I disembark in Ajaccio after the crossing of the stretch of sea between Sardinia and Corsica, the two dizygotic twin islands of Mediterranean Sea.
I’m late. A late that threatens to be lethal for my night sleep. Cycling from harbor I have a few minutes left before the camping closing time. If I don’t get there in time, I don’t have a plan B for my accommodation.
I climb breathlessly like in an uphill time trial to not miss that time-window, which is quickly becoming a slit.I do that. I get there 4 minutes before closing. The receptionist didn’t believe anymore that someone could have arrived, and she already got off. In fact, the woman at the desk welcomes me with her harsh and dry French, clearly not too happy that she had to interrupt her dinner. I give up trying to understand what she’s saying about how to get in & out from camping and – fasting – pitch the tent. I overlooked bringing emergency food with me, I thought I could buy dinner at the camping. But this is not much more than a bush with showers and loos. It’s going to be a fasting sleep. I try to remember the chinese saying “leave the dinner to your enemy”, thinking that somewhere it must contain a healthy wisdom. I try to focus on the first dreams before cyclo-travel begins and quietly passes the night inside my bivouac.
The morning after I cycle out from Ajaccio surrounded by a hellish traffic jam of workers and holidaymakers. I pick up a suburban boulangerie and grant me a sumptuous breakfast. Because I know what I’m going to face today. What I don’t know yet is, this is going to be the last full meal before an unpredictably long time. I need energy. The next challenge is the rendez-vous with my friend in the very middle of inner Corsica: Corte. The former capital of the Corsican independent state, and today’s historical and cultural capital of the Island.
I have to cycle along the coast northward, then cut my way through the sharp and steep mountains, with elevation gains I still can’t believe, although certified by Google, the modern oracle. I don’t remember having ever got near the 2000 m uphill with a fully loaded bike, and I ask myself how I will feel during the trial and after it, provided that I will succeed.
The first serious climb takes me over the Ajaccio peninsula. The road is currently a construction site and I get overtaken by giant trucks showering me with sand and pebbles. I must hold my breath until they pass over. I reach the coast along the Sagone gulf.
Around the end of its last beach I finally say goodbye to the deep-blue waters and dive into the D70, the road leading me for a long while to the 1.100 m altitude.
I start to climb. I still continue climbing. I’m not going to stop climbing. I climb without interruption for over 20 km.
The last stretch before Col de Sévi has a gradient which puts me in difficulty. First, I pause to breathe again and socialize with two lovely donkeys, which sniff me scrupulously while watching at me with sweet eyes, like for encouraging me. Then, I move forward zigzagging for the last meters before the pass.
I’m not at the top yet, but my feeling at Bocca di Sevi (mt 1.101) is close to enthusiasm. Few hairpin turns downhill, and here we are, climbing again.
As daylight is slowly fading away, 3 problems are simultaneously growing bigger.
- Finding water (bottles are empty)
- Finding food (the last meal was the long-forgotten sumptuous breakfast)
- Finding a safe camping site (I’m utmostly tired)
Cycling through Cristinacce – a cozy tiny village constructed on a rocky knoll and surrounded by chestnut trees – I look around anxiously in search of a bar or grocery. I got used to Sardinia, where even the tiniest three-house villages have a bar, so I’m almost sure my thirst and hunger are going to find relief. My hope dies as I notice that Cristinacce is for sure a pleasant and lovely place, but seemingly its 56 residents don’t feel the need of that supreme civil institution called “bar”. I don’t hear the salvific sound of any fountain either, so my 3 three problems above remain unchanged.
I leave behind Cristinacce by growing dusk. I start to deal with the following scenario: not finding any food, having to ask someone for water, randomly pitching the tent out there in the chestnut wood.
Suddenly, on my left side – like a mirage you are really not expecting and guess it might be a result of your wishful thinking – a road sign passes by: “camping”. We are in the middle of the mountains, I was really not expecting anything like this. The gate is open, I happily get through. On the closed door of a building is written: “if I am not here don’t worry, take place. We’ll arrange it later“. I love this complete informality, it’s always the best welcome possible. I do as written. Few RVs belonging to the ubiquitous Germans reassure me that what I see is not an imaginary joke made up by water and food deprivation. I first quench my thirst and then find my place, from which I dominate the valley. Tonight, very few sleeping places can compete in beauty with my nest.
The owner is a jovial lady around her 60’s, able to jabber some Italian. Full of hope, I ask her if I can buy some food there, while I listen to my stomach gurgling at this point without interruption. Nothing. Nul. Zéro.
“Last summer there was a pizzeria over there, close to the camping toilets. Then it burned down.” Not only the pizzas, the whole pizzeria. You have to go to Évisa, maybe you’ll still find an open place there. “For the whole day I have fed my body with nothing more than breakfast, one pain au chocolat and one pain au raisin luckily bought when leaving the Sagone gulf. My upper stomach looks like a chasm I can’t see the bottom of. In spite of this, the eventuality to climb over the saddle again, to cycle downhill toward Évisa and then uphill to the camping again – without even being sure to find an open grocery – is a challenge my actual energy level doesn’t match with. I have pedalled for over 70 km, which is not such a long distance. But considering the 1.750 m uphill and the fully loaded bike, that number is not what it seems to be.
I muster up the courage and give instructions to my body not to expect anything, except for a few sips of mineral drink and liquid carbohydrates. We often feel uncontrollable hunger when we realistically count on eating soon after. Then we feel spasms and look for a way to shorten the waiting time as much as possible. While we are being impatient for our order at the restaurant, for instance. Or when we are home and don’t care for the right cooking process, willing to cut down the steps and fill that screaming chasm as soon as possible. It’s the perspective to be able to fill the void that generates the burning void experience. Without that eventuality, the void – even the one of the stomach – is much less devastating.
On the contrary, when our physical body is given proper instructions by the elaborating upper sector in order to enter a state of endurance, we experience what the ancient Epicureans and Stoics named ataraxia, often translated nowadays into imperturbability. We burn what is stored in the cellar. We take upstairs the barrels of aged lard and give ourselves happy with it. Fasting did not bother me at all that night, at the opposite. I slept like a baby, making finally peace with my burial-recess-like bivouac.
The morning comes, at last.With it, all birds announcing it long before we are willing to consider it as such.
I pedal just a few hundred meters and a fork already pretends an early decision. To the left to Évisa. A few km downhills, breakfast and then uphills again. To the right, straight to the pass.
Decision making will face the following inaccurate set of information, aka bad data, plus a piece of bad judgement:
- overestimate of the distance to Évisa
- underestimate of the distance to the pass
- anxious wish to get to the pass and finally start a downhill I am expecting for 22 km
- persisting of the ataraxic state, which seems not to need food anymore (variation of the well-known story of the donkey which unfortunately died after it got used to not eat)
The decision is taken. I leave behind the road to Évisa on my left and change the D70 for the D84. With my Kona Sutra, I dive straight into the marvelous larch forest which welcomes me like a protective womb.
Peaceful pigs hang around the roadside and show me all their color shades, from spotted beige to grey, from pinkish to black. The free-roaming pigs of Corsica are worldwide famous. It’s not like they don’t belong to anyone, but let’s say they have very permissive owners. They often mate with wild boars, so the result is their extremely diverse patterning. They spend most of the time sunbathing and crunching seeds, chestnuts, acorns and all kinds of roots. Those facts make their meat delicious and rank its various recipes above almost all other Corsican delicatessen! U porcu Corsu, as locals call it.
I stack up the miles made of hairpin turns and finally… the pass! Col de Vergio marks the passage from Corse du Sud to Haute Corse. Its 1.490 meters put an end to my 38 km of uphill (20 km yesterday plus 18 today). I’m thrilled. In just two days I broke three personal records:
- the biggest elevation gain in a single day
- the highest altitude reached by bike
- the longest climb
From here, an endless descent starts along the Golo river, the Calacuccia lake and beyond. Its 46 km from Col de Vergio to the Castirla bridge will be the 4th personal record broken during this bike trip. An infamous descent, able to prove hard your bottom, wrists and forearms. I never thought a descent could ever tire me out!
It’s late morning now and food deprivation has become intolerable. The last bites of the now long-forgotten pain au raisin date back to 20 hours ago. And not ordinary hours! I cycle through Casamaccioli, a village on the lakeshore, still finding nothing. Not a bar, not a shop, not a tavern. Just cows even at the central square, staring at me with a questioning attitude.
Finally. Finally, the unmistakable outlines of a country restaurant show themselves in all their familiar, opulent, European availability. My fasting is close to ending soon. So, consequently – right in time as already discussed above – hunger, held back until now by necessity, explodes brutally.
Close-to-starvation state brings me to exaggerate. After an enormous omelette au fromage de chevre, which would have been enough alone, I gulp down tagliatelle with mushrooms, créme and foie gras. Far too much and too abruptly, so that I afterward climb into the saddle like a boa after a meal would.
Forced by the digestion process and the baking afternoon sun, I stop almost immediately and take a short laying break under a tree along the lake. A 1/2 hour snap which seems to be days long. I resuscitate into the saddle again and continue to ride downhill following the Golo river, which now brusquely changes its appearance.
Right after the dam which is the cause of the Calacuccia lake, Golo river forcefully pushes itself between the rocky mountains, digging a deep canyon surrounded by rocky walls dramatically steep and dried out. Rocks are eroded by the millenary turnover of ice, rain, wind and merciless sun. The Golo seems to be making its way with difficulty, jumping over massive boulders, bypassing trees miraculously clambered along the banks. The landscape is majestic. The road D84 pays homage to it slotting in the cliffs, laying on rocky bridges leaned against the walls, loyally following the flow of the river up to the Castirla bridge. The gorge called Scala di Santa Regina [Holy Queen’s Stairway] ends here. It will be one of the most spectacular sights of nature ever experienced.
My friend has just reached our rendezvous point, already waiting for me. To me, just 10 km is left. So I text him announcing my coming-soon arrival. I’m not facing up to the fact that they are going to be 10 km of continuous uphill along with the D18. So, my “coming-soon” reveals itself not exactly what I meant. At the end of the day, my elevation gain will be over 1000 mt. After yesterday’s challenge, they are worth even more. We celebrate our meeting with the classic, undeniable beer. Which is a duty for the winning bike-traveler, having completed his push-pulling day.
We set camp at the Chez Bartho camping ground, right outside Corte, at the hillside. There the Tavignano river fills a hollow with one of its bights and offers a lovely little beach to us flushed cyclers. Water is marvelously icy and regenerates me, while trouts swim around me. A sign that no pollution at all is in this crystal-clear water.
We leave Corte and the inner Corse cycling direction North. We try to avoid the busy T20, so we cycle the D18 for its whole length, even if this will cost us a considerable elevation gain.
We get to Ponte Leccia, where we can buy food and water. To continue cycling to the Northern coast becomes harder and harder. Kms pile up in the legs and we really have to put an end to this heavy day. We find a timely camping spot close to Ostriconi beach and let us welcome.
Another camping, another German community. This fact of Germans needs to be better discussed. There are many campings where their presence is almost exclusively. They settle in with their fully equipped and modern RVs or their huge multi-room tents. They stay there for weeks or even months. They form small Germanic communities where they obviously speak mono-German since all workers adapt to their not easy linguistic preferences. They move their neighborhood to the exotic Corse and build a little summer Germany, where they preserve almost all their everyday habits. It’s remarkable how they can find allure in having neighbors who only a little differ from those they meet all year round. Children play in German, parents order in German at the restaurant, they drink German beer brought from home. I’ll keep myself prudently far from every possible judgemental attitude. I lived in Germany for years and I guess I know German anthropology, but I’m still bewildered by those details and watch them like a voyeur would, one who does not fully understand what he sees.
The Agriate desert is our destination, but I have to admit it: we haven’t researched enough about it. The D81 runs along with it and takes us to the pass where we can embrace the whole promontory hosting the “desert”. Don’t imagine a desert like the Sahara or Gobi: no dunes here nor endless sandy stretches. This is a Mediterranean desert with its typical scrub, rocky soil and very little water.We know that only three roads lead to the area, and all them seem to be uncycleable for our heavy loaded travel bikes. Sandy, stones and dips everywhere, impossible slopes. They might be fun for MTBs but too much for us. The concrete risk is to have to push the bikes for most of the time, to have punctures, to break some components. We have to seriously consider the eventuality to pain more than to enjoy the ride. We give up and took the beating. We do an about face and cycle to the west along the coast and the hinterland where the D113 goes through.
In Avapessa – a tiny village with ridiculous uphill we find a fountain, which is providential because we are running out of water.
Here begins the D71, another wonderful road leading us to the top of the hills dominating the whole coast around Algajola.
We almost reach Calvi, on the northwest coast of the island, but we set camp outside the town in another German-occupied camping. It’s time here to do a great honor to Stefan, our neighbor there, owner of a supersonic RV and a steely handshake. He kindly welcomes us smiling, coming to us with a cool half-filled red wine bottle and two chairs in his hands, allowing us to enjoy a kind of nomadic luxus. Strange that he does not invite us to him, where facilities are much more comfortable. I discover why very soon. His RV is dominated by a giant German sheepdog, who doesn’t want to listen to reasonings nor exceptions. Nobody may come closer than 5 m to his kennel, except of his Lord and Master. It’s a simple rule, but mandatory. Stefan’s sociality must simply adapt. That’s it.
Calvi is a charming little port city, where summer tourism flourishes. Even too much for our wild taste. Except for the gorgeous breakfast at a local marvellous patisserie.
The tortuous west coast begins here with its fjords and high cliffs, cut by the D81B like with a milling machine. The west coast is so much more interesting than the east one, from a panoramic point of view. So, if you have to choose one of them, choose the first without doubt.
We make a stop-over in Galéria, a very small village inside a gulf carrying the same name and close to a long beach. The D81B loses the B here and gets just D81, becoming even more twisting and blessing us with an extraordinary landscape.
We get to Marine de Porto, a small hamlet consecrated to tourism and boats.
It’s here that we abandon the coast and the light uphills enjoyed today. Now the game is getting hard once again as we climb the mountains along with the D124 first, then the D84 up to Évisa, which I almost visited cycling alone a few days ago. Crossing the Rivière de Porto – a fascinating torrent coming down directly from the high hills around – cycling uphills from the bottom of its valley, the scenery is fantastic. It just makes me speechless.
Not to mention the fact that I’m cycling alone now, because Livio decided to leave me behind and to get to Évisa before me, worrying that we might be not in time to find any open grocery store before arrival. I use the opportunity to take some pictures while he’s making a long-run-like climb. He will physically pay tomorrow for this performance.
I get to Évisa much later than him, just the time necessary to find all plans done. No camping tonight, but a small room in a cozy hotel. I’m not complaining. Especially not about a reservation in the only one restaurant in the village, where we are going to enjoy u porcu corsu, pork stew made with one of those free roaming pigs. And Corsican beef sausages in addition. The needed proteinic restoration is guaranteed.
We leave Évisa following the perfect copy of the route cycled by me alone a few days ago: Col de Vergio, Lago di Calacuccia, Scala di Santa Regina, Castirla, Corte.
The only point worth mentioning today is my little revenge on Livio at the pass. He still has yesterday’s performance in the legs, while I seemingly have more energy and take advantage of it. I wait for him for 15 minutes at the 1.490 m of Col de Vergio, in sight of the highest Corsican peak: Monte Cinto.
We definitively abandon the inner Corsica highlands and reach the coast following the course of the Tavignano river, along the T59. We spend the last night together in Aléria, camping close to the mile-long beach which is the main character of the whole east coast.
Alone again. The rise-and-fall east coast road is pleasant, but nothing compared to the west coast. And here there is much more traffic. This, together with the anticlimax feeling of a journey approaching its end, makes me feel more tired than I should actually be. Suddenly, crossing a bridge not far from Porto Vecchio, my destination, I see it. Almost a mirage during this extremely hot day. A stream is flowing under me. Pristine waters, round massive stones, green and shade-giving trees along the river banks. It’s the Cavu river, coming down directly from the high inner mountains.It happens in a blink. I turn around without thinking and eagerly search for a way to reach the waters. I find it. Just the time to get undressed and I am already there. Inside the pure, crystal-clear water regenerating me from inside.
Now that I got baptized, I may leave with a light soul.
Addiu, Corsica. Good-bye