The Gorges du Verdon is the most wonderful part of France that you’ve never heard of.
At least Mark and I hadn’t. I can’t understand why; what, with it being the world’s second largest canyon next to the Grand Canyon. Mark has seen the Grand Canyon, so could offer a comparison,
“The Grand Canyon is so big that it’s almost impossible to take in. It’s impressive, because it’s huge and spectacular, but Verdon is truly beautiful.”
We rose early to go to Moustiers Sainte Marie – a worthy member of the very long list of ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France’. Exhausted after our hair-raising drive in, we opted instead for a chilled-out day in the shade around the caravan.
Since we are on the road for an extended tour, winter and summer, we had to bring a lot of gear – all our ski stuff and four winter tyres, as well as all our boards and bikes. When packing, we were forced to be selective about what we included.
Our super-sized awning, which takes up three boxes, was a casualty of thinning out, but Mark was convinced that he had a solution. He promised to create a much lighter awning from scratch, out of purest green. It sounded like one of the character Baldrick’s cunning plans in Blackadder, but as good as his word, Mark fashioned a low-cost, compact and lightweight awning from a roll of PVC-coated polyester sheeting and stitch-on awning rail insert. It’s great! It looks quite artistic, like those trendy sails that people drape over their patios, but in lime green… It matches the windbreak, which is our latest innovation in Cavapoo Containment for our four pups.
With huge excitement, we treated ourselves to dinner out. The sweet, little village of La Palud-sur-Verdon is a short walk away from the municipal campsite Le Grand Canyon along a shady footpath, where the dogs could run free. We bought some walking maps in one of the shops, then made the waiter laugh out loud in the Styx restaurant,
“Deux fish and chips, s’il vous plaît.”
“Very English!” he said, even though we’d ordered in my perfect French, with a Lancashire accent.
Well, once we’d seen it on the menu, we couldn’t resist, despite the temptations of the local delicacies and the plat du jour; grilled pork with tarragon. After so long away, we’re beginning to miss the staples of British cuisine, such as steak pudding, curry and a roast. Battered hake and pommes frites with tartare sauce and a slice of lemon was the next best thing to a paper full of cod and chips from The Fry Inn at Tuckton. Laced with sand, vinegar and a Bournemouth beachfront sunset, you can’t beat it!
The locally-brewed Verdon ales sounded interesting. I tried the white beer with citron and bergamot and Mark had amber with chestnut and gentian. They were both delicious, so we ordered another one each. I am not sure we would have enjoyed them so much had we known that the thimble-sized, 300ml bottles were €7 each!
The following day, we arrived early at Moustiers Sainte Marie, which worked well, since the village was still in the shade. Even at 8am, when we took the pups for their morning pee poo, the heat of a Provençale July was fierce. There was a free car park just below the village and a pleasant walk up through quaint, narrow and thankfully, shady streets. It is an artisan kind of place, famous for ceramics and soap, made from the renowned, aromatic Provençale lavender. (The factory for the famous L’Occitane products in nearby Manosque offers free, guided tours.)
We walked up to the 12th Century chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Beauvoir, which looks down on the village. A star is strung on a chain across the gorge above the chapel, although the legends behind it vary. One suggests that, after being imprisoned by the Saracens, Baron Blacas promised to hang his star above the village if he returned safely from the crusades.
On the steps of the chapel, a little boy passively-aggressively refused to have his photo taken. Every time his mum raised her camera, he stuck his water bottle in front of his face. I giggled as she shot me a knowing but resigned look.
“Voulez-vous un photo avec un chien?” I asked. “Do you want a photo with a dog?”
To the delight of his parents, he sat willingly for a photo with Lani next to him, face uncovered and beaming broadly into the lens!
Back in the village, we popped into the tourist office to ask the whereabouts of an A.T.M.
“Credit Agricole” the man said – spattering the full, Perspex screen.
At the A.T.M, a pleasant chap, dressed all in black, came over to fuss the dogs.
“Where are you from? I’m from Bourgogne. Burgundy in English.”
Somehow, I knew he was a biker – the mane of wavy, grey hair above his all-black ensemble of T- shirt, shorts and leather waistcoat, gave him away.
“I’m going canyoning this afternoon!” he told us. “I’ve wanted to do it for twenty years!”
His enthusiasm was infectious.
“You’ve chosen the most wonderful place to try canyoning! Enjoy!”
Luckily, Mark and I have already terrified ourselves with canyoning. We have to forgo such pleasures as canyoning because of The Pawsome Foursome, although we wouldn’t be without the love and joy that they bring us every day.
The season was not quite in full swing, perhaps because of the lockdown, so many of the cafés and restaurants in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie were closed, which was a shame. We decided to go to the lake, Sainte-Croix, for coffee and stopped at the town of Salles-du-Verdon. It was full of seasidy-tacky shops selling garish, inflatable flamingoes and cheap beachwear. Just as the bakery was closing for lunch, we managed to score a tasty Nutella muffin and coffee to enjoy at a shady table outside.
The town itself was set back from the lakeside, so, duly fortified with caffeine and chocolate, we walked down to the water’s edge. Although there were gaps, most of the shoreline was occupied and we didn’t feel it was polite to inundate sunbathers with a pack of wet, excited dogs. The Fab Four get very noisy when chasing sticks into the water and inevitably shake themsleves next to a warm and unsuspecting beach body.
We dunked the pups in the water to cool them off, then drove back to a car park that we had spotted next to the Pont du Galetas bridge, which spans the gorge where the Verdon river empties into the lake. Many of the lakeside car parks have height barriers to stop motorhomes from camping overnight on the shore. This one was free, had no height barriers and was close enough to the water for us to carry our SUPs (Stand Up Paddleboards) to the water.
It is important to be careful where you launch or swim in the gorges. The lake is the third biggest in France and was man-made as part of a hydroelectric power scheme. This means that there can be sudden changes in water levels, but since the area around the Pont de Galetas was quite busy with pedalos, electric phut-phuts and kayaks, which can be hired nearby, we figured we would be safe!
The gorge is truly spectacular. The limestone cliffs soar nearly 1000m above you in places. The colours are beautiful, with orange streaks in the pale limestone and water that achieves the most unfeasible shades of jade green and turquoise. As we paddled upstream, we passed caves where swooping flocks martins nested. A shimmering, white waterfall contrasted with underlying mossy rocks and in places, we could paddle beneath overhangs to enjoy a light, cooling sprinkle of water droplets, which captured diamond flashes of sunlight as they fell.
With two dogs each, we out-paddled most of the boats and went quite a long way upstream. There, it was quieter and the steep rock walls gave way to an expanse of pebbly beach. The Fab Four and Mark went in for a swim, but the water was freezing. Despite the blazing heat, I couldn’t quite manage full immersion.
The current was very slack, so there was little to help us against the wind that whipped sharply up the canyon on our return paddle. The downstream leg also passed with more incidents than our outbound paddle!
At one point, when Mark and I came in close proximity, Rosie swiftly leapt across on to my board, so that I had three dogs aboard. My balance is not great, so when I had a bit of a wobble, Rosie half jumped and half fell into the water. Instead of swimming back to the board, she made a bee line for shore, if you could call a steep, rocky cliff ‘shore’. There, she scrambled up onto a rock ledge. I scooted over to retrieve her and as we approached, Ruby shot me a look that asked,
“Shall I go ashore? Are we going ashore? Rosie has gone ashore. Should I be following her?” At that point, she took matters into her own hands and jumped off to swim over and join Rosie on the cliff. This was not helpful! In a reasonably shambolic fashion, Mark and I got everyone back on board. I picked up Ruby, while Mark collected Rosie and somehow Lani abandoned my ship and left me alone with Ruby.
Then, the wind blew off my baseball cap, which was supposed to be tied on, but had come adrift. It was graciously retrieved by a chap in a pedalo, who waved it aloft like a trophy.
“I’ll get it,” Mark said, ever the gentleman, but in that moment, he had unfortunately forgotten Newton’s third law of motion.
He threw the hat over to me – and the equal and opposite reaction was that his board tipped up, landing Mark and his three passengers in the river. The pups, in their brightly coloured life-jackets, attracted loads of attention throughout our paddle, but I am sure that our impromptu ducking has the most clicks on Instagram worldwide. Sadly, we have no photographs ourselves. Even though I did not fall in, I can never be trusted not to get my camera wet.
We had spotted an 8 à Huit store in Salles and went back to get some grub for dinner. Luckily, we chose a moment when it was open. Despite the twelve-hour promise implicit in its name, it is closed quite a lot of the time. It would be better called 8 à Huit Sauf de 12h à 15.30h et Dimanche Après Midi to incorporate the lengthy lunchtime and Sunday afternoon closures. The selection of fresh fruit and veg was great and I scored two superb, marinated pork chops from the boucherie opposite, but somehow, I lost my celeriac remoulade on the way home.
Later, Mark found my celeriac remoulade where I had placed it, on the shelf by my bed in the caravan. Mark called me a lemon; which was quite polite for Mr L!
To be honest, we’re both lemons, since we both got the tops of our feet sunburnt on the SUPs. I had applied sunscreen; Mark never bothers, but although it’s the type that binds to your skin, my shoes must have rubbed it off. I already had a blister from my trusty, Merrell sandals, which have gone stiff after lengthy immersions in sea water on Bournemouth Beach last summer, then, the edge of a half-litre bottle of Orangina fell out of the fridge and landed on my big toe. It felt like I had been hit with a hammer. The equal and opposite reaction to that was somewhat stronger than “lemon”, let me tell you.
I had been trying so hard to protect my feet. Now, with blisters, sunburn and bruises, I couldn’t wear any kind of shoes!
Luckily, my wonder medicine, Climb On! worked a treat overnight, and took the heat out of the sunburn. The following day, we were planning to stay off our feet and scare ourselves by driving the picturesque but vertiginous Route des Crêtes – the Crest Road, which was fortunate. I considered that I might be forced into my Dad’s shoe-based singularity – sandals with socks. (I took the mickey out of Dad for years about this particular footwear foible of his, until I tried it in New Zealand to keep off sand flies because it was too hot for hiking boots. It is just soooo comfortable…! I was considerably more delighted than Dad when I found a pair of socks with sandals printed on for his father’s day present this year. I can’t believe that he has refused to wear my kind and thoughtful present!)
We were quite nervous, but consoled ourselves that the Route des Crêtes is not on the website Dangerous Roads – and we would be doing it without a caravan in tow!
Join us next time as we scare ourselves silly on the Route des Crêtes and visit the famous lavender fields of Provence. Click ‘follow’ or enter your email address into the box at the top right of the page to make sure you don’t miss a new chapter of our adventures. No spam guaranteed!
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If you buy your Dad socks with sandals printed on, you do so at your own risk.