Parcs Naturels du France

After leaving Nice with our rental car we visited three national parks in three days (and another later on). It was a much-needed break back into nature.

On the first day we drove through ‘Parc Naturel Régional des Préalpes d’Azur’ – Subalpine mountain ranges west of the French alps. The drive was absolutely stunning with winding roads and bright autumn colours.

We passed by some farm animals and stopped briefly in a cute village, Castellane. This village is nestled underneath an impressive rock face (with ‘The Roc Notre Dame’ cathedral overlooking the town below), running alongside the town is the Verdon River … we stopped the car on the modern bridge entering the town to take a photo of the more picturesque and iconic ‘Bridge of the Roc’. We enjoyed a short stroll around the streets, most shops were closed as it was 2pm – midday break – even the supermarket, but we found an open sandwich shop where we grabbed our late lunch to takeaway, leaving town for some lake views.

Just out of town we pulled over and enjoyed our French baguette sandwiches while looking out at Lake Castellane. We had a little walk on the edge of the lake, then after driving further around we discovered the Castillon electricity dam, where we walked the dam wall.

After a full day driving and stopping through the prealps we arrived at our Airbnb in La Petite Colle, located between two other national parks. Our airbnb was very rural and surrounded by lavender farms. The area is famous for lavender and you could tell would look fantastic with the fields of purple blooms (but we were okay to ‘settle’ for our autumn golds outside of lavender season).

The next day we headed to ‘Parc Naturel Régional du Verdon’. Our first stop was Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, a beautiful historic village built on platform terraces on the side of a limestone cliff. The focal point of the town is a waterfall cascading down the middle and a river running through the village. To the left of the waterfall overlooking the town is the Chapel of Notre Dame. We hiked up to the chapel and enjoyed the views from above. We were the only ones there and this chapel was illuminated by candlelight only, on first entering it was very dark, after sitting a while and allowing the eyes to adjust we could admire the stunning gold altar and many beautiful artworks (of course Kadin could use a long exposure on his camera to show the chapel in full light). It was a nice place to sit (catch my breath from the climb) and reflect with the sound of the waterfall outside.

We then went on the low road around Lac de Sainte-Crox. It’s hard to believe this lake is man-made (used to generate millions of kilowatts of electricity each year). The lake is located at the base of the Verdon Gorge and is surrounded by camping grounds (which were empty and closed up during our visit).

We started our ascent on the high road, above the Verdon Gorge. We pulled over in the small bays to enjoy better views of the lake and gorge below. We also came across some cute farm animals.

Next, we drove through ‘La Route des Crêtes’. A 23 km ring road (15km of which is one-way) that winds along the top of the Verdon Gorge. The gorge at times drops down 700 m and is home to large numbers of vultures. Some people refer to Verdon Gorge as “the Grand Canyon of Europe”. We took our time during our drive, at one point we just sat in the car on the side of the road to wait out a rainstorm passing through. We were soon treated to a double rainbow. Of course, the vultures had us mesmerised as they performed for us, soaring around the canyon. The Verdon River gets its name from its stunning turquoise water colour (vert meaning green in French). Unfortunately, with all the rain we recently had made the water more grey …but the autumn golds made up for it!

After completing the ring road, we headed down to the gorge. Here we could see the aftermath of the recent rainfall, there were logs and debris washed up on the walking track. We only walked a small part of the trail, stopping at the Baou Tunnel -we’d need to be prepared with headlamps to tackle this one (over 600m long) and it was almost sunset.

We arrived back to the lookout over Lac de Sainte-Crox as the sun was setting.

The next day we entered our third national park…  Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon. Here we visited an old Ochre mine in Rousillon. This protected parkland had well maintained paths and with information boards teaching the geology and history of the ochre production, making it an enjoyable morning activity.

After walking around the mine, we wandered through the town Rousillon. The town was almost camouflaged as the buildings were coloured with the ochre too. Many shops in town still sold ochre paints.

We continued driving through Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon, eventually making our way to the Ganagobie Abbey located on a mountaintop with fantastic views of the surrounding area.

The next morning we checked-out of our airbnb. It was a crisp clear morning and we were able to enjoy one last stop in the lavender fields with the snowy mountains in the background.

Our next stop was the port city, Marseilles. After checking into our apartment, we decided to go for an afternoon/evening stroll around the city. We ended up at the waterfront which also had the newly opened Christmas market.

During our stay in Marseille we had another wet day. With our wet-weather gear on we continued to see the city on foot. The park near our airbnb had chickens and roosters! The rain meant we almost had the Cathédrale La Major to ourselves. During one of the downpours we took refuge under one of the pedestrian bridges.

On our last day in Marseilles we awoke to a beautiful day. So, we decided to head out of town in our car and visit another national park, Calanques (Calanque de Sormiou). This stunning coastal area is only a 20-minute drive from the city. We hadn’t overly planned our day in the park nor the walking trails, that’s why we found ourselves tackling the wrong route along the headland. After clambering up the scree, we soon realised we were going to need rock climbing gear to keep moving ahead. We enjoyed the view from our vantage point and then commenced a careful and slow descent back down to the beach below. We spent the rest of the morning soaking up the sunshine on the rocks, enjoying our picnic lunch and then we located some easier paths around the headland.

We returned to our airbnb after a great morning at the beach and decided to continue to make the most out of the clear skies. We decided to hike up the hill to Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde. The basilica is built on the highest point in Marseilles and provides excellent views.

The next day we checked-out and commenced our drive to Antibes (near Nice). Along the route we stopped at the small seaside village Cassis. The town had 1-hour gratuit (free) parking and the Christmas market caught our eye as we approached. After a quick stroll through the market (which was just setting up) we bought a morning tea treat from the patisserie which we enjoyed by the harbour.

Further along the drive we passed some vineyards of the Provence region, southern France…

We plugged: Plage de Tahiti (part of St Tropez) – one of most famous sandy beaches in France, into google. It was a bit out of the way, so we were pretty disappointed when we arrived and the entire place was closed up for the season and the beach was completely destroyed by the storm (covered in logs and debris).

The last part of the drive to Antibes made up for our beach disappointment, with the coast near La Dramont which had some cool reddish rocks.

We had one final day in Antibes before our morning flight. We explored this coastal town across the bay from Nice. The water was still fairly choppy and the waves put on a dramatic show as they pounded against the rocky sea wall. There were several kite surfers utilising the blustery conditions and the best part was when they hit the waves and got enough air, they looked like snow boarders on the alps in the distance!

Dropping off our rental car at the Nice airport completed our quick lap around Southern France. Now it’s time for some real cold weather, Finland – here we come!

Have fun at work!
Gemma

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