Experience Ardèche

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

Jane Egginton discovers a strong identity and villages of character in a hidden but much loved corner of France

“French people know the Ardèche for it’s quality of life, the warmth of the people and the climate and its inspiring natural surroundings”, Tom Chabbit, a local potter originally from Paris tells me. Yet few Brits, other than white water rafters and a handful of campers are familiar with this scenic region carved through by deep rivers and gorges in the south east of France, not far from the perennially popular Provence.

Privas, with just 10,000 inhabitants, is the ‘capital’ of this largely rural region, dotted with ‘villages of character’ that have been selected for their scenic or historic properties. These pretty, sleepy communities are very attractive for visitors, but the purpose behind this designation is to breathe life back into these deserted settlements, all of which have less than 1,500 inhabitants.

 

One of these is medieval Balazuc, also classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France. Set dramatically on a rocky outcrop which seems to spring from the deep wooded valley below, the narrow twisting paths are all pedestrianised, so that visitors must leave their vehicles outside the village. Many of them fall in love with Balazuc, as did Tom Charbit a 30-something potter who works from his shop and workshop, the Poterie de la Forge (www.poteriebalazuc.fr).

Tom speaks of the limitless inspiration he gets from nature in the Ardeche, whether from patterns in the bark of trees, or in the dried earth. “When I arrived in the Ardèche the landscape spoke to me very deeply. I was astonished by the views of the river and cliffs. I was soufflé.”

At the nearby sixth and 13th century Château de Balazuc, a pair of Tom Chabit cups sit on a shelf next to an espresso machine and an I-pod player in the defiantly contemporary interior of one of the rooms, where a chainmail curtain is wittily draped in front of a Tadelakt shower. Owners Luc and Florence, both in their 50s, packed up their stressful jobs working as newspaper editors in Paris to lovingly restore the castle and open it as a small hotel in January 2012.

Florence’s great grandfather was from the Ardèche, so she has long had a deep connection with the place, but she is constantly inspired anew by her surroundings. Every morning this once jaded hack stands with her coffee on the sun-soaked terrace on the ramparts from the limestone plateau overlooking the fast waters of the River Ardèche 400 metres below and tells herself: “this is heaven”.

Those staying in one of the individually decorated rooms (from 130 Euros, including breakfast) can enjoy views of terraces known as faïsses that are typical of the local area, wake up to the sound of the bells from the neighbouring Romanesque church and share an Assiette du Chateau’(Chateau Plate) of homemade tarts and salad all made with local produce.

For the owners, it is a dream come true after 15 years of planning. “It wasn’t the right time before” explains affable Florence. When I ask her if she thought it was a brave thing for someone to do, she retorts: “Why? Just do it.” She is excited about offering her guests comfort and pleasure and describes a fairytale scenario that somehow fits with this atmospheric castle. “They just have to ask for what they want. I cook cakes for tea every day and all the drinks are included. Every evening at 7.30pm, I drink local wine with my guests. It is always a pleasure to meet new people and to discover new ways of thinking. It’s paradise. Really,” she laughs.

Marie Antoinette who owns the grand Château Clément in the pretty spa town of Val des Bains is as enthusiastic about creating a home from home for her visitors, and looks genuinely surprised when I ask for a key to the front door – it seems it is always open.

Her affable husband and pastry chef Eric Chabot runs dessert cookery courses (which must be booked in advance), using the chateau’s own chestnuts from its grounds. Although the recipes are inevitably based around chestnut and chocolate, Eric’s specialities, what he creates makes full use of local including milk from the local dairy and whatever is in season, whether peaches or figs. I sip rich, cool raspberry juice and pop chestnuts out of the jar as his youngest child, his ‘little prince’ comes running into the kitchen for a cuddle.

The chateau built in 1870 manages to be both homely and grand, with all children made to feel as welcome as the four resident offspring and given their very own table d’hote before the adults, and all the rooms high spec, with coffee machines and Apple TVs and some with kitchens and even washing machines. One of the ornate living rooms doubles as a playroom, with a giant toy car sitting in front of the exquisite fireplace. Choose from the historic chateau rooms or modern, Manhattan loft style apartments with the latest in modern designs, all with the famous French organic toiletries brand, Melvita, made only 20kms away, in the bathrooms.

Marie Antoinette, ably assisted by her four year old, serves rich and velvety aperitifs of chestnut and champagne cocktails in front of the fire. Over an exquisite dinner featuring local cheeses, vegetables from their garden and chestnut iced parfait and mousse, she tells us how she and Eric have always been enchanted by the area and even fell in love over a box of local marrons glacés (glazed chestnuts).

‘The Ardèche Facebook page has over 12,000 active followers, many of whom have moved away but feel a very strong connection to the place’, Lucile Clara from the local tourist office tells me. There are no trains, motorways or airports in the region. This perhaps points to part of the reason why the Ardèche has retained such a strong identity and seems to speak so intensely to those who have lived here – or even just visited.

Need to know

Château de Balazuc
Luc and Florence Lemaire-Rifaux
Le Château
07120 Balazuc
Tel: +33 951 39 92 11

Château Clément
Marie-Antoinette and Eric Chabot
La Châtaigneraie
07600 Vals-les-Bains
Tel: +33 475 87 40 13
www.chateauclement.com

Ardèche Tourist Board
4 Cours du Palais – 07000 Privas – France
Tel: +33 475 64 04 66
www.ardeche-guide.com

Getting there
There are frequent, comfortable and reasonably priced TGV (www.tgv.co.uk) services between Nîmes and Paris or Lille, with direct connections to London.

 

 

 



 

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