Marion - Chroniques d'une ardennaise
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100% Ardennes, between Belgium and France
THE TIME I VISITED THE MUSEUM OF THE ARDENNES AND THE STUNNING Place ducale IN Charleville-Mézières
1 day in tHE CAPITAL OF puppetry
The Ardennes are brimming with architectural treasures that bear witness to the lively history of the past centuries. What makes the Ardennes so unique is that everywhere you travel you will encounter traces of each important historical era. The Museum of the Ardennes in Charleville-Mézières recounts the history of the area and showcases the historical and archaeological treasures that have left their mark on the area. The Museum also gives insight into the history of Charleville-Mézières, the world capital of puppetry and a town I can't wait to explore!
Let’s dive into the history of the Ardennes!
It’s almost impossible to visit the Museum of the Ardennes without walking across the mythical Place Ducale square to stroll under the museum’s gorgeous arches before entering the museum courtyard. In the Museum of the Ardennes you will relive the history of the area through archaeology, art, knowledge and expertise or even through the evolution of popular traditions through the centuries. The building itself is an inseparable part of the Museum as it takes us through 4 centuries of architecture, from the 17th to the 20th century.
Inevitably, our visit starts with a jump back in time. Just like an archaeologist we need to go down to the basement to admire the treasures unearthed during the archaeological excavations. There, you can admire rudimentary primitive art, engravings that are more than 12,000 years old, dating back to the same time as the world famous cave drawings of Lascaux. A bit further on, a huge mammoth bone proudly takes centre stage in a display case. The mammoth stirs our imagination, suddenly we imagine ourselves in the very heart of the Ardennes, thousands and thousands of years ago. As we explore the museum’s impressive collection, we move forward through time, journeying through different eras and discovering the everyday objects and traditions of our ancestors.
Once we’ve climbed the stairs leading to the ground floor, we are mesmerised by a huge mural painting in the museum auditorium. It’s a Gallo-Roman fresco, dating back to the second century A.D. and covering a surface of over 7 meters by 4 meters! In fact, the fresco is only partial: we learn that the archaeologists that uncovered these remains in Montcy-Saint-Pierre in 1999 ended up with a giant puzzle that took them ages to piece back together. Once we are comfortably seated in the auditorium the show starts, projecting images on the fresco and we enjoy a purpose-built video mapping show which allows you to admire the fresco as it was in its heyday when it was the highlight of the Gallo-Roman thermae and to explore the techniques involved in creating “a fresco”.
The next room is devoted to the Merovingian era, with a sparkling display of glassware, glass jewellery, recipients, crockery…It is striking to see how our lifestyle has evolved since then.
Bit by bit, as we continue exploring the museum rooms, we slowly travel towards the history of the town of Charleville and its foundation by Charles de Gonzague, Duke of Nevers and second cousin to Henry IV. I learn more about the construction of the Place Ducale by Clément Métezeau and of its Ducal Palace that will never see the light of day. This square, built between 1606 and 1624 bears a strong resemblance to its older sibling, the Place des Vosges in Paris, built around the same time. The two architects were brothers, which explains their striking resemblance.
The museum also hosts an impressive weapons collection, from the weapon factory that was founded in Charleville in 1675 as well a a detailed reconstruction of the hospital pharmacy as it was in 1756. Once we've taken it in, we head for Modern Times and the Contemporary Era. On the top floor several rooms are devoted to puppets as Charleville-Mézières is the puppetry capital of the world. You can admire a stunning collection of over 500 puppets among which Snow white, or Géo Condé, who taught Jacques Félix, who founded the World Puppet Theatre Festival. It’s really entertaining, especially for kids as they can draw and even become puppeteers for a few minutes...We watch on amused, as they let their imagination run wild in the Chinese shadow theatre. From this floor, we can admire the Great Puppeteer that is several meters tall. From inside the museum, you can even admire the intricate mechanism that brings the puppet to life.
Look at that giant puppet; it moved!
The Great Puppeteer
The ten meters high puppet master is in fact an automaton clock. From ten o’clock to eleven at night, the Great Puppeteer performs a puppet show telling the Ardennes legend of the Four Sons of Aymon in 12 tableaux. It is now three in the afternoon; we settle down at the foot of the gigantic statue and wait for the curtains to open! We hear the clock strike three times, and then the show begins, we hear gentle music and then the deep voice of the puppet master booms “Noble ladies, lordships and young squires, it is now three o’clock”. Then the automat waves his hands from which puppets representing the four sons of Aymon are dangling. We watch on spellbound as the golden giant narrates his tale, then a different music resounds, the curtains close and the story is over. If we want to enjoy this magical show a second time round, we need to come back in an hour.
In Charleville, four is the magic number !
The secrets of the Place Ducale
We cross the Museum square once again to visit the stunning place Ducale and uncover the secrets that are hidden in the heart of the town. The 400 years old town of Charleville is a relatively “new” town compared to Mézières that is more than 1,000 years old. We admire every corner of the perfectly symmetrical square. Its lush golden colours seem to come alight as the sun reflects on the yellow bricks. The number four is everywhere; it’s the number of pavilions on every side, but also the number of streets, archways or even of windows in every pavilion.
It’s almost as if no single detail was left to chance. As we get closer to the pavilions we make out small statues tucked away in the walls. These statues of saints were once used to announce or identify the districts that were located behind the four corners of the square. You need to take your time when visiting and look up so you can admire the tiniest details… As we look up we catch sight of the belfry that towers over the square, so we decide to go and visit it. Several dozens or hundreds of steps later we arrive at the top of the building, and open the bay window only to discover uninterrupted views of the town we had earlier on discovered from a totally different angle…