I’m clinging to a cable attached to a rock face. The trail ahead — actually, more of a three-foot-wide platform cut into the rock — mirrors the zig and zag of the canyon wall. I’m not a fan of heights, nor is my traveling companion, who has reluctantly agreed to hike this far into France’s Gorges du Verdon, or Verdon Gorge.
Rephrase: We’re fine with heights. We just don’t like the idea of the rock shelf crumbling beneath us, or of slipping off the narrow path, or of falling into the boulder-strewn water below, or other worst-case scenarios. I focus on these dark fantasies. It’s my way of dispelling fear. Mary Ann, my companion, has dubbed me “Worst-Case Scenario Guy.”
“It would be a bummer if that cable snapped, wouldn’t it?” I say. “But it’s lasted this long, right? And here comes a lovely family.” A stalwart party of Dutch parents with their Dutchlings (roughly ages 8, 10 and 14) blows past us, ignoring us white-knuckling the cable, which I feel I might snap from the very force of my anxiety.
Worst-Case-Scenario (WCS) Guy thinks: What force — God or Mother Nature — would dare pluck the cable from the rock now? As the Dutchlings round the bend? Never.
About 100 feet below us, the rapids of the Verdon River rush around a variety of jagged outcroppings, some worn smooth by eons of erosion. “You know, some of those boulders don’t look so sharp. You might survive the fall.”
“Ethan,” Mary Ann says jokingly. “Shut it.”
Tourists visit Provence mostly to gorge on cheese and truffles and Cotes du Luberon, or to see fields of lavender or sunflowers, or to experience art, be it by painters lured by the azure sky or the humbler art of men stooping over their game of petanque in the shade of a plane-tree-flanked village square. But we don’t often think of “the outdoors” when we think of Provence, let alone France. Outdoors, as in hiking through the wilds. As in adventure sports. As in canyons.
About two hours northeast of Marseille, the limestone foothills of the Alps straddle two French departments: the Var to the south and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence to the north. Into this robust land the Verdon River, named for its green-blue color, has carved the “Grand Canyon of Europe,” about 2,300 feet at its deepest point, and running about 15 miles before dumping into an artificial lake called Lac de Sainte-Croix, just due south of the town Moustiers Sainte-Marie.
“The Verdon Gorge is basically the biggest canyon we’ve got in Europe,” says Didier Menard, who works for Aboard Rafting, one of the many adventure outfitters in the area.
Explore the canyon
Virtually unknown to Americans but popular with Europeans in the summertime, the region attracts camper vans full of rock climbers, hikers, bicyclists, canoeists, paragliders, whitewater rafters, fly fishers and those who, even as debutantes, take part in an activity called “canyoning.” Rustic campgrounds and small inns abound. You can laze in a paddle boat or choose a higher-charged adventure amid the cliffs, trails and waterways — from a day hike into the gorge and back to a two-day circuit.
Not that I’d suggest that you risk the lives of your children, but clearly, if little kids can handle these hikes — think of the Dutchlings — then so can you.