With a long bank holiday weekend in store it made sense to venture to the outskirts of Provence to see what the Ardeche region and the famous Ardeche Gorge has to offer.
The Ardeche is a sublimely scenic department and merits to feature on the list of places to visit in France. Famous for the Gorges de l'Ardeche, a protected nature reserve and candidate for UNESCO, the gorges cover some 40 km's of rocky river scenery.
From our drive to our departure point, Vallon Pont d'Arc, it was clear that the region has a lot to offer with a rolling landscape and pretty old villages scattered over the map.
A number of Ardeche canoe trips are offered down the gorges, from mini-descents for those wanting to see the Pont d'Arc from the river to a two day kayak trip with overnight bivouac (camping in the nature) for a total getaway. A long weekend and a new sleeping bag in tow, we opted for the two day trip.
A huge choice of canoe shops offer various rates but essentially the same package, however the smaller establishments offer the benefit of not having to wait for the coach to fill up before your return journey. An overnight trip allows for two 'watertight' containers for all your gear strapped to the canoe, first tip - put your gear in a bin bag inside the container. We were not the only ones to find wet sleeping bags on arrival!
Departing directly from Vallon Pont d'Arc and into the first set of rapids means no hanging about, the first day involves about 2-3 hours of paddling to get to the overnight camp Bivouac Gournier.
Nevertheless a number of stops en route are part of the trip, the first one being the Pont d'Arc, a towering natural stone arch above the river. This spot gets very crowded due to it's beauty and easy accessibility.
A few paddles later, the crowds disappear and we have the river to itself. It's only now you start to appreciate the grandeur of this nature reserve, with ancient caves high up on the cliffs that are home of some of the earliest known cave paintings.
Numerous places to stop along the river mean you can easily find a quiet lunch spot, sprawl out and soak up some rays however it's a good idea not to get to the bivouac too late in the day as it can get busy.
In the peak of summer there are over 4000 canoes on the river and 500 campers at each of the bivouacs.
Bivouac Gournier is equipped with picnic tables, charcoal loaded barbecues (however nothing to start them with, tip number two take lighter and fire-starters) and even warm showers (another reason to get there early). There were rumours of the site being alcohol free but that did not stop us from opening a bottle of Syrah de l`Ardeche to accompany our flame grilled dinner.
A leisurely start in the morning allowed a stroll up to a view point which gives some perspective on where you are, looking down onto the river. The day pursued with a more 'experienced' pace down through more rapids and long straights, we spotted the end of the gorge enough time in advance to stop for lunch before returning to reality and the mayhem that is the pick up point at the end of the gorges.
We waited for an hour to get picked up but waited in a local cafe so not too bad, others waited at the dock for hours..
Finishing off the weekend we headed into town and picked the most tempting looking menu from a wide choice of restaurants.
- Vallon Pont d'Arc is 1.5 hours (80km) north of Avignon
- Canoe hire was from Alain Bateau €35 per person per day
- Pack a change of clothes, camping equipment, food (water is available at bivoaucs), sun cream all in a bin bag for extra waterproofing.
- Reservation (obligatory) for either Gournier or Gaud Bivouac is €10 per person