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October 25, 2019

France: Gorges du Verdon and Sisteron

Filed under: Architecture, Europe, France, Photography, Travel, Travel, Writing — Tags: , , , , , — anotherheader @ 8:49 pm

Alpes-de-Haute-Provence

The fastest way by car to Saint Jean de Losne from Monaco makes use of the A6 and A7 autoroutes. Autoroute 6 and 7 take run along the natural travel corridor established by the Rhône and Saône River valleys.

We like French autoroutes as a rule. Though expensive they are well-maintained and easy to drive. The A6/A7 is a particular favorite, though I have to admit that the appeal may come from its name: The A6/A7 is known as l’autoroute du Soleil, or the “Highway of the Sun” in English. The brand name reflects that this is a major artery from the oft-cloudy north to the frequently sunny south. It’s just a brand, but the name “l’autoroute du Soleil” evokes in me the feel of an idyllic notion of Provence. And shouldn’t we always want to be driving to the sun? Somehow the autoroutes’ brand compensates for the perennially slow traffic through Lyon and Valence and the buffeting Mistral winds that often blow up the Rhône Valley.

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In November of 2018 we deviated from our usual route and avoided the irrational appeal of the l’autoroute du Soleil as we headed back to Wanderlust on more inland roads. There were two main motivations to take the back road route. First we wanted to see the 25 kilometers long and up to 700 meters deep Verdon Gorge, one of France’s famous river canyons. It also would lead us through the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, one of the two remaining départements in France that we hadn’t seen.

With the decision came a need to find a place to stop on the way to break up the drive. If we took l’autoroute du Soleil there were numerous attractive places to overnight. But the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence is definitively off of the usual tourist and travel corridors. This area of France is thinly populated and remote; the roadside accommodations are limited. After researching the few “larger” communes that appeared along the way we decided to stop in Sisteron. We didn’t know much about Sisteron ahead of booking the room, but the picture on the Wikipedia page looked nice. That is often good enough motivation for a stop.

The Durance River flows through Sisteron.

The Michelin map gives Sisteron two stars as a destination.

Five weeks after the plans were set we were on the road from Monaco to Sisteron. It was a day’s drive. We hadn’t thought much about what we’d see along way so it came as even more of a surprise than it might have been.

With that we did expect the Verdon Gorge to be awe-inspiring. It did not disappoint.

As the road route left the gorge we continued through forests tinged with fall colors. There was little doubt that winter was coming in this area of the world. And as if to emphasize the changing of the seasons, the French Alps coated by fresh winter snow eventually came into view across the expansive prairies as we emerged from the trees. This area of France with its forests, hills, expansive prairies, and craggy mountains reminded me of the American mountain west.

As the sun dropped at the end of the first day we reached Sisteron.

The commune of 7,500 residents is located at a narrow gorge of the Durance River, which collects the milky alpine waters and deposits them in the Rhône near Avignon. The river route through the gap in the rocks in Sisteron has been important strategically and for transportation from before Roman times. Over the centuries Rome’s initial fortifications have been expanded and reconfigured resulting in the commanding citadel that today sits high on the hill overlooking the gorge.

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Michelin’s map gives Sisteron a two star rating, which generally means that it is a destination worth traveling some distance to see. With that, it is not the most convenient place to get to, so it is easy for tourists to miss. The exception is if you happen to be riding in the Tour de France. Indeed, Sisteron is rumored to be a stop on the Tour’s 2020 route, with a finish at the commune’s citadel at the top of the hill and the depart the next day from the town. No doubt there will be eye-popping views from the helicopters covering the race.

This last segment of our 2018 odyssey demonstrated again that taking road less traveled often has its rewards. Not that I’m suggesting that a first time visitor go this way; there’s a lot of can’t miss history to be scene along l’autoroute du Soleil. Still it’s good to know that there’s much to be seen on the back roads.

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We traveled through the Verdon Gorge and Sisteron at the beginning of November in 2018.

 

1 Comment »

  1. […] Click to view slideshow. […]

    Pingback by France: Gorges du Verdon and Sisteron – crazyhippo — February 5, 2020 @ 5:32 pm


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