The Gorges Du Verdon
The D952 from Castellane towards The Gorges Du Verdon is one we’ve been on a few times over the years. Today it looks so different though. Perhaps it’s because we’re driving the opposite direction and in a different motorhome? Whatever the reason, the drive is a special one.
By the time we reach Point Sublime – a rocky plateau where a viewpoint stretches out across the gorge, we realise we’ve parked here before!
Like many things that have changed since our early days of motorhome travel, today is no different. The vast numbers of tourists who’ve now discovered this route is astounding. So much so, that we can’t even park!
How extraordinary to remember how we easily parked here in our Swift Bessacarr motorhome around 15 years ago. Back then we had the place to ourselves or so it seemed. Now, we have to drive on by, leaving the busy parking areas behind. So, instead we do a slight detour off the beaten track.
Rougon Hamlet – The Gorges du Verdon
It’s lunch time, so the most sensible option is to have a leisurely lunch in the little hamlet of Rougon. As usual in France, we soon find a spacious motorhome parking area. An added bonus are the gorgeous views stretching out across the landscapes of this amazing region.
Rougon is located high above the main route through the Gorges du Verdon itself, but within a short 5 minute drive. It’s dominated by a tall, narrow cliff, almost poking out of the village. Surrounding the parched grazing land are a cluster of narrow streets where small dwellings huddle.
This is the first week in September and the heat is still incredibly strong. Our location in South East France is within the Provence-Alpes region, so Summer sees strong sun and long days. All in all it makes this region even more spectacular in the shimmering sunlight.
We take a short stroll into the small village, stretching the legs before moving back to the route along the Gorge.
Point Sublime Plateau – The Gorges du Verdon
We drive from Rougon back to the Point Sublime plateau – the main viewing area of the Gorges du Verdon. Thankfully, just down the road from the crowds is one parking space on a bit of a grassy verge. This gives us the opportunity to park and check out the views from this vast rocky plateau.
It’s a phenomenal sight, we’re surrounded by the vastness of this limestone mass of rock. It stretches as far as the eye can see, dominating the region for miles.
Point Sublime itself is basically one large rock plate, which gives an opportunity to see the gorge below from a viewing platform on the cliff edge. It’s more popular because of its location on the main road through the canyon.
This route we’ve driven several times before, all in a motorhome, including an A-Class, 4.2t Carthago. Today we’re in the Sprinter which is much narrower and shorter – 5.93 m long by 2.04 wide. So, we’re going to take advantage and drive a different route – the hair-raising Route des Crêtes!
The Gorges du Verdon
At 700m high at its tallest, these sheer limestone cliffs of The Gorges du Verdon tower above the Verdon river. Not only that but the length of the canyon is an incredible 50km, making it the biggest in Europe.
Vultures constantly search overhead for their next prey, their gracious wings spanning the air. Whilst hikers, climbers and rafting adventurers make the most of the extreme landscapes.
The Verdon River is turquoise blue and it glides and bends effortlessly through the floor of this incredible canyon. Above each river bank are those towering cliffs, their rock faces disguised by the leaves of thick overgrowth resembling forest.
This is like a Jurassic wonderland of times gone by. So much so that a dinosaur wouldn’t look out of place munching on the rich fauna.
The Route des Crêtes
Back to our drive and we’re about to embark on new territory along the narrow cliff-top of The Route des Crêtes. This winding road follows the edge of the cliffs along a circular route. Before long, it becomes a single, one-way direction up to the point known as the Chalet de la Maline.
As you’d expect, it passes along the top of the gorge, but it’s not for anyone afraid of heights. We know the narrow roads and craggy edges are going to bring a love or hate moment. Soon we’ll find out which one it’s to be.
We take the turning off the main road and head upwards to the beginning of the cliff-top drive and our first parking place.
This is one of several viewing places along the route, allowing for regular stops to admire those views. We step out the van and head to the hand rail, separating us from the depths of the canyon below. My goodness – this is high! Even more incredible is the sheer scale of this place – it is simply huge.
A Narrow Cliff-Top Road
Looking down into the vastness below, we both feel a bit queasy – crikey, this isn’t a place for those who don’t like heights!
Next, we’re driving along the single, one-way section of the route and we can see why they don’t allow 2-way traffic. There’s a mix of narrow, cliff-top road and craggy overhangs from the protruding rocks. There’s plenty of places to stop and enjoy the views, so we take most opportunities to do so.
The most memorable comes from one high section of cliff where a climber is making her way up the dramatic rock face. We can see the concentration in her efforts, every step, each movement of her hand gripping the grey cliff where only oblivion rests below.
The Sentier Blanc-Martel Walking Route
Now many of you will know that we love a good walking route. The Sentier Blanc-Martel is named after the first people to navigate their way through the canyon. It starts at Chalet de la Maline and provides hikers with an incredible 16km one-way route through the Gorge.
Unfortunately, the walk involves catching a bus from nearby La Palud-Sur-Verdon to the start at Chalet la Maline. Then once you finish the walk at Point Sublime, you catch a separate bus back to La Palud-Sur-Verdon.
Normally of course, this wouldn’t be a problem for us, but with the virus in circulation, we decide not to risk enclosed spaces. This walk will have to wait for a less risky time. We’re amazed though at seeing large queues of people, waiting for buses, obviously not everyone is bothered by the virus.
As our drive along the Route des Crêtes ends, the road widens and the cliffs are left behind. Now, we emerge at La Palud-Sur-Verdon – a small village surrounded by hills and once green fields, slightly parched from the Summer heat.
After trying to park we have to give up. There’s no Aire and “Wild Camping” isn’t allowed in the National Park, although there is a campsite on the outskirts. It’s a shame we can’t find a place to park, although if we’d chosen to do the walk and catch the bus, we’d have stopped on the campsite.
Lac de Sainte-Croix
Instead, we take the road towards the turquoise waters of Lac de Sainte-Croix – a firm favourite and one of our all time greats from motorhome memories.
It’s the first time we’ve approached Lac de Sainte-Croix from the direction of the Gorge, normally we’re heading from the North not the South of France.
I think the approach from the opposite direction is more dramatic, but all the same, Lac de Sainte-Croix is unmistakable in its glory.
This reservoir is blue as can be, unfortunately, the water levels are low at the moment, which leaves a lot of shoreline on view. Our previous visits with higher water levels, make it more appealing.
The big attraction of Lac de Sainte-Croix is the way in which the waters of the lake flow into the narrow depths of the gorge. To be honest, it’s one of the most beautiful locations and in Summer, the waters are busy with Kayaks and pedalos exploring the narrow chasms of the gorge.
I vividly remember the first time we set eyes upon Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. Turning the corner in our first motorhome brought us face to face with this incredible village. The building clinging to the rock face and dimly lit by night to provide a romantic glow. It’s no wonder this is one of the Plus Beaux Village de France or prettiest villages in France.
There was a dusty parking area at the base of the village, which allowed us to park up and explore its tiny streets. The next time we visited, a new Aire had been built, which is where we park for the night 15 years later.
It’s a perfect spot to explore the village, accessed from a footpath across the road from where we park. First though, I’m off for a run. I head towards open fields and a route leading a few miles to Lac Sainte Croix.
Above me, I notice paragliders winding their way to the ground, a display of bright colours bouncing off the evening air.
A Perfect French Village
The following morning we take the path into the narrow streets of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. Best of all it’s market day and stalls selling local produce and crafts line the small spaces. It’s busy and hot, so people relax in the shade of pavement cafe’s while we take a path of cobble stones towards a cliff.
We’re careful not to slip because the stones are so shiny and worn, it’s like walking on ice. Hand rails do little to help our feet sliding from under us. We hope we stay firm and make it unscathed to the tiny chapel which clings to the cliff face in front of us.
Nigel remembers a time on our last visit, when he accidentally took an alternative path. Unbeknown to me, he ended up on a narrow ledge, clinging on for life from a sheer drop below! He still talks about his dice with death as he calls it.
A Chapel and a Golden Star
Now, in the blistering heat, we make it to the beautiful little chapel with relative ease. Views from the exterior reach over rooftops of the village. Our eyes see the blue waters of Lac de Sainte Croix in the distance – it’s just a beautiful place.
Dating back to the crusades, these chapel walls and this historic village have long survived the events of history. Even the cobbles of the main streets on our return route through the centre bring some slippery moments.
Shoes with extra grip are needed for these parts, but the authentic element is more present with their smooth, glistening finish.
Above the village and hanging between two cliffs is a mystical golden star, its origins not really known despite several theories. Strangely, there it hangs on a 133m long chain, the first mention of it is found in the 15th Century. Despite a few legends, the real facts surrounding its arrival are still shrouded in mystery.
A walk to Lac Sainte Croix
We’re back at the campervan having lunch. Next, we’re walking through the countryside on a marked walking route to Lac Sainte Croix.
This 2200ha lake is the largest in the Verdon. Above all, it was here on our first motorhome trip that we also had our first Wow moment!
Turning the corner from Moustier Sainte Marie, in our new motorhome, the lake came into view and we couldn’t believe our eyes. The water was as blue as can be, stretching out below the surrounding mountains and we knew then that we’d love this way of travel.
That has been the story of many an enthusiastic conversation, whilst selling the joys of van travel to those unaware of this incredible hobby.
Today though, brings a bit of disappointment from that first visit 15 years earlier. Maybe our travels have gone beyond the incredible beauty of Lac Sainte Croix? Perhaps the extraordinary busy shores bringing its discovery to the masses, has spoiled the remoteness of the past?
Whatever the reason, the low water levels may not help its appearance. Then on closer inspection, the shallow water develops a murky stir from enthusiastic swimmers, as they wade through the muddy silt.
It’s still outstanding in its beauty and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. Where the water leaves the lake and enters the narrow chasm of the Gorges du Verdon, there is no doubt just how beautiful the location is.
We’ll be back to take a closer look tomorrow. For now, a return along the same path takes us back to the van, just in time for wine under the cooler evening sky.
Taking a Dip – The Gorges du Verdon
There is only one thing to do when the heat is on and that’s to cool off by the water.
So, after leaving the Aire behind and making use of the service point, we drive off down to Lac Sainte Croix. Gosh, this place is super busy!
Eventually, we find a place to park and take off to the shore line for a dip in the water. The silt makes an unpleasant feel between my toes, yet the water is warm so makes up for the mud.
The shore line is pebbles and is so popular, as is the pedalo hire, paddle boarding and kayaks. Most people venture off on the water, heading for the gorge which leads beneath a road bridge spanning the lake.
This Place is Popular
After drying off, we walk along the shore and up onto the bridge to take a look at the activity on the water. We can’t believe how popular it’s become here. Remembering years ago, how we parked in the motorhome on a July day with the place to ourselves.
Unfortunately, lack of toilets brings a messy mass of loo paper and everything else amongst the paths and bushes. Alongside are several motorhomes and campervans parked up – making them prime target of blame for the “outdoor loo”.
The Gorges du Verdon has become a bit of an Instagram favourite, so it’s no surprise that it attracts so many people. Unfortunately, the magical appeal it once had is no longer quite so special. However, it’s still one of those “must see” places in France, if not Europe in our opinion.
The Balcons de Mescala Route
Leaving the beautiful landscapes of the lakes and gorge behind, we now head across to the classy village of Aiguines. Its location above the lake brings a more remote feel, yet its pristine appearance is obviously a welcome change.
Typically we fail to park in the village, and before we know it, we’re on the driving route that we had intended to do tomorrow.
Not to worry – this Balcons de Mescala is a route of winding, narrow tunnels, holed out of the rock above The Gorges du Verdon.
Driving opposite The Route des Crêtes
Luckily, it’s now evening, so the route is very quiet – maybe a blessing in disguise. This route is the opposite side of the Gorge to the Route des Crêtes. Effectively, taking us down the other side to where we’d driven a couple of days ago.
Once again, it’s one that really needs consideration before setting off. Checking measurements and reading about the route, along with taking into account the driver ability is really important.
We got information at the tourist office before attempting these routes through the Gorge du Verdon. More importantly, for us, we didn’t want to attempt them on past trips, when we had larger vans than the Sprinter we have now.
The Imbut Hiking Trail
Soon, we arrive at The Auberge les Cavaliers. This is the starting route for the other big walking route in The Gorges du Verdon – The Imbut Trail.
We’d love to give this 5-hour return walk a go. Reading about the route and how it winds through the depths of the cliff, aided by steps, ladders and ropes built into the rock – it sounds terrifying and exciting at the same time! However, we have a problem because Nigel has well-worn tread on his hiking trainers and no spare pair! Unfortunately, he feels it’s not the time to be clinging to ledges – maybe that’s a good thing!
None the less, we park up by the Auberge and take a walk along the road to check out a hiking trail sign. If we wanted to do the trail, we could park up here and start early the next morning. It’s perfect weather forecast, but we choose to be sensible and not take a risk with that dodgy footwear.
Tregance Village – The Gorges du Verdon
Emerging from the Balcons de Mescala route, we find ourselves driving over a high bridge spanning the gorge. Next comes a pretty village called Tregance and luckily there’s an Aire where we spend the night.
Tregance is a quaint place and worthy of a stop. A morning stroll gives an opportunity to take a closer look along the narrow streets. There’s a remote feel to the location, surrounded by fields and hills and not much else, but it’s beautiful all the same.
Next, we plan to drive back to Point Sublime – remember that? Yes, we’re going full circle through The Gorges du Verdon but it’s for a reason.
Sentier Blanc Martel
What we really want to do is a section of the Sentier Blanc Martel, so to do this we’re driving to what is usually the finish – at the Couloir Samson end.
I’d asked at the tourist office beforehand, if it was possible to walk a section of the route. The staff said we could walk from here and return to sample some of the walk, without having to do the whole 16km and the issue of the bus etc.
Parking along the road is easy enough, although it’s busy, we find a free space. Next, we set off down some steps before crossing a bridge and into the bottom of the gorge. The river is alongside us and the cliffs towering around.
Tunnels and Stairs
Soon, we reach tunnels, linked by a staircase we walk through the pitch black, our phone torch guiding the way. The longest tunnel is 670m, so it’s quite a trek before the daylight appears. Then we reach a shiny, jagged section of rock, the stone surface under foot is really slippy. There’s a handrail to help cross, but a sign warns of the 13km path ahead being for experienced hikers only.
What we hadn’t realised until now, was that this is a one-way route from here. To continue would be doing so in the wrong direction, something we couldn’t take a chance with.
More and more hikers were walking towards us, as we stopped and watched them cross the slippy rock. These would have begun at Chalet de la Maline earlier in the day and were now approaching the last few km to the finish.
If the ledges are narrow, with ropes to hold on to, then there could be little room for passing space. Last but not least, at such a height above the river, this could be dangerous.
Instead, we turn around and walk back the way we came. Realising we’d just have to call it a day and feel grateful for having seen a small section of gorge, we didn’t really mind.
The Abandoned Village – Chateauneuf-les-Moustiers
Feeling as if we still want a good walk, we check out the alternatives and find something that sounds rather interesting. Driving to La Palud-Sur-Verdon, we take the road to Le Plan. Then a few km outside the village is Chateauneuf-les-Moustiers – an abandoned village.
What a treat this turns out to be. It’s in the middle of nowhere, with plenty of space in a marked parking area to park the van. We find a marked trail to the remains of the hilltop village, once home to 600 people back in 1836.
Now, all that remains is the empty ruins, reminders of a different life in this remote, yet beautiful landscape. The cemetery brings names to some of those who once called this home. Whilst the stone walls of home life still stand as a testament to those who lived within the walls.
As we stroll the ruins, we find an old Roman road, leading to the Chapelle Notre Dame. Built into the rock face, its remains are still accessible. We clamber up a rugged path into its natural, hollowed out remains – a fascinating place full of character.
Goodbye to The Gorge
It’s been a fascinating end to our time in The Gorges du Verdon. Above all, it shows there is a bit more to the area once you begin to look.
Finally, we re-trace our driving steps passing Point Sublime and the road back towards the gateway to The Gorges du Verdon at Castellane. It’s been an amazing part of our Summer tour and we’re glad to have seen this beautiful part of France again. Let’s hope we can return again soon.
Next time – Lac de Castillon.
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