May, 1: Fred hikes up to the refuge d’Usciolu at an altitude of 1,810 metres from the village of Cozzano, two hours away. The athletic young fellow needs crampons and piolets to make his way up and often has to saw the icy snow to make his way into the kitchen of the refuge to warm up. For four years he has been assisting Francis, the refuge keeper in the summer months and this is how the 5-month season starts. Before the helicopter delivers 800 kilograms of supplies (tents, gas cylinders, beer bottles and canned food for the season), it is with his fully loaded backpack that he takes up tools and the first supplies, day after day for about two weeks until the snow has melted enough for the horses and mules to make the trip up.
July, 1: Fred’s fingers still show marks of frostbite from sawing the ice when today hikers in shorts and T-shirts warm up their coffees before another long day of hiking the Southern section of the GR 20, the toughest hike of Europe in the Corsican mountains. As the last hikers are leaving, Fred continues his daily chores by sweeping the kitchen floor and washing the utensils and cutlery from some inconsiderate hikers who left their dirty bowls in the sink. Before sunrise, he was already preparing breakfasts and packed lunches. Fred is a plumber, cook, carpenter, vet, painter, cashier, cleaning person, welcoming host, experienced hiker and volunteer medic helping people in need around his refuge. Multi-tasking is a job requirement! He cleans the handcrafted warm shower made of a long black hose heated up by the sun that Francis set up many years ago. A simple but rare welcoming comfort along the GR 20.
This welcoming philosophy is not a given in the many refuges owned by the Regional Natural Park of Corsica along the hike, and Fred and Francis do go the extra mile to make hikers feel good (and round off their earnings). And it seems to be greatly appreciated by the hundreds of hikers passing by and often staying for the night every day during the hiking season. As Fred is restocking the store, the first hikers arrive at around 10 am. Impressed by the variety & freshness of the products, they look like kids in a candy store! Home-made dried sausage from Francis’ cousin hang above local sheep cheese, chocolate tablets, home-made clementine and myrtle jams, chocolate biscuits, canned vegetables, fish and cassoulet, salty crisps and energy bars. In the corner, new hiking shoes, batteries, safety blankets, sun tan lotion, first aid supplies, tampons, fruit juices in many different flavours, red wine, liquor of myrtle and the best-selling ice-cold Corsican Pietra beer! And the ultimate luxury along a 2-week remote hike: fresh oranges, tomatoes, carrots and watermelons! Clearly Usciolu – one of the most remote refuges along the 186-kilometre trail – is the best refilling refuge on the whole GR20 and by far! All this comes only thanks to Fred and Francis’ second to none dedication.
Francis goes down the mountain with his four mules about three to four times a week, a demanding journey down to the village along steep rocky slopes; as the mules rest, he hops in his car to drive all the way to Ajaccio one of the main cities of the island about a hundred kilometres away on mountain roads to buy all the supplies. When he gets back to Cozzano, he loads the mules in the best possible way to take as much up while ensuring his dear mules are well balanced before heading back up to the refuge. In the meantime, Fred is alone working an average of 17 hours a day to answer the hikers’ needs.
If they run Usciolu this way, it is by a great sense of hospitality, but also to run a profitable business. As refuge keepers, their earnings solely consists of the profits they make by selling drinks and food. The accommodation money (beds in the refuge, renting tents or bivouac spots) is collected by them for the Park that owns the refuges.
For a few years now, the GR 20 has become more accessible and mostly thanks to Francis (or because of according to some) who initiated the rental of tents at every refuge along the GR, and the serving of warm meals at night. This has allowed people to carry less weight and has opened the demanding Corsican Mountains to less experienced hikers losing some of the mountain spirit in the process.
The very selective long-distance hike created in the early 1970’s has been democratised and only a few of the 15,000 hikers trying to conquer it every year are autonomous for their food and sleeping arrangements. Pascal who is chatting with us on the terrace of Usciolu after his group went to bed has mixed feelings. As a guide, groups are his bread and butter but with 30 years of experience in the mountains of Corsica he is saddened by the evolution of the mentalities: “These are not mountain people anymore. They are not prepared and not respectful of nature and as they pay a rather high price to do the GR 20 or part of it. Many are too demanding expecting hotel services when the first function of a mountain refuge is a shelter for survival. I often see people lacking respect for the refuge keepers and shepherds…”
Fred has just finished the washing the dishes after cooking pastas for an army of hikers, about 60 tonight. On top of that he provided a 4-course meal for the above mentioned groups staying in the beds of the refuge or rented tents. Under a rising moon he joins in with a bottle of myrtle liquor made by Francis. Pouring a sip directly into our mouths following the tradition, he can only agree: “It is great to see that some people can enjoy the beauty of the GR not being mountaineers themselves nor athletes, but stay with me for a week and your vision of hikers as respectful of nature will change!” He looks tired. His 17-hour day is almost over and he is about to grab some dinner before going to bed. “Today was a slow day with about 150 people and 60 dinners. Tomorrow will be busy but Francis will be back! “
His eyes focus on the corner of the terrace. Over a year and a half ago, the heavy snow broke some beams and with Francis he fixed it up as they could: they are only renters here for the season. As the owner of the refuge, the park is responsible for its maintenance. “Refuge keepers are let down by the park. It takes forever for the necessary repairs and often, they have to chip in themselves for the refuge to remain in acceptable condition, while they don’t make a cent on accommodation”, Pascal explains. With contracts renewed only on a yearly basis, it does not make sense for the refuge keepers to invest. They can only wait: “This year we should get a new sanitary block with dry toilets”, Fred adds with a mix of joy and disillusion in his tired eyes. The park is about to start a major renovation after almost 50 years. “It is about time…” Pascal adds. They both smile at us and wish us a good night. At 4 am a new day will start for them. Just another day high in the rugged Corsican Mountains.
Claire & Marcella
- Check out the prologue article for your complete guide to the GR 20!