Exploring the Gorges de l'Ardèche: A Driving Tour
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Dramatic gorges, chalky white cliffs, and prehistoric caves define the landscape of wild and beautiful Gorges de l'Ardèche nature reserve (an area that encompasses over 1,500 hectares). The Ardèche River winds its way around the gorges, which were formed from a limestone plateau by the water's geological force over millions of years.
In some places, the waters are gentle enough for swimming; in other places, the river is ideal for white-water rafting. Other things to do in the area include canoeing, kayaking, hiking, and scenic walks. The Gorges de l'Ardèche is a paradise for nature lovers, adventure seekers, and camping enthusiasts. It's also popular with French families for summer vacations.
The following driving itinerary is designed for a full-day excursion, with stops at the most important nature sites and cultural attractions. The circular route covers about 85 kilometers, and the complete journey requires at least two hours of driving time (not including stops). Travelers will have a chance to see diverse aspects of the Ardèche countryside, from peaceful river banks to exhilarating viewpoints and fascinating caves.
Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.
Begin the driving tour in Saint-Martin-d'Ardèche, at the southernmost edge of the Gorges de l'Ardèche. A small community of about 1,000 residents, Saint-Martin d'Ardèche is an old fishing village on the Rhône River with opportunities for swimming and canoeing nearby.
The historic village has many cafés with outdoor terraces. Saint-Martin-d'Ardèche is surrounded by wild scrubland and the vine-covered hills of the Côtes du Rhône. This area is popular for hiking, fishing, camping, and family vacations from spring until November.
Address: 07700 Saint-Martin d'Ardèche
2. Aven d'Orgnac: Prehistoric Caves and Museum of Prehistory
Continue to the Grand Site de l'Aven d'Orgnac, one of the most extraordinary prehistoric caves in France, which are open to the public. Visitors may take a one-hour guided tour of La Grotte (a prehistoric cave), descending into a magical subterranean world of stalagmites and stalactites. The cave is well illuminated and equipped with railed staircases.
As a complement to the caves, the Cité de la Préhistoire museum offers a glimpse of human life more than 350,000 years ago, through fascinating exhibits, including sound experiences, visual displays, and interactive features. This prehistory collection offers surprising cultural discoveries.
The site also organizes spelunking expeditions accompanied by expert guides. This exciting underground experience gives visitors a sense of what it was like for explorer Robert de Joly, who rappelled into the cave's natural entrance on August 19, 1935.
The Grand Site de l'Aven d'Orgnac is 17 kilometers west of Saint-Martin d'Ardeche. The guided tour goes 120 meters underground.
Tips for Visitors: Be sure to wear sturdy shoes and warm clothing (the cave has a constant chilly temperature of 11 degrees Celsius). For spelunking, wear comfortable, long-sleeved clothes and sneakers or cross-training shoes.
Address: Grand Site de l'Aven d'Orgnac, 07150 Orgnac-l'Aven
3. Pont d'Arc
About 15 kilometers north of Grand Site de l'Aven d'Orgnac is the region's most spectacular nature formation, the Pont d'Arc, a natural bridge over the Ardèche River.
To arrive here from Orgnac l'Aven, follow the D317, which later becomes the D176 west. In a few kilometers, there is a viewpoint on the right with rewarding panoramas. In Barjac, turn north and cross the Ardèche River. On the far side of the bridge, turn right and follow the sign "Route Touristique des Gorges de l'Ardèche."
The road (D290) follows the course of the river for the most part. At first, it winds through rock galleries, and there are some little grottoes along the way to Pont d'Arc. Arriving at this site is a splendid moment. Spend time admiring the view.
The Pont d'Arc is a large, naturally formed bridge of rock that arches over the expansive Ardèche River. The arch reaches 34 meters above the water level and spans a breadth of 60 meters. The sandy stretches on the river banks are popular spots for swimmers, boaters, and kayakers.
Address: Le Pont d'Arc, 07150 Vallon-Pont-d'Arc
4. Grotte Chauvet 2 Ardèche
About a 15-minute drive from the Pont d'Arc, the Grotte Chauvet 2 Ardèche is one of the best places to visit in France for a glimpse into the fascinating world of our prehistoric ancestors. The Grotte Chauvet 2 Ardèche is a replica of the oldest decorated prehistoric cave in France, the Grotte Chauvet-Pont d'Arc (which is now closed to the public due to its fragility).
An exact reproduction of the prehistoric cave, the Grotte Chauvet 2 Ardèche depicts astonishing cave paintings, drawings, and engravings of bears, bison, lions, mammoths, and horses, exquisitely rendered in an expressive, artistic fashion. It is difficult to fathom that the original images were created 36,000 years ago.
Well designed to welcome tourists, the Grotte Chauvet 2 Ardèche offers one-hour guided tours of the replica cave. In addition to the cave, there is a gallery of exhibits, the Galerie de l'Aurignacien which presents entertaining and interactive educational content about the culture, known as Aurignacian, of the people who lived in this area 43,000 to 35,000 years ago.
The site also has a restaurant, La Terrasse, which is open for lunch, snacks, and refreshments throughout the day. A boutique sells books and postcards, as well as jewelry and decorative items that are copies of pieces worn by prehistoric people.
Address: Grotte Chauvet 2 Ardèche, 4941 Route de Bourg Saint Andéol, 07150 Vallon-Pont-d'Arc
Official site: https://en.grottechauvet2ardeche.com/home-page/
About 15 kilometers from the Grotte Chauvet 2 Ardèche are the Caves of Aven Marzal in Saint-Remèze. The caves were discovered by French speleologist Edouard Martel in 1892.
Filled with stalactites and stalagmites, the Aven Marzal caves include the "Salle du Tombeau," with dimensions comparable to Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, and the "Salle des Diamants," featuring calcite crystals that shine like diamonds under a spotlight.
Admission to the caves includes a 50-minute guided tour with commentary about the geology. Visitors descend 380 steps and take 361 steps to go back up. Tip: Wear warm clothing; the caves have a constant chilly temperature of 13 degrees Celsius.
Visitors can learn more about the caves at the site's Musée du Monde Souterrain (Museum of the Underground World), which displays the ladders, boats, and apparatus originally used to explore the caves. Also on display are archaeological objects discovered here, including dinosaur eggs and bones of saber-toothed tigers.
The Aven Marzal site also delights kids with its Zoo Préhistorique, a two-hectare forest that contains life-size models of prehistoric insects, animals, and dinosaurs. The Prehistoric Zoo also has a playground and games, snack bar, and a boutique that sells adorable stuffed-animal dinosaurs.
Address: Aven Marzal, 106 Route de Plance, 07700 Saint-Remèze
6. Grotte de la Madeleine
Continue on the winding roads about seven kilometers south from Saint-Remèze to the Grotte de la Madeleine. The Madeleine Cave is found in the heart of the lush Ardèche Canyon about 20 meters from the Ardèche River.
Discovered by a shepherd in 1887, this 500-meter-long dripstone cave is a marvelous sight to behold. Upon entering the cave, visitors are awed by thousands of dazzling stalactites, stalagmites, and other natural formations.
The cave's largest chamber is another astounding aspect of this site. At 50 meters high by 30 meters long, it's the size of a large cathedral.
Visitors can take a guided tour and learn about the cave's formation over millions of years, first by subterranean rivers and then by erosion from dripping rainwater. The visit includes a one-hour guided tour with "Son et Lumière" ("Sound and Light") show.
Nearby is the Belvédère de la Madeleine viewpoint with sensational panoramas of the landscape.
Address: Gorges de l'Ardèche, 07700 Saint-Remèze
Official site: http://www.grottemadeleine.com/?lang=en
7. Belvédères de la Corniche
On the circular tour through the Gorges de l'Ardèche, after Grotte de la Madeleine, the stretch of the D290 road beyond the D590 road winds around, following the river. This section is known as the "Haute Corniche" and is especially picturesque.
The best viewpoints are Belvédère de la Cathédrale (a view of the Cirque de la Madeleine); Balcon des Templiers, and Belvédère de la Maladrerie (a magnificent view of the huge bend of the Ardèche); Grand Belvédère at the end of the gorge; Belvédère du Colombier; and Belvédère du Ranc-Pointu, above the last bend of the river overlooking the Rhône Valley.
Travel Tips: Along this route, some of the viewpoints (belvédères) have ample parking places. Be sure to park in a safe location that is obviously designated for tourists; falling rocks are often a danger on this stretch.
To conclude the driving tour, continue 20 kilometers south of Saint-Remèze to Pont-Saint-Esprit. From the village of Pont-Saint-Esprit, the road crosses the Rhône River at the point not far north of its confluence with the Ardèche River. Notice the graceful old stone bridge that is nearly 1,000 meters long. From this spot, there is an exceptional view of the river and Saint-Esprit village.
Charming Villages in the Ardeche Region
This typical medieval village is perched high on a cliff overlooking the Ardèche River. About 50 kilometers north of Saint-Martin d'Ardèche, the village is well worth a detour. The village has retained its historic character, seen in the cobblestone streets, winding alleys, and charming archways (the most famous is the Fachinière passage).
The town square dates from the 12th century, and Eglise Sainte-Madeleine is a wonderful example of Romanesque architecture. The village also has a handful of locally owned restaurants, cafés, and artisan boutiques.
About 45 kilometers northwest of Saint-Martin d'Ardèche, this quaint village is surrounded by three rivers and nestled in a cliff of limestone rock. Labeaume delights visitors with its medieval maze of cobblestone streets and narrow walkways lined with old stone buildings.
Above the village are ruins of an ancient château, and just below it is the Place Sablas, shaded by 100-year-old plane trees.
The rolling hills around Labeaume are filled with olive groves. Just outside the village are several hiking trails through the countryside. One of the trails leads to the Jardins Suspendus (Hanging Gardens), an extraordinary nature site near the Labeaume River.
Nearby on a limestone plateau is the hamlet of Chapias. This tiny town has a noteworthy chapel, the Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Délivrance.
Tucked away along the Ardèche River banks at the base of a cliff, Vogüé is listed as one of France's "Plus Beaux Villages" ("Most Beautiful Villages"). The 17th-century Château de Vogüé (some elements date back to the 12th century) dominates this medieval village. The castle was the residence of the Marquis de Vogüé and is still owned by the same family.
The village is a cluster of old houses leading to the castle and a maze of meandering cobblestone streets interspersed with many arcades and vaulted passageways. The oldest parts of the village date from the 11th century, although much of the village was built in later centuries.
A worthwhile detour on any itinerary through the Ardèche, the village of Vogüé is about 50 kilometers north of Saint-Martin d'Ardèche.
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Charming Provence: A driving tour of the Gorges de l'Ardèche nature reserve could easily be combined with a visit to the Haut-Vaucluse area of Provence. The picturesque hilltop village of Gordes and festivals in the historic town of Carpentras are among the many attractions that draw visitors to this area. Also nearby are some of the highlights of the Provence region such as Avignon, renowned for its UNESCO-listed Palais de Papes, and Arles, an atmospheric town with impressive ancient Roman monuments, inviting outdoor cafés, and excellent art museums.
Off the Beaten Path: Relatively undiscovered, the Languedoc-Roussillon region shares a similar Mediterranean culture and history with Provence but is refreshingly less touristy. The bustling city of Montpellier has an exceptional fine arts museum, many pleasant town squares, and promenades for taking scenic walks. A sun-drenched city full of Mediterranean charm, Nîmes boasts remarkable ancient Roman monuments including an incredibly well-preserved amphitheater and classical temple. Nîmes also offers a wide array of cultural events and lively festivals throughout the year.