Daniel Start’s Ten Favourite French Swims

For wild swimming, France can offer a plethora of remote land with fresh rivers, thermal springs, lakes and waterfalls in one of Europe’s cleanest waters. For those looking for more tranquil locations than the coast, there is an abundance of stunning destinations throughout with the South offering the reliability of warmth right through to October. Regions are thriving with natural and artificial reserves alongside a backdrop of idyllic scenery from spectacular gorge systems to phenomenal rock formations.

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Daniel Start, travel writer, photographer and environmental consultant is the author of numerous books on wild swimming and winner of the Writers’ Guild Award for Non-Fiction. Here he shares his favourite swims from his book Wild Swimming in France …

Chenonceaux - (Tours 30km)

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The great river Loire is too large and wild for swimming but many of France’s most beautiful châteaux cluster along its smaller, more gentle tributaries. The charming river Cher flows among vineyards and orchards and is the setting for the exquisite, châteaux of Chenonceaux. It is popular with tourists in seasons but you can easily escape the crowds by approaching for free along the woodland path and swimming from sandy bays in the idyllic river pool which lies upstream. The perfect line of white Renaissance arches spans the river and provides a stunning backdrop reflected in the pool,  especially at sunset. At the Chisseaux D40 road bridge follow the footpath 10 mins downstream along the left bank of river downstream (lat long: 47.3247, 1.0731). To the east are several other delightful swimming locations, such as the sandy riverside beaches at St-Aignan  and quiet riverbanks of Chatillon-sur-Cher.

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Cascades du Hérisson – (Mouchard 30km)

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Waterfalls dominate the Jura region, and the Cascades du Hérisson is a good place to start, not least because all the signs seem to point you in that direction. Start by climb up and above the dramatic main falls of L’Éventail and the Le Grand Saut. Neither of these has a plunge pool but if you continue further through woodlands on the marked trail you will come to the Le Gour Bleu, a perfect plunge piscine set in a wooded glade with beach and a waterfall. You can climb up and behind the curtain of rushing water and explore behind the falls too – a real treat. Follow the D678 from Lons-le-Saunier (Lat Long 46.6147, 5.8605). Lac du Val is on the road to the visitor centre for the falls and is also good for a longer swim.

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Lac d’Annecy – (Annecy 5km)

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Lac d’Annecy, in its gentle but dramatic mountain setting, is perhaps France’s most famous swimming lake. The water is a deep-turquoise hue and subterranean hot springs ensure the temperature is always pleasant. There is a fair amount of development along its shoreline, so to escape to its wilder parts, follow a 45-minute path through the woods to the headland of Roc de Chère where cliffs plunge into deep water. Here you can swim, snorkel and jump from the high ledges as the sun sets over the lake. 700m north of Talloires, just after the D42 turns sharp right on the hill, you’ll see a set of stone steps and footpath, direction ‘Roc de Chère, Liason Menthon’ (Lat Long: 45.8435, 6.1891). There are a number of more easily accessible beach areas too, and Angon (with life guards, café and facilities) has one of best locations, with views across to the Château d’Annecy.

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Pont d’Arc - (Orange 30km)

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On the lower reaches of the fast-flowing Ardèche stands the famous Pont d’Arc, an extraordinary natural rock arch, as high as a cathedral, formed over millions of years. Swimming beneath this massive vault at dawn, before the crowds descend, can be an almost mystical experience. On the upstream right bank you can climb up and into a cave tunnel and appear out of a hole high on the inside of the arch. Great for jumps. This site is incredibly busy so it’s best to arrive before 10am or after 5pm. If you stay the night try the more tranquil campsites downstream (Le Midi, La Rouvière or  Les Gorges). Or rent a canoe for two a day expedition to explore the beautiful downstream sections of the gorge. D290 from Vallon-Pont-d’Arc (Lat Long 44.3821, 4.4169)

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Pont du Diable, Hérault (Montpellier)

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The Hérault is one of the most important rivers of the Massif Central and Languedoc region. At Pont du Diable a huge pool forms beneath the impressive old bridge at the base of a canyon. This is a very popular place to swim, with beaches and a large car park, but for some real adventure, and the chance for jumps and high dives, swim upstream into the incredible rock formations of the gorge. St-Guilhem-le-Désert, one of the best-preserved medieval villages in France, is nearby and cave enthusiasts might be tempted by the stalactities of the Grotte de Clamouse, reached by subterranean river. Leave A750 from Montpelier at Gignac 4km from Aniane on D27 (Lat Long: 43.7065, 3.5568)

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Cascade du Sautadet, Cèze

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The river Cèze is just south of the much busier Ardèche and just north of the famous Pont du Gard. At the Cascade du Sautadet you’ll find one of France’s most impressive series of waterfalls. There are deep pots of bubbling water to luxuriate in, chutes to slide down and limestone cliffs, eroded into strange shapes, from which brave French boys perform spectacular high-dives. Just downstream a long beach is perfect for sunbathing and a large deep pool stretches out, ideal for more sedate swimming or snorkelling in the clear waters. It’s difficult to get bored here with so much going on but if the parents would prefer a bit of culture they can wonder through the medieval lanes of the La Roque-sur- Cèze above, one of the official ‘Plus Beaux’ villages in France, with a delightful church. If you have longer, explore further along valley, right up to Montclus, to find more gorges and riverside beaches. 30km west of Orange, D980 from Bagnols, then D166. (Lat Long 44.1890,  4.5271)

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Cascades de Purcaraccia, Corsica

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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. Perhaps the most spectacular peaks are the aiguilles or ‘needles’ of Bavella, which thrust their pointy spires into the clouds like something from Tolkien. Smooth white marble bowls filled with emerald-coloured water make the Purcarracia the most stunning series of waterfalls in the area, with huge slides and an infinity pool that allows you to swim up and peer over a precipice. The deep marble tubs resemble giant dew drops that have been scooped out of the mountain. Continue on D268 and about 2.5km beyond Col de Larone (the plateau and viewpoint on the route to Col de Bavella) find clear path on the right, 100m before the bridge over the Purcaraccia (Lat Long 41.8375, 9.2645). The nearby Polischellu and lower Vacca canyon are also worth checking out.

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Pont du Diable, upper Ardèche

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If you mention the Ardèche many will think of the huge Pont d’Arc – its famous natural arch – and the gorges below. But head upstream away from the crowds and the landscape changes dramatically. High hexagonal rock columns, like those which form the Giant’s Causeway, rise like towering organ pipes, formed from crystallised magma from volcanic eruptions. They now create deep pools and excellent jumping platforms with terrifying names. At Pont du Diable (Devil’s Bridge) near Thuyets a slender medieval bridge spans a narrow gorge above a large river pool with various ledges for jumps. The water below is jade green and beautifully clear. A via ferrata rope course above provides additional excitement. The Gouffre de l’Enfer (Hell’s Abyss) near Burzet is also a favourite, with a deep cauldron hidden in the woods.  Pont du Diable is signed 1km E of Thueyts on N102 (Lat Long 44.6710, 4.2216).

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Lac d’Ilay, Jura (Swim 4)

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Lakes and waterfalls abound in the remote Jura region north of Geneva. Set among rolling hills and alpine foothills it is easy to find a lake all to yourself. Perfect for a skinny dip then, though be discrete if you do and ensure there are no fishermen watching. Not far from the tiny village of Ilay – and only a few kilometres from the famous Cascades du Hérisson – are a series of idyllic tarns which receive very few visitors. Lac d’Ilay is the largest. The water is very warm, and there is a grassy area which leads down to a beach. The early mornings here are particularly atmospheric as great swathes of mist hang over the water. Night time, beneath a full galaxy of stars, is another wonderful moment to strip off and swim free. Turn off main D678 for D75 to Le Frasnois and find track to lake on right just before the hamlet (Lat Long 46.6319, 5.9001)

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Lac de Serre-Ponçon, Gap

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Lac de Serre-Ponçon is France’s largest man-made body of water, formed by the Durance and Ubaye alpine rivers. Its construction in 1961 submerged a viaduct and several villages – which regularly reappear at low water – and left an ancient hilltop chapel marooned as an offshore island. During the summer, as the waters recede, over 50 miles of wild beach form around the lake shores, making this one of the longest beaches in Europe. It’s a perfect area for wild camping, swimming and exploring. The south-west tail of the lake, near the Cimetière d’Ubaye (D954), 6km west of Le Lauzet-Ubaye, is one the least populated with grassland, silver shale beaches, warm water and cliffs and gorges for snorkelling and jumping (44.4644, 6.3580).

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Wild Swimming France: discover the most beautiful rivers, lakes and waterfalls of France by Daniel Start

Wild Swimming France contains all the practical information you’ll need to lure you off the beaten track to over 400 amazing locations. With stunning photography, 15 maps, and detailed directions, grid references and walk-in times. In vast areas of unspoilt French countryside there is so much to discover, from the tranquil river beaches of the Ardeche and the secret waterfalls of the Languedoc, to the shimmering aquamarine pools of Corsica and the Alps. Wild Swimming France takes you on an aquatic voyage to the wild side of the world’s favourite holiday destination and introduce you to parts of France you never knew existed.

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