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Beyond Paris

The Verdon: France’s Grand Canyon

One of the most spectacular natural sites in Europe is the Gorges du Verdon, also know as the French Grand Canyon. Straddling the departments of the Var and the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, it’s the largest canyon in Europe, created by the Verdon River, which eroded the calcareous rock to a depth of 700m (23000ft).

Considered impenetrable, the canyon remained essentially unexplored until the 20th century. Today it’s known as an excellent location for rock climbing, hang gliding and white water activities. In the 1970s, Electricité de France (EDF) dammed several spots along the Verdon for its hydroelectricity plants, creating four lakes: Lac d’Esparraon de Verdon, Lac de Quinson, Lac de Castillon, and the largest one, Lac de Sainte Croix (10km long, 3km wide). In 1997 , the area within and surrounding the Gorges du Verdon, rich in geological artifacts, rare plants and wildlife diversity, was designated as the Parc Naturel Régional du Verdon. Covering about 1800km2 around the Verdon River, the park includes 66 towns and villages, and links with the neighboring parks of the Luberon, the Mercantour, and the Alpes de Haute Provence Geological Preserve.

There’s much to see and do around the Gorges du Verdon, so plan in advance to get the most out of a day trip. The Gorges are about 150km from Nice and 50km from Draguinan, with winding roads along vertiginous cliffs. Castellane and La-Pallud-sur-Verdon are the most popular bases for exploring the area, but visitors can find information and services for the Gorges in most of the villages along the Verdon. The major sights can be visited on the daylong Circuit des Gorges, 150km along the sites and villages around the Verdon from the left bank to the right bank, encompassing Castellane, the Pont de l’Artuby, Aiguines, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, La-Palud-sur-Verdon, and the Pointe Sublime. Other circuits include the Route de Lavande along the Plateau de Valensole and the Lacs du Verdon.

Even if you’re not usually the sporty type, it may be hard to just sit back and watch while other raft, hang glide, hike and cycle around you. The best time for water activities is July and August when the waters aren’t quite so chilly. Canyoning, canoeing, kayaking, and white water rafting are popular, but you can also find calmer waters on the lakes and the lower Verdon for fishing, sailing, swimming and paddleboating. Hang gliding, called parapent in French, is possible from many of the villages, with companies offering either single ‘baptism’ flights with an instructor, or week-long courses with solo flights. Most of these activities need to be reserved in advance, and are dependent on the weather. Tourism offices can provide lists of companies for guided activities or equipment rentals if you already know what you’re doing. You can also find many of the companies online if you search under “Gorges du Verdon”. Hiking is one of the most-accessible activities throughout the year, but you should still plan in advance to pack the right shoes, sun protection, water, hat and flashlight for the trails with long tunnels. There are short hikes like the Sentier du Lézard, which departs from the Pointe Sublime, or the more demanding daylong hike on the Sentier Martel. Three Grand Randonée trails cross through the park, the GR 4, GR 49 and GR99. The tourism offices can provide maps and information about gîtes for those longer hikes. Verdon Accueil organizes many two or three-day programs including lodging and meals, which include activities like hiking, fishing, horseback riding, nature walks and mountain biking.

No matter what time of year or the temperature outside, visitors will find the villages around the Verdon alive with their artisans, traditional festivals and markets, and medieval churches. Europe’s largest museum of prehistory, the Musée du Préhistoire des Gorges du Verdon is located in Quinson, and nearby is the Grotte de la Baume Bonne. The famed Faïence of Moustiers can be found in the town’s Musée du Faïence, and visitors can also visit the many artists’ workshops in the village. No matter where you visit, it’s impossible to miss the stunning scenery and the turquoise-green waters of the Verdon!

For more information or assistance with planning your trip to the Gorges du Verdon:
Parcs Naturels Regionaux, Verdon Accueil (tel: +33(0)4-98-05-21-76), Parc Naturel Régional du Verdon, Beyond Provence, and Provence Web.

This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged.