Sunday, June 29, 2014

France 2014: Road trip to the Gorge Du Verdon

Often called the "Grand Canyon of France", the Gorge du Verdon is a canyon about 25KM long with a depth of up to 700 metres.  It was formed by the flowing waters of the Verdon River which empties into the man-made Lake Sainte-Croix.  There are two main routes that pass by the gorge en route to the tourist destinations of Aiguines and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie.  Highway D952 passes over the northern rim of the gorge towards Moustiers-Sainte-Marie and is called Route des Gorges or "rive droit" by locals since it follows the right bank of the river.  Highway D71 passes by the southern rim or left bank of the river towards Aiguines and is called Route de la Corniche Sublime.

We knew we wanted to take both highways to make a circular loop to and from the gorge, but debated whether to go clockwise or counterclockwise.  One major consideration was whether or not we wanted to drive on the side of the road that hugged the mountain walls, or the side that skimmed along the cliffs.  Driving the cliff side would give us better views as we drove and would make it easier to pull over to take photos.  But it also seemed a bit perilous considering the steep,  narrow, windy roads with many sections that did not have any guard rails and the speed of the cars whipping by as they barely had enough room to pass you in the other "lane".  We decided that it was not worth the risk and the view would not do me any good if I had my eyes closed the whole time–so counterclockwise against the wall was the final choice. 

Part of our itinerary was to drive along a 23km scenic loop named Route des Crêtes or D23, which closely follows the ridge of the canyon and provides 14 viewing points.  We were also looking for a specific plateau called "Point Sublime" which was touted for its spectacular views.  We thought we were on the right track when we spotted a yellow sign that said "D23".  To our surprise, we had only driven on this road for a few kilometers before we came to a dead end.  We had accidentally stumbled on the Belvédère du Couloir Samson, an excellent area for hiking and exploring, that was not previously on our radar.  We ended up spending hours here before resuming our search for Highway D23.

From the parking lot of the Belvédère, there were two paths to choose from.  We could walk down a long flight of steps towards the river, or follow a hiking path up the mountains.  What swayed us to try the mountain hike first was a sign pointing up the incline that read "Point Sublime".  From our research, we knew that it was supposed to be a 10 minute hike to the viewing point.  Within the first few minutes of our climb, we reached a mini plateau with two caves which each opened up to reveal views of the mountains.

Continuing on the path, we climbed higher and higher looking for some indication that we had reached Point Sublime.  Along the way, we surveyed some beautiful scenery including glimpses of the emerald green waters of the Verdon River and massive, sheer cliffs with streaks of grey, white, black, brown and orange.  We passed one area where the rock face took on a smooth oval shape, creating a curved overhang that provided some shade from the blaring sun and made for a nice resting spot.  After walking for over 30 minutes, we finally came to the conclusion that this was not the route to Point Sublime, but rather some other trail that could go on forever.   We decided to turn back and retrace our steps, satisfied that we still had a great hike and saw some amazing vistas.

Once we descended back to the parking lot, we turned our attention to the long steep flight of stairs that led down to the shore of the Verdon River.  We did not realize the significance at the time, but we were embarking on a small part of the famous Sentier Martel Trail, a 15km trail that follows the Verdon River from the Chalet de la Maline (at the southern end of the D23 loop) up to Point Sublime, which turned out to be about 2km north of where we were. It was a bit daunting to traverse so close to the river, given all the DANGER signs warning of flash floods that could cause the waters to rise dramatically.  But since there was a clearly marked path, we decided to explore a bit and walked down to the riverbed.  Along the way, we spotted a group of people who were getting instructions on how to body surf down the river, which seemed to involve jumping in while wearing a wet suit, lying flat and letting the currents do the rest.

 Walking further along, we came across a flight of metal stairs that seemed to lead to the entrance of a cave.  The sign at the top said "Escalier du Tunnel du Baou".  What we came across was not a cave, but rather one of a set of three tunnels that were originally built for a hydro electric project that was never completed.

We had no idea how far the tunnel extended or what we would see on the other end, because once we moved away from the entrance, it was pitch black and we did not have a flashlight.  It was so dark that we may as well have been walking with our eyes closed.  I was a bit concerned walking on the uneven and occasionally damp ground without being able to see.  But Rich was undeterred, so we proceeded with caution.  Every once in a while, we would take a photo with flash, just to illuminate what was ahead.  After gingerly walking what felt like forever but was actually about 150 meters, we came to a window with a nice view of the river.  That was enough for me, so I waited by the window while Rich continued a bit further, using the light of our IPAD display for a bit more illumination.  Unfortunately we did not have the flashlight app loaded and there was no cell signal, or our trek would have been a lot brighter.  Once we got home, we researched the Baou tunnel and found out that it stretched 670 meters and led to two more tunnels.  This would have been really fun had we known about it in advance and brought a flashlight.

We did come across the actual Point Sublime after leaving the Couloir Samson area.  We actually could have hiked to it from where we were, had we gone in the right direction, as it was just 2km away.  The mountain views were indeed sublime, but didn't have as much impact as it would have had we got there first, since we already saw such amazing views at the Couloir Samson.

Continuing our originally planned journey along the northern D952 highway, we finally came across the scenic D23 loop.  As warned, it was even more treacherous than the other highways, since the roads were narrower and almost entirely without guardrails.  We spotted multiple cyclists riding cliff-side down these roads and thought they were very brave and a bit crazy!  There were multiple belvederes or lookout points where we could park our car to take photos, and the views were spectacular.  After a while though, I developed the same feeling I had when driving around the Grand Canyon–no matter how gorgeous the scenery, after stopping enough times, you realize that you are continuously looking down at the same hole, just from different angles.

I'll leave our visits to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, Lake Sainte-Croix and Aiguines to another blog and describe instead our eventful drive home via the southern route D71.  While we were on the D23, we had spotted in the distance what looked like multiple windows or openings in the middle of the mountain.  On the drive home, we passed through what turned out to be a long tunnel called Tunnel du Fayet.

Luckily there was not too much traffic traversing through the tunnel, so we were able to safely move through it, taking photos of the beautiful tunnel itself, as well as the views captured out of the rock openings.  There was even a small space between the window openings and the road where we could stand and take photos of the cars and motorcycles whizzing by. 
Further along D71, we came across a beautiful suspension bridge called "Pont de L'Artuby".  As we got closer, we saw a sign that said "Rope Jump" and a series of ropes suspended from the bridge to the railings on the other side of the gorge.  There were a couple of teenagers sitting in camping chairs next to the ropes.  It was not clear whether these were the intended jumpers, or whether they were charging a fee for tourists to try the jump.  Regardless of which it was, there was no one jumping, although multiple tourists including ourselves checked out the ropes and looked down the gorge in horror.

Our route home passed through the military zone near Comps-Sur-Artuby where we encountered a compound containing a large number of tanks.  Neither the "Do Not Enter" warning signs nor the barbed wire could keep Rich from getting a better look at the edge of the fence.  It's lucky he has not be arrested as a spy (or dumb tourist).

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