A French Adventure
"When you're underground, only your stomach can tell the time," my guide, Vincent Rouyer, tells me, as we sit down to a subterranean "pique-nique" deep inside an enormous cavern. We have slithered and squeezed our way through narrow passageways, then rappelled down a 300-foot limestone wall before stopping for lunch. Now, biting into a pate sandwich, I take in the strange and beautiful subsurface world, glowing eerily in the light of our headlamps.
It is a curious view of France I'd never seen before, deep beneath the Ardeche region about 100 miles southwest of Lyon. Our gas headlamps make me feel like I've entered an Emile Zola novel. Every time I turn my head the flickering light reveals a foreign world of pointy stalagtites and stalagmites, cool mirror-smooth lakes, and a gallery of limestone sculptures more intricate than any I could be visiting in a museum up above.
Later that night, settled into my bed after a ravishing meal in a beautiful country inn located in the 12th-century village of Vinezac, I reflected on what a perfect week of tourism the Ardeche region presented to the adventurous traveler. Here in the Ardeche, I'd discovered an entirely different way to visit a country best known for expanding tourists' waistlines with foie gras and Camembert, or numbing them with too much wine tasting or museum hopping. By day, I had spent my time kayaking down the gorges of the Ardeche River, mountain biking through wild mountain terrain, and canyoneering down the Chassezac River in addition to my day spelunking through underground grottos. By night I regaled myself with incredible meals and comfortable country lodgings in medieval villages, and had enough Rhone region wine to ease any aches and pains I accumulated during the day's activities. The trip was both an adventure and a discoveryand I didn't see another American tourist the entire time.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication