Playing in Provence

By Ilona Kauremszky

GORGES DU VERDON -- I squeezed with all my might until my knuckles turned white. The bike's brakes were useless. I was careening out of control down the D957, one of Europe's most death-defying roads that traces a path atop the Gorges du Verdon.

Zooming past my companions, I loomed on the edge of the Jurassic cliffs that plummeted 350 metres into a gorge, eager to swallow its next prey. There was only one option and that was to ditch! A shoddy attempt at mimicking Cirque du Soleil, I somersaulted head first over the handlebars landing just this side of safety.

"I'm okay," I sheepishly moaned to a fellow cyclist fresh on the scene. Our French hosts inched up in their white Peugeot, craning their necks out the window. "Oh no! What has happened?" says Lisa, "You idiot -- you forgot to tell her that the brakes don't work."

The rest of the week I was forced to parade my newfangled scrapes and bruises as a badge of courage. Funny - I had been in Provence less than a day but somehow I knew the party was just beginning.

For active-types in search of adventure, the Gorges du Verdon is the perfect stomping ground. The Michelin Guide Book appropriately describes this geological formation as "Europe's Grand Canyon." Locals proudly thump their chests, boasting that this canyon even surpasses the magnitude of the other Grand Canyon.

But, Verdon didn't always get a good wrap. For years, l'etrangers (foreigners) described the canyon as the "step of the devil," leaving few with an urge to explore her treasures. Only during the Belle Epoque period (1890-1914) in France, did visitors start to consider entering the maze of the canyon. In 1921, speleologist Edouard-Alfred Martel was the first to explore the canyon in a three-day odyssey. The fruits of his labour spawned Verdon's first guide service with remnants of his trail marked and still in use.

Situated in southern France on the cusp of Alpes de Haute Provence and the Var, about two hours from Marseilles or Nice, the Gorges du Verdon plays out into a 21 kilometre long gorge that crescendos into towering precipices, and diminuendos into alpine valleys festooned with lavender. French writer Jean Giono once remarked, "Here it is more than remote, it is elsewhere." This is the place of wild herbs, medieval villages, and as of late the onslaught of eco-adventure.

Today, you can kayak, whitewater raft, hike, horseback ride, fish, rappel, rock climb and even cycle. Our mission was to hang out at the Gorges.

Since 1967, France has created a network of regional parks with their own unique charters established to preserve the fragile ecosystems inherent to regions like Provence. In 1997, this area that includes 43 towns and spreads out over 178,000 hectares between lower and upper Provence was designated as the Verdon Regional Natural Park. Composed of soft alpine valleys and sharp cliffs, Verdon is a study of contrasts in which 1,000km of trails, five lakes, scores of rivers, and hundreds of cliffs dot the terrain along with a panacea of flora and fauna. Forest pine, larch, and white oak hug the adrets (sunny slopes). Scientists carefully record the life cycle of the trout and the pernicious predator, the pike; while ornithologists arrive religiously to study the habits of nuthatches, acrobats, coal-tits, hawfinches, and the recently reintroduced griffon vultures, the new/old carrion eaters whose job it is to clean up the slopes. Geologists have reported that during the Tertiary tectonic upheaval, limestone rippled skyward creating sheer cliff faces while below, an ancient river carved a labyrinth of secret underground caves.

Our overworked, time-challenged North American sensibilities crumbled in the face of the sensual and sensible pace of Provencal life. Our hosts and friends, Lisa, a writer, and Paul, a French filmmaker, were most eager to plunge us head first into the sauvage splendors of Provence. For Paul, this became swimming, hiking and off-roading at every chance.

On a warm spring day, we left our chateau in the old tannery town of Barjols in the Var, famous for its fountains, and for its peculiar resident, Provence's largest plantan tree that measures 12 metres in circumference, and headed up to an elevation of 630 metres above sea level.

Lumbering cumulus clouds cast blue shades over Lac Sainte Croixe, one of France's largest manmade lakes created in 1975 for hydroelectric power and also used for leisure boating, kayaking, windsurfing and fishing. A perfect photo-op popped up when wild swaying buttercups blanketed the adrets framing the lake below.

"You see past this road, we will stop at Moustiers Sainte Marie for some lunch," motions Paul, adopting a serious tone.

In Provence, like most of France, eating is a serious business. So ever-mindful of the desire to have lunch soon, Paul plows down an overgrown country road in search of "chevres fraises et lavendes." Now officially appointed the keeper of the cheese, I cradled my delicate charge lovingly on my lap until our next stop.

Just ahead off the D957, the medieval mountain village of Moustiers Sainte Marie rises from the Maire valley nestled between the bosom of two peaks. A five-point star dangles from a 227-metre chain that girdles above the village. Legend has it that on one grueling night during the Crusades, a native knight miraculously returned alive to his beloved Moustiers Sainte Marie. It's no wonder the locals affectionately refer to their home as the other "Bethlehem."

Skyward, I climb the 300 narrow well-trodden steps that guide me up to the Notre Dame de Beauvoir Chapel which dates to the fifth century and crowns the mountain. From my new vantage point, I have a bird's eye view of the place where time has stood still. An old woman sits idly on a wicker chair, darning a sock as a small boy splashes his head under a fountain, taking a gulp before resuming a game of football. From a windowsill, a young mother's watchful eye rests on her mischievous son.

Centuries ago, the town's forefathers worked in earthenware to create a ceramic industry. Today, the village is a leading area for "faļence" in France. The handmade tiles are produced in 16 workshops and sold in over 30 family-run shops. On leaving Moustiers, we fill our canteens with mountain water at a grotto and return to D957. We ascend into the mountains sans guardrails until a road sign flatly announces a scenic lookout point.

Paul jerks the car to a stop, inches from a sheer abyss. "Allons-y! Let's go for a walk," says Paul, our daredevil French friend, who's now solo dancing from stone to stone on the ledge of the unguarded cliff. "It is good to test yourself everyday to feel alive," he proclaims. And we do, following behind our mad general. Our dance is driven by joy and adrenaline.

It is now late afternoon. While soaking in the view, we spot two black dots hugging the rock face. My stomache goes queasy when I realize the black dots are men. These rock climbers are 100-metres from the summit of the Falaise de l'Escales (cliffs) of Verdon, legendary in the climbing world for its 300-metre vertical drop. In some places, the depth can reach 700 metres with the width of the gorge reaching as wide as 1,500 metres at the top of the cliffs. We approach the gangly three to congratulate them on their summit. I learn that these young Italians have completed their inaugural climb in six hours.

As the sun begins its slow descent, the canyon shimmers in a soft palette of ochre and magenta, bathing the sharp dangerous rocks in softness. Now the soul automobile on this winding road, the Gorges du Verdon has become our private playground. If ever there was a time to want more of that lingering Provencal time, it was this. We coasted playfully silently, in a downward spiral toward the village of Aiguines.

With the full moon rising, we gently immerse ourselves into the cold water of Lac Ste Croixe. Four motionless bodies floating in the immense lake lost beneath the stars. I have long forgotten about my nicks and scrapes. "This is what it means to hang out at the gorge," I smile to myself. Lifting my head like a giddy schoolgirl, I catch a bat dancing across the indigo water in the gloaming. I have finally played in Provence.


photos: Stephen Smith

If You Go:

The Michelin Guide reports the route from Barjols to Moustiers Ste Marie is 33 miles and takes approx. 1 hour by car. Allow yourself a day to soak in the scenery.

Check out the ceramic shops in Moustiers Sainte Marie. Le Cloitre is one store operated by three generations of Thiery's. Owner Michelle Thiery speaks English -- so don't worry. For more information call: 011-33-4-9274-6203

In addition, the Michelin Guide produces its Red Guide of Hotels and Restaurants and Michelin's Guide, "Camping Caravaning France" with accommodation listings. Hostellerie des Trois Fontaines is a quaint and tidy five-room hotel in Barjols. Address: 12 Place Capitaine Vincens, 83670 Barjols, Telephone +33 494 77 23 98

For driving, allow yourself a two-hour padding to avoid traveling in the dark. When hiking, don't stray off major trails as natural vegetation will be disrupted. If biking, there are several websites available on planning bike tours in Verdon. Here are a few: Trento Bike Pages with its numerous French tour reports. or visit Virtual Alps for cycling tips and photos on all alpine passes and gorges.

Sainte Croix du Verdon has two festivals worth seeing: The popular Village Festival scheduled August 6 and the Ste. Croix Festival scheduled September 14. Every Friday, in Moustiers Sainte Marie, there is a small market past the post office. Foire (Fair) is scheduled on 14 July.

There are 13 Tourist Offices and "Syndicats d'Initiative" in the area. Here are two: MOUSTIERS-SAINTE-MARIE, Office de Tourisme and Castellane, Tel: 0492 83 61 14; Fax: 0492 83 76 89

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