Saturday, October 16, 2010

the verdon has its ups and its downs

We spent today exploring the Park naturel du Verdon, a region of France we really weren't familiar with, and one that we visited only because Brad happened to come across a photo of a town so breathtaking, we decided we had to go see it (Moustiers-Sainte-Marie). So we're here.

So, on Friday, we left Gordes, and headed for the switch-back filled 200 km trip (give or take) to Saint Laurent du Verdon. Verdon is a huge natural park region featuring a plateau, canyons, valleys and mountains. It's pretty awesome. Our hotel is a 17th century olive mill that has been transformed into a 'hotel au naturel' which means that they have a commitment to the environment and to supporting local industry. The village of Saint Laurent du Verdon is a bit of a ghost town (only sign of life was three older gentlemen engrossed in an intense match of petanques). No commerce whatsoever this time of year, aside from the hotel and an adjacent B&B.

Being a little trepidatious of night-time travel through the narrow switchback roads, we opted to have dinner at the hotel last night. We were absolutely not disappointed - the meal was amazing, starting with a pissaladiere tart, then with roasted veal, local cheeses and a delicious apple cake for dessert. I won't enumerate the bottles of wine we consumed, but I will say we weren't up terribly early this morning.

Our mission for the day today was to find Moustiers Sainte Marie (the town that brought us to the Verdon region in the first place), but we also figured it would be good to see what else we could explore. Now, this region really is known for its outdoor activities, and neither Brad nor I are terribly outdoorsy (not so big on hiking, fishing, mountain biking, etc.).

We ended up starting our day in Riez, a town about 10 km or so from our hotel, because today was market day. This was definitely a market to behold - local products of every description, just begging to be tasted and purchased. I resisted most of them, only because for the rest of the trip, I'm going to have to carry my backpack everywhere (no more car after tomorrow!) and I didn't want to haul around an extra 10 pounds of goodies. Sigh. I wonder if I could have shipped them.

Anyway, we were wandering through this quaint little town when we spotted a suspiciously brand-new looking staircase. And Brad, being a guy, wanted to climb it. So we climbed to the top. And then there was another staircase. So we climbed that one to the top. And then it became a narrow winding path (still going up at a steep pitch). So we climbed it too (why not, right?). Eventually, we found ourselves at the top of a small mountain (Mont Saint Maxime - Riez is a valley village, unlike the hilltop villages we were visiting in the Luberon). At the top, there was a beautiful park, giant trees, benches and (surprise!) a nunnery attached to a XVIe century church. Pretty cool. And not what we were expecting. Totally worth the climb.

We picked our way back down the mountain/hill and back through the village. We decided that we would head to Sainte-Croix du Verdon for lunch. It is perched above the edge of a manmade lake, Lac de Sainte Croix. Our trip to Sainte Crois was not without its bit of adventure. While gingerly working our way down the switchbacks into the village, we managed to be witness to a car accident. Coming up the hill was a porsche club, and one of the drivers took the corner a bit too wide and slammed into the tow truck directly in front of us. French macho culture being what it is, both drivers immediately jumped out and immediately starting decrying the other's driving skills. And of course all of the Porsche driver's friends immediately starting yelling at the poor tow truck driver. We saw it all clearly though. The Porsche jumped the line and the mess of broken glass and crumpled porsche (which crumples like tin, btw) was clearly on the left side of the road. Sorry buddy. We stayed long enough for Brad to give a signed statement (while the Porsche drivers were glaring at us...eeek!) and then made our way down to the Lac de Sainte Croix.

For all that the lake is manufactured, the beauty is still quite arresting. We enjoyed a casual lunch of sandwiches and beer while on a patio perched hundreds of feet directly above the shore. The colour of the lake was reminiscent of the bright blue of a glacial lake...not sure how that came about, but it is really pretty. So of course we had to climb down to the lake.

The trip down was pretty quick, and we enjoyed a nice walk along the rocky shore, and enjoyed the incredible mountain vistas. The trip up was definitely a good workout though. Ooof. I think I'll probably be sore tomorrow.

Winding our way even MORE carefully up the switchback roads, we continued to Moustiers Sainte Marie. WOW. We got an incredible view of the town from across the valley and the way it clings to a barren cliff just makes your jaw drop.

Woah. Pictures can't even do it justice. It's awesome.

We climbed the roads into Moustiers Sainte Marie, wove our way through the narrow streets to find a parking spot. Of course, like all places, our mission was to climb, and we wanted to climb to a chapel that stood most of the way up the mountain that houses Moustiers. And we, uh....well, we kinda took a wrong turn.

There IS a nice path with railings, etc., that goes up to the chapel. Still a lot of climbing, but nothing near the vertigo inducing trip we had.

Nope, we took the alternate route, via the 'grotto'. Instead of railings, we had amazing views and stomach curdling drops. Okay, maybe just *my* stomach. This route is not for the faint of heart. It did, however, eventually get us to Notre Dame de Beauvoir, but I have to admit to more than a few moments of gut-wrenching fear on the way there. *Note to parents - it wasn't ACTUALLY dangerous. I'm just a weenie who is terrified of heights. The path was plenty wide.

Anyway, the view was utterly worth it and really put us in awe of the people who founded the town in the 5th century and who built an entire church halfway up a mountain. That takes an incredible amount of dedication and faith and it's really quite humbling.

Now we are back to our hotel, waiting for dinner to start (not until 8!), so we thought we would update our blog. :) Again, we thought it best to eat at our hotel's amazing restaurant, and avoid all the late night switchbacks. Our hostess here also tells us that wild boars are a bit of a danger too. So we're glad to sit back, relax and enjoy the rest of the night.

Tomorrow: Flight to Bastia, Corsica. :)


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