The Ardèche is France at its wild and spectacular best. Rushing rivers, towering gorges, deep caves and romantic villages: this dramatic region doesn’t do thing by halves. If you love exploring the outdoors, heading away from the manicured and the built-up, and enjoy experiencing the raw power and beauty of the earth’s most elemental forces (above and below the ground), the Ardèche could be the adventure playground you’re looking for. Here are our favourite places…
The Lascaux Caves are in a league of their own, so precious and remarkable is their Paleolithic art. They’re closed to the public, but the Caverne du Pont d’Arc, the world’s largest cave replica, brings the magic of Chauvet Cave to us all. And the experience is breath taking. The humidity, darkness, stillness and atmosphere is so convincingly lifelike you’d swear you were deep underground, 36,000 years ago. Discover the first great masterpiece of mankind – hundreds of animals drawn on the spot, hunting, running or grazing. Lions, bear, bison, rhino and horses. Simply spellbinding. It’s a striking building too: offering panoramic views of this very special valley.
Over countless millennia, titanic geological forces and the rushing waters of the river have carved a large number of canyons and caves into the rocks along the river Ardeche’s course. Highlights include the Grotte des Tunnels; the magnificent stone arch of the Pont d’Arc with its great river beach. The ‘European Grand Canyon’ twists and turns for 32 glorious kilometres of spectacular gorges between Vallon-Pont-d’Arc and Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche (main pic, above). As a lesser-visited alternative, try the Gorges du Chassezac near Aubenas, with their weird rock formations, deserted villages and peaceful river beaches.
The largest town in the region, Vallon-Pont-d’Arc is definitely worth a visit (it’s hard to miss it – most roads lead here eventually). Ramble around the Chastelas – the old town, with its 17th century villas, the grand Town Hall (peek at the beautifully elaborate tapestries inside), and the tree-shaded squares lined with cafes. Try to time your visit to catch the markets on Thursday morning or Tuesday evening.
Liberally dotted around this dramatic landscape you’ll find 17 so-called ‘villages of character’. These attractive hamlets are, indeed, atmospheric little spots: some even considered amongst the prettiest in the whole of the country. You can pick up a leaflet locating them all at tourist offices. Try handsome little Antraigues-sur-Volane, which is not only a destination in itself, but is surrounded by quite exquisite Ardeche countryside. Or wander the luminous streets of quiet Balazuc, (pic r) a lovely spot with origins dating back 50,000 years!
The Aven ven d’Orgnac, cave system near the Gorges de l’Ardeche, is designated a Grand Site of France. And it really is a stunner. A network of cathedral-like caverns disappearing into the gloom: each taking over 100 million years to form. A trail allows visitors to gawp at the gigantic underground chambers and their otherworldly crystal formations. The neighbouring Cité de la Préhistoire gives a fascinating glimpse of life from the Middle Palaeolithic through to the Early Iron Age. Now, how often do you get the chance to take a 350,000-year journey in an afternoon? If busy, a good alternative is the Grotte de la Madeleine – another eye-popping underground world of beautifully lit caverns and delicate rock formations.
This area’s not short of waterfalls: well, with rivers and gorges, it’s kind of a natural by-product! Perhaps the most dramatic is the cascade of the Ray-Pic Waterfall (pic r), as it tumbles over black basalt rocks with their columns and flutes looking like the pipes of church organs. The D215 road between Péreyres to Lachamp-Raphaël will take you there. There’s a great viewpoint you can reach easily, after about a 15 minute walk from the roadside carpark.
Volcanoes? In the Ardeche? Well, yes, actually. But, thankfully, they’re extinct these days. What’s left is their forest-cloaked slopes, and terrific views from the top. Mont Gerbier-de-Jonc is an extinct volcano with a dramatic cone shape rising 1500 metres above the river. In fact, from its base rise the springs that will eventually become the headwaters of the river Loire. There are great views from the summit, so don’t forget your walking boots.
Love good food? Good wine? We’d suggest a day trip to the north of the region, to pretty Tain-l’Hermitage. This little riverside town has a reputation for both, out of all proportion to its size. Head to the jaunty building that’s home to Valrhona – considered amongst the world’s best artisan chocolatiers. You can take a factory tour, with tastings, and buy their decadent ganaches in the shop. They even run two and three day cookery courses should you want to explore further. The town is surrounded by wineries, with lots open to the public. Try Vineum – a swish showcase for the excellent wines produced by Domaines Paul Jaboulet Elder, with shows, tours, tastings set within an old Roman quarry cut into the hillside at Châteauneuf sur Isère, ten minutes south of Tain.
Have we tempted you to hear the roar of the Ardeche? We’ve six brilliant parcs in the region. So come and take a closer look here.