|Land of Mystery Legends, Curses and Phantoms|
by Sally Hammond
"Do you have a translation of Rimbaud?” my French friend, Ginette, asked the bookseller. The smartly dressed lady behind the counter drew herself up, looked her straight in the eye, then sadly shook her head.
“Quelle dommage!” she whispered. That would be such a shame.
Charleville- Mézières is accepted as the natural gateway to the Ardennes. The shop-keeper’s response had nothing to do with traditional Franco-Anglo animosity, either. To his devotees Rimbaud's desperate wild-child 19th-century poetry is simply untranslatable. It would be such a waste to attempt to bundle it into English – so much would be lost. That is what she meant.
Arthur Rimbaud was a local boy and that day we’d visited the house on the riverside where he grew up in poverty, as well as the modest museum dedicated to him nearby in the old mill. Our friend in the bookshop had pronounced his name ‘Rambo’ which amused us, as by the time he was 20 this tearaway had already survived a violent relationship with Paul Verlaine, another poet, and was gun-running in Africa, having dropped his incandescent adolescent writing career. By 37, he was dead.
To cheer us up, a spot of retail therapy seemed appropriate at the open air markets in the Place Ducale, an almost exact replica of the elegant Place des Vosges in Paris. Here a potplant-oriented market took up much of the square where cacti, succulents, geraniums and various flowering plants had become the serious consideration of many shoppers. It was April, and possibly they were looking at brightening their balconies again after the damp and foggy winter months. So instead we bought some fat gauffres the deeply indented waffles dripping with syrup so beloved in Belgium, realising yet again how close this was to the border.
Charleville is known as a puppetry centre. There is a ten-day international festival – Festival mondial des Théatres de Marionnette – every three years, in September. We were a couple of years early. There was, however, the Horloge du Grand Marionnette, in the open air outside the Institut Mondial de la Marionnette and we squeezed onto low benches along with mums and dads with small wide-eyed children to watch, just as entranced, as exactly on the hour the ten-metre high automated puppet show on the façade swung into action.
It tells the famous local folk story of the Aymon brothers and their legendary steed, Bayard. It’s a tale of courage and valour, greed and reward, carried out in the thick woods hereabouts. To see the entire story (not just a single episode as is enacted each hour) it is necessary to come on a Saturday evening. Unfortunately we had other plans.
The Ardennes, Celtic for ‘dense forest’, is one of those parts of France which everyone thinks is a distinct region, yet it is simply hyphenated with Champagne. This land of mystery, legends, curses, phantoms – and Rimbaud – is bunched up against the Belgian border as if France was intent on accumulating one more set of mountains, one final mini-region for itself. Like Rimbaud, the Ardennes cannot be translated. Impossible to express in guidebook terms, it must be visited personally.
Which is how I found myself wrapped in a shawl of fog squinting into a white glare that stubbornly refused to reveal the view of the Meuse valley – that classic one of a horseshoe river encircling the town of Monthermé – which I had fallen in love with in a photograph before leaving home. Several rocky outcrops across the river (in clear weather) give grandstand views. And while I was on one of them, this was not one of those days. I saw almost nothing, even though out there in the mists, I knew from the map, were the gorges which had made fighting so difficult here in WWI.
This area has been fought over forever, it seems. The famous Maginot Line outposts are here, stretching west from the Rhine, following along the French side of the German and Belgian borders. Adjoining the Ardennes to the west is Picardy and the blood-washed Somme region, while Verdun, scene of that massive WWI battle, lies a little further south.
An afternoon in Charleville at the Musée de l’Ardenne, considering the displays of weaponry in glass cases, underlined the military importance of this area. As a frontier town with Belgium, and a source of valuable iron, it seems there was always a ready and direct need for the end-product.
Nearby Sedan has the largest fortified castle in Europe hunkered down on a rock spur. Our walk up the endless flights of stairs and around the 11th-century ramparts was complicated by the need to dodge school groups dressed in hessian cloaks, and equipped with bows and arrows in an attempt for them to get a better feel of the ancient place.
Yet despite all the bloodshed, this part of France was once deeply religious. Another night the Abbaye de Sept Fontaines in Fagnon just south of Charleville was our destination. Once a simple abbey founded in the 12th century, it was gutted during the French revolution. Today the well-heeled guests, many of them possibly on weekend-trips from Paris, swing golf-clubs rather than bayonets, as the nine-hole course is a major drawcard.
One day we travelled along an exploratory finger of the Ardenne region that pokes up rather rudely into Belgium, and discovered Rocroi with its imposing star-shaped castle. Fumay nearby, lies tucked into one of the repetitive curls of the serpentine Meuse river and its buildings display a plentiful use of the blue slate for which it is known. Not far away there is Vireux-Molhain where the River Viroin joins the Meuse before it continues on towards Belgium and through the Netherlands towards its final destination, the North Sea. Each curve of the river or road has something new to disclose in the Ardennes, it seems.
This part of Champagne-Ardenne seemed so unlike Reims and Epernay to us. Here the vineyards of the south were replaced by dark and mysterious forests brooding in a damp sinister gloom. Even the local people seemed less urbane than their southern cousins.
Could this land have seen too much evil, suffered too many atrocities? Drawn by its dark allure, I knew I would have to return.
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