France is a wild swimmer’s paradise. With some of the most beautiful and diverse landscapes, as well as the cleanest waters in Europe, taking a dip is the highlight of any French holiday, and guaranteed to get even your non swimming friends and family into the wild swimming mood. Oh, and did I mention it’s hot there too? And the water could even be considered warm!
In rural France, people have always swum in rivers and there are over 1300 ‘official’ river beaches. Unlike the UK, most of France is just too far from the coast, and even if it wasn’t the options are limited. The Atlantic coast has a dangerous swell – great for surfing but not for swimming – and the Côte d’Azur is heavily developed along almost its whole length.
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 départments 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.
Our new book – 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 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 enter into the land of ‘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-la-Cascade bring to mind 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, wine-making 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.
It has been an amazing experience researching the book and seeing so many beautiful places. I’ve been totally blown away by France. My only fear is that the warm temperatures might have made me a bit soft. However, I am now married with a baby daughter, living at the confluence of two rivers in rural Somerset, so I don’t think there’ll be too many wild camping trips to France this coming summer. Plenty of dips in the river Avon should bring back my hardiness!
Wild Swimming France (Second Edition) by Daniel Start was published 1st May 2021 by Wild Things Publishing (RRP £18.99) and is available in ebook, kindle, PDF and also as an interactive app for Android and Apple phones