Written for Travel & Leisure, 1987.
The most unknown countries are the ones everybody knows. Every inch of France has been meticulously mapped, but how many people know the Ardèche, dead center in the south? I told people I was wondering whether to go for several days, and they corrected my pronunciation drastically—these were my fellow countrymen—surely I meant somewhere else entirely? Ah, you must be talking about the Ardennes. Their conviction decided me. I’d read that the Ardèche, with Romanesque churches as stark as its gorges, and grey villages among green Herculean mountains, was one of France’s most beautiful regions. If no one but the French had heard of it, that meant I was getting somewhere.
The new Très Grande Vitesse (Very Great Speed) trains telescope half of France in two hours. Then the road takes over. From Lyon south the factories drop away, the woods resume, the stony hills rise wild. I followed a smaller road; the Ardèche began. Decaying villages with double-tiled roofs knotted the enormous hillsides, bearded with barbarous pines. It was early September, and still hot. In the sprawling vineyards by the road the men were barechested, checking the grapes for the coming harvest.
The Ardèche is naturally argumentative. The Romans passed through, the Reformation passed through, the Revolution soldered the divisions between Catholic and Protestant. The country is mostly rock: haughty mountains made fertile by extremes of climate. The peaks are snowbound for five months, eerie with mists and rain for three. For the long summer the Mediterranean heat comes up across the southern plains and helps the vineyards, the chestnut trees that were famous in Crusader times, and the Roman cypresses. There is the usual dissent between the landlocked highlanders gazinng inward and the Latinized southerners looking across the plains to the coast. The arguments are mostly ancient ones. The denizens have the superstitions of people born a century late, and the prosperity of the coal mines and the silk industry seems almost a story. But the people keep their privacy in a landscape of austere beauty, and the markets, once vast trade fairs, go on.
I planned a circuit of three days, starting at Lamastre in the north (good wine country), making my way southwest via the old spa town of Vals-Les-Bains as far as Les Vans with its castle-hotel. Then follow the great gorge of the Ardèche river down to the plains: then north via the road in the east to see the gargoyles in Bourg St.-Andeol. Like Robert Louis Stevenson in Travels With A Donkey, the route and the towns were my flimsy excuses. It was the countryside, and the peace of summer’s end, that I was after.
Lamastre’s town square looked as if it were expecting a coach-and-horses with news of the Corsican Bonaparte. After lunch, a brass band with brilliant golden instruments and proper white uniforms—stockings, pantaloons, berets—collected in the sunlight around a sour-faced statue of an unforgettable counselor general. An afternoon parade; the burps and buzzing of the band getting their horns warmed up; a hot blue porcelain sky.
I said to one young cornet-man, “Who are you? The Army?”
He looked like he didn’t know, himself. “I think we are. Just a minute, I’ll check.” He turned to a tuba player. “Hey, Henri, are we the Army?”
A clarinetist had fallen asleep at the café. Someone went to wake him.
“I think we’re called a fanfare. Yep, that’s it.”
When the parade started, several local clowns followed exaggeratedly behind, left-righting it as the band flowed around the slant narrow streets past the fruitseller’s and the baker’s and the candlestick-maker’s.
At Ponton there was a white wooden cross by the road and an irregular pile of stones waiting to be rearranged into the original wall. I stole three peaches from somebody’s orchard; his stone barn looked on resignedly. A wind bent the tall grass and the cicadas began winding their watches.
According to my detailed map Les Nourries, like so many of these villages, simply didn’t exist. Three men stood scratching their bald heads outside a little tabac. They were digesting the view: the passes fanned out to form steep valleys combed with cultivation—perhaps they were jealous of all that growth. Massive dark mountains shouldered behind. A pair of telephone lines crossed the valley, but otherwise it couldn’t have changed much in a century, just the odd non-existent villages dwindling below.
Now rounded stone walls started to hedge the falling road. La Chaise was deserted, all its red shutters firmly boarded-up, one emphatically toothless old man dozing in the shade with his mouth open. A natty fisherman, rod in hand, was making his way down to a creek with cracked bluffs. Somebody’s lambs bleated at him. Every village had laundry flapping and women in flopped hats seated, gossiping, outside tiny bistros. The men had narrow genial faces, they all wore caps. They also seemed doubtful of everything, as men who live among toppling stone walls might tend to be.
“Beautiful view,” I offered.
Another just shrugged.
Every village’s entrance had a crucifix, and after a dozen I realized that each cross was a distinct clue to its village’s character. The only hamlets with people chatting had carnival-colored, circus crucifixes. Most villages looked virtually uninhabited, and the more empty the lanes, the more somber Jesus seemed. One was a kind of castiron sculpture, a forerunner of Postmodernism, by a wrecked barn full of hay.
But the cloistered hamlets held unexpected eccentricities. An auberge where I stopped for coffee because of a white pony nearby had an interior done up as if it were in Arizona—a Wild West mural of wagon wheels and ghost towns. It wasn’t for American tourists, since there were none. Why?
“I like cowboys,” said the owner.
The villages were like austere versions of Yorkshire, with smaller inns and better food, and the modest smell of woodsmoke as the day cooled and fires were started in hearths.In Andraigues, glued to the side of a hill, the square was called the Place de la Resistance. The old men were still talking about the war.Outside Lo Podello, probably the most famous café-restaurant in the region, the locals were playing at boules by an industrial-strength sculpture of Don Quixote and a fountain with a naked baby. The town was still full of the summer’s chic Paris theater crowd, but locals didn’t seem to mind.
A young dark-haired stonemason watching the game said to me, “People are completely different than in the southern Ardèche. They’re like a different race up here. The country’s harder, more savage. There’s not much to do, as you can see, and life is slow. These old men are here every day, all afternoon, back and forth across the square. They exercise the ground, but that’s all they exercise. Down south it’s even warmer, the country’s milder, the people are more open, there seems more to do, more places. Here there’s no more work, so all the young people have left for Lyon or Marseille. In July and August you see campers here, especially near the gorges, mostly Dutch and Germans. But now that it’s September— ” The stonemason paused. “It’s still hot, and it’s just the old people waiting for the young peopleto come home.”
So it was all a question of employment; but it made the land seem even more aged, these oldtimers wandering along the roads—as if the youngsters were off at a war, and their parents and grandparents, veterans of the last two, had not yet given up hope for a happy return.
Vals-Les-Bains broke my brooding. It was a cheerful spa town of parks and gazebos where people still came for the waters and went for walks along the esplanade and took snapshots. A splendid sprawling hotel with a great veranda had belle-époque chandeliers; supposedly there was a casino somewhere in the town.
I stopped a dignified elderly gentleman with a cane and cravate and asked him if he’d come here for the waters.
“I live here, monsieur.”
“For the waters?”
“The waters have been here since time immemorial. I have lived here all my life. I have never tried the waters.”
Good enough, I thought; and neither did I.
Aubenas was fortified, its ramparts looking out over the beetling crevasses. Now the houses changed, began to resemble villas in the more southern light, some of them moss-eaten and abandoned (not expensive, either). The mountains grew jumbled and black with the sunset, and when I drove through Joyeuse a floodlit boules tournament was in play, the town congregated past nightfall.
I was using the Château Le Scipionnet as a base for my journey, near the market town of Les Vans. A converted castle set in great trees by a river—with a gleaming, black-turreted château standing enormously, almost unbelievably, on the other side—Le Scipionnet looked as if its decor had been attentively preserved from the turn of the century. On its lawn was a swimming pool, and a sunstruck terrace above of white stone where you took fresh croissants each morning. Nearby were apple orchards and tennis courts. Attentively run by a couple named Dupouy, it seemed a proper setting for M. Hercule Poirot.
Indeed, there was a festival des voyantes for the weekend—a convention of spiritualists and palm-readers and the rest. They were really more like a traveling orchestra than a convention, mostly women “on tour” throughout the region, visited by eager locals all day and well into the evening in one of the château’s sitting-rooms. The Dupouys were dubious. “It’s cheaper than going to a psychiatrist, I suppose,” said Jean. One night there was to be a demonstration by the pool; we all kept waiting for phantoms to appear, but twilight brought only mists drifting around the château across the valley. And at dinner the mediums ate duck like everybody else.
In the morning, that château’s towers trembled in the sunlight, past a lilting stone bridge and seamed fields.
I wanted to devote a whole day to slowly threading the gorges of the Ardèche River, on the advice of the Dupouys. To the west of the Ardèche lie the slightly more famous Gorges Du Tarn. “But there you’re down below,” said Jean. “Here in the Ardèche gorges you’re on the heights, so you don’t feel cornered, and you can see everything.”
The road east to Ruoms ran beneath walls of cliff, carved in identical blocks so perfect they looked like the remains of ancient battlements. Their ragged heights were tufted with splotches of trees and their sides overgrown: they could’ve been the ruins of a race of castle-building giants with pretensions to imperialism. They marched along the valley. At one point, amid all this wildness, I had to halt for a traffic light set in the rock—a carved primitive tunnel so narrow that cars can only pass through in a single line.
Ruoms had a funny beachside feel (canoes, rubber dinghies, swimsuit stores) and a huge wine-bottling plant. Then a shallow river, barely a stream over pebbles, began furrowing its way among glistening trees. Prehistoric caves lined the cliffs; the river widened. Tents appeared, campers bearing canoes on their heads toward the river, fishermen. Le Font d’Arc was a chunky natural bridge muscularly arching across the meandering river by a sandy beach with bathers.
Then the road began to rise, and the gorges plunged. Always the little river remained in sight, a blue vein of life way below. The cliffs were by turns swarthy with brush, or scarred bare. On the heights the whole place took on a soaring desolation. I wanted to come back with more time on my hands to spend days paddling around on the river, to see the gorges from down there as well. There’s a special poetry to river gorges: a sense of slow, self-made miracle that cliffs have reconciled themselves to being shaped and ordered by mere water. Nature goes out of the way to conceal many of its important happenings, but a river gorge makes it clear there has been a great event, and no traveler can look on one without feeling an ancient wonder.
It was a Saturday, and I barely caught the market back in Les Vans—woven fabrics, carved olive-wood items, goat cheeses, dolls. It was over by two, and an hour later some of the merchants were sipping wine in the gardens of Le Scipionnet, waiting to have their destinies foretold and their handwriting analyzed. I thought of learning about my own—it was only fifty francs—but what would someone see in the crystal ball? “You will soon set off on a long journey.” I knew that already, so instead I went swimming in the sunlight while the rest of France got rained out.
The next day I threaded my way east again, but north of the gorges. The Romanesque church in Bourg St.-Andeol looked as if it might’ve been inspired architecturally by them. It loomed and muttered and swayed and from certain angles didn’t make sense, a fantastical thing. It had been begun in the 9th century and often rebuilt and added to thereafter. Victor Hugo, passing through in 1839, called the octagonal tower “one of the most beautiful of the Byzantine style that I have ever seen” though it didn’t look much like Constantinople to me. It was striking nonetheless, with a weathervane atop the bell and fanged gargoyles leaping off the stone pillars.
Just outside Les Baraques I met two old gents sitting on a stone wall by the road. One had a thatch of white hair and a kind idiotic smile; the other wore a heavy beret, a blue suit over a worn shirt, and a questioning expression. He was thumping a long stick on the ground. These were plainsmen, so I thought they might be open to conversation.
The smiling man kept silent; the other talked, punctuating every phrase with thwacks of his cane. In five minutes he told me the story of the French involvement in Algeria, how he’d met his wife there (she was of Moroccan blood, her family lived in the States, perhaps I knew—), his retirement from the gendarmerie a few miles up the road.
“Look at me. Thwack. I’m retired. Seventy-three. Do I look a day over sixty-two? Thwack. My friend here’s handicapped, poor gent, keeps smiling and listening but doesn’t say much. Lives over that way. I’ve got the house just behind you, across this field. Thwack. Lost my wife two years ago, what can you say about it? I’m still alive. Got an apartment in Viviers, too. When I get tired of the house, I’ll move. Thwack. I’m still alive. Now, when De Gaulle—”
I excused myself, saying I was expected back at the Hotel du Midi in Lamastre for dinner. My friend hadn’t heard of it (his accent was soft and drawly, the equivalent of Georgia perhaps). I got the sense the average Ardèchois is slightly suspicious of converted châteaus or fine restaurants in the countryside, places where your manners might be put on exhibit.
So I drove on through late afternoon, heading north at an in-between season. Soon I joined a familiar road. It grew cool; the region would in a month slide rapidly toward winter. Already the honeyed light carried a kind of nostalgia. On the cliffs the churches stood out in darkening silhouette, in some there were late services. The valleys deepened and a cataclysmic sunset transformed the sky into a heaven entirely of fire. As darkness settled the road led to Lyon and its factories, and a train, and the wicked lights of Paris.