TRAVEL: A sumptuous sip of southern France
Charlotte Birch becomes an all-action girl in the French Ardeche.
Draining a glass of red at my third wine-tasting in five days, I’d almost forgotten I was on a trip to discover the great outdoors of the Ardeche and Vaucluse in Provence.
Against a backdrop of rolling hills covered in a sea of vineyards and lavender fields, I found a variety of adrenaline-fuelled activities as well as countless excellent bistros and home-from-home guesthouses.
“Is this your first time in the Ardeche?” I was continually asked. “This is my first time in France ever,” I responded to some amazed looks.
I spent my first night at Le Couradou in Labastide-de-Virac, owned by British expat Diana Little, with a group of Belgian tourists who had been visiting the region twice a year for more than 10 years.
We shared a joyous meal on the terrace in the warm evening sun and I was quickly falling in love with this beautiful, rustic landscape.
As I retired to my cottage-style room with wooden beams, antique furniture and pretty pale pink walls, the thought of anything more strenuous than lifting a glass to my lips seemed unnecessary.
But with the region experiencing unseasonably hot weather, donning my hiking boots to take in the outstanding natural beauty of the Cirque de Gens in Pradons was the perfect way to spend the following morning.
Limestone crags overlook the bends of the Ardeche river and sturdy trainers or walking shoes are a must as the terrain is fairly rugged and some scrambling - over, under and around boulders - is required.
The circular route takes around two hours to complete and later I sampled the other adventures of the Ardeche river. Buzzing with families and twenty-somethings from the riverside campsites and lodges, laughter and squeals can be heard as daring youths jump from the rocks into the breathtakingly cool water.
Now, I admit, I wasn’t so adventurous to join them, preferring to admire the gorges by taking a five-mile canoe trip.
I was accompanied by an experienced instructor, who did most of the strenuous paddling - I was a little tentative, but it turned out to be a dry and safe haven as we meandered along below 300m cliffs.
Around halfway along the course sits the unspoilt Pont d’Arc, a 60m high natural rock arch which is, I found after a bit of gentle persuasion, the ideal spot to take a dip in the water.
After all that exercise, what better way to undo it all than with a traditional French lunch.
Bistrot de Pays Le Bec Figue in Labeaume, one of the most picturesque villages in the Ardeche, serves up a stunning array of meats, cheeses, olive oil-drenched salad and succulent fruit, all washed down with a sweet rose.
And talking of rose, it would be an injustice if I didn’t mention Domaine Notre-Dame de Cousignac, Bourg-St-Andeol - a family-run winery where I stayed the night.
It would be hard to find a more friendly and welcoming B&B, and owner Raphael Pommier and his American wife Rachel are more than happy to share their wine-making secrets.
Raphael, a seventh generation winemaker, took me on a tour of his vineyard, which includes a sixth-century chapel from which the estate takes its name.
The taste of Raphael’s grapes straight from the organic vines is sublime - sweet, juicy and just like a grape should taste - and they lose none of their flavour from vine to bottle.
His Cotes du Rhone Rose is particularly memorable, a blend of 60% grenache and 40% cinsault, it’s citrusy and sweet on the taste buds.
Coming towards the end of my time in the Ardeche before I crossed the Rhone river into Vaucluse, I made my last stop in the pretty medieval village of Saint-Montan.
Overlooking the narrow cobbled streets of the village and picturesque houses is a castle which has received extensive renovation - it’s a charming place and an ideal for a spot for exploring.
After yet more gastronomic indulgences, it was about time I got back on the adventure trail - and this meant another stop at a winery in Vaucluse to pick up my electric bike (www.velorelaxduventoux.com).
Starting at the foot of Mount Ventoux, known as the ‘Giant of Provence’, which towers over this landscape, I rode through the plains and country roads with ease, bowled over by the magnificent views.
With more than 1,000km of cycle paths of different experience levels and 220 service providers - hotels, campsites, wine merchants and restaurants - belonging to the ‘welcome cyclists’ charter in the Luberon, Pays des Sorges, Mount Ventoux and Upper Vaucluse, this is an excellent region for bike enthusiasts.
But I enjoyed the dismount to visit the vineyards of Chateau Pesquie (www.chateaupesquie.com), Mormoiron, for a tour of its ageing cellars and a taste of its vast range of wines.
After another day in the 30C heat, I was certainly ready for my dinner and night at La Villa Noria in Modene - and I was in for a treat.
Owner Philippe Monti uses his 20 years’ experience as a former chef at a four-star restaurant to serve up a luxurious meal on the patio of this peaceful resort.
As the night drew in, lively and cheerful chatter with fellow guests was accompanied by dishes of sweet figs, succulent pan-seared cod and soft and hard cheeses.
My room was modern but full of character - a theme which runs throughout the property, with rooms packed with antiques, book-filled shelves and historic Chanel atomisers.
Relaxing in the very heart of this charming, tranquil guesthouse didn’t prepare me for the hustle and bustle of the Provencal market in Isle sur la Sorgue.
Nicknamed ‘Little Venice’ due to the various canals crossing the town, it is renowned for its flea market and antique dealerships with more than 300 stands and shops open every weekend.
This is France at its most authentic, with locals scrambling for fresh fruits, fabrics and jewellery and the smell of smoked sausages and roast chickens wafting over the crowds.
After here, the drive to Menerbes, one of France’s most beautiful villages, ended at the truffle and wine museum Maison de la Truffe et du Vin (www.vin-truffe-luberon.com).
Classified as a historic monument, the grand 17th century property at the top of a steep cobbled street is home to a collection of wines from the producers of the Luberon national park.
Stone staircases lead up and down to conference rooms, cellars and art exhibitions, where you can gather knowledge - not just through your taste buds - on all matters relating to wine and truffles.
I jumped on my bike again for a ride through the Pays de l’Ocre, nicknamed the French Colorado thanks to its ochre cliffs. Cyclists are well served thanks to Velo Loisir en Luberon, which promotes cycle routes and itineraries on small, quiet roads, bike rentals and accommodation throughout the Luberon.
Lying in the middle of Provence is the Ochre and Colours Museum (www.okhra.com) in Roussillon and the Bruoux mines in Garges.
Here, complete with hard hat, and the only time I needed an extra layer, with the temperature dropping to around 10C, I explored the ochre quarries.
Heading underground, I walked along the dimly-lit tunnels on a one-hour tour, learning about mining techniques and the amazing work of the men who worked in the galleries.
My final guesthouse, Le Crillon, sat within the picturesque village of Murs, attached to the flank of a hill - an ideal departure point for hikers and cyclists.
Modern and charming, my nautical-themed room was bright and comfortable and the restaurant, which boasts delicious homemade ice-cream and sorbets, brought a calming influence after a busy few days in southern France.
Key facts - South of France
:: Best for: Comfortable hospitality and the great outdoors.
:: Time to go: Year round, although it may be too hot to cycle in July and August.
:: Don’t miss: The experience of an electric bike.
:: Need to know: It’s recommended that you book before a tour of the Bruoux mines.
:: Don’t forget: Swimming costume and dry clothes for canoe trip.
Charlotte Birch travelled with easyJet to Marseille from London Gatwick. Prices one-way start from £27.99 and include all taxes. For more information, visit www.easyJet.com to book.
Her journey included one night each in Le Couradou (www.lecouradou.com) from 100 euros to 185 euros per night in high season; Domaine Notre-Dame de Cousignac (www.notre-dame-de-cousignac.com) from 60 euros per night; La Villa Noria (www.villa-noria.com) from 80 euros to 150 euros per night in high season, and Le Crillon (www.lecrillon-luberon.com) from 85 euros to 110 euros per night in high season. For more information, visit www.ardeche-guide.com, www.provenceguide.com, www.visit-southern-france.com