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Southern Ardèche: Our new fortnightly series of travellers' guides to holiday destinations begins in this charming part of France. Simone Kane reports



Why go here?


It's the river that draws most tourists to the Southern Ardèche. As it carves its way south to the Rhône, you'll find unlimited opportunities for active sports.

But explore this area further and you'll also discover streams through dense, chestnut-wooded valleys and ancient stone bridges crossing savagely beautiful limestone gorges watered by rushing rivers. It's a place to come for excellent food, too. Where the landscape opens out, it reveals gentle slopes, planted with small vineyards, fertile terracing and lush plains that produce a rich variety of fruit. And you'll satisfy your appetite for history and culture, too. Admire the impressive châteaux and follow the trail of Les Villages de Caractère – a collection of pretty settlements celebrated for their well-preserved medieval centres.

The great outdoors

For action, head to the sporting hot spot on the Ardèche river, Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, where you can launch yourself on an exhilarating 18-mile (or shorter) canoe trip through the spectacular limestone Gorges de l'Ardèche. Rock-climbing, potholing and canyoning are also popular pursuits. Families can play on one of the beaches created in the bends of the river that provide good spots for picnics and swimming in safe shallows. Or you can take to two wheels – the climate and topography make this an ideal destination for road cyclists and mountain bikers.

The history trail

Take a road trip through the region's past. In historic Aubenas, Château d'Aubenas (00 33 4 75 87 81 11) has preserved some of its ancien régime rooms, while kids can play sentries by going to the top of the soaring medieval keep, which also provides a panoramic view of the valley. If you're nearby, take a detour across the largest Gothic bridge in the region at Chambonas – just for the views. Wander the labyrinth of steep, roughly cobbled alleyways in Balazuc and search out the tiny Église Romane – a hangover from the Wars of Religion, when the village was a Catholic enclave. In Largentière, the imposing castle and restored Gothic- style church are symbols of the wealth that the medieval town enjoyed as a result of its control of the local silver-mining industry.

The retail therapy

In Joyeuse, artisans have set up business in abandoned properties on Grande Rue and organised a Sunday-night craft market featuring stylish hats, leatherwork and clothes in linen and silk, decorative mobiles and wooden bowls. Pop into Bijoux des Vignes (00 33 4 75 39 51 53) for delicate jewellery crafted from vine tendrils and glass beads. Don't leave the Ardèche without a chestnut souvenir – the Sabaton factory, outside Aubenas (sabaton.fr) is the place for marrons glacés. Weekly markets have regional specialities such as cured meats, AOC Picadon goats' cheese, honey, oil, country bread and Montélimar nougat. And don't miss out on the chestnut honey-flavoured beer and local Chatus wine.

The inside attractions

Discover why the chestnut is king here, with a visit to the quirky Musée de la Châtaigneraie (00 33 4 75 39 90 66) in Joyeuse, which explores the historical significance of the "bread tree". Derelict silk factories are a familiar sight in this rural landscape – but some have been converted into museums, such as La Filature du Moulinet (filaturedumoulinet.com), near Largentière, which portrays the story of silk-making in the region. Younger children can discover the world of pigs at the fun Musée Vivant du Cochon (04 75 94 93 83) in the hamlet of Les Sielves. Adults, however, might want to head to the historic spa town of Vals-les-Bains for pampering at Les Thermes de Vals (thermesdevals.com).

The places to eat and drink

Auberge les Ranchisses (lesrachisses .fr), near Largentière, is a popular dining spot with locals, as well as its campsite guests. The reasonably priced menu combines local specialities – such as salade ardéchoise and duck with chestnuts – with superb pizzas from a wood-fired oven. Make a lunch stop at La Falaise (la-falaise.com) in the pretty village of Vogüé. The riverside terrace is the ideal spot to try typical dishes such as assiette de fromage and grilled fresh fish. End the day in the garden terrace of café Châmes in Balazuc, overlooking the river beach, where kids can tuck into a coupe ardéchoise – vanilla and chestnut ice cream smothered in chestnut purée.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Keycamp (0844 406 0319; keycamp.co.uk) offers seven nights at Les Ranchisses from £288 in total, staying in a three-bedroom Villanova mobile home with air conditioning and decking, for two adults and up to four children, including return Dover to Calais ferry crossings.

Further information

Ardèche Guide (ardeche-guide.com).

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