In autumn, Le Grand Canyon du Verdon in Upper Provence becomes a place of colour and empty back roads, scented lavenders and spectacular scenery. A short drive from many a popular destination, it is often forgotten by the tourists buzzing along the more crowded coastline.
Trigance, a short drive from Castallane, makes an excellent base. The Knights Templar did just that, for Trigance lies on one of the old trade and pilgrim routes. Here the Knights built a fortified monastery, which then became Le Chateau de Trigance (now a hotel with a restaurant reputed to serve the best cuisine in the region.) From a distance, as the towering fortress rises out of the plain, a medieval hamlet at its feet, it seems little has changed since the Crusades. We parked our tiny Citroen 2CV – too large for all but the main street – and watched as our luggage was winched up to the castle by an intricate set of pulleys; we were left to negotiate the endless stairs.
At sunset, we stood by the courtyard wall and looked over the valley. Apart from a few lights in the tiny village, the plain was deserted. Even with the light beginning to fade we could see for miles – a commanding view much appreciate by the Knights.
Finishing our drinks, we ventured into the dining room. Built of hewn stone and exposed wood, the restaurant feels as if it’s been carved into the very mountain, a place of safety against the invading hordes. An endless feast of local wines and produce followed, finishing with the arrival of the cheese trolley. Its contents ranged from watery chèvre a few days old, to a piece so potent it had its own wooden container, to prevent it wafting away on its own fumes.
Next morning, amidst glorious sunshine, we set off. Old farms stood in fields of vines, with leaves all the colours of autumn. Topping a small rise, we found ourselves surrounded by sheep. They wandered slowly around the car, a centuries-old shepherd and his faithful dog ambling behind.
Twenty minutes away is Castallane, a medieval village dwarfed by limestone cliffs. On one peak is the tiny chapel Notre Dame du Roc. Although the focus of a local pilgrimage, few tourists (including us!) climb for an hour and a half for a visit. Instead, we lunched in a tiny restaurant facing the town centre – La Place Marcel-Sauvaire – where a game of Boules was in progress.
On leaving the village, we followed La Corniche Sublime, which hugs the southern bank of Le Grand Canyon. I was too busy concentrating on driving on ‘the wrong’ side of the road to notice we’d begun to climb. Suddenly, the ground disappeared, leaving a sheer drop: we had reached Le Grand Canyon du Verdon.
In full flood, the Verdon River raced along the bottom of this precipitous chasm. Saturated with minerals dissolved in a journey over mountains, plateaus and limestone cliffs made from a prehistoric ocean, the river is a translucent jade. It once cut through rocks which now arch over the road, leaving many a blind corner, and tunnels wide enough for only one car at a time. (The faint-hearted drive towards, not away from, Castallane, giving the relative safety of the width of the road before the sheer plunge to the river.)
Every stretch of the road has its own name: Falais des Cavaliers, Balcons de la Mescla, or Cirque de Vaumale. There are numerous places for a walk or even a picnic amongst these limestone hills. Wild herbs grow everywhere, and a walk is scented by the smell of thyme, lavender and rosemary. Even now, my guide-book is filled with dried herbs and flowers.
We crossed the river by the footbridge Pont du Tusset. Farmers on their way to market, Roman soldiers, Protestants seeking refuge in the wild, trading Muslims, Crusaders; all had crossed here before us. We followed a trail leading into the forest. Somewhere nearby, in a meadow at the foot of the cliffs, lies the ruined village of Encastel, deserted since the last of its youths was killed in WWI. We never found it.
At the Couloir de Samson, the Verdon emerges from its sojourn under the mountains. When not in flood, the river can be seen welling up from an underground cave, where many don headlights for a walk through the caves.
La Corniche Sublime ends at Moustiers-Ste-Marie, a picturesque village high in the hills. Famous for its pottery, tradition holds a monk taught the local potters the secret of the milk-white glaze over the delicate Moustiers Blue.
The town boasts churches with forgotten masterpieces, cloisters, ruins, pottery shops, and places to picnic in the sun with freshly brought supplies. At the top of the village is the chapel Notre-Dame-de-Beauvoir; beside it runs a torrent which pours out of the cliffs above the village. After diving into the Ravine de Notre Dame, this waterway divides the town, filling it with its melody. Many a house has a room or balcony overhanging the river, and pretty stone foot-bridges are at every turn; a couple of restaurants take prime position with dining terraces hanging over the racing, icy-cold water.
Strung between the cliffs above the river’s source, on a chain nearly 300m long, hangs a golden star. It was placed here by a returning crusader giving thanks to God for his release from years of captivity. It has hung here ever since, a link between this isolated hamlet and the Holy Land.
Leaving Moustiers-Ste-Marie, the return trip on the other side of the Grand Canyon du Verdon (along the unimaginatively named N552) winds high above the river. The terrain
is wild, with only the occasional vineyard or grove of olives nestled on a cliff edge.
Occasionally we’d top a rise to find row upon row of lavender tucked away amongst the wilderness and autumn foliage.
The Riviera is only a few hours away, as is Aix-en-Provence; it’s only a little longer to Avignon. Even Burgundy, the Loire Valley and Paris are a comfortable day’s drive – although this omits all the interesting places in between. It seems best to travel slowly, to stop often, and enjoy.
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