Into the Ardeche…April 11, 2010
Spring is taking its slow time arriving to Provence this year. Yesterday, Raphael remarked that it was the first time he can remember seeing both the almond trees and cherry trees in bloom at the same time. While the cherry trees are on time, the almond trees are late due to the long, cold winter. Yet, spring is arriving.
We spent yesterday in the high Ardèche where spring is still just a fantasy. Living in my tiny southern point of the department, in the Rhone Valley and at the doors of Provence, I never quite realized how different our Ardèche is from its heart. One main road winds its way through the most rural and rugged department of France. Stone villages, considered some of the most beautiful in France, hang from the cliff side. We took this road, Raphael told me, because it is the least curvy. A fact difficult for me to believe while gripping the dashboard as we rounded bends barely large enough for two small cars to pass. At one point, the road is considered so dangerous, the stone barrier protecting the cars from the steep descent is reinforced with a wooden beam. Neither look to offer much security in my opinion. After the hard winter, some places were undergoing road repair. We passed a construction worker guiding cars by a large crane from the top of this stone barrier. The drop behind him was steep and straight, broken up by a rare tree. I thought of the camping car we passed earlier on the road. Doubtful it would be able to squeeze through the tiny space.
As we climbed higher and higher, we left spring behind along with many of those tiny cliff side villages. Now only a sporadic house or two dotted the hills, some, it seemed to me, stuck in the crevice between two cliffs. The villages of Antraigues and Laviolle wound in and out of our path and I watched the temperature drop on the dash…10, 5, 2 degrees and SNOW. Mounds of snow stuck to the base of hills. Orange posts lined the road- indications of snow depth and guides for driving in the middle of winter when the snow is at its worst. The land was still steep and uneven and I wondered how you could possibly leave the house in winter; the ease with which you could lose yourself on a snowy mountain. Gone were the olive trees, the flowering almond and cherry trees. The high Ardeche is the land of chestnut trees, and in a month or two, fraise des bois and wild blueberry’s, goat’s cheese, and saucisson.
“I’ve never been to this part of the Ardèche,” I said to Raphael. “Yes, you have. When Olivia was a baby we came in the summer. Remember,” he pointed out as we drove into one village, “the church of St. Regis. We took a picture that day.” Yes, I did remember. Regis is my father’s name and this village stuck in my head. But this rocky snow-covered mountain was certainly not the same place of the hillsides of cascading flowers and roaming sheep. Higher we drove, Raphael slowing as we rounded a mountain pass coming into a dense fog. It was mid morning yet when we drove back through in mid afternoon, the fog was still as thick, having never burned off. Soon we drove out of the fog and into a land of rolling green hills, home to sheep and horses.
The drive took almost two hours and past some of the most visited sites in the Ardèche; the Ray-Pic waterfall and the Mount Gerbier de Jonc. I would love to go back, in summer, to visit explore at leisure. It’s a place, I understood, where time stands still and much is unchanged. A land for people truly seeking escape. No wonder people react with surprised impressiveness when they discover I live in the Ardèche. My Ardèche is much closer in time and relation to other departments of Provence; the land of olive’s, lavender, and sunflowers.