The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Friday, June 20, 2008

Major-League Karst Holes and Other Random Schist

The Ardeche gorges are a protected natural area about 90 minutes south of Lyon. Though technically in Languedoc-Roussillon rather than Provence (Languedoc is west of the Rhône, Provence is east of it) the climate, flora and fauna are familiarly provencal.

What draws people here, though, is the scenery: The Ardeche river, in its course to the Rhône, has worn into a deep gorge lined with sheer cliffs and pocked with caves. One of these caves, the Grotte Chauvet, contains the earliest known cave paintings (to avoid the fate that has befallen the more famous Lascaux cave, you can't visit the cave but there's an excellent website here). There is also a famous natural stone arch bridge that spans the river, the Pont d'Arc [photo].

The river, too, provides a significant draw--it is gentle enough that beginners can canoe or kayak down it, and as such it is very popular with school groups, outing clubs, and the like. On sunny summer days the stream of canoes is continuous [click to enlarge any of the photos of the river gorge; all the tiny multicolored spots are canoes].

Boog and I went on a weekend camping trip to the gorge, though we had to skip the canoe trip as kids must be 7 years old to make the passage.

There's an interesting mix of tourists in the Ardeche gorges, mostly rural French folk taking the kids out for a dip at the swimmin' hole, alongside outdoorsy German RV'ers; we heard no English the entire weekend. [Photo: it can get crowded by the Pont d'Arc on a sunny Saturday.]

Our campsite was in a pretty wooded spot by a stony beach on the riverbank, with nice views of the cliffs [and occasional spotting of the beaching behavior of the Teutonic river whale, photo]. As I've mentioned before, French campgrounds are a little different; as I was whipping up some jambalaya for dinner on my trusty MSR Whisperlite backpacking stove (campfires strictment interdit), I realized that I was the only one in the campground cooking--everyone else was dining at the campground's onsite white-linen-tablecloth restaurant.

After a good bit of hiking on a hot Provencal day, a visit to one of the area's caves was in order. As there wasn't even a road into this area until the 1960s, the caves were unknown except to the locals, and were used by the Resistance in WWII (pretty much every remote/rural/underground location in France was "used by the Resistance", a sort of 20th-century "Washington slept here").

These photos are of the Grotte de la Madeleine, which has some spectacular formations that are exceedingly difficult to get a good photo of. Oh well. Also you'll just have to imagine the son-et-lumiere show in the cave's largest gallery, the cathedral [photo], complete with the inevitable gratuitous use of "O Fortuna"from Orff's Carmina Burana.

This looks to have been our last out-of-town trip before the family moves home; we're trying to work in one last run to Paris, but the do-list keeps getting longer and there is less and less white space on the kitchen calendar as the days tick down. Still, I promised Boog we would climb the Eiffel Tower before leaving, so I suppose we'll have to find a way to make a day trip at least.


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