The Ardèche Gorge, the largest natural canyon in Europe, angles through southern France, northwest of Avignon. Its craggy limestone cliffs rise as high as 1,000 feet. The Ardèche River begins in the massif central, cuts through the gorge and crosses the plateau to flow into the Rhone.
The best-known landmark of the gorge is Vallon Pont d’Arc, a huge natural bridge arching far above the river. A pleasant way to spend part of a day is to rent kayaks and paddle along the river to the awe-inspiring bridge, perhaps stopping at a beach along the way for a picnic. Shortly after passing under the bridge you can come ashore, where the kayak rental company will meet you with transportation back to your car. Being on the water allows for an intimacy with the place that tourists who only watch from high on the cliff never experience.
Millennia ago, prehistoric people may have floated the river too, in hand-carved boats. You can see remnants of their lives on the plateau above the river, where standing stones remain, the dolmens and menhirs that had deep meaning in ancient times. In caves dotting the cliffs, arrowheads and knives are often found and, in some, paintings from Paleolithic times.
Along the cliff road are signs to the grottes (caves) or avens (deep holes). The most famous by far is Grotte Chauvet, near the Pont d’Arc. Discovered in 1994, its walls have more than 300 designs painted and engraved some 30,000 years ago. There are rhinoceroses, lions, bears, owls, mammoths and more, all beautifully rendered and in amazing perspective. The Chauvet works are the oldest found in the world so far.
The cave is closed to the public, but there’s an excellent exhibit in the nearby village of Vallon Pont d’Arc, open from mid-March to mid-November. It shows cave painting replicas and much more. There are artifacts from archeological finds, a reconstruction of a prehistoric dwelling, and full-size animal reproductions. At the end, there’s a movie that shows more about Chauvet Cave.
Quite different is Grottes de St-Marcel d’Ardèche, which is open to visitors. Walking down the long main passageway, you come to an array of beautiful rimstone pools, perhaps a hundred of them. Continuing through this enchanting place, you arrive at the last chamber, full of stalactites, stalagmites and other mineral formations. Classical music and lighting add to the effect.
L’Aven Grotte de la Forestiére, discovered in 1966, is open April to September. The cave has several levels, formed at different time periods. Near the surface are roots from trees that grew into the cave for its water. On a lower level, hundreds of animal bones were found, some from animals now extinct. In one chamber, the animals and fish that once lived here adapted to the dark environment and were eyeless and colorless.
The Grotte de la Madeleine contains beautiful and irregular formations set off by special lighting. This cave, set into the side of the cliff, can be reached from the river or from the plateau above. There’s a gift shop, snack shop, and a viewpoint overlooking the gorge.
Aven de Marzal was investigated in 1892 but left and forgotten until 1949, and now is open for guided tours daily between April and October. It has numerous stalactites, stalagmites, cauldrons and multi-colored crystals. A museum shows the equipment used for early explorations. There’s also a “”zoo” with life-sized models of prehistoric animals.
Finally, there is the splendid Aven d’Orgnac, an enormous cavern filled with strange and eery shapes, all carved by nature over eons. A staircase and pathway descend into the cavern, where lights show off the formations (you return to the top by elevator). It is open year-round.
Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com