Victor Hugo said of Sedan in the Ardennes: “pretty women, handsome carabineers, trees and meadows along the Meuse, cannons, drawbridges and bastions, such is Sedan. It is one of those places where the severity of the citadel city mingles strangely with the joyous atmosphere of the garrison town”.
He wrote that on 29 July 1838. I suspect that if he visited today he would still recognise the town. Certainly the cannons, drawbridges and bastions are very much in evidence and impossible to miss since the Chateau Fortress in Sedan is the largest in Europe. You may not have heard of this place and yet with a stunning 35,000m² of castle, the building of which started more than 1000 years ago it is one of the most unique towns in France.
On the day I visited it was also the finals of the “Concours National de Cuisine Amateur” – the French version of Top Chef. Sylvie Pinel, the French Minister for Craft, Trade and Tourism was there to present the prizes and it was all very exciting but nothing can overshadow the Castle of Sedan in whose moat the prize giving took place. So big is the moat that it easily held all of the camera crews there on the day, many exhibitors of regional gastronomic delights, thousands of attendees and it still only took up a small bit of the now – empty of course – trench around the Chateau. This ancient building has given up a small part of its space to commerce and has been converted to a 3 star hotel. The rooms are lovely, really authentic, the walls are very thick and you can practically feel history oozing out of the pores of the this immense stone construction.
The little streets of the town make for a wonderful day of slow wandering and a chance to soak up the ambience and take in the sights in the late summer sunshine. Picturesque, sleepy and charming and with, as the great Hugo reported almost two centuries ago “a joyous atmosphere”. Shops and brasseries that looked as though time had stood still, I would not have been surprised if one of the “handsome carabineers” had popped out from behind one of the many beautiful doors of the ancient homes that line the streets here.
There was a great choice of eateries but I ate in the Sedan Chateau Hotel’s restaurant La Tour d’Auvergne where a very special dinner was being hosted in honour of the competition held earlier in the day.
A feast of the best foods of the region, announced with huge aplomb by no less than the Count Robert II de la Marck, one of the ancient rulers of the town and whose home the Chateau once was! His every word as he told us which wines we were being served to go with the dishes was met with applause. The feathered plumes on his hat nodded up and down, his long glossy locks glistened in the candle light and his dark, mysterious eyes twinkled. Of course it wasn’t the real Count but it was a lot of fun and a chance to showcase the gastronomy of the region which was superb; dishes with names like “chaud froid d’écrevisses au safran des Ardennes, crémeux d’orties sauvage” of “Déclinasion de dinde rouges des Ardennes, filelt en habit d’roties confit de cuisse au cidres des Ardennes, jus glacé aux girolles“, cheeses, licquers, and little biscuits made with champagne and rosé from Reims…
Afterwards I took a stroll around the enormous courtyard which was lit by the low glow of lamps, and a beautiful full moon. It was a typical autumn night in Sedan, the sky was clear and filled with stars, the castle was lit up, an owl hooted on the ramparts – it felt completely magical. Another promenader bade me “Bon Soir” and we struck up a conversation. He told me he was a guest at a wedding in the hotel. The walls are so thick that I wasn’t even aware of it until he invited me in to look and I became aware of possibly the loudest DJ in the world!
He told me that the wedding party had come from another region but it was worth the journey as the place was so special and all the guests could easily stay in the castle hotel.
In the morning I visited the castle museum (the entrance is just across from the hotel doorway!) and took a guided tour of part of the castle – at 35,000 m² it is impossible to see it all. We climbed on the ramparts where the views over the surrounding landscape were stunning, explored underground tunnels, climbed up and down ancient towers, saw where Napoleon’s soldiers’ graffiti’d the walls when they were here and checked out the museum’s collection. What a history this place has, well worth the trip (which I took by train with SNCF UK and was about 2.5 hours from Paris)…