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Cyclist Big Rides: Europe

Verdon Gorge: Europe's Grand Canyon

Steve Westlake
15 Apr 2016

Even in a country blessed with great places to ride, France's Verdon Gorge stands out as a truly spectacular venue.

It’s a fitting start to the day. Craning our necks and looking upwards we’re presented with a sheer wall of limestone rising to a clear blue sky. On top, right on the edge, there is a solitary church, the Chapelle Notre Dame, which presumably over the years has cultivated a dedicated congregation of expert local mountaineers, with the vicar kept busy attending to those who don’t survive the climb.

The impressive monolith is called, fittingly, The Roc, and it’s truly humbling in its scale and beauty. Today we will spend a lot of time testing the articulation of our necks, looking upwards, downwards and all around us to take in the views of the Verdon Gorge in the heart of Provence. If this phenomenon of geological splendour was in the UK it would be the wonder of the British Isles and would star on the front page of the nation’s tourist brochures, but because it’s in France – a country with so much scenery on an epic scale – many people haven’t heard of the Verdon Gorge. It’s a place not to be missed however, and one that no rider will forget, either visually and physically. 

The green stream 

We’re in the town square of Castellane, a sleepy village that marks the start of today’s adventure. It’s 8.35am, the air is crisp and inviting, and we have 134km of challenging riding ahead of us, but my riding partner Justin and I decide we have time to admire The Roc for a little longer and to have a coffee and croissant before the off. 

Two espressos, two croissants and a very reasonable €5 later, we’re ready to begin. We ease out onto the D952 and the early kilometres glide by with the assistance of a gentle downhill slope that allows us to warm our quads as if on rollers. We chat easily as we edge westwards, and Justin tells me about his company, Azur Cycle Tours based in Nice, through which he arranges bespoke cycle tours in this region and the Alps and Pyrenees.

Provence is being kind to us and while the morning is cool enough for armwarmers, no other extra layers are required. To one side, almost unnoticed, is the Verdon river, named after its green waters, guiding us towards the gorge it has been chipping away at for the last few million years.

The Verdon Gorge is a vast 25km chasm chiseled into the lush Provence landscape. It is Europe’s deepest gorge, with walls that rise vertically from its base for 700m in places. Known as the Grand Canyon of Europe, it’s a mecca for outdoor sports including rock climbing (unsurprisingly), bungee jumping, kayaking, hiking, white-water rafting and paddle boating. But we’re here to see how it shapes up for cycling, and Justin has planned a route around its southern lip towards the town of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, then returning on the northern edge and taking in the spectacular Crete Road.

After 12km of gentle warm-up we turn left, cross the Verdon for the first time and begin our first climb towards the town of Trigance. On the hill to our right is the Chateau de Trigance, a small but perfectly formed castle that has been converted to a hotel – where we’ll be staying tonight as luck would have it. Then the landscape opens up invitingly and we encounter our first hairpins of the day, winding up the hillside with a clear blue sky ahead of us. 

There’s still no sign of the gorge proper and I’m a little impatient for the main event, like a child on the way to a funfair, constantly scanning the horizon for glimpses of the entertainment to come. It dawns on me that I’m not actually going to see the gorge coming, and I can’t help asking Justin, ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ 

‘Yes, not far now,’ he says with a smile. So I settle back and enjoy the ride as we pick up speed on a perfectly surfaced descent that will see us lose 300m over the next 7km. We turn a fast left-hander and I can sense the gorge is to our right, though we can’t see it yet, partly because it’s behind a bank of earth and rock, and partly because we’re doing over 60kmh so sightseeing will have to wait for just a few more moments. But not long. 

On the opposite side of the valley in the distance are layers of perfectly horizontal rock strata, flecked with green vegetation with an immaculate blue sky above it. I can’t fathom the scale of it, and I’m eager to stop for a proper look. Then, as if answering the desires of a thousand tourists before us, Le Relais des Balcons cafe appears on our left with a bustling car park and dozens of camera-laden tourists. Drivers, motorcycle riders, a few cyclists and hikers are ambling in all directions across the road and all are slightly entranced by the scene before them.

We make our way to the viewing point at the edge of the gorge. Justin is not a fan of heights and takes in the spectacle with caution, the instability of cleats adding an extra frisson to our position hundreds of metres above the river. An hour ago we were riding alongside the Verdon’s rippling currents. Now we’re far above it and seeing its glassy aquamarine splendour properly for the first time. 

The water isn’t clear, being almost milky in appearance, and the greenness comes courtesy of suspended mineral particles that reflect the green-blue part of the light spectrum. Such is the mysterious charm of its enigmatic hue that a cult formed among the Vocontii tribe who ruled the area 2,000 years ago and who apparently worshipped the green waters. In an age of magical thinking, it’s easy to understand why such a sight would inspire homage. 

The second crossing

Bridges often provide punctuation points for journeys, and that’s definitely the case with the ones we cross on this ride. Only a minute or two after leaving our vantage point we come to the spectacular Pont de l’Artuby. It was built in 1940 and consists of a single 107m arch with a drop of 140m to the river below. It’s another view that compels tourists (and us) to indulge in a dizzying look over the side. Except today there is a uniformed presence of army and police at either end of the bridge who are moving the sightseers on and clearing its span. To give them their due, they’re not claiming that ‘there’s nothing to see here’, but something tells us not to ask too many questions. This is the highest bridge in Europe from which bungee jumping is organised, and the hi-viz activity at the bottom of the gorge suggests something unfortunate may have occurred. We decide to move on without investigating further.

We continue into the heart of the ride and as we begin to climb again we are quickly reminded that this is no cushy sightseeing tour. We still have a serious day ahead of us. The magnificent erosion of the vast limestone panorama is quite clear from our passageway on the southern lip of the gorge. Huge fissures in the rock on the vertiginous walls opposite make it look like the stone has melted away, which in a sense it has, caused as it is by the chemical erosion of naturally acidic rain that has reacted with the limestone, carving out caves and hollows over the millennia. 

It’s even thought that this process may have created the gorge itself. Geologists believe the river once flowed through an underground cavern, the roof of which was eroded and eventually crashed down into the river below. Thoughts of such geological drama are a welcome distraction from the drag uphill and my increasingly vain attempts to keep pace with the whippet-fit Justin, whose guiding with Azur Tours has fine-tuned him to the point where he is perpetually half a bike length ahead of me.

We reach the highest point of the morning as the D71 rises to 1,170m, and with the heat of the day approaching we’re pleased to see a layby on the right which gives another excuse to stop and admire a view of the entrance
to the gorge. ‘If there were two towers it would look like scene from Lord Of The Rings,’ Justin says.

Now we begin to descend with just a low wall to our right separating us from the endless landscape. The Verdon river has meandered its way from between the vertical cliffs that hem it in further upstream and is now a light turquoise ribbon snaking in the green valley below us. The rocky formations on the horizon are both gnarled and smooth, like a vast set of well-worn teeth in the jaws of a sleeping ogre. We’re travelling fast now and I almost wish we were climbing so there was more time to take in the scene. Almost. Because the descent is as entertaining as the panorama, with smooth, technical and high-speed corners and straights funnelling us towards the mouth of the gorge. 

Scene it all before 

We’re now on the descent of the Col d’Illoire and it is just ridiculously beautiful. The road’s progressive downward path across the contour lines of the gorge describes a circuitous route that flicks back and forth on itself. Ahead of us across a huge drop, a road scribes a perfect right-to-left line on the mountain, and suddenly only 20 seconds later we are on that very road, looking back left to where we’ve just come from. Then another hairpin, seemingly turning about-face on the edge of the world, flings the scenery through 180° and we’re plunging downhill towards the town of Aiguines where, abruptly, some harsh temporary-looking speed bumps jolt us out of our intoxicating descending trance. 

On the other side of Aiguines we get our first glimpse of Lac de Sainte Croix, which at 12km long is the largest reservoir in France. It was created in 1974 by the building of a hydro-electric dam, and the village of Les Salles sur Verdon was covered by the water and rebuilt by the side of the lake. The older residents are still miffed, we’re told, but have plenty of green power for their kettles.

It’s a fast descent to the lake on the D957. We’re hungry now, but the spectacular entrance to the gorge pulls us to a near standstill on the third bridge of the day. To our left is the immaculate blue surface of the lake, with pedalos and kayaks drifting gently towards the mouth of the gorge, which is what we see if we turn our heads to the right. It’s a fairytale scene, with perfect azure waters weaving between the towering limestone walls, like something from Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan: ‘Where Alph the sacred river ran, Through caverns measureless to man…’

I’m jolted from my GCSE musings by Justin, who tells me that lunch is a brief 3km away, so we press on to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, known as one of the most beautiful villages in France, perched at the top of a small climb and beneath another expanse of looming limestone cliffs. For the moment, however, its charm lies in its ability to sell plenty of calorific foodstuffs and we pull into the first restaurant we find as we enter the village. It’s called Les Magnans and serves a fine lunch of various salads, steaks and frites. With hunger tended to, we’re able to appreciate the setting as we sip an espresso, followed by another espresso.

Fuelled and caffeined we’re ready to tackle the other side of the gorge, and this half of the day is going to prove much more challenging. The next 30km will see us on an undulating climb that will deliver an altitude gain of 800m as we ascend the north edge. 

With sheer drops on our right once again we begin the afternoon’s work, constantly inspired by the views, and now periodically hassled by traffic. For most of Cyclist’s Big Rides we carefully construct routes that are as quiet as possible but, with only one perimeter road around the gorge, today’s ride is a real tourist haven and, although we’re not here in true peak season, there is a fair amount of traffic on this section. 

The annoyance is fleeting, however, because the scenery is stunning. The road hugs the rockface to our left as the land falls away vertically on our right. After a long climb up to 1,000m, we enjoy a gentle descent towards the town of La Palud-sur-Verdon and turn right, pulling over at Joe Le Snacky, an ambitious pun on the Vanessa Paradis song and also a cafe-cum-sandwich bar with a bright magenta facade. With the hottest part of the day only just behind us, I’m pretty certain my own facade is a similar shade. We decide there’s time for another coffee before we embark on the piece de resistance of this ride: La route des Crêtes.

Edge of the abyss

This is a purpose-built tourist road skirting the highest flanks of the gorge. It starts with a gentle descent and soon, across the dark void of the gorge, we’re faced with a plateau ahead of us covered in rich green conifers. There are laybys at the good viewing spots but, not wanting to break our rhythm so soon after the last stop, I try rolling over the loose gravel surface and skirting the perimeter barrier of the layby while peering over the edge at the vertical drop. It’s not a particularly satisfactory way to take in the view, so we decide we’ll let the spectacle take precedence over any aspirations for a respectable average speed, and stop whenever we feel like the view demands it.

The landscape plunges into the gorge like a river over a vast waterfall, as if gravity at the bottom is so strong that it’s sucking the rock downwards. Soon we’re climbing again, riding east now, the sun on our backs and with the opposite wall of the gorge in a dark contrasting shadow, giving it an ominous foreboding. As sweat trickles from beneath my helmet and oozes down my face, I imagine how refreshing the cool air of the gorge in darkness hundreds of metres below would feel. 

Across the abyss we can see the road on the south rim that we were riding a few hours ago. We pass Chalet de la Maline, a popular viewing spot and the starting point for the famous Sentier Martel hiking trail along the bottom of the gorge. It’s a challenging walk (that photographer Patrik and I will complete the next day) that ends with several tunnels through the rock, one 600m in length, which were bored in the early 20th century as part of a failed attempt to create a hydro-electric project that would run the length of the gorge. 

There are some tunnels on this part of our ride too, although nothing approaching that length. We’re riding into the later part of the afternoon and thankfully the traffic has reduced to the occasional car. Eventually we reach the highest point of the day and are rewarded with a view down into the valley where we see some griffon vultures cruising on the updrafts. The vultures hadn’t been seen in Provence for more than a 100 years, but in 1999 a dozen were introduced and now more than 100 swoop around the cliffs near Rougon.

We enjoy our own swoop down the longest descent of the day and rejoin the D952 for our final leg home. As the kilometres have clicked by on this ride, both Justin and I have been silently bracing ourselves for the final stretch back to Castellane, which we remember was pleasantly downhill this morning and so can be expected to be a grind home as the last of the light fades. But, whether the slope wasn’t actually so pronounced as we remember this morning, or maybe powered by the intangible boost that comes as a ride nears completion, we keep a fast and satisfying pace back to our starting point. 

Pulling into Castellane town square once again, tired but elated, our eyes inevitably rise up to view the majesty of The Roc once more, where the church marks the boundary between earth and sky. It’s a fitting end to the day.

How we got there 

Travel

Cyclist hopped on the train from London St Pancras to Nice. It was nice to avoid the airport scrum, although the change in Paris requires a tube journey with a bike bag – so it’s not entirely hassle-free. Tickets start from £120 return with the bike bag an extra £40. From Nice it’s a two-hour drive to Castellane. There are direct flights to Nice from all over the UK, or alternatively fly to Toulon direct from London or Southampton and start the ride from the east end of the gorge, in Aiguines or Moustiers.

Accommodation

The area is blessed with abundant high-quality accommodation for all budgets. We tried two options, both well located and very different. The Hotel and Spa des Gorges du Verdon, located on the route near La Palud, is modern, spacious and offers fantastic Provencal cuisine. Rooms start at €130 (£100) per person. Contact hotel-des-gorges-du-verdon.fr for more information.

After our ride we stayed at the Chateau de Trigance. Turrets, ramparts, weapons on the wall and four-poster beds make it feel like you’re staying in a real castle, which you are. Rooms start at €140 (£108). Go to chateau-de-trigance.fr.

Thanks

A big thank you to Justin from Azur Tours (azurcycletours.com) for devising a spectacular route and riding it with us. Also thanks to Lewis for providing very cheerful support from the car and for ferrying around our photographer, Patrik. 

Merci beaucoup to Melody Reynaud and Bernard Chouial from Provence Tourism for copious logistical assistance and hospitality. And a big grazie to Andre Caprini from Ventigmiglia SNCF station in Italy for finding my coat and passport (which I left on the train in Nice).

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