Travel: Underground and overground in beautiful southern France
Smell. Taste. Think.
This is wine tasting 101 with an obvious omission
Then again it’s hard to ‘Look’ when you’re deep underground in an echoing cavern just metres from a millions of years-old giant stalactite, particularly when you’ve turned your headlamp off.
I’m sipping in total darkness and perfect tasting conditions at the Grotte de Saint-Marcel d’Ardeche at Saint Montan, in southern France.
This is quite the experience, as our caving party is led through a giant network of underground caverns past huge halls and giant water basins, also used for the vinifying of wine from Notre Dame de Cousignac, where the deeply passionate winemaker is Raphael Pommier, who accompanies us into the darkness.
We taste the wine perhaps wisely before we are led, squealing, to zip-wire across an unforgettable cavern and edge across a rope, in an adrenaline-fuelled adventure not for the faint hearted.
Or perhaps the entirely sober.
But this is the beautiful Ardeche, where wine runs through the veins, the history and the economy so a glass of impeccable Cote du Rhone 80 metres under the surface of this fertile landscape seems entirely appropriate.
Eventually we surface to the glorious October sunshine and welcome unseasonable heat that makes this region such a glorious a location for vineyards – and had made 2017 a classic year (take, note, wine buffs).
We travelled to this beautiful part of the world by train via Voyages-sncf.com.
After a hop under the channel via the comfort of the Eurostar, we picked up the TGV in Lyon before completing the final part of our journey in a hire car, travelling through quiet roads.
The only drama was the idiosyncrasies of the in-car sat nav which sent us right up a mountain to an unexpected but beautiful views of Ardeche.
That morning we had been in London after a night a the smart and convenient London Bridge Hotel.
By evening we were gazing, infatuated, at our home for the night, the stunning Chateau d’Uzer.
The blond-stoned building lies tucked away in the village of Uzer, transformed from the defensive castle of yesteryear built to protect nearby silver mines, to a magical home from home for a small number of lucky guests.
Hosted by the owners themselves, the six rooms and suites are suitable for royalty.
The comfortable, quirky interior design, set into the stunning stones and tiles of the 12th century chateau reflect the personality of our elegant hostess Veronique and husband Eric whom we dine with that evening alongside other guests,a home made menu starring soups and breads made with the Ardeche’s other favourite crop the Chestnut.
In the morning I’m awoken by church bells and chirping birds in the green, sprawling, grounds.
If you venture further in you find a pool and a couple of gypsy caravans primed for extra guests in their own leafy corners.
It’s an idyll we leave reluctantly but the Ardeche and neighbouring department Le Gard, have so much to offer.
Still waters run deep in these regions and not just through the caves.
The area is defined, perhaps, as much by its history as its present and we gaze in awe at a replica of the oldest cave paintings in the world in the Pont d’arc cavern - the original UNESCO World Heritage Site close by are too delicate to be trampled through.
Back overground and lunch is enjoyed gazing over the fields from a classic French Bistrot de Pay – La Farigoule – enjoying the local speciality Brouffado – slow cooked beef with herbs, anchovies and capers,served with Gratin Vivarois, potato gratin with porcini mushrooms .
But back to the wine.
Under blue skies, and after a night spent in the beautiful town of Uzes at the picturesque Hotel Entraigues, we find ourselves gliding through the vineyard in a horse and cart.
It it wasn’t for the odd glimpse of a tractor or a mobile phone, we could be in any century.
Midway we stop off for a picnic.
But no sausage rolls here, rather a Michelin starred experience at the Les Lys vineyard, where we taste their delicious wines just metres from the vineyards, where some grapes still glisten in the heat.
It’s an extraordinary and surreal experience.
After a stop at the magnificent Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard, where we were granted access to climb right across the remarkable structure with sweeping views across the Gardon River, we head toward the stunning city of Nimes.
In the beautiful ancient settlement with its ampitheatre and thriving community was twinned with Preston - something the city would do well to make more of.
Nimes is a stunning place and a glamorous older sister.
We stayed just one night, at the immaculate appartcity Nimes Arenas, perfectly located for the station and our journey home via Paris.
But it’s not adieu from me– simply au revoir.
*In London, I stayed at London Bridge Hotel, where weekend rates start at Â£99. It’s just a few tube stops on the Northern Line (northbound) from London St Pancras station, where Eurostar services depart. Book tickets via Voyages SNCF
*My first French home from home was Chateau d’Uzer. You can book by calling (0)4 75 36 89 21. Website is chateau-uzer.com
*We visited Pont d’Arc Cavern in Vallon Pont d’Arc, for the replica of the nearby UNESCO world heritage Chauvet cave with the oldest cave drawings in the world. Look up cavernepontdarc.fr
*We dined at La Farigoule in Bidon, a Bistrot de Pays, website auberge-lafarigoule.com
*You can take part (and I urge you to..) in a potholing and wine tour at the Grotte de Saint-Marcel d’Ardeche at Saint-Montan. You can look up escale-ardeche.com if you speak French – a English speaking version is due online in October!
*In Uzes, we stayed at the l’hotel Entraigues hotel-entraigues.com
*We toured the Domain Les Lys vineyard by horse and cart with a gastronomique picnic with ecuriefontclarette.com. The vineyard is les-lys.fr
*Enjoy a cycling tour with Natu’ Rando in Remoulins
*Visit the Roman aquaduct Pont Du Gard pontdugard.fr
*Perfect for the TGV station, we stayed at AppartCity Nimes Arenas appartcity.com/Nimes-Arenas
*We dined at the fabulous Restaurant Vincent Croizard in Nimes (0)4 66 67 04 99