I’ve heard some people refer to the Gorges du Verdon the “Grand Canyon” of France. Now, having actually been to the “real” Grand Canyon I find this to be a little unfortunate because it creates some unrealistic expectations. Which is a shame, because the Gorges du Verdon, in and of themselves, are truly spectacular. I’ve read that it is in fact the earth’s second biggest canyon, but honestly, I find that hard to believe. Regardless, it’s unfair to compare it to the Grand Canyon and once I realized the two are really nothing alike I was able to simply enjoy the vast beauty and amazing charm of this river canyon, considered by many to be one of the best in all of Europe. The most impressive part is about 25 kilometers long and is known for its amazing turquoise-green water color (caused by glacial sources and minerals suspended in the water), perhaps its most distinguishing characteristic. It’s not far from the French Riviera and hosts a variety of outdoor activities, really something for almost anyone: swimming, kayaking, canoeing, canyoning, rock climbing, cycling and more.
[more info after the photo gallery]
About the Gorges
You’ll find the most dramatic part of the gorges lies between the towns of Castellane and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. The Verdon River cuts a deep path through the limestone rock and in some places the walls can be up to 700 meters (2300 feet) high. This stretch can be divided up into three distinct portions: 1. the “pre-gorge” which runs from Castellane to Pont de Soleils; 2. the deepest section from Pont de Soleils to I’Imbut and; 3. the “canyon” from L’Imbut to Pont de Galetas. The gorges end, quite suddenly in fact, at the artificial Lac de Sainte-Croix. The little Pont de Galetas bridge crosses the river right where the gorges end and the lake begins and you will find some of the most amazing views from right there on that bridge.
In 1973 the government forced the residents of the village Les Salles-sur-Verdon to evacuate and abandon their town so that the river could be damned and the lake Lac de Sainte-Croix could be formed. The church and many other structures were dynamited and destroyed, a damn was built and the area was flooded. Les Salles-sur-Verdon was rebuilt at the edge of the lake and it is now the youngest village in all of France.
The first printed references to the gorges date back to 1782 and by the late 1800s it was being featured in French tourist guides. Still, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that word spread about the gorges outside of France.
My Visit to the Gorges
I spent two days traveling through and around the Gorges du Verdon in the summer of 2017. I had many things I wanted to do and I knew one day would not be enough. Mostly I just wanted to explore the area but specifically I wanted to do some kayaking into the gorges and also I wanted to visit the village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, another of the official “Most Beautiful Villages of France.”
The gorges begin about 85 kilometers from Vence and it’s a very nice drive that passes through some wonderful French countryside. My first stop was Le Relais des Balcons, a nice little restaurant with fantastic views of the gorges. From there I ventured on to the Artuby Bridge which has the distinction of being the highest bridge in Europe with a height of 182 meters (597 feet). A company called Latitude Challenge makes bungee jumps from the bridge and I watched several people make the jump from this incredibly high bridge. Not for the faint of heart. It’s here that the drive around the gorges really begins in earnest. The D71 winds along the south side of the gorges following the Verdon river into Aiguines and then Les Salles-sur-Verdon which sits on the edge of Lac de Sainte-Croix. I took my time driving and enjoyed the fantastic views from the roadside. I stopped in Les Salles-sur-Verdon for lunch and then headed off to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie.
One of these days I’ll write a full article about this enchanting little village. For now I’ll give you a quick recap. If you are anywhere in this area please take the time to stop and explore the town. Sitting at the entrance to the Gorges du Verdon the town was once the capital of the “faience” industry producing beautiful tin-glazed earthenware. The Adou River tumbles right through the middle of the village (literally) and is spanned by several small bridges that you cross to get from one side of the town to the other. Romanesque tiles top the houses throughout the village and it’s easy to get lost in the myriad of winding streets, small alleys and charming squares, all linked together by various sets of stairs and covered passageways. You can take the 602 steps up to the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Beauvoir, built into the side of the mountain high above the town. It can be quite busy during the peak summer months, but regardless, it’s a town you don’t want to pass by.
The North Side
After spending much of the afternoon in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie I headed up along the D952 which runs along the north side of the gorges. When you reach the village of La Palud-sur-Verdon you have the option of making a loop along the D23 which will take you down very close to the river and the gorges. I would highly suggest adding this little detour on to your travel plans as it is very scenic and quite breathtaking in some places. After the loop it’s back onto the D952. Eventually the deep gorges will end and you’ll find yourself driving along right next to the Verdon River. This area is very popular with swimmers and you’ll see lots of them enjoying the cool water during the warm summer months. I had booked a little Airbnb apartment in the town of Comps-sur-Artuby so I headed down the D252 and spent the night there.
Kayaking in the Gorges
The following day I headed back along the north side of the gorges, stopping here and there to explore various hiking trails and overlooks. Eventually I made it to the end of the gorges where the Verdon river has been blocked to create Lac de Sainte-Croix. There are many different vendors renting all kinds of boats, canoes, kayaks, etc. and I found one that seemed fine. I rented a small, one person kayak for several hours and headed up the gorges. Wow. Just wow. One of the most memorable afternoons of my life. The water was so incredibly beautifully, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, the air was clear and warm. It was such a thrill to slip through the steep canyon walls and just take it all in. There were people everywhere but it didn’t feel too crowded. Kids were jumping off rocks on the sides of the cliffs, families were picnicking on the banks of the river, couples were paddling their canoes into and out of the gorges. You can only venture up the river a short distance before it is closed to boats. At that point I beached the kayak and spent some time swimming and relaxing. Eventually I headed back to return my kayak.
There’s so much to do in this area and I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Before leaving I also spent an afternoon exploring the town of Trigance, a medieval village located on the south-east edge of the gorges. There are also several other well-known villages around Lac de Sainte-Croix, (Bauduen, Saint-Croix-du-Verdon) but there was only so much I could do in two days! I’m planning to return soon and I definitely want to do some cycling in this area. A one or two day cycling trip around the entire main loop would be fantastic.