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The Ardeche, France: 7 Things That Surprised Me

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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.

Glazed chestnuts of the Ardeche, France

Among the best sweets in the world – glazed chestnuts from the Ardeche (Photo Anne Sterck)

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).

Chauvet-Pont d'Arc in the Ardeche, France

Horses on the wall of Chauvet-Pont d’Arc (Photo lehmpfuhl.org)

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.

Vals les Bains

Vals-les-Bains, a spa center dating back to the 17th century (Photo Ardeche Tourist office)

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.

Roasting chestnuts in Antraigues

Roasting chestnuts at the Castagnades in Antraigues (Photo Anne Sterck)

Ardeche chestnuts

The perfect, plump chestnuts of the Ardeche (Photo Anne Sterck)

Antraigues Ardeche

I fell in love with this village, even under stormy skies (Photo Anne Sterck)

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.

Carre d'Alethius

A Valrhona Dome, which includes mascarpone, coffee, and a heart of dark chocolate

Charmes-sur-Rhone

The village of Charmes-sur-Rhone… well-named; Le Carre d’Althuis is down that little street on the left

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.

original hot air balloon

The Montgolfier brothers launched their first unmanned hot air balloon in Annonay, and their first manned balloon, this one, in Paris (Photo Wikimedia Commons)

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.

This article is part of the My Rhône-Alpes series, in which I’ve been exploring this entire region – I live here and love it.  Thanks to the Ardèche and Rhône-Alpes Tourist Offices for organizing this visit and hosting Women on the Road. Opinions are my own: I’m opinionated and plan to stay that way.

5 Comments

  1. hockeyirene on June 4, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    Thank you for this article on The Ardeche (no accent marks on my computer that I know where to find – sorry!), an unknown area of France to me. I look forward to discovering it.

    The cave and paintings of Chauvet-Pont d’Arc were what the 3-D movie was about that I saw in Victoria, B.C. – Cave Of Forgotten Dreams. It was stunning – overwhelming, really. Those horse images have been haunting me (in a good way!) ever since.

    Have you written anything about how to stay and live in France? I am from the U.S., and would like to know what to do beyond the one-year visitor visa.

    Thank you so much for your newsletter, so much good, practical information, and your responses to people’s questions. That must take a lot of time.

    In Peace,

    Irene

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 4, 2014 at 3:27 pm

      I’m glad you know about the caves – I’m hoping the UNESCO listing will come through! I don’t write about coming to / living in France but a lot of people out there do. I’d suggest you look up http://www.survivefrance.com as a general community and also http://france.angloinfo.com to post your questions. They’re both good starting points!

      • hockeyirene on June 4, 2014 at 5:59 pm

        Thank you so much for your reply, Leyla, and so promptly answered!

        I look forward to reading the URLs you sent – that was kind. Here’s hoping…

        In Peace,

        Irene

  2. Jennifer on November 15, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    We just recently visited the Ardeche and we absolutely loved this area of France! It’s a perfect destination for adventure lovers like ourselves and we challenged ourselves on a via ferrata and white water kayaking. But we also loved the gorgeous wine chateaus, charming villages, and the incredible food!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on November 15, 2014 at 3:21 pm

      It’s a relatively unknown area of France so good that you visited – the food is really excellent, especially if you love chestnuts, but those hilltop villages in the middle of wild hilly land are incredibly picturesque. I’m fortunate that I live only three hours from the region and every autumn, come chestnut time, I try to visit. And – they have great waters, and spas too, something I didn’t know until I saw them signposted.

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