The Gorges du Verdon, also called the Grand Canyon du Verdon, is Europe’s answer to the Grand Canyon. It’s a spectacular canyon that forms a border between the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and the Var. Up to 700m deep, the 21-km-long canyon varies in width between 6 and 100 m at the bottom and 200 to 1500m at its rim. The roads around the gorge are winding to say the least, so it was some trepidation that I decided to go on a road trip to the area.
My first stop was the small town of Castellane. It’s quite an attractive town with lots of restaurants and boutiques in the little streets behind the main square. It was an ideal place to stop for lunch, as I was spoilt for choice. But after a fairly swift lunch (how un-French of me!) it was time to move on.
The journey from Castellane to Moustiers Sainte Marie follows the North Rim of the gorge, and this was the route that I took. With a precipitous drop on the left hand side, I was very pleased to be driving on the right, even though I was denied what must have been spectacular views over the edge. After a while the road opens up to the sight of the fabulous Lac Sainte Croix – a brilliant turquoise blue that literally takes your breath away. Despite the numerous Dutch tourists whose main aim seemed to be to drive down the middle of the narrow roads, I arrived in Moustiers Sainte Marie without any major incident.
At first I was a bit worried about finding somewhere to park. It was the middle of July and everywhere seemed to be full – and as I kept driving further and further up the hill I was almost giving up hope. But the car park that I eventually found was really quite convenient – there was a steep path that ran from the car park to the centre. Moustiers is really a very pretty little village although it’s well visited by tourists, so I’d advise a visit before the season gets into full swing. It’s in a wonderful natural setting – the village sits astride a rushing mountain stream that divides the two halves of the village with a narrow rocky canyon. The view of this mini-gorge, with small waterfalls down inside and medieval houses above, is beautiful. The sound of the river, and the running fountains all over the village, give Moustiers the feeling of an Alpine village. It’s full of shops and restaurants – many of the boutiques selling the famous Moustiers ceramics. I have to say, I’m not much of a fan of this style of ceramics – I prefer my pottery bold and colourful – but you have to admire the art of the ceramicists in creating highly intricate pieces. The centrepiece of the village is the 12th-century Notre-Dame church, with its pretty bell tower. You can also walk up the hill to the Notre-Dame de Beauvoir chapel above the village, but it was far too hot for me to attempt that!
It was very pleasant strolling about the narrow streets of the village, stopping for the occasional coffee and drinking in the views. Even though there were loads of tourists, it wasn’t too oppressively busy. And then it was onward to my hotel for the night, the luxurious Bastide de Moustiers which is just outside the village itself. It’s a wonderful hotel – a converted old stone house, set in its own extensive grounds and with additional accommodation in little stone cottages a short distance from the main house. It really is a beautiful spot to stay, and I’d highly recommend the hotel if you’re not looking for budget accommodation. But my advice would be to eat elsewhere. The food at the restaurant (supposedly with a Michelin star) was very disappointing indeed. I expected much more from a place that is part of the empire of celebrated chef Alain Ducasse.
It’s definitely worth visiting the Verdon Gorges. And next time I’ll take my courage in both hands and attempt the South Rim, which by all accounts is more challenging. Bring it on!