The traditional highway from the north into Provence is the valley of the River Rhone. Until the railways came, the produce of the region was loaded on to great barges at Avignon and hauled by teams of horses to Lyon and beyond. Visitors came south by boats which had to shoot the twenty-five arches of the still-standing medieval bridge at Pont St Esprit.
A swift current demanded considerable skill and sobriety of the pilot, as well as steady nerves of his passengers. Most people now travel in rather more haste, taking the Autoroute du Soleil (A7), a journey that calls for equally steady nerves. Those with rather more time to spare can follow either of the Rhone’s banks, the west bank’s N86 getting the motorist as rapidly into Provence as does the N7 on the east bank.
A more rural route climbs out of Vienne and follows the edge of the foothills through Crest, Nyons, Carpentras and so to Cavaillon. As far as Nyons this is the D538.
Ardache Valley: Though the whole of the Ardache Valley is worth exploring, it is the lower section, between Pont St Esprit and Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, that holds the main interest. There the river has carved a narrow way through a limestone plateau, producing spectacular scenery and gouging out a number of excellent caves that have now been opened up for the visitor. The best of these is the Orgnac Aven which lies out of the Gorge on the limestone Plateau d’ Orgnac. The cave is huge – the Upper Chamber itself is over 820 ft long , 410ft wide and nearly 130ft high in places – and has a number of fascinating features. There has been a tendency to give these fanciful names, but that tendency is less than elsewhere; both the Chaos Chamber and the Red Chamber certainly live up to their names. The site’s prehistory museum displays the finds from excavations of the caves. Man lived here from Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) times until the early Iron Age, a period of some 300,000 years.
In the Gorge itself, the best cave is that of St Madeleine. However, Marzal Aven, a little to the north of the main Gorge, is better and includes a museum of underground exploration and a prehistoric zoo with all sorts of life-size (but plastic) dinosaurs.
Throughout the Gorge there are fine viewpoints. The visitor will find his or her own, but everyone should follow the High Corniche in the central region of the Gorge Gorge, which gives the low level view. It is possible to borrow boats and canoes for the journey, but it is a long one, and not for the inexperienced. It is better to join a trip in a tourist boat which will not only guarantee a dry trip, but will also get you back from its end. These are available from Vallon-Pont-d’Arc and all along the riverside from the village to the famous Pont-d,Arc itself, an exquisite arch of white limstone framing the river.
Grignan: Grignan, 5.5 miles (9km) to the pilgrimage for admirers of the Marquise de Savigna, whose letters about seventeenth century court life in Paris and the Provenal countryside are still read. The letters were written to her daughter who was married to the Count of Grignan, a man the Marquise described as being ‘very ugly, but one of the most honest men in the kingdom’. It is debatable whether the Count viewed this as a compliment.
The Marquise wrote her letters at the castle, which can be visited. It is an elegant, and beautifully decorated, Renaissance mansion that offers a superb view over Mont Ventoux. The Marquise loved it: it was, she wrote, ‘fine and magnificent’ and offered shelter from the mistral ‘that bitter, freezing and cutting wind’.