We were staying just where the vines, olives and truffle-oaks of the Var region meet the Alpes de Haute Provence - the very southern end of the European Alps. The Gorges du Verdon, usually billed as 'Europe's grand canyon', cuts its way through the limestone, and its tributaries and other small watercourses in the region create the 130 slot canyons described in loving detail on this section of the French canyoning site.
The first kilometre or so of the Gorges belongs to the pedal boats and canoes hires coming up from Lac de St Croix, but after that the Gorges and its surrounds are the property of climbers, rafters and canyoners!
We stayed in Cotignac, a village built right up against, and in places into, a tufa cliff created by a long-vanished waterfall.
Some relatives were camping nearby on the patrimonial olive grove, where we spent most of our evenings, making it more like a real camping trip.
One of the people camping amongst the olives was Peter C, my step-uncle (?) who featured in this blog a few years back when he visited Australia. Peter is fitter in his 60s than I am in my 50s, and an ideal wilderness companion. Because of the need to negotiate activities with other family members, we only managed a day and a half in the mountains, but that was enough for three small canyons and to get a sense of the extraordinary diversity and quality of canyoning in this area.
Peter is a lifelong climber, and has often climbed in these hills, but he had not tried canyoning before. So we agreed to begin with a straightforward scramble down a dry canyon to get ourselves on the same wavelength. The Ravin du Notre Dame cuts through the cliffs just above the village of Moustiers Sainte-Marie. A star hangs between the two limestone pinnacles at the head of the ravine, and a church perches precariously on one side, both erected by a medieval crusader in gratitude for the Virgin bringing him home safely.
It’s a very touristical village, but as usual ten minutes walking up the ravine found us in complete solitude.
It was ferociously hot, and we were glad to reach the top and drop into the little slot that begins the canyon.
The rest of the canyon is very open, and proved straightforward.
Finishing in the middle of the village and being able to have a cold beer straight after removing our harnesses was a real novelty!
Two days later we were up at dawn to avoid the heat and drove up the left bank of the Gorges du Verdon. This is the view down, about 400m, to the Verdon river near the Ravin d’Artuby, a popular non-technical canyoning trip.
We started with a small canyon on the Jabron river, near the tiny medieval village of Trigance. Like a lot of the canyons here, it is more or less straight off the road into the canyon, which is a real treat.
This was Peter's first jump - something that to a climber looks like a very dubious way to get down a slope!
There was very little water flowing, but plenty of big, clear pools – containing large numbers of tiny frogs.
All too soon the constriction was over and a little later we emerged at the Pont du Sautet – a pretty little bridge carrying one of the many hiking trails through these mountains.
Even though we were now at around 1500m it was getting ferociously hot again, so we decided to take a siesta. Crossing the Verdon at Pont du Soleils, an ancient stone bridge at the top of the gorge, we slept in the shade by the river for a couple of hours and had a swim in the freezing waters of the Verdon to wake us up, followed by a roadside espresso with this view back into the gorge.
Driving back down the right bank of the gorge we stopped in La Palud sur Verdon, the local centre for rock climbing, as this café sign makes clear (that's Provencal, not French, hence the 'lou'). We guessed correctly that anywhere catering to climbers would have free wifi, and we used this to explore the canyon site looking for a good option for the afternoon.
As we feared, our options were severely restricted by only having one 60m rope. All the famous canyons near here have rappel pitches of 50m or more. So eventually we drove back towards Moustier and dropped into the little Ravin de Balene. Out of consideration for the car, we stopped when the road got rough and walked the last kilometer, but if you carry on you can park 100m from the constriction - luxury.
We both thought this canyon was severely underrated – the French site only gives it 1.8 out of 4. It is only a few hundred meters long, but it is a continuous, deep, beautifully sculpted constriction, never more than a couple of metres wide and with half a dozen fun, wet rappels. Size is not everything.
This was far too little time to enjoy this paradise, and I have a serious ambition to return with more time and more equipment. But for now, a bientôt Provence!