- Forest, farms, fortresses
- Country life
- Bottled bubbles, bucolic bliss
Walloon countryside, tiny towns, farmland and forest await in this peaceful and picturesque corner of north-east France.
If only the sheep would quieten down... That’s as bumptious as this tranquil corner of France gets. Ardennes is an unspoilt rural département in the north-east – not to be confused with its namesake broader region, which extends into Luxembourg and Belgium. The area’s World War II past is hard to fathom, so serene is the landscape of farmland and sleepy villages. Local hub Charleville-Mézières is a town of elegant squares, a museum or two, and go-slow cafés and bistros, united by their quiet charm. The Ardennes hills, and rivers Meuse and Semoy are a big draw for outdoorsy peace-seekers, wonderful for walking, fishing, kayaking and climbing. And when aren’t you in the mood for a little champagne tasting?
Puppets! If you want to pull a few strings, you’ve come to the right place. On the main square in Charleville-Mézières is the Institute of Marionettes (staffed by humans). Pass by between 10am and 9pm to see characters emerge with Trumptonish charm from its clocktower as the hour strikes. On summer evenings, stooge-led performances provide build-up to September’s Marionnettes festival (www.marionnette.com).
- You’ve got more chance of hailing a tractor. Your best bet is to book a cab through your hotel. Sachy Taxi Olivier Philippe, aka STOP, operates out of Florenville (+33 (0)6 83 45 89 70). In Charleville-Mézières, try Allo Taxi (+33 (0)3 24 37 17 17).
- Tipping culture
- Service charges are included automatically on all French restaurant bills but it’s usual to leave a few euros for the waiter.
- Siesta and fiesta
- Shops in towns such as Sedan and Charleville-Mézières stay open through the day but banks bolt their doors between 12 noon and 2pm. There’s 24-hour siesta on Sundays and Mondays.
- Packing tips
- Kayaking kit (ie: stuff you don’t mind getting sodden) if you’re ready to brave the rapids. And take a picnic rug; why snack indoors when the scenery’s this good?
- Recommended reads
- Ordinary Heroes is Scott Turow’s novel set against the backdrop of Ardennes and the Battle of the Bulge. A biography of Rimbaud will provide the lowdown on Charleville-Mézière’s most famous son. If the delicious Belgian Ardennes pâté inspires you, Stéphane Reynaud’s Terrine recipe book is one to pick up post-trip.
- Ardennes food is a real rustic romp for the tastebuds. There’s Ardennes pâté, white pudding and game terrine for unfazed carniphiles; forest mushrooms (if you can find them); and Orval beer brewed by Trappist monks. Dine on pike and trout from the Meuse, and snack sweetly on gâteau mollet (like brioche, only sweeter). The poster product for the region, however, is bubbly. Traditionally drunk to accompany the coronation of French kings in Reims, champagne rules the surrounding landscape, which is striped with chardonnay vines and dotted with more than 100 champagne houses and around 19,000 smaller growers. Most of the houses offer cellar tours and tastings; try Taittinger (www.taittinger.com), Pommery (www.pommery.com), or Veuve Clicquot (www.veuve-clicquot.com).
- Euro (€).
- Time zone
- GMT +1.
- Dialling codes
- France: 33. North-east: 03 (drop the zero when ringing from abroad).
- Do go/don't go
- You only have to look at the 50-shades- of-green scenery to realise this region gets a lot of rain. Summer months are driest and warmest – any time between May and September – with July and August being peak visitor season.
Don't go home without...
…experiencing the tastes of the Ardennes, all wrapped up in one dish: cacasse à cul nu, a fricassée of potatoes, bacon and onions. Just what you need after a day’s ploughing, herding or sightseeing.