After a short drive across the Rhone from Valence and with the sound of the Formula One car still ringing in our ears we arrived in The Ardeche. We were both excited about being here, everything we had read about it seemed to say it was our kind of place. We booked ourselves into a fantastic campsite in the picturesque village of St Martin d’Ardèche, for 4 days, which is at the very start of the Ardeche Gorge.
There seemed to be an never ending list of activities to do in the area from kayaking, canyoning, zip wires, cycling, swimming, hiking and so on. We could imagine that in Summer it would get pretty hectic, but in early May it was very quiet, in fact at times it felt like we had the whole gorge to ourselves. Our main reason for being here was to cycle and get some miles into our legs, especially Sarah’s. After three months off the bike whilst in South America and her not being entirely 100% whilst back in the UK, she felt like she was a bit behind on her cycling fitness, she was determined to get on with it!
We spent two or three hours each day cycling up and down the many hills surrounding the Gorge. Wherever we went the views were incredible. On one occasion Steve was cycling along a road which runs close to the edge, where you can look down the vertical cliff (almost a thousand feet drop) into the river below. As he went around a corner a huge bird of prey soared up on a thermal right next to the cliff and appeared right in front of him. By the time he stopped and got out his camera out it had sailed away along the Gorge. He said it’s wingspan was about 8 feet!! “ Yeah yeah, just like the piranha you almost caught in Brazil” replied Sarah.
At the end of some exhausting days it was good to come back to our lovely campsite as the facilities were excellent and we enjoyed cooking, playing scrabble and chilling out in the fabulous games room. One thing which is common in many French sites is communal unisex showers and toilets. On one morning Steve got up and made his way over to the toilet block. He was attending to his morning ablutions when all of a sudden there was a deep rumbling sound which gradually became louder and then the ground started to shake. “It’s an earthquake” he thought “I’d better get back to Sarah”. Then he realised the sound was coming from the next cubicle! “Poor man, his insides must be rotten”. Steve exited and went to one of the sinks. He heard the door open on ‘the earthquake cubicle’, and in wild curiosity Steve watched in anticipation to see what poor man could make such terrible noises…….. out walked Sarah!!!!! “What have I been married to all these years?”
After a couple of days we were enjoying the area so much we decided to extend our stay for an extra few days. Sarah’s legs however started to suffer a little after all the cycling and she noticed the campsite rented electric assisted bikes. These were not the sort of electric bikes we had seen before. They looked like full-on competition Mountain bikes so she decided to give it a go. Steve had found a really good hilly 50 mile route around both sides of the Gorge. We did the first half of the route together as Sarah got used to the bike, then with 25 miles left we decided to have a race! Basically, on the flat and down hill Steve had the advantage and the electric bike worked its magic on the hills for Sarah. Off we went…. Steve powered on taking an early lead, then Sarah came past on a steady climb, then Steve was back in front cruising downhill. Then we hit a big climb with a 10% incline for just under 2 miles. Steve dug in with his serious climbing head on knowing that if he could reach the top in front he was home and dry. Then, less than half way up, Sarah flew by at 18mph…. up a 10% climb!!! The sign she gave as she passed is not for printing! Steve tried in vain to catch her but Sarah held on for a 2 minute victory. We were both pretty shattered at the end. Although it was an electric assisted bike Sarah still had to work flat out to hold Steve off. There was a short discussion at the end regarding whether Sarah should get an electric bike for our upcoming cycle from Canada to Mexico but the conversation was ended when Steve returned the sign Sarah gave him on the hill!
Whilst in the Ardeche we also managed to get our inflatable kayak on the river. It extends for about 20 miles….. (the river, not the kayak!) and has many sets of rapids, not ideal for an inflatable kayak! We put in near to where we were staying and kayaked up to the first set of rapids where we turned and allowed the flow of the river to bring us back down. It was an amazing place to be on the water, in the bottom of the Gorge, with the precipitous cliffs at either side and the medieval village of Aigueze literally embedded into the cliff edge, which was a great sight from below.
We also did a couple of walks around the area. During one of them we ended up at the local Bread Festival. Essentially, a few years ago the locals discovered a bread oven in the woods, restored it and then to celebrate they have a festival each year where they cook bread in the oven, have a few stalls selling local crafts and produce and lay on entertainment for the children. Sarah went to watch the bread being made and came back with something resembling what should have been left in that noisy toilet cubicle! “We can have this with dinner” Steve thought the 12 inch Nutella crepe and one Euro glass of red wine was a better option!
We were both a little sad about leaving the Ardeche as it really was a beautiful part of France with so much to offer but we felt we should explore some more areas of France. We were lucky as we had good weather and I’m sure we will return again.
Our next stop was the city of Nimes. We had heard about a Roman festival going on there in what was supposed to be the best preserved Roman amphitheatre in France. It was very impressive. Built almost 2000 years ago it still retains most of its original structure and has a capacity of 24,000 people (stone seats for the majority of the full capacity crowd including us!). The festival was an exhibition of gladiators fighting, chariots racing, Roman invasions, battles against The Barbarians and even a Roman Emperor. Some of the participants were very enthusiastic and at times the fights looked quite real.
To be honest it was an odd thing to watch, sometimes it was very serious with senate meetings and serious speeches (well they sounded serious, our French isn’t that brilliant) and sometimes it was quite comical with a trojan horse made out of what looked like paper mache, a sectional Roman fort on wheels and huge model ships that wouldn’t go where they were supposed to! Steve described it as a cross between a Shakespeare play and ‘It’s a Knockout’. Very entertaining and well worth going to see.
Next we are heading for Provence for more cycling…….no more electric bikes though Sarah.