The beauty of Ardennes
Carolyn Reynier heads for north-east France and discovers beautiful countryside, a rich history and a unique regional gastronomy that’s not for the faint-hearted
Are you sitting comfortably with your map of France open? Then we’ll begin. We’re off to the Ardennes in north-east France, that bit where the border bulges into Belgium. Got it?
Before I could start asking Ma�tre Jean-Louis Maquenne about the property market in his neck of the woods – Fumay and the surrounding area – he thanked me warmly for my interest in the Meuse valley. I thought that was a good start. I asked him if he was originally from the area.
“Jokingly, I always say that I am an Ardennais born in 1617,” he replies, “because all the generations of Maquenne since that period have lived in Fumay.
“Professionally my grandfather was a notaire, my father was a notaire, I am a notaire, and my son is joining me in a couple of months as a notaire. So you see, that is four generations of notaires in the same place; there can’t be more than 20 notaire’s offices throughout the whole of France in that situation.”
As well as being legal eagles, French notaires – their title is ma�tre and their office is known as an �tude – often deal in property as well. Ma�tre Maquenne’s �tude in Fumay covers an area from Givet close to the Belgian border to Revin south-west of Fumay via Rocroi to the west.
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The centre of Fumay is made up of small village houses (you won’t find any apartments here) usually two-up, two-downs priced around €50,000-€60,000. The distinctive feature of these properties is that they are built from pieces of slate. Fumay used to be the slate capital, explains Ma�tre Maquenne.
“Until the 1970s most of the slate you find, including in England, came from Fumay,” he explained. So house walls are built with slate off-cuts and it is obligatory in the village to have slate tiles on the roof.
You can also find some very fine old houses. A hundred metres from Ma�tre Maquenne’s home is a magnificent tree-lined square where he recently sold a bourgeois country house to Belgians for €270,000. Near Fumay, a substantial terraced 328m� seven-bedroom stone and brick property is on the market for €202,000. It comes with two garages, veranda, terrace and 212m� of land. Sounds promising guest house material.
Fumay is a small commune with a population of around 4,000. In the surrounding countryside, you’ll find larger, more modern houses, built in the 1950s and 1960s, with living room, dining room, three bedrooms, garden and garage. Expect to pay around €120,000.
The smaller neighbouring commune of Haybes is considerably more modern. This is not surprising, given that is was rebuilt after being destroyed during the First World War. But it, too, lies on the banks of the Meuse. And today the former tow paths used by horses towing barges have been transformed into cycle paths. “You can go to Charleville, Sedan and further just on the chemins de halage,” says Ma�tre Maquenne.
Givet is 10km from the Chooz nuclear power station, which employs hundreds of people. If you look at a French electricity bill, you’ll see that by far the highest percentage of power comes from nuclear. The town, 25km north of Fumay, has around 6,500 inhabitants and being so close to the border it is home to the Charlemont fort built by that famous 17th-century military engineer S�bastien Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban, known universally (and thankfully) simply as Vauban. You can see his star fort at Rocroi.
Popular villages along the banks of the Meuse, north of Fumay, include F�pin (population 200) or if that seems that far too many people, mosey further north to Montigny-sur-Meuse which has half that number of residents.
Given the geographical location, buyers are primarily Belgians and Dutch, and they are purchasing second homes not main ones. Very occasionally Brits do buy here.
So where do local residents work? In Charleville-M�zi�res, the prefecture and home to the World Festival of Puppet Theatre? Not necessarily. Software consulting firm Nexance is based in Fumay as is Godard, maker of automobile spare parts. A 100-bed hospital is under construction and there’s also a centre to help handicapped people through work which employs 150.
The region is composed of four departments – the Ardennes, Aube, Marne and Haute-Marne. According to the regional statistics, there is a more noticeable entrepreneurial spirit in the Ardennes and the Haute-Marne. Business creators in these two departments say they have more often had the opportunity to create or take over a business.
Business start-ups, too, in the Haute-Marne and the Ardennes tend to require more capital than the national average (17% and 15% of projects require an initial investment in excess of €80,000 against 13% at national level). The Ardennais business creators account for 2.5 jobs on average, 0.7 higher than the average in provincial France.
Interestingly, the region makes less use of the major job creation supports Accre and Nacre than the nation as a whole. The former provides aid to job seekers creating or taking over a business by offering exemption from social charges for a year; Nacre stands for Nouvel Accompagnement pour la Cr�ation et la Reprise d’Entreprise. The Champardennais job creators tend to take more advantage of local and regional aid.
The area is a tranquil one of exceptional natural beauty surrounded by woods; with the River Meuse rising in the Haute-Marne and flowing into Belgium. Fumay is home to an adventure park and you can even whiz along for over a kilometre on a tyrolienne, a cable suspended 110m above the river.
M�itre Maquenne is a marcheur; every Sunday, he and his wife walk for two or three hours and whatever the time of year, they see Belgians and Dutch who have come to walk in the area because the town is old and well worth seeing.
A BIRD IN THE HAND
I know the Ardennes is famous for its charcuterie but I didn’t know about the grives. Thanks to Ma�tre Maquenne I do now. The area still retains the privilege of catching the migratory thrushes � la nasse. In other words, they are captured in a slip knot of horsehair that is baited with a rowan berry in the middle. This is effective, as thrushes like rowan berries. “Cooked just as it is, it’s a dish fit for a king in our neck of the woods,” exclaims Maquenne. “It’s a privilege which still exists in the valley. Alternatively, thrushes are shot with a rifle. And shot with a rifle, the flesh just isn’t the same.”
Most of the charcuterie comes from Hargnies, a village hidden away in the hills near Fumay. The residents are delightfully known as Harnicots and Harnicottes. If you would like to join their ranks you can buy a four-bedroom stone village house here, which comes with attic, cellar, barn and land on the side for €180,000 (Jean-Louis Maquenne).
“We also have something that you British like somewhat less,” continues Maquenne. Frogs, too, are a speciality and they are in season in early April. Did you know there was a season for frogs? No, neither did I. “Grosso modo,” explains Maquenne using that popular expression meaning roughly, in general, the grenouilles are best grabbed au moment de la fra�che: March/April or February/March depending on the year.
All these delicacies could be dished up in your very own restaurant in Vireux-Molhain where Ma�tre Maquenne is selling a substantial property with caf� and restaurant on the ground floor, five rooms for renovation on the first floor and a three-bedroom apartment on the second. It is on the market for €300,000.
Although there are no new building developments to speak of, you can buy land to build your own house; the price is circa €35 per square metre. And you can find properties for renovation; for example, €61,000 will buy you a three-bedroom village house with terrace and garden in Revin (Jean-Louis Maquenne).
“Tell your readers,” continues the ever-helpful Ma�tre Maquenne, “they can fly into Brussels South Charleroi airport and 45 minutes later they’re in Fumay. The Belgian capital is an hour away and you can get to Luxembourg and Rheims in an hour and a quarter.”
Don’t forget your copy of poetic prose by the enfant terrible of the Ardennes, Arthur Rimbaud. He was born in Charleville in 1854, and had a tumultuous love affair with the poet Paul Verlaine, who abandoned his wife and child to flee to Belgium with the younger man.
Their relationship ended in Brussels after Verlaine shot Rimbaud, wounding him in the wrist. The older poet went to prison; the younger one returned to his family’s farm to write poetry. Rimbaud then abandoned poetry to work overseas, finally settling in the Horn of Africa as a trader.
Aged 37, he died of cancer in Marseille. You couldn’t make it up. But Rimbaud did make up some pretty spectacular prose poetry. I thoroughly recommend his Illuminations in French with English translation by the American poet John Ashbery.
If life in Britain is driving you round the bend, head for a meander in the Meuse. Life in the Ardennes may well fulfil your most ardent desires. n