The Gorges du Verdon is France’s answer to the Grand Canyon! Like a giant saw, the rushing blue-green waters of the Verdon River have cut and carved a jagged limestone gash in the Provençal landscape. The largest canyon in Europe, it’s vast in length and the walls rise vertically to tower in some places more than 700 meters over the river below.
Granted, in terms of breadth and depth, it’s not quite in the same league as Arizona’s gem - but size isn’t everything. . . well, at least in terms of canyons. And it’s French, so in my prejudiced opinion, that makes up for what it lacks in stature!
I visited "The Gorge" with a girlfriend about four years ago, but we were on our bikes and had no other mode of transport. We had only a long weekend to spare from our French classes in Aix-en-Provence (about 100 km to the southwest of Verdon). The journey there on Saturday (in torrential rain and gale-force, Mistral winds) and back on Monday, left only Sunday for exploring the canyon. The dramatic beauty of the area left a lasting impression and I promised myself I would return.
I got my chance a couple of weeks ago, when Don and I were headed to Nice to catch a flight to Amsterdam for a cycling trip in Holland – more about that to come. En-route we took a petit détour. . .
During both visits to Verdon, I stayed in the same gite (a rural holiday rental) - testament to the friendly hospitality of our hosts Sylvie and her husband. Their pretty, little farm, “Gite du Petit Ségriès” is surrounded by lavender, sheep and blissful tranquility and it is also a table d'hôte.
This French concept appeals greatly to my gregarious nature. Guests (if they choose) can join in the family meal cooked by the host. It is not like a restaurant, as there is only one menu choice (whatever the family happens to be eating that evening) and the price is fixed and often included in the cost of the room.
Sylvie’s guests sit together, ranch-style, at a large table in their rambling farmhouse sharing a truly unique dining experience: wonderful wine, a heavenly, home-cooked dinner made from locally-grown ingredients and lively conversation with fascinating people from all over the world.
The gite is situated about five kilometers west of charming Moustiers-Sainte-Marie at the western mouth of the Gorge. This village has (I think justifiably) been designated as one of France’s most beautiful. Locals also claim it to be the “Étoile de Provençe” (Star of Provence), likely because someone in the 13th century suspended a gold star between the two towering limestone cliffs that backdrop the village. No one seems to know who did the deed, but legend points to a grateful knight returning from the Crusades.
Apparently, the current star is only about 50 years old. The old one fell when the chain holding it snapped and a shiny new one had to be installed by helicopter. That makes me wonder... eight hundred years ago, how did one lone knight accomplish the same task? Human ingenuity never ceases to amaze me!
Above Moustiers, clinging to the rock is the 14th-century Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir. It blends seamlessly into the stone and, when viewed from across the valley, the whole village rather reminded me of a nativity scene, complete with a guiding star but sans the Three Wise Guys on camels.
Based on Sylvie’s recommendations we did two fabulous hikes, each unique in exposure, vegetation and altitude. Neither was super difficult – unless you have vertigo or are afraid of heights.
Tunnels, teetering stairs, stunning gorge views – our first hike had it all! The Sentier Blanc-Martel trail, in the upper canyon, hugged the cliffs above the Verdon for about 14 kilometers.
The tunnels - very long and very dark - were cut through the mountain for hydroelectric projects abandoned after World War II. Thank God for the flashlight App on our iPhones - our only source of light.
While inside one of them, we heard the distinct, rhythmic whirring of helicopter blades. It got increasingly louder until the tunnel was reverberating with sound – sort of unsettling in the inkiness blackness. Rushing to a viewing platform that had been blasted through the stone to daylight, we saw a medic being lowered on a rope from a hovering helicopter. An injured climber was propped on a rocky ledge at the bottom of the canyon next to the water, a couple of other rescuers already at his side treating him. We were able to witness the entire extraction unfold - somewhat surreal, but très excitant!
Our second hike was in the lower gorge, near the village of Quinson. It was less dramatic than the one we’d done in the upper canyon, but much closer to the river and equally as beautiful.
The route started along an old canal next to Verdon River and offered up rock stairways, suspension bridges, one (short) tunnel and Zen-inspiring views of paddle boats and kayaks floating on calm, turquoise waters. We passed through, across and, at times under some towering rock formations and then turned inland into an ancient forest, so lush and green that the branches were dripping with moss. I would say the place was enchanted, except for those pesky, little bugs buzzing around our faces while we were walking. The last part of the hike involved some good climbs, a lovely picnic lunch on the mountain top and a steep descent back to our vehicle.
If you ever visit Verdon, you must drive the Route des Crêtes, a scenic loop of about 23 km that overhangs the edge of the northern rim. The road is narrow, one-way in parts, devoid of guardrails and full of twists and whiplash turns - but is well worth the raised hair and white knuckles. The canyon views from the many pull-outs were trés spectaculair. We passed by L'Escalès and Trescaire, cliffs I’m told are sacred to climbers. They sported plenty of brave (cancel that, call them crazy) people clinging to ropes and rocks!
While I’m on the topic of driving, we’ve switched from an English to a French-speaking “GPS Lady”. It is helping us better learn the language. I am happy to report, I now have a firm grasp of the meaning of, “Si possible, faites un demi-tour!” Loosely translated, it means “If possible, turn around, you dumb-shmuck!”
I must bid you au revoir for now, but I’ll leave you with this wee gem. When we left for our year away, eh! a dear friend said to me, “Embrace the detours!” Merci mon amie, for that sage advice! I hope my photos do justice to this special place.
Until next time...