Mention the South of France and I know I immediately picture the yachts moored at the most exclusive beach clubs in St. Tropez and haute couture on the red carpet of the Cannes Film Festival. But the South of France isn’t all yacht parties and champagne until the wee hours. The Ardeche has a decidedly different vibe. Remote and rurual, the region is an adventurer’s dream with via ferratas, white water kayaking, and riverside camping. Pack a swimsuit, helmet and harness for these adventures in the Ardeche:
The Ardeche River snakes through some 30 kilometers of limestone cliffs that reach up toward the sky, some of the cliffs as tall as 300 meters high. It’s an incredibly beautiful area best seen by taking to the river in a canoe or kayak, which is exactly what we did.
We rented a sit atop canoe-kayak, which is basically a bigger and more stable sit-atop kayak. But the trip down the river is no tranquil float. The Ardeche has thrilling white water rapids punctuated by calm sections where you can paddle over to the sandy beaches and take in the beauty of the gorge.
We were given a paper map when we rented our kayak and information on how to approach and paddle through each of the rapids. La Charlemagne is the first of the class III rapids and we totally botched the path through it, but in our defense a paper map isn’t the most useful tool when you’re white water kayaking. Even though we basically paddled right through the middle instead of to the side like we were supposed to, we made it without tipping and a whole lot of laughs after.
Just after La Charlemagne we paddled beneath the beautiful Pont d’Arc, a natural bridge reaching 54 meters high. There are sandy and pebble beaches all around the arch, and it’s a beautiful spot to come ashore and have a picnic. You can also walk along the beach up to a spot where you can watch fellow kayakers make their way through La Charlemagne.
Canoe-kayak rental with life jackets and paddles plus shuttle back to the village is €20 per person for a 1/2 day (7 kilometers), €30 per person for a dull day (32 kilometers) or €71 per person for 3 days with Escapade Loisirs.
The via ferrata originated in Italy as a way for the Italian Army to more easily traverse the Dolomites. The via ferrata du Pont du Diable might be lacking the historical aspects, but it’s such a beautiful assisted climb that you’ll want to stop and take in the view. What’s great about this particular via ferrata is that there are several exit points making it an excellent one for first timers. And if you’re climbing with someone more skilled, like I was with Tim, I was able to exit and he continued to complete another more technical section. It was, without a doubt, my favorite thing I did in the Ardeche!
The stunning Pont du Diable (Devil’s Bridge), where the via ferrata ends, was constructed by Benedictine monks in the 11th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the World Heritage Sites of the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France. The Hérault River flows beneath and you can walk down a path to cool off in the river after your workout on the via ferrata, or just for spectacular views of the ancient bridge.
The guided Via Ferrata including equipment is €40 per person with Geo Adventure.
Without even realizing it, we had visited a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites on our travels. Now we try to incorporate them specifically since these tend to be the most culturally significant sites and monuments. So we were thrilled to get a peek at the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, one of the newest additions to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list as it was granted World Heritage status on June 22, 2014.
The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc is a cave that contains the best preserved and earliest known figurative cave paintings in the world. Scientists have been dating and studying the paintings, fossilized remains, and other evidence of prehistoric life since the cave’s discovery in 1994. Their published study dates the cave paintings and other evidence back to 36,000 BC.
You won’t be able to visit the actual Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc as it’s been sealed off to the public to preserve it, and I think that’s a good thing. So instead, an exact replica of the cave and its paintings has been constructed nearby. Here you can visit and marvel at the prehistoric cave drawings of some 425 animals from 14 different species like cave lions, bears, wooly rhinos and cave hyenas.
The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc replica, called Faux Lascaux, is planned to open to the general public in April, 2015.
Vallon-Pont d’Arc is the perfect base to stay in and explore the Ardeche from. The small village sits at the gateway to the Ardeche Gorge, one of the most beautiful natural sites in France. You won’t want to miss the Museum of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, where you can watch a video of the cave and paintings and explore some of the pottery and other items found in the cave. Also stop by the Town Hall where tapestries of Aubusson with scenes from the Crusades are on display. The tapestries are considered a historical monument.
On Thursdays the village comes to life with the weekly market stretched through Vallon’s streets. There are plenty of food stalls with everything from roasting chickens with their juices dripping on roasted potatoes below to sinfully delicious meringues with chocolate sandwiched between called Bolet Ardechois. Stroll the market and buy some goodies to have a picnic on one of the beaches along the Ardeche.
Vogue isn’t just a fashion magazine. It’s a real village in the Ardeche and it’s on the list of France’s most beautiful villages. The chateau, which houses exhibits of contemporary art, dominates the village. A labyrinth of cobbled alleys and staircases leads in what seems every direction possible, and the crystal clear Ardeche River flows just beyond the ancient walls. It’s easy to see why Vogue is one of France’s most beautiful villages!
There’s plenty to explore in Vogue, including the art exhibits which change several times throughout the year. You can also rent canoes and here the Ardeche is quiet and calm. Or have a long, lazy lunch at one of the cafes before lounging on the beach riverside. The Hotel La Falaise has a fantastic terrace overlooking the river and a menu of delicious ice cream concoctions that are impossible to pass up.
Chateau du Vogue is open 10:30am – 1pm and 2pm – 6pm. Entry is €5 per adult. Canoe rental is inexpensive at €18 for 2 people from The Argonautes, located on the beach under the bridge.
And a glass of wine…
Ardeche boasts some of France’s best vineyards and most expensive wines. You’ll definitely want to leave time to stop in to some of the beautiful chateaux and wineries around the region. Le Domaine du Colombier is walking distance from your base in Vallon-Pont d’Arc, so you can leisurely taste to your heart’s desire. Chateau de la Selve makes you feel as though you’re French nobility with its exclusive grounds.
Domaine de Chazalis is a third generation family run winery set in a “cave,” which is perfect with the outdoor theme of a trip in the Ardeche. Though some of France’s most expensive wines come from the region, you can find reasonably priced bottles from €6 to take home as a memento from your trip.
Know Before You Go
Our trip to Ardeche was provided by Tourisme Ardeche in order to bring you this story. However, Luxe Adventure Traveler maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for travel are entirely our own.