The French Ardennes – what does it taste like?

Having visited The French Ardennes more times that most other British holiday makers, the question I’m asked the most often (after “Where’s THAT?”) is “Why?”!

I’ve tried several answers: “Because it’s one of the least-explored corners of France”; “It’s somewhere you can go to if you want to really get away from it all”; “You won’t know until you’ve visited the area yourself”.

But the one which raises most eyebrows and generates most interest is: “Because it’s the Shropshire of France”.

Recent research has shown that 55% of people asked to comment in the UK do not have any immediate impression of where The French Ardennes is, or what it might offer the holiday maker.

But we are a nation of comparisons.  Put a dish containing meat someone has never previously tasted in front of them, and the first thing they’ll say (ahead of “Mmmm, delicious!”) is probably: “It tastes a bit like chicken”.

So how better to explain The French Ardennes than to compare it with its British equivalent?  Somewhere we all perceive as being on the borders with another country; well-and-truly off-the-beaten-track; a place filled with local legend, storytelling and folklore; a strong association with the Industrial Revolution; immortalised forever in verse; and with a strong revival in brewing its own ales.  Welcome to the French equivalent of Shropshire!

Close your eyes and think of what Shropshire means to you.  Quiet country lanes, a rural lifestyle, farms, tiny villages, colourful field patterns, woodlands, outdoor activities and areas of outstanding natural beauty.  That, in essence is a very simple description of The French Ardennes, where you can drive on, or cycle through, country lanes without seeing anyone else for miles (or kilometres).

Shropshire’s hilly borderlands with Wales have long been fought over, and have given rise to a history and heritage of storytelling through the ages, with strong local legends of ancient warriors and rock-faces associated with the Devil.

Head north in The French Ardennes – from the region’s capital of Charleville-Mézeriès towards Givet, where France meets Belgium – and it’s a very similar story, but with different characters etched into the landscape.  Theirs is a story of ancient border conflicts, as well as invasions during Franco-Prussian Wars, and two world wars.  Theirs is also the legend and folklore of the Four Sons of Aymon, humans turned into rock, and colourful characters said to steal your slippers during the night.  All of which is one of the reasons why The French Ardennes also has a strong history of puppets and marionettes, and is also the host of a bi-annual World Puppet Festival.

We all know that Shropshire was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, and that Ironbridge is the place we all head to these days to relive the past in a host of museums and attractions.  But The French Ardennes is very similar in that respect and, like Ironbridge, has plenty of ways of showing that aspect of its history and heritage in a surprisingly green and pleasant landscape.

The Museum of Metallurgy is one of the key interpretation centres, and (not least) proudly tells the story of how The Eiffel Tower is held up by rivets designed and manufactured in this area of France (in the same way Shropshire claims kinship to another of the world’s best-known structures – the world’s first iron bridge).

Elsewhere the Domaine de Vendresse is one of the unsung heroes of Northern France, with some of the most eye-catching visual displays telling the full story of a furnace.  It was the invention of Jean Nicolas Gendarme, The French Ardennes’ equivalent of Shropshire’s Abraham Darby.

Literary connections are rife, too, with Charleville’s most famous sons being the nation’s most popular poet, Arthur Rimbaud, who managed to capture the essence of The French Ardennes in verse, in the same way that A.E. Houseman immortalised Shropshire in Blue Remembered Hills.

So: let’s raise a glass of the finest Shropshire and Ardennes ales to these similarities.  And after your Shropshire staycation, have a few days in The French Ardennes.

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