Le Sentier Martel
Grand Canyon of the Verdon
The Verdon Gorge
Easter 2000 found us in the Alps of Haut Provence, staying in a
chamber d'hôte in the gorge country of the Verdon River. Our plan
was to explore the area and walk the Sentier Martel which runs
through the canyon intriguingly marked on maps as the Grand
Canyon of the Verdon. This is spectacular country, located roughly
NE of Aix en Provence, NW of Cannes and South of Digne.
Just outside the town of la Palud, the chambre d'hôte was a
convivial place where, in the way of these places, we joined our
hosts, some French visitors and a group of Belgian walkers for
dinner each night. The Belgians had come to the area for their
annual holidays and, over two weeks, had explored all the tracks
and trails in the region. During these convivial dinners we were to
discover a jovial repartee between the Belgians and French with
the northerners being the target of jokes similar to those that
Australians might make about New Zealanders.
The canyon is the deepest and most impressive gorge in Europe. It
is, with some justification, a very busy place and it's not hard to
see why. The little Verdon River, helped by ancient tectonic
upheavals, has cut a huge gash down through the rocky limestone
countryside and, now at the base of the canyon, its chalky
turquoise water gushes through defiles and chasms carving out
caves, dislodging and relocating huge boulders and leaving
deposits of little stones to form beaches. Sometimes it slows
down into long still pools with sandy banks, favourite places for
walkers to camp or cool down in the icy water.
Edouard Alfred Martel (1859-1938) after whom the
Sentier Martel is named, is acclaimed as the
father of modern speleology. He was a French
lawyer with a passion for speleology who
organised annual expeditions throughout Europe,
and even America, to explore many of the
spectacular cave systems that today enthral so
many visitors. Among his greatest discoveries in
France were the Abîme de Bramabiau and the
Gouffre de Padirac.
Using ropes, rope ladders, collapsible canoes,
the very earliest of telephones, and candles and
magnesium strips for lighting he descended into
hitherto unknown underground caverns and river
systems. It is spine tingling to read of his exploits
into a subterranean world where the smallest
mishap could have spelt disaster.
In 1905 Martel made the first descent through the Grand Canyon du Verdon,
named in his honour by the Touring Club of France when they established the
trail in 1928. He said of the canyon:
"... There exists here ... a marvel without a second in Europe. In truth, the
most American of all the canyons in the Old World, and I have not
changed my mind after seeing the Grand Canyon of the Colorado ..."
The river flow is influenced by the hydroelectric works of Electricité de
France. The river is dammed in several places upstream of the gorges and
the torrent's waters flow to a hydroelectric plant located downstream from the
This is not a hard walk but it is testing and is far from being a simple
stroll along the base of the cliffs. Indeed you might be deterred by the
signs that appear at the beginning of the trail
* Only attempt this hike in good weather.
* Be careful of rock slides caused by rain.
* Avoid the metal ladders during thunder storms.
* Do not go into other tunnels: it is dangerous.
* The water level of the Verdon can change often and
quickly: be very careful of the rapid rise in the water level.
Once down in the gorge the track continually climbs up and
down from the water level to negotiate side gorges and rocky
outcrops. There are some long ladders to negotiate and at the
beginning (or end, depending on which direction you take)
there are tunnels associated with the early electricity works.
These are very dark and wet, except for a series of spots
where galleries have been cut into the cliff to open up a
spectacular view of the river. A torch is needed in the tunnels
and it's a good idea to arrange to have a car at the end of the
trail - otherwise it is possible to arrange to take a taxi back to
the other end.
The Parc Naturel Régional du Verdon was inaugurated in 1997
finally recognising and officially protecting the special nature of
the region. There is enough good walking here to occupy a
longish stay. As well as the blockbuster Sentier Martel through
the canyon, we did another walk which climbed up over ridges
to reach a belvedere looking down into the gorge from its
staggering highest point. From here the stream of walkers
following the trail along the river looked like little ants and rock
climbers on the walls of the gorge and its prominent pinnacles
looked like spiders hanging onto a wall.
The pathway runs through the Gorge
The Verdon River at the base of the Gorge
From the top of the Gorge
An ancient bridge crosses the Verdon