Rupert Parker offers his insider guide to the French Ardennes, a little-known region of France
Tucked away, in a corner of north-eastern France, sandwiched between Champagne and Belgium, the French Ardennes are something of a mystery. Dense forests cover almost half of the region and the landscape is gently rolling hills and deep valleys. A perfect opportunity then to offer my Insider guide to the French Ardennes.
It’s crossed by the meandering River Meuse, running from north to south, 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.
Probably the easiest way to get here is by train and it’s also environmentally friendly. From London, I take Eurostar to Paris, then TGV to Reims and finally a local train to Charleville-Mézières. It takes me around five and a half hours but most of that is spent just sitting and watching the countryside fly by.
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 is laid out geometrically, with 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. I 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.
The city is the gateway 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.
One of the most popular destinations is the 150-hectare Vieilles Forges Lake. It offers a host of water sports including swimming, windsurfing, paddle-boarding and kayaking and you can also fish from its banks. The lake is surrounded by forests, and I take the trail running around its shores nearly 12km, an easy afternoon walk. The reward is a refreshing early evening dip, still chilly at the start of summer.
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. I see no other walkers in my four hours of walking and only have the birds for company.
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.
I start 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. I then follow the ridge to Roc la Tour before dropping back down to the banks of the Meuse and walking in the other direction. The trail soon climbs into the woods leading up to the rock formations called 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 and 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. I descend and cross the river into the village and then 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 amble down back to Monthermé for a welcome glass of the local beer.
The Park counts over 1000km of marked footpaths, some easy but others more challenging. These include four GRs, long-distance trails – the GR12 connects Amsterdam to Paris and the GR354 goes all to way to Santiago de Compostella on the Way of St James. I don’t think I’ll be taking any of those in the future, but I’d love to come back and explore the region further for another guide to the French Ardennes.
Tell Me More About This Insider Guide to The French Ardennes
Ardennes has more information about this guide to the French Ardennes.
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.
Restaurant Gastronomique Chez Toshi in Charleville-Mézières has excellent French cuisine with a Japanese twist.