The gorges of Ardeche in the far corner of the Rhône-Alpes region, south of France is one of the most popular places to go for the French. But visitors to France are hardly aware of its existence. Roads tend to be of the winding type and you really do need a car to see it well. But, it’s well worth the effort to go there to discover spectacular scenery, wonderfully preserved medieval villages, fields of lavender, mysterious grottoes and rugged mountains And of course – the gorges.
Where to stay when exploring the Gorges of Ardeche
St. Martin d’Ardèche, or St Julien de Peyrolas on the opposite side of the river (and actually in the Languedoc), is a great place to stay for exploring the gorges. You’re right on the border of the Drôme, Vaucluse and Gard and it feels like you’re in the Mediterranean. There are vineyards, plains, olive groves and figs and the village acts as a bit of a gateway from the gorges to Provence and the south. The famous Pont d’Arc, a natural bridge carved out of rock, and time, is stunning. At times the 78 mile long Ardeche river which flows through it, is calm and perfect for a dip. At other times it flows faster with mini rapids, and makes for fun water sports.
From St Martin you can explore the gorges by guided tour on foot or by bike, or even in a 2CV as I did.
2CV tour of the Ardeche
My chauffeur was Rosemarie, who’s family own and run the local organic wine producing estate, Domaine de la Croix Blanche. Her passion for where she lives oozes from every pore. She gave me a choice of quirky vehicles and our 2CV was both the best and the worst I’m sure. We threw open the roof and held on to our windows which had a life of their own. We sputtered and coughed our way amongst the vineyards of the Rhône, through the scrubby Garrigue and up round the gorges.
I don’t think Rosemarie would disagree if I said gear changing wasn’t her greatest strength. Nor keeping to the correct side of the road. And the journey was filled with laughter (and possibly the odd scream). Rosemarie is pleasantly bonkers and I couldn’t think of a nicer person to spend a day with. Although I hate to think what you’ll get up to if you join her for one of her walking tours. Back at the Domaine we had a quick tasting of their organic Ardèche rosés which were refreshingly welcome. Rosemarie’s husband also makes tapenade and if you arrange it in advance via the tourist office, he will do demonstrations.
However you choose to explore the Ardèche and its gorges, take time to linger in this stunningly beautiful and unusually quiet corner of southern France. There really is something to inspire at almost every twist and turn. From the civilised wines of the Rhône to the vast wilderness surrounding the gorges, it’s not often that you get to explore somewhere that in places feels completely untamed and has a past stretching back to the ice age.
For more information about the Ardèche: www.ardeche-guide.com; To visit Rosemarie and try her wines and driving : www.domainedelacroixblanche.com
Lucy Pitt is a freelance travel writer and deputy editor of The Good Life France