September 2015, I have just finished my studies, and I'm going on a hike. I want to be on my own for a while, without a house, without friends or family. To break the repetition of everyday life, to ask all kinds of strangers for a place to sleep, to live, as Antonio the trucker will put it on day 3, "la vie sauvage". Just me, my backpack, the unwavering belief that things will turn out alright, and a debit card and smartphone to reinforce that belief.
Since it is late in the season, I want to go south, and I take my father's advice in choosing Corsica as my destination. Of course I could choose some country in South-America, Africa or Asia, but these have obvious drawbacks; I would need visa, worldwide coverage in my travel insurance, and possibly vaccinations. I would probably not speak the language, and in poor countries I would feel less safe and have a hard time asking people for help (both practically and morally).
"But isn't that the point, you hypocrite? You just said you want to experience a savage life!" I hear you thinking. Sure, but I like my suffering in moderation, and I want to live to enjoy the likes on Facebook afterwards. Also, plane tickets are expensive.
In the car I skim "Asterix in Corsica" to get a good impression of what awaits me. My dad drops me off at a gas station south of Zwolle. It's strange seeing him drive off, knowing that I will not see another familiar face for some time. It's 2 p.m., and I will still catch six rides today. In chronological order:
It's almost dark in Longwy, but there are still some children playing in the streets. The houses are orderly and have large fields of campable grass behind them. I ring at three houses and ask the young people who answer whether I may pretty please put up my tent, but both refuse. A few hundred meters back there is a park with many brambles. Since I do not want to ruin my tent and sleeping gear, I make camp on a slab of concrete in the middle of the park. The result is not great, but it will have to do. I eat an apple and an egg for dinner. Dogs are barking nearby, and before falling asleep I wonder whether it would be worse to be found by hooligans or by the police.
After a walk in the cemetery I find a tap in town to wash myself and replenish my drinking water. Today will be a bad day, with only four rides:
I end up at a huge gas station just before Dijon and set up camp under some trees between the parking lot for truckers and the highway.
While washing myself at the restaurant, Portuguese trucker Antonio sees my cardboard sign, offers me a ride and treats me to a capuccino. Today will be a sweet day, with five rides:
An old man is sitting on a stone bench with his dog. I ask him for drinking water, and whether he knows where the GR5 is. The old man gives me directions to a pump, but does not know the GR5. On the way back from the pump, I notice some red-and-white markings on walls and fences - I have found the GR5. The path leads through forests, across streams and along chapels and lime kilns. I cross the mountain village of Les Ayes at dusk. The hillside beyond is very moist, steep and overgrown, so I turn back for lack of a camping spot.
Horses wake me up. As I pop my head out of the tent, Jean-Louis calls me for breakfast. Honey and crème de marrons. The Marseillaises leave for a final day trip and I cross the Col des Ayes. This is the region of Queyras, which has historically been isolated due to the surrounding mountain range. I find a mushroom which is edible according to my field guide. At nightfall I enter a 60€ hotel in La Chalp and ask for the refuge. Unfortunately, the closest one is still more than four hours by foot. I spend the night in the most luxurious bus stop I have ever seen. There is a clean toilet, drinking water and a power outlet. I start eating my mushroom, but quickly notice that it is filled with tiny maggots. I'm having a muesli bar for dinner.
A school girl wakes me up at 7 a.m. To my surprise, she is not at all frightened by the homeless guy lying on the floor and kindly returns my "bonjour". I pass a castle and get lost a few times. On the Col Fromage I meet a middle-aged French man wearing a beret who talks more to himself than to me. Let's call him Rémi. There is a small, stone hut on the Col, and I cannot help but feel that Rémi would rather spend the night here without me. This sleeping place is too good to pass up on though, tough luck roomie. I start looking for firewood under the sparse firs that populate the otherwise rocky mountain, and Rémi soon joins me. Much to my delight, I find Edelweiss behind our hut. At least I think so. Rémi disagrees, but my field guide leaves me no doubt. Perhaps Rémi is afraid that I will pluck it. Dark clouds are packing on the mountains in the distance, and Rémi stands looking at them for a moment, as a frustrated "putain" escapes him.
In a corner of the hut there are clear traces of a campfire, but without a chimney, this seems like a very bad fireplace to me. Rémi convinces me otherwise, and soon the only way to reach my stuff is by crawling, to avoid getting smoke in my eyes and lungs. Fortunately we have backup cooking gear, so we put out the fire. An unpleasant surprise: My camping stove is leaking. I take it outside, and Rémi offers me to use his stove. As we eat, Rémi tells me that he slept in the paper recycling container at La Chalp this morning - I even passed it on the way to my bus stop yesterday evening.
The night is bitter cold, and the next morning the mountain is covered in a thin layer of snow. Rémi has left early, but I still have my valuables and, as far as I can tell, both kidneys. I pass the Lac Miroir and cross Col Girardin. The markings are not visible under the snow, but there are some vague tracks which I can follow. In the twilight I pass through the hamlet of La Barge and spot a sign: 2km to the refuge. I take out my flashlight and start counting steps. After two kilometers, there is no sign of a refuge. For lack of a better sleeping place, I settle down on the rocky river bank of the Ubaye. The sky is clear, the stars are bright, and I manage to sleep until 2 a.m., when the cold wakes me up. My sleeping bag is wet from the humid air and there is no protection from the wind. I pack my stuff and start walking by the light of a full moon. Fortunately, this part of the GR5 largely leads along an asphalt road, which is easy to follow. Everything is quiet until I get the jumpscare of my life. A big, fluffy, shepherd dog jumps out from the field on my right, growling and barking menacingly. I keep walking and hear the dog following several meters behind me. I feel like the skin on my back is contracting and force myself to stay calm. After a short while the dog stays behind, barking until I am out of sight.
I pass the Pont du Châtelet, an iconic bridge over one hundred meters above the Ubaye river. Just before the path starts winding into the woods again, I find the ruins of a farmhouse. It's 4 a.m., and I will get another five hours of sleep.
Today is the last of September, and as I climb through the woods I pick wild raspberries for breakfast. I cross the Col du Vallonnet, following clear tracks in the snow. There are many marmots here, and when I enter the 18th-century barracks of Viraysse, it takes some time for them all to leave. All of the structures adjacent to the inner courtyard have collapsed, except for one. Inside there are wooden beds, and a single stretcher. Some boards have been broken out of the floor, presumably to make fire. I will stay here for the night and put up my wet laundry to dry in the cold wind and bright sunlight. As I harvest snow for drinking water, a couple comes down from the mountain ahead of me. Since I haven't had any connection on my phone for some time now, I ask them to send a message to Anneroos when they get in range of a network. They kindly agree, and I give them a small tour of the barracks. Next I make fire from the dry grass that pops up through the snow here and there, the brambles that are lying around, and precious little firewood. Some corrugated plate serves as a windshield, and soon enough I am able to cook my snow into soup. I put the hot stones that surrounded the fire under the stretcher, put on all my layers and use the last light to read my book. I've never played "Don't Starve", but I imagine this is what it's like.
The weather is foggy and the rocks are slippery, but I decide to cross the Col de Mallormet. The couple told me yesterday that Larche is just behind it, and that is where I'll go. Upon making my way down, I spend the better part of the day in the mairie, writing postcards to friends and relatives. Considering the upcoming bad weather, I would prefer to hitchhike south and leave the Ubaye valley. Unfortunately, very few cars pass through here, and none that stop.
Michèle and Dominique Grosso left Nice eight years ago; they found that the stress of the city drives people insane. The couple found refuge in Larche, where they are largely self-sufficient and have a great sleeping place they call "the woodshed". Dominique kindly agrees to let me stay there for the night, and even brings me a bowl of hot pumpkin soup. I hang my backpack from a nail in the ceiling. Hopefully the mice cannot get to it that way.
Michèle wakes me up and invites me for breakfast with homemade rhubarb jam. Today, Dominique and Michèle are driving to the city to get new glasses. They give me a lunch package and tell me to be careful. "If the weather is bad..." Michèle says, and whistles as she points her thumb at the woodshed.
I start off by walking eight kilometers south, at which point the terrain starts to climb. When I ask a passing shepherd whether the mountain is accessible, he tells me that it's okay. As in previous days, the markings are not visible, but I can see a faint trail leading up. However, today it is also snowing, so the snow slowly erases any footprints. It's a good thing I have my GPS to see where the trail is. The northern wind rises, and I realize that going back will be difficult with the snow blowing in my face. Also, a look at the map tells me that I am closer to Bouzieyas (my next stop) than to Larche, so I press on. Using my map and GPS all the time has drained my battery, so I switch it out for the spare one. I notice for the first time that the clock on my phone synchronizes through the network; it is clearly not set correctly. Fortunately I remember what time it was, so I can roughly calculate what time it is. When I reach the Col de Cavale, a nasty surprise awaits me. The other side of the Col is very steep and eroded, and any path-like entity there might be is obviously covered in snow. I try to descend for a moment, but quickly realize it is too dangerous.
With an estimated three hours of daylight left, I decide that my best chance of getting off the mountain and not breaking a leg or freezing to death is to go back to Larche. After backtracking against the wind for some time, my own tracks from the way up are no longer visible. All that lies before me is a homogeneous white sheet, allowing no perception of depth. My GPS is too inaccurate to be of much value. As I suppress a rising panic, I notice that the time on my phone has become very plausible. Somewhere along the path, I must have passed through a network. Once more, I head south, and sure enough I find it, less than fifty meters from the Col.
Two floodlights illuminate the valley in front of me. After some time they notice my flashlight and start making blinking patterns, as the emergency dispatcher told me they would. The two-man team from secours en montagne gives me warm tea, a headlight and a trekking pole. We walk for an hour to reach their car, and they take me to the aptly named village of Saint-Saveur-sur-Tinée. The camping is closed, but there is a roof with a water tap. As the gendarmes take their leave, the younger one grins at me and shakes my hand. "À bientôt!".
Today I washed and dried my clothes, read my book, stared at the rain, and found out that all shops are closed in the afternoon.
I walk up the mountain, past a memorial for a 52-year-old Indian who had an accident here two years ago. The rocks change from red to yellow and gray, they remind me of Karl May novels. The mountain feels desolate, so I am very surprised to find a lively village at the top of the mountain with colorful name plates on every house. As I sit down for a rest, a woman offers me some drinking water, and shortly after her husband comes out to talk to me. "Reste!" he motions with his hands as though I am a house of cards that could collapse any moment. Two minutes later he returns with a pannetone; a large, fluffy bread filled with pieces of fruit. I am amazed how much kindness I find along the way.
Going downhill, I pass through Valdeblore. It appears to be a rich town, judging from the large chalets with steel fences and gates. I set up camp on a hill overlooking St. Dalmas. A swarm of flies keeps following me around while I search for a suitable dining rock. Perhaps I should wash my hair again.
A shepherd ignores my greeting. I make my way through his flock, the views of snowy mountains are amazing. At 5 p.m. I spot a sign in the bushes: "R.D.V. Equipe Gilli Alain - Profitez mais respectez merci". The sign hangs from a simple shelter with a fireplace, wood, an axe, a table and some benches. I make a fire, eat noodles and read my book before falling asleep on the bench. At night I hear mice and rain.
In Utelle, I meet Mario (8) and a 12-year-old boy with a cap. They look fascinated as I wash my hair with shampoo in the fountain. "Noone ever does that here!", Mario exclaims. They are eager to hear where I am from and to demonstrate their English vocabulary. After some time it turns out that the older boy is actually a girl. I think I hide my surprise well enough. Some other kids arrive and the two run off to play. I continue my walk until I find a perfect camping spot along the trail. The night is full of animal sounds, mostly from owls.
Only two more days to Nice. I buy some food in Aspremont, and get 52 euros of change on a 50 euro bill. After a moment of confusion and deliberation whether I should run with my winnings, I give the shopkeeper back 10 euros. I'm hoping that such actions have a 'rippling' effect, spreading trust in the good of humanity or whatever. Today, a sleeping place is hard to find - too many villas with fences, and further uphill only a rocky road with no place for a tent. Before I fall asleep on top of a transformer station, I see a shooting star, and a man passes by with a team of huskies pulling his bike.
A talkative old couple in Aspremont gives me water, it is hard to leave and the man keeps repeating that I should look for the hostel "Mont-Boron". I cross the motorway A8, then a river with many small cascades, and finally end up in an infuriating loop of red-and-white markings. Upon inquiry, a man spends several minutes on his smartphone to help me, but ultimately does not find the GR5 either. He informs me that I am still 7 kilometers northwest of Nice. Confused, I cross the river again and ask at a pâtisserie whether they know the GR5. The elderly man next to me tells me that it is up in the hills from where I came. I don't feel like going back, and so I hitch a ride from the elderly man who drops me off at the hostel "Relais International" in Nice. At the hostel, I meet five French students of medicine, who are here to choose their internship locations the next morning. Their conversation is unfortunately too fast for me to follow, but Annemarie has studied abroad and therefore speaks the best English of the group. She translates for me from time to time. We decide to eat at a nearby pizzeria. Because I want to dry my shoes, I walk on bare feet, and the group tries its best to cover me as we enter the restaurant. Adrien is the most talkative of the group, he loves streetdance, theater (Shakespeare) and - I cannot help myself from having the impression - men.
I get up early to scale the fence around the pool - for some reason it's not open yet. At breakfast, I give Annemarie my book. I have finished it, and don't want to haul it along for the rest of my journey. First, I walk to the Place Alexandre Médecin, which is the official end point of the GR5. From here, I walk to the beach through a shopping street full of delicious smells. At the harbour, I try to hitch a crossing. A tough-looking Ukrainian asks me with gestures and a few English words whether I am looking for work. He disappears in the yacht for a moment and then return with a backpack. Pointing at the stitched-on letters "LEGION ETRANGERE", he looks at me expectantly. I can't help but laugh and tell him no thanks. He asks me where I'm from, and I tell him that I'm from the Netherlands. The answer seems to satisfy him, it turns out that he is just not a big fan of the USA: "America evil, corporation!" I almost get lucky with a British yacht which is leaving for Mallorca; they are still looking for crew. Unfortunately, they require someone with a "Yachtmaster", a certificate which I don't have. Somewhat disappointed, I decide to take the ferry the next day.
Some reactions from people whom I ask whether they have a sleeping place for me:
It looks like I will try out this "Mont-Boron" hostel which I heard so much about yesterday. Apparently, the hostel is quite famous; many people know the way there and there are some signs pointing the way too. When I finally arrive there, in the hills above Nice, it turns out that it went out of business over a year ago. The people living at the address (the former owners, I believe) will not even eat my rice with me, which I have been lugging over the mountains since day 4 for lack of a fire to prepare it. The city really does drive people insane, I think to myself.
A few hundred meters up the road, there is a small concrete square on which an old man is working on his bike. Scott Joplin plays from his portable stereo, and the man appears to be in good spirits. He shows me his handstand, and I demonstrate my juggling skills with his Kung Fu sticks. At the end of his life, he wants to spoiler alert die like Yoda - telling his friends and family goodbye, and then falling asleep forever. As for a sleeping place, he points at the rear wall of the square. Down there is a perfectly flat field of cultivated grass, perfect for camping. I should be careful though, at night there are often drunks hanging out on this square.
At dusk I walk down the stairs to the camping field and scale the fence around it. Next to the field, against the large concrete water tanks that are just below the square, there is already a tent. "Bonjour?" I say, hesitantly.
Homeless Lithuanian Paul speaks better English than the vast majority around here. He has been here for over a month now and advises me not to go any further, since he made a toilet there. Paul tells me that camping on the grass is no good because of the drunks at night. He motions me to follow him; "I show you place to sleep." A maintenance corridor leads along the top of the water tanks, and since the entrance gates to it are both locked, the only way to access it is by climbing up a few meters along a rocky wall. Up there is a good place to stay, according to Paul.
I just found out that I got poo on my shoes afterall. I've spread traces of it all across the maintenance corridor, and now the hygienic thing to do is to sleep upright against a water tank. Cleaning is tomorrow Jelle's problem.
At midnight, the hooligans show up. At first they are just making noise upstairs, but then I see they brought flashlights, and they start walking down the hill on either side of the square. I relocate to the central water tank and lie as still as possible. The flashlight searches across the concrete but is fortunately not powerful enough to separate me from the industrial shapes that surround me. At 2 a.m., the gang leaves. I am restless for the remainder of the night and leave at first light, following a shortcut to the harbor that Paul told me about.
What luck, someone left a perfectly good box of cookies in the trash! I pick an almond cookie, which looks like it was best preserved. At the harbor, I am stopped by a stewardess. This part of the harbor is apparently not as accessible as it was yesterday. She asks me to wait for a moment while she walks off to do something important. An elderly man with in a brown leather jacket and a thin moustache strikes up a conversation with me. He immigrated from Bavaria and lives in a house facing the harbor. When he finds out that my boat is leaving only in a few hours, he invites me for breakfast. Since I have a Master's degree in computer science, perhaps I can help him with some problems on his Mac.
I have left my shoes at the door and try to sit as still as possible lest the stench spreads too much. Turns out some of Paul's feces got on my trouser leg last night. The Baron either does not notice, or politely pretends so. He tells me about a book he is writing, for which a Swedish-Norwegian artist is creating paintings that decorate the walls of his study.
The first problem is easy: adjusting the font size in his browser. Henceforth his email contacts will no longer think he is mad at them.
The Baron is a retired banker, and he worked his hardest to let his children attend Oxford, Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin. Now he runs an award-winning hostel chain with his sons, organizes a local music concours and has adopted a stray cat.
The second problem is harder to tackle: a contacts synchronization problem between the Baron's iPhone and his Macbook. Google is failing me.
The Baron paces back and forth between the kitchen and the living room, preparing breakfast. There is no more milk, and he excuses himself to go and ask the neighbors for some. I have a hard time deciding whether I am touched or bewildered by his trust in leaving me alone in his appartment, logged into his phone, computer and email.
I am quite hungry by now and breakfast is amazing; organic cereals, fig jam, German honey and freshly pressed orange juice. The Baron is full of book recommendations, the hallway and kitchen both have a bookcase full of literature. Since I have reached the end of the GR5, I give the Baron my walking guide. In return I ask whether I could have one of his three copies of "Brave New World", which I have been wanting to read for some time.
Before boarding the ferry, I clean the poop off my shoes and trousers at a public toilet.
There is a very strong wind on deck, and I lean into it like a child. At sunset we reach Corsica, and an hour later I set foot in Bastia. The weather forecast is bad, so I plan on staying here for a couple of days and train karate at the local dojo if possible. Opposite the dojo, I find a sleeping place: a small shed full of broken IKEA-furniture. I settle in between the plywood and consider myself lucky there are so few nails sticking out. My sleep is only briefly interrupted by the rattling of chains, when a local resident returns home late at night.
Tae Bo, that's it for martial arts here. The instructor gives me the address of the Goju-ryu school though. I get maps of Bastia and Corsica at the tourist information office and walk across the market square. Many Arabs are selling all kinds of trinkets here. I try to exchange my broken camping stove (yes, I carried the useless thing all the way here since day 6) for a watch, but noone is interested. In the end I buy a watch for €3,80 to be less dependent on my phone. Before heading for the dojo, I earn €24,66 on the market by juggling.
I put up my thumb, and a man parks in front of me. He was actually about to go for a run here, but instead he gives me a ride to the dojo.
The dojo is closed, it will be open tomorrow evening. I will spend the next few days hanging around in this neighborhood. I will be a frequent guest of boulangerie "Histoire de Pains", and spend hours reading on a bench in the playground. First, however, I look for a sleeping place, and find it in a tiny ruin along the main road. The sides of the building serve as billboards, and the roof has largely collapsed. Only the wooden ceiling in one corner remains. I spend some time stacking stones underneath it to form a bed. For dinner, I eat a cheeseburger at a fastfood stand while watching rugby. Ireland beats France pretty convincingly: 24-9.
Rats wake me up. At least I think that's what just brushed past my legs. Karate starts at 7:30 p.m. Sensei François is very friendly, I am welcome to join the training and the sensei even gives me a lot of attention. It feels a bit awkward, but the other two students don't seem to have a problem with it. After the training, François asks whether I have a place to sleep. I tell him about the ruin by the road, and he proposes that I sleep in the gym instead. This will be possible for the next three nights and I can also join the training on thursday, but after that I have to leave. The sensei explains to me where the light switches are and how I should leave things in the morning. The only thing is that I should leave early to avoid the cleaning lady. I wash myself, cook a bowl of rice in the microwave and feel really good.
The sound of a turning key wakes me up. I have barely enough time to put on my most reassuring face before the cleaning lady enters and sees me lying in my sleeping bag on a stack of mats in the center of the gym. "Ce n'est pas autorisée!" she keeps snapping at me until she walks off to tell on me. I grab my stuff as quickly as possible and leave, apologizing for startling her on my way out.
At "Histoire de Pains", I slump into a chair and look at the rain. After a few minutes, the baker approaches me with an espresso and a small croissant. She looks at me warmly and just says "cadeau".
François calls, I should ask for Jean-Pierre at the dojo. Unfortunately I cannot sleep in the gym for the next two nights. No surprises there. The people from the dojo arrange a sleeping place for me at the "Centre Sebastien Cascinelli".
At 8:30 p.m., I join a group of about ten Arabs and Predrag from Montenegro. Predrag came here because he was told there would be work for him, but there wasn't. He is now waiting for a job that starts in November, picking olives. In the meantime he has walked a great part of the island, but he is pretty fed up with it by now. If I have a job for him in the Netherlands, I should let him know. Ideally it would be work in a coffee shop, but anything goes. Predrag does not particularly like the Arabs; they seem nice at first, but are too talkative and slippery for his taste. The sole exception is an old man with the friendliest face I have ever seen. The old man used to have a walking cane, but it was stolen from him. Now he walks with a crutch. When he approaches, Predrag immediately gets up and offers the man his chair, almost with reverence.
Upon entering the homeless shelter I have to provide my ID and answer a few questions. The bald man running the shelter is grinning at me. When I ask him why, he answers that he does not often see the likes of me here.
After taking a hot shower (mandatory, according to the house rules), we have dinner: crates full of chocolate croissants and other sweet buns that are left over from the city's pâtisseries. Predrag instead hands me a glass of white beans, they are better, he says.
We wake at 6 to have breakfast, and to pack some food for the day. At 7 everyone has left the shelter. Unfortunately there is no market today, and without a market it feels inappropriate to juggle for money. I buy a walking guide at a local book store and "La petite fille et la cigarette" to have some light French reading. After visiting the museum of Bastia I walk to the dojo for my second and last training with the Corsicans.
François chuckles as he opens the doors; they are locked more tightly than usual. "Ils ont peur!" he laughs and winks at me. After the training the only other student that attended tonight, Thierry, offers me to sleep at his place. He will stay with his girlfriend, so in the morning I should lock the door and throw the key in his mailbox. Once more I enjoy the luxury of a shower, a stove, and a sense of security.
I leave at 8 and eat a salmon wrap at "Histoire de Pains". Today I'm hitchhiking inland to Corte, the former capital of Corsica, where I will start my walk. It takes only two rides:
As I leave the supermarket in Corte, a girl offers to show me the way to the Citadel, where my walk starts. She's from Lithuania and studies arts here. Napoleon is her childhood hero.
I reach the refuge de Sega before dark, which appears completely deserted. A couple arrives after me. The man owns an inn at the Camino de Santiago, and his Belgian girlfriend came pilgrimaging along one day. We exchange food and stories before turning off the light.
There is a loud knock on the door. It's the gardien, who is agitated that we haven't come to pay him yet. The inn-owner follows him up to his office and sorts out the payment before we finally go to sleep.
I inquire with the gardien about the weather forecast and leave behind my camping stove. The path leads over a mountain and crosses the dam of an artificial lake. This part of Corsica has many châtaignes, and I pick them up here and there for dinner. Predrag explained to me how to prepare them, I will give it a try. The recurring problem of finding a sleeping place presents itself, and I quickly find a fallback options between a group of large boulders. Then I notice the words "anc. moulin" on my map. The door to the old water mill is locked, but near the river bank it has a cavity with a derelict paddlewheel, just high enough to stand in. I leave my stuff here and set out to find some firewood. Unfortunately, the early evening is already moistening any kindling I can find, and after a few tries to light a fire I give up. The chestnuts have to wait until tomorrow. Some dogs walk past my mancave at night, but they do not seem to notice me.
I take drinking water from the rivers and streams, blending as much as possible to spread the risk of getting really sick from a single contaminated source. The path is adorned by bright orange farns, and I spot two woodpeckers in the trees. On the Col de Verghju there is a large Christian statue, and I meet a French couple with which I exchange some advice on the road ahead. After a quick descent and passing over a steel cable bridge I arrive at Amon Sûl. On top of the formation of large boulders, I find a perfect me-sized patch of grass. I take some time to memorize the path up here, and then descend a bit to make a fire. Today I have started early enough and making fire is easy. I peel the châtaignes, make cross-shaped cuttings in the marrons and put them in the glowing ashes for a few minutes. This is the second time in my life to eat chestnuts; when I was five years old my dad bought some for us at a stand, and I remember finding them delicious.
I've dreamt of a particle interaction simulation, perhaps I will program it when I get home. On the chemin du Châtaignier I collect another two kilograms of chestnuts, fending off the pigs as well as I can. In Évisa, a 90-year-old man approaches me while I have lunch on a bench. He proudly tells me about all the languages he is still learning and gives me some historical background on the path ahead of me: In the olden days, people used it to migrate between the shore and the mountains, depending on the seasons. His wife calls him in for dinner.
A dog follows me along the rocky zigzag path as I descend. Sometimes it runs ahead and returns some time later. We cross two old, Genoese style bridges and come to an old soccer field with a ruined clubhouse. The windows have been shattered, despite the steel bars protecting them, and there is glass all over the changing room floors. The only way in (and out) is a large door at the front, which can be blocked from the outside with a steel bar. I sense a trap, and decide to sleep in the boiler room which is connected to the club house at the back. There are two boilers, four large gas cylinders, an open bag of chalk lying on the floor, and just enough place to sleep. The dog is gone now, and I make a fire in front of the club house. An old piece of goal post (I think) serves as a pan holder so that I can boil the marrons in water from the nearby river. Today they're not half bad, especially with a little salt or chocolate.
I wash my clothes in the river and leave the rest of the marrons on a bench in the next village with a cardboard sign saying "Servez-Vous!". Today's walk is long and boring, and passes a stinking kennel full of dogs. According to my map, the "Abandoned hamlet of Pinetu" should be less than an hour from here, so I think I can reach it just before dark.
I thought wrong. The path is covered in bramble thicket and I can barely spot the cracks by the weak gleam from my flashlight. Finally, I give up and decide to sleep against a rock that is not too wet and protects me from the wind. Before going to sleep I mark my territory so the sangliers will hopefully keep their distance.
Oh, remember "La petite fille et la cigarette", the book I bought on day 22 to have some light-hearted reading? It turned out to be about a man who gets falsely accused of pedophilia and ends up being decapitated by terrorists. Note to self: do not judge books by their cover.
On the Capu di Melza, I notice that I've taken a wrong turn - probably yesterday night. The good news is that this is actually a shortcut to Tuarelli, where I expected to arrive only in three days. Tuarelli has a small river running through it, remeniscent of a fjord. My map describes it accurately as "piscines naturelles". I could go north towards Calvi, from where I can take the ferry to Marseille. Instead I decide to follow the river that flows to the west, to the small port town of Galeria. Another dog follows me until I reach the town. After dark, I wash myself in the sea and sleep on a neat concrete terrace by the beach.
Today I stay in Galeria and charge my phone at a restaurant. There are some houses under construction, and I sleep in an unfinished entrance hall opposite the graveyard.
Hitchhiking back to Tuarelli takes two rides in work vans. I go for a swim in the natural pools and pass over some mountains to reach the "village" of Bonifatu. Actually, there is only a single house here, with about fifteen chalets for tourists that are no longer inhabited at this time of the year. After I snoop around the house for a bit, a man with southern features comes out and explains to me that everything is closed, but that I can sleep under a gazebo a little ways up the mountain. To prepare against the cold, I arrange a few tables to form a shelter.
Somewhere along the path, I start following red markings instead of orange ones. They probably ran out of orange paint or something. After an hour of walking and checking my map, it becomes clear to me that the red markings actually indicate a different route, with no paths connecting to my intended route. At noon I am back where I started today. After some searching I find the familiar orange markings again, leading past the point where I should have arrived yesterday. Today's itinerary is very different from the previous ones, with relatively little elevation. The path is sandy rather than rocky, and there are many goats and Unedo trees along the way up. From the top of the mountain I can see the town of Calenzana, the end point of my hike. From there I hitch a ride to Calvi with a mother and daughter, who are going to work there in the evening. Calvi has a long footpath around the bay, which is separated from the beach only by a small railroad and numerous bars and restaurants that are all closed. At the far end of the bay the strong sea wind beats the rocks with thundering waves. Luckily, the last beach restaurant has a nice corner on the terrace, which shields me from the wind and possible rain. "On Dine" (note the pun) even has a clean toilet with light and drinking water.
At 6:30 a.m. the delivery man wakes me up. He is not mad at all to find me sleeping on the terrace, and tells me not to worry; "Dorme, dorme!". He puts the crates of cabbage and apples down next to me and leaves. Disregarding the delivery man's instructions, I get up and find a bench along the beach path to have breakfast. An neatly-clothed 67-year-old sits down next to me. Roger the Jehova's Witness has arrived early for this week's sermon and we spend an hour talking and exchanging leaflets and explanations about natural selection. My ferry to Marseille leaves tomorrow from l'Île Rousse, and I decide to spend the day geocaching.
The first cache is in the high citadel next to the harbor, which houses many soldiers from the Foreign Legion. The cache is quickly found, and I start making my way up to the second one, which is three kilometers back into the mountains. A sandy, winding path leads me past a remote chapel that overlooks Calvi. I expected the cache to be here, but instead there is a wedding today.
There are two people fishing behind my backup sleeping location, the bar of "O Serge" (no pun here as far as I can tell). I decide to sleep at "On Dine" again, and return here later. My sleep is usually so light that I wake up several times throughout the night. I have only just closed my eyes when I hear voices at the neighboring restaurant. Three or four people with flashlights are walking about. It takes some time for me to see that they are anglers too, and fortunately they don't see me in my dark corner. At midnight, a guy and two girls walk onto my terrace. We talk for a moment, then they turn back. Now that my sleeping place has been doubly compromised, I relocate to "O Serge".
The time discrepancy between my watch and phone leads me to conclude that winter time has started. I take my largest piece of cardboard and write "Île Rousse" on it. My first ride is a beekeeper. He has a shop halfway along the road to l'Île Rousse, where he shows me around and lets me taste some of his honey. I buy two small pots as presents. My second ride is a man who is meeting with a friend to go jet-skiing in the bay of l'Île Rousse. He drops me off near the town square, where I buy a pluche sanglier for Anneroos.
Before boarding the ferry, I climb a small, rocky peninsula to collect another geocache. There are a few rock climbers here, and many tourists to enjoy the magnificent view.
In the waiting room for the ferry, I start to juggle and am quickly surrounded by a pack of hyperactive children. I let them play with my juggling balls for some time, trying hard to keep track of all of them.
I share a cabin with three others, a man from Lille, a young Algerian from Paris and a cook from Carcassonne. I spend the night sleeping in the cabin and in the bar, and walking around on deck. The ship has been moving along the shore for some time, and early in the morning I notice the lights of a city in the distance. I ask one of the crewmembers which city it is. "Marseille", comes the answer.
Today I am no longer homeless. Anneroos has arranged for a bed & breakfast in the Canebière, Marseille's main street near the old harbor. I spend the day planning our stay and shopping for ingredients to make a fish curry in the evening, to welcome Anneroos.
We stay in Marseille for four days, visiting the famous Calanques and the opera "Semiramide", among other things. Then it's time for our return to Groningen, during which we stay with friends and family. First we visit Anneroos' colleague Mathijs who just moved to Antibes and gives us a nightly tour of the old town. The next day we continue to family near Lyon, where we celebrate Halloween in an old castle. Two days later we arrive in Louvain, where our juggling friend Wouter is currently studying. Yet two days later we visit Mees and Casper (two juggling friends in Delft), two of their house mates, and a delicious four-day-old, fermenting chocolate-cherry-cake. The following day, we finally take the train back to normal life in Groningen.
Perhaps you're wondering what I learned from my journey, or whether it changed my outlook on life. Perhaps you would even expect some kind of epiphany or enlightenment. Certainly, I have experienced what it's like to live alone outdoors, mortal fear, and the incredible kindness of strangers. But I think that one's character can only change so much over the course of a month (disregarding trauma), and my life at home quickly felt the same as I recall it from before I left. The days of walking were often even quite boring; I had to constantly watch my step and look for markers, as well as a place to sleep before dark. Occasionally there is a great view, a beautiful town or an interesting change of landscape, but it's largely a matter of pushing through when your legs get tired, your shoulders start to hurt and the path ahead is steep and winding.
At a talk I gave to the young humanists, I concluded with the following advice on hiking and perhaps life in general: