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A long quiet river
I went cruising on the Meuse
5 mins OF ESCAPE
On our first day in the French Ardennes, we're greeted early in the morning by a mysterious fog which hides much of the charming little village of Givet. This is the last town on the banks of the Meuse between Belgium and France, or the first town if you're arriving from Belgium as we are. It gently awakens with us.
And that typical French charm operates as soon as we arrive: with a delicious croissant, a pain au chocolat and a coffee, we trot around on the cobblestones. The mist quickly lifts and reveals the impressive and invulnerable Charlemont Fort, dominating the town from its hilltop. Sheep graze peacefully on the steep slopes, adding to the surrealism of the scene.
Aboard the Croisière Charlemagne, we have plenty of time to find out more about the region's history and culture
9:30 am - Simple pleasures of a morning in the Ardennes
We make a pleasant start to the day at one of the excellent patisseries of La Roche-en-Ardenne, treating ourselves to some local delights: a tube (rolled biscuit filled with speculoos-flavoured butter cream), some baisers (meringue biscuits with butter cream) and, of course, a waffle. Our mini tasting session takes place on the banks of the River Ourthe, in the bucolic company of ducks and geese.
Built in 1555, Charlemont Fort dominates Givet. Its position and exceptional defences shaped the town's history for several centuries, from Charles Quint to the liberation by American troops, with Napolean somewhere in between.
Gentle cruise on a gentle river
After getting to know the town, we go to the Quai des Fours where we have an appointment with the Charlemagne, the cruise vessel that is to take us to Vireux. At 10:45 am, the captain, Jacques Delhay, enthusiastically welcomes us for his last cruise of the year. Our experienced host regularly has us in fits of laughter and is full of fascinating facts. He makes his guests feel comfortable on the Meuse in this little floating lounge. We succumb to the friendly yet pleasantly intellectual atmosphere and enjoy a drink together on the water, out of the drizzling rain
We are soothed by the green wilderness covering the banks of the Meuse
Lock after lock
The Charlemagne sails alongside the Voie Verte, an 85 km safe itinerary for all nature lovers, including hikers, cyclists and sedgeway fans. We have plenty of time to watch the sports enthusiasts and walkers who, like us, have decided to defy the elements.
We take particular pleasure in travelling through the locks, swing bridges and narrow tunnels. The lock manoeuvres are especially impressive: the boat is cleverly steered into a canal that's barely wider than the vessel. Then, an operator is called upon for the manoeuvre. He opens the sluice gates to release an incredible volume of water which raises the boat several metres, as if by magic, enabling us to continue our journey to Vireux.
As for the tunnel, it's unbelievable. From afar, it seems impossible for the Charlemagne to go through it. It's a strange experience, with the play of shadows and light ending amid a lush green landscape: for a moment it feels as if we're on a different continent!
Each lock opens the door to new surprises
The town of Givet and the fort still hidden by the morning mist.
A festive meal on the water
On the Charlemagne, Jacques makes a point of promoting the local products of the Ardennes. The charming and pleasantly discreet staff serve us a platter of local charcuterie that we savour down to the last morsel. Then comes the excellent plat de résistance, a delight to the palate, served with a delicious wine.
A delicious meal on the river, watching the landscape unfold, is an almost meditative experience
The tunnel at Ham-sur-Meuse is 565 metres long.
History and remembrance
To understand the Ardennes we also need to learn about the region's history. We have to imagine the mad frenzy of the soldiers in this untouched countryside, the fear they felt as ennemy planes flew overhead and the great relief of the people when they were finally liberated.
All that's left today is the peace and tranquillity of this pleasant greenery where kingfishers occasionally swoop along the river bank like coloured arrows, bearing testament to the many different eras survived by humanity.
On this gentle cruise, surrounded by veterans, an overwhelming feeling of inexpressible gratitude emerges: more than ever before, we feel alive.