The lat­est long-dis­tance cy­cle trail gave Mark Strat­ton the chance to fol­low the course of east­ern France’s great water­way

France - - Contents -

A brand new trail fol­low­ing the River Meuse through Ar­dennes and Meuse.

Un­corked like bub­bling cham­pagne from its Pouilly-en-bassigny source, the River Meuse be­gins a silken course through cul­tures and time. It is where a saint ex­pe­ri­enced her ap­pari­tions and where France’s most an­ar­chic poet walked. It is where blood was shed and towns ru­ined dur­ing great wars. It is over­looked by im­pos­ing cas­tles, and snakes through deep forests where wild boar roam.

The river is also home to France’s new­est longdis­tance cy­cle trail: La Meuse à Vélo, in the Grand Est re­gion. The cy­cle­way, a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween re­gional tourism boards, be­gins in Haute-marne and for 1,152 kilo­me­tres wends north-west­wards, util­is­ing minor roads, green ways and tow­paths. Af­ter leav­ing France, it shad­ows the Meuse through Bel­gium and Hol­land be­fore the river drains into the North Sea. An ac­com­pa­ny­ing trail book­let sub-di­vides the route into 36 bite-sized stages.

With six days spare, I loaded my pan­niers to cy­cle the French sec­tion of the cy­cle­way, which cov­ers 420 kilo­me­tres. My grand dé­part was Lan­gres in HauteMarne, where the route of­fi­cially be­gins from within the in­tact walled city’s mas­sive for­ti­fi­ca­tions.

Yet on that first morn­ing, free­wheel­ing through the Pays de Lan­gres, there was no hint of the Meuse. It was not un­til lunchtime in Pouilly-en-bassigny that the ac­tual river emerged. Near the vil­lage’s church, its first bridge is lit­tle more than a cul­vert over a bab­bling brook. I had as­sumed that cycling from the source would in­volve a land­scape trend­ing down­hill but the route ven­tured into the sur­round­ing foothills of the Vos­ges Moun­tains. My calves were al­ready fizzing with lac­tic acid when a sear­ingly steep as­cent brought me into Bour­mont, a pe­tite cité de car­ac­tère perched on a ridge over­look­ing the Up­per Meuse Val­ley. I looked down upon a grow­ing river that de­spite its youth­ful vigour main­tained a serene calm­ness, as if in no par­tic­u­lar hurry to reach the sea.

For a while that sec­ond morn­ing, the river ac­quired a dop­pel­gänger as the trail switched to the par­al­lel Mouzon Val­ley, where ap­ple blos­som bloomed in or­chards and wood­peck­ers added per­cus­sion to the oak wood­land. I fu­elled up on a cus­tardy slice of flan na­ture in Neufchâteau be­fore the Mouzon, like my pâtis­serie, was de­voured by the Meuse, which had swollen to 10 me­tres wide.

A grad­ual climb from Neufchâteau up the river’s wooded left bank took me to a site that changed France’s des­tiny back in the 1430s. With its gilded sky­rocket of a steeple, the Basilique de Bois-chenu was built in 1881 to con­se­crate the lo­ca­tion of Joan of Arc’s vi­sions from God. From there a fast de­scent took me into Dom­rémy-la-pu­celle to her birth­place: a small adobe-walled dwelling close by the Meuse. Joan must have known the river in­ti­mately grow­ing up, fetch­ing wa­ter from its soft flow.

There­after I fol­lowed the Meuse closely for 26 kilo­me­tres to Vau­couleurs through farm­land lit by yel­low squares of oil-seed. A huge me­an­der be­fore Pagny-la-blanche-côte ex­posed river cliffs arched like eye­brows sug­gest­ing more fer­vent en­ergy.

“It’s very calm in sum­mer­time but com­pletely changes in win­ter when the river floods,” said Nathalie Mer­let at Vau­couleurs tourist of­fice. Vau­couleurs is where 17-year-old Joan came in 1429 to per­suade the city’s com­man­der, Robert de Bau­dri­court, to let her ride to Chi­non to be­seech France’s dis­em­pow­ered dauphin to seize the crown from the English usurpers. Out­side a mu­seum in her hon­our, she sits on horse­back with sword raised on a statue re­turned from Al­ge­ria in 1962 as the for­mer colony ag­i­tated for in­de­pen­dence.

Next morn­ing, I left early in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a long 75-kilo­me­tre day that be­gan with a wood­land climb to­wards the com­mune of Void-va­con. Here the Meuse war­rants multi-arched stone bridges and sweeps pur­pose­fully around the hand­some town of Com­mercy, adorned by an enor­mous château and grandiose ar­chi­tec­ture courtesy of Stanisław Leszczy’ski, the King of Poland, who resided here in 1744.

But this hun­gry cy­clist had eyes on Com­mercy’s famed pâtis­serie, madeleines, much loved by the writer Mar­cel Proust. I called by À La Cloche Lor­raine, to meet fifth gen­er­a­tion madeleinier, Josette Gro­jean. One the­ory sug­gests these lit­tle but­ter cakes com­mem­o­rate Madeleine, a peas­ant baker, cham­pi­oned by the res­i­dent King of Poland. Cus­tomers can watch them bak­ing in the kitchen. But what is the se­cret of the in­gre­di­ents? I asked Madame Gro­jean. “Beurre,” she said em­phat­i­cally, “and a lit­tle lemon”.

I took my sug­ared palate that af­ter­noon along the Canal de la Meuse, the north­ern sec­tor of the Canal de l’est con­structed be­tween 1874-1887. With in­creas­ing trade with Prus­sia of salt, slate, and wood, the Meuse was con­sid­ered un­pre­dictable for nav­i­ga­tion, due to sea­sonal low wa­ter and flood­ing. So it was canalised for 272 kilo­me­tres from Com­mercy to Givet, en­sur­ing much of my cy­cle there­after would be a flat, en­joy­able towpath af­fair.

It de­liv­ers trea­sures too such as Saint-mi­hiel, a quiet town that was home to Ligier Richier (1500-1567), one of France’s fore­most Re­nais­sance sculp­tors of reli­gious art. I parked my bi­cy­cle out­side the Église Saint-éti­enne and went in­side to see his mas­ter­piece, the En­tomb­ment of Je­sus, fea­tur­ing 13 life-sized mar­ble fig­ures. Us­ing lo­cally quar­ried lime­stone, Richier cre­ated de­tail that is ex­quis­ite yet not un­ques­tion­ingly pi­ous, as he added two rogu­ish-look­ing char­ac­ters ir­rev­er­ently play­ing dice.

Three cen­turies later and 25 kilo­me­tres down­river, Château Mon­thairons emerged within a loop­ing me­an­der. I en­tered the 14-hectare walled grounds for a night of splen­dour, feel­ing some­what un­der­dressed in my Ly­cra cycling gear as I walked the huge mar­ble­floored re­cep­tion area.

The en­thu­si­as­tic Cather­ine Thou­venin, whose fam­ily bought the château in 1985, wel­comed me to her 25-room ho­tel. My cav­ernous room in­cluded a chaise-longue and vo­lu­mi­nous win­dows fram­ing park­land of cop­per beech and horse chest­nut. “The château’s builder was Charles-henri de la Cour and the feu­dal es­tate had been in their fam­ily since 1685,” said Cather­ine. One fa­mous an­ces­tor was a Bene­dic­tine re­former who was even­tu­ally be­at­i­fied. Cather­ine took me to a 17th-cen­tury chapel where Saint Dom-di­dier de la Cour rests be­neath a brood­ing black slate tomb.

I ironed a crum­pled shirt from my pan­nier for a din­ner that was very much a fam­ily af­fair. Cather­ine’s brother over­saw the game-ori­en­tated fare of duck liv­ers and pi­geon. Next morn­ing her hus­band the pas­try chef baked a ta­ble bulging with sticky treats such as bo­s­tock, fancy French toast with al­monds and glazed figs.

Dur­ing World War I, the château was req­ui­si­tioned as a US mil­i­tary evac­u­a­tion hospi­tal, which was the pre­lude to an un­fold­ing wartime nar­ra­tive through­out my third day’s cycling. I fol­lowed the River Meuse’s left bank to Ver­dun, a name syn­ony­mous with the chaos and de­struc­tion of the Great War, dur­ing a day pass­ing the fluc­tu­at­ing bat­tle­lines of Al­lied and Ger­man forces and mil­i­tary ceme­ter­ies.

While in this pleas­ant, re­built city, I vis­ited the sub­ter­ranean ci­tadel dug from 1886-93. A small elec­tric car­riage takes you on a 25-minute tour of dimly-lit tun­nels that proved a bul­wark against a ma­jor Ger­man of­fen­sive on Ver­dun launched in Fe­bru­ary 1916. Around 2,000 troops and their am­mu­ni­tion were pro­tected from the bom­bard­ment, while a bak­ery pro­vided 41,000 ra­tions day. The un­con­quered ci­tadel came to sym­bol­ise France’s na­tional resistance.

From Ver­dun, the cy­cle­way guided me to Charny­sur-meuse, where I re­joined the Meuse canal through marshy grass­lands. I spied herons, egrets, marsh har­ri­ers and bright yel­low but­ter­flies. The placid Meuse in­duced deep self-re­flec­tion about the war and youth­ful sac­ri­fice as I ped­alled to my overnight ac­com­mo­da­tion at Dun-sur-meuse. Here, I dis­cov­ered that the artist Jean-robert Ipoustéguy (1920-2006) har­boured more

paci­fist feel­ings to­wards con­flict. “He was al­ways for peace and be­lieved love could save the world,” said Mon­sieur Lam­bert at the Ipoustéguy Cul­tural Cen­tre.

The sculp­tor and friend of Pi­casso was born in Dun-sur-meuse. Fig­u­ra­tive yet mod­ernist, he pro­duced more than 600 sculp­tures, some of which are on dis­play in the cen­tre. The most af­fect­ing is a pow­er­ful evo­ca­tion of age­ing, a shad­owy cloaked bronze of a with­ered hu­man form en­ti­tled Age des Con­clu­sions. “It was one of his last carved works as his body failed him,” said Mon­sieur Lam­bert.

I left Dun-sur-meuse via a bridge con­structed by vet­er­ans of the Amer­i­can Ex­pe­di­tionary Forces to com­mem­o­rate the 5th di­vi­sion’s cross­ing into Ger­manoc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory in 1918. Cuck­oos res­onated through­out the Val de Dunois’ ma­ture wood­lands and the Meuse re­mained mir­ror-like and rip­ple-free. In Ste­nay, I vis­ited the Euro­pean Beer Mu­seum and later de­voured an en­ergy-boost­ing vanilla éclair op­po­site Mouzon’s 12th-cen­tury Ro­manesque church.

Me­dieval cas­tles typ­i­cally re­side on hill­tops for de­fen­sive rea­sons. I saw Sedan cas­tle from a long way off. Europe’s largest fortress has mas­sively thick walls within which 4,000 men could be ac­com­mo­dated. But, of course, it de­liv­ered a pun­ish­ingly pre­cip­i­tous pedal to my overnight stay at the ho­tel within.

Work on the cas­tle be­gan in 1424 and con­tin­ued over 150 years, as two huge cir­cu­lar watch­tow­ers were added. The view across Sedan is far-reach­ing and the cas­tle hosts im­pres­sive suits of ar­mour and a hel­met al­legedly worn by Joan of Arc.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, I crossed into Ar­dennes to join a towpath lo­cally la­belled as the Trans-ar­dennes Voie Verte. By this stage, the Meuse is chaotic. Still slow-flow­ing, she has never hur­ried, but is now braided and split into chan­nels swirling around mid-river is­lands. For my fi­nal day-and-a-half the broad me­an­ders were pinched by pre­cip­i­tous wooded slopes set on blue-slate river­banks.

I con­tin­ued rid­ing through Charleville-méz­ières, dom­i­nated by the in­flu­ence of France’s in­fa­mous en­fant ter­ri­ble, Arthur Rim­baud (1854-1891). Ap­proach­ing the el­e­gant twinned cities of Charleville and Méz­ières, I imag­ined Rim­baud, who was a prodi­gious walker, com­pos­ing one of his great­est po­ems ap­par­ently in­spired by the boats of the Meuse – Le Bateau Ivre ( The Drunken Boat): ‘As I was float­ing down un­con­cerned Rivers, I no longer felt my­self steered by the haulers’… the poem be­gins.

Af­ter cof­fee in the grandil­o­quent Re­nais­sance Place Du­cale, I sought out at­trac­tions per­tain­ing to the poet. His birth­place, Mai­son des Al­lieurs, is where he was raised by his con­trol­ling mother, while nearby is a 17th-cen­tury mill con­verted into a mu­seum of his life. It fea­tures pos­ses­sions af­ter he had quit poetry aged 20 to be­come a trader in Ethiopia. There is also a price­less copy of A Sea­son in Hell from 1873, ar­guably the poem that posthu­mously es­tab­lished Rim­baud’s great­ness.

Rim­baud may well have been aware of the Ar­dennes myths that have blos­somed along the Meuse. In Laifour that af­ter­noon I learned why three rocky pro­tu­ber­ances in the val­ley are called Dames de Meuse: ac­cord­ing to myth, three royal daugh­ters un­faith­ful to their knights cru­sader hus­bands sub­se­quently turned to stone.

My legs had turned to ce­ment upon reach­ing Haybes, so I was de­lighted to dis­cover Le Clos Belle Rose’s five rooms were lo­cated along­side the Meuse cy­cle­way and that owner Julien De­jente had a mi­cro­brew­ery on-site. The rooms in this charm­ing 1870s prop­erty have a ro­man­tic theme with pale cush­ions and drapes, and par­quet floor­ing in­side a brick build­ing that al­most used up its nine lives. “It’s the only build­ing the Ger­mans didn’t de­stroy dur­ing World War I; I think they liked it,” Julien said, adding that a wounded Gen­eral de Gaulle con­va­lesced here.

I tried his rich am­ber-beer, Hay­boise, which with three other flavours make up an an­nual pro­duc­tion of 5,000 bot­tles, us­ing wild hops that Julien picks from the Meuse river­banks. One of the beers is named ‘Stockport’. “The peo­ple of Stockport con­trib­uted to the re­build­ing of Haybes af­ter World War I, so I wanted to hon­our this mem­ory,” he said.

Julien felt more Ar­den­nois than French and by early next morn­ing on the last ves­tiges of the French La Meuse à Vélo I was sur­rounded by Bel­gian Ar­dennes. Three hours of ped­alling took me into the fron­tier town of Givet. Demon­strat­ing that the Meuse main­tains a mod­ern eco­nomic life, an ac­tive blue-slate quarry

and nu­clear power sta­tion at Chooz were on the route.

Ar­riv­ing in Givet, Madame Dar­dennes wel­comed me to her river­side ho­tel, where I hung up my Ly­cra be­fore tak­ing an elec­tric boat ride on the river. By now the Meuse is mid­dle-aged, near­ing 100 me­tres wide. Else­where, Givet is dom­i­nated by re­minders of its most fa­mous son, the com­poser Éti­enne Ni­co­las Méhul (1763-1817). His work Chant du Dé­part was an an­them of the Rev­o­lu­tion and is played hourly by bells of the main church.

Later, Madame Dar­dennes di­rected me to her son’s res­tau­rant on the river­front, Le Roo­sevelt, to try the renowned char­cu­terie of nearby Hargnies. The wait­ress said around 500 peo­ple lived there and al­most ev­ery­body pro­duced char­cu­terie. I dined on a de­li­cious mixed plate of jam­bon d’ar­denne, tête pressé and ter­rine de cham­pagne.

Next day, I cy­cled four fur­ther kilo­me­tres to the Bel­gian bor­der. With­out for­mal­i­ties I en­tered Bel­gium, cir­cum­nav­i­gated a round­about, and re­turned to France. La Meuse à Vélo would con­tinue for 700 kilo­me­tres fur­ther north. Af­ter pass­ing through Liège the river fol­lows the Dutch-bel­gian bor­der and then turns west, be­fore fi­nally en­ter­ing the Rhine-meuse delta.

From now on, the life-force of the Grand Est re­gion, that I had en­joyed from in­fancy to ma­tu­rity, would be known as the Maas.

The cy­cle route fol­lows the canal on the way to Haybes

The Fortress of Charlemont at the river­side town of Givet

ABOVE: La Porte Chaussée, the 14th cen­tury gate into Ver­dun;INSET: The spec­tac­u­lar river bend of Les Boucles de MeuseRIGHT: Mark’s bi­cy­cle parked against a route-mark­ing sign­post near Haybes

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