If you spend your summer vacations in the Southern France, you have a free day in your vacations itinerary and you would like to spend it on seeing something beautiful, or even amazingly beautiful, I strongly recommend you to visit the Gorges du Verdon.
The Gorges du Verdon is the biggest and one of the most beautiful river canyons in Europe. It is located in the Verdon Natural Regional Park, a place which can offer a lot even for experienced travellers. First of all, great panoramic views of picturesque landscapes: the canyon, the river, the lakes. Those who like photography, will love this place. Secondly, various outdoors activities: hiking, VTT, kayaking, canoeing, horseriding etc. Thirdly, charming Provençal villages. Fourthly, historical places. And finally, great cuisine. Especially something with truffles in one of the Moustiers Sainte-Marie Michelin-star restaurants.
Interested? Let’s go.
You will need a car. Or a guide with a car. If you are going to drive by yourself, just remember to drive safely and that the locals drive along the roads there during all their lives – do not try to drive like them.
In order to get the most from the tour to the Gorges du Verdon, I recommend to start from Castellane, drive along the canyon via D952 road, take D23 road (the Route des Crêtes), proceed to Moustiers Sainte-Marie via D952. After a stop in Moustiers Sainte-Marie, drive to Valensole. If you plan your trip for the lavender blooming season, you have a wonderful opportunity to visit the amazing Valensole plateau lavender fields. Return back to Marseille. I will discuss the benefits of this route in the next sections of the article.
Marseille – Castellane
There are several optional points you can start exploring the Gorges du Verdon from. I like to start from Castellane – a nice medieval village near the eastern part of the canyon.
The road from Marseille to Castellane will take you approximately 2.5 – 3 hours. I like to take the A51 highway to Les Mées. Then take the Route Napoléon (The Napoleon Road – N85 – D4085) to Digne-les-Bains – Barrême – Castellane.
The Napoleon Road is very picturesque. Maybe that was one of the reasons why Napoleon chose it to return from Elba with his army in 1815.
You can see a small train on your way. That is Le Train des Pignes (The Train of Pines), a cool attraction offering a spectacular 3-hour tour from Nice to Digne-les-Bains through the mountains and the pinewoods. Check their website for more info.
In Barrême, you have two options. The first one is to continue going via the Napoleon Road and drive straight to Castellane along the winding, but picturesque road. The second one is to go to Saint-André-les-Alpes – Saint-Julien-du-Verdon and then to Castellane. Taking this option, you will spend some additional time on driving, but you will get an opportunity to visit the Lake of Castillon, which is very beautiful.
Time to grab some coffee at one of the local boulangeries and post some fresh photos to Facebook, Instagram, or both. Fortunately, boulangeries in Castellane, like everywhere else in France, open early in the morning.
Let us make a short walking tour around Castellane. The village is located in a valley 724m above the sea level. It looks very beautiful if you look at it from above (for example, from the Notre-Dame du Roc).
After a couple of minutes of walk, you can find a Tour de l’Horloge (The Clock Tower) very close to the Office de Tourisme. The Tower has been a part of the city defence buildings since the Middle Ages.
Take a short walk to the bridge. There you can find a nice view of the Notre-Dame du Roc dominating the area. You can listen to the sounds of the Verdon river. And you can watch the people preparing for their canoe or kayak trips along the Gorges du Verdon.
In case you feel you have warmed up not enough, you can take a tour to the Notre-Dame du Roc. The tour will take you 1-1.5 hours. You will see Castellane and its surroundings from above. As for me, the most interesting spot to view the area is near the statue. These views are magnificent, you will definitely enjoy them. Additionally, you will see the ruins of the Petra Castellana – an ancient city, which is the Castellane predecessor.
The Gorges du Verdon – D952
It’s time to return to the car and go see some amazing landscapes. Take D952 road.
There are a lot of parking slots along the road and the most remarkable points of view are marked by well-visible signs, in order for travellers not to miss them. At some parkings, there are also paths to the Verdon river, so that you can go down to the water.
Choose the pace which is the most comfortable for you. Enjoy the views. Just remember about the driving safety.
There are several places you can stop at along the way. One of my favorite ones is Rougon – a nice cosy village where you can have some rest (there is a great crêperie here) and have a short walk. Being an important place in the Middle Ages, Rougon had a castle on top of a hill. Unfortunately, you can see only its ruins now.
Another interesting place is Point Sublime. This is the finishing point of the famous Sentier Blanc-Martel hiking route. The place is very picturesque. And there is one more thing about it. There are several tunnels through the mountains located near the Point Sublime. One of the tunnels is completely dark – you need a torch to walk there. Also, this tunnel has several balconies above the river. I feel myself like in a fairy tale there.
Be sure not to miss the turn to D23, as it is very sharp.
The Gorges du Verdon – D23 – Route des Crêtes
The Route des Crêtes is the culmination point of your trip to Verdon. From the balconies of this 23 km long winding mountain road you will see amazing panoramic views of the canyon. Here you will understand why the Gorges du Verdon is sometimes called the Grand Canyon of France. You will stop at some points of view, where the canyon is 700 m deep! Quite often, you can see eagles in the sky here. This place is gorgeous.
Please note, that a part of the Route des Crêtes is a one-way road. It is directed from Castellane to La Palud-sur-Verdon. Another note – at some places, the road is very narrow, so drive safely.
On your way, you will pass Chalet de la Maline. This is the starting point of the Sentier Blanc-Martel hiking route, which have been mentioned earlier. And this is also the place you can eat some delicious food while enjoying spectacular views.
The Route des Crêtes finishes at La Palud-sur-Verdon, a picturesque ancient village. While the place is very beautiful by itself, it may seem overcrowded during the summer vacations season.
The Gorges du Verdon – the rest of D952 to Moustiers Sainte-Marie
The Route des Crêtes is an almost circular road, so you will get back to D952 not far from the point you have left it an hour (or a couple of hours) earlier. After the Route des Crêtes, some people decide not to stop at the rest of the D952, as the views seem not so amazing. Indeed, it is hard to compete with something so spectacular. But still, you can take several beautiful photos along the way.
Your landscapes hunting eagerness may come back after you reach the Lake of Sainte-Croix. The lake is very beautiful. Most of all, I like its water color. Especially emphasized by the mountains and the deep green color of the trees.
In Moustiers Sainte-Marie
This village is worth a separate visit for a couple of days. That is what I thought when I was in Moustiers Sainte-Marie for the first time.
First of all, this place is very beautiful. The rocks above feel like some kind of shield and a nice decoration at the same time. There is a golden star hanging above the village. You can see it from any spot in the village. It adds a mysterious and a festive note to the village atmosphere. It makes Moustiers Sainte-Marie different from the majority of the harsh-looking medieval villages. Provençal architecture adds charm. Water cascades add vivid notes.
Secondly, the village has a long history starting from establishing a monastery by the Lérin abbey monks in the V century here. You can feel the spirit of centuries by just walking along the streets and squares. I recommend to take a short tour to the ancient XIIth century Chapel of the Notre Dame de Beauvoir, built on the place of even more ancient Vth century temple. You can enjoy a nice panoramic view of the Moustiers Sainte-Marie there.
Thirdly, the local restaurants food is great. Great choices would be La Treille Muscate, located right in the center of the village, above the water cascades. Or a Michelin-star La Bastide de Moustiers.
Fourthly, Moustiers Sainte-Marie is a village of ceramics. Moustiers faïence has been known worldwide since the XVIIth century. The ceramics boutiques are everywhere in the village. It is hard not to visit at least a couple of them and not to buy some of these really beautiful artworks.
Fifthly, Moustiers Sainte-Marie is a true Provençal village. It is located very close to the lavender fields and is surrounded by the olive groves. In the village boutiques you can buy various lavender products – honey, water, essential oil and olive oil, tapenade etc.
Finally, the village is spacious. The place does not feel crowded even when there are really many people wandering around.
Moustiers Sainte-Marie – Valensole
On the way from Moustiers Sainte-Marie to Valensole you will pass Riez. This is the place where the truffles are produced. Each Wednesday from December till February they have a truffle market in the village.
You will also see first lavender fields. I do not recommend to stop near them, as much more beautiful ones are located a bit further, near Valensole.
Lavender fields near Valensole
If you are having this trip during the lavender blooming season (mid June – mid August), I strongly recommend you to schedule an hour for visiting the lavender fields near Valensole. They are amazingly beautiful. This is a wonderful mixture of soft deep colors, sounds and aromas. The wind blows and everything around you is live. I like to watch the vividness, the plastics of the nature movements on the lavender fields.
Valensole – Marseille
I recommend you to try to reach Manosque till dark, as there are a couple of sharp turns on the way. At Manosque, take a highway (A51) to Marseille.
Several final thoughts. I recommend to plan this trip for any period in summer, late May, or early September. Some parts of the roads near the Gorges du Verdon may be closed – please check this in advance (feel free to ask me). And again – drive safely.
In case you have any questions or comments concerning this trip, please feel free to write me: firstname.lastname@example.org.