- the thematic guide to France
of the Rhone valley, and just a short distance from the main route from
Paris to the south of France, the Ardèche valley
has some of the most spectacular and interesting sites in
the Ardèche gorge
The Ardèche gorge, between Pont Saint Esprit on the Rhone,
Vallon Pont d'Arc, is most easily accessed from Exit 19 on the main
Rhone valley A7 motorway. It can also be reached via the N102 from
Clermont Ferrand, via Aubenas.
Pink markers indicate
places with hotels
selection of hotels in or near the Ardèche Gorge
le Domaine des Oliviers
- three-star hotel with pool, a short
distance from N7 and 5 km from Bourg Saint Andéol
Two-star Logis hotel close to the main square in the old part of Bourg
Vallon Pont d'Arc
Clos des Bruyères Canyon
Three star hotel close to the historic town centre and the banks of the
Three-star hotel with pool, located in the Ardèche gorge,
within walking distance of the Pont d'Arc
Ardèche garrigue, through which the river Ardèche
its spectacular gorge, is the northern tip of Mediterranean France
which stretches up the Rhone valley.
The word "garrigue"
designates a very dry limestone area, with an infertile rocky terrain
on which the main vegetation consists of pine trees, scrub oak, vines
aromatic plants. The Ardèche garrigue has all of these, but
notably a dense cover of small evergreen oaks and deciduous oaks. Here
and there the natural forest has been cleared to make way for vineyards
or lavender fields.
The Ardèche gorge road trip is a
journey through this varying Mediterranean landscape, with plenty of
things to see, including the spectacular Pont d'Arc natural bridge over
the river Ardèche, the breathtaking Caverne du Pont d'Arc
its unique cave paintings, a Lavender museum in Saint
and marvellous views from the Route de la Corniche de
with its many stopping places and viewing platforms on the lip of the
Wild goats beside the road on the Ardèche Corniche route.
Wildlife lovers may see eagles and other birds of prey, green lizards,
or even some of the wild goats that now roam freely through the
scrubland near the lip of the gorge. The goats are the descendents of
flocks once tended by local farmers, in the days when goats were a
source of income. Today there are few farmers still eeking out a living
in this poor arid countryside, but the goats, left to their own
devices, are very much at home.
the Gorges de
Most visitors will approach the Ardeche gorge from the Rhone
If approaching from the north, leave the A7 motorway at Exit
Montelimar south, and follow the N7 south as far as Pierrelatte. At
Pierrelatte, turn west for Bourg Saint Andéol, the start of
Bourg Saint Andéol is a pretty and
town which was once a centre for the silk trade. In bygone centuries,
the farmers of the Ardèche used to supplement their meagre
farming income by breeding silk-worms, and to this day many an
Ardèche farmhouse still has a few mulberry trees growing in
yard, a reminder of this former economic activity. The
Palais des Evêques in Bourg Saint Andéol is a
restored 13th - 18th century former bishop's palace with remarkable
historic kitchens and some very fine painted ceilings.
Leave Bourg on the D4, following the signs for Saint
Remèze and Vallon Pont d'Arc. Don't forget to stop about
kilometres out of Bourg to enjoy the fine view over the Rhone valley.
This is an official stopping point and signposted as you come to it.
There is a table d'orientation to show you what is what, from the peak
of the Mont Ventoux to the south, past the Tricastin nuclear power
station, and up to the Vercors to the northeast. You are now in typical
Ardèche garrigue, with its stunted evergreen oaks and
View over the Rhone valley
For the next ten kilometres, the road runs through the oak forest
before emerging into a more open countryside as it approaches the big
village of Saint Remèze. You'll see lavender fields beside
road, best for colour in June and July, until they are harvested.
kilometre before Saint Remèze, you may like to turn left
the D201 for a visit to the Aven Marzel, one of the area's many
underground caverns (open April - October inclusive). This spectacular
cave has fine stalacmites and stalactites, a "dinosaur zoo" with
lifesize models, and a museum of the underground world.
Another visit close to Saint Remeze is the lavender museum, 2
southwest of the town, beside the D490; it is a small museum telling
the story of lavender, and how it is farmed, harvested and made into
du Pont d'Arc
The dramatic shape of the Cavern du Pont d'Arc.
Return to Saint Remèze to continue the circuit
the D4 signposted Vallon Pont d'Arc and Caverne du Pont
After eight more kilometres driving through the garrigue, you
will reach the Caverne
du Pont d'Arc
, which is now one of the top
tourist attractions in the south of France. The Caverne du
d'Arc is open every day of the year; opening times vary, but in the
peak summer period it is open from 8.30 a.m. to 11 p.m. In summer,
advance booking is pretty well essential, and must be done online
Three horses heads - exactly reproduced from the original
The Caverne du Pont d'Arc is a faithful replica of the
caves, a few kilometres away, which were
discovered by pot-holers in 1994. The caves, a UNESCO World Heritage
site, contain the oldest and one of the largest collections
the world of prehistoric cave paintings. Painted as far back as 36,000
ago, they are almost 20,000 years older than the paintings at Lascaux,
and in a remarkable state of conservation, due to the fact that the
original mouth to the caves was blocked off by a rock fall some 20,000
years ago. The original caves are not open to the public, in order to
conserve the paintings in a pristine state.
Wandering through the prehistoric museum.
The Caverne, which opened in 2015, contains a sophisticated
exact replica of the main parts of the Grotte Chauvet: the experience
is totally authentic, and unless you knew that you were in a replica,
you would imagine yourself deep underground in the original caves. All
visits are with a guide, at a pre-booked time; for those who do not
speak French, audio guides are available in half a dozen different
Before visiting the Caverne (but after
entering the site), most visitors will want to visit the prehistoric
museum, which prrovides a lively and interesting insight into the life
and ways of our prehistoric ancestors who lived in the
As well as artefacts, the museum has lifesize replicas of the animals
that roamed in the area in prehistoric times. Visitors wander among
them as participants in reenactment of prehistoric times.
For other prehistoric sites, see Prehistoric France
Vallon, the Pont
The main square of Vallon Pont d'Arc, with its cafés.
From the Caverne du Pont d'Arc, it is just a few kilometres
downhill to the small town of Vallon Pont d'Arc, the traditional
"capital" for tourism in the Ardèche gorge. Vallon
is a typically southern French small town, with narrow streets and a
central square shaded by plane trees.
Vallon has long been the starting point for canoe
and raft trips down the Ardèche gorge, and there are a
number of opportunities to hire out canoes for the day or the
afternoon; the canoe hire bases provide all the equipment, with a
minibus service to bring you back to the base at the end of your trip.
For most of the year, the Ardèche flows gently down through
the gorge, and canoeing here is something that is accessible to all,
The Pont d'Arc
The highlight of the Ardèche
gorge is undoubtedly the famous "Pont
", a huge and unique natural
bridge over the river.... a reminder that many millions of years ago,
this was an underground river snaking its way below the limestone
plateau. Everywhere else, the roof has fallen in, leaving the gorge as
we see it today. The Pont d'Arc can be viewed from the road just east
of the site, but is far better seen close up, from the beach just to
the west. From the spacious and well indicated car park, it is just a
three hundred metre walk down to the beach.
A wild goat admiring the view beside the corniche road
After the Pont d'Arc, the road climbs up
out of the gorge, and becomes the Corniche route, a panoramic road that
follows the northern lip of the gorge. Winding through the garrigue,
this road was built in 1969 with the sole purpose of opening up the
Ardèche gorge to tourism. It offers spectacular views down
into the gorge, from a number of specially built observation points.
From time to time, visitors may also come across some of the wild goats
that live here, and are not too bothered about passing tourists.
Eventually, the corniche route comes to an end, as
the river flows out of the limestone massif, and towards the
Rhone, which it joins at Pont Saint Esprit. But before leaving the
garrigue, visitors also have the opportunity to take in another
underground cave, the Grotte
de la Madeleine
(open April to October
inclusive) located between the Corniche route and the gorge, a
kilometre after the Belvedere de Gournier. The Grotte de la Madeleine
has some of the finest stalacmites and stalactites of any cave in
France, and the underground visit is an enchanting experience.
The Ardèche gorge scenic route comes to
an end (or starts) at the small town of Saint Martin
d'Ardèche, with its suspension bridge across the river.
Located at the end of the canoeing trail that started in Vallon, Saint
Martin is a small town with plenty of cafés, restaurants and
campsites. From here, it is a short journey back to the starting point
of the circuit at Bourg Saint Andéol, or else on to Pont
Saint Esprit to rejoin the A7 motorway and on into Provence.
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