On 24 June 2014 the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cavern was inscribed on Unesco’s coveted World Heritage list, which had this to say about the complex: “They are of exceptional aesthetic quality, demonstrate a range of techniques, including the skillful use of colour, combinations of paint and engraving, anatomical precision, three-dimensionality and movement.”
The Ardeche, France: best known for its deep gorges, along which a canoe trip is almost a rite of passage for French teenagers. I still remember mine, disliking water as I do, yet even as a non-swimmer it’s a memory that has stayed with me – the nudist beach along the way, the baking sun dampened by splashing water, screams of fun and summer laughter, heart-stopping moments when the water rushed by a bit too quickly along the 20 or so rapids.
The thing is – there’s a lot more to the Ardeche than canoeing.
The region is also known for chestnuts – roasted, baked in a cake, puréed, used as stuffing, or my own favorite, marrons glaçés, dipped in syrup then grilled, sprayed with icing sugar, oven-dried, and wrapped in crinkly gold-colored foil or preserved in a jar.
Not long ago I drove through the Ardèche (with an accent over the E if properly spelled in French), chasing memories of my youthful river adventure – from a distance. I watched the canoes far below, tiny specks floating rapidly away, and wondered how I’d ever ended up at the wrong end of a paddle so many years ago.
One thing that surprised me was the discovery that this lightly-frequented land of superb mountains and forests is so close to my home (a couple of hours away) yet so easy to miss unless you’re actually looking for it.
So I went looking. On my hunt to uncover non-canoe related things to do, these seven caught my eye.
1. The Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cavern – magnificent by all accounts – has applied for World Heritage status
The Ardeche is home to a warren of magnificent prehistoric caves, the most famous of which is the Aven d’Orgnac. In summer, when the sun is baking above, a trip to the bowels of this dark den of prehistory will cool you off and educate you in equal parts.
The most recent addition to this prehistoric wealth is the cavern at Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, sealed off for 20,000 years until it was ‘discovered’ 20 years ago. Its wall paintings, a unique collection of 424 individual living creatures, will achieve UNESCO World Heritage status if France has its way (the application has been submitted and is working its way through the bureaucracy).
The caves can’t be visited but a replica of the site is apparently nearly as astounding as the original. The animal paintings range from a panther (the only cave drawing of a panther in existence) to the more mundane bears and mammoths, all twice as old as the Paleolithic artwork of Lascaux, France’s most famous cave paintings (which by the way do have World Heritage status).
2. You can take yourself to the spa
Now this was news to me. I’ve spa’ed across France along the Mediterranean, in the Alps and the Pyrenees, in Normandy and in the central Vichy area but I somehow missed the fact that the Ardeche was prime spa country. Everyone else seems to know that Vals-les-Bains has been a spa town since the 17th century and that the region has several spa towns – like Neyrac-les-Bains or Saint-Laurent-les-Bains, whose name (the word bains means baths) should have given the game away. And if not, the region’s famous water, Vals, is known well beyond the region so how I missed this connection, I have no idea.
3. The venerable chestnut has its very own festival
It’s called the Castagnades, two days of chestnut-centered extravagance throughout the Ardeche in October each year. I recently joined in the festivities in the mountaintop village of Antraigues and my festival weekend looked something like this: strolled around the chestnut and farmer’s market, ate roasted chestnuts, dropped in to visit some exhibits about chestnuts, ate glazed chestnuts, went on a chestnut gathering walk, chatted with a member of the Confrérie de la Chataigne d’Ardèche, the brotherhood of the chestnut, and ate a full chestnut-based meal. In case you can’t tell, I love chestnuts. Pure heaven.
4. One of my favorite restaurants, Le Carré d’Alethius, won a coveted Michelin star
You could easily miss this restaurant, and the hotel above it, tucked as they are into a tiny side street between two larger avenues of the village of Charmes-sur-Rhône. Olivier Samin runs the kitchen and his wife Stephanie is in charge of the front room, bright, airy, peaceful – just what you need when you want to focus on what’s on your plate rather than be distracted by everything around you. I ate here before they got the star and I remember thinking they should have one… it was too new then but now, after three years in operation, the chef has made his mark and received his reward. I won’t write about every single course but this… chocolate bomb… can speak for itself.
5. There are stellar wines in the Ardeche
I don’t drink so I wouldn’t have been expected to know that the Ardeche has several AOC wines, some of them well-known, like Côtes du Rhône or Côtes du Vivarais, and some less-well known – Condrieu, Saint Joseph, Cornas or Saint Péray. If you’re a wine love you can visit the Wine Discovery Center in Ruoms (the website is unfortunately in French but you’ll get the idea.) There’s plenty of tasting once you’re there so don’t forget to appoint a driver. Or just forget about driving and spend the night in a vineyard.
6. It is wild – very wild
Wild as in wilderness. This is one of the few corners of France through which I’ve driven for an hour or more without reaching a town or city of any size (or if there was one, it was well-hidden). In addition to the rite-of-passage canoe trip down the wild Ardeche River, this is the green lung of France, designed for outdoor lovers: you can follow one of the 1600 climbing paths that criss-cross the Ardeche, go pot-holing in Europe’s Number One pot-holing region (2500 underground caves), or indulge in the more mundane parasailing, rock climbing, horseback riding or cycling… If you look at a map of the Ardeche you’ll see what I mean – it’s mostly rivers and mountains and you’ll understand why the region is so focused on ecotourism and responsible tourism. No one wants to spoil this place.
7. The hot air balloon was invented here in 1783
The French word for hot air balloon is montgolfière, in honor of the Montgolfier brothers who wanted to learn to fly and invented the first balloon in nearby Annonay in 1783. This being France, the event celebrated every year, with a festival.
So yes, canoeing down the Ardeche may be the first think many people think of when visiting this region, but once you’ve done that – don’t go home yet. Stay and enjoy the chestnuts. And then go to the spa. After your hilltop hike.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- In Vals-les-Bains I stayed at the lovely Villa Aimée and in Charmes-sur-Rhône, at the Carré d’Alethius.
- The Ardeche has been bypassed by transportation networks. Few trains (actually, none that I could find) stop here, and I couldn’t find an airport. The best way to get here, I’m afraid, is to drive. For information on how to get here, your best bet is to start with the Ardeche Tourism site.