Best wild swims in France – secret rivers, lakes and waterfalls


Daniel Start chooses his favourite secret swims, from the new edition of his book, Wild Swimming France (2021 edition).

NB French readers can read more about our new book on the new Baignades Sauvages website.

Swim beneath the great châteaux of the Loire and plunge into the azure-blue pools of Provence. Relax in the secret hot springs of the Pyrenees and discover the unspoilt crater lakes of the Mont-Dore. France has one of the most diverse and magnificent landscapes in Europe, with a cuisine and culture to match. Its rivers, lakes and waterfalls are some of the cleanest in Europe and its summers are reliably hot – and it’s all just a train ride away (when we are finally allowed to go again!)

Daniel’s new book covers over 1000 locations, covering the iconic swims of the south, but also many lesser-known and more accessible regions in the north and centre. Many have plenty of space for overnights too, and there are some great waterside campsites. Here he picks 10 areas you might not have thought of.

NB copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Maps to find the locations.

Saint-Mesmin, La Seine, Paris area

SAINT-MESMIN la seine Paris_0013394_lr

Until 1913, Paris was a spa resort in the same league as Vichy or Évian, and swimming in the Seine was part of the therapy, but in 1923 a prefectural decree banned city swimming in the Seine. Thankfully upstream of Paris swimming is the Seine is still allowed. White-sand river beaches, rapids and clear blue pools beckon on this secluded, secret meander. 1.5km east of Saint-Mesmin on the D31 then turn right (signed parking/ snack bar). Continue 250m and park below the canal café. Continue on foot 200m down a track and turn right through the field, then right again into a clearing.
3 mins, 48.4442, 3.9409


Lac de Pannecière-Chaumard, Morvan Regional Park, Burgundy


Rising up from the fertile fields and vineyards of Burgundy, the thickly forested uplands and granite massif of the Morvan Regional Park are the best serious hills in northern France and attract keen walkers and nature lovers. Several Burgundy rivers, such as the Yonne and Armançon, flow from this remote plateau and the region offers plentiful lakes and reservoirs with lovely, wooded shores to explore. This particular reservoir on the headwaters of the Yonne has many places to swim and wild camp. There’s good access all the way up the west shore off the D161 but the best section is south-east of Bonin, off D303. Follow signs for camping Le Plat (lakeside with campfires, 06 70 85 22 30) but bear right after 300m and continue down to picnic area. From here, over 1km of lakeshore track to explore with various wooded peninsulas and beaches, becoming wilder as you progress. A good food van at Le Snack du Lac (06 75 41 48 48) is on the other side of the dam, off D303, with lake-view seating. Also basic lakeside campsite Les Soulins with bar and music nights at far south end of the lake (03 86 84 47 52).
3 mins, 47.1520, 3.8749

Néons-sur-Creuse, Le Creuse


Hidden in the very centre of France, this is a watery region of rivers less-visited: Le Creuse, Le Gartempe and Le Vienne flow between forested hills, by fine Romanesque churches and past traditional stone farmhouses. The Creuse, a river for bathers, runs through the heart of this rural landscape. Along its lower reaches, every village seems to have an idyllic riverside picnic area, always busy with locals. At Néons, our favourite, cross giant stepping stones over the river to a woodland island with jumping tree and rope swings. There’s a long, deep section above the stones, or play in the rapids, the water is especially warm. There’s a large picnic area, BBQ and basic facilities/WC. From the village centre, turn off D95 by pump, pass the church and continue 500m, past the boat ramp to parking at far end.
1 min, 46.7510, 0.9335

Les Petits Essarts, Ambérac, La Charente


Its welcoming waters often tinged with teal and jade, the Charente river is blessed with willow-lined pools, old mills and orchre-stone villages. Unsurprisingly, many consider this much-loved swimming river one of the most beautiful waterways in France. At Ambérac there’s a pleasant picnic spot by the bridge in the village, but the real treat is a wooded area upstream where there are tables beneath the shade of young plane trees and an exquisite stretch of wide, sunny river. There’s also plenty of space and potential for a discreet overnight. Take D88 north and after 1.3km turn right onto D184 (signed Mallenville) and continue for 800m to bridge. Turn right here onto signed track then right again after further 400m.
1 min, 45.8619, 0.0724

Chenaud, La Drone, Périgord Vert


The Dronne is one of the treasured rivers of France, passing through some of the most beautiful villages in Périgord, with remote swimming beaches and secret camping spots in between. Aubeterre’s vast 8th-century underground church, its vaulted ceilings hewn out of the limestone by hand, is justifiably famous and the village also has a busy riverside beach scene. Yet a little further downstream is the locals’ favourite, Chenaud, which is much quieter. There’s an island weir with brilliant tree swing and views over to the château. Head north on D105E2/D138 and just after the bridge take the track on right, continue 450m. Deeper upstream.
2 mins, 45.2206, 0.1051

La Nau, Gratte-Bruyère, Upper Dordogne, Corrèze

LA NAU 14-_0017292

This string of great dams, constructed along the Maronne and Dordogne between 1932 and 1957, flooded villages, the surrounding land and an entire railway line. Now producing almost 2 billion KW of electricity per hour, each one creates a long, deep gorge lakes. Most are hidden down tiny, winding roads leading only to little slipways for fishing boats, or the occasional isolated suspension bridge. Dramatic yet quiet, the Routes des Ajustants winds its way up the Aigle reservoir. A small side turning leads down to this isolated slipway, for a truly wild swim. 4km east on D982/D168 from Pont de St Projet, or 2km west from famous Belvédère de Gratte Bruyère on D168. Another very remote slipway is on the south shore, via Furlanges, 45.3147, 2.3495.
1 min, 45.3246, 2.3178

Cénevières, La Toulzanie, Le Lot


One of the great rivers of France, the Lot has carved valleys through beautiful hillsides with prehistoric cave paintings and underground caverns, and some of France’s most beautiful medieval villages. The Lot is navigable for much of its length and its ample, deep stretches of water make for superb swimming. There’s particularly fine swimming at this hidden weir with a view of the beautiful Château de Cénevières above. Heading east on D662 bear R just before width restriction. Continue 600m then turn right at crossroads onto a track. Park and walk to river (50m) and continue left along the shore (300m). There’s also, simple swimming from riverside campsite de Cénevières (05 81 42 95 00) on road to château, D8.
5 mins, 44.4623, 1.7567

Gorges du Terminet, L’Orbieu, Corbières


Tucked away among rugged hills and remote uplands baked by hot summer sun, the gorges, waterfalls and pools of Corbières are wonderfully refreshing and wild. The most beautiful is this moss-fringed waterfall with mesmerising, mauve-hued canyon in a wild location on the Sou, a tributary of the Orbieu. Park 2.2km west of Termes on D40 on the right. A good path descends to stream then up alongside it to waterfall and pool. Confident scramblers can climb up on the right of waterfall to access several pools at the bottom of the canyon.
15 mins, 43.0057, 2.5546

Plage de Bauduen, Verdon


The most spectacular swimming in Provence is along the course of the Verdon, which was dammed to form the Lac de Ste-Croix, one of the largest artificial lakes in France, with beautiful clear-blue water and gleaming white pebble beaches. Bauduen, a lesser-known village on the lake’s south-east shore is a charming place to stay, with access to the forested promontory and shoreline of Les Chaumets and dazzling sunsets across the water. In the 1950s, poverty and depopulation had left most of Bauduen’s houses derelict so the proposal to submerge the village, which was perched high up on the rocks, met with little opposition the houses were almost given away. At the eleventh hour, however, the dam height was reduced and Bauduen suddenly acquired an idyllic lakeside setting! It has a pretty beach and boulders. Good jumping and snorkelling. Eat at Café du Midi (04 94 70 08 94). 1km south of Bauduen on the D49 is another beach or continue north along the shores for many wild beaches and rock jumps.
2 mins, 43.7325, 6.1769

Gorges de la Vacca, Corsica


Known as the Granite Isle, rugged Corsica is the ancient core of a volcanic mass that rises steeply out of the Mediterranean. ‘La Corse Sauvage’ is the wild-swimming destination for those who yearn for breath-taking scenery with hot sunshine and refreshing crystal-clear waters. This vast grand canyon is in remote terrain with needle-like mountains towering above. Accessible via a long, beautiful walk through chestnut forests. The two exit pools are accessible to swimmers: one a large round pool with flat rocks; the other a long very deep cleft pool with jumps. 1.2km south of Col de Larone, at the right-hand hairpin, find a good path through the bush on left (car park 250m after). After about 15 mins ignore path used by canyoners off to right (leads down to the start of canyon, about 20 mins walk) and continue up, around rock spires and then down – the path gets steeper but is clearly marked. After 30–45 mins reach the gorges and pools at the canyon’s end.
1 hour, 41.8206, 9.2858

About the book

Daniel Start us author of Wild Swimming France – France’s 1000 most beautiful rivers, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs & natural pools (£18.99, Wild Things Publishing).
Outdoor Swimmer readers can receive 20% off and free P&P with code Swimmer21 at

Wild Swimming France second edition 3D - 280

French swimmer’s Glossary

à vos risques et périls – at your own risk
barque/bac – small boat/ferry
barrage/déversoir – dam/weir
boucle – meander
cascade/saut  – waterfall/drop
chemin de halage  – towpath
clue/canyon  – slot canyon/canyon
eau doux –  freshwater
écluse  – sluice/lock
embarquement  – pontoon/quay
étang/lac  – pond/lake
falaise/roche/grotte –  cliff/rock/cave
font/source/(résurgence) –  (cave)spring
galet/caillou  – pebble
gour/gouffre/marmite –  deep pot or tub
halte nautique  – boat/canoe quay
interdit/interdite  – prohibited
lavoir  – washing area (historic)
mise à l’eau/glissade –  slipway/slide
non aménagé/surveillé –  unsupervised
passerelle/pont  – footbridge/bridge
(pierres de) gué  – ford (stepping stones)
plage/baignade  – beach/swim
plan d’eau  – lake/water park
plonger/sauter  – to dive/jump
profond/peu profond  – deep/shallow
randonnée aquatique  – a hike in the water
rive gauche/droite  – left/right bank
retenue  – reservoir
ruisseau, gave,  – torrent stream/river
sable/gravier  – sand/gravel
source chaude  – hot spring
vasque/bassin – large pool

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