The Grand Canyon of Verdon

Published: June 17th 2016
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Gorges du Verdon

· Our 1,000 page Lonely Planet guide to France contains only a few paragraphs about this heart palpating scenery and geologically significant canyon. As canyons go, Gorges du Verdon may not be as big as America’s Grand Canyon, but it is the biggest in Europe and unchallenged as Europe’s most beautiful. But let’s not get too carried away with biggest being best. We think Ayers Rock (‘Uluru’ to Canberra apologists and Sydney toffs) is a biggie. But take four Ayres Rocks, tip them upside down and they would make just a tiny causeway across the narrowest part of that Grand Canyon formed by the Colorado River. There is nothing insignificant about the Verdon River’s 21 km long, 700-meter deep canyon that narrows six meters, at the bottom and 200 meters at the rim.

I wondered why such a naturally beautiful and ecologically significant region rated with so little mention in the esteemed Lonely Planet. Why have so few of our well-travelled acquaintances even heard of the region? But it’s all part of how the world views France and how the French regard the rest of us. The French published rave reviews of the geological wonder from as early as 1782 (before First Settlement at Sydney Cove), but outside France, the gorge was unknown until about 1906. While it was snobbish at the time for the English to roll off a few French phrases at dinner parties, their comprehension and use of the language François did not penetrate past social niceties to the scientific or scenic level. It was never kept as a secret in France. Why should the French worry if no one wanted to read about their geographical and scenic treasure?

Narrow roads traverse the edge of the gorge and we were privileged then, to be able to drive and see for ourselves the spectacles of;

· Lavender farms on the limestone plateau,

· Turquoise lakes, and

· Ancient cliffs and rock formations while we cruise along serpentine-like panoramic clifftop roads rimming the canyon 700 meters below.

Geographical History

I am not a geologist. But after consulting with sources including Wikipedia and commentary on French tourist sites, I have paraphrased the geographical history of how the gorge was formed.

More recently

Rivers Verdon and Jaron combined to cut a gorge up to 700 meters deep through Provence’s limestone plateau with rims only 200 meters apart in places, widening to 1500 meters in parts. Glacial fed waters impregnated with limestone ‘flour’ flow green into Lac d'Esparron-Gréoux as well as Lac de Castillon, and Lac de Sainte-Croix. The waters are harnessed to generate hydro electricity utilising Reservoir at Chaudanne and Reservoir at Quinson.

Ancient history

The canyon originated in the Triassic period, then several million years later in the Jurassic period, the area was covered by a warm shallow sea ( like a global warming). Corals formed and then in the Cretaceous period the sea reached the current location of the Alps, which were not erected until the tertiary era. All this large-scale geological activity caused Jurassic-era limestone deposits to fracture thus forming a path for the Verdon River. Glaciation in the Quaternary period transformed water pockets and lakes into unstoppable rivers of ice, which bulldozed and scoured the topography. After that, erosion by rivers continued, making the gorge the way it is now

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