Charleville-Mézières (pop. 55,000) is the capital of the département des Ardennes. It was created by the administrative merger of Charleville with Mézières in 1966.
The oldest part of the twin city is Mézières, a stronghold famously defended by the Chevalier Bayard (1476-1524) against the troops of Emperor Charles V of Habsburg in 1521.
Charleville owe its name to Charles I Gonzague (1580-1637), Duke of Nevers and of Rethel, who decided on 6 May 1606 to found a new capital for his principality of Arches, to rival with Sedan, another princely capital. For this, he commissioned the architect Clément II Métezeau, brother of Louis Métezeau, who designed the Place des Vosges in Paris.
From the 19th century, the city developed thanks to weapon manufacturing and the steel industry. Nevertheless, it ironically suffered from each of the great military conflict between France and Germany, in 1870, and during the two World Wars. The townhall of Mézières was destroyed during WWI, and rebuilt in 1933 in the Art Deco style. During WWII, the place de Nevers was burnt to the ground.
The most famous son of Charleville is the precocious poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). In 2004, his family house (nicknamed La Maison des ailleurs) was converted into a memorial.
The Ducal Square (Place Ducale), built by Clément Métezeau in 1606, is the indisputable highlight of the city. It was commissioned by Charles I, Duke of Mantua and Montferrat, nephew of King Henry IV of France.
This large arcaded square bears a striking resemblance to Place des Vosges in Paris, which is often called its "sister square". The explanation is that Place des Vosges was designed by Louis Métezeau, the very brother of Clément Métezeau, who built Place Ducale in Charleville. The two squares even share some dimensions. Place Ducale is 127m in length (90m in width), which is the exact width of Place des Vosges (140m in length). The Parisian square was constructed from 1606 to 1612, and was therefore inspired by the Place Ducale, not the other way round.
The second big sight in town is the Hôtel de Ville (town hall). The old town hall having been destroyed with half of the city by German bombardments in 1918, a new one was rebuilt from 1930 to 1933 in the Neo-gothic style, with a belfry, as was the custom in nearby Belgium and the Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
The late Gothic Basilica of Our Lady (Basilique Notre-Dame) was erected in the early 16th century. It hosted the wedding ceremony of King Charles IX and Elisabeth of Austria in 1570.
The Royal Engineering School of Mézières (École royale du génie de Mézières), now home to the prefectural government, was founded in 1748, and educated almost all the military engineers in France until the French Revolution.
Other places of interest include the old ramparts of Mézières, the medieval Saint-Lié-de-Mohons Church, the 19th-century Saint-Rémi Church, the Place de l'Agriculture where Rimbaud studied at the Saint-Sépulcre College, the Rimbaud Museum, and the local Ardenne Museum.
How to get there
Charleville-Mézières is on the E46 motorway, 80km from Reims and 15km from Sedan. The Belgian border is only 20km away.
Since June 2007, the new TGV-Est line operates between Paris and Metz in only 1h35min, instead of 2h30min for regular trains. Charleville-Mézières is 15 to 30min away from Sedan, and 50 min from Reims. There is no direct train connection with Belgium or Luxembourg.
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