The French Ardennes, in north-eastern of France, right next to Belgium, is a region of rolling hills and deep valleys. Dense forests cover almost half of the region and the meandering River Meuse, running from north to south, is home to fortified castles and churches with numerous colourful towns and villages on its banks. The largest of these is the capital, Charleville-Mézières, actually a combination of two former towns.
Culinary delights also await in the region. Indulge in traditional dishes such as the famous Ardennes ham, succulent wild boar stew, or the region’s renowned creamy Rocroi cheese. Pair your meal with a glass of locally produced cider or beer for a true taste of the region’s gastronomic treasures.
Access from the UK is relatively easy by train and is also environmentally friendly. I take Eurostar to Paris, around two hours, then TGV to Reims and finally a local train to Charleville-Mézières. Total transit time, five and a half hours.
In 1606, Charles de Gonzague, the Duke of Mantua, founded the city of Charleville as his personal residence, opposite the town of Mézières on the banks of the Meuse. Designed by renowned architect Clément II Métezeau, the city has a geometric layout, wide avenues, and elegant squares, reflecting the grandeur and ambition of its founder.
The grandest is the majestic Place Ducale, a splendid square inspired by the Place des Vosges in Paris. It’s lined by arcades, housing elegant shops with a central fountain and it’s a vibrant hub for locals and tourists alike. Stroll through its cobbled streets, cross the river, and admire the impressive 15th century Basilique Notre-Dame d’Espérance, in Mézières. It contains around 1000 square metres of stained glass created by René Dürrbach, a friend of Picasso.
Arthur Rimbaud, the renowned French poet was born in Charleville on October 20, 1854, and spent his formative years in the town, before running away to Paris when he was seventeen. He died young in Marseilles and his remains were brought back to the town’s cemetery in 1910. His grave, and the house where he grew up, form part of the Rimbaud Trail and there’s an excellent museum in an old watermill on the banks of the Meuse.
Charleville is a major international puppetry centre and every two years it hosts one of the largest puppet festivals in the world, the Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes in September. For ten days professional troupes from all over the world stage around fifty shows a day both inside and out. The Puppet Museum has a collection of intricately crafted marionettes and there are occasional performances at the Institut de la Marionnette.
Ardennes Regional Nature Park
Charleville-Mézières is the gateway city to the Ardennes Regional Nature Park, in the north of the department, with a surface area of 117 200 hectares, and home to 92 small towns. It’s a lush green territory full of forests, hedged farmland, dry grassland, peat bogs, rocky escarpments and rivers. Outdoor leisure activities such as walking, cycling, mountain biking, horse-riding, fishing and kayaking are popular here.
The Park counts over 1000km of marked footpaths, some easy but others more challenging. These include four GR’s, long distance trails – the GR12 connects Amsterdam to Paris and the GR354 goes all to way to Santiago de Compostella, the Way of St Jacques.
One of the most popular destinations is the 150 hectare Vieilles Forges Lake. It offers a host of activities including swimming, windsurfing, paddle-boarding, canoeing and kayaking and you can also fish from its banks. The lake is surrounded by forests but a trail runs along its banks for nearly 12km, an easy afternoon walk
Nearby in the heart of the forest, just outside Signy-l’Abbaye is another circular hike, Le Sentier n°56 “La source de la Pichelotte” It’s almost all inside the forest, a mix of beech and pine, and crosses streams and valleys. You’re unlikely to meet other walkers and allow four hours for the walk.
North of Charleville, the Meuse winds through deep valleys with dramatic wooded cliffs on both sides. The town of Monthermé is right in the heart of the Ardennes Forest, and the river makes a wide loop here. Canoeing, biking and walking are all on offer and the trails are tougher here. The Paths of Legends Loop is a five hour strenuous hike starting and ending in the town.
The walk starts with a steep climb up to the Roche à Sept Heures, worth it for the panoramic views of the river bend, with the town spread out below. Follow the ridge to Roc la Tour before dropping back down to the banks of the Meuse and walk in the other direction. The trail soon climbs into the woods leading up to the rock formations of ‘Les 4 Fils Aymon’.
Legend says that these four brothers left the court of Charlemagne after accidentally killing his nephew. Bayard, a magic horse, carried all the brothers on its back, leaping across hills valleys, and they took refuge in the Ardennes Forest. With the help of their cousin the wizard Maugis, they built the castle Montessor. But Charlemagne soon discovered where they were and they were forced to flee.
Just above the village of Bogny-sur-Meuse, on the original site of the castle, is a monumental sculpture by Albert Poncin representing the four brothers and their horse. After crossing the river into the village a steep climb leads to two fantastic viewpoints, the Point de vue de L’Hermitage and the even more impressive Rocher de 7 Villages. It’s then a gentle walk down back to Monthermé for a welcome glass of the local beer.
STAY: L’Auberge de l’Abbaye in Signy-l’Abbaye is close to the forest and has good food.
La Ferme du Pont des Aulnes in Les Mazures is next to Vieilles Forges Lake and is famous for its charcuterie.
Chambre d’hôtes Le Point de Chute in Hautes-Rivières has local specialities and is handy for Monthermé.
EAT: Restaurant Gastronomique Chez Toshi in Charleville-Mézières has excellent French cuisine with a Japanese twist.
INFO: Ardennes has information about the region.