Click here to find out more about our new book Wild Swimming France
If you haven’t done much travelling in France or ventured off the beaten track, then you are in for a real treat. Its rivers are so numerous that French départements are named after them and three major sets of mountains ensure a plentiful supply of crystal-clear water to keep them flowing, even in the hot regions of the South. On their journey down from the mountains, the rivers often carve beautiful gorges, pools and waterfalls, which make perfect swimming holes and beaches. Countless tracks lead to exquisite stretches of riverside, and with four times as much land area per person compared to the UK, this is a place where everyone can find their little bit of wilderness.
Wild Swimming France focuses on the really spectacular parts of the country, with the majority of swims located in the southern half, where most people go on holiday. We begin our journey in eastern France, in the hills of the Jura and then head south, exploring waterfall country and the great lakes of the Alps. Moving into the wild hills around Nice we found many ‘clues’ – white limestone canyons with giant jade-green plunge pools and tumbling waterfalls, and while some require canyoning equipment many of the best can be reached on foot. From here, rugged Corsica is just a short hop on the boat, and with plunge pools and soaring mountain spires every bit as beautiful as its legendary beaches, this must count as one of the most beautiful wild-swimming locations in France, if not on earth.
Heading into Provence proper, the Verdon is the largest canyon in Europe and its lakes are perhaps the deepest shade of blue in the whole of France, while the waterfalls of Sillans-le-Cascade reminded me of the kind of tropical oases you might expect to find in Costa Rica rather than Europe. Towards Avignon, the land becomes more arid, but magical blue pools still remain, fed by underground springs, if you know where to look.
Both the gorges of the Ardèche, which boasts the Pont d’Arc,and the river Gard, with its Roman aqueduct, are justly famous for canoeing and swimming. Yet few venture into their upper reaches and tributaries, where volcanic activity has produced a landscape of extraordinary arches and basalt columns.
The Cévennes, where Robert Louis Stevenson travelled with his donkey and wolves still roam, is one of the wildest regions. Further south, the Languedoc and Corbières are hot, dry, winemaking regions that are well watered by the Hérault and Vis. These rivers gush out of great cave openings into enchanted fern-hung grottoes that conjure up scenes from legend and folklore. The Pyrenees are famous for their hot springs – of which only a few remain undeveloped – and for tranquil mountain tarns with rocky ledges for diving and islets to swim out to. Turning northwards, the valleys of the Aveyron, Lot and Dordogne, and their many beautiful tributaries, offer stunning cliff-side villages to swim beneath and plenty of delicious places for long lunches. Finally, the great Loire, with its fairytale castles and woodland lakes, is a surprisingly wild river – wide, empty, undeveloped and magnificent.
You can buy the Wild Swimming France book here.