As I type, there are still traces of river mud under my nails. This summer is a scorcher in the South of France, and when the Côte d’Azur gets crowded, I escape. I’ve just returned from three days in the Alps, where I camped beside a mountain stream so cold that it made my teeth ache. Thanks to local friends, a set of maps and a sense of adventure, I know a number of wild, hidden places, not far from the French Riviera, where the water is far cooler than the Mediterranean, and peace reigns.
So when German magazine ADAC Reisemagazin asked if I had any ideas for a South of France, photography-led, summer travel story, I suggested a feature on wild swimming in Provence. They loved the idea. Later, I added to the work for another article in Dutch magazine Leven in Frankrijk, writing short articles about each spot as well as photographing them, and one of the pictures was chosen as photo of the month in a third magazine. I’m almost in danger of becoming an ‘expert’.
No pain no gain
Those who dream of a beach with sand, sunbeds and a pina colada served to them after a dip should stick to the French Riviera. The Alpes Maritimes are wilder terrain, and long walks along steep, rocky paths in the heat to access bathing spots are not for the faint-hearted. But as per the proverb ‘no pain no gain’, the rewards for effort are considerable.
Cool streams that rush down from the mountains have, over thousands of years, smoothed and sculpted the limestone in their path. River banks have been flattened and polished (ideal for laying on), boulders are softly rounded (good to lean on, especially when cushioned by moss) and, under waterfalls, circular ‘vasques‘ – bowls in the rock – have been gouged out, making ideal bathing pools. No mosquitos or wasps will bother you here. At most, you may share the river with a handful of intrepid locals and some dragonflies, and as you enjoy your picnic (watermelon, fresh baguette and some goat’s cheese from a nearby farm?) under the plentiful shade of native cork oak trees, the only sound will be the running water and dozens of cicadas, singing their hearts out above.
The riverbed clay in some places is known locally for its regenerative, skincare properties. The experience of a DIY face mask, scooped out of the stream, applied to face and neck and dried lazily in the shade, can be both a fun and effective skin smoothing treatment (even if it dirties fingernails).
Photographer in front of the lens
Some of the swimming spots I already knew, but some were new to me. I came up with a mix of fairly accessible and seriously far-flung locations (the lane to one had fallen into a ravine a couple of years previously, making it harder to reach than expected), and, for variety, I visited lakes, rivers and even one empty beach – the latter being a challenge to find in Provence. A bikini and towel are not regular items in a photographer’s kitbag, but they were crucial this time as, to write about each place as well as photograph it, I needed to experience it. I took friends on most of my forays: capturing people enjoying the locations would give consistency across the set of photographs.
On one occasion though, no-one could join me, and so I crossed my fingers for willing passers-by. La Plage de la Bastide Blanche [White House Beach] is a gorgeous spot, a stretch of golden sand that meets vineyards running down to the water, and its isolation, despite being in easy reach of Saint Tropez, means that it is often entirely empty. The only person there that day was a slightly grouchy dog walker, who didn’t want to appear in any photograph, so I had no choice but to pose myself. My camera’s 10 second self timer set quite a challenge, for me to rush in front of the tripod, sit on spiky rocks and look comfortable, and I had to do it a dozen times before I got what I wanted.
Not for the faint-hearted
When I’d invited my friends along, I had promised them a relaxing day. “It won’t be dangerous“, I assured one, who was doubtful, knowing about a reportage I’d once done on freediving. “The water won’t even be deep“. As it was, however, it was that lack of depth which turned out to be the source of David’s concern at Le Ravin de Redebraus, when I asked him to jump into a big bathing pool for a photograph. He swam out, eyed up the sandy bottom and categorically refused to play.
This time, the only other river-goer sharing our space was very familiar with the pool and had no qualms about performing for a photographer. He spent a long minute apparently meditating on the rocks before jumping, and I grew uneasy, hoping that his confidence was not misplaced. Happily, his leap was a fine one, and he climbed straight up to do it again – although when he told us afterwards that his bum had brushed the bottom of the pool, David gave me a pointed look.
Another plucky couple battled rapids in the gorge far below the idyllically named Le Pont de la Cerise [Cherry Tree Bridge] for my pictures. The turquoise waters are a canyoner’s dream but only recommended for the very strongest of swimmers. However, Nicolas and Sarah happily dived in, and in fact seemed more at ease than they did later that day when, under the Cascade de Courmes, Sarah suddenly exclaimed “Yowp! Creatures in the water are biting us! Hurry!”
Lilo on an Alpine lake
None of the wild swimming spots I photographed were further off the beaten track than the Lac des Adus. David, Agnieszka and I left the Côte d’Azur to go to this remote Alpine lake on one of the hottest days of the year. We parked as close as possible, north of Saint-Martin-Vésubie, and were grateful for the dense pine trees shading the path that climbed steeply, up and up, seemingly endlessly. After 1.5 hours, it did end though, and the forest fell away to reveal a lush, mountain prairie and a jewel of a lake. We gasped lungfuls of cool, fresh air and boosted our flagging energy levels with the wild blueberries we picked beside the path, as chamois looked down from above.
The German photo editor had thought that a lilo could be a fun addition to the pictures. David, the ‘model’, who remained suspicious of my water-based photo shoots, was less enthusiastic. The lake, at 2,300m altitude, was freezing cold and getting on to the inflatable without part of it sinking was proving difficult. The fact that the water was boiling with frogs didn’t help, neither did the laughter that incapacitated Agnieszka & I. But, once on board and pushed out into the middle, David did a sterling job of looking relaxed. It is not always easy being a model…
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