Monday, May 15, 2006

Draguignan, France

Friends: Fifty miles north of Cannes, just off the Route de Napoleon, the road I was following, though in the opposite direction of the diminutive corporal's march to Paris from Elba in 1815, lays the Grand Canyon du Verdon. I had to bypass it last year when I was pressed for time, but this year I had a spare day and could divert from my route for the 60-mile circuit around what is Europe's largest and, no doubt, most spectacular canyon.

I arrived in Castellane, at its gateway, early Sunday afternoon after descending from the 3,700' high Col des Leguas. It was my second prolonged climb of the day and after five-and-a-half days in the Juras and Alps I was ready for some leisurely leg-pumping along the rim of this canyon. There were swarms of campgrounds around Castellane and companies offering river trips. The cafes around the town's square were packed with hikers, many with walking sticks propped against their chairs. This was more like the American West than France.

The tranquil, luscious blue-green River Verdon didn't seem big enough at first for rafting or to have been capable of carving out much of a canyon. Fishermen casually stood in the middle of the river in hip boots. It was a pleasure to glide along as if I were drifting down the river myself with no rush to be anywhere and scenery more appropriate to Montana than France. But I've well-learned from the past two years of cycling around France that it is a country of much more than vineyards and cathedrals and chateaus and the Tour de France. There is genuine, rugged scenery, even apart from the high Alps, that would please the soul of any outdoors person.

I was enjoying the scenery so much I didn't mind when the road began to climb. I should have expected some climbing, since the road started at the level of the river, but I didn't anticipate there'd be so much. And I'm glad I didn't know, as I might have declined making the full circuit and doubled back after making it to Point Sublime, about twelve miles into the circuit.

There were two prolonged climbs on the north side of the canyon and then four on the south side with about as many cumulative feet as Mont Ventoux and L'Alpe d'Huez combined, including one of eight miles and 2,200' to nearly 4,000', the highest point I'd been in the 800 miles I'd cycled from Paris. But the views were stupendous, especially from the south side. One could look down at the sheer 1,000' walls of the canyon from many vantage points. My camera finger was very itchy.

The circuit of the canyon could well be among the top ten one-day cycle rides in France. The canyon is a bit less than 25 miles long and not much more than half a mile wide at any time. At times it narrows to not much more than a chip shot from the road on one side of the canyon to the other. There were a couple of small towns on the north side. The river empties into a large man-made lake that has the same sumptuous blue-green color. It was early enough in the season that there wasn't much traffic. There were signs forbidding wild-camping, even in English, but that didn't prevent me. The bridge across the river, just before it empties into the lake, was wall-to-wall with camera-toting tourists waiting for a raft to pass underneath.

With so much climbing, I continued on to my usual 7:30 p.m. stopping point, trying to get as much of it behind me as I could. I was lucky to find a place to camp on a flat spot at 3,000' about two-thirds of the way into the circuit. I had no idea I had nearly another thousand feet to climb when I resumed in the morning. But I was rewarded with one fabulous vista after another, and then at last a long long descent into Draguignan.

I'll camp tonight somewhere along the Mediterranean within twenty miles of Cannes. And then tomorrow, Tuesday, I'll register for the festival and regain my cinematic bearings. I'm eagerly looking forward to that first movie Wednesday afternoon, something in the market that will most likely be most forgettable, but that I won't forget as my first film of the festival.

Later, George


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