Walls of rock twice as high as the Eiffel Tower hem in the Verdon River as it winds thin and snake-like along the bottom of its precipitous gorge in southern France. The gorge is some 12 miles (20km) long and up to 230ft (700m) deep – making it the largest chasm in Europe. At its broadest, it is more than a mile (1.6km) wide at the top, yet at the bottom, the rock walls are sometimes no farther apart than the walls of an average living room.
The Verdon is fed by melting snow from the Alps, and the gorge was formed as the swiftly flowing water gradually etched an ever deeper channel in the limestone plateau of Haute Provence. Rain falling on the Plateau sinks underground, so there are no streams to erode and flatten the rock wall along the gorge. In Spring, the country around is pink with almond blossom; in summer it glows deep mauve from the fields of Lavender, grown for the Grasse perfume factories.
No one had made a complete descent of the Verdon Gorge until 1905 when Edouard Martel, a pioneer of cave exploration in France, led an expedition through it. The journey took three and a half days, and all but one of the party’s collapsible canvas boats foundered on the rocks. The gorge seemed to Martel to be ‘the most awe-inspiring sight in the whole of France’ – but impossible for tourists to visit.
Fortunately, he was wrong. Today, two tourist roads skirt the edges of the gorge, complete with viewing points from which visitors can look dizzily down at the curious rock shapes and sparkling waters far below.