The Gorge du Verdon is possibly France's best kept secret. Known locally as Europe's Grand Canyon, it is in the easterly region of Provence that is less visited by the hordes of tourists that flock to the area to photograph the well known hilltop villages and lavender fields in the more central region around Avignon and the Luberon.
I came across some photos of the gorge when I was researching our June/July Nice to Milan cycling tour and it looked spectacular so I weaved it into our itinerary.
Clearly I didn't do quite enough research - well not enough to find out that the area can get ridiculously hot in Summer.
People who know me well know that I don't deal with riding in the heat very well. I have lovely memories of cycling around Singapore then spending the rest of the day hiding in an airconditioned room with a wet towel on my head while my friend's mum fed me duck soup to help reduce my heatstroke. Good times.
Ever since I've been careful to avoid riding in extreme heat. However our Nice to Milan trip is cycle touring (carrying 5 weeks worth of stuff in panniers), so we had no choice but to ride as our accommodation was on the other side of the gorge.
We left from Castellane around 7.30am. Castellane is a beautiful and lively village on the edge of the gorge and is well worth a stop if you are in the area.
We were surprised to find the temperature a cool 17 deg and the village completely covered in fog. I started to wonder if we'd actually see anything in the gorge - how sad to have come all this way and to see nothing but fog! However about 5km down the road the cloud lifted and we were greeted by a stunning valley with high rocky mountains surrounding us.
The first 15km towards Trigance was slightly downhill - great start! We stopped for an espresso and croissant and life was good.
There are two roads through the gorge (well it could be a loop if you wanted). We'd chosen to take the lower, longer route through Aiguines en route to Moustiers Saint-Marie, our town for the night. You could take a shorter road that had higher views of the gorge which I'm sure is equally a scenic, but might be a bit busier.
We reached the town Trigance around 9am and our shady valley disappeared, replaced by hot open plains and a 12% climb. The sun was already beating down on us and at the top of the 4km climb I had to stop, undo my jersey and pour water all over myself. Stupidly I didn't think to fill my water bottles in Trigance and I'd already gone through one bottle. We started rolling towards the gorge and I began to freak out that there would be no water stops until we reached the other side. However about 10km down the road we saw a sign for a restaurant, and as we rounded a bend we were greeted with the most incredible view.
The view across the gorge was spectacular - the cliffs towered around us and plunged hundreds of meters below. Almost as exciting as the opportunity to take millions of photos on my Go-Pro was the prospect of filling up my waterbottle and eating an ice cream.
Over the next 10kms or so we had a nice descent through the gorge to a bridge that crossed to the other side. People were bungy jumping off the bridge but Phil wasn't keen to give it a go. Bummer.
After we crossed the bridge we started climbing. It was pretty much up for the rest of the ride through the Gorge Aguines (apart from a couple of short descents). So we settled into a rhythm. It wasn't particularly steep, but before long the sun was beating down on us.
The climb to Aguines was around 8km long and by about kilometer 3 it was 38deg. I was starting to melt down. For the first time ever I decided to ride with my helmet off. I had my jersey undone and would have taken it off completely if I hadn't been worried about sunburn. Hell, I probably would have ridden nude - I was beyond caring.
Despite the heat, we still managed to get the Go-Pro out to capture the epic views.
We were passed by many cyclists on road bikes (how I cursed them and wished I wasn't on my tourer lugging 25kg), but they all seemed to be French. Maybe that's because it was a Sunday and people were visiting for the weekend, or maybe the rest of the world just hasn't discovered this region yet.
With one kilometer to go of the climb I was in the pain cave, but somehow I made it and we had the sweetest 5km descent to Aiguines. Ah that cool air on my face was incredible. Aiguines is a lovely old french village and I doused myself in the fountain in the square.
We decided to hide from the heat for a bit and have lunch before heading to our hotel for the night in Moustiers Saint - Marie. We knew it was pretty much downhill for the rest of the ride so we were in high spirits.
We rolled out down the hill towards the lake that I couldn't be bothered looking at earlier. Close up it was spectacular. Lots of people had rented kayaks and were paddling up the gorge. If I wasn't so hot I probably would have been keen to give it a go, but we decided to push on.
The last 5km of the ride was uphill into a headwind, and I think the temperature was close to 40 deg. I stopped with about 300m of the climb to go as I thought I was going to be sick. Phil rode up the hill, dropped his panniers and came back and took mine. Bless him! I put them back on at the top, and as we rolled into town our garmin took us the wrong way up a 20% climb. Not surprisingly I had to get off and push.
We finally made it to our hotel in the middle of town. It was market day and the place was heaving with tourists. I really wanted to tell everyone to bugger off and get out of my way but I wasn't sure how to express that sentiment in French. I'm pretty sure people got the idea when they saw the look on my face.
Ok, so this photo was actually from the day before, but you get the point!
So all in all the day was pretty tough for me! However, I think if we'd had a cooler day it would have been one of the most stunning rides I've ever done. The climbs aren't steep and the views are out of this world. So despite all my moaning I think you should consider putting the Gorge du Verdon on your bucket list.
Just go in September instead!