They’re both excellent locations for canoeists but what else do they have to offer? Karen Tait finds out
WHERE IS IT?
On the border with Belgium, Ardennes is the northernmost department of Champagne-Ardenne, which also contains the departments of Marne, Aube and Haute-Marne. To the east of Ardennes is the Picardy region, to the west Lorraine.
WHY WOULD I LIKE IT?
The Ardennes is the name given both to the department and to the forest that largely covers it. One of the greenest departments in France, it also boasts the country’s newest Regional Nature Park – the Ardennes Parc Naturel R�gional has been recognised as an area of outstanding beauty, and it is certainly that, with its winding river valleys and forested hillsides. One of the most sparsely populated parts of France, it will appeal to anyone seeking peace and quiet or those wanting to lead a ‘green’ lifestyle.
The new park covers most of the Ardennes to the north and north-west of the departmental capital Charleville-M�zi�res, and is the perfect environment for outdoor pursuits. There are some great walking, mountain bike and horse-riding trails, such as the 83km-long Trans-Ardennes greenway. The Meuse and Semoy rivers provide plenty of opportunities for canoeing and kayaking, as well as a variety of boating holidays, and there’s sailing on the Lac des Vieilles Forges, which has a sandy beach.
Ardennes and its people living among the forests have very much been a law unto themselves in the past, as is revealed at the Forestry Museum at Renwez, while animal lovers shouldn’t miss the wonderful wolf park at the Parc Argonne D�couverte.
It’s not all about the great outdoors though. Ardennes also has a significant military heritage. Sedan, for example, is home to northern Europe’s largest fortress, while Rocroi’s star-shaped ramparts are still very much in evidence and Givet is an impressive hilltop fort – all testament to the area’s strategic importance through the centuries (including both World Wars).
A fortified city in the ninth century, M�zi�res has a number of landmarks from the 1500s such as the Tour du Roy. In 1966, it joined forces with its neighbour Charleville, which was established in the 17th century by a young Italian prince, Charles de Conzague. He created the wonderful Place Ducale, a large arcaded square lined with buildings of golden stone and red brick; it’s the perfect place for an alfresco lunch or to enjoy one of the many events held there. There are also numerous outstanding religious buildings within the Ardennes, such as the abbey at Mouzon or the fortified churches of Thi�rache.
Ardennes has another added twist as the forest crosses the border into Belgium – buy a home in Ardennes and you have access to both French and Belgian culture. The Belgian Ardennes are the country’s only mountains and as such are a much-treasured tourist spot, with all the accompanying facilities.
Everywhere you go, both sides of the border, you can sample myriad varieties of wonderful Belgian beer! Cooked meats are a feature of the local gastronomy, such as Rethel white pudding, and with all that forest it’s no surprise that game is also popular.
Although a tranquil department, it has many events throughout the year, including the huge medieval festival in Sedan and Charleville-M�zi�res’ world-renowned puppet festival.
WHAT KIND OF PROPERTY CAN I EXPECT?
There are stone farmhouses, with or without outbuildings, in the countryside as well as village houses and a good choice of elegant townhouses in the cities. Maisons de ma�tre reflect the prosperity of the 18th century – the Ardennes was a centre for metal-working and signs of industry can still be seen along the rivers; you can learn more about the area’s metal-working heritage at the Bogny-sur-Meuse Museum of Metallurgy.
Although relatively undiscovered by British holidaymakers and househunters, Ardennes is popular with Dutch and Belgian buyers as it’s their closest mountainous area in France and also has affordable property.
Average resale house prices are just €117,200, considerably less than the regional average (€145,000) and national average (€165,500). Ardennes isn’t the cheapest department in Champagne-Ardenne though; that honour goes to Haute-Marne with an average of just €85,000. Property prices have shown a healthy rise of 12.4% since 2009 (compared with 9.5% across Champagne-Ardenne and 9.8% across France), following a fall of 7.4% in 2008-9. The Rethel sector is the most expensive at €130,000, while the Vouziers area is cheapest at €90,000.
WHAT’S THE WEATHER LIKE?
The Ardennes has a mild Continental climate with four distinct seasons and moderate rainfall year round. Winters are cold, with snow, while summers are warm, milder than might be expected for a Continental climate due to the Ardennes’ elevation, which also causes more rain than in surrounding areas.
Average temperatures range from just below freezing in January to just over 24oC in July, with an annual rainfall of 958mm. December is the rainiest month (106mm) and April the driest (63mm); 140 days have less than 1mm of rain. Ardennes has 1,516 hours of sunshine per year, ranging from 43 hours in December to 206 hours in July, and some 46 days enjoy strong sunshine.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
Ardennes is an easy four- to five-hour drive from Calais ferry port or the Channel Tunnel – via the A26 and A34 autoroutes – so, depending on where you live in the UK, you could leave work on Friday and be at your holiday home for a late supper. Charleville-M�zi�res is about 170 miles from Calais.
There are no direct flights to Champagne-Ardenne, the nearest airports are at Paris, or Brussels or Charleroi in Belgium. By train, you can get the Eurostar to Lille and then change to the TGV high-speed train to Charleville-M�zi�res.
WHERE IS IT?
Ard�che is one of eight departments in the Rh�ne-Alpes region, the others being Loire, Rhone, Ain, Haute-Savoie, Savoie, Is�re and Dr�me. In the far south-west of the region, Ard�che borders Languedoc-Roussillon to the south and Auvergne to the west.
WHY WOULD I LIKE IT?
Named after its river, the Ard�che is known for its spectacular gorges, stretching for over 35km between Vallon Pont d’Arc and St Martin d’Ard�che. A listed nature reserve, the gorges include the spectacular Pont d’Arc, the largest natural stone arch in Europe, some 66m high and 34m across. The gorges are listed as one of the Grand Sites of France, as is the Aven d’Orgnac cave system, while the Chauvet caves are believed to have some of the oldest prehistoric paintings in Europe.
The gorges are phenomenally popular for canoeing and kayaking but the Ard�che is perfect for all sorts of outdoor activities, including climbing, potholing, walking, mountain-biking and horse-riding. The department contains the Monts d’Ard�che Regional Nature Park and also part of the Cevennes National Park.
The Ard�che ranges in altitude from 40m to 1,754m (at Mont M�zenc), providing very varied scenery; mountainous to the west, green in the north and with a Proven�al feel further south, with fruit trees and vineyards producing C�tes du Rh�ne and C�tes du Vivarais wines. Like the Ardennes, the Ard�che is one of France’s more forested areas; 45% of it is covered by woods, including chestnut trees, the nuts of which feature in local dishes such as cr�me de marrons, marrons glac�s or cousina soup.
Other places of interest include the Bois de Paiolive, a forest in the south-east of the department with curious-shaped rock formations, the Cascade du Ray-Pic waterfall, the Gorges du Chassezac and Mont Jerbier-de-Jonc, an extinct volcano with breathtaking views from the summit.
The base town for the gorges is Vallon Pont d’Arc, and other popular towns include the capital Privas (the smallest prefecture in France), which is surrounded by three rivers; Tournon-sur-Rh�ne, which has a castle and many old buildings; Joyeuse, which also has a castle and a medieval centre; and the spa towns of Neyrac-les-Bains, Vals-les-Bains and St-Laurent-les-Bains. There are plenty of picturesque historic villages, including two Plus Beaux Villages – Balazuc and Vog�� – and 17 Villages de Caract�re.
The gastronomy reflects the different areas; in the north there’s the aforementioned chestnut specialities, along with potato-based dishes such as bombine, made with cheese, cream and lardons, or crique, a kind of potato pancake, while in the south tomatoes, garlic, herbs and olive oil are more typical ingredients to be found in local dishes.
WHAT KIND OF PROPERTY CAN I EXPECT?
Most properties are constructed from local stone, including farmhouses, which often come with land, and village houses. Further south, there’s a Provencal influence, with more modern whitewashed or ochre-coloured villas.
The Ard�che is the cheapest department in the Rh�ne-Alpes (along with Loire), with an average resale house price of €160,000. This compares with a €217,500 regional average, which rises to €339,600 in Haute-Savoie. Since 2009, property prices have risen by 10.8%, having fallen by 7.4% between 2007-9. There’s not a huge variation in price across the department; Privas is the cheapest sector (€153,500) and Tournon-sur-Rh�ne the most expensive (€165,000).
In the past the Ard�che was a poor and remote department, and even today it’s not the easiest department to access, which helps to keep property prices low in comparison with areas not far away that count among the most expensive in France, namely the Alps to the east and Provence to the south.
The south of the department where the gorges are located is most popular with tourists and hence property tends to be more expensive but there are holiday rental opportunities for househunters who want to see a return on their investment.
WHAT’S THE WEATHER LIKE?
The climate reflects the scenery in its variety. In the north it’s temperate, the south has a Mediterranean influence and the west has more of a mountainous climate. In the mountains, winters can be extreme, with snow for many months, heavy rain in autumn, strong winds through autumn and winter, and frequent valley fog. The south enjoys much warmer and drier weather, although winds from the south can bring heavy rain.
The French weather website (www.meteo.fr) doesn’t include a weather station for Ard�che but Montelimar, just over the border in Dr�me, is reflective of the southern Ard�che, with minimum average temperatures of 1.9oC in January and maximum average temperatures of 29.6oC in July, combined with 905mm annual rainfall, ranging from 45mm in February to 136mm in October, with 77 days experiencing less than 1mm rain. There are 2,405 sunshine hours per year, ranging from 92 hours in December to 327 hours in July, and 111 days enjoy strong sunshine.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
There are no UK flights or TGV high-speed trains to the Ard�che itself. The closest airports are at Lyon, N�mes, St Etienne and Grenoble, while the TGV stops at Grenoble, Valence, Aix-en-Provence and N�mes, from where you will need to change to local SNCF train services. Privas is 480 miles from Calais.
So, it seems that the Ardennes and Ard�che have many shared attributes beyond their similar-sounding names. They’re roughly the same size, both are sparsely populated, and they’re characterised by forests and river valleys making them ideal for outdoor pursuits or a peaceful rural lifestyle away from busy urban centres.
In terms of accessibility, the two departments are quite different however, with the Ardennes being easily reached by car from Calais ferry port or the Channel Tunnel, while it’s quicker to visit the Ard�che by air. The weather too forms a contrast between the two, although parts of both departments have snow in winter. The Ard�che has much warmer summers though, especially in the south of the department.
When it comes to property prices, the Ardennes is cheapest with an average house price of €117,200, compared with €160,000 in the Ard�che, reflecting the latter’s proximity to pricey Provence.
Which is best? Well, that’s a decision only you can make.
Karen Tait travelled to the Ardennes with P&O Ferries and stayed at Hotel Le Chateau Fort in Sedan (www.hotelfp-sedan.com) and La Ferme du Pont des Aulnes (www.pont-des-aulnes.com) www.ardennes.com
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