Stage 3 – Saint Martin d’Ardèche to Vallon-Pont-d’Arc

Distance: 40.45 km

Time: 2 hours 48 minutes

Average speed: 14.5 kph

Ascent: 709m

Total distance: 113.2 km

Total time: 6 hours 24 minutes

After we’d showered yesterday evening we had planned to wander down to the centre of Saint Martin d’Ardèche, but as we passed through reception the hotelier stopped us and advised that the best option would be to cross back over the bridge and turn right up to Aiguèze.

So we did, and were so glad we followed his advice – Aiguèze is one of the official “plus beaux villages de France”, and sits atop a cliff above the eastern end of the Ardèche gorge. We wished we’d booked our dinner table for later – it would have been delightful to have an aperitif in this picturesque place. Here are a few pictures to give a flavour.

The return route was downhill, enabling us to arrive back at the hotel for dinner. It was a very good dinner but with enormous portions, and we enjoyed every last gram! After dinner the sun was setting, and we walked out to the middle of the bridge – our timing was excellent as we were able to catch the sunset over the river.

This morning we looked out of the window to see wet roads. According to the forecast this wasn’t supposed to happen. The rain had almost ceased as we set off, although gloomy clouds still blanketed the sky. We knew we were in for a visual treat, though. The Ardèche gorge is thirty kilometres long, and the road rises up to more than four hundred metres in altitude, on a spectacular limestone plateau.

Firstly we had to climb, though! For around ten kilometres we headed steadily uphill on a winding but well-surfaced road. There are plenty of combes where smaller streams head down to join the main river, and the road builders had chosen to follow each combe faithfully before returning to the main river. In practical terms each of these excursions was a descent, losing precious height already gained, followed by a re-ascent to the previous high point. This might have been frustrating if the surroundings were dull, but almost every turn revealed a new vista.

Along the cliff-top there were eleven belvederes or balcons – places where we could stop, rest our legs and admire the view. The earliest of these had views back to Aiguèzes and Saint Martin d’Ardèche. The “bon-père” at Châteauneuf-du-Pape had advised us to make sure we looked back down towards the east at each of the belvederes, as this direction offered the better views.

Early in our journey the weather was still clearing. It wasn’t raining any more but the clouds were taking a while to thin out. This did, though, lead to some interesting and dramatic cloud formations above us.

The riverside cliffs were huge limestone scars, not unreminiscent of Malham Cove in the Yorkshire Dales, but on a more massive scale. There were huge overhangs, weathered dark streaks down the rocks, wheeling birds of prey, and down below, in the clear green river, we could see the brightly coloured groups of canoes being piloted downriver.

It was hard work though – seemingly countless times we were forced down a combe and back up the other side – each small downhill was a joy, of course, but the inevitable reascent back to the top of the plateau followed inexorably. We stopped at every belvedere, not wishing to miss out on the incredible views. Some of the belvederes were perched vertiginously above cliffs of several hundred metres. A perfect location, then, for a selfie?

Towards the end of the gorge we reached the highest point, and were subsequently able to enjoy a long steady descent towards the Pont d’Arc. This famous landmark guards the western end of the gorge, occupying a dramatic setting.

We were able to view it from both sides, firstly from the downhill approach and later (after lunch at a nearby Auberge) we got off the tandem and walked down to a beach on the river to see it from the west.

It’s an amazing sight, and the surrounding cliffs were teeming with nesting birds. The river itself was teeming with school-age children in canoes, their adult leaders shouting commands as they set off down the river.

We cycled out of the western end of the gorge, through a series of short tunnels to the outskirts of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc.

Here we followed our hosts’ directions (turn right at Lidl!) to our gîte. This turned out to be in the corner of an idyllic square in the quietest part of the village – perfect.

We returned to Lidl on foot for provisions before setting in for a peaceful evening. Tomorrow our destination is Vals-les-Bains, in the Parc Naturel Regional des Monts d’Ardèche.

Here’s a video of today’s route:

and today’s track: