Day 12: Pont-de-Montvert to Vallon Pont-d'Arc (100km)
Despite the climb to Pont-de-Montvert the previous day we had not yet reached our Cévennes summit so once again it was a start climbing ever upward. But with fresh early morning legs we were going well and it was not too long before we made a photo stop at the Col de la Croix Berthel (1,030m). A glorious 20 km downhill whizz followed. Super long views and hill scenes as the road twisted and turned down and down through Soleyrois and Vialas, until finally reaching the bridge just before Chamborigaud.
We made a short excursion to bypass the town on a tiny lane, which at one point went straight through someone’s front porch on the way. It was easy cycling but seemed strange having to pedal again after so much freewheeling. We paused for a banana and yoghurt stop on a bridge parapet looking up at the 29 arches of the high railway viaduct carrying the line from Chamborigaud. Easy cycling continued down the valley through Peyremale to arrive in Bessèges on market day. We stopped to explore the large market and do our food shopping for the day.
Leaving Bessèges we became aware that a French cyclist was hanging onto the tandem’s rear wheel. Mostly cyclists overtake us, not see us as a drafting opportunity, but we resisted the temptation to step up the pace. On down the valley we reached St Ambroix on the Cèze River at lunchtime. We visited the tourist office, took a short wander around the town and then ate our picnic lunch on a bench beside a children’s play area. Refreshed but hot we continued out of town into much more open countryside along the Cèze River past St Victor-de-Malcap and through St Jean-de-Maruéjois.
The mid-afternoon sun was very hot and we were very hot and dusty as we rolled into Barjac where we stopped beside the tourist office in the shade and filled up our bottles from a water fountain. We adjourned for drinks in a café and sat in shade by the boulodrome glad to be out of the direct sunshine. Later as the afternoon heat started to drop we set off again back on the road for a steady climb out of Barjac.
It was a straightish but still hot road on through Vagnas, then a welcome downhill towards the Ardèche through Salavas and finally over the new bridge into Vallon Pont-d’Arc. This was a veritable capital T ‘Tourist Town’ like no other we had seen so far – all the trinkets and baubles were on sale here. We threaded our way through the one-way system to the tourist office in order to find out about canoe hire for the next day. This was inconclusive but we discovered that our Vallon Pont-d’Arc hotel was in fact several kms out of town down the river.
We set off again cycling out of town along the Gorge de l’Ardèche. Almost by surprise we found the Pont d’Arc in front of us with canoes dotted below. After a photo stop it was only 300m further to reach the Logis where we were staying. After checking in, parking the tandem in an underground storeroom, and discussing river trip options with Madame we walked down to a nearby campsite and canoe hire location. We had a “What’s it like?” conversation with the proprietor and a period of indecision before committing ourselves by booking a Midi-Bateaux canoe made for two in place of our similarly specified bicycle. We returned to our hotel for much needed drinks followed by dinner and to study a map of the river and its rapids.
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Day 13: Vallon Pont-d'Arc to Sauze (by canoe)
Lots of sun block on.
Picnic, drinking water and sandals in the bidon.
Instructions from proprietor:
“Choose any canoe from the beach…. if in doubt keep right”
That was it - we were off. There was no one else around yet as we paddled away with the river to ourselves in beautiful scenery and still water. We endeavoured to get our paddling synchronised. Unlike on the tandem there was no timing chain to keep us in time with each other.
The first rapid we approached was classed as ‘facile’, which seemed a good level of difficulty for a first attempt at white water. Nonetheless we managed to go aground before it and as a result watched the line that someone else took. This became a policy we later adopted for each ‘rapide sportif / difficile’. For an easy rapid it seemed quite exciting not to say pretty wet.
Endless stunning scenes, towering cliffs and a sense of being a long way from the rest of the world deep in our canyon kingdom. We paused often for drink and food stops on the way down, but took no photos. We thought rapids and a camera would probably not mix well so had left it in the hotel. There were occasions of almost quiet solitude and periods where we seemed to be sharing the river with every boisterous teenage school child in France.
We gained confidence and the Rapide de la Dent Noire, Rapide Toupine du Gournier and Rapide de la Pastière together with many easier stretches of white water were negotiated without excessive drama, although mishaps to other canoes were observed. Before the ‘difficile’ Toupine du Gournier rapide we paused while John walked along the bank to inspect this challenge. He watched the whirlpool at the Toupine du Gournier completely swallow alive two canoes and their occupants who only re-surfaced without their canoes some time later. So that was what the canoe hire proprietor meant by, if in doubt keep ‘à droite’. John returned to Sheila and decided not to share what he had seen but emphasised that it was essential to keep paddling and to stay far to the right at all costs. We paddled into the blur of white water, lost all co-ordination and shot out of the end of the rapid going backwards, but still upright with both of us aboard. Absolutely no style points but in our terms a success.
The endless stunning scenery continued around the Pas du Mousse, past the Montagne de Sable, and la Cathédrale and around the Cirque de la Madeleine. Finally it was a harder paddle on the run in against the wind to reach our destination beach at 4.30pm sunburnt, exhilarated at the canyon scenery and thrilled / relieved at our safe arrival. Back to our hotel by bus.
We did not take our camera but these are 3 photos from the internet to show some of the rapids
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Day 14: Vallon Pont-d'Arc to Pont St Esprit (50km)
Today it was our turn to see the Ardèche again, but this time from the canyon rim high above the river.
There was a short false downhill from the hotel along the gorge then a challenging climb as the road kicked up with a vengeance to the very top of the canyon walls. We paused a couple of times for a breather and to take on water before pedalling on in the lowest gear we had. At one point we were overtaken by a French woman cycle-tourist travelling on her solo bike with only a bar bag for luggage. Slowly on still climbing through a long lit tunnel and finally out to Pas du Mousse and the Belvedere du Serre de Tourre.
There were fantastic views of the gorge, its limestone cliffs, the river and small coloured dots of canoes. We continued up and down along the cliff top road all the way with view and photo stops at regular intervals at each belvedere to enjoy the sights and relive our trip by canoe. We stopped for our picnic at Maladerie-de-Templiers viewpoint. From here there was a breathtaking vista of an almost closed loop of the river encircled by cliffs.
Finally there was a short burst of rain as we descended towards St Martin-d’Ardèche but we dried off again very quickly. We cycled past the hill top ruins of Aiguèze on cliffs opposite us as we came into St Martin-d’Ardèche, around its one-way system and into the small main street. We ate tarts in the square at St Martin-d’Ardèche then stepped up to a café above for coffee and a ‘plain’ crepe.
We did some postcard shopping for canoe pictures, and then set off again across the bridge over the river and away from the Ardèche. From here it was a relatively gentle run on through the beginnings of Cote du Rhône vineyard countryside to reach Pont St Esprit. The town had a very shut up and gone away looking tourist office. We checked into our Logis hotel, parked the tandem in a store underneath, and then strolled through the town following an historic trail to the riverside and bridge over the River Rhône. Evening drinks were outside a café watching boules being played, followed by a pizza dinner in a restaurant that was a former barracks in the main square.
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Day 15: Pont St Esprit to Orange (35km)
It was a cloudy and rainy start today as we walked pushing the tandem slowly through town to buy food and a cycle magazine for later on-bus reading.
By the time we had finished our chores bright blue sky had emerged and we cycled out of town across the old bridge over the Rhône in sunshine. We had plenty of time today having deliberately planned a short day in case we needed some catch up time if we had been delayed earlier during the tour. Consequently it was a gentle, no hurry, pedal through small lanes and vineyards with a stop to photograph Sheila and sunflowers followed shortly after with a photo of John and vineyards.
The road zigzagged after Mondragon up to Les Farjons but at about the easiest gradient of the whole trip for a ‘climb’. The following steady downhill gave us views of Mont Ventoux away to the east. Not in our wildest dreams would we have then believed that one day we would cycle to its summit.
We entered Orange in style through the Roman triumphal arch, where we paused for photos. In the town centre we first visited the tourist office, and then settled in a café in a town centre street for a leisurely lunch. In the afternoon we visited the Roman amphitheatre museum and cycled up around the town to the park for views back towards the amphitheatre and over the town. Drinks were at a café in the park with a Sunday afternoon tea dance in progress. This was slightly marred by our being deluged with water cascading off a canopy where it had gathered.
Back in the town centre we had time to wander and sit in a square on a wall by planters eating sandwiches for our tea. It was time to leave to cycle to the coach pick-up spot, although we still managed to fit in a final coffee stop of the trip at a café on the way out to the edge of town. We were joined by a returning solo cycle tourist also on his way back to the bus. There was a bit of on and off rain while we waited under cover for our bus to arrive.
The overnight return to Britain was the reverse of our outward journey, with quite a lot of rain, but at Waltham Abbey we managed to unload the tandem from the bus and cycle to our parked car in the dry. We had arrived late in due to a delay catching the ferry in Calais. Our journey by car home included a detour via Cambridge to visit John’s parents.
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