I was born and raised for a while in New York City. Not quite to the age of consent, but long enough still to remember. I pride myself with a perverse pride in that I have yet to visit in almost 62 years any of the iconic attractions—dare I say tourist in proximity to that last noun?—of that city. The only destination of note I ever did visit was the World Trade Center, and indeed traveled to the roof of which tower they permitted such a thing. The rest is silence.
Pretty much the same pattern manifests itself in me here in France. Dodging the greatest attractions of Paris is easy. So far, no Eiffel Tower, not Pantheon, no Montmartre, no Montparnasse, etc. Why play with the destiny of these august destinations. Here in Provence, it’s a little more difficult.
You drive around, even aimlessly, and the next thing you know, you’re smack dab next to some ruin or some well-preserved monument that’s been there for a couple thousand years and untold millions have gaped at after traveling kilometers untold out of their way just to see it. My own little village continually surprises me, embarrasses me with its unknown treasures. Indeed, hidden in the very word "embarrass" is the source of one major surprise. In this tiny out-of-the-way unpronounceable village was born the guy, Count Barras, who, essentially, arranged for Napoleon to be Emperor. Thanks a lot Count.
But even I will allow myself a grudging pride in every lichen covered stone that probably graced a wall several millennia ago, built to defend a Roman encampment. I’ll even allow myself the fantasy of seeing well-muscled centurions, having spent a refreshing day beating a bunch of Gauls into submission, doffing their leather armor, watering their horses, kicking back for a well deserved snooze and a snootful from that skin of wine.
But what I won’t allow myself is a visit, especially now that I can entertain the more sustaining and satisfying fantasy of being a genuine tax-paying, mortgage-holding French landowner, to any of the myriad sites and sights for which the French themselves scrupulously, if not sedulously, plan for months prior to the skimpy four weeks (out of a total of six, not to mention all the three-day weekends, and other jours feriés (bank holidays) of summer they get to go anywhere they please. They are hardly to be blamed that the whole damn country is chockablock full of tourist attractions. They’ve been collecting them, hoarding them, building more, year after year for centuries, millennia.
But you won’t catch me going. No sirree. No Mont St. Michel for this homey. No Carcassone. OK, OK, so I and the wife did go to this ridiculous pile, restored to an inch of its life, with only about two or three million anachronistic errors by a narcissist with the laughable name of Violette LeDuc (and this is a guy we’re talking about), but I plead "tourist;" I was a tourist, honest. Owning a house here wasn’t even a fantasy at the time. Same with a few other medieval rattletraps, mammoth stones picturesquely strewn about, the now eternally silent cloisters of a clutch of monasteries, now bereft of monastics. But I swear, I’ve never set my baby blues on one field of lavender. Never haunted a trail in the Luberon. Never dipped a pinkie, or a baby toe, in the miraculous fonts of Lourdes.
Most important of all, though it’s practically right up the road a piece, never ogled the vaunted Gorges du Verdon, the so-called "Grand Canyon of France." Ha! I say. I say it to your face. Never ogled, boggled, or blanched at the (testimony abounds) splendors of the natural marvels of what, after all, I ask you, is anything more than some river meandering, do-se-doing its way like some whacked out switch-back mountain road, wearing the rocks away for what, like, thousands, maybe it’s millions, of years? I mean it’s nature doing its thing.
I do my thing. And my thing is not natural wonders.
But then there’s the problem of house guests. Essentially a special variety of tourist, on whom I lavish affection, love, and not even grudging them gobbets of time, driving, shopping, cooking, whatever, and all for their pleasure. And all I need do is silently chew the insides of my cheeks to raw flesh in mortal anxiety that they might take it into their heads to go and see. Yup. The freakin’ Gorges du Verdon.
Incidentally, let me disabuse you right now, should you ever head this way and are thinking, Verdon? Wasn’t that some really famous battlefield qua slaughtering ground of the First World War? Like did they throw themselves over the cliffs or something. But no, that was Verdun, which is way away that way (gesturing north). The Verdon is a river. Just another river down here. Like the Tarn and the Loup (which also have gorges—almost accidentally saw some of them a few years ago, I think it was the Loup, but I barely escaped, taking that fortuitous left turn out of a rond point to Vence), but mightier and more majestic and God knows more famous. In the summer the roads are literally clogged here, people can’t crawl slow enough to get to the Gorges du Verdon.
I’ll admit to seeing the Verdon, at the very very end of it, because I’ve been many times to a little town called Moustiers Sainte Marie, a truly god-forsaken place, which I visited regularly before I wised up. I have a fondness and hence a weakness for my wife, and she likes it there, for the there. She certainly doesn’t like it any more than I do for what’s most famous about the place (aside from a chapel built halfway up a mountainside, which you access via steep stone steps cut into the same mountainside, the climbing of which is very much akin to being given a stress test by a sadistic cardiologist, or the strange ten pointed star—similar to a regulation normal five pointed star, except for some reason it has tiny little points between the usual large points—that some maniac prince in the famous medieval bygone era ordered strung across a, well there’s no other word for it, gorge that runs smack through the center of this essentially kitschy little burg, and there’s a legend about how the chain that holds up the star broke, so they had to string the damn thing back across the gorge, because the prince was sentimental and made a pledge—it’s still there so you can tell I’m not making this up; I’d show you a picture, but it would be too shameful and embarrassing for a serious photographer like myself, even though I have a very nice snap that takes care of the whole nauseating touristic thing: the chapel, the star, even the chain, and the gorge of course). But what Moustiers Sainte Marie is famous for is its faience, which is a fancy French word for dinnerware. Which is all like white with tiny hand-painted figurines wearing cute Fragonard type outfits from the eighteenth century doing quaint homey eighteenth century type stuff, like hanging out, or hunting grouse or pheasants, or butchering pigs. Stuff like that. Anyway, it’s the kind of stuff my mother, may her soul be at peace in heaven—next year is her centennial by the way—would like. They still make it the same way. Big euros. And the old stuff looks exactly like the new stuff, only it’s even bigger euros because it’s old.
But the town is nice, in a patently cute, old-fashioned kind of way, and you can manage to squeeze off a few good shots along the way, what with all the rocks and rills, and little runlets and rapids, and really tall stone walls, which are about as troublesome and puzzling as that star on a chain—like, why did they build them?
And I do have house guests, and, it being past the winter solstice, the days do grow longer, and you gotta’ find things for people to do. We had a reprieve for a couple days, because we had a friend of theirs, guest of a guest, which may mean something, but in this case, what it meant was good, because he was and is a good guy, and we had to piss away a whole two days just picking Jean up and eating big time in Aix-en-Provence when we did, and shopping, and doing good solid American stuff like that. So the Gorges du Verdon went way to the back of my mind. But all good diversions must end. And Jean had to go back to Paris, and I’m sorry to say, Bob and Naomi didn’t forget the Gorges. Not for one second as it turned out.
Then the weather bailed me out. It rained for three days, which it almost never does, certainly not in January. But all bad things must end, and soft-hearted basically masochistic fool that I am, the next thing I knew, sun playing tag with clouds in the legendary blue skies of Provence, I was driving north toward Moustiers. And then en route, Bob being Bob, and me being me who can refuse my friends nothing, Bob, Gee How, if you don’t mind (I hear this particular combination of words and my brains turn to a frigid gel), maybe we could take this road and take a look directly at the [loud minor chord] Gorges du Verdon.
So I took the right with the sign to a town I never noticed before and had my own stars been set right, and had I lived a more righteous existence, I would never have had to notice, Aiguine. But we plowed right on through that sucker and kept going. Gorges du Verdon, and destiny, right this way. There was one more precipitous turn onto the corniche above Aiguine and a road sign smiled at me, a sign I had never seen before. It was entirely pictorial, as no words were needed. It showed a tire with chains on it. I don’t know the French for tire chains anyway. But with a song in my heart, and knowing I had remembered to take my anxiety meds that morning, we plunged ahead. I shouldn’t use the word "plunge" of course, because I know what a corniche is (Alfred Hitchcock made good use of them in several films, including "To Catch a Thief," because driving along a corniche is like instant cinematic suspense and terror). And we drove and drove and switched back and forth, with increasingly more thrilling views, until it was clear we need not actually drive up as high as the clouds, which were, in fact, literally enveloping the tops of the cliffs overlooking the Gorges. So we stopped at a turn-out, facing a sign that said 967 meters, referring to the elevation.
And, well, what’s the use? It’s time for the words to stop, because they do, indeed, literally fail.
But here’s what we saw, along with a few glimpses of Aiguine (and its charming castle, semi-charming soccer field, and views of the town perched high above the Lac de Sainte Croix, into which the Verdon River now debouches (the very very end of the river that I referred to above), easily visible, as are the high walls of the Gorge, as you cross the bridge that separates the Var, the département my house is in, from the Alpes de Haute Provence, the département that Moustiers is in, because, try as I might to avoid it, we ended up there for lunch. So there’s a few of the more palatable pictures I shot in Moustiers to end this little Web gallery.
I will say in closing that I’m not sure of which I am more proud, losing at last my Gorges du Verdon virginity, or taking these pretty interesting shots with a tiny little Canon camera that costs less than two hundred bucks, is much smaller than a pack of cigarettes, and really hardly deserves to be called a camera at all.
As usual, enjoy.by