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