Written by jaybroek on 12 Aug, 2005
The département Ardèche is all about the river after which it was named. Rising high in the Central Massif in the east of the region, it carves a languid course through the limestone before draining into the Rhône. The landscape it has helped shape is…Read More
The département Ardèche is all about the river after which it was named. Rising high in the Central Massif in the east of the region, it carves a languid course through the limestone before draining into the Rhône. The landscape it has helped shape is dramatic and more than a little spectacular, nowhere more emphatically than in the Gorge de l’Ardèche.
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.
The French love and revere their villages as timeless symbols of their rural heritage. The département Ardeche is no exception with their heavily promoted "Villages de caractère." Matters such as rural charm, however, are still subject to another French passion, bureaucracy. Villages must fulfill the…Read More
The French love and revere their villages as timeless symbols of their rural heritage. The département Ardeche is no exception with their heavily promoted "Villages de caractère." Matters such as rural charm, however, are still subject to another French passion, bureaucracy. Villages must fulfill the criteria of "La Charte" before they can be considered for this distinction, which includes the setting up of car parks away from the village centre, eliminating TV aerials, and, my favourite, Fleurissement des édifices publics et des maisons. There are few places that wouldn’t benefit from a little fleurissement. Then, and only then, are they ripe for the richest of French simile and clichéd prose.
’…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.