Provence Side Trip: Valensole and the Gorges du Verdun

So now you've explored Provence, and you either have one extra day or are driving on your way to the riviera and you're not sure what to do.  Well, I'm here to tell you, that if you skip the plateau of Valensole (especially in the spring) and the neighboring Gorges du Verdun, you will be missing some SPECTACULAR natural scenery.  I made sure to even include an entire night here, just outside of the charming cliff-side village of Moustiers Sainte-Marie, in order to actually get down into the canyon, and I am so happy I added that to my trip.  

First up, lavender.  I left Aix-en-Provence and skirted the southern edge of the Luberon hills, through Pertuis and the Vaucluse for a little less than an hour in search of lavender fields.  This was the end of June, so I wasn't sure if the lavender would be at peak, but I was going to try.  I saw a glimpse here or there in the distance, but then once I went up & down a hill (and the town of Manoque), then crossed the big A51 highway, it was like entering a different world.  I climbed again, kept climbing, and then BOOM.  Wide open fields with lavender as far as you could see. It was seriously the views you dream about, and it JUST. KEPT. GOING.  I don't know how many times I stopped - just pulling off the road, or into a little lavender stand, or into a side road - anything to be able to take photo after photo.  I THINK I was on the D56 through to the village of Puimoisson, which was great because it was just a little two-lane road through the fields, though the D8 is a little more straight and likely just as gorgeous.  Just to orient you, Valensole is about an hour from Aix-en-Provence, an hour and a half from Orange & Avignon (though there are lavender fields closer to them), and a little bit more than two hours from points on the Riviera, like Saint-Tropez and Cannes, so a bit in the middle of nowhere, but not far from a lot.  It's completely worth the trip - LOOK:

Needless to say, I was still pretty breathless when I finally left the fields behind, but wham- just about 15 minutes later I basically ran into a cliff.  There was a little village perched about halfway up the cliff called Moustiers Saint-Marie.  This was my goal, as this is sort of the "main" village base for exploring the Gorges du Verdon, which is known as the "Grand Canyon" of France.  It's really nothing much like the Grand Canyon (not much is), but it is pretty darn dramatic, big, and impressive.  You can drive all the way around the canyon, on the D952 around to the D71, but that will take you a while, and the driving is not particularly easy.  Little, narrow two-lane roads with lots and lots of hair-pin curves, plus views you'll want to stop for often.  Instead, I made my way directly to the tourist office in Moustiers, which was so adorable I almost would have been happy parking myself in one of their cafes that overlook the rushing waterfall that cuts the town in half.  But I knew time was short for me to be able to join any sort of half-day tour into the canyon, so I stayed on task and found myself a tour that still had room for that afternoon.  This was called "rando-aqua", which is a sort of water-hike.  It was in French, in this case, but the company does do tours in English, and there were many, many tour options (check here for a list) in and out of the water.  My "rando-aqua" with Yeti Rafting (!) was SO awesome and fun.  We met up about a half hour down the D952 from the entrance to the canyon (which, by the way, is GORGEOUS), changed into full, head-to-ankle wet suits, helmets, and water socks - we weren't able to take ANYTHING with us (except maybe a small waterproof camera).  We understood why when we drove back down into the canyon to a small rocky "beach", added life jackets to our insane get-ups, and then basically hopped into the (very chilly) river.  We picked our way through shallow rocky areas, floated through gentle-to-exciting rapids, and jumped off periodic boulders, as bravery allowed.  Floating on my back down river with the cliffs towering about 2000 feet above was an experience I will NOT forget soon.  Our guide always made sure we were safe, though only a few parts were tricky, and he made it fun for everyone - even some who were a bit timid.  When we finally reached the end of our tour through the water, we had a bit of hike back up river, through at one point a MASSIVELY long tunnel, with no lights - but soon enough, with minimal huffing and puffing, we were safely delivered back to our vehicles. I had just enough time to enjoy the ride back to Moustiers and the farm house I was staying at just outside of town.  This was another fantastic experience, complete with a home-cooked meal shared with citizens from all over Europe - definitely something you should look for when traveling anywhere in the French countryside.  Sadly - my photos are slightly limited, firstly because I didn't have a water-proof option with me for the "rando-aqua", and secondly because I think I was so tired after the hike and didn't want to be the gauche american taking photos during dinner.  BUT- here are a handful of Moustiers and the road through the gorge, and at least one of my farmhouse home for the night:

One thing to point out about this fantastic little side trip you could take between Provence and the Cote d'Azure: you'll need a car.  I was THRILLED to have a convertible on this sunny perfect day in June, but that obviously would be an special extra.  This would be pretty difficult in a bus, though there are tours to the Valensole plateau from Aix-en-Provence at least.  To do the gorge and Moustiers though, you'll pretty much need to be flexible and mobile.  You could, conceivably, drive from Aix through the Valensole and along the northern end of the gorge before getting finally to, say, Nice - but the four hour drive would eat up much of your time to enjoy the area.  If you'd like to overnight, both the rooms with private bathroom and the atmosphere of the farmhouse where I stayed were spectacular!