Haute Provence and Verdon Gorge with a dog: Southern France insider tips
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I mentioned before that I like to avoid crowds of tourists when I travel, and of course the south of France is also one of the most popular places in Europe. We were all the more surprised when we discovered a small town that we had never heard of before: Cotignac in the south-east of Provence. The pretty village is located in the northern part of the Var department and borders directly on Haute Provence. Not only the place itself makes the Provence dream come true, the region also offers everything you could wish for on a holiday in France: dramatic gorges, lavender fields, waterfalls and of course romantic mountain villages. And while the nearby Verdon Gorge (rightly) draws the crowds, we've discovered a side gorge that's a lot less well-known but at least as beautiful. But more on that in a moment.
By the way: If you would like to find out more about the Luberon, you can do so in this article: The most beautiful places in the Luberon - dream holidays in Provence
- Department of Var and Haute Provence: the forgotten Provence
- Cotignac, the city of rocks
- Sillans Cascade
- The Verdon Natural Park with the Verdon Gorge and the Quinson Gorge
- Moustiers-Sainte-Marie: is it the most beautiful village in France?
- Lavender blossom in Provence: where are the most beautiful lavender fields?
- Even more sights in Provence
- Tips for visiting Provence with a dog
1. Département Var and Haute Provence: The forgotten part of Provence
Most people associate Provence with the Vaucluse department with the Luberon and the truly spectacularly beautiful villages of Gordes, Roussilion, Bonnieux and Loumarin. On the other hand, the east of Provence with the Haut Provence and the Var department to the south is much less well known. Even if you don't know Var, you probably know the famous places on the coast: St. Tropez and Toulon. But it is precisely this forgotten part of Provence that stretches northwards that is worth a visit. Because you will not only find much more peace and quiet here, but also the most beautiful mountain villages, spectacular waterfalls, gorges and pure nature. Incidentally, with just 140,000 inhabitants, Haute-Provence is the least populated region in Provence. Above all, agriculture characterizes the picture, so here in particular lavender, but also wine and olive cultivation is practiced. In the north of the region, on the other hand, the mountains tower high. By the way, you will also find the famous Verdon Gorge here.
The east of Provence at a glance:
- Departments: Department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Department of Var
- Best travel time: low season May-June and September-October for mild weather and a lot of peace and quiet. July-August for the lavender bloom.
- Sights: The towns of Aups and Cotignac, the Silans du Cascade waterfall, the Verdon Gorge, the mountain village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, wineries and endless lavender fields
2. Insider tip Provence: Cotignac, the place that even the French don't know
Our starting point to explore eastern Provence was Cotignac. Actually a chance find that I discovered on Booking.com and which is still traded as an insider tip for southern France. Cotignac is really spectacular. Embedded in a valley, the place nestles against ocher rock faces. Incidentally, in these rocks there are also caves and grottos that can be visited. In addition to the cliffs, in Cotignac you will find a beautiful waterfall and a village square where the restaurants and cafés are lined up picturesquely.
Our top 5 restaurants in Cotignac
- Paulette Café: Cute café on the village square with a retro look. Very good lunch offer
- Jardin Secret: Hidden, exclusive restaurant in the backyard, reservation required
- Nestuby cave & Bar: Homegrown wine, vegan options
- Les 3 Marches: Very good pizza, even vegan, great service
- Lou Gourmandises: Bakery with heavenly pastries, try the vanilla sticks
3. Hike to the Sillans Cascade - one of the most beautiful waterfalls in southern France
Sillans-la-Cascade is just five minutes from Cotignac. The village alone is worth seeing, but surprisingly few people get lost in the town centre. Reason: perhaps the most beautiful waterfall in southern France. The 44 meter high waterfall impresses with turquoise-green, clear water - which inevitably reminds of the Caribbean. You can park directly in one of the large parking lots at the entrance to the town. The best view of the waterfall is from the Belvédère viewpoint. You will find signs in the center of the village, the hike to the waterfall is really well signposted. By the way, swimming at the waterfall has been forbidden since 2016, so the hiking trail to the viewpoint looks barricaded accordingly. On our trip in autumn we were alone, in summer it's supposed to be full here.
But there is a second hike in Sillans that I would like to recommend to you. You start below the village at the parking lot and walk through an olive grove until you finally reach the edge of the forest. From here you follow the path downhill until you can finally enjoy a first glimpse of the waterfall, which is now high up in the slope from your point of view. The hiking trail continues downhill to the turquoise-green stream. Now you can walk directly along the water. Its magical. Everywhere are small natural pools. Bathing is tolerated here in the off-season.
At a glance:
- Departure point: Sillans-la-Cascade
- Parking: large car parks at the entrance to the village
- Viewing platform: follow signs to Belvédère
- Duration: 20 min each way, paved
- Prohibitions: Bathing is not permitted, dogs are allowed
4. The Verdon Gorge and the Quinson Gorge
Absolutely no insider tip is a visit to the Verdon Gorge in the Verdon Nature Park. The deep gorge with its strikingly turquoise water and spectacular canyon landscape is also known as the Grand Canyon of France. The gorge is 700 meters deep and 21 kilometers long, making it one of the largest in Europe alongside the Tara Gorge in Montenegro.
You can explore it by car via the pass road or panorama road D23, by boat or SUP (boat rentals are right at the entrance to the Lac de St. Croix gorge) or on foot on a hike.
Verdon Gorge by car: The D23 panoramic road
The 25 km long D23 pass road begins and ends in the village of La Palud-sur-Verdon. You should allow around 40 minutes to drive the whole route, plus the time you spend at the viewpoints. From the pass road you can see the gorge from a bird's eye view. You will be offered truly spectacular views.
The most beautiful vantage points on the D23:
Belvédère de Trescaire bas
Belvedere de la Dent d'aire
Vu sur le Lac St Croix
Explore the Verdon Gorge by boat
But you should definitely see the gorge from below, actually from the water. Right on the Lac de St. Croix near the famous Pont du Galetas bridge you will find large parking lots and numerous boat rental companies. If you have a dog, I recommend that you don't rent a canoe but a pedal boat. While the water shines particularly beautifully at midday, it gets a bit more shady in the gorge in the afternoon. This is definitely an advantage on hot days.
By the way: During our first visit in summer 2018, all hell broke loose at the lake and boat rental. In autumn, on the other hand, there was not a soul here and we had both the bathing beach and the viewpoint on the Pont du Galetas to ourselves. However, we found the gorge so beautiful that we would recommend it even in summer. In addition, we have a real insider tip for you: the nearby Quinson Gorge.
The Quinson gorge is a great alternative to the Verdon gorges, it is just a stone's throw away. We did a beautiful seven kilometer hike here that ran right along the bright green water. A visit to the 300-inhabitant village of Quinson is also worthwhile. You can find the full description of the hike in the blog post, which I link to you here. By the way: The pictures above show both the Verdon Gorge and the Quinson Gorge. could you tell the difference?
Places worth seeing in the Verdon Gorge
- Moustiers Sainte Marie
5. Moustiers-Sainte-Marie: Is this the most beautiful village in France?
Also in the Verdon Nature Park is a (further) highlight of Haute Provence: the mountain village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. And it's not for nothing that it regularly makes it onto the list of the most beautiful villages in France. What's more: since 1981, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie has even officially had the certificate of one of the most beautiful villages in France. Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is perched on the edge of the Verdon Gorges, dramatically carved into the rock. We were really speechless when we explored the place. However, you should know that it can get really busy here in high season. On our fall visit, this was the only place where tourism showed minimal signs. It is particularly nice to follow the path up the mountain to the chapels. The view of the rocks, the church and the countryside beyond is breathtaking, especially at sunset.
6. Lavender blossom in Provence: where are the most beautiful lavender fields?
Those who travel to Provence in late June to early August will be rewarded with a very special natural spectacle: the lavender blossom. You will find particularly beautiful plateaus around the town of Valensole, not far from the Verdon Gorge and Moustiers Sainte Marie. The plateau is one of the largest growing areas in France and is bathed in purple in July. A visit to the small village is also worthwhile. If you are driving, you should drive the lavender route (D8 and D953) between Valensole and Digne-les-Bains. You will automatically pass wonderful viewpoints. Please refrain from picking lavender and take care not to damage anything when taking photos. And what you should know: countless bees live in lavender. So by no means let a small child run into the field and keep calm yourself,
7. Other highlights of Haute Provence
Sometimes the path is the goal and in Haute Provence there is a lot of truth to this saying. Every drive takes you past beautiful villages, through fields of lavender and endless pine forests. It is indescribable when the mountains of the Verdon Nature Park suddenly tower up or the view of a lake becomes clear. We also particularly liked the small town of Aups, which exudes this typical charm of Provence. You just want to walk forever through the narrow streets or drink wine in one of the cafés. So if you are looking for a quieter corner of Provence and are really up for nature, Haute Provence is just right for you. Of course we also had our dog Frieda with us. The mild temperatures in autumn were just perfect for all of us.
8. Tips for visiting Provence with your dog
- Choose autumn or spring for mild temperatures and a lot of rest, unless the lavender blossom is so important to you.
- In Provence there is an increased risk of Mediterranean diseases, transmitted by the sand fly. Consult your vet about effective protection (spot-on/collar/wormer).
- Autumn is hunting season. When hiking at dusk, it is common for dogs to wear safety vests and not leave the paths.
- Don't worry about visiting restaurants with dogs: dogs are usually very welcome.
Also read: The most beautiful villages of the Luberon
Lavender fields as far as the eye can see, dramatic sunsets, romantic mountain villages - the Luberon is without a doubt one of the most beautiful corners of Europe. Those were the highlights of our trip.
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