I’m clinging to a cable attached to a rock face. The trail ahead — actually, more of a three-foot-wide platform cut into the rock — mirrors the zig and zag of the canyon wall. I’m not a fan of heights, nor is my traveling companion, who has reluctantly agreed to hike this far into France’s Gorges du Verdon, or Verdon Gorge.
Rephrase: We’re fine with heights. We just don’t like the idea of the rock shelf crumbling beneath us, or of slipping off the narrow path, or of falling into the boulder-strewn water below, or other worst-case scenarios. I focus on these dark fantasies. It’s my way of dispelling fear. Mary Ann, my companion, has dubbed me “Worst-Case Scenario Guy.”
“It would be a bummer if that cable snapped, wouldn’t it?” I say. “But it’s lasted this long, right? And here comes a lovely family.” A stalwart party of Dutch parents with their Dutchlings (roughly ages 8, 10 and 14) blows past us, ignoring us white-knuckling the cable, which I feel I might snap from the very force of my anxiety.
Worst-Case-Scenario (WCS) Guy thinks: What force — God or Mother Nature — would dare pluck the cable from the rock now? As the Dutchlings round the bend? Never.
About 100 feet below us, the rapids of the Verdon River rush around a variety of jagged outcroppings, some worn smooth by eons of erosion. “You know, some of those boulders don’t look so sharp. You might survive the fall.”
“Ethan,” Mary Ann says jokingly. “Shut it.”
Tourists visit Provence mostly to gorge on cheese and truffles and Cotes du Luberon, or to see fields of lavender or sunflowers, or to experience art, be it by painters lured by the azure sky or the humbler art of men stooping over their game of petanque in the shade of a plane-tree-flanked village square. But we don’t often think of “the outdoors” when we think of Provence, let alone France. Outdoors, as in hiking through the wilds. As in adventure sports. As in canyons.
About two hours northeast of Marseille, the limestone foothills of the Alps straddle two French departments: the Var to the south and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence to the north. Into this robust land the Verdon River, named for its green-blue color, has carved the “Grand Canyon of Europe,” about 2,300 feet at its deepest point, and running about 15 miles before dumping into an artificial lake called Lac de Sainte-Croix, just due south of the town Moustiers Sainte-Marie.
“The Verdon Gorge is basically the biggest canyon we’ve got in Europe,” says Didier Menard, who works for Aboard Rafting, one of the many adventure outfitters in the area.
Virtually unknown to Americans but popular with Europeans in the summertime, the region attracts camper vans full of rock climbers, hikers, bicyclists, canoeists, paragliders, whitewater rafters, fly fishers and those who, even as debutantes, take part in an activity called “canyoning.” Rustic campgrounds and small inns abound. You can laze in a paddle boat or choose a higher-charged adventure amid the cliffs, trails and waterways — from a day hike into the gorge and back to a two-day circuit.
Not that I’d suggest that you risk the lives of your children, but clearly, if little kids can handle these hikes — think of the Dutchlings — then so can you.
“It’s hard to go wrong in the gorge,” says my American friend Kim Howe, who with her Norwegian husband lives in a village about a half-hour from Moustiers, the western “gate” to the gorge. “But it’s best to have a map. And to check the weather first.” She also suggests avoiding the peak season of July and August. “Summer can be irritating, at least on the most popular hikes, and one often gets stuck between RVs when driving.”
Good advice, which my partner in crime and I did not heed. We visited Kim, and the gorge, in the heat of July. Yet even in peak season, we found it relatively easy to find respite from the crowds. Yes, you must visit Moustiers and brave the throngs, and at least window-shop the stores selling local pottery known as “faience,” and hike up to the chapel of Notre Dame de Beauvoir, perched on a craggy hill above town, and quaff a mug of honey-infused beer upon your return. And you should drive at least some of the serpentine Route des Cretes, which hugs the canyon’s north rim, and the Corniche Sublime (Route D71), which mirrors the south edge, 80 miles in all.
We did, and yes, the hairpin turns can be slightly nauseating, but enduring the rim roads is key, because they lead to the best smaller towns, trailheads and views. La Palud-sur-Verdon is the hipper, hippier town (compared with touristy Moustiers or workaday Castellane, 10 miles north and east of the easternmost end of the gorge). Legend has it that in the 1960s, a group of people from a nearby village decided to drive to India, Kim tells us. “Their van made it as far as La Palud before breaking down, so that’s where they stayed.”
People continue to stay, and for good reason: Many consider this gorge the nation’s top climbing destination.
“For me it’s the best limestone in France and has a lot of routes in a wild and beautiful place,” says Fred Devoluet, a rock-climbing instructor for a company called Verdon Escalade. “It’s like our little French Yosemite.”
In La Palud, you’ll find the usual smattering of outdoorsy types recharging in one of the handful of restaurants after a hard day on the trail (or of rafting, or clinging to some stone face). If you listen closely, you may overhear horror stories of twisted ankles and narrow escapes. About a decade ago, Worst-Case- Scenario Guy was nearly stranded in this very gorge when he foolishly veered off the trail in search of a way up the rim. WCS: He could have frozen to death. Or spent an uncomfortable night in the wild.
If you’re into climbing or rafting, it’s better to go with a professional guide unless you have the requisite experience and equipment. But most hikes can be self-guided. Assuming that you’re at the appropriate level of fitness, just pick an itinerary with a length and fear factor commensurate with your legs and stomach. Kim told me that there are about 20 popular hikes to choose from, “all glorious.” Her favorite is called the Sentier Martel, which involves tunnels (so bring a flashlight) and ladders set into the rock (not for the faint of heart).
After several hours of adventurous trekking, have a self-congratulatory beer on the terrace of the hiking hostel and restaurant Chalet de la Maline, Kim advised. To stay off the most trodden trails, hire a guide or make friends with a local.
Everyone has his or her favorite trails. “For me, one of the most beautiful places is the Couloir Samson, which offers a wonderful view of the entrance of the canyon,” says Sandra Garcia, manager of an outfitter called Aqua Viva Est. Here, she says, you can understand the canyon, a “real Goliath of nature,” and its “work of years.”
But as Kim says, you can’t go wrong in the gorge. Steep trails lead from the sometimes roasting trailheads at the canyon’s rim down through wooded, mossy enclaves and eventually to the cool riverbed.
Both Kim and Sandra recommended canyoning and its “soft version,” called aqua trekking. Both involve a wet suit, a helmet and a guide. Aqua trekking is easier: You walk, swim, jump and slide as you make your way around rocky obstacles and down the river. Canyoning is more hard-core. You rappel down cliffs, sometimes through chilly waterfalls, and follow secret canyons.
It was canyoners and aqua-trekkers that Mary Ann and I saw as we hiked the Imbut Trail (one of the better, medium-rigorous hikes off the Corniche Sublime). We knew that the hike would be about 3.5 to 5 miles, with a 1,300-foot drop. And, of course, we’d experience the torture of mountain climbing in reverse. Explore a canyon and your day ends with a tiring ascent, rather than beginning with it.
Before we descend, WCS Guy spots a sign warning that the canyon is prone to flash floods.
“Wouldn’t it be cool to be on the canyon floor and see that wall of water coming at you and — ”
“Actually, no,” Mary Ann cuts me off with a smile. “Let’s just hike.”
Down we happily go, on a path that’s mostly limestone, worn smooth like molars. In places, steps are cut directly into the rock. We walk through stands of oak, pine, beech and boxwood descending steeply to the riverbed. Here, the Passerelle de l’Estellier footbridge spans the water and connects to a trail that climbs the opposite cliff.
Not far is a rocky beach where hikers eat their lunches and sunbathe. I finally feel the full scope of the canyon: certainly not as grand as my Grand Canyon back home but plenty impressive.
We watch some aqua-trekkers regroup after a break and slip one at a time into the swirling, milky-aqua water. They bob like apples, float downstream. Paralleling them on land, we follow. We pass under looming shelves of beige stone to a dramatic spot of rock formations in the river called Styx. Here, the canyoners leap 15 or 20 feet into smooth potholes polished by the force of the river. WCS Guy tries not to imagine broken bones. Or their bodies floating in the water and popping up in Moustiers.
We hear that the trail ahead promises wonders. We’re told of even bigger boulders and formations. We know those who have seen the Imbut, a rock funnel where the Verdon disappears underground and reappears at a magical beach called Baou Beni, where the canyon is so narrow that the cliff sides nearly touch.
But, remember, we’re stuck. The three-foot path cloven into the rock has narrowed now to two feet. The swirling water below gets us in the gut. We grip the cable, unable to go farther. In the Gorges du Verdon, even Worst-Case Scenario Guy knows his limits. We turn back, losing sight of the bobbing bodies. Retracing our path, we climb out of the canyon.
We’ve survived — not only to have a beer on a hotel terrace barely attached to the precipice, but to tell the tale.