I took a train from London to Paris with Rail Europe and then on to Charleville-Mezières. I was in the town for the inauguration of the World Puppet Festival, which as luck would have it coincided with a food festival – most fortuitous as it gave me a chance to try the local cuisine, wine and beer – this is Champagne-Ardennes after all!
I booked into the hotel Le Dormeur du Val next to the train station. The hotel is named after a poem by Arthur Rimbaud (who was 16 when he wrote it), the famous poet who was born in the town. The Hotel Le Dormeur du Val was very unusual – incredibly hip and trendy with lots of metal, glass and polished concrete. It might not be to everyone’s taste and it did take me ages to work out how to the turn the lights on and off (very funky lighting system) but this hotel was decidedly quirky, very comfortable and the staff were really friendly!
To get around town you don’t need a car – just a comfy pair of shoes so you can walk a lot and take in the many sights and sites here in this historic town.
I think Charleville-Mezières is stunning. When you leave the rail station you might think “what’s she on about” as it seems quite modern and nothing to shout about, but – walk 5 minutes up into the old part of town and meander around the little streets and it is amazing.
Beautiful yellow stone buildings, cobble stoned squares, gorgeous hotel particuliers (those grand mansions that the French do so well) and of course the world famous puppet museum. There’s also a bridge across the river Meuse just 100m from the town centre which takes you to Mont Olympe (Mount Olympus), a beautiful little island with attractions, water sports and camping facilities.
The puppet festival takes place over a ten day period in September every other year (uneven numbers) and the whole place is given up to puppet mania. Puppet shows are on every street corner, the public buildings are taken over by visiting puppet theatre groups and puppeteers – more than 600 shows take place in the festival. The town has a fantastical, magical atmosphere and everywhere the shops, restaurants and even homes hang puppets in their windows.
I wandered the little streets with their boulangeries, charcuteries, antiques shops and patisseries and had dinner at “ Au cochon qui louche” (the cross eyed pig). After that it was a short walk to the main Place Ducale where all day a giant puppet had sat patiently next to the lovely old carousel.
There were thousands of people, the atmosphere was electric, we counted the minutes until 10 pm and then a burst of sound, light and the giant puppet got up – it was wild!
He, the puppet that is, appeared to run about, generally showed off and then walked off down the street – the show had begun!
With 600 puppet shows of every size and shape there is no shortage of free entertainment here but I’d strongly advise on seeing one of the paid international shows. The next day I saw the Ljubljana Theatre of Slovenia’s puppet performance of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I can truthfully say I’ve never seen a puppet show like it. It was a full on theatrical production, French and English language translations were flashed onto a screen below the stage – it was quite brilliant, the audience of two hundred absolutely loved it.
Out on the street, puppet shows were springing up everywhere – a visual feast, enchanting and quaint. The shows ranged from traditional wooden puppets, giants, sci-fi style, theatrical, musical, mime and more. You’d need at least a couple of days to be able to make the most of it but after lunch in the very nice Table d’Arthur, I had to move on to the town of Sedan where I was going to see the finals of Top Chef and visit the biggest castle in Europe.
Charleville-Mezières’ World Puppet festival really rocks…
Hotel Le Dormeur du Val
Charleville-Mezières in pictures
Giant puppets dance in the Place Ducale acting out a story for the enchanted audience:
The Carousel in the Place Ducale by day, the perfect backdrop for a French mime artist:
The Carsousel by night, a little boy waits patiently for his moonlight treat:
The fruit and vegetable shop:
The antiques store:
Setting up a puppet show: