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Visit Ardeche | France’s secret ‘Big Country’

France is home to some spectacular painted caves, each one with its own USP. But there’s nowhere quite like the Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, discovered in 1994 by three cavers deep beneath a limestone plateau in the rural department of Ardèche, Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes. Tumbling rivers and spectacular caverns, ancient villages and chestnut orchards… Gillian Thornton takes a leisurely journey through the heart of Ardèche.

Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc

More than 1000 animals gallop and graze across its textured walls, skilfully painted 36,000 years ago by people who hunted them for food but revered them enough to depict them on the cavern walls. Why? We can only guess. Though experts these days tend to believe that it’s for the pure art, rather than for spiritual reasons.

I’m standing in front of a group of horses with bristly manes, each head in a different position. One animal has its mouth open in surprise, another its eyes shut in pain, and another has ears back in anger. In front of them is a rhinoceros, his huge horn a warning to any would-be combatants. On another wall, I spot a massive bison that seems to have eight legs until I look closer and see there’s a second beast behind him. Everywhere I look I sense movement. I can almost hear the pounding of hooves, the snorts of breath, and grunts of animals in fight or flight mode.

Unique cave art

The hundreds of paintings in Grotte Chauvet depict 14 different species, some never or rarely seen in other paintings from the period. Fierce creatures like lions and leopards, mammoths and cave bears, but an owl too, unique in Palaeolithic art. It’s spine tingling stuff and bizarrely all the more so when I remind myself it isn’t real.

The original cave, designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, is too fragile to open to the public. So I’m standing in front of an extraordinary copy, the world’s largest replica of a decorated cave that is perfect in every minute detail.  Grotte Chauvet 2 enables all of us to get up close and personal with Humanity’s first masterpiece, and to discover the whole back story through the excellent Aurignacian Gallery that completes this unmissable visitor attraction.

Be Amazed by Ardeche

But then there’s a lot about Ardèche that’s unmissable. ‘Be Amazed by Ardèche’ is the buzz line from the tourist board and they’re not wrong. One of France’s most sparsely populated departments, this unspoilt rural area nestles up to the west bank of the river Rhône for 135 km south of Lyon, part of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

And yet many people pass by at speed, bound for the holiday spots of the Mediterranean. Turn off the Autoroute du Soleil however at Tournon-sur-Rhône or further south towards Privas and you’re in for a treat. Named after the river that flows east from the Ardèche Mountains before turning sharply south near Aubenas, this is a department for anyone who loves outdoor adventure – soft or challenging – and an authentic rural lifestyle that’s in tune with the environment.

Big Sky Country

First major town that you come to travelling south is Annonay, renowned for the colourful July festival that celebrates the invention of the hot air balloon. But ‘major’ is a tad misleading. Despite being the department’s largest town, Annonay has fewer than 17,000 people. Tournon-sur-Rhône, some 35 km to the south, is even smaller but well worth a stopover for its castle museum, riverside frontage and lively café culture.

Further south and west, the land begins to rise as you approach the county town of Privas, gateway to the Monts d’Ardèche Regional Natural Park and UNESCO-listed Géopark. This is Big Sky Country where the lands ripples towards the distant horizon in huge folds.

Highest point at 1753 metres, close to the border with Haute-Loire, is Mont Mézenc, but most iconic is Mont Gerbier de Jonc, source of France’s longest river. It’s a popular tourist attraction, but don’t expect to see a gush of water springing neatly out of the earth. The Loire’s inauspicious start is formed by the joining together of small streams that flow down from the top of the plug topping this ancient volcano.

Volcanic hills and glorious nature

If, like me, you can’t resist a dramatic landscape, the Monts d’Ardèche deliver at every turn. This once turbulent landscape still bears the evidence of ancient eruptions and not just in its volcanic hills. At the Cascade du Ray-Pic, water tumbles 200 feet over basalt columns that solidified more than 30,000 years ago. Look too for signs indicating the invisible Ligne du Partage des Eaux, the natural watershed that slices north-south through the west of the department. Rain falling on one side flows to the Mediterranean, and on the other, to the Atlantic, though how people prove this, I’m never quite sure!

Many artists, sculptors and crafts people have studios in this inspirational landscape and eight eclectic outdoor artworks have been installed along the 100-km Watershed Trail. I particularly loved Mazan Abbey, a Cistercian ruin nestled in a deep valley and location for ‘Un Cercle et Mille Fragments’, an innovative installation by artist Felice Varini. The roof, walls and adjacent bridge are painted with arcs of gold leaf, arresting in themselves but if you stand in the right spot, complete circles appear to balance on the church roof. Clever stuff!

Beautiful villages

With no urban population exceeding 17,000, Ardèche is a region of villages with 21 of them awarded the Villages de Caractère label. Two of them are also listed amongst the elite band of Plus Beaux Villages de France. Walk the medieval streets of Vogüé, dominated by a 16th century chateau, and explore the vaulted passageways and ancient fortifications of Balazuc, perched – like Vogüé – above the Ardèche river.

The artistic gem of the Grotte Chauvet once stood beside the river, but over the millennia the course has changed and today the Ardèche cuts deeper through the limestone. But whilst the original Grotte Chauvet may be out of bounds to visitors, there are stalagmites and stalactites aplenty at the magnificent Aven d’Orgnac, classified Grand Site de France. Also at the Grotte de Saint Marcel, where you can book an underground wine tasting without the sensory distractions experienced above ground.

Activities galore

Caving, climbing and canoeing enthusiasts flock to Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, riverside hub of the local outdoor leisure industry. Don’t miss the natural rock arch that spans the river, an Instagram moment for the many kayakers who cruise beneath, as well as for those who drive the Corniche above the spectacular, winding Ardèche Gorges.

Cycle tourism is big in Ardèche too. Not just for lycra-clad enthusiasts, but family groups too through initiatives like La Dolce Via, a level cycle and walking route that runs for 75km along a former railway track in the Eyrieux valley. Many small hotels and guest houses offer bikes to guests or you can hire locally, including e-bikes. And many are part of the Acceuil Vélo network that offer bike storage and cleaning facilities to pedal-powered tourists.

You’ll find every kind of accommodation from chateau B&Bs to farmhouse hotels in Ardèche. Even treehouses at Peaugres Safari Park. But the most popular style of holiday accommodation ere is the humble tent. Or sometimes not quite so humble. Here you can be one with nature without roughing it, given the choice of camping or glamping, yurts, bubbles and log cabins.

Gastronomy of Ardèche

All this fresh air makes you hungry, but Ardèche is justifiably proud of both its gastronomy and its less formal ‘bistronomy’. Chefs are passionate about local produce, in particular the AOP Ardèche chestnut. Staple food of the area for centuries, Ardèche is France’s No 1 chestnut producer, cultivating 65 different varieties that are sold fresh, dried, and as chestnut flour. Gen up at the Castanea discovery centre in Joyeuse.

And of course good food deserves good wine. Ardèche is home to many high quality vintages that combine full flavour with minimal food miles. Famous names include Crozes Hermitage and Saint-Joseph, Cornas and Saint-Péray, Côtes du Rhône and Côte de Vivarais. Look out for the Vignobles et Découvertes wine tourism label for vineyards that offer tours, tastings and various innovative experiences to enthusiasts.

Then raise a glass or two to Ardèche – underground or overground, this rural department really will amaze you.

For more information, visit www.ardeche-guide.com

More on Ardèche

Take to the silk road in Ardèche

How to explore the Gorges of Ardèche

Why the Ardèche is the perfect cycling destination

This article was first published in The Good Life France Magazine

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