Daniel Start is the author of a series of guidebooks on wild swimming, the latest of which focuses on France. Here he picks the country’s most spectacular blue pools, canyons and rock formations to swim in and through.
Pont d’Arc, Ardèche
No French wild swimming itinerary would be complete without a visit to the massive Pont d’Arc. The Ardèche river flows beneath a cathedral-high vaulted rock arch, once used as a medieval river crossing, before winding through a nature reserve downstream. This natural wonder attracts thousands of tourists every day in summer, many in canoes, so arrive early or late to enjoy the mystical experience of swimming beneath the great structure. Daredevils might like to climb up on to stone ledges on the river’s right side to find a series of passages and tunnels up and into the body of the arch itself. One tunnel reappears high in the vault, above the river, and it is a popular sport to jump out into the deep water below. Off the D290 from Vallon-Pont-d’Arc (Lat Long 44.3821, 4.4169).
Cascades de Purcaraccia, Corsica
Known as the Granite Isle, rugged Corsica is the ancient core of a volcanic mass that rises steeply out of the Mediterranean, providing some of the most dramatic mountain landscapes in Europe. In the Bavella region, great Tolkien-like aiguilles, or needles, rise above a series of incredible waterfalls and smooth white marble bowls filled with emerald-coloured water. Shoot down the water slides or swim up to the edge of the natural infinity pool and peer over the edge of the precipice. The deep granite tubs make for some of the best wild swimming in Corsica, and that’s saying something. Take the D268 up from the coast and continue about 1.5 miles beyond Col de Larone to find a clear path on the right, 100m before the bridge (Lat Long 41.8375, 9.2645). The nearby Polischellu and lower Vacca canyon are also worth visiting.
Source du Lison, Jura
The wild and hilly Jura region near Geneva is known as France’s waterfall country. One of the most impressive is the Source du Lison, which starts its life by bursting out of a great archway in the cliff face before cascading into a giant pool. The water is freezing, having travelled many miles underground through tunnels and passages, but swimming here is intensely invigorating. Afterwards why not climb up into a cavern and explore some of its tunnels – it’s like peering into the bowels of the earth. (Lat Long: 46.9653, 6.0116). 20 miles west of Pontarlier on D72, then D103. Also worth visiting is the nearby Gour Bleu (Blue Pool), part of the famous Cascades du Hérisson. There is a beach and you can climb behind the waterfall (Lat Long: 46.6147, 5.8605).
Just off the busy Dordogne river, in a remote wooded gorge, rises an extraordinary iridescent blue pool, perfectly clear and incredibly deep. This is the most beautiful of three oasis résurgences in the otherwise dry Ouysse gorge below the medieval hilltop village of Rocamadour. The azure spring water emerges purified and cleansed after having been filtered through limestone bedrock laid down by ancient coral oceans. The perfectly round pool is surrounded by trees from which you can jump and dive. A subterranean system links the bottom of the pool with the infamous Gouffre de Padirac – or “devil’s chasm”. Follow GR6 footpath four miles from Rocamadour (Lat Long 44.7903, 1.5691). Downstream the Moulin de Cougnaguet also offers excellent swimming, signed off the D673 by a bridge (44.8075, 1.5632).
Tarn gorges, Cévennes
The Tarn is an exquisite swimming and canoeing river offering turquoise water, white beaches and sandy pools fringed with lush forest in a ruggedly beautiful setting. This is the river that Robert Louis Stevenson enjoyed swimming in as he travelled across these wild hills with his donkey, Modestine, in 1878. Fat trout dart over the river bed while eagles and griffin vultures soar among the limestone peaks. Limestone is everywhere and, over time, it has been eroded into meandering gorges and weather-beaten outcrops. Many of the gorges have spectacular features, from the narrow pass of Les Détroits (Lat Long: 44.2971, 3.2830) to strange rock towers and tors, including the bizarre, mushroom-shaped Rocher Champignon (Lat Long: 44.3051, 3.2661). Both are off the D970B, after La Malène.
‘Wild Swimming France’ is published by Wild Things, www.wildswimming.co.uk