Ever have one of those freeze-frame moments when the breeze is right, the sun is bright and the water is clear as plate glass? Time stops and a feeling of well-being rushes over you. I had such an instance while our family was canoeing and kayaking on the Ardeche River in the middle of France. Let me tell you about it.
South of Lyon, north of Avignon and slightly west of both, the Ardeche is a region fashioned around, and named for, the wild and wonderful river that flows into the Rhone. Because you won't find it mentioned in some guidebooks or designated on certain tourist maps, you could say the Ardeche is undiscovered, but that's not completely true. The French know all about it. So do the Germans and the Brits. But few Americans, we were told by people we met there, have stumbled on this breathtaking spot.
Nearly 120 miles long, the Ardeche is fast-flowing, especially in the spring when the snows of the nearby Massif Central--a mountain range of granite and limestone--turn to whitewater. We were particularly interested in the southern stretch of the river--called by some the "Grand Canyon of France"--that's flanked by 1,000-foot-high granite cliffs. The center of the southern Ardeche is a lively, kitschy town called Vallon-Pont d'Arc.
From Paris we drove south along Autoroute 7. Somewhere around Montelimar, the residential architecture changed--the dark austere Burgundy home gave way to the light inviting Provencal farmhouse. And as we neared Vallon-Pont d'Arc, which is named for the nearby natural bridge known as Pont d'Arc, we noticed more and more cars and vans on the highway with canoes and kayaks strapped to the top. Before exploring the town, we roamed along D290, the river road--a stunning, curvaceous path that winds high over the Ardeche. We passed outfitter shops with their towering racks of colorful canoes. We saw small children carrying paddles and an ancient white-haired man in a skimpy Speedo pulling his kayak in a two-wheeled cart. Our lodge, the Hotel de Chames, we discovered, was right on the river, our room close enough to hear the flowing waters.
For dinner we ventured into the carnival-like village and found a kid-friendly joint, La Frigoule Pizzeria. We were served by cheery folks at a table under the plane trees in the Place Armand Puaux. The mountain-crisp air was as cool and clear as the local rose. We ordered delicious oven-fired fare and watched the French as they laughed with one another and told outrageous stories. At Le Verger next door, we observed a wedding party in full-festive mode. The groom looked simply smashing in a long, flowing traditional white taffeta gown. The bride was quite dignified in her tuxedo and tails.
For dessert, our sons, Stone, 14, and Holt, 10, ordered a banana split, complete with a little parasol and cylindrical cookie. On our way back to the car, we were swept up in a flow of shoppers and tourists. There were young muscular women in splash jackets, young men in baggy trunks. A dark-eyed man in a poncho skulked past carrying his pet rooster. A much-pierced woman sold artsy earrings. My sons plotted a scheme to design a My Trip to France T-shirt, with splotches of color here and there and little labeled arrows pointing to various-colored stains--mille-feuille, boeuf bourguignon, baguette with jelly, cafe creme. At Aigue Vive, a small kayak shop in the middle of downtown, video loops showed beaming whitewater enthusiasts screaming down the rapids of the Ardeche.
We returned to the hotel in the late evening and walked from our room across a grassy swell to the river bank. Frogs and crickets filled the night with noise. We threw rocks, cull-lunk!, into the black river waters. It was so dark we couldn't see our stones land, so if we didn't hear them we pretended they were flying all the way around the world. A small group of young men smoked cigarettes, the tips glowing in the woods like fireflies. We slept with the windows open to the sounds of natural nightlife and rushing water.
The next morning I woke at first light and took a stroll. Life on the river bank was off to an early start. A fisherman eased his flat-bottom boat into the waters, waters lazy enough for him to stand in his vessel and drift-fish. The valley was lush, the Ardeche River green, brown and lovely. Overhead the rocky ridges shot skyward--gray stone splotched with brown, freckled with trees here and there. Whereas Provence is horizontal France, this is vertical France--majestic, melodramatic, outjutting.
As we sat on the patio of the hotel's cafe and drank coffee and citron presses and ate baguette rounds slathered with butter and jam, we watched the river traffic increase, canoeists cackling and kayakers yakking. A little after 10 a.m., we wandered across the parking lot to Claude Mialon's boat rental service. For about $50, we rented a kayak for Stone and a canoe for Jan and me. We agreed that Holt would take turns in both boats.
A college student drove us in a small bus. The Ardeche is, for better or worse, a very public river--especially the southern stretch. On busy days, cars are parked everywhere, including time-worn caves along the highway and in the tunnels cut through volcanic peaks.
With the student's help, we put in at a campground. The water was crystal clear and slow. We paddled halfheartedly and drifted downstream. Boats paraded down the river. Canoes and kayaks--yellow, red, orange, green and blue--carrying families, large groups and screaming young men. Fastened to the sterns of many boats were tournons, small plastic barrels that kept food and other objects dry.
On the shore, lots of folks watched the constant flotilla. Others put on a show. A boy played with a diablo. Another guy beat on a pair of bongo drums. A woman in a floral bikini and a Weather Channel cap winked at me.
Several times we paused and let the boys swim. Beneath the Pont d'Arc we watched as lunatic students hurdled off of high cliffs into the icy waters below. At one point we said it was time to move on. "I don't ever want to go," Holt said.
I felt the same way. There we were in the loveliest of all lands. Jan--in a floral bikini and Weather Channel cap--was smiling. Stone was entranced by the hurdling hooligans. Holt was climbing on rocks and having the time of his life. A rush of good feelings coursed through my veins. Jan must have felt it, too.
"If I had a camera, I'd take a picture," she said.
I reached in the tournon and handed her a camera. She took a snapshot. It was a moment we didn't want to forget.
For information on touring the Ardeche region of France, contact the French Government Tourist Office, 410-286-8310, www.francetourism.com.