Monday, March 31, 2008

France: A day in Charleville-Mezieres

For our last day in the north of Champagne-Ardennes, we spent it in Charleville-Mezieres, a twin city divided by the Meuse River just half an hour drive from Sedan. Between the two small cities, Charleville is the best place to visit. Known as the capital of the marionette (how true is this?) and the birthplace of Arthur Rimbaud, the poet. Charleville is the perfect diversion after our castle escapade or for those who came here to hike in the Ardennes mountain forests.

The most impressive part of Charleville is its striking town square, Place Ducale. It is a huge blanket of cobblestones circled with 17th century imperial pavilions and arcade galleries. During certain days in the week, open-air markets are held and bustling terraces in the side lines abound.

The square is said to have similarities with the oldest square in Paris, Place des Vosges, which is in fact exactly what my first impression was when I stepped into the square. Yup, it did felt like I am in Paris.

I think the drawback of Place Ducale is it also serves as a parking area. It is a shame really; these cars spoil the beauty of the whole place, and more importantly, its colonial ambiance. I tell you, a total eyesore. I could not imagine why the local city hall has let this slip through their fingers. Someone needs to start a petition to make Place Ducale car-free. PLEASE.

At the Ducal Square (Place Ducale).

Anyway, we took a leisurely walk along the Meuse River towards Mezieres, the twin city of Charleville, passing through the Rimbaud Museum which literally sits on a bridge, or it is I guess the bridge! There is a foot pathway annexed to this bridge museum that connects to Mezieres. The Arthur Rimbaud Museum is once an old water mill designed in Classicism style. It is beautiful.

We crossed the river to Mezieres and saw a huge flower clock with fresh lavenders. The flower clock reminds me of Geneva.

I then heard voices above us and when I turned around I saw a trail of snaky staircases leading up the hill. I told Dutchman we should follow suit and check what’s going on – Perhaps up there the view to the city center is spectacular? But the Dutchman, still suppressed from the flu that is yet to come out, was not in a jolly mood to participate, so he blankly refused. As I didn’t want to leave the poor Dutchman, I stayed with him. We just sat by the Meuse River banks and watched the locals having their afternoon stroll.

The Rimbaud Museum.

One of the things that Dutchman discovered during this trip, which surprised him a bit, is his French speaking skills. He thought the Frans he learned from school was buried a long time ago along with his non-desire of France. When he was younger, he studied French in school, which, together with Deutsch (German) and English, are all part of the standard Dutch educational curriculum.

All throughout the trip he has been trying to squeeze out and muster the French he learned decades ago. Strange that he never used them during our wintersport vacation last January in the French Alps? Maybe it’s the flu working him? Ha-ha

 The beautiful Saint Remi Church and the lovely artwork on the door.

The marionette built into the house of the Puppet Museum comes to life every hour. Puppetry is popular in Charleville-Mezieres.

Travel Period: March 2008
Destination: Charleville-Mezieres (Champagne Ardennes), France

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Chateau Fort Sedan DIY Tour

This fortified castle, in the area where the historical museum is housed, is conveniently locked away from the inner courtyards where the hotel and restaurant are located. I did my due diligence by roaming around the fort grounds and found that a large chunk of the castle and fort is not accessible to the public. The little discovery I uncovered: a small vaulted stone hallway leading to the historical castle museum, but helaas, the iron gates were locked. The only way to see the rest of the castle is to go to the entrance gate and pay the €7,50 fee.

I told Dutchman we will be visiting the castle museum. As expected, he was not excited about the idea and begged to be released from this castle visiting activity. He reasoned that he is tired and not well so will just take a nap. OK, fine with me. So I tucked him properly in bed and left.

Chateau Fort Sedan is said to be the largest castle in Europe covering an area of 35,000 square meters. Used to be a manor house in 1424 built by the de la Marck family who originally came from Germany, it later, through generations and expansion projects, became a massive bastion that is today.

I happen to read the tragic story of its last heiress, Charlotte de la Marck, who at 16 married Henri La Tour, the Marshal of France. After 3 years of marriage she bore him a son that died at childbirth. A week later, Charlotte died too. She was 19. Upon her death, Henri La Tour inherited everything, and remarried to the daughter of the Prince of Orange, William the Silent (of the House of Nassau, the Dutch Royal line).

Since it rained earlier, water was dripping in the narrow vaulted passageways. I like how they designed the historical tour of the castle museum. With the €7,50 entrance fee, you get a pamphlet (comes in several languages) that is in itself the tour guide. In your own pace, the pamphlet will show you around the castle, briefly explaining each showcase stop. For an additional €2,00 you can get the audio guide that also comes in several languages.

I also like that they have re-enacted some parts of the castle’s history in elaborate and animated stage settings. My favorite scene is the signing of the marriage contract between Charlotte de la Mark, the heiress of the Sedan municipality and Henri La Tour, the Marshal of France. The whole stage set is so grandly depicted.

From the castle, panoramic views of Sedan can also be enjoyed. The tour ends in the shop and café that exits to the inner courtyard of the castle which is just a stone’s throw away from the hotel entrance. Perfect, I don’t have to walk far. I’m looking forward to going back to the room to show Dutchman the many pictures I took.

My DIY tour starts!

Views from the castle to Sedan village:

On the castle grounds:

The castle is illuminated in the evening:

Travel Period: March 2008
Destination: Sedan (Champagne-Ardennes), France

Friday, March 28, 2008

Staying at Hotel Le Chateau Fort Sedan with a sick Dutchman

‘It’s all your fault – you and your castle fetish.’ grumbles the zielig sickly Dutchman under the thick covers.

He has not been feeling well since the day we left for Sedan. He had suspicions that he will get major sick as he’d been feeling woozy but it turns out the devious bug was just being polite with us to wait until we finish our Easter holiday in France. As soon as we got back in the Netherlands, the bug touched soil and hit Dutchman hard with a full-blown serious flu (he is okay now though, after a week).

He tried to enlighten me that even if he agreed to this Castle Trip (for his late birthday present in exchange of Berlin), his body protested. Awww.

Dutchman grew up frequenting castles, fortifications, antiquated buildings, and ruins – thanks to his cultured parents, that he thinks after seeing ten of them (he has probably seen a hundred or more), each castle would look the same as the rest, ergo why even bother. But he oblige for this trip as we have very little choice in our hands, and in addition, I am paying, he-he.

I did the castle tour on my own while Dutchman stayed in bed to recuperate. When I came back to our hotel room, it took Dutchman a long time to open the door, and when he did he looked like someone just ran him over with a truck. He grumbled, saying he wasn’t able to get sleep as the room cleaners bothered him knocking loudly on the door. Twice.

‘This bloody hotel doesn’t have a ‘Do not disturb!’ sign!’

I glanced at the door and saw the –‘Please do not disturb’– sign hanging from a hook on the side cranny of the door, admittedly not the easiest place to find it.

‘Duh, it was right up your nose and you didn’t see it!?’

In summary, Hotel Chateau Fort Sedan was a nice castle stay experience. It was lovely waking up in the morning with one side of the room covered in the castle’s stone walls – although I think the stone walls could have been new and the hotel too, and they could have annexed the hotel to the real ancient walls of the fort, but nevertheless it was very special.

From our window we could see the massive inner courtyard of the fort and the cars parked on the grounds. The view is beautiful – romantic and medieval, a bit surreal. Through its behemothic stone wall fortifications, we were brought back in time. In the year 1500 to 1800. Life then was different.

It would have been perfect if Dutchman was a tad better and the elusive sun could have shone – Oh well, sometimes we don’t get everything we want. Dutchman mumbling, ‘Achteraf is dit jouw vakantie. Je hebt jezelf weer een cadeautje gegeven!’

Oh, ooops, hehe.

View from our room to the parking massive inner courtyard:

Inside the chateau hotel and the corridors with the old fortifications:

Next entry: Tour of Chateau Fort Sedan

Travel Period: March 2008

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