Mornings that start with a charge down the M4 and a peak-time slog round the M25 are not to be recommended. But the sight I met on SeaFrance's Rodin superferry from Dover to Calais quickly lightened my mood. At the bow of the ship, in the café Le Parisien, a hundred or so French senior citizens were dancing and punching the air to the Village People's "YMCA".
Apparently, it is quite common for French parties to book Channel crossings back-to-back so they can dance and drink until the ferry redocks at Calais. But I had other ideas for a break. I was about to take a whistlestop tour of the French Ardennes, that north-east region of rural France which, though popular with a few cyclists, hikers and bikers, is generally unknown.
My first stop was Givet, which sits at the tip of a crooked finger of France that pokes into Belgium. After a three-hour drive I arrived at this quiet, picturesque town on the river Meuse and found my lodgings for the night. The next morning Givet burst into life. Friday is market day and hundreds of people converge upon its narrow, cobbled streets. The weekly markets, and especially the monthly farmers' markets, are a big part of life in the Ardennes which is celebrated for its ham, pâté, apples and other produce.
I grabbed a croissant and headed south along the Meuse and Semoy rivers to Charleville-Mézières. In the early 1900s, iron and coal were plentiful in these thickly forested valleys and all along this route are small towns and villages whose inhabitants earned their living from tiny iron foundries known as boutiques. Some usedmoteurs-à-puces - dog-powered treadmills.
A small-scale engineering tradition continues, which makes the villages less than chocolate-box pretty, but the scenery is spectacular. The highlight was driving up a steep hill out of Monthermé to Longue Roche where I was rewarded with a heart-stopping panorama of the town, the river and the hills beyond. You can see how the sweep of the Meuse has created an almost perfectly circular peninsula.
Next stop was Charleville-Mézières, capital of the French Ardennes. The capital is, in fact, two towns, Mézières-sur-Meuse and Charleville. The former was established more than 1,000 years ago and is now the administrative centre; the latter is the utopian vision of the 17th-century Italian prince Charles de Gonzague and the architect Clément Métézeau. Métézeau's creation centres on Place Ducale with its grand, perfectly proportioned arcades, fountain and pink-brick, high-roofed Louis XIII façades. Charleville's citizens were taking their places for their two-hour lunch break. I found a restaurant called Au Couchon qui Louche in Rue Victoire Cousin round the corner. After an al fresco salad and moules frites, I walked the tourist trail.
From the birthplace and final resting place of the 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud to the Gothic- looking barge-cum-pub on the Meuse, where you can sip strong beer brewed by La Petite Brasserie Ardennaise, there's a lot to see. The Great Puppeteer's Clock is a giant mechanical wonder built into the front wall of the Institut de la Marionette in Place Winston Churchill; from 10am to 9pm, it performs hourly one of 12 automated puppet shows. Home of the International Puppet Institute, Charleville-Mézières puts on a children's puppet festival every year as well as the biennial World Puppet Festival.
A few kilometres east of Charleville is Sedan, where you can see the largest medieval fortress in Europe. Better still, you can stay in it. The next day I lunched in the walled garden of Christian Gonin's Brasserie du Château Fort and tried two of his excellent beers before making tracks for Vendresse. Within minutes I was in beautiful, timeless countryside. The only other vehicles on the narrow roads were tractors.
Next, Domaine de Vendresse, a country park with attractions including the Spectacle du Feu, freshwater aquariums, lakes and water-based games. Then, after a sobering visit to the War and Peace Museum in Novion Porcien, I made my way to Girondelle, an idyll in the heart of farming country.
There I spent a peaceful evening at Pierrette Brosse's b&b. As I chatted to my host after meal that was as huge as it was delicious, I realised the key to enjoying the Ardennes is allowing yourself to slow down. Move too fast and you'll miss the point.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE
Ian White travelled with SeaFrance (0871 22 22 500; seafrance.com), Carrentals. co.uk (0845 225 0845; carrentals.co.uk) and the tourist office, Comite Departemental du Tourisme des Ardennes (00 33 324 56 06 08; ardennes.com). Return crossings for a car and up to five passengers starts at £35. One week's car hire in Calais starts at £113. The tourist office can supply full lists of accommodation in the area.
1. View over Monthermé
Follow the river Meuse south from Givet via Vireux-Molhain (on the N51), Fumay (where you switch to the D988) and Revin (where you take the D1) to reach Monthermé. Climb up a steep hill (the D989) out of Monthermé to Longue Roche: the reward is this heart-stopping panorama.
2. Place Ducale, Charleville-Mézières
Take time for a good look round the alluring capital, Charleville- Mézières. Start at Place Ducale which, with its beautiful arcades of glowing yellow sandstone and its pink-brick Louis XIII facades above, is curiously Italian and simply stunning.
3. The Rimbaud tour
The 19th-century poet and explorer Arthur Rimbaud was born in Charleville-Mézières on 20 October 1854 and buried in the city's cemetery only 37 years later. Follow his journey by taking a walking tour from the house where he lived to the excellent Rimbaud Museum, sited in a beautiful Old Mill on the Meuse and the municipal library which has a section devoted to him. For details visit rimbaud-arthur.com
4. Puppeteer's Clock
While in Charleville, don't miss the Great Puppeteer's Clock in Place Winston Churchill. The Great Puppeteer is a golden giant who stands in the courtyard of the Institut de la Marionette with his head poking out of the roof. Every hour from 10am to 9pm, he puts on a performance in which his golden hands pull the strings of puppets to act out a local, medieval tale to a typically booming French narration.
5. Sedan's fortress castle
The 15th-century fort, which looms over Sedan on France's eastern border, has seven floors and is the largest in Europe at 3,500sqm. Built inside this great castle is the Hôtelleries du Chateau Fort, where you can stay in style and book a table at its gastronomic restaurant, La Tour d'Auvergne. For details visit hotelfp-sedan.com
6. Sample the local brew
Opposite the fort in Sedan, Christian Gonin runs a highly regarded micro-brewery in the Brasserie du Château Fort, where you can get a good, reasonably-priced lunch and taste his constantly changing range of beers and buy some to take away. The
Blanc de Sedan is recommended. For details call 00 33 324 53 13 52.
7. Vendresse fire show
The Ardennes was a region rich in coal and iron. To hear and feel what it was like to work in a blast furnace in the 19th century, visit the Spectacle du Feu, a clever multimedia installation at Domaine de Vendresse, a few kilometres south of Sedan. For details call 00 33 324 35 57 73.
8. Speciality saucisses
Rethel, in the south-west of the Ardennes, is known to gastronomes for its signature dish, boudin blanc. Made from white pork fillet and a mix of milk, shallots and spices, the delicately flavoured sausages were first created under Louis XIV. Rethel has a boudin blanc festival every April and its Monday livestock market is the most important in the area. Fumay, to the north of the region, has its own version called boudin a l'oignon.
9. The War and Peace Museum
From Vendresse it's a 30-minute drive to Novion Porcien and the Musée Guerre et Paix where you can retrace the region's history of murderous battles, from the defeat of Imperial France at Sedan in 1870 to the famous German breakthrough in 1940. This is a purpose-built museum with a series of tableaux to gaze upon while you listen to a recorded commentary on a handset. For details call 00 33 324 72 69 50.
10. Go to Rocroi
It's been in the wars since Spanish troops invaded in 1643, but Rocroi is a tough nut to crack. It is shaped like a star with a five-sided network of fortress-style bastions and ramparts. There is a tiny museum whose exhibits include a 17-minute film and a big plan of the aforementioned Battle of Rocroi. But, unless you're big on battles, settle for a stroll and a coffee in the central square and a purchase of Rocroi cheese. For details visit otrocroi.comReuse content