Val de Durance on a gentle slope

The Durance valley is located in the western part of Haute Provence, where mountains take on the appearance of beautiful wooded hills with rounded slopes. At the foot of the Lure mountain, the valley plays an important role in hydraulic resources, as it is traversed by the Durance river and its tributary, the Bléone. Furthermore, the influence of the Mediterranean climate allows for a fabulous diversity of flora and fauna. Between 350 and 1400m in altitude, the landscapes are full of picturesque villages rich in cultural heritage. Val de Durance will provide a welcome change of scene during a getaway. The highway and railway lines passing through the valley connect the Marseille metropolis to the first ski resorts in the Southern Alps.

The villages

A number of villages such as Château-Arnoux-Saint-Auban, L’Escale and Volonne, have taken root around the artificial lake of Chateau-Arnoux, or on the bank of the Bléone, as with Malijai. Others have settled on the mountain slopes like Mallefougasse and Peipin, or on the threshold of the Luberon (geographical area defined by the Luberon massif) like Peyruis and Ganagobie. The village Les Mées is nestled at the foot of the Valensole plateau. All these villages are typical of Haute Provence with their narrow streets “en calade” (paved with limestone or stones from the river bed), water fountains, wash houses and steps leading to bell towers and chapels perched atop hills.

From one village to another, a range of architectural styles can be found, witnessing the passing of many cultures at different times. These include St-Martin Church of the Romanesque style in Volonne, the ruins of the 12th century feudal castle in Peyruis, the 16th century Renaissance castle in Château-Arnoux, the 17th century gothic castle in Volonne, the classical 18th century Malijai Castle and the contemporary St-Jean Chapel in Château-Arnoux.

Land of abundance

This majestic valley, defined by the course of the Durance river flowing from the mountaintops, undoubtedly comprises the most fertile soils and municipalities of Haute Provence. It is home to many farms, orchards and olive groves. Olive cultivation is particularly significant; there are nearly 100 000 olive trees in the commune Les Mées alone. In reality, it is certain that this number is higher, but the exact figure remains a well-kept secret. Make a stop at one of the many mills and be inspired by the beauty of their olive tree plantations that lend the landscape its characteristic Provençal identity. You will come to appreciate the olive as an embodiment of the Provençal way of life. When it comes to gastronomy, delight in tasting the fruits of the land in restaurants, from the more casual brasseries to the restaurant La Bonne Étape, owned by a Michelin-starred chef. 

A wealth of cultural and natural heritage

A valley of abundance par excellence, Val de Durance offers some of the most beautiful natural and cultural sites in the area. Here are a few must-sees.

  • The Priory of Ganagobie

A haven of peace and retreat, the Priory of Ganagobie dominates the valley of the Durance. A hiking trail connects the village to the plateau. Along the way, you will come across the Monks’ Alley, ramparts and millstone quarries. A short walk at the end of the plateau also allows you to discover the ruins of the village of Villevielle, which probably dates back to the 7th century. The plateau is thought to be inhabited since prehistoric times. The 10th century church offers a glimpse of the cloister and houses unique medieval mosaics dating back to the 12th century. The contemporary stained glass windows, however, were created by Father Kim En Joong. Last but not least, the porch is surmounted by an intricately crafted tympanum.

  • The Ornithological Reserve

The ornithological reserve, made up of three artificial wetlands, protects an abundant diversity of birds; more than 56% of the species known to the department is found here. Throughout the year, no less than 140 species can be observed. This wealth of avifauna is hidden in the tangle of reeds, the riparian vegetation or on the gravel banks of the Durance. Some species, however, can be observed on the large expanse of the Escale Reservoir. A biodiversity almost equivalent to that inventoried in Camargue is concentrated here.

  • The Pénitents des Mées

Wherever you are in Val de Durance, you will see the Pénitents des Mées. A spectacular and astonishing geological formation, it reaches up to 100m in height and stretches over 1km in length. It is a local legend that gives these steep cliffs with sharp peaks their name. The trail that goes around it in a loop winds its way along the ridges and offers hikers a breathtaking view of the village below.

The valley is home to numerous outdoor activities such as gliding, fishing, hiking or mountain biking.

Nature and the outdoors

Val de Durance has a total of nearly 350km of hiking trails accessible to hikers of all levels. Some are suitable for people with reduced mobility, for instance, the Tour du Lac, which links L’Escale, Château-Arnoux and Volonne. As for mountain biking, with over 600km of mountain bike trails including four nocturnal routes, the region is a paradise for enthusiasts of the sport. Val de Durance also serves as a base for many mountain biking trips in the area. Other activities practised include horse riding, orienteering and fishing.

Many historical routes, such as the famous Route Napoléon (RN85 and GR406) and the Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle known in English as the Way of St. James (GR653), pass by this rural valley with a mild and sunny climate. It is also on the Route de la Lavande – the road that leads to the Valensole plateau and the Verdon. 

Proof of the valley’s sunny climate

Hidden behind the barrier formed by the Pénitents des Mées, the Colle plateau is accessed by a small, hilly road behind the village. There, one of the largest photovoltaic farms in France was built in 2010. The site was chosen for its good level of sunshine and constant ventilation. These conditions allow for an overall permanent yield much higher than the national average. The site generates more than 100 megawatts of electricity, enough to meet the needs of a population of 250 000 inhabitants! The electricity is routed and distributed to larger cities further south. This farm makes the territory a leader and an example in terms of sustainable development.

Val de Durance is not only all about nature. The Théâtre Durance offers a cultural season made up of concerts, live shows and multidisciplinary workshops for all ages all year round.