In The Alpes de Haute Provence
The Verdon Gorge in the south of France is one of the most popular tourist areas in the whole country. Visitors to the French Riviera often drive the relatively short distance from the coast to admire the stunning scenery of the Verdon Gorges.
And it is easy to see why!
The amazing turquoise-green coloured waters of the Verdon River have cut deep gorges through the limestone rock of the region. The river derives its name from this startling green colour, the French for green being Vert.
The Gorges Of Verdon stretch for over 25 kilometres and in some places are as deep as 700 metres. As well as being deep they can also be very narrow. At water level the distance between the gorge walls can change from being 100 meters apart to as little as only six metres.
For part of its length the Verdon Gorge forms the border between two French Departments. To the north is the district of "Alpes de Haute Provence" while to the south is the "Var."
Although the Gorges of Verdon took millions of years to create, it wasn`t until the start of the 20th century that modern man really "discovered" them.
In August 1905 Edouard-Alfred Martel led a small expedition on a geological survey of the river. After his ground-breaking trip several other groups of adventurers followed, including a group of scouts in 1945.
What Martel and his companions took three days to do, pleasure seekers now do in a matter of hours.
In honour of Martel`s achievement in 1928 the Touring Club de France named a beautiful scenic pathway the "Sentier de Martel." (Sentier translates as pathway)
Modern man may not have arrived at the Verdon Gorges until very recently but for ancient man the gorges were a natural home.
At the village of Quinson a huge number of ancient artifacts have been unearthed, some dating back as much as 400,000 years. This discovery is of such importance that the largest European Museum of Pre-History was opened in Quinson in 2001 and every year it receives over 100,000 visitors.
Over the years a number of projects have been planned for the Verdon Gorge with a view to generating hydro-electricity. In fact three large tunnels were dug for one project and then abandoned after 1945.
The tunnels are still there today and can be visited. The tunnels are called "des Baumes," "du Baou," and "de Trescaire."
Other projects have had more success and five dams were built in the Verdon Gorges between 1929 and 1975. These dams have been somewhat controversial. In particular the one that was completed in 1973 which created the Lac de Sainte-Croix. This is the largest reservoir in France.
It covers what was the old village of Salles-sur-Verdon which had to be evacuated using force. The church and the village were destroyed with explosives, to the intense anger of the villagers. However, a new village was constructed closeby and the people relocated.
In addition to the Lac de Sainte-Croix there is also in the Verdon Gorges, the Lac de Castillon, the Lac d`Esparron-Greoux and reservoirs near Quinson and the village of Chaudanne.
These lakes are the scene of many water based activities and there are lots of beaches and picnic areas to enjoy. During the summer season thousands of visitors flock to the area, but because of its size, especially the massive, Lac de Sainte-Croix, it never gets overcrowded.
Canoeing and kayaking through the Verdon Gorges is extremely popular. Be aware that if you plan to journey the whole length of the river it can take as much as eight hours. Once you are on the water, the height and steepness of the gorge walls means that there is no way out until you reach the end of the run.
There are parts of the trip where you may have to scout ahead to select the best route. In other places you may have to portage for a while.
The water levels along the Verdon River can change rapidly depending on water releases from the Castellan Dam. These generally take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Paddlers seem to enjoy the trip more aftre these releases.
As well as the many watersports associated with the area, the Gorges du Verdon is a world class rock climbing destination.
The pocketed limestone cliffs of the gorge means that climbing is often of a technical nature and is generally multi-pitched.
There are some very big walls here! One of the most famous cliffs, the "la falaise de l`escales" is a vertical face 300 metres high!
To reach many of the best climbs in the gorge you must first abseil down some very daunting cliff faces. This leads to many of the climbs being "top-roped." This is where the safety rope is secured at the top of the cliff and hangs down, rather than being carried up by the climbers and attached at points to the rock face.
This is a technique that is said to have started here in the Verdon Gorge.
The gorge and the Lac de Sainte-Croix are actually part of a National Nature Park set up in March 1997.
It is called the Parc Naturel Regional du Verdon.
Over the years since its creation there has been a programme to introduce rare wild birds into the Verdon Gorges.
Climbers, high on a cliff wall, have sometimes been astonished to discover a Golden Eagle or a Vulture drifting serenly past them
on their huge wingspans. The park covers 178,000 hectares of land and includes 43 villages within its borders.
There are two other ways in which visitors enjoy the Verdon Gorge. The first one is by taking one of the many hiking trails such as the Sentier Martel. The best time to do this is outside the peak season of July and August when it can be just too hot.
It has to be said that hiking some of the trails in the Verdon Gorges is not for the faint hearted. You should be pretty fit and have all the proper gear. That said the scenery will more than make up for the occasional very steep climb.
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