Finding new European destinations can be hard but the Ardennes region of France is still relatively undiscovered and more than worthy of a visit
"The old town is over there,” said our guide, pointing a mile or so down the road. “This is the new part of town – it’s only 400 years old.”
It’s this modesty – mixed with good humour and friendliness – that makes the French Ardennes such a surprise package. Sat in the northeastern corner of the country, with Belgium a neighbour to the east and Champagne sat proudly to the south, the Ardennes has rarely been on the tourist map. It is an area untainted by tourist tat and guidebook hype -but a new high-speed HGV rail link to Paris is set to change all that.
Charleville-Mézières makes a wonderful base. The old town of Mézières, which dates back to 899, merged with the ‘newer’ Charleville in 1966, making it a city of two halves. If the history sounds colourful, then so are the attractions.
Nothing makes you feel more like a kid again than a good puppet show, and it is here that Charleville-Mézières comes into its own. Home to both a marionette school and the International Marionette Festival, scarcely a week goes by when there isn’t a puppet show on offer a short stroll from the plethora of cafés scattered around Place Ducale, the city square. We whiled away hours tucked inside a huge tent in the middle of the square. Our terrible French mattered not a jot – puppets, we discovered, have a language all of their own.
The puppets may be for children of all ages but our next stop was strictly for the grown-ups. In the tiny hamlet of Launois-sur-Vence, a short drive from the elegant blonde façades of Charleville-Mézières, we stumbled across Brasserie Ardwen, a small brewery that’s putting beer back on a map already soaked in wine and Champagne. There were some 283 breweries in the Ardennes before the outbreak of World War l but those destroyed in the war were never rebuilt, due to a shortage of manpower. Brasserie Ardwen seeks to bring back some of this beer-brewing tradition.
We toured the brewery and then tucked into a small feast in the adjacent restaurant before departing with several bottles of the brewery’s finest tucked safely under our arms. Given how much time we had spent at the brewery, we wisely decided to defer our afternoon’s bike hire until the next day.
Charleville-Mézières has more than 150 km of cycle routes leading to and from the cobbled streets of the town centre. We cycled a small section of the wonderful Trans-Ardennes bike path, which stretches 85 wonderful kilometres along the Meuse River from Givet, near the Belgian border, to Charleville–Mézières. In time, the route will carry on a further 25 km to Sedan, the historic city that is home to Europe’s largest surviving fortified castle.
It’s worth spending a few hours exploring Château Fort de Sedan and its grounds – the audio tour provides a fascinating insight into life back in 1424, when its first stones were laid. Our visit coincided with one of the many jousting matches held in the shadow of the castle each summer – a very colourful take on medieval life.
Back in Charleville-Mézières, the clock was ticking for our departure back to Paris. We had just enough time to duck into the Rimbaud Museum (Quai Arthur Rimbaud) to find out about the short life of the city’s most celebrated son, born here in 1854. The museum traces Rimbaud’s creative life, with original notes and sketches of his poems. But it is his travels – across Europe and into Africa – that provide the most interest. It seems only right, then, that the region that inspired so much of his early writing is now opening its doors to visitors from across the world.
Return rail fares from London to Charleville-Mézières start at £79. This includes Eurostar to Paris and TGV tickets from the French capital (1 hour and 45 minutes).
Where to eat
La Cote à L'os (11, Cours Briand, Charleville-Mézières) offers up delicious menus of regional cuisine (save room for dessert!), alongside a lovely wine list.
Where to stay
In Charleville-Mézières: the friendly Hotel de Paris is a short walk from the city centre. Rooms from €50.
In a castle: the wonderful three-star Hotel Le Chateau Fort in Sedan is situated within the castle walls. Rooms from €53.
In a treehouse: try your hand at abseiling through the forest before spending the night in a treehouse. Adventure is the catch cry at Le Chêne Perché in Signy l’Abbaye, a half-hour drive from Charleville. Prices start at €85 per night.
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