The Ardennes, France is a quiet, unspoilt region where families can canoe down meandering rivers, or fly over wild forests on a zip line. A land of mysterious legends and world-class puppetry. It’s in a central spot, next to Belgium. The French Ardennes is also close to the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Paris is two hours away, and so is Brussels. Amsterdam’s a four-hour hop. So it’s pretty accessible from lots of different places. Which is handy when you’re travelling with kids!
The Ardennes is part of a region called Champagne-Ardennes – or Champagne-Ardenne, to be precise. For administrative purposes, the Ardennes has been linked up with Champagne, its southerly neighbour whose capital, Reims, is only 45 minutes away from the Ardennais capital, Charleville-Mézières.
The Ardennes is well set-up for people who enjoy spending time in the countryside, and exploring quaint historic towns. A third of the region (150,000 hectares) is covered in thick forest. Wild boar, deer and stags roam freely. A designated Parc Naturel Régional, in the north of the region, is home to beavers, owls and storks. And Charleville-Mézières, along with its neighbour Sedan, date back to medieval times. Among the towns’ stately buildings and monuments there’s a thriving arts scene, including the top festival of puppetry in the world.
Here are some things to do in the Ardennes, based on a press trip organised by Tourism in Ardennes in collaboration with BritMums. A lot of these activities are included in the Ardennes Tourist Pass, which gives one free ticket for every one purchased at 10 of the region’s top tourist attractions. We were fully hosted on this trip, and all views expressed in this editorial feature are my own.
Canoeing and cycling in the Ardennes France
The rivers Meuse and Semoy flow through the French Ardennes. They meander gently through the countryside, and if you head up to La Roche à Sept Heures, a viewpoint near Montherme, you can see just how elegantly the Meuse loops through the valley. It’s a landscape that seems custom-built for slow travel. And the two rivers are great for watersports.
Close to the Belgian border in Les Hautes-Rivières, Canoe-Semoy was set up by local athlete Thomas Peltriaux. The company hires out canoes and stand-up paddle boards, so that families can get a duck’s-eye view of the lush greenery and wildlife of the River Semoy.
The sun was shining for our canoe ride. We paddled for 5km past swans, herons, ducks and geese, and tiny clusters of houses.
Our long green plastic canoe had one space for a child. There’s no lower age limit for canoeists. As long as a child can swim 25m, they can ride or paddle, furnished in one of Canoe Semoy’s cute kiddie lifejackets.
With the thick green hedgerows and trees along the banks, the smell of freshly cut spring grass in the air, and the mesmerising sway of the river plants in the shallow water, it was a most relaxing experience.
The canoe felt very safe and the river’s flow was gentle, so I’d suggest that the only barrier to young kids doing a canoe trip would be their ability to sit in one place. Our 5km to Naux took us around an hour. There’s a longer route, to Thilay, which is an hour and a half long. If visitors choose to go all the way to Thilay, there are changing rooms for canoeists to get out of their wet clothes.
Canoe hire at Canoe Semoy begins at 10€ per person, which includes lifejackets. To find out more visit the Canoe Semoy website.
Trans-Ardennes cycle path
Cycling enthusiasts can ride the 1,000-long Meuse cycle route, which follows the river from southern Champagne to its mouth at Hook of Holland. For people who don’t have the stamina to go all the way, the Trans-Ardennes cycle path is a 121 km traffic-free section, running through the Ardennes. We cycled a small section of it.
Our 5km ride from Montherme took us along a cyclists-only path that was directly on the river. In mid-May it was nigh-on idyllic, with butterflies and songbirds fluttering over our heads. We passed a riverside bar and a mini play-park, and I imagine there would be other places to stop along the way, to break up the route. It was completely flat, so it would be an easy ride for little legs.
To find out more about bike hire in the Ardennes, France, check out this brochure.
Activities for thrill-seekers in the Ardennes France
As well as more gentle pursuits, the Ardennes offers a range of high-octane activities, like bungee jumping, high ropes, paragliding and rock climbing.
We tried out the Fantasticable zip wire on our trip. At 1.2km it’s the longest zip wire in northern France. We checked in at TerrAltitude, in Fumay, where the staff kitted us out in helmets and safety harnesses. Then we drove up a bumpy track to a viewpoint overlooking the forested valley. Despite being trussed up in heavy safety gear, and in the hands of a woman who was clearly very experienced at strapping people onto the zip wire, I had a bit of a wobbly when I tried to convince my terrified brain that yes, I would be safe if I took my hands off the ground and stretched out like a bird, 110m above the ground. But once I’d set off on my 120kph flight over the Ardennes forest, the fear evaporated.
On the zip wire, it didn’t feel as though I was going as fast as 120kph. Instead, I had a few short minutes of soaring gently over a beautiful, lush, landscape. At the bottom, I was desperate to go back up for another flight – and at 20€ per flight, the price was reasonable enough for that to be a possibility.
Children are allowed to travel solo on the Fantasticable, just as long as they’re over 35kg (the weight of an average 12-year old). Tandem parent-child flights can be arranged, so long as the weight balance works. For more information see the TerrAltitude website.
History and culture in the Ardennes France
From the star-shaped city of Rocroi to the elegant Place Ducale in Charleville-Mézières, Ardennais towns are teeming with history. Charleville-Mézières itself is made up of two towns. The medieval Mézières was mostly destroyed in the religious wars of the 16th Century, but its elegant Gothic church, Notre-Dame d’Éspérance, still exists. Visitors can go inside to look at stained glass windows made by René Dürrbach, Picasso’s friend. A walk along the ramparts gives a view of the same river that merchants of the 9th Century would have travelled up, when voyaging to this strategic stopping point.
Charleville lies on the other side of the River Meuse. It was built in 1606 by local prince Charles de Gonzague, a man who was determined to create his own mini-state within France. He attracted artisans to Charleville by offering them houses in his newly established town, and he kept the taxes very low. The town thrived during the 17th century. The life of the town centred around its main square, Place Ducale, which was designed and built by the brother of the man who created Place des Vosges in Paris.
Every two years, Charleville-Mézières hosts the top puppet festival in the world. This part of France suffered under Nazi occupation during WWII. To help boost morale after the war, puppeteers held free marionette shows in the town. People on the puppetry scene travelled to Charleville-Mézières from Liège in Belgium, and Lyon, the home of Guignol, a character world-famous in puppetry circles.
Since then the festival has grown into a unique international phenomenon. This year it celebrates its 20th anniversary. The festival regularly attracts people from as far afield as India, Japan, Canada and Brazil. Over 300 puppetry companies visit Charleville-Mézières, with hundreds of performances taking place in auditoriums and on the streets, from 10am until midnight. This year will see 31 countries represented in 525 different shows.
To find out more about the International Puppet Festival at Charleville-Mézières, the Festival Mondial de Marionnettes de Charleville-Mézières France, from 20 to 29 September this year, visit the website. You can also read about the International Puppet Festival in this feature.
The puppet festival’s held at the end of September, but puppetry runs all year round in Charleville-Mézières. The town boasts a puppetry ‘university’, the Institut International de la Marionette, where for three years people learn all about puppetry techniques, from wooden hand-carving, to CGI. Graduates of the school go on to craft some of the most ground-breaking performances on the international arena.
Musée de l’Ardenne
If they don’t arrive in September for the festival, visitors to Charleville-Mézières can still see beautifully crafted puppets at the Musée de l’Ardenne. Over 500 marionettes from the puppet festival are displayed on rotation.
Outside the museum, passers-by are treated to a daily performance of the Four Sons of Aymon, a local legend, which is told in 12 short instalments. Every hour from 10am, a talking golden head begins to nod, the wooden ‘curtains’ are opened, and mechanised puppets act out a short snippet of the story.
As well as puppets, the Musée de l’Ardenne in Charleville-Mézières includes a large archaeological section. Local finds include mammoth bones, and one of the oldest examples of art from prehistoric times, a sketching on a 20,000 year-old piece of slate. Guns sent to help the Americans fight the War of Independence sit in large glass cases, and an elegant ‘lady’s’ hunting rifle is on display. It’s an interesting collection of curios, all housed in a beautiful 17th Century building on Charleville-Mézières’ main square.
The Musée de l’Ardenne is open every day except Mondays, from 10am until 12pm, and then from 2 till 6pm.
Arthur Rimbaud was born in Charleville-Mézières. The town is rightfully proud of their ground-breaking 19th Century poet, who some critics believe paved the way for the Surrealist movement. Enthusiasts can visit the Rimbaud Museum (whose exhibits are in French), see the house where the poet was born, or visit one of the many establishments that link with Rimbaud. These range from restaurants to hairdressers – we even stayed in a four-star hotel named Le Dormeur du Val, after one of Rimbaud’s poems.
Château Fort de Sedan
The town of Sedan was famous from the 17th-19th Centuries for its high-quality textiles, which were used to furnish sedan chairs in this era. It’s also home to the largest castle in Europe. Built over seven floors and with walls 20m thick in parts, the Château Fort de Sedan is a sturdy, collossal building whose creamy yellow walls seem to go on for acres.
The fortification took over 100 years to build, starting in 1425, and it includes several Prince’s quarters, an oak ceiling from the 15th Century that still looks remarkably fresh, a subterranean court where soldiers used to play ‘real tennis’, and a 20km tunnel so that Princes could escape to Belgium.
On our tour of the castle there were several nuggets of information that children would find interesting, including a hatch for soldiers to throw excrement at invading forces, and Ardennais red sheep, which had recently been brought in to keep the grass short on the castle’s wide terraces.
Visitors can really immerse themselves in coutly life by sleeping in the castle’s chambers. We stayed at the castle hotel, and I’ll be writing separately about the accommodation. The castle is open every day from 10am until 5 or 6pm, depending on the time of year. Children’s tickets are 7,50€ and for adults it’s 9,50€. This includes a short film and a visit to the castle museum. You can find out more about Château Fort de Sedan visitor tours, and the hotel, on the Château website.
Myths and legends of the Ardennes France
A saying goes that “there is a legend under every stone in the Ardennes.” That’s not surprising, given the region’s deep, mysterious swathes of forest, and its mischievous, babbling rivers and streams. The myths of the Ardennes seem to be unique to the region. I’d never before come across the Ladies of the Meuse, or Aymons’ Four Sons, who seemed to make an appearance at every attraction we visited. There’s even a small theme park, Elfy Park, based around the legends of the Ardennes. We didn’t have time to visit on this occasion, but it sounds the sort of thing my kids would love.
Beaches in the Ardennes France
Yes, you read that correctly. Beaches. In a land-locked region. But the Ardennes makes the most of its aquatic attractions – at Lac des Vieilles Forges there’s a sandy lakeside beach, with a children’s play area. On the lake itself, people can go rowing, canoeing and sailing. And in Charleville-Mézières, the main square Place Ducal is transformed into Ducal Beach for a few weeks every summer. It’s a space for families and individuals to relax, play volleyball, pétanque and mini golf.
Ardennes France weather
The Ardennes has a temperate climate, with occasional snow in winter, and hotter temperatures in summer. The average for July and August is 24°, although it can get much warmer than this.
When is the best time to visit the Ardennes?
A lot of the Ardennais tourist attractions shut down for winter, so spring and summer are the best times to make the most of the region’s family attractions. The shoulder months of May and September are pleasant. The area around Charleville-Mézières is buzzing during the puppet festival in September. Make sure you book your accommodation well in advance. Hunting season runs from October to February, and visitors have to check the shooting schedule to see when it’s safe to enter the forests.
Food and drink in the Ardennes
Ardennais food is hearty and pleasing. I’ve written about some of the excellent restaurants and cafes in the Ardennes here. The menus of the restaurants where we ate featured a lot of pork and cod, with a better than average vegetarian selection compared with other parts of France. Two specialities that I particularly enjoyed were salade au lard, a concoction of potatoes, chunky bacon and greens, sprinkled with vinegar and topped by an egg; and galette à suc, a sugar tart which the Ardennais seemed to serve round the clock, for breakfast, elevenses, lunch, and afternoon tea.
Visitors can expect an excellent selection of wine in the Ardennes, including Champagne from the region’s southerly neighbour. Craft beer is having a renaissance, and there are a number of excellent microbreweries, including Ardwen, which we visited on our trip and which you can read about here.
Places to stay in the Ardennes France
We stayed in two pleasant four-star hotels, which I’ve written about here: L’Hôtel Le Dormeur du Val, in Charleville-Mézières, and Hôtel le Château Fort, in Sedan.
Ardennes or Ardenne?
Ardenne without an ‘s’ refers to the mountainous area, which this part of France shares with Belgium. Ardennes with an ‘s’ is used to describe the region as a whole.
How to get to the Ardennes
We travelled to the Ardennes from London St Pancras via the Eurostar train. On the way out we changed at Lille for a direct train to Charleville-Mézières. On the return journey we drove to Reims in Champagne, where we caught a train to Paris Est. We then walked for 7 minutes to Paris Gare du Nord, and our connecting train back to London. The train journeys took around five hours each way.
The closest airports are in Paris, Luxembourg and Brussels. The region is well-served by connecting motorways from Paris, Belgium and the Netherlands.
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