Vertigo in reverse

The Verdon River gorge is one of the deepest canyons in Europe. William Fiennes navigates its ledges and ladders

William Fiennes | 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.

Fifteen miles. The fourth car stopped when I tried to hitch a lift to Moustiers. Fabrice wore big sunglasses and had the driver’s seat cranked back to recliner angle. His family came from Guadeloupe; he worked at the Mairie de Paris, living in the banlieues; he was spending his sabbatical cooking in a home for troubled teenagers near Castellane. The road was a high ledge hewn from cliffs: sheer drop on the left-hand side, exposed limestone laid down in mille-feuille striations on the right. Fabrice coasted along it as if he knew the curves and headlands by heart.

The rain starts at midnight. It sounds as if mountain streams have taken possession of the lanes, troughs overflowing in the wash-houses. No respite in the morning when I pick up the path again at La Maline and begin the descent into the gorge, looking out for griffon vultures patrolling the gulf on ten-foot wingspans. They’d been reintroduced at Rougon in 1999 to clean up the carcasses of dead animals in the mountains, but this rain is so heavy and unrelenting that even the vultures have better ideas.

Most walks tend towards high ground, to summits and long views: it was an inversion of habit to be so committed to descending. The path switchbacked through pines and holm oaks, autumn-coloured amelanchier like ideas of fire in the gloom. At first I wasn’t sure if the distant rumbles were thunder, or engineers blasting tunnels on the Sentier Martel. I was thinking of The Styx. When Aeneas went down into the underworld to meet the ghost of his father Anchises, he was accompanied by the Sibyl, priestess of Apollo, and carried a golden bough from a tree sacred to Proserpina to secure safe passage across the river to the Fortunate Groves.

A footbridge arched across the Verdon. From that central vantage the canyon rose in slabs, green in patches where shrubby pines and oaks found ledges and crevices to root in. Rain poured into the chasm. The Sentier de l’Imbut followed the river upstream, deeper into the gorge. Sometimes this meant clambering over vast boulders slippery with rainwater, or scrambling to single-file trails cut into the limestone, with short bridges and ladders of greasy pine, and steel cables to hang onto when the going got hairy. The storm rolled overhead, each lightning flash a snapshot of the gorge in metal brightness that made me take my hand off the steel cable as if electric current were already gathering in it.

I was sodden, my rucksack a bag of water. The path led through surprise groves of thin, slow-growing box trees, among the hardest of all timbers, prized for cabinets, clarinets and boules, then emerged at brink-perches on the edge of the gorge, where I could see cliffs rising to the lid of cloud, scarves of mist ghosting down the canyon. Looking up induced a reverse vertigo, crags and protrusions suddenly appearing in Rushmore groups, a crowd of giants. Water made a sound so constant you could barely hear it, rain through trees, the Verdon narrowing into rapids, surging among boulders. It might have been raining since the beginning of time. Going down into the gorge was a kind of time travel: you descended through layers of geology in which each metre represented thousands of years and the present day was somewhere overhead, level with the refuge at La Maline.

It took almost three hours to reach the imbut, which means "funnel" or "narrowing". A wooden plaque fixed to one of the massive boulders clogging the river read “Le Styx”. Inaccurate name: no river to cross here (a formidable wall of rock on the far side), in fact barely any river at all, just sinewy rushes of water between boulders. Still, I dipped my hand self-consciously, already thinking of the hot shower and dry clothes in Moustiers. I’d gone down to The Styx. Then I remembered yesterday’s hiker on the crest, that blithe ferryman coming through the pines.

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