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.
Our evening destination is Sedan, our lodgings a hotel built inside the town castle. Offering novel slumber, as well as tours through the castle’s grizzly past, it boasts spectacular views of the underlying town and beyond. We set out on foot the following morning in search of some vantage points in Monthermé, the steep hills of the Meuse Valley offering challenging inclines which are more than rewarded by the stunning vistas from the top.
Our afternoon at the Terraltitude adventure park takes things up a notch, with a zip wire from one side of the valley to the other. Launching from a perch at the top of the tree line, I whizz through the sky, above the river, and all beneath.
It’s a unique vantage point from which to admire the views, but not one for the vertiginously challenged (so too the park’s bungee jump, as we firmly decide only after having experienced the earth racing towards us with just a stretch of elastic to halt our rapid, groundward descent).
For those with yet more energy, set in the beatific location in the bend of the river is Haybes, a popular pit stop for biking tours, and one of the more northern stops on the Green Route, an off-road trail from Charleville through the region.
With the French presidential election result gripping the nation that evening, the contrast between outgoing conservative Sarkozy and incoming socialist Hollande reminds us of the contrasts here, too: the Ardennes is home to the traditional as well as the contemporary, the retrospective as much as the escapist. With a ferry crossing and a couple of hours drive being all that distances it from London, the diverse options mean you can make of a trip to the Ardennes what you want – and, better, you don’t even have to decide until you get there.