Authentic rural France at the gateway to Provence
Slice south through France on the Autoroute du Soleil and, south of Lyon, you pass down the eastern border of Ardèche, which cosies up to the west bank of the Rhône for 135km. But don’t be in too much of a rush. Turn out of the fast line and here, at the gateway to Provence, you can move at a different pace amongst rolling hills, small communities, and people with a real passion for local produce and traditions.
These are just a few reasons why Ardèche keeps drawing me back.
Most British travellers don’t know it
I’ve nothing against British tourists in France – far from it, I’m one myself – but I don’t actively seek out my fellow countrymen on holiday. And no matter how widely travelled they are round France, few British Francophiles seem to discover Ardèche. But this tranquil department is a great stopover as part of a touring holiday or journey south, or, even better, as an enchanting destination in its own right, full of atmosphere and authenticity.
Outdoor activities for all
Ardèche is paradise for anyone who loves vast skies; wide open landscapes; and enchanting villages and small towns. The department takes its name from the river that flows across its southern fringes, passing beneath the natural rock arch of the Pont d’Arc near Vallon Pont d’Arc. Take a guided excursion along the Ardèche Gorges by kayak to glide beneath dramatic cliffs and see nature from water level, but don’t be surprised to see the blue canoe of the uniformed river cops. They patrol regularly to ensure that nobody infringes the strict rules about camping and campfires.
Hiking and cycling are big here too with all kinds of marked trails from challenging upland tracks for mountain-bikers to gentle routes like the Dolce Via which follows the former railway track of the Eyrieux Valley. And whether you walk, cycle or take the car, don’t miss the winding clifftop road that hugs the meanders of the Ardèche Gorges.
A unique insight into prehistory
In 1994, three cavers discovered a unique cavern beneath the limestone plateau above Vallon Pont d’Arc, its walls adorned with 1,000 extraordinary animal paintings and engravings dating back 36,000 years. Named Grotte Chauvet after one of the cavers, it is too fragile to open to all but a handful of scientists, but the replica cave, Chauvet 2 is an absolute stunner, open throughout the year. Discover the Aurignacian period through film reconstructons and touch-screen panels; take a guided tour through the replica cave, perfect to the last millimetre; and tour the latest temporary exhibition.
Dramatic underground scenery
But you can also go underground to visit the spectacular subterranean scenery of Ardèche for yourself. Most famous is the Aven d’Orgnac, a vast cave complex 121 metres below the surface of the earth and labelled Grand Site de France. The guided tour winds through vast caverns decorated with stalagmites and stalactites, ending with a sound-and-light show. And whilst there are 700 steps down, there’s a welcome lift back up to the daylight!
I’d also recommend the underground tour along an ancient river bed at the Grotte de Saint-Marcel. Enjoy another stunning light show and maybe sign up for a unique wine-tasting without any sensory distractions. Local winemakers even mature some of their vintages in the cave.
Twenty Character Villages
Twenty charming communities have been awarded the Village de Caractère label and two of them, Balazuc and Vogüé are also listed amongst the prestigious band of 158 communities labelled as Les Plus Beaux Villages de France – France’s Most Beautiful Villages. Expect medieval houses, winding streets, and ancient fortifications, all in stunning settings from rocky promontories to sheltered valleys, and often dotted with tempting craft boutiques and galleries. I particularly enjoyed pretty Saint-Montan near the Rhône Valley.
Source of France’s longest river
Ardèche is a largely volcanic landscape, the Monts d’Ardèche Regional Nature Park classified by UNESCO as a Global Geopark. France’s longest river, the Loire, begins to take shape on the slopes of Mont Gerbier de Jonc, where rainwater streaming down from the volcanic plug at the summit joins together to form the young Loire. You can walk up to the summit from the road beneath, or just stop to enjoy the produce stalls and visitor centre.
The mountain stands on the natural watershed line, La Ligne de Partage des Eaux, an invisible geological feature that determines the direction of surface water. Rain landing on one side of the watershed flows towards the Atlantic, water on the other to the Med. And along it runs the GR7 long distance trail, dotted with six outdoor artworks on the Ardèche section, together with panoramic viewpoints and volcanic features. I was fascinated by the gold semi-circles painted on the ruined Cistercian abbey at Mazan. Stand in the right spot and you can see one the fragments join into complete circles.
Fab food and passionate chefs
Ardèche chefs love working with seasonal local produce – the ultimate in low food miles. Staple product here over the centuries was the humble chestnut, the wood used for furniture and the nuts ground into flour; discover the story at Castanea, the newly refurbished Chestnut Museum in Joyeuse. For edible souvenirs, look out for chestnut cakes and biscuits, jams, liqueurs and of course, marrons glacés.
But Ardèche is also proud of its Fin Gras beef from Mézenc, its organic vegetables, lake and river fish. So maybe treat yourself to a meal cooked by one of the 10 chefs awarded the culinary accolade of Les Toqués d’Ardèche. Bon appetit!