I love to visit France and have visited almost every department over the last twenty years or more. The journey from my home in the UK across the English Channel by ferry is part of the fun for me and encourages me to visit the more accessible north eastern quarters of France that are such a brief drive from Calais. One of my favourite locations is the Ardennes Department,on the border with Belgium and Luxembourg. The landscape and natural forestry amongst the steep and furiously hilly countryside can be mesmerizing.
I generally head off towards Cambrai and make for my first ‘landfall’ of either Charleville-Mézièrs or Sedan. Both of these towns are very handsome and rest at the base of the undulating Ardennes.
The Ardennes Department is beautiful throughout the seasons. The view of the vast area of natural forest entrenched amongst the gently rolling hills is very enticing. The verdant shades of spring, the red and gold tints of autumn, fauna of summer and even in winter – the colours and the scent of the trees are a reminder of how natural beauty will always exist alongside the more belligerent activity of man on our planet. Taking a drive along the meandering roads through the early morning mist is one of the most glorious life experiences.
Driving through the Ardennes is always a special adventure. It is fun to frequently cross the border with Belgium and back again and to admire the view of the region from the crest of some very high hilltop points. Ardennes masses and forestry rise up to 400 meters above sea level in France and there are many picnic and viewing points for travellers to take in the vista. Coming across very isolated fields filled with plump and well cared for cattle and very little sign of habitation, I can’t help but think the cows are uniquely fortunate to spend their lives in such exquisite and protective topography.
In both World Wars, France was invaded by Germany from a route associated with the Ardennes Department. The ‘Maginot Line’ of defence was built by the French as WW2 loomed, stretching almost to the Swiss border. A weaker section of it traversed the French side of the Ardennes. It was thought that the steeply wooded hills were obstruction enough to retard invading forces. The Germans, however, found a route through with their tanks and army and this line of defence was largely ineffective. During the war, the ‘Maginot Line’ was robustly armoured with gun emplacements and concrete bunkers for troop security; traces remain to this day. Many of the bunkers have been converted into homes and wine cellars – one of them has even become a mushroom farm.
Charleville-Mézièrs is a great place to stay. It has a population of around fifty thousand people and rests on the banks of the Meuse River. It is the capital of the Ardennes Department in the Champagne-Ardenne Region. The city today is composed of two separate towns, Charleville and Mézièrs. These places became conjoined in 1966 and the inhabitants are known as Carolomaceriens. If you visit this area, don’t miss a visit to the beautiful old town. The centre is dominated by the very grand ‘Place Ducale’, a large square surrounded by shops, bars and restaurants and perfect for people watching night and day. The centre is spacious and airy and the architecture characteristically decorated, solid and hardy.
There is a bi-annual celebration known as ‘Le festival des marionettes’, an international world puppet festival. Year round you can visit the giant marionette, so loved by the French, incorporated into a building by the square and next to the Puppet Museum. Hang around until the automated puppet show takes place (every 15 minutes) – it is well worth it. Recommended is the Campanile Hotel in Charleville for the comfortable accommodation, proximity to the centre and free car parking. It’s also a convenient base to discover the deeper, wooded country side. For me, after a day of exploring this beautiful town and surrounding areas there’s nothing better than a home-cooked meal and a pitcher of house wine to celebrate the end of the day!
From Charleville-Mézièrs there is a direct route to the town of Sedan. It is immortalised by its medieval castle, the only remaining part of extensive city fortifications that were constructed around 1450. The castle is the largest fortified medieval structure in Europe covering more than 30,000 square metres and spread over seven levels. Part of it has been converted into a fabulous Chateau hotel and apartments and a stroll around the ramparts offers the most beautiful views over the town and surroungind area. Sedan town centre is sophisticated and graceful with a pervading air of antiquity and history, lined with gorgeous old houses and ancient buildings. It has many good restaurants and bars, pretty squares and a robust calendar of events.
The French Ardennes Department is geographically poignant; so much a corner stone for much of recent French and European history. It is very tranquil now but these rolling hills were the backdrop for so much invasion and destruction over the last 100 years. I can’t help but feel how we are all so lucky to be able to freely explore this great continent in these now peaceful days.