The first day of our Ardeche adventure began with a 5.30am alarm, just as dawn was breaking and by 6.30am we were on the road. Unlike the steely grey sky of the day before, with downpours that flooded the terrace, the wispy clouds looked far more promising for some better weather. As our journey east progressed, the sun made an appearance and slowly but surely the temperature crept up from 14 degrees to 20. We passed a fox tucking into a breakfast of fresh roadkill, then drove through lamb country in the Haute Vienne and cow country in the Allier department of the Auvergne before stopping for a morning coffee, in the sun, in Montluçon.
Before lunch we were on the A71 heading south and the countryside was suddenly much hillier with the volcanos of the Auvergne and Puy du Dôme looming on the horizon. By lunchtime the temperature had reached an almost tropical 22 degrees, not usually something to shout about in France in June, but this year any day with patches of blue sky and a temperature over 20 is worth an outdoor apero in celebration. We picnicked at a roadside aire where the toilets were clean and there were lots of tables, all thoughtfully placed in the shade of the trees, although it would have been lovely to have sat in the sun. At 12.00 on the dot, most tables had been snapped up and were laid with tablecloths and napkins and groaning under the weight of cool boxes and large food hampers. The French know how to picnic, even if it is just a roadside lunch. Our slice of homemade quiche (that I had got up at 6.30 on Thursday morning to make) followed by a natural yoghurt each, looked out of place and rather inadequate, yet again.
The road from St Etienne was a slow and steady climb with hairpin bends and feathered pine trees towering above us. When the road became a col (mountain pass) and the houses had steep pitched roofs, the temperature dropped to 15 degrees, but the scenery was beautiful. The traffic was busy, going the other way thankfully, as St Etienne was hosting a Euro2016 football game between Croatia and the Czech Republic later in the day. We weren't tempted to hang around as we had a Vélo village in the Ardeche waiting for us to visit.
We slowly descended to the Rhône and soon found ourselves driving through cherry and apricot orchards, laden with ripening fruit and vineyards scaling the steep embankments. We seemed to have left behind the rain we found in the hills, for a while at least and the warmth of the sun felt very welcome. The Rhône in Tournon is very wide, fast flowing and full of logs and other dark, unknown debris rushing downstream. It isn't a friendly meandering river here and from the flat road at the bottom of the valley, the steep hills on either side also looked quite scary and rather menacing. We will be cycling in these hills very soon.