The tiny, lakeside village of Esparron-de-Verdon in Provence, France is my new go-to destination during the month of May. This is not a village you go to for glamor, shopping or a plethora of upscale restaurants. No way. This is a village for the lover of all things sportive and outdoorsy. Everything from camping, to fun at the lake, to horseback riding, to hiking can be found here and May is the time to go because the weather is wonderful and the town has not yet been inundated by tourists. In other words, you pretty much get the place to yourself. The turquoise colored water, the rocky cliffs with their grottoes and the more than 1600 hectares of forests all contribute to the beauty of this place.
The history of Esparron-de-Verdon
The village of Esparron-de-Verdon is located in the department called Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and just to prove how tiny this place is, a census taken in 2014 showed only 422 inhabitants. During the off season, this sleepy village gets to enjoy their surroundings all by themselves. During the summer months, however, this place becomes a tourist’s mecca, which is why May is marvelous here.
Eparron-de-Verdon has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic Age. Remains from the Neolitic and Bronze Ages have been found, as well, not to mention the cliff side homes. The first time Esparron appears in recorded history was during the 11th century. During the middle ages this village was not considered very important because there were larger villages that surrounded it who had a higher concentration of people. During this time, the lake was only a small stream and no where near the size of what it is today. Daily life was not affected by too much of the outside world and all the way from the 11th century to the French Revolution the village remained somewhat isolated.
The creation of the Verdon damn and the Lac d’Esparron
All this changed only 50 years ago. This was when the river of Esparron became Lac d’Esparron and with it a huge transformation for the inhabitants of the village. It was during the year 1963 when the project first came into being and consisted of creating a damn, 67 meters high, in the nearby town of Greoux-les-Bains (there is also a damn just after Quinson and right before Lake St. Croix). It took 5 years to complete the project and by February 1967 water began filling into this man-made lake, forever changing the landscape and life of village.
What one sees today, two large basins bordered by streams and cliffs and the blue and turquoise colors of the water, was all created in only 5 years and by mid-1967, the Lac d’Esparron was born.
The Verdon damn, which was conceived and built by EDF (the French Electric Company) in order to increase electrical output, also gives water both domestically and agriculturally to 116 communities in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, including major cities like Marseille, Aix-en-Provence and Toulon. When the concept was first thought of for the damn and the lake, it was to give relief to the area of the Verdon but it was quickly realized that more water for more areas would be necessary. Since the creation of the lake, it has given more than 660 million cubic meters of water to the region, that is around 60% of the water used by the population. The lake is also used to irrigate the land when there is a drought.
The Verdon damn and the creation of the Lac d’Esparron also gave new life to the village by creating an abundance of recreational fun.
The Chateau d’Esparron
In 1218, Bonfice V married Agnès Sada and with this marriage he acquired the entire, lower region of Verdon which included a share of the Esparron “kingdom” with the Esparron family. He proceeded to build a 30 meter tower that can still be seen today.
The tower and kingdom stayed within the Esparron family until 1448 when Robert of Castellane married Alix d’Esparron and the property became that of the Castellane family.
In 1780 Joseph Jean-Baptiste de Castellane built the south wing. He and his wife had no children so the property was passed down to a nephew, Joseph Léonard de Castellane. During the French Revolution, Joseph left France for England and the chateau was taken over and then sold by the state. From this point, there are two version of the story. One is, the wife of Joseph temporarily divorced him so that she could buy back the chateau another is that a friend of the family purchased the chateau and then gave it back to the family.
In either case, the Castellan family regained their property after the French Revolution.
In 1989, Louis-Provence de Castellane, also known as the Marquis d’Eparron, willed the property to his nephew, Bernard, because he had no male heirs. The chateau continues to be owned by Bernard, his wife and their children and together are the 32nd generation of Castellanes to own and occupy the Chateau.
**Above information taken from the Chateau d’Esparron website.
Interestingly enough, you can stay in the chateau. Between mid-May and the beginning of October each year, part of the chateau becomes a B&B and anyone can stay. If you would like to do so, click here to get information and make reservations. I have not yet convinced my husband that this is a necessary thing to do (because we don’t live that far away) but sooner or later he will see it my way and I’ll be making reservations!
Fun on the Lac d’Esparron
Since the creation of the lake in 1967, it has seduced the love of sunbathers and relaxing water sports lovers.
NOTE: NO gas powered water craft allowed. This is a fresh water lake used as a potable water source by an entire region and thus needs to be maintained as pollution free as possible.
The nautical club of Esparron, CNEV, set up shop almost immediately after the creation and is still there today.
Now-a-days, you have La Perle du Verdon, which is a multiple passenger boat for making a 1 hour tour around the lake with a commentary, and also a few other companies who rent electric boats, kayaks, paddle boards, peddle boats and little sail boats. Plenty to choose from, in fact, try them all!
Personally, I’ve rented the electric boats from a company called Alize Electronic. The staff here are super friendly and easy going. You just need to leave your ID with them and after a two minute lesson on how the boat works, and what to do and not to do, you’re off and running. You have to give them an approximate time frame in which you will have the boat so they can have an estimated time for other groups who would like to use their boats during the day, but other than that, you’re good. They take cash and credit card, yippee for me who is not a cash person at all.
I would highly recommend at least two or three full hours for a boat rental. The boats go about 4km per hour so it’s not super fast and it does take time to go into the gorge and/or around the lake. In all actuality, I would even go for longer. If the lake isn’t crowded, you will feel like two or three hours is not nearly enough because it’s such a beautiful and serene setting. Also, to see both the canyon going towards the village of Quinson and to do a trip around the lake in Esparron, two hours will not be enough. The nice thing about their boats is they have a cover which can be put up or down while you are on the boat. This way if you feel like you’re getting a bit too much sun, instant shade. Pretty cool.
Now, as far as getting off the boat and venturing around the cliffs in the gorge, I’ve been told two different things. The first time I rented the boat, the staff person said it was forbidden to anchor and go on the cliffs while in possession of their boat. The second time I rented from them, a different staff person ask me if I was going to stop and look around the cliffs and if so, she would show me how to pull up the motor, so….go figure. I honestly don’t know if you can or can’t, I guess it’s up to whatever staff person you get and what rules they want to enforce that day!
Hiking around Esparron-du-Verdon
For those of us that get their kicks out of hiking, look no further because this little village has got your back. There are a multitude of hikes in every direction ranging from 30 short minutes to a few hours depending on what your level or desire is. You can even hike from Esparron-de-Verdon all the way to Quinson which is about a 6 hour round trip. Each time I’ve visited, there has always been a couple of hiking groups out and about.
The nice thing about this time of year is that Provence has not quite hit that super-hot, humidity stage and because it’s spring you also get to see all the flora and fauna in its beautiful and colorful state. The hills are green, the trees are green and there are flowers blooming everywhere.
If you chose to go hiking along the ridge that is adjacent to the chateau, it offers a fantastic view of it from afar along with the church and a few houses tucked around it. I love it because from that perspective it looks like it was straight out of a fairy tale!
Outdoor sports in Esparron-de-Verdon
Besides all the fun you can have hiking and on the lake, this area also has equestrian centers for horseback riding, tennis and volleyball courts, bike rentals and fishing (probably need a license for that).
There is even a camp ground for those who wish to tent it.
Personally, I stick to the lake and hiking. Those two things provide countless hours of enjoyment for me. I would love to do horseback riding but forgo it because my man is not a fan.
All in all, this village might be tiny, but one could easily spend a week here enjoying themselves. It has a nice woodsy feel to it and provides enough to do that the whole family will have a great time.
Les Hirondelles or Swallows (as we English speakers call them)
May is also the time of year when the swallows (or les Hirondelles in French) are at their busiest. These little, migratory birds are everywhere in the south of France during the months between March and June, but in the more remote and less populated areas they seem to arrive in abundance. Esparron-de-Verson in May is one of the best places to view them. The birds are the most active during the early morning hours and in the evening at dusk.
Their little nests, up under the eaves of houses and buildings, are bursting with life in May. The many nests attached to the Mairie (town hall) and the church provide you with a wonderful, and free, show. For avid bird watchers this is a delight in and of its self. The little swallows are like boomerangs, swift and agile, and going to and from their nest provides amazing entertainment for hours on end. Bring a tripod with you!
The photo and video opportunities in this village, this time of year, are infinite!
As always, I would love to hear from you, so please leave me a comment below.
The location map for Esparron-de-Verdon, along with my Google Local Guide review of Alize Electronic Boat Rentals, is here.