The French Département of the Ardennes1 is the pointy bit of France that protrudes into Belgium. Charleville-Mézières is the capital of the Ardennes, situated a little over 200km northeast of Paris and some 80km from Reims.
The inhabitants of Charleville are the Carolos2, the inhabitants of Mézières are the Macériens, thus making the inhabitants of the unified Charleville-Mézières the Carolomacériens.
Mézières was founded in 899. It was a fortified town, used in times of war between France and the Spanish Netherlands. During the attack of 1521 by the troops of Charles Quint, the town was defended by famous Chevalier Bayard ('le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche' : the fearless and irreproachable knight).
Then, on a sunny morning in May 1606, Charles de Gonzague, the 26-year-old local duke, decided he wanted a town named after him. He thought to himself that the easiest way to achieve this was, of course, to create a whole new town out of nothing.
Which he did.
The Foundation of Charles-ville
Charles de Gonzague chose an independent piece of land just next to Mézières, and entrusted the architect Clément Métézeau with designing a city for it.
Métézeau created a very tidy kind of town with the Place Ducale (the Duke's Square) right at its centre.
Charleville and Mézières were unified into a single town in 1966, thus becoming Charleville-Mézières.
What To See
The Place Ducale (Duke's Square)
It is an almost perfectly square Square, surrounded by beautiful buildings made of brick and yellow Dom-le-Mesnil stone, with slate roofs, all materials from the Ardennes. The arcades provide a very enjoyable shady space in the summer, as well as shelter from the rain. The Place Ducale is where you'll find quite a few restaurants and the tourist information centre.
Originally, there was a fountain at the centre of the Place, but it was replaced in 1899 by a statue of Charles de Gonzague. Then, in March 1999, the statue itself was moved to make way for a replica of the original fountain. It's pinkish.
Do take a while to walk around the square, it's really worth a good look. See if you can spot the yards in two of the corners: one is the yard of the Museum (see below), and the other belongs to a nice little tea parlour. This Researcher is particularly fond of their chocolate and pistachio cake.
The Rue Piétonne (Pedestrian Street)
Its official name is Rue Bérégovoy, but everyone calls it Rue piétonne. This long paved street, with most of Charleville's shops and a few cafés and restaurants, goes from the Place Ducale to the statue of Charles de Gonzague. The side streets may be worth wandering into, you never know what you might find...
The Statue of Charles de Gonzague
The statue stood at the centre of the Place Ducale from 1899 until March 1999, when it was moved to the top of the Rue piétonne. He is represented in a picture-book musketeer costume, but that's just because the artist thought it would look nice. He was not a musketeer, but he does indeed look handsome that way.
The Musée de l'Ardenne
This is a general museum presenting artefacts from various periods in the history of the Ardennes. From one of the rooms, you can see the internal structure of the Great Puppeteer.
The Great Puppeteer: (le Grand Marionnettiste)
Created in 1991 by sculptor Jacques Monestier, this is a tribute both to the tradition of Charleville-Mézières as capital of puppets and to one of the most famous legends of the Ardennes, the legend of the four sons of Aymon (Les Quatre Fils Aymon).
This giant automaton in the form of - you guessed it - a puppeteer, is also a clock.
It tells the legend of the four sons of Aymon in the form of a marionette show. The story is divided into twelve episodes of a few minutes each, one of which is told every hour from 10am to 9pm. All twelve episodes are told in a row on Saturdays at 9.15pm, for the benefit of those who don't want to come back every hour.
The City Walls of Mézières
Mézières was a fortified town, and part of the walls are still standing, as well as several towers. Looking at them makes for a rather nice afternoon stroll.
The Mézières Basilica
The building of this gothic basilica started in 1499. The windows, which were shattered during World War Two, were replaced with amazing abstract-design stained-glass windows by René Dürrbach.
Six tourist routes have been developed by the Département, on themes such as Rimbaud and Verlaine, or the legends of the Meuse and the Semoy rivers, for example. They list interesting things to see based on a common theme; each route is between 65 and 260km long. You can follow them on bicycle, motorbike, or by car, and some of them by bus (on some of the itineraries, the roads can get quite narrow).3
What To Do
The World Festival of Puppet Theatres ('Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes')
The 'Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes' was founded in 1961 by Jacques Félix. It used to take place every three years in September, but this changed to every two years from 2009, still in September. For the dates of the next Festival, see the conversations below.
It brings together puppeteers and puppet lovers from all over the world. There is an official programme and a non-official one. The official selection consists of rather expensive shows, whereas the non-official shows are free, which gives them a rather massive advantage from a hitchhiker's point of view... There are also hundreds of street shows in the pedestrian areas of the city centre.
'Puppets in the Gardens' festival: ('Festival Marionnettes en Jardin')
This takes place every year, for ten days in July.
The 'Green Cabaret' festival ('Festival du Cabaret Vert')
This rock music festival that was started in 2005, and takes place every year at the end of August. It takes its name from a poem by Arthur Rimbaud.
In the Area
The Valley of the River Meuse and the Valley of the River Semoy
The North of the Ardennes is a land of legends, with its valleys, its forests full of impish creatures and the remains of castles built by the Devil... You don't want to go into the woods at night.
Some of the most famous legends are that of the four sons of Aymon in Monthermé, the Devil's castle at Roc la Tour, or the Ladies of the Meuse outside Laifour.
The Aymon Folk Festival
This folk music festival began in 1998 and takes place every year around the end of July or the beginning of August in Monthermé (some 20km from Charleville-Mézières). It takes its name from the legend of the four sons of Aymon.
Woinic, the Giant Boar
This 8-metre-high statue of a wild boar was made by Eric Sléziak between 1 January, 1983 and 18 December, 1993. The wild boar being the emblem of the Ardennes, the Département decided to buy Woinic, and the beastie was transported to a place 30km south of Charleville-Mézières, on the site of a future motorway rest area.
Incidentally, Woinic arrived at her new home on 8 August, 2008 (08/08/08), a very symbolic date as the Département of the Ardennes bears the number 08.
The Medieval Castle of Sedan
This the largest surviving fortified castle in Europe. A medieval festival is held there every year, complete with jousting tournaments and mead.
What To Eat
There are a number of traditional dishes, many of which you will find served in local restaurants.
A potato fricassée with a little bacon in a thick roux-based sauce. Can also be called cacasse à cul nu, though technically that is only when you leave the bacon out. Of course, you'll also need some bread to wipe the sauce off your plate.
Salade au lard (bacon salad)
A salad with potatoes, bacon. a little onion, and some salad greens. The traditional recipe is made with dandelion leaves, but most people use lettuce or other salad greens - a crunchy variety is generally preferred. Some actually cook the salad with the potatoes, others don't.
This Researcher finds it tastier with crunchy, uncooked salad than with the squishier, cooked salad.
Boudin Blanc (White Pudding, as Opposed to Black Pudding)
A sausage with pork meat, milk and egg in it. The original Rethel recipe does not contain bread. Best eaten pan fried, with mashed potatoes, although some might argue that chips are even better – this Researcher finds that too fatty. There are also fancy boudins blancs, with other ingredients in them: onion and mushroom, but also cherries and even foie gras or truffle around Christmas and New Year time.
A potato dish with onions. You'll need an old casserole dish that you don't mind burning the bottom of – an old pressure cooker will do the trick just as well. All you need to do is pile up a layer of potato slices, then a layer of onion slices, then some more potatoes, and so on, until the dish is almost full. Then, add about half a glass of water, and cook it on a slow fire. When the bottom layer starts to burn, it means it's ready to be served!
Two half-spherical meringues with praliné butter cream in between. Amazingly good, and amazingly rich. They come in all sizes, from tiny little ones to bigger individual ones, and even some giant ones that you can share, but that's not very advisable, as the meringue is sure to be crushed if you try to cut it. Arguably the best Carolos are the tiny ones, because you can eat more of them before feeling sick.
Some Famous People with a Link to the Ardennes
Charles de Gonzague (1580 – 1637)
Duke of Nevers, Duke of Rethel, Prince of Arches, Duke of Mantua and Duke of Montferrat.
He founded the town of Charleville in his duchy of Rethel. Funnily enough, Charleville is now much bigger than Rethel and more famous, too.
Jean-Nicolas Pache (1746 – 1823)
Not very famous by name, yet everyone in France - and indeed many people outside of France - know his most famous phrase : he is the author of the French motto 'Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité'.
He was also the Mayor of Paris in 1793, and died in Thin le Moutier, a small village southwest of Charleville-Mézières.
Mickels Réa (*1983 )
Singer and songwriter born in Charleville-Mézières. He won the eighth edition of Star Academy in 2008.
Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891)
Probably the most famous Carolo. He was born in Charleville and died in Marseille. He did a lot of different things in between, from poetry - which is the main reason why he is remembered - to being Verlaine's lover - which is the second reason why he is remembered - as well as arms dealing in Africa - which not many people know. He is now buried next to his mother in Charleville.
Children in the Ardennes all learn his poem Le Dormeur du Val ('the sleeper in the valley') at school.
The old mill on the river Meuse houses the Rimbaud museum; it is just across the street from the house where he was born.
Robert de Sorbon (1201 – 1274)
A theologist born in the little village of Sorbon, in the South of the Ardennes. He founded a little college in Paris: the Sorbonne.