Some places in France are made for lingering. The Ardèche in the Rhônes Alpes region, just north of Provence is certainly one of them. It feels untamed at times with its rugged, craggy gorges and deep forests. At other times it’s serene, with the grand river Rhône gliding majestically through her vineyards and hills. It’s also the perfect place for cycling in France.
Tournon sur Rhône
If you’re planning on cycling in this beautiful region, you could do a lot worse than by starting your stay in the small town of Tournon sur Rhône. Just north of Valence (and south of Lyon) it’s delightfully quirky. One moment you’ll be exploring a labyrinth of ancient, narrow, cobbled streets (and a new one-way system that will send you insane). The next you’ll be bowing in reverence on the banks of the River Rhône, as she slowly sweeps passed in all her grandeur.
There’s a large and rather beautiful 19th century, pedestrian suspension bridge. It takes you to Tain l’Hermitage and the vine clad slopes and gourmand chocolate on the other side of the Rhône.
There is a castle right at Tournon’s heart. It dates back to the 10th and 14th century and is next to a tree shaded square. The town is overlooked by a steep hill with old fortifications and a church. Vines thread their way up the slopes like plaits on a head to give a curious effect. You’ll see occasional trompe d’oeil in the back streets and you can feel the mix of southern France and Alpine style. The bright orange and yellow turret of the Caisse d’Epargne in the old quarter even gives it an eastern feel.
Hôtel de la Villeon
Tucked away a short distance behind the very narrow main street, with its back against the hills is a hidden gem – the Hotel de Villeon. A large old wooden door is the only clue to this grand old 18th century mansion. It once belonged to one of the town’s long ago successful merchants. Now a 4-star hotel, it’s held on to all the integrity of its past. Limestone floors greet you as you enter the cool of the ground floor and the original grand staircase takes you into the hotel’s heart. It’s a listed building with many original features, like the exquisite parquet flooring, but still has a minimalist feel.
The terraced garden which leads off from the restaurant, has a magnificent wisteria. You climb through it to access the top terrace.
Hitting the cycling trail – by train!
The good news is that you don’t have to be super fit to enjoy the cycling trails of the Ardèche. Hôtel de la Villeon is only 5 minutes’ walk from the famous Via Rhôna, a 815 km cycle route that goes from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean.
Better still, just to the north of Tournon is the Tournon St Jean train station for the local steam train, le Mastrou, and this is another good way to start your cycling tour. You can load your bike on the train and the 1hr 40-minute ride will take you up through the Gorges of the River Doux and the Doux Valley. You’ll meander through chestnut forests and by way of mountainous views to the lofty town of Lamastre. It’s a beautiful way to start getting to know the landscape and saves your legs a hard climb.
The Dolce Via
In Lamastre, you can take to the Dolce Via, 75 km of meandering, gentle cycle track. It’s on the route of a former train line. Originally it linked some of the region’s most rural and remote towns and villages and guides you gently from Lamastre through the Eyrieux Valley.
The route is divided into 6 sections of between 7 and 16 km each and it’s certainly something a family could tackle together.
There are plenty of places to stay en route, including a number of gîtes classified “Accueil Vélo”. This classification means they are accredited to a high standard and provide services for cyclists). GitesdeFrance
Along the way there are two “village de caractère” (Chalencon and Beauchastel) which are well worth a detour. There’s kayaking, river swimming and tree top adventure if you want to take a break from the cycling for a while.
But most importantly, the Dolce Via is a gently undulating journey over viaducts, through tunnels and alongside some simply fantastic views. The valley far below is dotted with traditional old silk mills of the 19th century. The surrounding hills are thick with woodland and wildlife. It’s a thoroughly civilised way to travel and a journey you could manage in a day or two or spread out over 3 or 4 days to a week.
The Via Rhôna home
When you’re done admiring steep ravines and pretty villages, at La Voulte sur Rhône you can pick up the Via Rhôna. This flatter cycle trail will take you past vineyards and sleepy hills, along the banks of the Rhône back to Tournon (about 35 km), or straight to Valence (about 20km).
Of course, your quick tour in the saddle has given you only a glimpse of this stunning region. If you have the time, head further south to the Ardèche Gorges and explore some of the dozens of village de caractère.
The Ardèche is a quiet region basking in rugged and rural beauty and somewhere that is worth savouring slowly.
Transport: There’s a TGV station in Valence which means you can catch a train there direct from Paris or the UK. For trains to Valence TGV visit: tgv.uk.voyages-sncf.com/en
For details of the Dolce Via visit: dolce-via.jimdo.com; For more information about the Ardèche, visit: ardeche-guide.com
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer with one foot in France and one in the UK.