My French collegues were wondering why all these -mainly Dutch- tourists wanted to come to “La campagne” – a rural area/the countryside. The Ardeche is an area in the South-East of France. It is well-known for the river, conveniently named Ardeche as well, which lends itself for outdoor activities such as canoeing, canyoning, rock climbing and, in winter, rafting is possible as well. The last activity is only for the brave, as the river is cold and in winter there is no nice and warm sun to dry up to. The weather and quiet is very possible the reason that answers the question of my French collegues. Families with two or three kids who work all year just like to chill out in “the middle of nowhere” with great weather and within driving distance from different Western European countries, the Ardeche qualifies. Apart from family tourism, the Ardeche attracts adventures who come to camp and admire the beautiful environment or use it for recreational purposes.
Perhaps it is because this was the first time ever canyoning for me, but I was hyper excited, both before and after the actual expierence. As canyoning is considered “dangerous” or “thrilling”, my collegues had no intention of joinging me to throw themself of cliffs, waddle through ice-cold water, slide down natural slides and squeeze through tiny passages in rocks. If that doesn’t sound to heaven on earth to you, then you should probably stay away too. Lucky for me I met two camping guests who were plannning to go canyoning right on my day off and they were awesome enough to let me go with them. The tour is well-guided and you wear protective clothing (including a helmet and a full-body wetsuit with extra bum-protection). What nobody tells you, but what you could have known, realising that the river is at the bottom of the gorges of the Ardeche is that your canyoning tour always comes with a free hike of minimum half an hour, both before and after the canyoning tour. The before is not so bad, but on the after you are cold and exhausted and don’t give a shit about the environment around you. Oh well, you’ve got to give something before you can take. The Ardeche is full of companies that organise canyoning group tours. I went with GECCO Adventures in the “Canyon du haut Chassezac” (another river than the grand Ardeche) and can highly recommend my guide, Sylvère.
A great family activity (as long as all kids know how to swim), but also fun for groups of friends. Canoeing is possibly the most popular activity in the Ardeche (from personal experience, I did not research this). However it is something anyone can do and most people enjoy spending their time on the water. As for canyoning, there seem to be an undefined number of companies that offer canoeing tours, but as many of them canoe on the same river, the main difference, if any, shall be the price. Wherever you decide to go, you can usually choose different distances and if you are one of those people that is going to end up stuck on rocks and sliding rapids backward, you might want to choose the shortest distance as that is already going to take you a few hours. Since we only had the morning off before work, me and my collegues decided to choose the shortest distance (7 km) as well. For some of them this was (more than) enough, but I would have loved to keep going. Not only because I enjoyed gliding over the water in a plastic boat, but also because the gorges of the river are stunning and the longer you keep going, the less people will have had the endurance to go on for the same distance. As for my situation, the water would have become wilder further down the river, but that depends on where you enter of course. I did not get to take any photos as my photo camera was safely stored in a plastic barrel at the back of the canoe. Sorry guys.If you are still deciding on different companies, I went with CCC, apparently a bit more expensive than some other companies, but really friendly and flexible staff is surely worth a few extra bucks.
Spending two months on the same spot in France, without a car to explore too far away, I spent quite a few of my free Saturdays just strolling around the area. Doing so I found myself all alone in peaceful nature and I found some super cute abandoned houses (that I broke into to take the following photo, sorry, not sorry). Basically wherever you start wandering in the Ardeche, beautiful nature, mountains, rocks, cute villages, rivers and perhaps some abandoned old houses will be what you find, added up to peace and quiet.
- Pont d’arc
An arch in the rocks. That’s it. As the object on every post card sent from Ardeche, it is one of the most famous, as well as one of the most overrated places in the Ardeche. If you want to avoid hordes of tourists and overpriced souvenirs, don’t go here. If you want an iconic pic that shows that you have been to the Ardeche, go on and take that pic. There are a lot of canoeing companies that have a route that passes beneath the arc, but be warned, you will be floating amidst a tapestry of other canoes and I’m not sure if you will even need to paddle yourself.Have I been there? Yes, multiple times in my life. With my parents, with a canoe, the last time I hitchhiked from the campsite to here. Easy as. In Vallon Pont d’arc, the village that lies close to the pont d’arc I even found some camping guests that were willing to take me back there. Speaking of how touristic this place is…What is fun though is having a stroll around the area. There are some official hiking tracks that are supposed to be nice, but I was a) on flip-flops and b) too stupid to actually find the tracks so I just got lost following the road meant for cars and getting myself in dangerous situations. The good thing about this is, that I found an old touristic cave that was no longer functioning because of the dangers of collapsing. If you are looking to go into a cave, their are multiple caves in the area where a guide will get you through it and show you the wonders inside. However, with a lack of both transport and money and a great sense of adventure, I was happy to find the closed-down dangerous cave. The fence was open for some reason, so it was really to easy to enter and for some reason I had a torch in my bag (on the list of handy gadgets to pack, you know that some day it will come in handy!). All these coincidences allowed me to be the only person in a dark cave. Now, this is really dangerous and you can get hopelessly lost, so I did not go in to far, did not squeeze through any small passages, did not take any turns and looked really carefully where I placed my feet. My heart was pounding although I found little more than puddles of water and some stalactites. Nothing gained, but the opportunity to be all alone in a cave and explore. Wow!
- Cliff Diving
If you don’t like tour groups or are don’t have the money to pay for one, you can always set up your own mini canyoning-activity. Without a professional and the right gear around I would skip the natural slides, but you can always throw yourself off a cliff, landing in the water of course, and having checked that water thoroughly before jumping. Now, I don’t want to set people up to all kinds of dangerous things and being the cause of serious injuries, but I do want to tell you all I’ve done and what you can be doing. The thing is that if you pay attention and don’t do anything too impulsively these things are not as dangerous as it seems. There are many locations where people jump off the cliffs all the time. Most of the time these locations are “safe” for as safe as it is going to be, I mean, you can always slip on your way up, but that can also happen on a group tour. Nevertheless, always check where you are landing, even if other people are jumping too. Nature is nature and it can be treacherous, it may be that part of the water is deep enough, but if you land just too far to the right you can still break all your bones, it is therefore important to know what water you are in. Also pay attention to currents, if the river has a strong current, you might land safely but get carried away after, which is also something you don’t wat. And lastly, don’t do this on your own. I mean, if you are travelling alone sometimes you can’t help but being by yourself, but in that case find a spot with people around, let them know that you’re there and about what you are doing, so if something would go wrong even after thorougly checking the situation, they can come to a rescue or warn someone.
- Music festivals
One thing I found this summer that I had never found before is that the Ardeche (and perhaps the rest of France as well) is very rich of music festivals in summer. And now I am not speaking about Lowlands, Rock Werchter or Sziget-like festivals, but about small events, lasting one night or two in a nice outdoor location (the gardens of a caslte, for example) where live music is played. The music is often related to jazz, but there are other sorts of music around too. The atmosphere at these festivals is just great, young and old people come to attend, listen to beautiful tunes and dance their legs off if they dare. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos as my collegue (who is a much better photographer than I am) took photos and I never got all of them. I’m working on it though.
- Castles, villages, wine, food and souvenirs
It’s France we are speaking off, so you will find no shortage of wine, cheese, food, old villages, castles and souvenirs. It depends on where exactly you are in the area, so I am not going to name all the possible castles you could go to. Here’s a picture of the castle in Vogüe though, which is also beautiful to just drive by.
Where (not) to stay?
This is the camping where I worked last summer (2016). I was working as an animatrice, meaning that I organised activities for children as well as teenagers an adults. Children could come to do arts and crafts or sports and games everyday, whereas teenagers could come to dancing or quiz nights or play poker or sports. Adults could join in the sports and quizzes and we organised aquagym and yoga for them as well. Basically what I want to tell you is not my job description, but that the campsite has enough entertaiment on-site for people of any age. This is only in high-season though (July and August). Furthermore the camping collaborates with Gecco and CCC for canoeing, canyoning and via ferrata (see activities above for more info), so you are never short of any activities further away from the campsite as well.
The campsite itself is rather small and has place for people who bring their own camping gear as well as some mobile homes that are already there. A small playground for children is present, as well as a sports field, a swimming pool and a bar/restaurant where basic meals are served and where you can get bread in the morning if you don’t feel like taking a walk (or a ride) into the village. The swimming pool can however get a bit busy at times, so be aware of that.
The best thing about the campsite is probably its location. The river is literally one roll away from your tent or caravan, so if you are not fond of swimming pools you can bathe there easily or chill out in the shade of tree and read a book. Joyesue, the small village is just a few hundred metres away and can easily be done on foot. In high-season there is a market every Sunday-night and Wednesday-morning.
Where (not) to eat?
As I stayed for two months I have had the chance to eat at many different spots in the area, but without a car I couldn’t get too far. Most of the places I did get to try were not really worth mentioning in any kind of sense (not bad, not great, not special), so I’ll leave them out. There are however two restaurants that I would like to give a tiny platform here:
Le Bistrot de Pays Le Bec Figué – Labeaume (8.5/10)
Labeaume is a tiny village and the day I was there with a friend, there happened to be some music festival going on in the church. The tickets were a bit expensive though, so we decided to leave that as it was, but because of the festival, many of LaBeaumes few restaurants were booked full. Some other people we had met had already visit multiple restaurants and told us that they had been sent away everywhere, because it was too busy. Me and my friend decided to give it another shot and were lucky enough that there happened to be one table for two people left in restaurant Le Bec Figué, the number one restaurant in LaBeaume, according to Tripadvisor. I haven’t tried the other restaurants in the village, so it is hard to compare, but Tripadvisor might just be right. The restaurant has a fantastic atmosphere and friendly staff that serve you quick. They have a large assortiment of aperitives and drinks, so there is always something you like. The food menu was a bit less extensive, but I think that is only great for those of us who struggle to choose what they want to eat. Bonus: if you eat here with a group, some of the people will certainly have chosen the same dish, so you can discuss the food together.
All three different main menus looked fantastic (there might have been some more options if you paid more, I’m not sure, but I left at at these) and one was vegetarian, so there was no need for me to complain and the choice was easily made. The food was delicious and had a very good price for what we were getting. It did not only taste nice, but also look nice, with a lot of different colours and shapes on the plate it was a dish you would take photos of (which I didn’t, because I also really badly wanted to eat it). Great place in a lovely, picturesque city, so if you are near, take the time to visit!
Chez Dirk – Joyeuse (7/10)
This is not where you want to go if you are looking for healthy quality food. This is not where you want to go if you are looking for either vegetables or a steak. This is not where you want to go for a super good atmostphere restaurant, so why is it still scoring a seven on my list? Chez Dirk is a snack bar/cafetaria/friterie owned by a really friendly Belgian, meaning that he knows how to make fries and (Belgian) snacks that you cannot easily find anywhere else in France. This is probably not for everyone, but if you are Dutch or Belgian and missing your favourite snacks, Chez Dirk is the place to go. If you have never heard of a “frikadel” go too and be amazed by the Dutch/Belgian snack kitchen, or just to have the best fries in France! Perhaps Dirk explains why all the Dutch and Belgian tourists are here.