I arrived at the vineyard and farmhouse B&B, Notre-Dame de Cousignac, ready for action. This was, after all, the gateway to the Ardèche, one of France's most celebrated activity hot spots, a playground for the adventurous. Yet a rather different idyll awaited. Cats stretched out in the sun; children ran among pear and apricot trees and the farmhouse's owner, Raphaël, greeted me with trays of local saucisson, goat's cheese and wine.
After dropping my bags in a delightfully rustic bedroom, I joined his family under sun-dappled mulberry trees. "To understand the Ardèche," Raphaël advised, popping corks and gesturing over his 60 hectares of lush vines, "everyone must taste the Ardèche." This was my kind of acclimatising.
With a glass of his fine Côtes du Vivarais blanc in hand, I took my bearings. An early morning Eurostar had whisked me from London to Lille, followed by a TGV to Valence, arriving shortly after 2pm. I'd then driven an hour south-west to reach the edge of one of France's most beautiful natural reserves in time for a late lunch.
To the east was the great, snaking Rhône. The Ardèche River poured into it from the north-west and between lay the land I'd come to see: the southern Ardèche, a pie-shaped slice of pine, oak and sweet chestnut woods centred around an ancient gorge, where villages perch on limestone outcrops overlooking twinkling waters and cavernous caves.
After lunch, Raphaël's taste of the region extended to some of its human history. We walked around the cobweb-filled seventh-century chapel that gives his vineyard its name, before I headed down the road to explore St-Montan.
This was once a forgotten medieval village crumbling into a valley, but volunteers have painstakingly rebuilt its picturesque houses. Down steep cobbled streets and passages, young villagers gathered for aperitifs on upturned barrels. I dined among them outside Restaurant Ray Charles (no connection to the singer) as a warm night descended, before heading back to my B&B, creeping over the sleeping cats.
Morning brought the scent of wild thyme through the shutters. I drove into the Ardèche reserve in an intense heat, bleaching and relentless. The shady hamlet of Bidon seemed a sensible place to stop for lunch. La Farigoule is one of the region's Bistrot de Pays, a network of restaurants committed to local food at reasonable prices. The speciality was caillette, sausages of pork, herbs and Swiss chard.
On the mountainous D290, cars were pulled over for first views of the gorge below; a wide emerald river glinted through the trees. I wound my way down to it eagerly, zigzagging around a huge-horned wild goat strolling across the tar.
My fishing guide, Stéphane, was waiting. He nodded approvingly at my hiking boots. "It is a long walk to the cathedral," he said. The "cathedral" turned out to be a weather-beaten rock and prime fishing spot that demands stout knees. We scrambled through thicket to the river bank and a scene of breathtaking beauty. The gorge echoed with birdsong as, under Stéphane's tutelage, I fly-fished with mounting competence, hooking chub and barbel in explosive splashes. Above, a pair of rare eagle-like merlins rode thermals.
A few kilometres upstream, I checked in at Le Lodge du Pont-d'Arc, a new hotel on a wide bend in the river. Its design mimics that of an African game lodge: rectangular wood and canvas with individually designed rooms with terraces overlooking a wooded slope. I dived into the water and drifted in great circles. Supper on the dining terrace was magical. Swifts darted over the darkening river as I tucked into a superb bowl of organic truffle ravioli with local Ardéchois wine. The hotel is named after Pont-d'Arc, the region's postcard landmark, a natural arch that spans the river. Locals claim it is best appreciated from the water, so the following morning I headed west to the bustling tourist town of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc to meet canoe instructor Olivier Bernard and take out his two-man craft.
Canoeing and kayaking are the main businesses. Myriad road signs offered rentals ranging from a few hours to a week, which give visitors the chance to navigate all 30km of the gorge or, like me, take a more leisurely turn on the water.
Donning life jackets, we pushed out into the current. "Keep weight ici," Olivier instructed. "Rapids ahead." Aside from the first dousing of white water, gliding down the river was largely tranquil. After passing under the majestic Pont-d'Arc we moored at a beach for ham baguettes before diving into the water to cool off. Here, splashing beneath the ancient limestone, time seemed strangely elastic. I told Olivier as much and he pointed at a hole in the cliff side. "That's because you are under the Chauvet Cave."
In 1994, cavers discovered a series of sealed chambers here filled with hundreds of paintings and handprints dating back a brain-scrambling 36,000 years. For millennia, prehistoric people summered here to hunt and fish. In the cave above Pont-d'Arc, they recorded more than 425 Picasso-like renderings of the animals they feared and fed on, from bears to mammoth.
The cave is closed to the public, but archaeologists are using 3D mapping to construct a replica in Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, set to open in 2014. All canoe trips include a return journey via minibus, so after catching a ride back, I ducked into the temporary exhibition of Chauvet's beguiling interiors. Outlines of lions and deer leapt from the shadowy walls and the skill was astonishing.
Only 17km north, the ancient cliff-top village of Balazuc provided a powerful contrast to the subterranean secrets. Almost at the end of the gorge, it is the jewel in the crown; a cobbled maze of streets, quaint shops and a Romanesque church perched over river, cliffs and meadows. The best views were from the terrace at B&B Château de Balazuc, a luxurious 11th-century castle run by two retired journalists, the genial Luc and Florence Lemaire. My room was warm, smelled deliciously of woodsmoke and combined contemporary fittings with original 900-year-old stone features. Outside the window, a lengths pool was hewn into the rock face.
As Florence cooked local delicacies, I strolled along the Ardèche one last time, returning at sunset to a fantastic spread: black pudding and apple pastries, charcuterie, cold tomato soup and the ubiquitous goat's cheese, all washed down with viognier white wine. I left knowing Raphaël would be pleased; I'd tasted the Ardèche in every sense and was still hungry.
The writer travelled to Valence from London St Pancras via Lille. Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk) offers returns from £119. By air, Avignon (80km south) is the best gateway, with links from Exeter, Birmingham and Southampton with Flybe (0871 700 0123; flybe.com), and from London City with CityJet (0871 666 5050; cityjet.com).
Domaine Notre-Dame de Cousignac (00 33 4 75 54 61 41; firstname.lastname@example.org) has B&B doubles from €50. Le Lodge du Pont d'Arc (00 33 4 75 87 24 42; prehistoric-lodge.com) has B&B doubles from €120. Château de Balazuc (00 33 9 51 39 92 11; chateaude balazuc.com) has B&B doubles from €130.
Stéphane Jouve offers half-day fishing (00 33 6 07 31 91 17; stephane- jouve.fr) from €60pp.
Escapades Loisirs (00 33 4 75 88 07 87; escapade-loisirs.com) has canoeing, canyoning and mountain biking.
Chauvet Cave: grotte-chauvet.org
Ardèche Tourist Board (ardeche-guide.com)Reuse content