43km (27 miles) W of Montélimar; 138km (86 miles) SW of Lyon

Since the opening of the world’s largest replica cave in 2015, the Ardèche has been rebranding itself as France’s number one destination for prehistoric heritage. The region is chock-a-block with history from Paleolithic caves and standing stones (dolmens and menhirs) to Troubadour castles. Of course, no visitor should miss the famous gorges, though you may want to avoid staying in tourist-swarmed Vallon Pont d’Arc. 

The Ardèche occupies the eastern flank of the Massif Central, a landscape of jagged, much-eroded granite-and-limestone highlands. Although it defines itself as Le Midi — its southern border lies less than 40km (25 miles) from Avignon and 48km (30 miles) from Nîmes — its culture and landscape are more rooted in the rugged uplands of France's central highlands.

Through its territory flow the streams and rivers that drain the snow and rain of the Massif Central. They include rivers such as the Ligne, Fontolière, Lignon, Tanargue, and, most important, Ardèche. They flow beside, around, and through rocky ravines, feudal ruins, and stone-sided villages perched in high-altitude sites originally chosen for ease of defense in medieval times.

The most famous and visited section of the Ardèche is its southern extremity, with granite-sided ravines 300m (984 ft.) deep, gouged by millions of springtime floodings of the Ardèche River -- no wonder it's called the Grand Canyon of France. This area draws thousands of tourists, often with their children, who take driving tours along the highways flanking the ravines.

We recommend that you stop in the southern Ardèche to admire the gorges only briefly. It's better to spend the night in the less touristy northern reaches. The northern Ardèche, in the 45km (28 miles) of hills and valleys separating the hamlets of Vals-les-Bains and Lamastre, is a soft and civilized wilderness, with landscapes devoted to grape growing, shepherding, and hill trekking. One writer described Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, the gateway to the gorges, as a Gallic version of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. For your overnight stop, we suggest you continue north to the more picturesque towns of Vals-les-Bains or Lamastre.

L’Auberge Rouge

Balzac would laugh at this gruesome tourist attraction in the Ardèche village of Lanarce. Locals tell the tale of notorious criminals Pierre and Marie Martin who owned this local inn, Auberge de Peyrebeille, route nationale 102, Peyrebeille (tel. 04-66-69-47-51; Mon–Wed and Fri 9am–8pm), in the 19th century. They were charged finally with murder after 50 guests were killed and then fed to other guests. Eponymously titled L’Auberge Rouge after Balzac’s infamous novel, the inn is now a museum.