Thursday, November 11, 2010

Je monte, je valide.

Hey there! Remember that post about my legs? (Actually, remember when I posted about anything at all?) Well, it's November, and about time for an update on their activities. It's going to be a long one.

When I last left you, I was frantically preparing for midterms, and I spent most of the following week panicking. I felt okay about most of the exams with the exception of that for "Immigrant Identities in Contemporary France," the course that's been the bane of my existence this entire semester. To any unsuspecting Oberlin French student who may have stumbled across this blog via the department page: first off, I applaud your motivation for even having made your way to that website; secondly, if you're considering studying at the AUCP in Aix, I promise that this course is the only terrifying one.

Anyway, while I could go on, the week that followed midterms is of far greater interest. The last week of October was les vacances de Toussaint--in other words, fall break! Time to travel, briefly forget homework, and speak English!

While various members of the program jetted off all over Europe, four friends and I stayed in France...technically. Intrepid adventurers that we are, we spent our week in Corsica, the little isle that seems to evoke paradise in the French imagination. This might not be far from accurate, but we steered clear of the French vision of lounging on pristine beaches, and of rest and relaxation altogether. No, that sort of vacation was not for us.

Instead, we hiked the Mare a Mare Sud. Over the span of five days, we traversed the south of Corsica from east to west on foot. (Here's a nice little map.) I regret not being able to put it more eloquently, but this was by far the most badass thing I have ever done. (Well, pretty much. Winning New York Panorama with Sonatas is up there, too.)

Our adventure began here in Aix with several trips to Décathlon, which is roughly equivalent to a Dick's Sporting Goods or Sports Authority but--wait for it--incredibly low-priced. My list of products that are cheaper in France than in the States, even accounting for currency conversion, is as follows: bread, crêpes, sporting goods. Who knew? This was a valuable discovery, because my packing for France had assumed an avoidance of any exercise other than dance, and I had to purchase a lot--a good backpack, a microfiber towel, a water bottle, a rain jacket, socks, and, thanks to a failure of the postal system, even hiking boots. This last actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because my €15 boots got me through the week better than the shoes my mom mailed me would have. We left the store looking more or less like walking advertisements for Quechua, the Décathlon brand; with the exception of the towel, all of said purchases bore the Quechua mark.

view from the Gare St. Charles, Marseille
On Sunday the 24th, we loaded everything onto our backs and set off for Corsica. The first stop was Marseille, followed by a train to Toulon. We spent several hours in Toulon, where dinner was the first of the week's many picnics of bread, ham, cheese, apples, peppers, and yogurt and applesauce messily slurped from their containers without spoons. There was also a bag of Haribo gummy alligators; Haribo would play just as much of a role in the week's meals as anything else, thanks to Nathan, our resident addict.

le port de Toulon
When night finally rolled around, we made our way to the Gare Maritime, where we caught our first glimpse of our lodgings for the night: Mega Smeralda. Never having taken a major ferry or a cruise before, I had no idea what to expect, and I think I gaped all the way from the dock to our tiny cabin.

Margo, Sara, me, and John; photo credit to our fifth member,
photographer extraordinaire Nathan.

Mega Smeralda, cabin 5100.
We deposited our belongings and went exploring. This ship's numerous decks contained, among other things, a pricey gift shop, various bars and eateries (we rather enjoyed the word 'spaghetteria'), and the "Fun Fun Nightclub." This last was anything but, given the funky smell and the caution tape filling the entryway. Our fun for the night happened outside on the deck, where we braved the wind and the rain for a little impromptu dancing and marveled at the lightning over the water in the distance, and in our hot little cabin. Seated on the bunks, we played five-person spades and laughed endlessly at the barely-comprehensible French and English of the (Italian?) woman on the loudspeaker who informed us about the spaghetteria and upgrading to a cabin with a window, and repeatedly wished us a pleasurable voyage aboard "Mega. ...SMEralda."

We awoke early in the morning to a dark and rainy Bastia, in the northeast of Corsica. Once disembarked, we tracked down the bus agency we needed, and ordered hot chocolate and coffee at a café to pass the time until it opened. We had no problem getting our tickets, and at 8:30 the bus set off on the three-hour journey south along the coast to Porto Vecchio. Boarding this bus, we met a couple of hikers that would be with us the entire week, all the way until our return to Toulon at the end: Éliane, a Frenchwoman, and Ali, a German man, both incredibly friendly and in incredibly good shape at close to 70 (as far as my age-estimation skills can be trusted). I only hope I can be that active fifty years from now.

the first of the mares, the east coast.

Once we arrived in Porto Vecchio, we purchased a picnic from a little épicerie, ate it behind the church in the center of town, and desperately tried to figure out how to get to the trail head. This is a good two hours' walk outside of Porto Vecchio proper, and there was a lot of awkward inquiry and doubling back before we finally got on track.

It was already mid-afternoon by the time we got to the real trail head, which meant we were somewhat pressed for time. It was all upwards from there, the most significant climb of the week--the first stage of the hike is 140 meters of descent and 1020 meters of climbing. I found out very, very quickly, and confirmed throughout the whole trip, that while I can do flats and descents practically indefinitely and at a reasonable pace, I just...don't go up. This is an exaggeration, obviously, since I did make it through the mountains, but it was not without difficulty. My regularly scheduled post-exam cold didn't help, either. Frankly, day one was miserable.

The beauty of the landscape, though, made everything worth it. We passed quickly from the relatively flat coast to rocky slopes, and then to pine forests littered with arbouses. As dusk was starting to fall, we reached the little village of Olmeto, and from there it was one last miserable climb to the gite at Cartalavonu.

photo credit to Nathan
the road behind us as we left Olmeto
We didn't know what to expect at the gites, but what we found at Cartalavonu was fairly representative--dormitory-style rooms with bunk beds (blankets provided and only slightly suspect), a bathroom (with hot water, even), and a common dining area. Our late arrival at the first gite was somewhat less than glorious; bedraggled, we hauled ourselves into our room, unloaded our backs, and took turns taking much-needed showers while the others stretched and enjoyed a dinner of granola bars, apples, prunes, and...well, whatever else we had in our packs. It wasn't much. We installed ourselves and our clothes, damp from the shower and the rain, in front of the fire for the evening, and took pleasure in the simple fact of not moving.

Day two: Cartalavonu to Levie
Climb: 510 meters
Descent: 920 meters

We awoke in the morning to find that the rain of the previous evening had not passed, but had left the mountain covered in a thick, drizzly fog. We bundled up and set out anyway, hoping that the clouds would lift. Instead, we spent most of the morning and early afternoon trudging through rain, which had made treacherous streams out of the trail's steep slopes. The forest was still beautiful in the rain, when I wasn't too busy watching my feet to look around.

Fortunately the weather let us take a chilly but reasonably dry lunch break in Carbini in the shadow of an eleventh-century church. We crossed paths with Éliane and Ali there, but did not stay long before continuing on our way. The descent went on and on; by the time we got to the river at the bottom, the sun had actually come out. There, our reasonably speedy progress screeched to a halt--the rain had made the somewhat unpleasant-smelling stream tricky to traverse. We made it across, but not entirely without wet feet.

The problem with rivers is that once you've crossed them, there's always a climb on the other side, and it's seldom a gentle one. We made it up, though, and at the edge of Levie we found ourselves in front of a house where there was a decided lack of orange markers. Fortunately for us, the house contained a couple of boys who led us all the way to the gite--this was clearly a common occurrence for them.

The gite in Levie was nicer than the first, except for the lack of a fireplace. All was warm and colorful, and the proprietor very welcoming. After a run to a Proxi for snacks, we repeated the ritual of stretching and showering. In the course of the afternoon, I'd obviously done something terrible to my right hip flexor, because by this point I effectively could not lift my right leg, and had to employ my arms to raise my foot enough to put on pants. Did I mention I'm brilliantly athletic? Har, har. That was the start of my week's high ibuprofen intake.

We hadn't been given a choice as to whether we wanted to have dinner at the gite, and frankly, I'm glad this was the case. With our student budgets in mind, we'd avoided paying for dinner wherever possible, but this large, hot meal, the first since we'd left Aix, was absolutely worth it. It was also a chance to sit and talk with the other hikers, who became more and more familiar as the week wore on. I made a feeble attempt to do some homework that night, but found myself too tired and my book too soaked from the day's rain, and simply went to sleep.

Day three: Levie to Serra di Scopamene
Climb: 760 meters
Descent: 520 meters

 The rain had finished, finally, and we left Levie much warmer and drier than before, although our bags were still full of damp clothes. The day started out with yet another climb, and I discovered that my only real option was to go up everything left-foot-first, thanks to my injured right side. Fortunately my leg improved and the trail flattened out as the day went on; otherwise, I'm not sure how I would have made the eight-hour journey.

The official estimate for this leg of the trail is supposed to be six hours, but we generally exceeded these estimates, and this time we also took an hour-long detour to visit some archaeological sites. Most of these were giant, moss-covered stones cut in shapes that could not be natural; the most impressive, however, was the Castello di Cucuruzzu, a bronze-age fort.

John, Nathan, et moi
We eventually caught back up with our French and German friends in Quenza, where the whole crowd seemed to be having lunch at more or less the same time. After our habitual granola bars, petits pains grillés with bizarrely delicious canned tuna "à la catalane," cheese, a red pepper, trail mix with Haribo, et cetera, we hit the road again for several more hours.

Although this stage seemed interminable, I have to admit that it was probably my favorite. This is not only because it had a lot of flats, which I could have walked forever, but because these flats offered some of the most spectacular views of the week.

As we neared our destination, everyone got a little anxious to arrive. We'd been walking, climbing, descending for eight hours, and our feet did not feel fantastic. Sara found a solution: jogging. The rest of us laughed as she trotted ahead, arms waving, weighed down by her pack, and when we reached the home stretch the boys joined in, tearing down the road with their walking sticks.

arrival at the gite, le Scopos

John, Nathan, Margo, yours truly with the dorky light-colored boots
Day 4: Serra di Scopamene to Santa Lucia di Tallano
Climb: 400 meters
Descent: 800 meters

As usual, we got up too early, had a too-French breakfast of bread and jam, and set out for another day.  This was a short hike with a tricky descent, full of obstacles like fallen chestnuts and...

...and cows. And more importantly, cow droppings. Once we'd gotten around these, the day wasn't too difficult. We spent most of it leapfrogging with a group from the Netherlands that we'd met the night before, to whom I fondly refer as the Flying Dutchmen. Goodness, they moved quickly.

 Lunch: as it turns out, "American" canned tuna salad is not nearly as delicious as the "Catalan" version. There's not much to be said for the rest.

For once, we actually arrived in Santa Lucia in the predicted time of about five hours. This meant that we were a good two hours early for the opening of our lodgings, so we sat in front of the building and enjoyed the view, savoring the rare opportunity to rest during the day. While the gites were relatively predictable, we didn't know what to expect in Santa Lucia--the gite there being closed for the season, we'd rented a chambre d'hôte. This bed-and-breakfast-style establishment was a house built in the early 19th century by the proprietor's family, but I doubt that the decor was quite as the original inhabitants would have envisioned it. John, Sara, Margo, and I shared a room that I could only describe as a six-year-old princess-wannabe's dream: all purple and pink floor to ceiling, canopy bed and all. The nautical-themed bathroom and John's bed's sheets displaying Lissette the Cow didn't quite fit the picture, but the rest was impeccable. Nathan's separate room was still more impressive; the proprietor described it simply as asiatique, so think of the most stereotypically Asian-themed decor possible, multiply it by two, and you've got this room. It was great.

That night, following a fabulous dinner of pizza (or, in my slightly-more-expensive case, salmon followed by an apricot tart), we carried out possibly the best idea of the week: rotating massages. The system was such that at any given time, two people would give massages, two would receive, and the fifth would serve as iPod DJ until the rotation. By the end, this had made a world of difference for our shoulders, and I went to bed feeling better than I had all week.

Day 5: Santa Lucia di Tallano to Burgo
Climb: 675 meters
Descent: 945 meters

After breakfasting in another wonderfully decorated room, this time vaguely tropical but with swords and old photos adorning the walls, we began the final leg of the Mare a Mare Sud. Not long after leaving the town, we ran into a construction zone where it quickly became clear that the work had disturbed the local wasps. I carelessly waved one away as it buzzed around my head, and thought it had gone until I felt something moving in my hair, followed by pain. I realize that it only stung me out of panic and fear at not being able to escape my ponytail, and not out of malice, but this did nothing to endear wasps to me. Sara was kind enough to get this lovely little insect out of my hair; seconds thereafter, from yards ahead, Nathan yelled that he'd just been stung as well. It was time to flee wasp territory.

Remember, now, rivers always mean a climb on the other side. This one meant a climb up...and up...and up. Finally, on the last day, I found a pace that worked for me: it did not make my lungs feel like imminent death, and did not require me to take breaks every ten meters. Downside: this pace was approximately that of a snail. I quickly lost sight of the others, but the cries of "Mega...SMERALDA!" from up ahead were reassuring. Slowly but surely I made my way up the mountain, through the trees and past our new friend Patches the cow, and eventually arrived at the top--or what counted as the top as far as the trail was concerned.

note the village to the right--that's Santa Lucia.
And so we continued. In the flattish stretch following the climb, we encountered the Flying Dutchmen and stopped for the usual picnic. Lunch was leisurely, but we eventually shouldered our packs again and went on our way. More beautiful scenery, more cows, more of the usual--and finally, in the distance, we saw the sea. We hadn't arrived by any means, but the simple realization that we'd walked from one coast to the other was a crazy feeling.

Mare number two in sight.
Not long after, the descent began. It was truly the complement of what we'd done that morning, which was fine by me; my descending pace, as I've noted, is much more reasonable. Even my toes, however, were complaining by the time we reached the river, and then, of course, it was back up again. One last ascent, and we found ourselves at a road, where the orange markers disappeared. The end.

It was a short walk from there to the gite, where showers and Pikachu blankets and a fire awaited. Our dinner was something like that of the first night, or like the entire week's lunches, but no matter--we'd arrived.

most of the group with whom we spent the week
(Flying Dutchmen not included)
I'm on the left between Ali and Éliane.
sunset over the sea from the gite at Burgo

The next morning, we set out on foot for the last time. The walk from Burgo to the coastal city of Propriano was an easy one of perhaps two hours, exclusively on the friendly flat surfaces of paved roads.

Jesus with his disciples (or perhaps John the Baptist?)
photo credit to Nathan
As we left the mountains for the coast, there was a noticeable change in the air; it grew warm, humid, suggestive of the sea in every way. And then there it was--the Mediterranean.

Once we'd reached Propriano, we had two main orders of business: find the bus agency, and find food. We accomplished both of these on the same road, where we bought lunch at a supermarket--a veritable feast including all the usual plus a roast chicken, unceremoniously shared on a set of stairs. Then, with satisfied stomachs and a few hours to spare, we headed for the beach.

We reenacted our arrival in reverse. We met back up with Ali and Éliane for the bus to Ajaccio, picnicked in front of the Ajaccio gare maritime, and waited for the ferry. While we were in the midst of sharing crazy college experiences, we were approached by a well-educated but equally batty (apparently) homeless man, who ranted on and on in perfect English about history and conspiracies and connections and who knows what else. The Prince of Minnesota, as he called himself, was very persistent and refused to leave us alone, and it was something of a relief to finally board the Mega Express 1 for Toulon.

Much as when we'd left Toulon, it began to rain just after we'd embarked. We didn't have a cabin this time around, so we installed ourselves in a lounge and attempted, largely in vain, to get comfortable. We slept, though not well. In the morning, we awoke at around 6:45 and prepared for arrival, scheduled for 7 a.m.--an arrival which simply didn't arrive. It took some time for us to realize that the time had changed during the night, so we'd actually gotten up an hour early. I passed back out on a couch.

We hastily parted ways with Ali and Éliane for good upon descending from the ferry. We found our way back through the deserted Sunday streets to the train station, where we caught a train to Marseille and then to Aix. We returned home in a downpour. By the time I made it back to my host family, I was nearly as wet as I'd been on day two of the hike; I'm not sure I've ever enjoyed a shower and a nap quite so much.

Since then, it's been back to the grind, but in a nice way. I've gotten back into the swing of things, and it's strange to think that I only have slightly over a month left in Aix. I'm going to make it a good one, and maybe I'll even take the time to write about it.