On a plateau above the Marne River, Chaumont is a neat, understated town not far from the Champagne wine region.
Graphic designers may already know Chaumont because it’s home to an annual festival for poster design and in 2016 opened France’s only graphic art museum.
The headline sight is the 19th-century railway viaduct that continues to carry the Basel to Paris line and is beautiful when illuminated at night.
Chaumont has looked after its history and has lots of turreted mansions on streets that look like they’ve hardly changed in centuries.
Lets explore the best things to do in Chaumont:
1. Viaduc de Chaumont
It’s a testament to 19th-century engineering that this epic viaduct is still being used by trains more than 160 years after it was built.
The structure was opened to rail traffic in 1856 and traverses the Suize Valley at a height of 52 metres and stretching out for more than half a kilometre.
There are 50 arches in total, on three tiers, which have helped the viaduct to withstand many decades of vibrations caused by trains.
Cross the walkway by day for photos, and come back at night when the arches are illuminated by 430 colourful LEDs.
2. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire
Tucked in the keep of the old Palace of the Counts of Champagne, this museum can be traced to the 1790s.
The exhibition space is small so there’s a rotating collection of art by some heavyweight artists like Paul de Vos and Charles Gussin.
You can also inspect a riveting archaeology collection, with 3,000 year-old armour, sculpture from the Renaissance tomb of Claude de Lorraine and a 17th-century altarpiece.
Two more rooms uncover the Chaumont glove-making business in the 1800s and 1900s.
At one time Chaumont was making more gloves than almost anywhere in France.
3. Basilique Saint-Jean-Baptiste
Chaumont’s chief religious building is a lovely 13th-century basilica that caps the oldest part of town.
The building was enlarged and reworked until the 1500s but if you know where to look you can identify lots of pleasing details from earlier periods.
The southern Saint Jean portal is laden with Gothic carvings of Bible scenes.
The choir is a blend of Flamboyant Gothic and Renaissance, with beautiful stalls.
One man to leave his mark on the basilica in later years was the 17th-century Chaumont-based sculptor Jean-Baptiste Bouchardon.
He crafted the pulpit, the opposing pew and the altar, which has since been moved to the Chapelle de Rosaire.
4. Museum of the Crèche
Annexed to the Museum of Art and History is an exhibition dedicated to babies’ cribs.
And while that might seem like an obscure subject, the museum is endowed with some very decorative examples.
Most of these cribs come from the city of Naples and date to the 18th century, boasting incredible artistry, exotic colours and fine fabrics.
There are also traditional nativity scenes to view, made with 18th-century spun glass from Nevers, and a collection of baby Jesus sculptures made of wax, from the 1600s to the 1800s.
5. A Stroll around the Centre
The old heart of Chaumont, with stone-built mansions and monuments, looks like it could be in a period drama.
The Town Hall on Place de la Concorde is in a noble Neoclassical mansion from the 1780s, while Tour Hautefeuille, which houses the art and history museum, is the last vestige of an imposing castle that once had 12 towers.
On your walk you’ll also come across a fragment of the old town defences, at the Tour d’Arse, which used to be an arsenal.
Chaumont’s centre rewards people with a sense of adventure, and the smaller streets like Rue Guyard, Rue Gouthière and Rue Saint-Jean are traced by houses going back to the Renaissance.
Many have fortified turrets, and in fact there are 30 turrets in all to be found on Chaumont’s streets.
6. Les Silos
A graphic art-lover’s dream, Les Silos is an exhibition centre and library housed in a former agricultural cooperative.
The building is a sight in its own way, because when it was converted in the 90s the architects managed to keep the two colossal grain hoppers.
But its collections are even more thrilling, as here you can see the “Dutailly Legacy”. This is a library of 5,000 original posters from the turn of the 20th century by artists like Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre Bonnard.
Les Silos also has some 400 medieval manuscripts, thousands of historic maps and, curiously, 16,000 rum labels bequeathed in 2010. These are displayed for short periods, so check in to see what’s on when you’re in Chaumont.
7. Festival International de l’Affiche et du Graphisme
The donation of 5,000 posters by Gustave Dutailly 100 years ago has slowly helped Chaumont become a point of reference for poster art and graphic design.
Launched in 1990, this annual festival, held at the Centre National du Graphisme in Chaumont celebrates the best of this discipline each year.
There’s an international award for best poster, and an annual design competition for up-and-coming designers to come up with a poster based on a specific theme.
In 2017 the festival will take place for two weeks starting on 12 May.
8. Le Signe
After hosting the festival for 25 years Chaumont needed a gallery to display the many pieces of cutting-edge design submitted in this time.
So in 2010 plans were made to build a stylish exhibition centre, which was finally inaugurated in October 2016. The building is composed of glass and large sheets of stone, 12 cm thick and juxtaposed at different angles.
Le Signe is the first attraction in France dedicated solely to graphic design.
There are 45,000 posters in its collection, including many from the Dutailly Legacy.
9. Square Philippe Lebon
Facing Le Signe is a large plaza with tall trees, lawns and flowerbeds.
Stop here to rest your feet or take a picnic in the summer.
At the terrace you can contemplate the keep of the Palace of the Counts of Champagne, the medieval structure containing the Museum of Art and History.
The square centres on a statue of Philippe Lebon, and while his name might not ring a bell this 18th-century scientist is credited with inventing the gaslight.
He was born in 1767 a short way north of Chaumont in Brachay.
The original statue in his honour was made of bronze but was melted down by the Vichy regime in the war, to be replaced later with a stone copy.
10. Mémorial Charles-de-Gaulle
Possibly the most important figure in 20th-century France is commemorated at this memorial a few kilometres northwest of Chaumont.
And you’ll spot the site from a long way off as in 1972 an enormous Cross of Lorraine was installed here.
The visitor centre was given a big makeover in 2008. This is now a multi-sensory gallery, resonating with audio from his speeches, archive footage and large models recreating Second World War battle scenes.
You’ll come away with a sense of de Gaulle as an individual, but also understanding the world events unfolding during his career.
11. La Boisserie
The memorial may have whetted your appetite for more Charles de Gaulle, in which case you can stop by his old home in Colombey les Deux Eglises.
The house is still in the de Gaulle family and is owned by his son, Philippe.
It was bought by de Gaulle in the 30s, but was only made habitable after the war during his presidency.
Ignoring protocol, de Gaulle refused to stay at the Palais de l’Élysée in Paris at first and instead drove to La Boisserie to spend his weekends.
Inside are gifts received by de Gaulle during his presidency, like a carpet from the King of Morocco and a cigar box from Fidel Castro.
There are photographs of de Gaulle with JFK and Winston Churchill in the library where he passed away in 1970.
In Chaumont you’re just shy of the southern boundary of the treasured champagne vignoble.
The domains nearby are in the Côte des Bar, laid out on an immense chalk plateau laced with the Aube, Seine, Ource, Arce and Laigne Rivers.
The tourist office in Chaumont can put you in touch with a multitude of wineries and caves to visit.
Two of the closest are Champagne Christophe and Champagne Charles Clement in Colombé-le-Sec.
At the former you’ll get to meet the vintner who has three generations-worth of knowledge to impart.
Champagne Charles Clement is a cave walking you through secondary fermentation and the different stages of the champagne’s development.
You’ll get to try a few cuvées and pick one or two to bring home.
You’re close enough to Langres for a day out and it’s somewhere you shouldn’t hesitate to see.
Langres is just a little town, but is packed onto a rocky ridge by Europe’s largest fortified wall.
This Vauban-style curtain is reinforced by towers and gates and conceals a warren of old streets.
Langres escaped major damage in the war so as in Chaumont you’ll feel like you’re on a movie set when you explore it.
Make time for the French Classical cathedral, and the museum to Denis Diderot, one of the giants of the Enlightenment and a Langres native.
14. Château du Grand Jardin de Joinville
Built by Claude de Lorraine in the 1530s, the Château du Grand Jardin is a pleasure palace in the Italian Renaissance style.
The site was dilapidated when purchased by the Department in the 1980s but has been refurbished as an exhibition centre and concert venue.
In the 16th century the garden was rated among the greatest in France, and after being left to run wild was restored to its former glory in the 1990s.
It’s a parterre with neatly sculpted allotments growing medicinal herbs and flowers picked for their aroma, And then enclosing these four hectares are 365 different fruit trees, either free standing or arranged as espaliers against the wall.
If there’s one dish associated with Chaumont it’s the Ideal Chaumontais, a cake composed of a meringue with almonds and a praline cream.
You’ll can buy a slice or the whole thing at any of the patisseries in the centre of town.
Connoisseurs may already know AOC Langres cheese, a potent soft cow’s milk cheese that comes in a small cylinder and is in season from May to August.
This goes into preparations like a soufflé with a cheese and bacon sauce and a langres cheese tart.
In the Pays de Chaumont the farmers unearth a surfeit of black truffles during the autumn and winter months.
You can call in at La Ferme des Antes from September to December to find out more about this prized tuber and try some for yourself.