After we left Yves and Ingrid on a bright Thursday morning we had a rough route planned that would take in the Gorges du Tarn and the Gorges de L’Ardeche both of which had come highly recommended by Ingrid. Travelling through the two gorges would also align us to continue further East towards Italy.
After stretching our legs on the ride towards Gorges du Tarn (read realising we had lost some fitness in our six rest days) we were looking forward to a dinner of our remaining Roquefort cheese and a peaceful free camp spot. Emma quickly spotted a nice pitch beside the river in a disused rafting and rope climbing park. As we wheeled our bikes down a light rain began to fall and we both looked at one another thinking “Great back to wet free camping!”.
Friday dawned cold, grey and still raining and me in a miserable mood. I was beginning to wonder if France had something against us by seeming to rain almost every single day we had been on the road. I handed the camera over to Emma for the day to document our ride. Emma reports she enjoyed the tiny villages built on sheer cliffs across the river and the carpet of tiny flowers that lined the roads, but thought it would have been nicer if we hadn’t ridden it on a French holiday weekend.
We shared the busy road with motorcyclists and camper vans to the very touristy Saint Enimie. Stopping for supplies I decided to buy a baguette which was tiny, expensive and worst of all still partially frozen! After our cold-ish snack we continued on quieter roads until finding a dry spot to cook a hot lunch and dry the tent. The day ended in a nice campsite at Bedoues which had some of the home comforts I had missed plus a large rabbit enclosure filled with fat happy rabbits.
Saturday the sun shone and the birds sang as we cycled alongside the Tarn river for much of the day. The morning consisted of a gentle 24km climb uphill through the Cevennes stopping in Le Pont de Montvert for bakery and coffee top-ups. Here Emma picked up a flyer about a local bull fighting festival and we deliberated over whether to attend as a birthday treat for me. After determining that the bull would be hurt I decided it wasn’t something I wanted to see. That afternoon we descended past waterfalls and huge boulder fields with picnicking families. After passing up a few windy and forested free camp spots we eventually settled on a place close to the road but hidden and surrounded by wild mint, both smelling lovely and giving us materials for warm cups of tea.
Sunday we set off towards the Gorges de L’Ardeche with a quiet morning other than an encounter with a friendly cat, finding clean public toilets with hot water for a wash in and my knee giving a few twinges after the 80km of the day before. We headed into the Gorge past a multitude of campsite and kayak hire places expecting a downhill ride along the river. After a few kilometres of flat riding, a spot of cave exploring and enjoying the river we were confronted with a steep uphill climb in a head wind to the edge of the gorge leaving the river far below. At the lookout point we got approving looks from a few very tired road cyclists on carbon fibre bikes with no luggage. We continued riding the edge of the gorge for the rest of the day, passing many viewpoints where we watched a parade of canoeists in the river far below. At lunch time we decided if we could find a campsite and the price was right we would canoe the river for my birthday using money donated as a leaving gift by my work colleagues. Reaching Sauze we found campsite and canoe hire and bedded down after an early evening swim, talking nervously about Eskimo rolls and shooting the rapids.
Monday morning we were ready to go bright and early drinking a quick espresso in our wetsuits before a short van ride back over the road we had cycled the previous day. Our hopes of a refresher canoe lesson were dashed when the driver opened the door of the van gestured us out and pointed towards the river, a few minutes later we were paddling downstream. The rest of our paddle down the gorge saw us alternate between believing we were in complete control of the canoe as we coasted through rapids and finding ourselves facing the wrong way up the river as we were spun backwards. Lunch was eaten on the riverside as we watched a lone paddle float by followed a short while later by a man attempting to swim his canoe down the river. The scenery along the river is awe inspiring, and in tandem with peaceful moments of coasting along, made you feel like you have discovered a secret lost land.
We cycled on from the Gorges de L’Ardeche towards the flat vine covered terrain of the Rhone Valley with a feeling of disbelief that the prehistoric gorge landscapes we had cycled through over the previous days were truly in France.