A couple of months ago one of my Facebook friends posted an article on her timeline entitled “20 Spots in Europe You Must See Before You Die”. Number Fourteen stood out to me above all the rest. Something about the crystal clear blue water and the rising peeks called to my soul. I needed to experience Les Gorges du Verdon.
Like I mentioned in my previous post, I hadn’t even wanted to go to Paris. After what I thought was an adequate amount of time in this famous city (4 days), my brother and I hightailed it out of there for southern France.
We went without a plan. I wanted to white water raft the gorge but all of my phone calls to the rafting companies had been futile. Apparently, the dam only releases water twice a week and those are the only days it is suitable to raft. But the schedule is released at 5pm the day before. All the rafting shops close at 5pm… I just had hope that it would work out.
We arrived at the Nice airport in the afternoon. I rented a car with Hertz. This process had given me endless headaches. Initially it seems that renting a car is really cheap. For six days I was getting quotes of $150. But that was a manual. I understand the basic concept of a manual, but my skills are less than desirable and my experience is limited to about two hours of lessons- once from an uncle when I was 14 in our field on the farm and another from a Clove Island teammate. Mark, my brother and traveling companion, is a valet parker. He drives cars for a living so he can do it, right? That will be an extra $300 for someone under 25…
I chose the cheaper route- an automatic, which did add another $150 to the price- and I had to be the sole driver. I hadn’t driven anything in over 10 months. I was nervous, to say the least, so the salesperson had no trouble signing me up for maximum insurance, adding another hefty sum to the price. I left the car rental office with lighter pockets but an excitement that was only boosted when I saw the cute little Citroen DS4. It had a built in GPS that was invaluable! After a couple minutes of fiddling around and getting acquainted, I put the car into drive. Immediately the female GPS told me to “Tournez à droit puis tournez à gauche”. I’m fairly certain that Mark, speaking no French previously, could give perfect directions with a crisp accent after more than 20 hours of listening to that.
Les Gorges du Verdon are located about 2 hours north of Nice. Mark connected his iPhone to the car and we blasted Twenty One Pilots and Avicii as we climbed higher and higher into the Southern Alps. The temperature began to drop rapidly. When we arrived at our destination of Castellane it was 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius).
I’d chosen the cheapest place I could find with access to the gorge: Camping Frédéric Mistral. I booked a tent. It had two twin beds and a nightstand separating them. Nothing else would fit into the sloped space, not even our luggage. We kept our bags in the trunk and lived out of the car during the time we were there.
I’d decided we would stay in the town of Castellane for two nights, giving us one full day in which to white water raft.
Castellane is overshadowed by “Le Roc” or “The Rock”, a massive cliff topped by the Chapel of Our Lady of the Rock. The morning of our full day in the town, we made the half-hour hike to the top of the mountain. Along the path leading to the top there are Stations of the Cross altars, each with a mosaic of Christ’s suffering up to his death and burial. When we reached the top, we encountered a large headless statue. The plaque at the base describes it as a statue of the Virgin Mary dating back to 70AD. I have a little bit of a hard time believing this. Was Mary already idolized in 70AD? Enough to have a built a giant statue in the middle of nowhere France? I guess it’s possible but it seems highly unlikely.
Further exploration brought us into the chapel itself. The current chapel dates back to 1860 but there has been a church standing in that spot for hundreds and hundreds of years. Inside the walls are covered with plaques. They are different in form and color but most have initials and a date. Some hold explanations. “My brother was healed from cancer,” said one. Many, many plaques date from the years of World War II. They are all thanks for miracles attributed to “Our Lady of the Rock” who is prominent on the altar at the front of the church, holding an infant Jesus.
After descending from the mountain, we drove 5 kilometers to the supply shack for Aboard Rafting. Unfortunately, the dam had not been opened that day. However, we were able to book an airboat tour. An airboat is an inflatable, one-person kayak. It rides higher in the water, allowing it to go over rocks and such on which a raft would get stuck. We suited up in wetsuit socks, a sleeveless wetsuit and a long-sleeved wetsuit jacket. Along with our chain-smoking French guide, a young German couple and two French girls we began our half-day journey down the Verdon. After paddling for just five minutes, we detoured to the bank, climbed to the top of a rock and jumped into a deep, clear blue pool below. The shock of the water hitting bare skin on hands and feet felt like a punch to stomach; all the breath in my chest was expelled and I popped to the surface scrambling to intake life-giving air before screaming about how incredibly cold it was! That was enough of that water for the day. Despite getting stuck on multiple rocks, losing a lot of the air on one side of my boat making it very unsteady and getting run into by the inexperienced and very silly French girls, I managed to stay upright in my kayak the entire time. Mark was not so lucky, but he can tell that story if he so chooses.
The $35 spent on the kayak was definitely worth it. The “Places to See Before You Die” website was right on point with this one. But it only got better from there.
That evening we met a Canadian couple that told us about some other gorges in the area. The next day that’s what we decided to check out. Les Gorges de Daluis and Les Gorges du Cians, to be specific. You can find information about these gorges on www.dangerousroads.org. Why? Because the only route through these majestic marvels is a balcony road. The website describes the road better than I could. Here is an excerpt: “This road is one of the most famous balcony roads in France. A balcony road is a hair-raising lane cut into the sides of sheer cliffs. It’s a kind of road not for those who fear heights. There is little room for error on these roads.”
It recommends taking the road at a snails pace with which I was more than happy to comply. The crazy French drivers were not so happy getting stuck behind me. But I just used that as an opportunity to pull over and take pictures of the amazingness. The pictures DO NOT do it justice. This is a phenomenon that needs to be appreciated in-person.
The detour through the gorges took about 4 hours, and then Mark and I headed to Arles. It was a random town I’d decided to go to the day before after searching Google maps for a minute.
Arles, located on the Rhône River near the Mediterranean, has been inhabited since 800BC. It was an important Phoenician trading port before Roman occupation beginning in 123BC. In more recent history, Arles played host to Vincent Van Gogh who painted some of his most famous painting while staying there.
The city center is small and it was easy to walk from monument to museum in minutes. The attractions offer joint fare admission so we were able to choose one museum and three attractions for just 11 euros. We started at the Roman amphitheater, smaller but in better repair than the Colosseum in Rome. It was built in 90AD, seating 20,000 spectators and has remained in constant use since that time. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it became a fortress and developed into a small town and residential area until the 18th century. Today it is still used for various shows.
From there we walked to the Roman theater, taking pictures of the semicircular seating
and the fallen columns littering the courtyard. Then we descended into the depths of the city, into what is called the cryptoporticus. Arles cryptoporticus dates to the first century BC and was a part of the original Roman forum, though it was probably built by Greeks from Marseilles. It was dark and damp with no signs explaining the significance. It doesn’t have great reviews on TripAdvisor for these reasons. People called it creepy and a waste of time. But I liked it! I imagined the thousands of people over the years who had walked the stones, their feet smoothing the rough edges and creating the depressions that pooled with water. I didn’t need signs at the time. Breathing in the murky dampness was like breathing ancient history. Then I went home and looked it up on Wikipedia; who needs signs?
We ended our Arles day at the Musée Réattu. We had wanted to visit the Van Gogh museum, but we missed the opening by 2 days. The Musée Réattu was created in 1868, featuring the works of Jacques Réattu. In 1888, after three days in the city, Van Gogh wrote this to his brother Theo concerning this museum, “The women really are beautiful here, it’s no joke — on the other hand, the Arles museum is dreadful and a joke, and fit to be in Tarascon.”
Since that time, the museum has acquired some Picasso drawings, making it, in my humble and inexpert opinion, even more of a joke. The actual building in which the museum is housed has historical significance so that made the visit not a complete waste of time.
Stay tuned for part two of Southern France covering Carcassonne (like the board game!) and an interesting Airbnb experience in Toulouse.