Monday, July 02, 2007

A quick swing round the Gorges du Verdon

Update Sunday 15th July

It's been most gratifying to see the number of hits on this post, most from the bungee jumping fraternity it would seem. In fact, entering gorges, verdon, bungee brings up Dreams and Daemons at the top of Google listings.

By way of saying thank you I have extracted two short video clips from the Berry YouTube archives. They are tacked on at the end. The first was taken at the launch point (?) and shows two young lads in harnesses getting ready to jump. the second was one where I captured a leap from a distance, but you'll find better ones than mine in YouTube archives under Artuby.

The renowned Gorges du Verdon are a mere 70 miles or so by road north-west of where we live (Antibes, French Riviera). We stayed two nights at the spectacularly-situated Hotel du Grand Canyon du Verdon.

As you can see in the picture above, it perches right on the rim of the gorge (point and click to enlarge). I took the picture further along the gorge from one of the places where one can stop the car and take in the view (sadly all too few).

A few words about our choice of route for initial exploration: we decided to go the long way round initially, approaching from the west. That meant we could use the fast autoroute as far as the Draguignan/St. Tropez turnoff, where we headed north, and had lunch at the delightful village of Aups. There we found our favourite kind of restaurant. Called the Auberge de la Tour it had a paved courtyard where you could choose between sun, shade and dappled shade. I went for the plat du jour, which was raviolis au saumon à la crème de basilic, superb flavour and value.

Moving on, we were then then greeted by a spectacular view of the Lac de Sainte-Croix, reputed to be France's largest artificial reservoir. It was created by damming the Verdon, thus drowning a village and Roman bridge into the bargain. Such is progress.

The water is a startling turquoise in colour, which is something to do with its fluoride content, although the claimed link with chemistry seems suspect. Maybe it's the microbiology that's affected - something I need to research. Just before the village of Aiguines we turned onto the road that twists its way round the rim of the Gorge (Canyon?) for some 15 kilometres, until finally one comes upon the amazing Hotel Grande Canyon du Verdon.

Approaching from the west meant we were on the safer side of the road. That was fine for a first encounter, but the downside (no pun intended) is that the few stopping places on the precipitous offside are difficult to access, especially as they tend to be hidden round bends where one sees them too late. Traffic was surprisingly light, given the time of year, but it was annoying and frustrating to find that most of the off-road parking spots tended to be taken already with camping cars and motorcycles.

Most of the guard rails, incidentally, are not corrugated steel, but made of slender tree trunks, of questionable impact-resistance.

I have a rule of thumb re the French- they never do things 100%, generally stopping, perversely, at 95% or thereabouts. The Gorges were no exception. One of the trickiest stretches of road is the approach to the Chalet de la Maline (see later), where the road is almost single track down a gradient towards a hairpin at the bottom. Yes, you have guessed correctly. That stretch has no protective barrier, perhaps on the assumption that if you went over there's a mere 50 foot of barrelling to the return leg of road below, and if you conserve momentum, as that tedious Newton decreed, then there are several tiers of small trees to further impede one's progress down to the river some 3000 feet below ! But don't let me put you off - you're far more likely to get run over on a pedestrian crossing in Antibes, especially when those pretty green lights tell you it's safe to step into the road !

This next picture is the view we get looking east along the Gorge, not from a roadside stop, but from the hotel balcony, just a few steps from our room (see video clip at end). Amazing wouldn't you agree? When you see it around the clock, it's interesting to see how the colour and contrast change with the time of day, or with the weather.

Through binoculars, we could see hikers picking their way along the trails at the bottom, and a couple of guys fly-fishing.

On day 2, we decided to do the complete circuit of the Gorge/Canyon.

NB: I'm still trying to locate a definitive and authoritative distinction between those two terms. The western end is labelled in our guide book as the Canyon du Verdon, the eastern end the Gorges du Verdon, but there's no obvious dfference in character between the two that one would notice, both being varied as regards width, depth, straightness or curvature. Are there any geomorphologists reading this who know the difference ?

These next two pictures are out of sequence. The one above is at the Route des Cretes, where the road crosses the Verdon and turns west along the Rive Droite (north bank). You can probably make out the guy with the head for heights, scaling the sheer rock face. (Point and click to enlarge this and other pix). Yeah, chacun à son goût .

For those with a different type of goût with perhaps a slighter lower risk of prematurely departing this mortal coil, there is this bridge just a few kilometres from the hotel. It's not over the Verdon, but the Artuby, a tributary of the Verdon that enters from the south. It's well known among the bungee jumping fraternity. This is how we saw it early on Saturday morning - almost totally deserted. Returning again on Sunday morning the jumpers were out in force. I did succeed in capturing a short video clip of a jumper doing his thing which I may post later, but uploading to YouTube is painfully slow right now.
I was interested to see the launch point close up. I had always imagined that the elasticated rope was simply attached to the parapet, but it's not, and on reflection it's not difficult to see why. It's all highly organized, with a bit of heavy equipment, painted bright blue, with a winding winch, parked up against the side. The jumpers were wearing a full body harness around the torso, which seems a lot more sensible than merely attaching around the ankles, as I think was the case when two of my own children did that rite of passage (leaving one of them I regret to say with a permanent fear of heights !). OK, so the New Hebridean islanders manage with a creeper round the ankles, but they probably have a different view from ours on the trifling matter of life and death.

This splendid salad was served up at the Chalet de la Maline restaurant which is almost opposite our hotel, but on the other side of the gorge. It takes hours to drive round. It's a centre for hikers who wish to take the trails down to the bottom of the gorge, or along various scenic footpath at various levels above the river. We decided we'd keep that for our next visit !

Here finally is a a video clip, starting in our room, and going out onto the balcony for that million dollar view. Switch off your speakers if you don't want to hear me doing my Bill Oddy impression, aka senile burbling, and, towards the end, confusing pan with zoom.

One final word: the canyon/gorge is dramatic enough, and fully deserves its reputation as one of the natural wonders of Europe. But there's more to it than that. It lies in a vast natural park, essentially a lightly wooded limestone plateau that stretches off to distant peaks and vast horizons, with scarcely a dwelling to be seen, and virtually no pylons, mobile phone masts etc. In other words, the environment has been remarkably well protected from any man-made intrusions, whether useful or otherwise. The few villages en route are typically Provençal, full of ancient stone, steep gradients and flowers in abundance - all in all a truly amazing and delightful part of the world, and one which we hope to explore again soon.
On the way back, we called in at Gourdon, perched on the limestone escarpment about 10 miles north of Antibes. It was this year's venue for the Antiboulenc Society picnic. Jane, in her capacity as Secretary, did as much transacting of society business as nibbling and quaffing - everyone brings along something different for the communal foodfest.
Later, we had a guided tour of an amazing collection of art déco in the Gourdon Chateau, accumulated over many years at great expense by the owner. How strange it all seems, some 80 years on, at once so modern, yet so dated, putting me in mind of one of the local cinemas in my home town that I attended for Saturday matinée "flicks", gazing in wonder at all that avant garde chrome, glass and mirror.
Video clips of bungee jumping at Pont d'Artuby, late addition (Sunday July 15th)

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