Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

50 SHADES OF GREEN; Jo Fernandez Discovers the Unspoilt French Ardennes, a Land Steeped in History and Host to a World-Famous Puppet Festival Tomorrow

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

50 SHADES OF GREEN; Jo Fernandez Discovers the Unspoilt French Ardennes, a Land Steeped in History and Host to a World-Famous Puppet Festival Tomorrow

Article excerpt

Byline: Jo Fernandez

ON a recent visit to the French Ardennes, a region of rolling landscapes and wooded hills north east of Champagne, it struck me as being more populated by cows, chewing gently in fields, than people. Tourists tend to be Dutch, Belgian and, of course, French although last year visitor figures for us Brits were up. And this year the northern part, to the north-west of its capital Charleville-Mezieres, became France's newest -- and largest -- regional national park.

Aware that Paris and the South of France hog much of the touristic attention, I took a friend along to explore this peaceful corner of the country. It's easily reached from Paris. Once off Eurostar the TGV from Gard de l'Est speeds you the 90 minutes to the serene town of Charleville-Mezieres, the start of the recently completed Trans Ardennes Greenaway, a 50-mile route along the River Meuse to Given on the Belgian border.

In truth, two towns separated by the meandering Meuse, Charleville and Mezieres, merged administratively in 1966. Most attention falls on younger Charleville, begun in 1606, although Mezieres, a 15-minute walk across the river, reveals its medieval origins in the 15th-century Notre Dame d'Esperance, with its stained-glass windows by friend of Picasso, Rene Durrback.

One of the main pulls for visitors to Charleville-Mezieres is the Festival Mondial des Theatres de Marionettes, or Puppet Festival. The main one is held every two years but tomorrow an estimated 150,000 visitors will flood in for this smaller version, held on alternate years.

We passed by the giant Grand Puppeteer Clock in front of the Institut International de la Marionnette -- France's one and only puppet school -- a permanent reminder of the festival which started in 1961. Trumptonish scenes from local legend the Four Sons of Aymon are performed on the hour daily.

But a weekend away in France surely meant a tipple or two. En route to a suitable spot we were charmed by the graceful galleried arcades that lined the Place Ducale, an example of early 17thcentury classical French architecture and evidence of Charleville being built to plan.

Styled after the Place des Vosges in Paris, its golden-hued stone appeared almost amber in the right light. We sat in a quiet bar sipping on Woinic, a local brew -- unsurprising in a region spreading right up to the Belgian border -- named after Erik Sleziak's 50-tonne iron sculpture of a wild boar by the roadside in nearby Rethel, a sort of porcine version of Gateshead's Angel of the North.

Just along from the square is the birthplace of Arthur Rimbaud, the tortured soul and 19th-century poet who wrote much of his small output here between the ages of 16 and 21. His desire to escape sleepy Charleville for sleazier sites led him around the world until he died aged 37 in 1891 in Marseilles. …

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