gorges de la nesque cyclistsIf you are touring the lavender fields or the area round Mont Ventoux, the Gorges de la Nesque, around 26 km / 16 miles south of the Giant of Provence, are a spectacular excursion.

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Everyone has heard of, and heads for the Gorges de Verdon. The Gorges de la Nesque are much less well known and much shorter - but just as impressive. Certainly this is the second most important canyon in Provence.

The route described below runs between Sault and Villes sur Auzon for 30 km / 18 miles. The most dramatic and picturesque bit is the 23 km / 14 mile stretch between the Castellaras belvedere and Villes sur Auzon, and so the trip is very accessible if your time is limited.

For cyclists the road through the gorges is also less daunting than Mont Ventoux since the average gradient is three per cent and there are no really steep stretches.

You could, of course, build the Gorges de la Nesque into a longer circular tour such as this 65 km / 40 miles one devised by La Provence à Vélo (Provence Cycling).

This body set up to promote cycle tourism around Mont Ventoux proposes around two dozen routes in the area. Some are closer to the mountain than others, and they vary widely in length and difficulty, with something for all ages, spheres of interest and levels of fitness - and of laziness!

gorges de la nesque tunnelThere was a project in the 19th century to build a railway along the bottom of the Gorges de la Nesque, but it was subsequently abandoned. The only road running right through the canyon is the D942, which opened in 1920.

It's not single track, but it is still quite narrow, with few places to stop or pull over. The surface is well maintained but some stretches are lined by a sheer drop to the bottom of the gorges, with low barriers - or sometimes none at all.

We'd advise travelling from east to west, so that you won't be on that side! If doing this, try to set out in the morning to avoid driving into the sun.

There are three low tunnels on the route (the one pictured is just 2.5 metres / eight feet high at its lowest point) so you won't encounter larger vehicles.

These will run instead along the larger D1 road to the north between Sault and Villes sur Auzon. However you're likely to find plenty of cyclists, motorbikers, camper vans and tourist cars on the D942.

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ROADBOOK FOR THE ROUTE THROUGH THE GORGES DE LA NESQUE

The Gorges de la Nesque are part of UNESCO'S Mont Ventoux Biosphere Reserve and so you'll be travelling through rich, wild and varied countryside. Click on the map to enlarge the image.

gorges de la nesque map smallThe route begins in Sault, also the starting point for one of the three routes up Mont Ventoux, which can be seen in the distance on much of the way through the gorges.

Sault's old town has various attractions and we'll be publishing a guide to them in due course.

But it's mainly famed as a major centre of lavender growing in the region: before you set out, you might like to visit a lavender farm and distillery there, such as Arôma' Plantes.

Take the D137 out of Sault, then the D942. As you leave the village, you pass through sweeping open vistas of (in summer) blue fields, peppered with the gold of spelt (petit épeautre), a heritage cereal typical of Upper Provence, and the odd green splash of AOC Côtes de Ventoux vineyards.

The Nesque river itself is unexpectedly small and disappears altogether from sight about ten km / six miles along the route. It continues to flow underground, eventually resurfacing at Fontaine de Vaucluse some 30 km / 18.5 miles downstream.

It comes as a surprise that this little stream managed to carve out a canyon that at places plunges 400 metres / 1312 feet deep.

Set just off the road, the pretty little village of Monieux is worth a detour and a stop to explore the steep, cobbled streets of the mediaeval quarter, the Romanesque church and the ruined watchtower.

There's also a small Musée de la Truffe (Truffle Museum) and an improbably elegant Art Nouveau fountain on the main square: an allegorical figure of a young woman representing the Nesque river. Also on this square, the Les Lavandes gastronomic restaurant has a good reputation.

If you are planning to spend a day or two in the Gorges de la Nesque, Monieux is the best base to stay. The friendly Tourist Office is also on that same square - Monieux is small, after all!

rocher du cire belvedereIt will give you plenty of information on accommodation and the wealth of hiking trails in the area. Click here to read more about sporting activities in the Gorges de la Nesque.

There's not much sign of any canyon so far, but all that's about to change. Soon after you leave Monieux, the rolling, cultivated land gives way to garrigue (the typical scrubland of Provence), pines, white oak, and crags, cliffs and caves.

The best place to stop is the Castellaras belvedere, a look-out point three km / two miles out of Monieux confronting the Rocher du Cire, a magnificent rock formation 872 metres / 2861 feet high, pictured.

The 19th century poet Frédéric Mistral, who seems to have left his mark just about everywhere in Provence, was here too, and is commemorated with a small stele.

He explored the Gorges de la Nesque in 1866, well before the road was constructed, of course, and wrote about them in chapter seven of his epic poem Calendou (Calendal in French). A verse from it is inscribed on the stele.

Mistral went rock climbing to gather wild honeycombs on his journey, and honey is still produced in the gorges today (we passed at least one house selling it). The Rocher du Cire translates as Rock of Wax, a name presumably inspired by its swarms of wild bees.

gorges de la nesque roadAfter the belvedere you pass along some very narrow stretches. Parts of the road have a neatly trimmed box hedge border that seems fashioned by some manic topiary enthusiast.

The route ends at the small town of Villes sur Auzon, formerly famed for its ochre quarries.

These are no longer mined and in any case you should travel to the area around Roussillon for the most dazzling ochre landscapes in Provence.

Instead cherry orchards, olive groves and vineyards now power the local economy.

 

 

SPORTING ACTIVITIES IN THE GORGES DE LA NESQUE

Apart from cycling, hiking is one of the top attractions in the Gorges de la Nesque. The Grande Randonnée 9, one of the longest of France's long-distance footpaths, goes along the gorges between Monieux and the Castellaras belvedere and there are many other marked hiking trails.

By far the best guide book for hikers is Le Pays du Ventoux à pied (in French), 45 hikes compiled by the Fédération française de la randonnée pédestre. The best large-scale map of the area is IGN 3140 ET.

One favourite destination is the little 12th century Chapelle Saint Michel de Anesca (Anesca is the provençal word for La Nesque) which is built right into the overhanging rock at the very bottom of the gorges on the river bank.

Carved into the keystone above the door, the figure 1643 indicates the date of an early restoration. Inside are simple wall paintings and carvings and a square Gallo-Roman stele which might once have been used as an altar base.

Nearby are traces of a 19th century hermitage and over the chapel you can also see two caves which were inhabited in prehistoric times. A recent archeological dig indicates that hunters were active in this region in the Palaeolithic era.

gorges de la nesque chapelle saint michelAmong their prey were elk, deer, horses, cattle - and rhinoceros. These excavations, at Bau de l'Aubesier, are ongoing, but the site is closed to the public.

Four footpaths lead to the Saint Michel chapel, pictured. One starts in Monieux, goes along the river bed, passes the chapel, then goes uphill past lavender fields back to Monieux. The whole walk takes about three hours.

One leads off from the road about 700 metres / 765 yards before you get to the belvedere. One - the most direct but also the steepest and most difficult - goes down from the belvedere itself and is part of the GR9. The fourth begins near the second tunnel on the road.

An alternative hiking path leads to a surviving fragment of the Mur de la Peste, or Plague Wall, near Monieux. This 27 km / 17 mile long dry stone wall was built to prevent the Great Plague of 1720 from spreading here from Southern Provence, with success, apparently.

The artificial lake near Monieux is a popular spot for swimming and angling: roach and tench are abundant there. Other sports available include horse-riding, paragliding and potholing. Or you could follow in Mistral's footsteps and go rock-climbing.

Photo credits (from top): © Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse, RWS for Marvellous Provence (two images), Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse, SJ for Marvellous Provence, Sabine Lacombe for Wikimedia Commons.

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