Monday, 22 June 2015

Ardeche again

Classic Car Rally
Lavender fields, Barjac
Classic Car Rally, Le Garn
Thunderstorm brewing
 Les Vieux waiting for the cyclists
High fives and autographs for the leaders
Drawings from the Chauvet Cave
Le Mouton Noir, Issirac
Le Mouton Noir Menu
Darkness settling over the Cevennes
The olive man, Barjac market
Orgnac l'Aven on the morning run
Home for the last 7 years
For five out of the last seven years, we have headed for the idyllic limestone plateau south of the Ardeche gorge. We happened on the area during a driving holiday around the south of France and fell for its tranquil beauty, big skies, local produce and the courtesy of its residents. Usually, we have combined it with a jaunt around other parts of France but this year we just headed for our usual retreat, a stunning Chambres D'Hotes near Le Garn.

The Mas (traditional farmhouse) has been tastefully restored and five rooms have been crafted to meet all the needs of those in search of peace and the flavours of the south. Breakfasts are the stuff of legend as in-season fruits (cherries and apricots in June), a dozen types of jams made with these fruits, local cheeses and homemade cakes jostle on the long outside table beneath the vines. The pool awaits, long enough for a decent swim and quiet enough to allow reading.

The nearby renaissance town of Barjac is off the tourist routes but offers a vibrant market and stupendous views over to the Cevennes. The Ardeche gorge can be reached by a 2-hour walk through the indigenous oak forests and is penetrated by the Grande Randonnee - GR4 - that stretches a thousand kilometres across France from West to East. There are local restaurants that specialise in traditional French menus and nowhere is there any sense of intrusion by the global travel industry. This is France as it was meant to be. Our local was le mouton noir near the village of Issirac which specialised in local cheeses and even had a Rap/Jazz evening. The French rapper chanted about stopping fracking and saving the honey bees, this was sheer localism and stripped of all misogynist lyrics, it was what the Club of Rome was all about.

During our week we watched a classic car rally that epitomised the quirkiness and spirit of friendship that abounds in this corner of France. It was hosted by the local commune, all dressed in yellow who had put out bunting and balloons and provided drinks and food for the mainly older motorists. Four days later it was l'ardechoise, the largest sportive cycling event in Europe with 14,000 riders picking and mixing a selection of routes through the heart of the Ardeche. Le Garn gave the leading riders a rousing reception from Les Vieux who sunned themselves behind the drinks table to the local school children who high fived the cyclist and asked for their autographs.

We visited the amazingly diverse market in Barjac that had more product lines than Tesco and they were mainly locally sourced. We also managed to book a slot to visit the Chauvet Cave, a World Heritage Site that opened in April this year. Its location is superbly set above the Ardeche gorge and no expense has been spared in building a complete recreation of the nearby original cave that has restricted access to archaeologists in order to preserve the paintings. It has the earliest example of cave paintings of animals that are estimated to be 36,000 years old. The site is a credit to the ingenuity and ability of the French to complete big projects. However, the number of visitors in the guided groups was excessive at 30 and together with the snake-like walkway, which resembled the looping of a ghost train at a funfair, somewhat detracted from the experience

We arrived in a tropical rainstorm and for the next three evenings, we witnessed thunderstorms that rolled around the night skies. Then we had a couple of days when the mistral took the edge off the midsummer heat but by the time we left, we were enduring temperatures in the early thirties. It didn't really matter as we sauntered around the cornucopia of nearby walks through olive groves, vineyards and cherry orchards.

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