The French city of Charleville probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind for a Brit looking for a weekend break on the continent, but after spending a few days there in September 2019, I have to say it’s definitely a destination you should consider! It is a beautiful city for a weekend escape and only 3 hours drive from Calais, or less than 5 hours from London by train.
I went to explore the best things to eat, see and do in Charleville and below I share my tips for a perfect weekend away in the city.
A Brief History
Charleville is actually one half of a double city, Charleville-Mézières, which was formed in 1966. Mézières is a 10th century city, once a hub of commerce across Europe through the middle ages, where as Charleville is a relatively modern city built in the 1600’s by Charles de Gonzague, Duke of Mantua.
A modern man in his era, Charles decided to build his ideal city dedicated to trade and craft and it is thanks to his vision that we can visit the beautiful and well thought out city of Charleville today. He built the city in a short 20-30 years but fell short of building his dream of a palace on the square as he ran out of money and returned to his second home in Italy.
He built a well organised city that, despite growing over the years, is still largely as it was envisioned by Charles. My favourite spot is definitely the Place Ducale, the large central square he built his city around and it is still the heart and soul of Charleville. Read on to find out the best places to stay and to eat and the best things to do below.
Where to stay in Charleville
Le Dormeur du Val
We stayed at the modern 4* Le Dormeur du Val next to the train station in Charleville. A short 10 minute walk to the Place Ducale, we were well located to easily get to all the main sites of the city.
The hotel is named after a poem by Charleville’s native Arthur Rimbaud meaning ‘The Sleeper in the Valley’. It is a modern boutique hotel and each room has been individually decorated with a bright and industrial design.
Everything in our room was a little lopsided which was quite enjoyable if not a little disorientating after one too many glasses of wine! The room had everything we needed from bathroom supplies to coffee and tea making facilities and (my favourite part) chocolates on the pillows each evening. The room was spacious for an inner city hotel and the bathroom had a nice big bath and shower.
The hotel offers a continental breakfast with some hot options too and they have a bar that is open until 11pm.
The lobby/bar area is great for relaxing after a busy day and they have a computer, newspapers and a range of books for you to use too (though sadly the books were mostly in French).
It’s a great base for a weekend in Charleville and has everything you might need and friendly helpful staff who speak English too.
Where to eat in Charleville
The food on our trip to Charleville was sooo good! My mouth still waters thinking about the delicious meals we ate in Charleville. We were lucky to be recommended some of the best places to eat in the city so I had to share them all with you.
Sel et Poivre
This Sel et Poivre restaurant was just round the corner from our hotel, Le Dormeur du Val, so perfect for a late night meal. We would have never found this without the recommendation as it isn’t near the majority of restaurants which are based around Place Ducale and from the outside it doesn’t look like anything special.
Though we don’t speak much French we just about managed to get by with Google Translate and our little knowledge and the friendly waiter came to us with his French to English phrase book in case we needed any extra help.
The menu was traditional French including foie gras, snails, steak and crème brûlée. Olly had beef carpaccio (admittedly not a French dish) and we followed our starters with Steak and a “Parmentier de Canard Confit”, which was kind of like a shepherd’s pie made with shredded confit duck.
Obviously we had desserts too (crème brûlée and my favourite chocolate fondant) and I can honestly say it was one of the best meals I have ever had. It is a restaurant with no pomp, that is friendly, clean and serves delicious food!
La Table d’Arthur
Just when we thought things couldn’t get any better on our second day we headed to La Table d’Arthur for lunch and had another exquisite meal, washed down with wine pairings for each course.
The atmospheric underground cellar restaurant was buzzing for a Thursday lunch-time and the wine selections surrounding the walls felt like we were at a traditional winery despite being in the centre of the city.
Our helpful waiter was able to translate the bits of the menu we didn’t understand, as a lack of phone reception made it difficult to use our trusty translation app.
La Table d’Arthur was fine dining at a reasonable price with a set 3 course menu costing just €31 per person.
My vichyssoise starter was surprisingly tasty and I had a trio of chicken main that was equally delicious. The wine pairings worked well, though three glasses of wine at lunch left us both a little sleepy, though very content!
La Papillote is a beautiful modern restaurant with a few rooms attached too. They had a range of menu options including à la carte, a set menu and a tasting menu.
We opted for the set menu and had two little amuse bouches each before moving on to a delicious mushroom starter and then salmon for me and chicken risotto for Olly.
The desserts were probably my favourite dish here as I had an orange chocolate fondant with sorbet. It was melt in the mouth delicious and was topped with a homemade orange marmalade. Olly had the cheese board, where they brought over the cheese trolley and he could pick as many as he wanted! He stopped at 6 different cheese, though should have probably tried them all!
Boulangerie du Mont-Olympe
If you’re looking for some local baked goods then Boulangerie du Mont-Olympe is the place to go. On our final morning in Charleville we headed to this beautiful bakery to buy some of Charleville’s local delicacies including Galette á suc, Gateau Mollet and Le Petit Carolo.
Many of the cafes on the square let you sit in the morning with a coffee from them and eat your shop bought bakery items, which is a lovely way to start the day.
What do do in Charleville
There is so much history in Charleville Mezieres and so many magnificent old buildings you could spend your whole time just wandering the streets admiring the beautiful architecture. Here are a few of my favourite things to do in Charleville.
Enjoy the Place Ducale
The square at the centre of Charleville, the impressive Place Ducale, was used for parking until 1999. Though cars still drive around one half of the square there aren’t many and you can enjoy the square in peace. Surrounded by cafes and restaurants it is the perfect place to relax with a coffee and people watch which you decide what to do with your day.
There is a beautiful fountain in the middle of the square and the cobbled streets and original buildings from 1600 quickly transport you back to a bygone era. Though Charles de Gonzague never got to build his palace, there is now a beautiful town hall in its place.
The Place Ducale is the centre of the city and is often used for events. During the Festival Marionnette (the World Puppetry Festival) the square is filled with puppet shows and performances for the week long festival. While we were visiting there was a Victorian style merry go round in the centre of the square and on one day some fun games and events for new students.
The Place Ducale is also home to the local tourism office, so is a great place to start when visiting the City.
Visit The Museum of the Ardennes (Musee d l’Ardenne)
In the corner of the Place Ducal is The Museum of the Ardennes filled with exhibits and artefacts that have been found in Charleville and from the wider Ardennes region, reflecting life and culture in the area from prehistory to the City’s modern day relationship with puppetry.
The museum building itself is a beautiful space, which has been thoughtfully extended to include a mix of modern and old architecture. A modern artist has added some interesting contrasts to the ancient history enclosed within the museum, including sculptures and paintings featuring the “mascot” of the Ardenne, the wild boar.
The museum walks you through the history of the region, starting with prehistoric artefacts, through the industrial heritage of the region and into modern day Charleville with examples of puppets from around the world.
You can learn more about Charles de Gonzague, the city’s founder and look at his blueprints for the City he never got to see quite finished. The museum has recently had some 3D printed models based on paintings made for the visually impaired to feel how the paintings look.
Other highlights include an ancient drawing on a piece of slate (a prehistoric sketch pad!), some impressive Celtic/Roman glassware, a range of muskets from the Charleville armoury and an even more impressive collection of more types of nails than we ever knew existed! The collection of puppets in the museum is equally impressive, with examples from all over the world.
The Ardennes Museum is really well put together and offers an ideal slice of history to suit all interests.
Learn about Arthur Rimbaud at his museum and house (Musee Arthur Rimbaud)
Arthur Rimbaud is Charleville’s most well known son. A poet and traveller born in 1854, he died too young at only 37. Despite being known as an influential figure in literature and art, he only wrote poetry between the ages of 15 and 20.
You will see traces of Arthur Rimbaud throughout the town, including restaurants and hotels named after him alongside being able to visit his home and grave.
The Arthur Rimbaud museum offers a deeper insight into his interesting life, including photos from his travels, examples of his poetry, and books from his personal library. The museum aims to offer real insight into Rimbaud’s life through genuine artifacts and manuscripts, and although much of the museum is in French you can still learn a lot about this incredible man’s life.
The museum is based inside a former 17th Century Mill on the River Meuse and after working your way down through the museum you can step out the back to enjoy a drink on a bar on a boat.
Shopping at Jeanteur and Rue de la Republique
I love shopping in foreign countries as often think no one else will have the same clothes as me. Charleville has a surprisingly good selection on its main high street, Rue de la Republique. Straight off the Place Ducale, it is a long straight street that runs up to the Charles du Gonzague statue and onwards to Mezieres.
Charleville’s famous independent department store Jenteur will have most things you want and Olly and I headed in for a spot of retail therapy. The department store is on two sides of the square with one side for men’s clothes and the other for women, children, interiors, shoes and everything else.
There were a range of brand names and I quickly found a new coat to keep me warm this winter from the s’Oliver brand. Very apt considering Oliver treated me 😉 I also bought some bright earrings from their jewellery collection, then quickly escaped before my wallet was empty!
Watch a short show from the Giant Puppeteer (Le Grand Marionnettiste)
Built into the Musee d l’Ardenne is Le Grande Marionnettiste, a giant gold puppet who performs throughout the day. The minute long shows take place every hour from 10am to 9pm and throughout the day tells the medieval tale of the Four Sons of Aymon.
You can watch the full story in one go on a Saturday evening at 9pm.
Enjoy street art and poetry around the city
In recent years, the city has had a number of local and international artists create street art that was inspired by Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry.
Throughout the city you will find 12 walls each with a unique piece of street art linked to one of Arthur Rimbaud’s poems. They are unique, beautiful and are a great way for people to appreciate Arthur’s poetry from the street without having to be ‘into’ poetry.
Walk across the Passerelle du Mont Olympe and around the Monte Olympe park
When we first arrived into Charleville we parked by the Mont Olympe park and walked across the beautiful Passerelle du Mont Olympe. This beautiful bridge is a great way to enter the city. The beautiful wrought iron bridge takes you across the river Meuse from Mont Olympe park and into the city past the old mill housing the Arthur Rimbaud museum.
The park has a caravan and camping site, as well as a space to moor a boat if you want to travel to the city in a different way. You’ll also find a beautiful flower clock on the park side of the river that was first built in 1953 and reconditioned by the current Mayor Mr Boris Ravignon in September 2016.
It is worth a walk across the bridge and into the park to enjoy a walk along the river. The city is so close to the countryside you only have to look across the bridge to the forest and easily walk out of the city into the beautiful Ardennes.
Escape the city for a bike ride along the river Meuse
If you want to fully escape the city then hop on a bike and cycle along the river Meuse. You could spend the day cycling along the easy flat bike paths through the surrounding villages. Grab a patisserie and head out for the day.
If you don’t want a full day out you could catch the train like we did and cycle back. We caught the train to Bogny-sure-Meuse and cycled the 20km back. Thought a little rainy at the start it was a beautiful ride past horses and deer and back into the city in time for lunch.
Visit the Basilique Notre-Dame-d’Espérance in Mezieres
This magnificent gothic church sits across the river in Mezieres. Built in 1499, modern stained glass windows were added between 1954 and 79 and add magical colourful light displays inside.
It is worth across the river to the older part of Charleville Mezieres, we were treated to a beautiful reflection of Charleville’s beautiful buildings on the river from the other side too.
Charleville is a beautiful city and I highly recommend a visit. Hopefully these tips on where to stay, what to eat and what to do give you some ideas to make the most of your visit.