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Sunday 22nd July, 2006
In our exploration of things to do in Prague we came across a Czech company called Honza ("John") who run canoeing, hiking and cycling trips around Poland and the Czech Republic. But they also do trips to the south of France!
The prices were reasonable and the itineraries seemed good so we signed up for a 2-week grand tour of the Gorges of France, - by canoe. We'd done a little paddling before but the brochure assured us 'no experience was necessary' and so it proved.
We left Prague on a hot Saturday night, and hooked up with our bus and guides, the fabulous Magda and the aptly named Honza. Half the tour were cycling and the other half, including us, were paddling our way round France.
Our first river was the Loue, near the German border and Besancon. But our first trip was a 'wake-up' walk from the Source de la Loue back to our camp at Lods. The Loue gushes up out of the ground through a cavern near Ouhans. The water comes underground from the Doubs, fifteen kilometres south east, taking about sixty hours to reach the Loue.
We took a little less than that : an all day hike along the edge of the Loue valley with spectacular views into the canyon.
The following day was our first on the water. The paddling was easy and enjoyable but it took a little while for us to sort out our technique. Just after the second set of rapids we took a little bath after getting hooked up on a tree.
In the town Ornans we stopped for lunch and to dry off.
Ornans sits on a mirror-placid stretch of the Loue. It is a beautiful, tidy little town, popular with wealthy retirees and signs of refurbishment are everywhere. The heat on land was oppressive and we retreated to the shady main square with some ice-cream. Thus refreshed, we paddled another hour or two down the river and met the bus (and the cyclists) and headed back to Lods.
The next day was a seven hour stretch in the bus, past Dijon, through Lyons to the Ardéche. This was easily the longest bus ride of the trip and the least enjoyable. We stopped briefly in Vallon Pont d'Arc to sort out passes for the national park and put the boats in the water near the bridge itself.
The Pont d'Arc is a natural stone bridge over the Ardéche and marks the start of the Gorges de l'Ardéche National Park. The upper sections of the Ardéche were crowded with holiday makers but once past the Pont it was much quieter and more peaceful.
This was a long, slow day - four hours of flat water to the amusingly named "Stop Gaud" - our bivouac for the night. The river was peaceful and slow and cuts through the a yellow-gray sandstone gorge which reputedly still boasts some wildlife. We arrived late and after the bus ride and a tiring but gentle paddle, we toasted some saucisson Provencal over a smokey barbecue and crawled off to sleep.
The next morning we paddled the last stretch out of the gorge and into Saint Martin de Ardéche. This is a beautiful stretch of river, with the medieval town of Aiguéze looking down on the river from the cliff tops above.
We arrived with plenty of time to look around town and were treated to a beautiful sunset over the river. Our sleep that night was punctuated by distant rumbles of thunder and a wonderful rainstorm broke the stifling heat.
The next morning we raided a boulangerie where Veronika discovered 'Suisse Longue' and I renewed my folie à deux with Tart au Citron.
Another long trek on the bus brought us to the Gard, near Nimes. Today was a short paddle on an easy river. The Gard passes, rather obviously, under the Pont Du Gard - a magnificent Roman aqueduct built around 50AD. It was designed to deliver water to Nimes and looks like it could still function today. Sadly, there's no water in it and you aren't allowed to canoe over it!
Our next stop was our favourite - Avignon - a relatively small city with a history stretching back to the Roman Empire. It became the seat of the papal dynasty in the 14th century when Pope Clement V moved here from Rome. Nearly 100 years later it was at the heart of 'the Western Schism', when Urban VI split the church and there were two popes, one in Avignon and one in Rome.
Avignon has the vibrant feel of a university town. Our shady campsite was directly across the river and we were lucky enough to be there when the annual Summer Theatre Festival was running (France's oldest theatre festival, started in 1947). The streets and squares were full of bands, impromptu acts and street performers.
After a day's rest we headed to Lozère in the Midi-Pyrénées, near Mende. Again the scenery from the bus was beautiful but the switch-backs were vomit inducing. I'm not susceptible, so I held onto my cookies, but only just. Veronika had to go and sit up front.
Early the next morning we were up and paddling the Tarn. We trailered the canoes from our camp at Les Vignes up the river to St Enimie. We put them in the water and paddled back down to Les Vignes, stopping at Chely Du Tarn, another beautiful spot. We also stopped for a bit of impromptu high diving; the French school kids were jumping from the rocks and we could hardly do less.
The bus picked us up downriver and took us on another long drive, this time towards the sea. We camped in a hot and stony campground at Pic de Loup near St Martin des Londres. To beat the heat, we retired to the pool as soon as we could.
Sleep was short this night for this was the night the Italians took the World Cup away from the French. Every man, woman and child in France was glued to the TV but they were to be disappointed. Final score 5-3 to the Azurri in a penalty shoot out. There were many sad faces in camp the next day.
We set out early the next morning for the sea. We jumped at the chance to swap our canoes with two of the cyclists since we'd already consulted the map and worked out the beach was only 10km away! Why paddle when you can sunbake?
We dunked ourselves in the sea, sunned ourselves on the beach and strolled around the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Here 'cute' battles with 'tacky' and the scourges of tourism. The food is okay but the beach is wonderful and not too crowded if you're prepared to walk a bit.
We both loved the place and it rated only slightly behind Avignon. The sea made all the difference - swimming in a river is nice but the sea is the sea and there's nothing like it.
From Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer we tracked west towards the Alps, through Aix-en-Provence and a beautiful little town called Riez. The penultimate river in our collection was the Verdon near Lac St Croix in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence.
We camped high on a hill overlooking the lake and spent the afternoon paddling up the 'Grand Canyon'. The weather was hot again so we didn't go far. It was also busy as most of the South is apt to be in summer. That night we sat down by the shore and watched the sun go down as the crickets chirruped in the grass.
The next morning the bus took us on a vertiginous route deep into the hills and dropped us off inside the red, grey and blue walls of the Grand Canyon. We hiked back through the canyon, through several long and dark tunnels, to a pickup point for the bus (we were a veritable stone's throw from a previous trip I made into the Haute Provence, to St Andre Les Alps).
Our last river was the Durance near Turin and the Italian border. The Durance flows out of the Alps and down to the sea and was the most technically challenging of all the water we paddled. We proved this by spilling the boat over in the first set of rapids before we'd gone 100m! We navigated the rest of the river and then filled the boat up on the last rapid, and it sank under us and we had to tow it ashore again.
We left France that afternoon, stopping briefly in Briancon for some cheese shopping, and went west through Italy, through Austria and the Czech Republic until we reached Prague in the small hours of the morning.
I liked it but I didn't love it.
I loved the South of France. I loved paddling. But bus trips and organised tours aren't for me. The schedule, the scramble for tent space, the vomit-inducing bus rides and the squabbling couple sitting in front of us took the edge of an otherwise wonderful vacation.
True, we discovered a few places we wouldn't have known about, but I'd prefer to go just with Veronika and take my time. How can you enjoy yourself when you have to watch the clock? Still, there's always next time.