A Walk on the Wild Side: the Verdon River gorge is one of the deepest canyons in Europe. William Fiennes navigates its ledges and ladders

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013

My thoughts kept going back to the only walker I met on the first day, striding through the pine forests on the Crête de l’Ourbèsa stout, bow-legged Provençal hiker in blue Seventies football shorts, a sleeping mat rolled in orange plastic on top of his backpack. He carried a long staff, at least a foot taller than he was, and seemed to be pushing himself along with shunts of it like a puntsman or gondolier. "Bonjour!" we said, exchanging brief estimates of distances to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie and La Palud-Sur-Verdon before continuing through the pines.

For years I’d been hearing about this part of south-eastern France, 60 miles from Marseilles, where the Verdon River cuts a gorge up to 700 metres deep through the limestone mass—one of the deepest canyons in Europe, a famous draw for climbers who fancied the crack systems and free-hang abseils, and a famous walk, too, on paths that hairpinned down from the upper world and tracked the river via ledges, bridges, ladders and tunnels. Even on maps, the place was all drama, full of crests, ravines and defiles, contour lines as densely packed as fingerprint whorls. The names had mythic amplitude. There was a Point Sublime. There was a stretch of river called The Styx.

The Styx: that was the clincher. The name had been left by the Parisian lawyer-turned-speleologist, Édouard-Alfred Martel, who led an expedition along the Verdon Gorge in 1905. His team included a local teacher, two road-menders and his faithful assistant Louis Armand, a blacksmith with whom this "Columbus of the nether world" had already explored the Padirac Chasm in the Dordogne, the Caves of Drach near Porto Cristo in Majorca and the fathomy pothole at Gaping Gill in North Yorkshire. In a magazine called Le Tour du Monde, Martel would refer to the Verdon Gorge as this "American wonder of France", suggesting comparisons with the Grand Canyon, and in his book "La France Ignorée" (1928) he was still in awe: "One would have to traverse the canyon 20 times before one could claim to have really seen it." 

I hardly saw it, that first day, following the GR4 trail along the Crête de l’Ourbès, through the Montdenier forest, in the last week of October: black and Aleppo pines, with oak and beech turning mustard and buttermilk among the evergreens. Sometimes the pines were so thick that coming into a grove of beech was like entering a hall of yellow light, and sometimes the path emerged at viewpoints off the crest: south-west, the milky turquoise Verdon flowing from the gorge into man-made Lac de Sainte-Croix, the largest reservoir in France; north-east, the peaks of Le Pavillon and Mourre de Chanier, the low Alps rising to the ski resorts at Valberg and Isola. Moustiers and the gorges would be jammed with visitors in summer, but now I had the paths to myself. Just those two ravens tucking their wings and rolling like stunt pilots on the updrafts; the rasp-sounds of jays and yaffling calls of green woodpeckers, bands of coal tits ransacking the pine cones; a pair of chamois—imagine a deer-goat hybrid, with white rumps and two-tone badger faces—making a stiff-limbed gallop through the maquis understorey. The gorge, not quite visible, plunged in the trees below La Palud.

Picture: Le Grand Canyon, following the twists of the Verdon River