Waiting for the bike technician to check the brakes on my velo, I was thumbing through the random pile of ad flyers promoting local restaurants. One pamphlet caught my eye: a new Via Ferrata in Cavaillon. This was something I really had to try but it took more than a year to convince my husband to “harness up.”
Via Ferrata (iron road) is an Italian term. The phrase was used to describe alpine military routes created during World War I in the Dolomite Mountains of Northern Italy. Wooden ladder rungs and heavy ropes were installed to fixed points along rocky ledges. These rustic vertical corridors provided somewhat sheltered approaches to the summits for the troops.
Post-war, the appeal of the Via Ferrata as an adventure activity for non-alpinists became apparent, offering approachable routes to breathtaking European mountaintops. In the 1930s, the Italian Alpine Club began converting makeshift army equipment into more permanent installations (the whole story is here).
Currently there are more than 1,000 Via Ferratas in Europe including 200-plus in France alone. Two French websites with lots of additional info are here and here. Adventure seekers will be pleased to know that there are several Via Ferratas in Provence.
The “iron road” in Cavaillon opened in June, 2013, about 40 meters up on the cliffs of the 180-meter Saint-Jacques’ Hill overlooking the city. It’s the only Via Ferrata in a European city that’s accessible on foot from downtown. More than 20,000 people have ‘’done’’ it since the official opening.
There are two loops: the shorter Via Natura that takes about two hours to complete and the four-hour Via Souterrata. On both routes, you’ll be treated to an expansive view of the Durance Valley. Up close, you will enjoy seasonal fauna that sprouts from seemingly impossible perches.
The Cavaillon Via Ferrata is open all year and there is no charge to use it. However, it’s highly recommended that novices engage one of the certified guides listed on the Cavaillon website here for their first time on the circuit. We chose David Malbos of Vertical Session.
We left our car in the parking lot at the top of the hill on Chemin de l'Hermitage and David welcomed us with a broad smile, then introduced us to the rest of the group; we were eight in total for this adventure. David is not only fully certified and clearly passionate about his job--he was one of the early visionaries for the Via Ferrata in Cavaillon. He was involved in all the stages, from the initial proposal in 2011 through environmental studies, design, installation testing and now guiding. So, I felt that we were in good hands.
After a brief run-through on proper equipment usage, we were ready to start our tour. David did warn us that there is no easing into this Via Ferrata…and he was right! After passing through a spring-loaded gate, you clip onto the first metal wire, descend a few rebar rungs and you’re crossing your first canyon on a single strand of cable. Despite the fact that the risk of tumbling is nearly impossible, it’s difficult to convince your brain otherwise.
Our group completed the Via Souterrata in roughly four hours with David’s coaching. I was never afraid of falling as you’re anchored at all times. However, the via ferrata was more physical than I had expected: there’s one notable climbing section, a few suspended crossings and even two short tunnels. Had I checked the website beforehand I would have realized that the Via Souterra loop was ranked TD --très difficile--so although you do not require any rock climbing experience a base level of physical fitness and some time spent in hiking boots will make for a more enjoyable tour.
All in all, it was a terrific afternoon on the rocks overlooking Cavaillon. Have a look at this video clip to give you a feeling for the adventure.
When you hire a guide, they’ll provide a helmet and Via Ferrata kit, which includes the harness and necessary clips. In addition, you should wear lightweight hiking shoes, and carry a backpack with water, sunscreen, gloves, an extra layer and a snack.
Photos: Social Climbers! Carolyne...the view...the warning...Carolyne's husband Andrew Abbott...guide David Malbos...another climber...and four folks hanging on by a thread on the Cavaillon Via Ferrata. All photos by Ginger and Nutmeg except final shot, which is by Sam Bie.