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 Walk
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 Grand Canyon.
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
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