Rhone and the Alps of Provence

Walking around France

The region

  • The summit cone of the Mont Ventoux, 1912m, dominates the Rhone valley.The northern side is covered in trees but the south in shale bleached almost white by the sun.
  • The Mistral can blow hard for several days over the plain and the mountain and has a depressing effect on the local temperament.
  • The ascent of the south side of the mountain is one of the most testing of the Tour de France. Tommy Simpson died here in 1967.
  • Apart from magnificent wine the fortified villages of the Cotes du Rhone like Seguret offer medieval walls and gateways, narrow cobbled streets, irregular stone walls, shuttered windows and concealed courtyards.
  • In the area around Avignon there are constant reminders of the French popes of the fourteenth century.
  • The Mt. de Lure, 1826m, is a long ridge of 5-6 miles which dominates the Durance valley and Sisteron. The northern face is a massive cliff.
  • Napoleon marched through Digne-les-Bains in 1815 but the most fascinating person associated with the town is the Tibetan explorer Alexandra David-Neel. She reached the Forbidden CIty in disguise in 1924 and later settled in Digne.
  • Annot in the Var valley lies at the foot of a cliff of quartz and feldspar, of great interest to the oil industry because these rocks contain valuable lessons to guide prospecting elsewhere. The old town is very atmospheric with narrow streets climbing the hill in steps, passing under Gothic arches and twisting around tall houses.
  • Entrevaux is a fortified town with an old bridge over the Var defended by gates and a drawbridge. The great military architect Vauban remodelled a number of forts in the area for Louis XIV including this one.
  • The Var squeezes through a narrow defile at Entrevaux and then flows east. After battering the foothills of the Alps, it takes a ninety degree bend to push south to Nice. The underlying bedrock is friable , constantly eroded by the heavy autumn and spring rains.
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Diary extracts

Montagne de Lure

The sanctuary of Notre Dame de Lure was secluded in a shady grove. On the other side of the clearing a row of cottages stood next to a vegetable garden. I knocked on one of the doors to meet Lucien, the self-styled hermit with unkempt hair and a knee length beard, who refused to talk. The motive for his lifestyle was not religious. He wanted to be a solitary surrounded by nature and guarded the site on behalf of the local council. However rumour had it that he had been trying to exclude visitors and make rules, as if it was his own home. Apparently the council were trying to remind him of his responsibilities. This probably explained the notice saying that he was looking for alternative accommodation.

 Marie-Pierre, Joel and their daughter Natasha occupied a remote farmhouse which served as a walker's hostel. Marie-Pierre was a nurse from Sisteron and Joel came from the Vosges mountains. They clearly enjoyed the peace and quiet of living deep in the country surrounded by the natural world. They were one of a select band I met who had turned their backs on modern life. They grew their own vegetables, kept goats and two hunting dogs. Tibetan prayer flags decorated the entrance, along with pieces of driftwood and other natural artefacts. Joel prefrred to keep some of his thoughts to himself; a man who lived off his own hinterland. Marie-Pierre felt passionately about ecology. They were both friends of the hermit Lucien.

 The Valley of the Var

At 7am the valley was full of milk white mist, with just a few hills poking up their tops like islands in the sea.  I might have been looking at a stage setting for Swan Lake with smoke being pumped on from the wings. A chapel with a tall tower looked like a fairy castle. La Penne is built on a series of terraces. Below the auberge steps led down to the village square, a small platform for the mairie and the miniature thirteenth century Romanesque church. On the church wall I noticed a war memorial from World War One with twelve names, two of which were Italian. Although it is over one hundred and forty years since France absorbed Nice and its hinterland there are still quite a few local people with Italian origins. Mary Poulet commented " the local people are fiery but warm. I found the Bordelais much more placid."

 I descended through the pine forests to the Var at Touet, pronounced Touette in the Provencal dialect. The old village rose above me under a sheer rock face and the houses seemed to cling to the cliff. Each one had an open attic on the roof which used to be employed for drying figs. The path wound up a narrow crack in the face with a few tufts of vegetation, not a place to look down. I crossed a dried up waterfall on an open ledge, making sure I did not slip three steps to the right! The church tower was immediately underneath."

 Brilliant red butterflies flitted around my feet. Tinted smoke bushes lined the way to a rocky promontory and the remains of St. Elizabeth's chapel. Further along I came across the ruined walls of cottages standing on terraces scattered across the hillside among unpruned fruit trees. I pushed open the door of the chapel of St. Anthony and there was still some decoration on the walls and ornamanets on the altar. A frayed copy of the Bible in Latin was open at the beginning of St. John's Gospel "In principio erat verbum;" "In the beginning was the word." I looked at the Var below and wondered how long this village had been deserted. Perhaps the struggle to maintain a few terraces was too much once the road and railway came to provide an easy escape.

 The square in Villars-sur-Var was full of people; children and mothers coming home from primary school, a cycling team in blue outfits drinking beer in the cafe. The shade of the plane trees was ample for everyone. Village life centred on the place. Above the square were narrow medieval streets where the houses nearly touched each other. The street names were written in Provencal. The chateau once belonged to the famous Grimaldi family, at one time leading nobles in Genoa and who now rule Monaco.

 Massoins occupied a ridge pointing at the Var. At the far end were the remains of a castle and Penitents' chapel. The buildings made an ensemble of shapes which would have fascinated Cezanne. I was intrigued by the following notice pinned on one door. It would appear that not all the locals were sociable - " It is a waste of time beating a drum on this door. It won't be opened to you however hard you try. It would not enter my head to visit other people in the village without being invited in advance. I ask you to behave in the same way as far as I am concerned. Myriam."

 An unguarded path along a cliff led to a pocket sized stone bridge over a narrow chasm. The Ullion gorge turned out to be one of the most dramatic walks in the area, a paved mule track winding 500 metres up a precipitous face for six kilometres. At one point the path was reduced to two metres' width and the side wall disappeared. The rock looked unstable, serrated fangs plunging downwards like forked lightening.

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The Walk

From Pont St. Esprit on the Rhone I followed the GR4  through the Cotes du Rhone Villages and around the Dentelles du Montmirail to reach the north face of the Mont Ventoux at Malaucene. After climbing the mountain I descended the other side, still on the GR4, to reach Sault. The climb is not difficult, although care should be taken on some patches of shale. From here I took local footpaths across the Pays de Sault, through St. Trinit, Revest-du-Bion and Banon, to join up at Lardiers with the GRP Tour de la Montagne de Lure to St. Etienne-les-Orgues. Here I joined the GR6 to  reach the summit ridge of the mountain where I descended by a local footpath from the Pas de la Croix to reach the gite d'etape at Jas de Bailles. Again the climb is not difficult, although care should be taken on some patches of shale on the summit and when descending on the local footpath.  I rejoined the GR6 as far as the road D946, where I turned right to reach Sisteron via the D53.


 At Sisteron I joined the Grande Traversee des Prealpes all the way to Entrevaux. This is tough hill walking in places with some steep ascents and descents. From Entrevaux I followed the valley of the Var on roads and local footpaths, through Puget-Theniers, La Penne, Touet-sur-Var and Villars-sur-Var, and from there by the GR510 and the D26 through Massoins and Tournefort to Pont de Clans. Crossing the River Tinee I followed more local footpaths through Clans, Marie and the Vallon d'Ullion to the Col de la Madeleine and down to St. Dalmas. The total distance from Pont St. Esprit to St. Dalmas is approximately 280 miles.



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Maps and Guides

GR4 Pont St. Esprit to Sault: Topoguide La Haute Provence par les Gorges du Verdon Ref. 401. FFRP.

Sault to Sisteron: IGN 1:25.000 maps 3140ET, 3240OT, 3341OT, 3339OT.

Sisteron to Entrevaux: Topoguide La Haute Provence par les Gorges du Verdon, Grande Traversee des Prealpes. Ref. 401. FFRP.

Entrevaux to St. Dalmas: IGN 1:25.000 maps 3641OT, 3641ET

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In the summer it can be very hot in Provence and walkers are advised to take plenty of water and a good sun hat. Rainfall is heaviest in Spring and Autumn and snow can fall on the highest points of the Alpes de Haute Provence later in the autumn and in winter. The summits of the Montagne de Lure and the Mont Ventoux are particularly exposed to bad weather and high winds.

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I list below places where I stayed which I can particularly recommend. I have not covered every stopping place on my route.

 Hotel Bellerive


84110 Vaison la Romaine

Tel. 00 33 (0)4 90 46 10 20

Fax 00 33 (0)4 90 46 14 96



La Table du Comtat

84110 Seguret

Tel. 00 33 (0)4 90 46 91 49

Fax 00 33 (0)4 90 46 94 27



Hotel Le Louvre

Place du Marche

84390 Sault

Tel. 00 33 (0)4 90 64 08 88

Fax 00 33 (0)4 90 64 14 01



Sylvie Mathieu

Chambres d'Hote

Rue de la Paix

04230 St. Etienne-les-Orgues

Tel. 00 33 (0)4 92 73 18 75 or

08 77 87 83 74



Grand Hotel du Cours

Famille Michel

04200 Sisteron

Tel. 00 33 (0)4 92 61 04 51

Fax 00 33 (0)4 92 61 41 73



Les Rayes-Chambres d'hotes

M et Mme Bruno Masure

04200 Saint-Geniez

Tel. 00 33 (0)4 92 61 22 76 or

06 75 46 05 59

Fax 00 33 (0)4 92 61 06 44



Bernard et Marie Wisner-Chambres d'hotes La Bannette

 Les Pres du Riou

04380 Thoard

Tel. 00 33 (0)4 92 34 68 88 or

08 70 47 68 88



Hotel du Grand Paris

19 boulevard Thiers

04000 Digne-les-Bains

Tel. 00 33 (0)4 92 31 11 15

Fax 00 33 (0)4 92 32 32 82



Hotel de L'Avenue

Avenue de la Gare

04240 Annot

Tel. 00 33 (0)4 92 83 22 07

Fax 00 33 (0)4 92 83 33 13


Auberge La Penne

1 rue Pontis

06260 La Penne

Tel. 00 33 (0)4 93 05 09 81 or

06 22 44 52 18

Le Grand Chalet-Chambres d'hotes

Route de La Colmiane

06420 Valdeblore

Tel. 00 33 (0)4 93 02 83 50 or

06 18 26 76 39










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Click on the thumbnails below to see larger images with captions.

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