Ian Weightman

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The Hidden Gem of France

What’s one of the least well-known, and most under-explored, corner of France?

The French Ardennes, on the northernmost tip of central France.  A hidden gem (yes, yes, I know: it’s a cliché - but c’est la vie) of a place.  And one of the best places to head for if you’re in search of “real” France.

But don’t think that means it’s backward.  Because The French Ardennes these days isn’t at all slow in coming forward.

Let’s take Hotel Dormeur du Val, in the region’s capital of Charleville, as an example.

It’s chic.  Boutique.   And magnifique.  It’s also unlike any other hotel you’re ever likely to stay in.  Where else would you find half a bedside lamp embedded into the walls?  Or a reception desk doubling-up as a showcase for thee pristine Italian scooters?

But don’t be fooled. For all of its eccentric ways, this four star hotel within such easy walking distance of the railway station is one of the most relaxing places to stay after taking the high speed rail journey from London St Pancras courtesy of Eurostar and the French TGV.

Charleville itself is equally mischievous.  Boasting the Place Ducale - one of the finest town squares you’re ever likely to have the pleasure of strolling through and enjoying a cup of coffee in - it is also a centre for Puppets and Marionettes, or “Les Petits Comediéns” as the locals like to call them.

And every two years it’s the venue for one of the greatest festivals of street theatre you’re likely to see: The World Puppet Festival.

Few people know that The French Ardennes is also 'home' to the largest fortified castle in Europe.  Fewer still have heard that it's now possible to stay within the walls of Sedan Fort, in Hotellerie du Chateau Fort in Sedan.  Another four star hotel, it’s the ideal place to check into if you are wanting to take one of the self-guided audio tours of the castle.

So what else might you be tempted to do while you’re in The French Ardennes?  The top tip of the moment is to head for the south of the region, and an attraction which still goes by the name of Nocturnia.  Because here, you will find a Wolf Park, where two males and one female are gradually settling in to their new surroundings.

Visit it by day, and you can climb to the top of viewing platforms and get to see the wolves up-close-and-personal.  Visit by night and once every month you can be privileged enough to join one of the night tours, during which you’ll hear the howl of the wolf, and see them under the spotlights of the guides.

It’s no surprise to discover that animals have a very special part to play in The French Ardennes.  The thickly wooded forests of the Ardennes – once at the crossroads of history - are today idyllic places for walks, as well as a natural habitat for so much wildlife.

One thing you’re unlikely to catch sight of are the Wild Boar.  But one thing you will see if you happen to approach Charleville from the south by road is the world’s largest boar.  Sculptured in metal, it’s the French Ardennes’ equivalent of The Angel of the North.

Tell your friends about it when you return home, and they might think you’ve had a few glasses too many of the famous Ardennes beer.  Tell them all about the Hotel Dormeur du Val, and they’ll be convinced you have!

For rail tickets, contact: Rail Europe www.raileurope.co.uk

Further details about this region of France can be found at www.ardennes.com,

Hotel Dormeur du Val can be seen at www.dormeur.fr

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