Taking the Back Roads

With our month in Apt sadly over it was time to get back to what has become the norm on our journeys across Europe, a loaded up car and a tent!

On our way South to The Luberon we had avoided the motorways and instead taken the back roads of France. We had enjoyed it so much, we decided to continue on that way as we made our way back North.

We found that we saw much more of the country as we passed through villages and along rural roads. It was also much easier to stop at scenic points, interesting sights or just for a coffee. Although this way of travel takes much longer, time is our friend these days, and it is certainly a more relaxing way to drive.

First stop was the Ardeche Gorge, only a short hop from Apt. This was the third time in the last five years we have stayed in the tiny village of St Martin d’Ardeche. It is definitely a beautiful location, positioned right next to the river, with a pebble beach and the steep walls of the gorge on either side.

Sarah rented an electric bike and joined Steve on the 80 kilometre cycle around the gorge. Everything was going great until a couple of kilometres before the longest, steepest hill on the route and Sarah’s bike developed a problem and lost power. Panic set in, as although Sarah could probably have slowly made it to the top on her own bike, the heavy electric bike was a no go.

She cycled on the flat furiously pressing every combination of buttons and switches possible, as the climb out of the gorge loomed closer. Then, with only a couple of hundred metres to go Steve heard a big shout of relief and saw Sarah throw her arms in the air as power was restored. Although she encountered the same issue a couple of more times on the way, we arrived back in Saint Martin pretty much unscathed.

The other advantage of taking the back roads is it takes you to areas you may not normally venture because they are not too well known and are a fair distance from the motorways. The Ardeche National Park fitted this scenario.

Many people visit the Ardeche gorge but few venture further into the National Park. We rented a basic log cabin for a couple of days by Lake Naussac and explored the region. It was so peaceful and the scenery was stunning, definitely worth the stop.

Next on our route was as stop in The Gorge du Tarn. We had visited the Southern end of the gorge a few years ago, so this time we stopped in the unbelievably pretty village of St Enimie at the Northern end.

We seriously considered not mentioning this stop in the blog. We don’t want too many people to know about it. We can’t understand why it is not much more popular than it is. Maybe it’s because it is that little bit more inaccessible, but if you like scenery that includes roads cut into the overhanging rock, twisting alongside the river, passing through picture perfect medieval villages. This place should certainly be on your itinerary.

The area is also home to one or two alternative communities and some of the villages have a historical circus connection. As such the communities occasionally put on theatrical shows which tend to feature some form of high wire act. It is quite a sight watching someone walking a tightrope across the gorge, high above the river, while playing a trumpet!

At this point we headed North to the small village of Volvic. Not to sample the famous water, but to watch the Tour de France which was scheduled to pass through. On the day of the race we packed a picnic, our camping chairs and sunscreen (like most of the past month the mercury had been hovering in the mid 30’s) and we set off to join the thousands of others on the route.

The main group of almost 200 riders normally take about 8 seconds to speed past. So in order to entertain the crowds it is preceeded by a seemingly endless line of support vehicles and the famous (well, famous among cycling fans) Tour Caravan. This is a line of extravagantly decorated floats representing the Tour sponsors which speed along at around 50 kilometres per hour, handing or more accurately throwing out all manner of free items, known as ‘Tour Tack’. It takes about 30 minutes for The Caravan to pass and Sarah was in her element, diving here, there and everywhere, pushing small children and climbing over anyone in the way to get her hands on anything from an air freshner to a key fob!

Eventually the cyclists came past and fortunately for us they had split into three groups. So we were able to experience the noise and speed on a few occasions.

At the end of a long but entertaining day we made our way back to the campsite for some food and for Sarah to model some of her ‘Tour Tack’.

With our Tour experience over, we headed to the Dordogne, an area popular among both French and Foreign tourists alike. The Dordogne does not have the dramatic scenery of mountains and gorges as some areas of France, it is more rolling and forested countryside. But it is still an area well worth visiting.

Pretty villages, and dramatic looking castles, follow the meandering Dordogne River as it snakes its way through South Central France. We rented a converted barn for a few nights. Well actually it was a tiny quater of a converted barn and the other three quarters were still derelict, so it sounds a lot grander than it was. However, although small it had been renovated to a high standard and was perfect for our stay.

We spent our time in The Dordogne pretty much the same way as we had done in Apt. Steve cycling in the mornings and then exploring the area together for the rest of the day. Although on one day we had slightly less time than we had planned when Steve was enjoying himself too much and took a wrong turn making his planned 130 kilometre route into almost 200!

Probably our favourite villages in the area were Sarlat de Canada, Beynac and La Roque – Gageac. Although you can’t really go wrong wherever you visit.

Our final stop on our route North following the backroads was in The Loire Valley. We chose to stay in the town of Amboise, which is where Leonardo de Vinci spent his final years and is buried in the town.

Amboise was a great location to explore this part of the Loire. The region is pretty much pancake flat and perfect terrain for Sarah to get out on her bike. On one morning she accompanied Steve as he went for a long run along the side of the Loire River. Coming back into town it was almost lunch time and the roads had become quite busy. We had to cross the main bridge to get back to our campsite and it was heaving with cars. Sarah, who was behind Steve, went to join him on the much quieter pavement. Suddenly Steve heard a crash and turned around to see Sarah had clipped the pavement and fallen entangled in her bike half on and half off the pavement.

We quickly established it was only superficial grazes and potentially bruised knees and hips and, with a big dose of embarrassment, she remounted the bike. The cuts and bruises will definitely be there for a while to come!

Luckily we had already done most of our sightseeing in the area with Chateau Chenechau being the outstanding highlight.

This is a beautiful Chateau which spans the river, set in amazing gardens, and has a bucket full of hundreds of years of history. We spent most of the day there, wandering around inside and out. It was an enjoyable and relaxing way to finish off what has been another fantastic couple of months in France.

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