In mid-October 2022, I hiked Corsica’s Mare a Mare Nord with my dog. It’s 150km long and crosses the width of Corsica from coast to coast. The Cicerone guidebook recommends that you take 11 days to complete the trail, but me and Bud did it in 7.5 days.
Having fallen in love with Corsica when I walked the GR20 the year before, I expected to like this trail. But it’s one of my least favourite long distance hikes I have ever walked. Don’t get me wrong, there are some stunningly beautiful sections (this is Corsica, after all), but the bad outweighs the good, due to a number of reasons: the terrible state of the paths, aggressive dogs in villages, and the many boar hunters.
Hiking this trail in October is a bad idea. Here’s a day-by-day breakdown of my experience, explaining why.
Day 1: Cargèse to gîte E Case (13km)
I’m excited to be back in Corsica, one of my favourite places! Me and my dog Bud hitchhike from the port of Ajaccio, up the west coast to Cargèse, the start of the Mare a Mare Nord. We eat lunch and then begin, climbing up into the hills, leaving the beautiful coast behind. It’s about 25°C: we are lucky with the weather! I marvel at the view. Little do I know that this will be one of the only times on the trail where I feel content.
Pretty soon we descend downwards on an annoying sunken path, with long spiky vines hanging down from the trees. We get tangled up in them. This is the first of a lot of loud swearing I will do on this trail.
We then hike on a 4WD track for miles, passing a group of about 30 hunting dogs, chained up and going crazy at us. Prior to coming on this trail I’d been worried about getting caught up with boar hunters, and now I’m even more nervous.
We climb uphill, passing a farm with even more hunting dogs. Bud’s scared, so I carry her through them as they strain on their chains to get to us.
Following a barbed wire fence, we climb up high, with wonderful views, then finally reach the abandoned gîte d’étape at E Case. Two couples, walking the much more popular Mare e Monte trail, are also camping there.
I write in my diary, “I hope tomorrow will be less stressful for Bud”. Little do I know that this trail is just going to get worse.
Day 2: E Case to Marignana (officially 18km but I did at least 25km)
I fuck up today, somehow managing to double-back on myself and walk for more than an hour in the direction I had come from. This doesn’t put me in a very good mood!
Much of the day is spent in forest, walking amongst strawberry trees, holm oaks, and ancient chestnut trees with their metres-wide trunks. I eat some fruit off one of the many strawberry trees, and begin to feel lethargic and weak.
This trail teases me: it almost takes us into the high mountains, but never quite reaches them. I feel myself longing for them, just out of grasp. As we hike over the bocca (saddle), we’re immersed in thick cloud, blocking my view of the mountains I’m desperate to see.
We reach the outskirts of the village of Marignana, but there’s a herd of goats and four dogs guarding them. I pick up a frightened Bud and walk through the dogs, then navigate the two of us through a herd of cows.
Then there’s lots of pigs running around. Pigs are a constant, annoying feature on this trail, even for an animal-loving vegan like me. They’re literally everywhere in Corsica’s lower hills. Some are wild, many have been farmed and left to roam, and lots have bred with wild boars to make hybrid pig-boars. Normally I love pigs, but their snuffling up of most of the Mare a Mare Nord’s 150km-long path makes this a very unpleasant trail to walk on. Until now, I hadn’t realised just how powerful and strong a pig’s snout is. It can move big rocks.
We arrive in Marignana, an interesting little village set close to the Spelunca gorge. I camp and eat dinner at the gîte d’étape, which is also a locals’ Saturday night favourite. I debate in very bad French with the guy running the place, who’s charging me much more to camp than some French hikers. He finally agrees to charge me the usual €10 rate.
I don’t realise that this is going to be the *only* accommodation or restaurant open on the whole trail (other than in the city of Corte). Come October, Corsica literally shuts down.
Day 3: Marignana to close to Bocca de Verghio (roughly 18km)
Today is a day of very different terrains. Mighty chestnut trees surround us in the morning, and I pick a bunch to cook on my gas stove later. The spikes of the chestnut shells litter the ground, but Bud copes admirably.
Then we climb up through Corsican pines, past a stunning viewpoint of the gorge, and rest at some rockpools. Corsica, with its massive boulders and small waterfalls, has some of the most wonderful wild swimming pools you’ll ever see.
Then we need to cross a long, bouncy suspension bridge. There’s only a couple of pieces of wire on the sides to stop us from falling into the river below. The gap between the slats is too big for Bud. If she falls in between them, she could fall to her death. And so I pick up my 13kg, terrified dog, and with each slow footstep the bridge bounces up and down. Having walked the GR20, I have done some scary things in Corsica, but I can honestly say that trying to get a medium-sized dog over this bouncing bridge with no sides is the most terrifying thing I have done here.
I breathe a massive sigh of relief as we reach the other side of the river. We climb through pines as the sun beats down, then I swim in another rockpool.
We reach Bocca de Verghio, and soon we cross onto the mighty GR20 trail. As soon as we hit the GR20, the terrain changes. Everything becomes more epic, and even though I’ve been here before, I’m blown away by the ruggedness of the mountains.
I feel both joy and sadness here, and I have tears in my eyes. I’m sad that I can’t relive my time on the GR20 again, and I feel a deep pang to get back into the big mountains. I contemplate switching trails, and walking the GR20 for a second time, but I know that I won’t be able to get Bud up the vertical scrambling sections.
I set up camp on a giant slab by a mighty waterfall, close to the GR20. I had planned to walk further today on the Mare a Mare, away from the GR20, but I’m not ready to say goodbye to my favourite ever trail just yet. I cook my chestnuts on the stove as the sun sets.
Day 4: GR20 to just beyond bocca Arinella (roughly 23km)
Today is the first day where we double-up on sections. We hike down through pine forest as the sun beats down, and eventually arrive at the mill and old photogenic bridge close to Albertacce.
I keep looking up at the distant mountains, at Monte Cinto, Paglia Orba and the others, trying to work out where I had walked last year.
My pang for the mighty mountains stays with me as we walk through the disappointing Niolo valley, passing the dam, artificial lake and village of Calacuccia. If the Cicerone guidebook is to be believed, this village is a hikers’ dream. But when I arrive, literally everything is closed, except one little bar. We relax inside, out of the hot, hot sun.
Continuing over the dam itself, an annoying dog harasses Bud. He is desperate to have sex with her, and it takes me about half an hour to force him to leave us the fuck alone.
We climb steeply in the relentless heat, through spiky broom bushes. We arrive at the bocca Arinella just as the sun is setting. At almost 1600m it is the highest point on this whole trail. I want to camp here, but there’s cows everywhere. I swear at them, but they just stare at me unfazed. Bud’s scared of them, and I’m a bit worried that one of them might accidentally trample our tent while we’re sleeping.
I choose an epic spot overlooking the Monte Rotondo massif, where there’s only one or two cows around. As we go to sleep the cows continue to munch the grass – seemingly they stay up all night!
Day 5: from bocca Arinella to Corte (15km)
This is an absolutely magical day, and by far the best day on the trail! We descend from the bocca through pine forest into the mighty Tavignano valley.
We reach refuge de la Sega, a massive hikers’ hut, complete with two floors, balconies and separate bedrooms. It’s officially closed, but the door remains unlocked, and I wish I’d stayed here last night. Set in an idyllic location next to rockpools, this is surely the most stunning refuge that Corsica has to offer. I spend a couple of hours here, lazing around, savouring the surroundings.
Then we begin the walk through the Tavignano gorge towards the mountain city of Corte. I stop every couple of minutes, mindblown by how stunning this place is. We pass rockpools, and meet a few day-hikers. Apparently this area is packed with daytrippers in the summer time, but right now it’s almost empty.
I arrive in Corte, and quickly get despondent. There’s only one campsite open, and it doesn’t allow dogs. Walking around the city, I make friends with Hugo, a fire juggler who is performing on the streets. Hugo knows a great place in the city to wild camp, so I spend the evening with him. His relaxed, happy and adventurous energy is just what I need.
Day 6: Corte to Alzi (22km)
If only I wasn’t a purist, wanting to walk every inch of a trail, I might have quit the trail at Corte. I might have listened to my gut, which told me that the rest of the Mare a Mare Nord would suck. My gut was correct.
But me and Bud continue onwards from Corte, struggling up a bare mountainside in the hot sun, which has no foliage left because of overgrazing by farm animals. Finally we reach a bocca, then Santa Lucia di Mercurio village. There’s just three old people around, and they look at me like they want to murder me.
Then we spend the whole afternoon walking down annoying sunken paths. Pigs have snuffled up the dirt and the rocks that were laid generations ago. It’s like trying to walk on a trail that has just been churned up by a bulldozer. Unfortunately, messy paths like this are typical of the Mare a Mare Nord, and it makes for a really unpleasant experience, trying to step over loose rock, dirt, fallen branches, spiky plants and vines. On top of this, you never know when a cow is going to appear because like pigs, they’re everywhere.
I hate the trail so much that I decide to take the road to the next village. It doesn’t save any kilometres, but definitely saves my sanity. We arrive at the end of the section, at a village called Sermano, and continue on.
We walk through more deserted villages, but I don’t remember their names. As the sun sets, we emerge off one of the shitty sunken paths at Alando village. I try to find a spot to camp but there’s big aggressive dogs.
Walking on, I ask a resident where I can set up my tent. She says I can camp on the grounds of the ruined monastery.
At about 4am me and Bud are woken. There’s a man shining his torch into my tent. Bud starts growling. He’s got a dog, and that starts growling too. After a few minutes, the man leaves. God knows what he was doing.
At 7am a dog comes to the tent and tries to break in. She’s a hunting dog, with a GPS tracker on her collar, and decides that she wants to spend the whole day hiking with us.
Day 7: Alzi to Chapelle Sant Alessio (23km)
We’re now a team of three. We hike through various mountain villages. There’s no people, just aggressive dogs. In one village there’s a pack of six big dogs surrounding us, snarling. The little hunting dog handles the aggression admirably, and isn’t phased, while I pick up a scared Bud and yell at the pack, stamping my feet to get them to back off.
Walking on, we come across a dead pig, left to rot on the trail. Gunshots are a familiar sound all day, and Bud gets more and more scared. I come across a bunch of pot-bellied hunters with shotguns on their shoulders. I tell them about my little hunting dog friend, and they tie her up so she can’t follow me and Bud. For about a mile I hear the puppy’s cries, desperate to come with me and Bud, and I feel terrible. But somehow I think trying to smuggle a hunting dog off of a pro-hunting island would be impossible.
Me and Bud continue on, above the treeline, and we pass another gun-touting hunter wearing camouflage. Then there’s another rough path, so dug up by pigs that it’s a chore to walk on.
Walking through a village, a man gives me a kilo of apples. He’s one of the only local people I have seen who has been kind to me on the trail.
Climbing to the village of Pied d’Alesani, I really struggle. The path is covered in spiky brambles, the thorns getting tangled in Bud’s fur. I carry her most of the way.
We push on, up through steep forest to a secluded mountain chapel, complete with a gate so that pigs can’t get into the grounds. A perfect place to sleep.
I write in my diary: “Only one day of this trail to go. Thank fuck.”
Day 8: Chapelle Sant Alessio to Moriani Plage (18km)
This day sucks more than all the other days. We wake to gunfire consistently going off around us. It sounds like a firework display. Bud is shaking with fear, terrified as I force her out of the tent to pack it down.
We pass a sign saying “hunting reserve”. What the fuck?! This is one of Corsica’s main long distance trails: how on earth can this also be a hunting reserve? Boar hunters are perched on rocky outcrops in their camouflage, ready to shoot down onto the very trail we are walking on.
“WE ARE HIKING HERE!” I scream in French again and again. Bud is too scared to walk, and I have to carry her for most of the day. She’s 13kg, and I already have 12kg on my back. It’s just too much for me. I have a meltdown and burst into tears, crying about the hunters whose bloodlust is making this trail downright dangerous.
Passing through the last village of the trail, a dog bites Bud. I’m not even surprised: this final action sums up mine and Bud’s experience on this trail.
We skip some more sunken paths, sticking to the road until we get to the coast.
Finally we make it to Moriani Plage, a beach on the east coast, and the official end of the Mare a Mare Nord. The weather is terrible, which suits my vile mood. There’s no big celebration. We jump on a bus down to Porto Vecchio in an attempt to erase the past week from our memories.
I’m aware that this is probably the only negative account of this trail that exists on the internet. But it’s good to be honest! Having walked the Mare a Mare Nord, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Perhaps it is better in peak season, when the path is more trodden by hikers, and when there’s others to lift your morale. I was the only person thru-hiking the whole trail at this time of the year (autumn), although I met a few people doing shorter sections.
If you have the physical capability, go and do the mighty GR20 instead. Don’t waste your time on this trail. And if you want to visit the stunning Tavignano Valley – the highlight of the Mare a Mare Nord – you can do this on a daytrip from Corte, or make an overnight trip from Corte, staying the night at the refuge de la Sega.
You might have a better time if you’re not hiking with a dog. The village dogs would probably hassle you less!
Hunting season runs from September to February or March in Corsica. Hunters don’t just make this trail unpleasant, they make it very, very dangerous, particularly on the sections east of Corte. I’m surprised no hiker has been injured or killed yet, especially as humans are shot every year in France by hunters.
Hiking Corsica between October and May means that pretty much all facilities are closed. This made the Mare a Mare even more unpleasant: if there had been some places open, I could have rested my weary legs, or even treated myself and Bud to a bed to lift our spirits.
If you’re thinking of hiking the wonderful GR20, read my account here.
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