Moustier-Ste-Marie has been called the gateway to the Verdon Gorge - 'the front door' - if you will.
But the gorge is not, as they say in France, a dead-end. So if there is front entry, it follows that there is an exit, or rear entry.
CASTELLANE was our halfway point whilst touring the Verdon Gorge and therefore the perfect spot to split the journey, have some lunch and splash out on a postcard.
In a region dominated by precariously perched, hilltop villages, Castellane is the very opposite. Tucked deep down inside the entrance to the Grand Canyon du Verdon, the town is completely invisible as you approach, except that is, for a tall rock jutting straight up out of the valley, with a stone chapel sitting impossibly atop.
Dominated by a 200m high limestone cliff, the town is located in a privileged site guarding the entrance to the Canyon.
In order to defend itself, the town has changed its location and its name several times. It has been variously known as: Ducelia, Salinae and Petra Castellana. It wasn't until the 14th century that the inhabitants of Castellane moved completely down off the rock and into the lower town.
Just a thought, if it has changed its name and moved its location, how can it still be the same town?
While tourists visit Moustiers for the pottery and the beauty of the village, the attraction for Castellane is the large choice of accommodations, excursions and activities on offer. In fact, this is the main tourist resort for the Verdon Gorge.
Sports of all kinds, whether in the air or in the water, climbing or hiking, are all available, and at all levels of capability.
Heated swimming pools, horseback ridiing, hiking, golf; kayaking, rafting, hydrospeed, canyoning and climbing in the gorge; sailing, canoeing, windsurfing on the lake at Castillon; river fishing, mountain biking,
paragliding, squash, hang gliding.....
How many did we try? - As lunch wasn't included in the list, none.
The centre of the town is focused around Marcel Sauvaire square and the narrow streets (most of which are pedestrianized) leading from it. Shopping is quite good with a large range of sporting/outdoor orientated establishments as well as a good variety of more touristy, speciality shopping and lots of everyday items. The downside is that everything virtually stops at lunch-time.
Some of the more enterprising shopkeepers didn't close their premises for an hour or two though, what they did was drag a table out into the street and a group of them would have a communal lunch there whilst still able to attend to any passing shoppers.
Most restaurants are situated around the square, and as we weren't invited to sit with any of the shopkeepers, that's where we ate. It was nice but the terrace was a bit jam-packed with tables and as everywhere was very crowded, there was hardly room to swing a cat. I'm not sure if you would be allowed to swing one anyway, there are probably hygene laws concerning feline tossing.
The best views of the town are from the terrace of the Chapel Notre Dame du Roc. The chapel was built on the site of a Roman fort and the ancient Roman town of Petra Castellana. You reach this chapel after walking along what remains of the 14th century walls of the city. There is also a beautiful view of the ramparts, the Napoleon Bridge (the town is on the route Napoleon took on his journey which ultimately took him to Waterloo), and the Verdon Canyon.
It's a hard climb but the calorific expenditure means that on your return to the square you can justify a large lunch!
Castellane has a couple of museums including:
The Museum of Arts and Tradition, the Museum of Fossils
and the Confectionery Museum.
Unfortunately we didn't really have time to visit these.
If you were planning to stay in the Verdon Gorge area, I would say that Castellane is probably a better option than Moustiers - the latter is far prettier but the tourist infrastructure is much more organized in Castellane.