Skiing in Corsica? Yes it really is possible. You can hit the snow and sea in the same day and visit one of the most beautiful parts of France while you are there.
Despite being best-known for its beaches, 80 percent of the Ile de Beauté (island of beauty) is serious mountains. The bonus is the walking trail, the mythic GR20, much of it at a height of 2000 metres through the Corsican Regional Park. The palm trees and beaches everyone talks about are just the beautiful fringe round the edges of the mountain range that covers the island. If you want a change from your usual winter holiday it is a good place to go for a bit of mild adventure and breathtaking scenery.
Video: Manu Rioualec and Eric Specia of Montagnes de Corse lead a ski tour on the Haute Route:
Manu Rioualec of Montagnes de Corse, a qualified high mountain guide, leads ski tours on the Haute route with his partner Eric Specia. Manu says the best time to ski Corsica is usually March. The snow comes late-winter, at the beginning of February, because of the climate and can be skiable until May in the high mountains. This year however, despite highly publicised heavy snowfalls in February, the snow has been "a catastrophe" for skiing because of the unusually warm weather in March. As the local branch of the French ski federation puts it, "In Corsica the skiing is on a day-by-day basis." In fact this the conditions in Corsica for skiing have been the worst for thirty years, or if you are a mountain sheep farmer - the best. In March 2009, there were two metres of snow in the high mountains.
Wonderful landscape for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Credit J-P Quilici.
There are two small resorts for alpine skiing. The most popular is Val d'Ese which is 51 kilometres (just over an hour) from Ajaccio. Val d'Ese is at 1600 metres on the plateau of the same name. The nearest village is Bastelica. The little resort was built in the 1970s a nd the first ski lifts began operating in 1976. From the village of Bastelica take the panoramic D27A. After 14 kilometres you come to the car park for the resort.
Val d'Ese (1,600-1,825m) has a chalet and some shops and you can rent skis, snowboards and sledges. There is a French ESF ski school with three instructors. Since 2010 the ski area has doubled in size, with eight kilometres of runs, four lifts and a small lift/magic carpet for children between 3 and 5 years. There are four red runs, one blue, one green and a small snowpark. Sadly whoever designed it placed the main runs on south-facing slopes which means the snow goes quickly when it gets warm. However the short distance to Ajaccio makes up for this, explained Stépane Desjobert who, with his colleague Jean-Philippe di Grazia, feels there is sufficient support to launch a new magazine Uzurf on the theme of winter sports in Corsica. The first edition will be available at the beginning of April.
Val d'Ese in Corsica. Credit: Commune de Bastelica
The second resort is Ghisoni Capanelle and is more difficult to access as it's further east in the commune of Ghisoni at the Bergeries des Capanelles at 1686m. The lifts take you up to 1810m at the top of the Capaghiolu ski lift. The resort has three ski lifts and seven slopes. It may not be as convenient as as Val d'Ese, but half an hour's trekking above the lfts will take you to a fantastic view over the whole of Corsica.
The third station, Haute Ascu, used to have the best snowfall in Corsica, but has been closed since 1991, after a rain storm caused immense damage. The local federation says that they hope that the resort will reopen soon. Given the relatively big investment required in these hard times, local experts are inclined to doubt this.
Freeskiing at the old resort of Haute Ascu. Credit Montagnes de Corse.
Corsica's resorts are fun and amusing curiosities for visitors to the island. They gain added attention because it really is possible to ski in the morning and surf on the Med in the afternoon.
What is really special - in summer as well as winter - is the famous GR20, which in winter becomes the Haute Route or the Alta Strada. According to the local tourist authority you can travel the GR20 on skis but it is a considerable technical challenge not to be lightly undertaken unless you are an experienced ski mountaineer and at ease handling ice axes, crampons, ropes, ice picks and all the bits and pieces for modern mountaineering.
The stages of the GR20 are long, the weather at times ‘wildly volatile'. Note this is the tourist authority talking here, so you can take it as red, it really can get quite exciting at 2,000 metres exposed to the full force of whatever the Med decides to throw at you. "The 14 refuges are unsophisticated," says Manu Rioulec of Montagnes de Corse. "But they are well insulated and well stocked every autumn with wood from the regional park so within minutes of arriving you are in a cosy and able to relax. Sure it is a bit basic but it is breathtakingly beautiful route, one of the most beautiful high routes and the freeriding can be fabulous."
Wildly volatile weather. Credit J-P Quilici
OnTheSnow talked to Jean-Paul Quilici from Guides de Haute Montagne and author of 18 books about Corsica. He is well known for trekking and leads week-long snowshoe treks. He was the first guide in Corsica to gain the coveted national high mountain guide certificate. He says, "I put myself forward to be the first Corsican Guide de Haute Montagne, it was sort of about autonomy, a sort of nationalism if you like. I wanted the Corsican mountains to have Corsican guides - now there are about 10 of us. To qualify I had to go to Chamonix because there is only one centre in France where you can qualify. I learned to work with ice. For me ice was what I put in my Pernod - I had never seen a glacier before but it is a government qualification and I had to go through it all. It wasn't easy for me but by sticking to it, and with plenty of perseverance, I got there in the end and I can tell you I was very proud when I came back to Corsica with my guide's badge."
Jean Paul Quilici on the Aiguilles de Bavella. Courtesy J-P Quilici
On being asked how tough the GR20 really is, Jean-Paul said, "The GR20 can be divided up into bits. You can do the south half only which is much less challenging. The north section is really quite serious mountaineering. Anyway I find my clients generally can only come for a week and if you want to do the whole route it takes 12 days easily, maybe 14. So we do the southern half and that is enough for most people."
He added, "People say there is not enough snow on the island for skiing - In February I just finished filming with Swiss Romande TV which is to be broadcast in September and if you have a chance to see the programme you will be surprised by the quantity of the snow on the ground here and the beauty of Corsica in the snow . . . and the cold."
On being asked if you have to be super-fit for snowshoeing, Jean-Paul said, "‘No, snowshoes are pretty easy to use it is not like alpine skiing. After half an hour you get the idea."
One of the best features of hiking and skiing on the island are the views of the sea. Jean-Paul lives at the foot of the Aiguilles de Bavella in Sare Solenzara. He said, "When we do a trip with snowshoes sure you have wonderful views of the sea. When I do the Coucholles you can see the Gulf of Propriano and when we climb higher you can see the Gulf of Ajaccio on the western side of the island."
Jean-Paul summed up, "So there you are. If you want big-time skiing you go to Val Thorens. You do the route from Chamonix to Zermatt with central heating in the refuges and you wear slippers in the evening. But if you want great scenery and a bit of adventure with your skiing, off the beaten track, come to Corsica and I'll show you beautiful places in the mountains with the sea in every view."
Manu Rioualec and Eric Specia of Montagnes de Corse - www.montagnesdecorse.com
Val d'Ese resort - www.ski-bastelica.com Tel: 0495-101-120 or 0495-225-492
Ghisoni Capanelle resort - http://www.suwa.fr
Corsica regional park - www.parc-naturel-corse.com/
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