Grandes Gorges

Over the long Easter weekend, a hiking group out of Stuttgart planned a trip to southeastern France, a good ten hour drive away from Kempten. Most of my hiking trips are to places of increasing elevation, and indeed this post title is a play on Grandes Jorasses, one of the peaks of the Mont Blanc massif. This time, however, it was not to a prominence on a topographic map that was the destination for our group but rather to a relief.

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Only about 70 km west-northwest from Nice is the Verdon gorge, often called the “Grand Canyon of Europe” and popular with climbers, hikers, rafters, and campers. After an overnight in Aviernoz in a bed and breakfast owned by a delightfully charming British couple, we arrived the next day in Entrages, a tiny hamlet outside of Digne-les-Bains. I’d guess Entrages has fewer than 100 inhabitants, which helped make it one of the most memorable places I’ve been to. Its seeming emptiness is its charm; where typical natural tourist destinations in Europe, like Zermatt or Chamonix, attract predominantly hubbub, the rustic quiet of Entrages seems to have been undisturbed for centuries.

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We all wanted to stretch our legs after being in the car for two days and started hiking up a nearby hill, stopping often to admire the view. It was due to be a hot weekend and I wondered briefly if maybe going to Grandes Jorasses or her neighbors wouldn’t have been a better idea to escape the heat. So much for having come from Charleston; within two years my body has apparently reverted its acclimatization to cold environs.

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Sunset looked like it could be promising, but it was getting late and the steaks we had bought for dinner were calling our names. We discussed the hike for the next day and headed to bed.

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We woke up early to make it to the trailhead at Chalet de la Maline before all the crowds arrived. As the trail is 14 km one way, we took two cars, dropping off one at the end (Point Sublime) and piling into the other to start the hike. I haven’t found a definitive measure of the total elevation gain during the hike — the official hiking site of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence states 1745 m, but I didn’t find the hike to be so exhausting. Another site shows approximately 1500 m, maybe closer to the actual figure but still deceptive as the gain is not steady upwards. The start and end points of the hikes are each about 300 m – 400 m above the Verdon river, with the trail running up and down in between. Like the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the hike starts heading largely east before turning north, but I don’t have quite so many photos showing its majesty. Shooting in a narrow canyon with on a bright day is surprisingly difficult!

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The pure, turquoise water was refreshing to listen to against the warmth of the sun, and where shade was available it was appreciated. In two locations it was possible to descend to the actual Verdon River and see the transparence and coolness of the water directly.

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Despite being only 14 km, the hike was not without advertised “perils.” The staircase shown in the first image was mounted firmly to the rock, but its narrow width and breadth didn’t inspire much confidence when heading down, particularly not with the valley floor in full view getting closer all too dizzyingly with each step. Other sections were more manageable and gave glimpses into just how rugged the landscape was. One thought as we snaked our way through the gorge: this area would be fascinating to explore with a drone.

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As we approached the end of the hike, we were able to get close to the river once more. I’m pretty sure that we could have cut out a full hour had I not had the chance to become enamored with the water. I might love my mountains, but what grinds away beneath is nearly as invigorating.

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Despite successfully finishing the hike, we still needed to fetch our car from where we had started, so we drove the dizzying roads above the gorge from Rougon to La Palud sur Verdon and back to pick up the three in our group who waited at the end point. The logistics of the hike in this regard weren’t so well organized as at Tongariro. Where there were dedicated shuttle services, getting back to the start point in Verdon would normally have required a taxi, which operate rather infrequently and evidently without contract. After the car shuffle, we ended back in Entrages for dinner after the grocery stores had closed and after some restaurants stopped serving food. We had take-out pizza and good conversation instead, mapping out the next day before going to bed content with the work of the first full day.

 

We awoke on Easter Sunday without any real pressures to see anything or get anything done; most of us didn’t want a strenuous hike again before driving the following day. We decided to hike to Digne-les-Bains, the capital of the department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. The weather was much sunnier than the previous day, which made shade even more welcome than when we were in the gorge.

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In Digne, we had lunch and made plans to get back to the Airbnb, which were ultimately foiled since the buses weren’t running and it wasn’t clear where to pick up a taxi on the holiday. So we hoofed it back, which with only around 400 m of elevation gain over 10 km wasn’t too bad a walk. We couldn’t have had better weather for the romp.

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After dinner in a cozy restaurant and packing, we were ready to head out on the final day, for which our only plan was just the return drive northward to Germany. The day of driving also had abundant sunshine and afforded clear visibility to the Mont Blanc massif and the rest of the French alps. The trip should have taken me around nine hours, but between all the staring contests I had with the various mountain ranges I passed it took me 10.5 hours. It was not just the language or the mountains that were changing; by the time I arrived at my apartment in Kempten, it was snowing.

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It took me twenty weeks before I visited Chamonix when I was in Stuttgart in 2011; this time, it’s taken me over twice as long and I still haven’t been back. But the calling is admittedly getting louder — this trip was the longest time I had spent in a French-speaking area since 2005, and despite speaking conversational German now I registered for the first time how badly I missed speaking French. Luckily, with thirty days of vacation per year I have a decent chance of reconciling that deficiency. Not so luckily, I only have 21 months left to fulfill that goal. Somehow, in one long weekend I ended up reaffirming both how much I’ve missed using my second foreign language and how much I adore Europe. Perhaps, in a dark but not pessimistic (more wistful, one might say) way, that’s what this brief break from my current work and geographical reality revealed: subconsciously acknowledging what there is to be grateful for, if only to realize that what we cherish can at times be fleeting.

Grandes Gorges

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