Gorges du Verdon, Provence
Millions of years ago when the Alps began rising from the earth and massive rainfalls created a torrential river that cut a path through younger mountains, a gorge created Europe’s only grand canyon. Located in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence area of France, not far from the Cote d’Azur, the remote and rugged Gorges du Verdon is 15 miles long, up to 2,300 feet deep and considered one of Europe’s most spectacular natural wonders.
It’s also one of France’s best-kept secrets. Perhaps because it was unknown to the outside world until 1905 when it was discovered by Edouard-Alfred Martel, the father of speleology in France (exploration of the gorge wasn’t completed until the 1950s). Or perhaps because seeing the beauty of the gorge comes at a price: you have to drive on one of the scariest roads in Europe.
Heading east or west, the gorge can be traveled on one of two roads: the D952 on the north bank or the Cornice Sublime to the south. (Many people do the full circuit in one day – a bit long if you’re going to enjoy photographing the views.)
A good base to start an east-to-west driving tour is either Castellane or Trigance. Castellane is a camper’s haven with lots of places to set up nearby. In the summer, the town center is filled with tourists who come to hike, bike, fish, climb and raft. In the spring, the streets are filled with thousands of sheep prodded by their herders to higher grazing ground for the summer. Otherwise, the highlight of Castellane is the 600-foot gray rock that looms above the town and the 18th century Notre-Dame-du-Roc chapel perched on top of it.
From Castellane hikers can hire guides to take a number of challenging hikes down into the gorge. The most famous hike, the Sentier Martel, follows the route Martel descended on his initial exploration. The 10-mile trail, starting near Palud-sur-Verdon and reascending near Rougon, takes about six hours to complete without stops. For most hikers who enjoy taking in the beautiful scenery, eating lunch from a good viewing spot or jumping into the icy cold but strikingly turquoise Verdon River, it will generally take about eight hours. The shorter but more challenging Imbut Trail drops almost vertically, forcing hikers to use ladders and cables to reach the gorge’s wildest parts.
For the non-hiker, a more interesting place to spend the night before heading west around the gorge is the Chateau Trigance (www.chateau-de-trigance.fr) in the town of Trigance (off D90). The medieval castle-turned-hotel sits high on a hill overlooking the village and surrounding mountains. Built by monks in the 10th century, themedieval fortress was renovated in this century and includes all modern amenities but still has kept its old world charm.
Heading east around the gorge, most travelers start from Moustiers. Sitting on the edge of a ravine, the village winds around and over the river Rioul which cascades like a ladder from the rocks above.
Moustiers is also known for its famous hand-painted ceramics, known as faiance, as well as being home to Alain Ducasse’s charming inn and Michelin-starred restaurant La Bastide de Moustiers.
The Southern Route (Corniche de Sublime)
Head west from Castellane on Route 71 which leads to the southern rim. For the most part, the road follows the meandering river, zigging and zagging up, down and around mountains, through windowed tunnels and over a single span bridge. Always offering spectacular views of high summits and plummeting cliffs. Along the way there are a number of spots to park for a closer look at the deep chasm forged by nature at its best and worst.
Occasionally the road veers away from the river, through green pastures dotted with small cabins. In spring, the landscape is carpeted with yellow wildflowers creating a beautiful tableau right out of an Impressionist painting.
The Northern Route
An equally interesting route is the Northern Route on the D952, a winding narrow road of hairpin turns where often there’s nothing but small wildflowers between you and a 1,000-foot plunge. Off the D952 is the little-used, angst-filled Route des Cretes (Crest Road), an amazing 14 mile loop that climbs to nearly 5,000 feet with sheer drops along most of the way. But travelers are rewarded with plenty of incredible views, including seeing rock climbers literally hanging from the edge of L’Escales and Trescaire belvederes (balconies).
Near the end of the journey going west is the small town of Aiguines, overlooking Lake St. Croix. A great spot to rest for a while, try a bit of pastis, the anise-flavored liqueur the Provençal people like so much, and stop by La Maison de l’Horloge, a shop on the main road where owner Olivier Roubaud makes and sells his own honey – he’s glad to give you a taste of each flower-based variety.
It’s a great way to celebrate your happy survival of the Gorge du Verdon drive.
Judi Janofsky and her husband Rich Steck host small-group tours in Provence and Dordogne, France, through their company Provence Escapes (www.ProvenceEscapes.com)