An April 2005 trip
to Ardeche by jaybroek
Quote: The Ardèche: loved for its rivers by canoeists, its limestone cliffs by rock climbers and trekkers. The locals share their obsessive passion for chestnuts with visitors such as us, who are content to idle the days away on riverside beaches in medieval villages.
The Alcaldes bought the rundown farm a few kilometers outside Rosières 4 or 5 years ago, when they were living in Montpelier. For the first year, Phillipe lived in a caravan on-site and carried out the restoration work, with Veronique joining in at weekends. The result is a chambre d’hôte rich in individuality, contemporary comfort blended seamlessly with original features.
Our suite, along with two of the other four guest rooms, opened on to a small, shady courtyard. Simply decorated with tiled floors, the sizable lounge/second bedroom was separated by a resoundingly agricultural door from the main bedroom and en-suite shower room. The lounge, dominated by a stone fireplace, had ample storage for our baby paraphernalia, and I rushed to photograph its rustic simplicity before primary-coloured plastic destroyed the ambience.
Many chamber d’hôtes, particularly those in more isolated locations, also provide table d’hôte. At L’Oustalou, this is something of an experience, where the line between paying customer and house guest becomes blurred. This blurring is ably assisted by the aperitifs served by Phillipe on the wisteria-clad terrace, followed by the generous flow of wine that accompanied the four-course dinner.
Dinner was an education; specifically, it was a 3-hour crash course in conversational French. I didn’t pass. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand anything – passionate discourse about wine and food needed only the odd prompt from the Blonde – but by the time I’d formulated and conjugated a contribution, the conversation had moved on. The Blonde generously acted as a boredom filter; lengthy exchanges about chestnut varieties (a hot Ardèchois topic) was condensed down to, "You don’t want to know," leaving me with ample time to focus on the delicious home-cooked food.
Despite Phillipe’s remarkable flair for burning toast, breakfast was an equally wonderful culinary experience. Served on the terrace, every conceivable requirement was provided for, several of which, unsurprisingly, featuring the beloved chestnut. The Tomato used breakfast to seal the host’s affection, and he has to take some of the responsibility for the toast incident, what with his incessant chuckling.
On the third evening, with a hearty lunch behind us and an early night ahead, we took to the courtyard with a carafe and baguette and begin the reminiscing before we’d even left. The warmth of our hosts, the subtle flavour of the chestnut ice cream, and the restrained charm of our room all became warm fuzzy memories shaped for posterity.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 12, 2005
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Over dinner with our hosts one evening, the topic of the crazy anglais came up – Nigel had been something of a story locally, and Philippe and Veronique had the inside track. As you might suspect (if you were of a mildly cynical disposition), things hadn’t quite gone as described on TV and it had all ended in tears and rather expensive recriminations. Being suckers for a drama and in the interests of research, we felt that it was worth checking out.
The exchange of looks we shared the moment we stepped into the familiar courtyard should have been enough. One of several questions that should never leap into your head when walking into a restaurant is, "Is this a salvage yard?" One couple, clearly veterans of many a long liquid lunch, sat to one side, surrounded by objets d’junk. The fascination that makes people stare at car crashes was all that kept us there.
To say that lunch proceeded in a subdued fashion is an understatement of almost sinful proportion. Even the normally exuberant Tomato was affected by the repressive atmosphere and could barely bring himself to leer at the waitress. We tried to peruse the menu, but our attention was continually drawn to the surroundings. Were the rusty bicycle and plastic watering can making a post-modernist statement, or has the cook just dumped them there? The contrast with the sophisticated French cuisine on offer was profound.
We opted for the 18€ prix-fixe menu and were relieved to be presented with delicious goat’s cheese parcels followed by breasts of chicken in a mustard-and-cream sauce. I felt embarrassed for the food; like a friend who has got embroiled with someone deeply unsuitable, it deserved so much better. The Tomato could not find fault with the crusty baguette either and showed his appreciation by scattering it on the floor.
Bizarrely, I now look back on our meal at the Relais Fleuris with a hint of rosy nostalgia and sympathy. The new management has to pick up the pieces now that the spotlight has departed and, on this evidence, there’s a mountain to climb. But it was an experience.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on August 12, 2005
Le Relais Fleuri
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’…part of the mountain, like some precious gem set in the limestone tinted gold by the sun’.
The Blonde had picked out a weaving route across the region based, it would appear, on rocking the Tomato to sleep and testing our car’s ability to haul its rather alarming load into and out of steep limestone valleys (imagine the archetypal boring saloon with a month’s worth of baby stuff and a foolish quantity of wine packed in). As we headed farther west, our route bisected the river that gives the region its name. With the Tomato sensing the baguette hour approaching, we turned off in search of a café and stumbled across Vogüé.
Set on a wide bend of the Ardeche River some 5km southeast of Aubenas, Vogüé clings tenaciously to the limestone cliff that runs along the east bank. The stone houses crowd together in the shadow of an imposing 17th-century château, and the village is littered with perfectly habitable fragments of the Middle Ages.
We had little trouble finding a café with a view; the road along the river has a plentiful supply. The Tomato quickly settled into his high chair and nosily inspected all who came near. He got his chunk of baguette and began gumming it mercilessly, while we enjoyed a little chilled rosé and crepes.
'a village of dressed stone bathed in golden sunlight…'
We only really discovered the visual feast that is Balazuc after we left. Driving through the village en route to our accommodation, we noted a certain rural ambience with a multitude of stepped alleyways disappearing up and down away from the main road. It was only after crossing the broad-arched stone bridge and beginning the winding ascent that we could see the village in all its glory.
The narrow road that climbs away from Balazuc was punctuated with many others stopping to appreciate the view back over the Ardèche river. The sturdy medieval stone houses clinging to the steep bank and cliff top surrounded by trees, the panorama lacked any hint of modernity. You could almost here the lutes.
The road offered no opportunity to turn back and explore; the increasingly agitated rumblings from the back seat suggested that any aimless wandering would be vetoed. We would just have to happen this way again to explore the terraces and arcades of Balazuc – possibly in costume.
The air has the fragrant smell of thyme, savory, and bay leaves; the shrill cry of the cicadas competes with the musical sound of running water from the fountain.
Our stay in the Ardeche coincided with spring kicking into gear. Temperatures topped 30 degrees (that’s Celcius), and a relaxing afternoon of unabashed idleness beckoned. Consultation with Philippe over breakfast had pieced together an itinerary that included the très belle et très jolie village of LaBeaume, some 3 or 4 hilly kilometers east of Rosières. We arrived in early afternoon and made the sharp descent into the limestone basin where the village nestled against its river namesake.
The insistent babble of the River Labeaume competed for our attention with a more unexpected sound as we ambled down to the water’s edge. The source of the assorted grunts and shouts became clear; a group of 40 or so pajama-clad martial artists were being put through their energetic paces on a low stone bridge under the watchful eye of a couple of stray dogs. Upstream of the bridge lay an arc of sand and shingle that was performing an admirable service as the village beach. A smattering of holidaymakers and locals sprawled and paddled, occasionally throwing the arm-chopping, high-kicking performers the odd look of weary curiosity.
The Blonde made straight for the beach, eager to introduce the Tomato to its sandy delights. I went for a brief exploration and discovered a pretty jumble of cobbled alleys, arched terraces, and small squares. Many of the houses were faced with pebbles pulled from the river bed, and this lent the village an organic air, as if the river had receded to reveal the village fully formed on its bed. A smattering of cafés and restaurants occupy prize riverside locations, while a chateau occupied a lofty spot on an isolated outcrop above the village.
I returned to the beach to discover the Tomato wearing a hat and little else. Well, nothing else to be precise. He found much to enjoy in this exploration of naturism, although the long-term effects of too much sand in his nappy are yet to reveal themselves. The martial artists continued to work themselves into a sweaty frenzy, and even the previously devoted strays tired of watching them, succumbing to the competing air of tranquility that hung over the village.
For more information and lovingly crafted praise for the Villages de caractère visit the Ardèche tourism website.
A willfully meandering 40km stretching from Vallon-Pont-d’Arc to St-Martin-d’Ardèche, the Gorge is described as Europe’s Grand Canyon and serves as the focal point for visitors to the region. Unsurprisingly, it is popular with lovers of outdoor pursuits, and Vallon is a major centre for canoe and kayak hire, along with rock climbing, abseiling, and trekking excursions. The Blonde camped here on a number of occasions as a child, and much of our conversation was punctuated with, "I think it was there… no, it was there." as we passed yet another campsite.
The plan was to drive down to Vallon and then head east, mooching slowly through the gorge, pausing at opportune moments for espressos and thoughtful contemplation about the power of Mother Nature. A more careful perusal of the map before setting off might have sensible, but you can over-plan can’t you?
We unanimously decided that Vallon didn’t warrant too close an inspection as we crawled through its centre. It fit the bill as a centre for tourism, with an abundance of brightly coloured buckets and balls heaped outside every other shop. It’s what our living room would look like if the Tomato took over the interior design. At 9 months, he had developed quite an eye for primary-coloured plastic.
The road (D290) takes a turn towards the river soon after leaving Vallon, and for a brief few kilometers, the road snakes along the water’s edge, with the wooded valley walls climbing steeply to our left. The two quickly separate, however, and the road climbs to near the top of the gorge, ensuring you have much farther to drop should you and it part company on one of the increasingly frequent hairpin bends. It’s here that the breathtaking vistas begin: the majestic sweeps of the Ardèche, the sheer limestone cliffs it has carved laid out below you. Of course, if you’re driving, it probably isn’t best to enjoy the breathtaking vistas too much – those little swerves that occasionally happen when taking a photograph tend to upset the passengers a tad. With rare consideration for health and safety, the French have set up a few stopping points to keep you out of the river (and divorce courts) at the most photogenic spots.
We pulled over at the Pont d’Arc, where my childish excitement was rewarded with the first scowl of the day. The rather abrupt departure from the tarmac had disturbed the baby’s snooze, and he didn’t quite share my enthusiasm for natural wonder. He gets that from his mother. How could you not get excited about a natural limestone arch carved by the weight of water alone?
We followed the road along its weaving course, stopping occasionally to marvel at some particularly elegant meander. As the Blonde tired of the relentless nature, she turned to the map for solace and likely coffee opportunities. It became quickly evident that there was a distinctly un-French dearth of cafés – we would have to see it through to the end. My burst of youthful exuberance began to drain away without its usual caffeinated boost. I was tempted by the caves that pepper the massif to the north of the gorge. The Tomato was a little too young to appreciate the stalactite/mite debate or how many Notre Dames (being the official unit of volume for French caves) a cavern could hold. He hasn’t seen Notre Dame yet.
The gorge spewed us out at St Martin-d’Ardèche, a picturesque spot somewhat marred by a series of cheap and cheerful terrace cafés. Any semblance of fussiness had long since vanished, and we endured a couple of particularly stringy, overpriced steaks with a slightly obscured view of the river. Oblivious to our suffering, the Tomato turned his attention to some particularly shiny motorbikes and their smiley, wavy riders. Whether this is to be the start of a life-long, mother-worrying obsession is as yet unclear, although there is a noticeable sparkle in his eye whenever the roar of a bike is heard.
The rocky beach at St Martin guards the eastern entrance to the gorge and marked the end of our adventure. We sat and gazed over the river for a time while the boy sifted sand and kept an ear out for motorbikes. I daydreamed about the next time we would visit this spot, father and son pulling ashore a canoe, having journeyed through the gorge in a more leisurely fashion. I suspect he was dreaming about something else.
Edinburgh, United Kingdom