The romantic scenery of the Ardèche was hewn out of a limestone plateau by the fiercest of flowing rivers millions of years ago. The rapids of the Ardèche River twist and turn through more than one hundred kilometres of spectacular wilderness. Beavers wait patiently for fish caught in little eddies and high above, the Bonelli hawkeagle hovers, seeking out unwary prey.
So long as you are between 7 and 77 – a curious age bracket, but there it is – the jolly boatmen of the Ardèche will take you down the gorges in flat-bottom boats, dodging more multi-coloured kayaks than underwater rocks. They invariably pass under the Pont d’Arc, an enormous natural bridge 60 metres wide and 34 metres high.
Nearby is an extraordinary cave, Aven de Marzal, whose dripstones (hollow stalactites) grow half an inch every hundred years. Fascinating limestone deposits, called speleothems, have created a wonderful range of images from giant cauldrons to diamond filled chests, in every shade of colour. The cave, 125 metres below the surface, was first discovered in 1892, then forgotten, and rediscovered in 1949. Open from April to October, it caters particularly for children, with a prehistoric zoo full of life-size models of prehistoric animals.
Rather less impressive is a nearby grotto, Aven de la Forestière, discovered in 1966, but worth a visit to see the blind fish swimming in its waters. The Grotte de la Madeleine, another popular site, discovered by a shepherd in 1867, has strategically placed lighting that reflects on thousands of stalactites in its domed ceiling and a particularly impressive ‘son et lumière’ show. The Belvédère de la Madeleine offers the most spectacular views of the gorges.
Winding its way through a succession of rock tunnels, the D290 offers the best views of the pale-green waters. From its ‘Haute Corniche’, look out for the Balcon des Templiers and two Belvédères: de la Cathédrale, a rock which thrusts its arrows of stone towards the sky, and de la Maladrerie, a superb view of a sweeping bend in the Ardèche.
Always far from the madding crowd usually brought by rail and autoroute, the Ardèche is rugged, its distances extraordinarily deceptive. Not for nothing do the local inhabitants describe journeys only in terms of time, never kilometres. Travelling from one perched village to the next can involve a tortuous series of hairpin bends and first-gear climbs.
Its border is marked by Viviers, a small walled town on the right bank of the Rhône, with both château and cathedral built on a huge crag overlooking the valley. The streets are cobbled and the alleyways so narrow that two people can barely pass.
In the north, deep forests of chestnut trees supply the Ardèche’s best-known produce. The smaller ordinary chestnuts are known as châtaignes, those with a single kernel nut are called marrons, used to create marrons glacés, candied in sugar syrup and glazed, a sweetmeat first made in the 17th century.
Joyeuse, a Renaissance village built of yellow stone which, according to legend, owes its name to Charlemagne’s sword, has a museum devoted to chestnuts and chestnut wood. It lists several recipes based on the chestnut purée sold in the local shops and sells the powerful liqueur de châtaigne. Joyeuse has a memorable market on Wednesdays, and also on Sundays in the summer. Another museum, this time of rural artefacts, can be seen at Saint-Alban-Auriolles. A living museum exists at tiny Saint-Pierreville, with pens of different breeds of sheep, and exhibits covering everything from sweaters to milk.
A more sombre museum can be found at Pranles, telling the story of French Protestantism and its ruthless suppression in the 17th century after the revocation of the Treaty of Nantes that had guaranteed freedom of worship. You can see where the Durand family’s farmhouse was burned to the ground and how bibles, printed in French in Holland, were hidden in the stone walls.
Bagnols-sur-Cèze is where Languedoc begins. It has princely residences, a reminder of Bagnols’s heyday in the 17th century, while place Mallet, the market square, is lined with welcoming arcades. The art museum has an excellent collection of post-Impressionist paintings, including works by Marquet and Matisse, carefully restored.
As indeed has been the ancient steam engine, Le Mastrou, which during the summer months runs up and down the Doux Valley, with its superb scenery, from Tournon to Lamastre. This is no ordinary feat. The line has gradients that would defeat most trains, and of its 33 kilometres, 20 kilometres have retaining walls to keep out falling rocks; in all, it passes across eight viaducts. The train’s bar car sells a lovely chilled Condrieu wine and on arrival in Lamastre, you can eat a splendid lunch in the ‘Relais du Mastrou’. Try, especially, their Caillette Ardéchoise, a kind of pâté, and estouffade de sanglier, a wild boar stew.
Kayaking on the Ardèche River
Meandering River Ardèche
© Office de Tourisme des Gorges de l'Ardèche