Travel review: Ardeche region, France
Many years ago, I happened to look down from an aeroplane window. It was just after the pilot had announced it was time to buckle up as we were approaching our destination airport of Nimes, in the south of France.
I was immediately captivated. Far below me, I could see white cliffs, the deep green of verdant forests and, glinting in the sun, a ribbon of a river cutting its way through, carving out deep gorges as it wended its way.
I made a mental note then to try to find out where it was that I had flown over. I wanted to go there.
For some time I scoured maps on my phone and computer, trying to best guess where our flightpath from the Midlands to Nimes would have taken us, where we would have been about 15 minutes before landing.
My best guess was the Ardeche region, about an hour-and-a-half’s drive north of our then airport, an area that takes its name from the crystal clear river which runs through it.
I stored that in the memory banks for some years. When I Googled it again this year 2017’s annual sojourn across the Channel was decided. Right there, right then.
Do the same as me, and the first image you will see in your search engine is the wondrous Pont D’Arc, as the name suggests a huge natural arch which bridges the River Ardeche.
Images of people sunbathing on the banks, jumping off rocks into the water, canoeing, paddling, swimming. They capture the imagination. They are the very essence of a holiday in France; the great outdoors, an adventurous spirit. If not a million miles literally from the costas of Spain and the package holidays, certainly a million metaphorical miles.
When August finally rolled around, we packed up the family Volvo and headed for the ferry at Portsmouth.
We crossed the Channel on a glass-flat seas to Caen with Brittany Ferries. As a family, it has long since become our default means of travel to the continent. None of the cattle-class no-frills airline treatment here. Take what you can pack into the car with no baggage allowances to worry about, no-one holding up a queue at check-in arguing about whether their bags are small enough to go in the overhead lockers.
Roll on, park up and get breakfast from the superb on-board restaurant. There are croissants and pains au chocolat aplenty - but we tend wave farewell to Blighty with a full English... a kind of sentimental farewell for a fortnight.
Full bellies, it’s time for a few hours’ snooze in the cabin ahead of the drive through France.
That drive can put some off from ferries but, for me, it’s now part of the holiday. We broke the eight-hour journey from Caen to our campsite in the small town of Villeneuve-de-Berg with an overnight stop at a chic bed and breakfast just off the Autoroute near Auxerre. It was run by a Frenchwoman, called Pascale. She looked in her sixties but remained as elegant as her B&B. She grows lemons and oranges in her courtyard and her tiny dogs rush to greet you from your rooms. It is a place where you can’t help but sleep well.
Refreshed and breakfasted with still-warm croissants and fresh-squeezed orange-juice, we set off and were at our campsite by early afternoon. We checked into our – get this – safari tent in a trice. Bags dumped, we were in the wonderful pools at Camping Le Pommier within minutes.
We’d picked the site as it is complete with its own on-site waterpark with chutes and slides to keep the kids quiet for hour upon hour. Word of warning here, if you don’t want to amuse the whole site with what seems like a screeching banshee, don’t go on the Aqualoop. I did. Only once mind. Stepping on to a platform (which turns out to be a trapdoor) it falls from below your feet as you plummet into a tunnel, are hurtled round a loop and spat out, gasping for life at the end. I didn’t know I’d squealed until I got out and saw faces creased with laughter at my expense. (I thought I’d played it quite cool...)
Though the waterpark is excellent, this holiday was about getting out and about with the family, not doing what we could do anywhere and everywhere else.
We spent fantastic days exploring winding mountain roads, calling in at unexpected quaint villages. Every one of them seemed to have a small river beach where you could stop off and go for an impromptu swim.
We had an excellent day at the nearby Velorail – a wonderful old rail line now converted to take tourists who pedal their way in four-seater ‘cars’ along the tracks through some of the most stunning scenery you could imagine.
We saw waterfalls, mountains, everything you could want to remove yourself from the stresses of everyday life.
Here too is the world-famous Caverne Du Pont D’Arc. The oldest known place of human habitation in Europe, with cave drawings dating back some 36,000 years. You can’t visit the actual cave but you can tour the perfectly recreated 21st century version built on the steep hills overlooking the Ardeche gorges.
English-speaking guides explain theories behind the incredible cave art at what is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a truly awe-inspiring place. A genuine must-see.
In fact there is just so much see and do in this part of France that it would be easy to forget why we were here in the first place – that first glimpse of river gorge and cliffs.
And the amazing Pont D’Arc itself remains the highlight of the most unforgettable of holidays.
We were lucky enough to arrive in the midst of a late August heat-wave that made river swimming such a delight. We swam across the river, jumped off huge rocks and gasped as the French daredevil teenagers plunged a hundred feet or more from ledges high above the water, breaking the surface with a huge booming splash.
We canoed through rapids, snorkelled, watched fish, snoozed and picnicked on the banks of this stunning river. All against the backdrop of one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful natural arches you could ever wish to see.
So often reality fails to live up to expectation when it comes to holidays. But, as I think back to that moment when I peered out of that tiny aeroplane window, I’m thankful I decided to come to this place.
And I know I’ll be back, sooner rather than later.