On the southern verge of the Ardennes, Charleville-Mézières is a town with two different stories.Charleville was built in one go in the 1600s under the orders of Charles Gonzaga, the Duke of Nevers. There’s something satisfying about the symmetry of the princely monuments, squares and streets.
Mézières on the other hand is much older, and though it has been in the firing line during many wars it has been rebuilt each time and now has a blend of medieval and Art Deco architecture. And you can’t talk about Charleville-Mézières without bring up puppets; there’s an amazing ten-metre-high automaton on one of the squares, and an international puppet theatre festival invades the town every two years in September.
Lets explore the best things to do in Charleville-Mézières:
1. Place Ducale
Charleville was a whole new town, founded in the 17th century after the French Wars of Religion.
The Duke of Mantua, Charles Gonzaga wanted it to be a bastion of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and called in the architect Clément Métezeau to realise this vision.
The showpiece is the sensational Place Ducale, a square bounded by grand, symmetrical pavilions in an early Baroque style.
On the ground floor are arcades housing brasseries and cafes, and there’s a fountain at the centre.
If you’ve been to Paris you may notice the similarity to Place des Vosges, and this was designed by Clément’s brother Louis.
2. Basilique Notre-Dame-d’Espérance
In the last 200 years this church has seen in it all: It has been damaged in sieges and attacks in 1815, 1870, 1914, 1940 and 1945, and each time has been restored to its original designs.
The bulk of the architecture dates to 1499, save for the bell tower, which is from the 1600s.
The style is mostly Flamboyant Gothic, obvious on the extravagant southern facade with its gargoyles and pinnacles.
This decoration continues in the nave, which has remarkable keystones hanging from its vaults.
The abstract stained glass windows in the church were designed by 20th-century artist René Dürrbach.
3. Musée de l’Ardenne
The dignified houses on the southeast side of Place Ducal contain a museum charting the history of the Ardennes region.
The first room, set underground, dips into ancient history with objects like jewellery, glassware, everyday items and sculptures from the Bronze Age.
Further up there are Gallo-Roman and Frankish pieces, and as you continue through the ages you’ll see paintings, sculpture, vintage guns, earthenware pots from an old pharmacy and a lot more.
Specific to Charleville is the puppet section, which shows off the mechanism of the Grand Marionnettiste clock on Square Winston Churchill, and has a collection of antique puppets from different places and times.
4. Le Grand Marionnettiste
On the other side of the wall on Square Winston Churchill you can see the spectacular automaton that the mechanism powers.
This was installed by the artist and automaton-maker Jacques Monestier in 1991. It is ten metres in height, and across 12 short scenes on the hour from 10:00 to 21:00 tells the medieval tale of the Four Sons of Aymon.
Not many visitors have the time to keep coming back every hour for the whole day, so on Saturdays at 21:15 you can see the entire story played out in one go.
5. Le Vieux Moulin
As you navigate Charleville you’ll see how a lot of this town was constructed with symmetry in mind.
Like the Place Ducale the cultured Vieux Moulin was conceived by Clément Métezeau and is perfectly perpendicular to the square, despite being a couple of hundred metres to the north.
It has Louis XIII architecture, and for 250 years harnessed the power of the Meuse River with two wheels to grind flour.
This activity stopped when the river’s level changed in the 1870s, and it was another century before the building would be converted into a museum.
6. Musée Rimbaud
The museum inside is dedicated to Arthur Rimbaud, possibly the most famous figure to come out of Charleville-Mézières.
The location is no accident as Rimbaud lived on the same quay at house no. 7. The permanent collection grants an intimate look at his life, with telegrams, letters as well as original objects from his travels to Cyprus and Africa.
If you’re fond of his work you’ll be excited to see the original manuscript for his poem Voyelles.
There’s also an exhibition revealing the influence Rimbaud had on 20th-century artists like Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Fernand Léger.
7. Parc du Mont Olympe
One of many things to love about Charleville-Mézières is the way you can step into nature directly from the old town: At the Vieux Moulin you can cross the Meuse and be in this 14-hectare park on a hill that used to have a defensive role for the town.
There was a fortress at Mont Olympe, in place until the end of the 17th century when it was pulled down on the orders of Louis XIV. As you amble you might see little outcrops of purple schist, reminding you that this is the beginning of the Ardennes Range.
For a spot of outdoor recreation you’ve also got a watersports centre and a marina, springing into action when the weather is good in summer.
8. Rue de la République
In keeping with the grand ensemble around the Place Ducale, the Rue de la République is a long, straight thoroughfare lined with handsome old houses.
Heading north you can see right to the Vieux Moulin, and the format continues on the other side of the square along Rue du Moulin.
The 17th-century buildings follow Charles Gonzaga’s plan and have an almost continuous mansard roof capping two floors of apartments.
Rue de la République is the town’s favourite shopping street with local shops and international chain stores.
9. Mézières’ Fortifications
Long before the birth of Charleville, Mézières was a frontier town for the French kingdom.
The historic town walls will tell you that was a fiercely contested strategic prize.
In 1521 King Francis I sent one of his best commanders, the Seigneur de Bayard to defend Mézières against the advance of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Baynard and his force of 1,000 men held out, effectively saving France from a wider invasion.
The tourist office arranges guided walks along the ramparts in summer, filling you in on the momentous events that occurred here 500 years ago.
10. La Maison des Ailleurs
Also on Quai Arthur-Rimbaud is the house he lived in as a child between 1869 to 1875. He lived here with his mother and siblings in an apartment on the first floor, and the town has purchased the entire and opened it up to the public.
This was a crucial part of Rimbaud’s life, when his creative talent came to light in his teenage years and young adulthood.
The interiors have been designed to evoke his life and work, so the lobby downstairs is a little like a train compartment, another room on the ground floor represents Rimbaud’s time in Marseille where he died.
Upstairs the family’s apartment is clear of furnishings, but has fragments of poems and video displays, holograms and sound effects.
11. Quartier Art Deco
Mézières has been recognised for its Art Deco heritage, receiving the “Patrimoine XXe Siècle” label from the French Ministry of Culture.
Five buildings have been recognised, including the EDF headquarters, the town hall and the law courts.
None are tourist sites, but anyone with an affinity for early-20th-century architecture will get a kick out of the buildings in this part of town.
The town hall (hôtel de ville) is a great example of how traditional regional architecture was a given a modern twist after the First World War.
12. Puppet Theatre Festival
Charleville-Mézières could make a case for being the puppet capital of the world.
The town is home to three international institutions for the art form, and every two years this organises a festival that has been running since 1961, but has really taken off in the last decade or so.
During these ten days in September the Place de Ducal and various streets, courtyards, halls become stages for colourful and inventive puppet theatre performances.
Puppetry has come a long way, and these shows can be exhilarating, using contemporary design and high-tech effects.
Guests come from all corners of the globe too: The 2017 edition has invited performers from Norway, Quebec, Germany and the Netherlands.
13. Le Cabaret Vert
Named after a classic Rimbaud poem, this rock and pop music festival began in 2005 and takes place on the last weekend of August.
It is now one of the most attended in France pulling in 95,000 people each year, but with four different stages has managed to keep a friendly, village-like atmosphere.
Public Enemy, M83, the Chemical Brothers, Granddaddy, Placebo and Massive Attack is a decent cross section of the acts to play Le Cabaret Very in the last few years alone.
Helping that sense of community are green initiatives, and there are also smaller tents with lots going on like poetry readings and acoustic performances.
14. Fort des Ayvelles
There’s a haunting fragment of military history just past the southern reaches of the town.
The Fort des Ayvelles went up in 1876 in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War and was caught up in the First and Second World Wars.
In the 1930s it was on the weaker northern section of the Maginot Line, and the concrete bunkers built nearby hark back to this conflicy.
It’s an attraction that will appeal to historians, but there are also activities for kids like treasure hunts and mock police investigations.
The Maginot Line starts in earnest just southeast of Sedan at the Ouvrage La Ferté, which in 1940 saw the fiercest fighting on any point of France’s defensive network.
15. Château de Sedan
If there’s one thing you need to see in nearby Sedan it’s the hulking medieval castle that dwarfs the town.
“Enormous” doesn’t begin to sum up the size of the Château de Sedan; it is set on seven floors with walls that are 26 metres wide at their thickest point.
Circuits have been set up inside, guiding you through more than 1,000 years of history as you work your way over bastions and ramparts, and learning the various innovations that made the fortress impenetrable.
There’s often something going on for kids as well, whether it’s Easter egg hunts or medieval fairs.