Gorges du Verdon
For sheer, jaw-dropping drama, few sights in France can match the epic Gorges du Verdon. The ‘Grand Canyon of Europe’ slices a 25km swath through Haute-Provence’s limestone plateau all the way to the foothills of the Alps. Etched out over millions of years by the Verdon River, the gorges have formed the centrepiece of the Parc Naturel Régional du Verdon since 1997.
Pays de Forcalquier
An oft-overlooked footnote between the Luberon valley and the Alpine foothills, the Pays de Forcalquier is well off the main tourist radar, meaning that its hilltop villages and rolling farms are usually relatively tranquil even in high summer. It's the portal to Haute-Provence from the Luberon, and the fastest way in from Marseille, too.
Forcalquier & Around
Beyond the radar of most tourists, the area around Forcalquier is great for leisurely exploring: wildflower-tinged countryside, isolated villages, lavender farms and the spectre of the mountains never too far away. You’ll pass through as you travel east from the Luberon towards the Alps.
Vallée de la Durance
Halfway between the Luberon and the high Alps lies the broad, flat floodplain of the River Durance. Centuries ago, this natural pass was crossed by the Via Domitia – the main road that enabled Roman legionnaries and traders to travel through the south of Gaul. It’s now crossed by a more modern equivalent: the A8 motorway.
Réserve Géologique de Haute-Provence
Footprints of prehistoric birds, outsize ammonites and ram’s-horn spiral shells are among the amazing fossils in the 1900-sq-km Réserve Géologique de Haute-Provence. You’ll need a detailed regional map (sold at tourist offices) and your own transport to reach the 18 sites, most of which lie around Barles (north) and Barrême (south).
Vallée de la Vésubie
The Mercantour's heart, the Vésubie was formerly the private hunting reserve of King Victor Emanuel II of Italy. This kept the land pristine and biologically diverse: the kernel from which the national park grew. Because of Nice's day-trip proximity, this is the park's most-visited sector (depart early). It's also the western gateway to the Merveilles.
Sisteron’s stunner is its citadel, an imposing 3rd- to 16th-century fortress perched above a transverse valley. The town is a principal travel axis, but it's dead at nighttime. The tourist office has details on open-air classical music concerts of Festival des Nuits de la Citadelle, held mid-July to mid-August.
Vallée de la Roya
Occupied by Italy during WWII, the Roya only became part of France in 1947. Breil-sur-Roya is the valley’s water-sports base. Roya Évasion organises kayaking, canyoning and rafting on the River Roya, plus hiking and mountain biking. The dramatic Gorges de Saorge, 9km north of Breil-sur-Roya, lead to fortified Saorge (elevation 520m).
Vallée de la Tinée
Col de Restefond la Bonette (2802m) – Europe's highest mountain pass – links Vallée de l’Ubaye with plunging Vallée de la Tinée, a steep-sided V-shaped valley lined by towering peaks. In wintertime, when the snowy pass closes, the 149km-long valley can only be accessed via its southern leg from Nice.
Castellane & Around
At the eastern end of the gorges, Castellane is a more run-of-the-mill town, teeming with visitors in summer and all but deserted out of season. Its main feature is the amazing Chapelle Notre Dame du Roc, perched high above the town on a 184m-high rock pillar. On 15 August (Assumption Day) pilgrims ascend by torchlight for Mass.
Vallée du Haut Verdon
Dizzying Col d’Allos (2250m and snow-blocked in winter) links craggy, narrow Vallée de l’Ubaye with the undulating, wide Haut Verdon, whose south-facing rivercourse glitters beneath Mediterranean sunshine. The River Verdon's source is at La Tête de la Sestrière (2572m).
To sample famous fromage (cheese), follow the D950 25km northwest from Forcalquier to Banon, renowned for chèvre de Banon – made from goat's milk and wrapped in a chestnut leaf. En route, you'll pass Simiane-la-Rotonde, host village of August's international music festival, Les Riches Heures Musicales. In May, Banon celebrates the Fête du Fromage.