Charleville-Mézières & Sedan
The Ardennes is a region where several Princes built fortresses and principalities. On the French side of the Ardennes, there were the Princes of Sedan (1560-1642) and the Princes of Arches and Charleville (since 1608). Today, Charleville-Mézières and Sedan, about 20km apart, are both proud of their princely past and have built on their history in this much-disputed area of Europe to develop culture, traditions and “savoir-vivre”, the art of living well.
A princely past
A Princely Past
Before it enters its valley through the Ardennes, the River Meuse flows through both towns, each with its own proud identity and history. The principality of Sedan was absorbed into France in 1642, but the nominal title of Prince of Sedan is still held by the Henin-Liétard family. Similarly, the territory of the Prince of Arches and Charleville was absorbed into France in 1708, though the nominal princely title is still held by the Belgian Duke of Ursel. The town of Mézières developed on the opposite side of the River Meuse from Charleville and co-existed with it for centuries before being officially merged in 1966 to form today’s Charleville-Mézières.
Charleville and Mézières: a poetic match
In 1606, when he was 26, Charles Gonzaga, Duke of Nevers and Rethel, a prominent figure at the French court, decided to found a new town to show off his ambition and skills. He named it Charleville after himself and it was laid out on a modern grid pattern, surrounding a large central square, the Place Ducale, surrounded by a bend in the River Meuse, opposite the mediaeval fortified town of Mézières. In 1608, Charles proclaimed himself Prince of Arches and Charleville and in 1627 he married the heiress to the Duchy of Mantua in Italy, thus becoming Duke and boosting his income and lands. When the direct princely line died out in 1708, the principality was absorbed into France. After the French Revolution, it was Mézières that became the prefecture, thanks to its military facilities, where a garrison was stationed to keep an eye on Sedan and Charleville, whose tax-free status had attracted many free-thinkers, liberal entrepreneurs, non-Catholics and former exiles who aroused suspicion in Paris. Charleville-Mézières’ most famous son was the libertine and Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). He ran away to Paris in 1870 when his home town was on the front line in the Franco-Prussian War, describing it at “supérieurement idiote” (“superiorly idiotic”), but nevertheless returning to it throughout his brief, chaotic life. After his death in a Marseille hospital, his remains were returned to his birthplace where they lie next to those of his sister in the cemetery.
Every two years, Charleville hosts the International Marionette Festival
Places to visit for City Trippers
Today’s visitors often have only a day to explore Charleville-Mézières. A good place to start is the Basilica Church of Our Lady of Hope (Notre-Dame de l’Espérance) in Mézières, with its spectacular cubist stained-glass windows by René Dürrbach, a friend of Picasso. Then to the Ardenne Museum in a corner of the Place Ducale in Charleville, housed in a building that skilfully combines seventeenth-century and contemporary architecture. Then on to the Place Churchill and the Great Puppeteer Clock, which tells the Ardennes legend of the Four Aymon Boys when it strikes the hours. It’s also a reminder that the town is a major centre of marionette manufacturing and hosts a biennial International Marionette Festival. The final must-see place is the Rimbaud Museum, housed in a former water mill on the bank of the Meuse. Its exhibits celebrate the tempestuous life of the poet and are arranged in a series of rooms dedicated to the various places he lived after leaving his home town. You can make your way back to the Place Ducale by following the narrow, almost unchanged streets of the model town created by the Prince. Taking a welcome break on one of the welcoming café terraces in the Place Ducale, you will notice that one side of the square looks different to the other three: behind this facade was the Prince’s palace.
Sedan: Protestants and textiles
In 1549, Robert de la Marck, the Protestant Lord of Sedan and owner of the largest fortress in Europe, declared his lands independent from France and minted his own coins. Under threat of persecution in France, many Protestants found refuge in Sedan and founded their own schools and churches there, with the support of the Prince, who also encouraged the textile weaving industry. Soon fine Sedan cloth enjoyed an excellent reputation in Europe and around the world, indeed “sedan” is still used in the industry to denote fine black cloth.
Places to visit for City Trippers
Today, visitors can explore the fortress and the Museum of France inside it, and enjoy impressive views from the ramparts. Outside the walls stands the seventeenth-century former Princes’ Palace. Follow the picturesque streets of the Old Town to the Place d’Armes with its imposing Church of St Charles Borromeo, completed in 1685. The former Town Hall and Protestant Academy are also worth a look. The original Protestant Church on the Place d’Alsace-Lorraine was rebuilt in 1896. Sedan hosts a variety of events each year, including a Mediaeval Festival (third weekend in May) and the 24.3km Sedan-Charleville road race (October). The countryside around Sedan is also a centre for cross-country cycling. While the textile factories have now closed, and been converted into apartments, the proud spirit of the Princes remains in their city of art and culture.
Office de tourisme de Charleville-Sedan en Ardenne, 24, place Ducale, F-08000 Charleville-Mézières ou 35 rue du Ménil, F-08200 Sedan
Tel.: +33 (0) 3 24 55 69 90