It has to be said, the view from The French Ardennes in both 1914 and 1939 was pretty bleak.
By comparison, the view today from the top of The Belfry clock tower in the region’s capital, Charleville-Mézières, is simply stunning.
I’m on what’s called a flash tour, during a short break in one of the least discovered parts of France, looking down on one of the nation’s prettiest squares which has witnessed some truly momentous moments in history.
Later this year, La Place Ducale will be buzzing with excitement, as the focal point of a massive street festival – The 2017 World Puppet Festival. A couple of months prior to that, neighbouring Mézières will have been dancing to an entirely different beat as it hosts one of Europe’s most eclectic music festivals, Le Cabaret Vert.
The flash tour of Charleville-Mézières is available to anyone who turns up at the tourist information centre in La Place Ducale with 2 Euros in their hand (it’s an additional 7 Euros to climb to the top of the tower). My guide François Allard provides visitors with a whistle-stop tour in English, and gives a potted history of a town in which the best known French poet, Arthur Rimbaud was born, which the Germans invaded in 1914 and 1939, and where the 2017 Festival Mondial des Theatres de Marionnettes will be held from September 16 to 24.
It’s a place to sit and enjoy a bottle of beer, and simply take in the view. Which is all very fortunate, really, given that while this has always been one of the beer capitals of France, there’s currently something of a mini-revival amongst local micro-breweries.
My choice is a bottle of Oubliette blonde, brewed in the nearby Petite Brasserie Ardennaise. Brewery owner Yves Schneider also happens to be one of the people behind the creation of Le Cararet Vert where, from August 24 to 27 this year – in addition to music from some top international bands – festival goers will be able to sample local food and the Petite Brasserie Ardennaise real ales.
Soaking up the atmosphere of this surprisingly elegant town close to the borders with Belgium, I hear about the Maginot Line which was hailed as an impenetrable line of defence prior to the outbreak of WWII, but which didn’t manage to live-up to its billing.
I make it my next stop. Just 45 minutes’ drive from Charleville-Mézières, it’s both a sobering monument, piece of living history.
Located at the extreme northwest of a Line which stretched for 700 kilometres along the borders with Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and Italy, the Fort of Vily-La Ferté in The French Ardennes was made up of two bunkers linked by a 280 metres tunnel deep, deep underground. It was also the only fort along the Line to fall into German hands.
Tours cost 6 Euros per adult, and take wide-eyed visitors from all parts of the globe deep inside The Maginot Line to discover one of the many tragedies of the Second World War in which 107 French soldiers became entrapped, and died in their own impenetrable tomb.
Stepping back in time still further I discover the village of Vrigne-Meuse and the grave of the last French soldier to die before the 11 o’clock ceasefire on 11 November 1918. Plans are already under way in The French Ardennes to commemorate Augustin Trebuchon, whose story provides full stop, at the end of the last sentence, in the final chapter of French involvement in WWI.
It’s hard not to focus on the history of The French Ardennes but 21st century visitors will find that today, it’s a green lung of France: a great outdoors playground, with tree houses to stay in, and zip wires to fly down.
It’s also home to the Parc Argonne Découverte, which contains some spectacular birds of prey and a proud wolf pack. Climb to the top of the feeding platform here, and you’ll get a completely different view of what The French Ardennes has to offer its visitors.
Le Cabaret Vert
The World Puppet Festival
Petite Brasserie Ardennaise
Fort of Vily-La Ferté on The Maginot Line
Chateau Faucon, near Vrigne-Meuse
(Prices start from 95 Euros for a double room, per night)
Kyriad Hotel in Charleville-Mézières
(Prices start from 68 Euros a night per room at the weekend)
Eurostar from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord
SNCF from Gare de Paris-Est
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