empties into the sea and the mountains rise almost claustrophobically on all sides of the small bay, leaving room for little more than a few nondescript hotels and some seaside restaurants. Our nondescript hotel was all but empty, and we had a small, unexciting room, albeit one with a view of the sea.

Porto Marina is the jumping-off point for tours of this section of the rugged Corsican coast, and we took a sunset boat tour (with narration in French) to the wildly dramatic Calanques of Piana, the red granite cliffs to the south of Porto that plunge more than 500 meters into the sea.

Our walking tour's final day of hiking started with a walk across the beach and then continued straight uphill for 3 1/2 hours to the village of Piana. Despite being quite steep in parts, it was a wonderful hike, and probably the most dramatic of the entire week. There were great views of the sea and magnificent balcony paths along the cliffs we had gawked at from the boat the night before.

Just before we entered the center of Piana (www.sipiana.com) we came to our lodging for the night, Les Roches Rouges, or "the red rocks." Les Roches Rouges is a lovely old hotel built in the 1920s with stunning views of the Mediterranean. Again, the hotel was almost empty and the owner upgraded us to a balconied room with an amazing view of the sea and the mountains.

Many Web sites refer to Piana as being "one of the loveliest villages in France." I'm not sure of the source of this, but it is a beautiful place with narrow streets, pretty white homes with tile roofs and a smattering of restaurants, all set on top of the cliffs overlooking the sea. Our last afternoon before heading back to the Ajaccio airport was well spent with a drink and some reading on the hotel deck before a wonderful seafood dinner and great Corsican wine.

While Corsica likely will be a return destination for us, the verdict on self-guided walking trips is much clearer - we already are researching future trips. There certainly were lessons learned - we will make sure that we get exactly what we want in terms of accommodations and meals, for example - but this kind of vacation is a peaceful way to be in a place and not just pass through it. And with all the hiking, you won't feel guilty eating well at day's end.

- Story by Kevin Ventrudo

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