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What is this thing ...

... and why are we doing it anyway?

Grande Randonée numéro vingt. "Jay are van. " The GR 20. Either you know what it means, or you don't. The only way to know what it really means is to walk it. In a diagonal line from north-west to south-east, bisecting Corsica along its watershed. Two hundred kilometers, with ten thousand meters of climbing, and ten thousand meters of descending. It is reputed to be the toughest walk in Europe.

Figure 1: The intrepid explorers: blissfully ignorant of what is to come.

Of course, we didn't know that when we set out. And, fortunately, we had elected to cover just half of it. Not so fortunately, we had chosen the first, most difficult half. Even less fortunately, with an accuracy bordering on the reckless, we had picked the worst September weather this decade for our attempt. But we were innocent of all these factors when we boarded the afternoon ferry from Nice to Calvi. It was Thursday, 31 August, and we were setting out on one of the most spectacular, grueling, rewarding, beautiful, memorable "vacations" (what a joke) of our lives.

By the time the ship docked in Calvi, on the north-western coast of Corsica, it was already dark, but the air was just as we'd hoped: warm, clean, and sweet. We stepped out of the hole in the side of the ship, five meters above the dock and were stopped in our tracks, right there on the gangplank. It was like looking onto the stage from a box in the theatre. The ship seemed to be as large as the town; it completely engulfed the stage wharf. And it is only a stage harbor too, because instead of the usual collection of nets, baskets and boat bits that you find in a working harbor, or the dead boat bits and other detritus you find in abandoned harbors, this one has been taken over by restaurants, whose tables spill out onto the harbor so close to the boat that we have to weave through them as we make our way to the hotel.

The beautiful view the diners must have been enjoying has, by contrast, been replaced by a backdrop of white steel, too high to see the top of without tilting your chair back, and too wide to see either end without standing. The backdrop to this stage was the castel, whose floodlit sandstone walls rise as suddenly behind the restaurants as the ship's hull does in front.

As we pick our way along the waterfront, the diners stare at our strange luggage: large, bulging rucksacks with walking boots dangling off the back. The hotel proprietor was not so fazed. "Jay are van?" he says, more as a statement than a question, after looking us up and down so disgustedly that we were glad we had phoned ahead—we knew there was room in his inn.

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