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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Forget Cannes, Go Canyoneering!

A stunning canyon in the Verdon

Would you believe that just a stone's throw from the bling of Cannes on the French Riviera are some of the world's most spectacular canyons filled with iridescent turquoise water. Canyoneering is the ultimate way to discover them!

The honey-coloured rocks of the Gorges du Verdon contrast sharply with the sublime turquoise blue of the rivers and lakes flowing through them. These stunning canyons are one of the reasons The Telegraph newspaper recently ranked the Var number two in its list of the Top 30 destinations in Europe you must see in your lifetime; placed ahead of even the Sistine Chapel and Gaudí’s Barcelona. The article singled out the “aquamarine waters” of the Gorges du Verdon as one the principle reasons for bestowing the accolade upon Var.

Every summer, visitors come in their millions to marvel at Provence’s magnificent canyons. Besides the world-famous Verdon nature reserve, the area is riddled with countless other gorges too, which may be lower profile, but are still absolute gems. For example, the Gorges du Loup (Wolf Canyons), which lies within easy reach of Nice.

Which spots are best?

There are so many ways to explore, from shooting over the rapids on canoes to abseiling down the rock faces. Some of the bravest visitors even follow the hair-raising ‘via ferrata’ (‘iron road’ climbing routes) at Digneles-bains and Puget Théniers near Castellane. But one of the most fun ways is canyoneering, which encompasses all the best methods of traversing a canyon! And this area is also said to have some of the best canyoneering experiences in Europe. I'd be lying if I said it were an exact science, but for anyone who doesn't know it pretty much encompasses hiking, scrambling, wading, swimming, sliding and jumping your way along the route (sometimes abseiling is involved too). 

Not just for adrenaline-junkies

However, this isn't only an activity for adrenaline-junkies. Kids as young as 8 are allowed to join certain guided canyoneering trips, and sometimes people aged in their 70s will join, as long as they are able-bodied enough. The jumps tend to be just a few metres maximum, so all levels of ability can handle them. Those who want to take part in more technical jumps and climbs can take organised canyoneering expeditions for more experienced participants. 
Departures typically start from from a hilltop village such as Aups or Rougon. 

My canyoneering experience!

And that's how I found myself stumbling out of the village of La Palud sur Verdon one crisp morning on an organised canyoneering trek, headed for Baudan Bau Canyon. The trail wound through the hillsides covered in rosemary, thyme and mimosa trees before we found ourselves at the access point to the canyon. 

We began hiking directly alongside the river, where the rocks had been polished smooth over the years. The river was low because it was a hot, dry summer. After a brief  idiot's guide to abseiling basics, we continued along the canyon. The walls began to narrow so we began wading in the river, and before long a short series of small waterfalls came up, which we slid down on our bottoms. It felt rather like scooting down a slide at a water park, just tougher on the behind, and I was a little more nervous. Did I mention that I have mild vertigo? Fortunately it's not bad enough to stop me doing silly stuff like this. I have to admit, a couple of times I was pretty scared while standing at the highest waterfalls, but the guide talked us through the technical aspect of how to climb down so well and so patiently that I managed to calm my nerves. 

Mostly 3-5m jumps/drops/scrambles

When we came to a 3m high waterfall, we jumped off the edge off because it fed into a deep pool below. The water was cool but it was refreshing after the walk, and it was fun to swim for a couple of minutes to a point where we could stand up. There was another waterfall about 5m high which we had to abseil down, which was the one where I really had my heart in my mouth. It looked impossible to me from the top, just a slippery, sheer rock surface adjacent to a foaming waterfall (this descent was dry this time, as we were right next to the canyon wall). But when the guide explained where to put my feet, and I had watched three people go ahead of me, it was enough to convince me to just get on with it. And I'm glad I did. Not that there was any option to turn back at this point anyhow! 

The sense of accomplishment afterwards was fantastic. I feel 'accomplishment' when I have finished a long magazine article or finally destroyed the heap of washing up that piled up over the weekend; however, the sense of elation and satisfaction when you have done something physical that scares you a bit is one of the best feelings in life. There's nothing like doing something that puts you out of your comfort zone to make you feel truly alive. And that's why we travel, after all! 

There are many places you can book canyoneering trips from in the Verdon area, just drive around and you will find some, ask at a tourist office such as this one or simply Google it! 

The Top Canyoneering Sites in the area:

       NAME                       GOOD FOR                                                          DIFFICULTY

  • Baudan Bau                 Waterslides, jumps, swimming                                             Easy
  • Gorges du Loup           Lots of jumps & waterslides                                                 Easy
  • Cramassouri                 Proximity to Nice & canoeing                                               Easy
  • St Auban                       12m waterfall slide & varied terrain                                     Medium
  • Riolan                            Slides, jumps & abseiling                                                     Medium
  • Maglia                            Technical jumps, abseiling                                                   Medium-Hard
  • Lance                             1,600m descent, jumps, abseiling                                       Hard

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