7th Jun 2012 9:48am | By Alasdair Morton
This picturesque pocket of France is yours to discover, whether it’s a taste of the simple life or high-wire action you’re after
The French Ardennes is a curious region of contradictions: an area on the border with neighbouring Belgium, it has been subject to conflict throughout the ages; man’s tumultous existence leaving an indelible mark through various war memorials, battle sites and fortified towns.
It is also home to tranquil surrounds and makes for a fine destination to ‘get away from it all’. But then this sort of variation is exactly what you’d expect from a region that consists of rolling fields and countryside to the south, the forested slopes of the Meuse Valley in the north, and is surrounded by mountains and ridges custom-built for action. The result is your own playground, unspoilt by the identikit traverses of the tourist routes. In short, the Ardennes is ripe to explore as you see fit, with hikes, horse riding, archery, biking – whatever you like.
My travel buddy and I decide to give ourselves a taste of both – the gentle and the adventurous. With some stomach-flipping antics already booked for the latter part of our journey, we decide to start slow. Arriving in the south, we absorb the sun-kissed scenery, passing by the 10m-high boar monument Woinic (he took artist Eric Sleziak 11 years to create and welcomes visitors to the Ardennes on the A34). Our destination is the quiet Signy L’Abbaye, a farming village built around a traditional square that acts as our host for the evening. We enjoy a drink (or three) at the local bar Le Gibergeon, specialising in its own home-brewed cider, before a locally sourced dinner at restaurant Auberge de l’Abbaye. The meal introduces us to French cuisine: if an Englishman’s home is his castle, then a Frenchman’s focus is what’s on his plate, and they will not settle for second best.
The next day we set out – after a somewhat predictable and farcical moment of “you’re driving on the wrong side of the road!” – to visit Charleville-Mézières, the Ardennes’ main town. Built around a square, La Place Ducale, it comprises 27 houses with golden roofs (in colour, not material), and was the work of 17th-century Duke Charles I Gonzague, who wanted to build his own town to rival nearby Reims, and so did exactly that.
Today, the square, which was a forerunner to Paris’ Place Des Vosges, plays host to The Festival of Brotherhoods, honouring local artisans from both sides of the national border, with all manner of local produce – beers, cured meats, delicate pastries and desserts – on offer. Naturally, we sample the Ardwen beer (as good as you’d expect this close to Belgium) and tuck into some sausages in the festival tent. As the booze begins to flow, so too does the dancing.