What’s the most iconic landmark in France?
It has to be the Eiffel Tower - that unmistakable, 120-years-old wrought iron lattice edifice, standing on the Champ de Mars, in Paris.
But holding it all together are 2.5 million rivets, shipped-in from another part of the country altogether. The French equivalent, perhaps, of Ironbridge in Shropshire, The Ardennes is “home” to a fascinating industrial heritage - which can be explored today in a number of different locations.
First stop is Bogny-sur-Meuse, where the Musée de la Métallurgie Ardennaise offers a fascinating insight into how this valley flourished in the same way the Ironbridge Gorge prospered as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. The nuts-and-bolts capital of France, it was here that the rivets were made for the Eiffel Tower, and here where - today - parts of the French and German automotive industry are still manufactured.
An introductory video and English-speaking audio trail of the museum give visitors a clear understanding of the region’s rich industrial heritage, in a part of France where - once again, like Shropshire - you’ll find folklore and legend in its hillsides and valleys.
Odd as it sounds, we actually counted our shoes as we left The French Ardennes. Folklore has it that little beings called "Nutons" love nothing better than to spirit them away for repair. And that an equally mischievous bunch, the "Pie-Pie Van-Vans", are ready to lead you astray if you go down to the woods at night.
These northern borders of France, which share the dense Ardennes forests with Belgium, is where history gives way to legend, man-made castles rub shoulders with weird rock formations. And where sometimes it's hard to distinguish fact from fiction.
Did four rebel knights really escape to safety on the back of a horse capable of leaping the River Meuse? A stone statue high on the hills overlooking Bogny-sur-Meuse will make you think they did. Were three unfaithful wives of soldiers fighting in the Crusades really turned to stone? A rocky outcrop dominating one of the banks of the river might just convince you that they were…
Back on the industrial heritage trail around The French Ardennes, the next stop is the Domaine de Vendresse. Recently refurbished and newly reopened, the story of how iron was cast in this part of France is told in such a theatrical way that will have the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end.
And then, finally, it’s off to see Woinic. If the Eiffel Tower is the symbol of France, and the Angel of the North is the iconic landmark of Northumberland, then Woinic is the symbol of the French Ardennes. Standing 10 meters high and weighing over 50 tonnes, Woinic has been positioned on the highway A34.
The artist who created Woinic in Bogny-sur-Meuse, Eric Slésiak, took 11 years and 12,000 working hours to create this giant sculpture from small metal pieces. Both Italy and Belgium wanted Woinic, but the giant boar (held together with rivets which were made here) quite rightly stands at the approach to Charleville-Mézières.
Travel with P&O Ferries from Dover to Calais, and stay in the comfortable Auberge de l’Abbaye in Signy l’Abbaye, where you will dine on meats from their own organic farm; or in the Hotel le Chateau Fort, a four star hotel actually located inside Northern Europe’s largest fortress.
For more details, visit www.ardennes.com.
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