Storms were forecast, so we had battened down and given up on our plans. Although we had distant thunder and light rain the previous evening, I awoke at 7am to a perfect, blue Provençale sky.
“Shall we get up and do the Route des Crêtes?” I asked Mark.
The D23; the Route des Crêtes or Crest Road, is a circular, panoramic road, high above the Gorges du Verdon. Built purely for pleasure on the route of an old mule track, it is another of the famous French balcony roads, cut into a sheer cliff face. Regardless of the weather, we were quite nervous about it anyway. Its high point is around 1,300m (4,200ft); not somewhere to get caught in a storm on a narrow road blessed with hairpins and dizzying drops.
Since the loop is only 23km long, we estimated it would take around an hour to drive. Even with our recent poor record of thunderstorm avoidance, we thought the weather gods would be pushing it to whip up a tempest from nothing in so short a time…
Fifty metres to the left along the road outside our campsite, Camping Municipal le Grand Canyon, is a shady pathway into the village of Palud-sur-Verdon. It was perfect for walking the dogs. On our first evening and a few morning walks, I met a smiley, friendly young chap sitting on a bench. He loved the dogs, particularly Rosie. He threw sticks for her, which she bounced along and retrieved with her usual, infectious enthusiasm.
Sebastian worked at the campsite in the morning and evening. He had a dark, tanned and muscular physique. He told me that he loves the area because he is a climber and hiker, and worked all hours to earn money to buy climbing equipment. I asked if he ever got a holiday,
“Not for two years.”
Sebastian gave us a few suggestions to make the best of the area,
“Drive the Route des Crêtes in the morning, so that it is not too hot and visit Castellane. There is a market on Wednesdays.”
As with most of the roads in the Gorges, the drops on the Route des Crêtes are vertiginous and the safety barriers, if indeed there are any, the height of a matchbox. We had read that it was a good idea for those with vertigo to travel anti-clockwise, since this direction hugged the mountain side, rather than the sheer drop side. This is not possible, since part of the route is one-way.
Mark removed the SUP boards from our roof rack, in case of overhangs and low tunnels. At the roadside a few hundred metres outside the campsite, he pulled over to clean the windscreen before setting off up hairpins. Can’t be too careful.
“Are you sure we should do this?” I asked. The nerves had well and truly taken hold.
“It will be fine,” he reassured me, which was ironic coming from him, considering what happend a short time later.
Even before we reached any of the Belvédère set view-points, we paused to admire the countryside laid out before us.
At the first stop, Belvédère de Trescaire haut, I walked to the edge of the cliff, clinging on to the safety barriers as my knees gave way in fear. At its highest, the gorge is 700m (nearly 2,300ft – or 0.4 miles). From hundreds of feet above, it seemed odd to be looking down on the shiny, dark backs of crag martins, swallow-like birds, who flitted in flocks around the gorge walls.
“Don’t go near the edge” Mark warned.
Neither of us are good with heights and by the third Belvédère, Mark was so shaken by the exposure at the view-points that he said,
“I won’t get out to look. I don’t want to lose my nerve for driving. Just take loads of photos and I can see the views afterwards!”
Back in our van, Big Blue, we continued without seat belts, so that we could make a hasty exit if necessary. We’d heard the tale of a Maserati that skidded over the edge. The occupants cheated death only because the car got caught up in the branches of a tree. Mark pledged that if anything happened, he would get the dogs out first.
“What if our brakes fail?”
“I’ll just run into the rock wall!”
I was pleased that he joined me at Belvédère du Pas de la Bau. We knew that griffon vultures were re-introduced into the area in 1999, the year we were married, but we did not expect to see a dozen of them circling in thermals above the gorge. Mark watched them for a while, but went back to the dogs, leaving me with a, “Be careful. Don’t get carried away and forget where you are. ” I could have stayed for hours to take in the magnificence of these huge birds as they added drama to an already dramatic landscape.
As we continued on to Belvédère du Tilleul, the sun was blotted out as the magnified shadow of a vulture passed over Big Blue’s roof. It sent a primeval shiver up our spines.
Unlike the other roads in the area, along with bridges in most of France, the tunnels all had height and width markers. They were less relevant than they might have been on the D952 into Palud-sur-Verdon, since the Route des Crêtes has plenty of stopping places where it would be possible to turn around. U-turns were absolutely not an option on the main road in!
The one-way section was not too bad at all. It was reassuring to know that you would not meet any crazies coming the other way in the middle of the road. I found the road scarier once we re-joined the two-way part. We were grateful that we were hugging the mountain side, since that section was still amply blessed with blind curves and the sort of drops that feature in a base jumper’s wet dream.
It took us about ninety minutes door-to-door, with stops at most of the fourteen Belvédères and a quick call into the lovely bakery in Palud for fresh croissants for breakfast.
We both agreed that it had not been anywhere near as terrifying as we anticipated, but it had been quiet, the weather perfect and we had taken it at our own pace.
I just felt so grateful to have had the opportunity to experience it, since it had seemed that the weather might thwart us. It was a beautiful drive and well worth doing, but for both of us, the highlight was the vultures. To see one would have been a privilege, but to see so many together was just breathtaking!
- Go in the morning when the road is quiet and before it gets too hot
- You can only drive the whole route clockwise, because part of it is one way
- Most of the road is closed in winter (November to March) due to the risk of snow and ice, with limited access at either end