(Not) Climbing in Verdon Gorge: the Sentier Martel
Posted on February 26, 2014
Verdon Gorge is one of Europe’s premier climbing destinations. The cliffs rise a majestic seven hundred metres from the base of the gorge, soaring with neck straining verticality. Access is via abseil and is thus rather committing. The legendary multipitch sport routes begin at about the 6c mark and continue into 8c and beyond. Visitors and locals alike enthuse about the quality of the rock, the sick moves and the quality lines.
Frankly, it sounds horrible and looks even more so.
Fortunately, my beloved Climber has a healthy horror of having to rescue his wife from the middle pitch of a seven hundred meter ascent. So, in the interests of marital harmony and avoiding the expense of a helicopter call out, he decided not to take me climbing. Hurrah! Instead I was free to enjoy the Sentier Martel, one of France’s great day walks.
The Sentier Martel is a small portion of the GR4, about 15km. I added a little to the length by starting up at Rougon and finishing in the village of La Palud, rather that at the traditional end point at Chalet de la Maline (which was closed for winter renovations, making it a poor meeting spot for the ever suffering husband to wait in).
The Climber kindly dropped me at Rougon, a pretty little hillside village with a green blue vista of the plateau below it, out of which is carved the impressive gorge. The walk down the hill from Rougon was quite pretty and reasonably easy going. There were cute little french farms and only a minimum of stinging nettle. At the bottom of the hill (which is the top of the plateau) you find the Sublime Point, a rocky outcrop with a magnificent view of the entrance to the gorge. In my case, I also found my Climber, who was convinced that I would loose myself on the first 30 minutes of the walk and wanted to triple check that I had enough water and food and a head torch and a space blanket. I assured him that I had all the requisite items and availed myself of the proffered cuddles, before moving off and leaving him a worried (but mostly forlorn and un-belayed) figure on a windy hilltop.
Ignoring the niggle of guilt, I started the descent to the gorge floor. The windy path was manageably steep and offered some excellent view points of the gorge entrance. You see the snake of shining river curving around the last hill and then slithering between two huge cliffs. It’s hard to imagine that such a pretty little stream could have carved something so immense.
On entering the gorge there are many fine views of the river. Closer up, the eye is drawn to the scintillating turquoise of the water, the tumbling boulders and the green abandon of trailing vines, trees and plants. Reflecting on the wildness of the scene, it is easier to accept that no one had travelled down the entirety of the gorge (about 25 km) until 1905. That year a group of explorers from an electricity company, led by Édouard-Alfred Martel, undertook a geological survey which tok them the length of the gorge.
The path was established by the Touring Club of France in 1928 and begins by following the river, before funnelling you through three tunnels. These were built as part of a hydroelectric plan, which was never completed. They are dark, cold, wet and spooky and I was very glad that I had a head torch. I was also glad that there were a few other people walking within torch distance of me. Exiting the final tunnel was a relief and I got talking to one of the torch bearers, a lovely Swiss girl with confident strides and wide ranging conversation. We shared the rest of the walk, nattering about life, the universe and everything (the answer to which, contrary to popular opinion, is not a number but French pastry with good coffee and better views).
The Sentier wanders along the gorge floor for a few more kilometres, providing vantage points to admire the the cliffs, river, pebble beaches and the ribbon of blue sky above as well as the flashes of red and gold autumn foliage. It then begins to zig zag up the gorge wall in a place where it is unusually accessible. You are then faced with about a zillion metal stairs which have been screwed into a recess in the cliff – Brèche Embert. It has all been refurbished fairly recently and feels very secure – no frightening wobbly bits. The need for robustness was amply demonstrated when a bus load of older walkers began descending as we were ascending. There were about 50 of us on the stairs simultaneously, and the bus riders had not been skimping on the French pastry. It was also an exercise in patience as it’s not possible to pass on the stairs, only on the spaced platforms.
High up, but in fact on a low dimple in the plateau, the walk continues, trailing the river from above. We stopped for lunch on a sunny corner with a golden view of the gorge, settling in among the rosemary bushes to share our vittles. The nutritional side of things taken care of, we strolled on through the low scrub. The path eventually began to climb and, surprisingly, we came upon two young Germans in the midst of a significant repast and engaged on determining the correct usage of an English idiom. Fortunately, as a native English speaker, I was able to confidently identify the correct usage. Unfortunately, as a product of the Australian education system, I was completely unable to explain why it was in fact correct.
As we approached the last rise to Chalet de la Maline we came across two Englishmen investigating the beginning of the path. One of them was wearing very fashionable shorts that I thought my dear Climber would look cute in. Other than a gaggle of walkers we met at one intersection, these were all the people we shared the path with that day. We both commented on how pleasant it was to walk in the cool of late autumn without a horde of other walkers around. I don’t know that the path wold be quite so pleasant in summer.
From the Chalet we decided to have a bit of an adventure and make our own path towards La Palud, rather than follow the road for several boring kilometres. Fairly predictably, this didn’t provide the most direct path but the hill side meandering was quite fun. When we regained the road it was late but we were still confident that we would get to the village before dark. Our calculations were improved when the fashionable shorts wearing Englishmen offered us a lift. Having nothing to prove, and thinking of the waiting glass of wine, we gratefully accepted