France’s Pays Rethélois may not be one of the best known regions in the country, but to those in the know, it is a haven of spectacular countryside and memorable museums and architecture.
Midway between the vineyards of France’s Champagne region and the forests of the Ardennes massif, the Pays Rethélois’ lush valleys and ancient towns are a favourite with nature lovers and bird watchers captivated by the sight of migratory birds in the area’s wild forests. Walkers and others are simply drawn to the area as a chance to disconnect from city life amidst the beauty of the countryside.

The area’s many walking routes include two parts of the Way of Saint James – the GR624 and Via Campaniensis – and thanks to the support of local conservation groups, these are clearly signposted with geographic and historical details.

Another highlight of the countryside is a special trail following the haunts of French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud.

Countryside and culture in France’s Pays Rethélois

Following in the footsteps of poet Paul Verlaine

One of the key visits on the ‘Rimbaud Verlaine’ route, dedicated to Paul Verlaine and his equally famous lover, the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, is the Musée Verlaine in the small village of Juniville.

When the 33-year-old Verlaine arrived in the small town of Rethel in 1877, he was already a cause celèbre and famous, not to say infamous, not just as a hugely successful poet but also thanks to the scandal caused by his affair with Rimbaud. Their stormy break-up had culminated in Verlaine shooting his lover in the wrist with a pistol, and this was swiftly followed by Verlaine’s subsequent prison sentence.

After periods of exile in both Belgium and England, as well as divorce from his wife, Verlaine sought a quieter life in Rethel and spent the next two years teaching literature and English at the town’s Notre Dame de Rethel (now the Collège Sorbon).

During Verlaine’s time in Rethel, in addition to teaching, he also continued writing poetry and articles for the local newspaper, le Courrier des Ardennes. His poetry was mainly written at an inn – L’Auberge du Lion d’Or in Juniville – some 15 kilometres from Rethel, where he finished Sagesse (Wisdom), the collection which marked his return to Catholicism.

The inn is now home to the Musée Verlaine, which is very much designed to feel as though Verlaine himself has only just left the room. With furniture just as it was in Verlaine’s day, the poet’s walking stick and hat still lie ready and waiting in their place.

However, the museum is not solely a museum but also a cultural space with exhibitions of photography and modern art as well as pop, rock and jazz concerts. In 2013, it was awarded ‘Maisons des Illustres’ status – the French award which is somewhere between a blue plaque and an English Heritage or National Trust seal of approval.

Asfeld – home to one of France’s most extraordinary churches

The extraordinary Baroque church of Saint-Didier d’Asfeld in Asfeld is one of the most surprising, lesser known treasures, of both the Champagne-Ardenne region and indeed France.

Built in the shape of a viola de gamba (the cello-like Baroque musical instrument), the church is remarkable for its lack of straight lines, its colonnaded exterior, domes and oblong cupola; not to mention its exceptional acoustics, which make it perfect as a venue for classical concerts.

Countryside and culture in France’s Pays Rethélois

The L’Agora Pays de Rethélois Mediatheque- Museum

Designed by renowned, Reims-based contemporary architect Giovanni Pace, the striking L’Agora Médiathèque-Musée museum opened in 2018 in a converted farmhouse close to the town centre.

Featuring a vast, low-rise central hall with floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows, the Museum has incorporated the historic stone architecture of the original farm buildings into what is now a highly contemporary structure.

The Museum’s rich and varied collection includes everyday artefacts and objects from daily life and industry in the region from the 19th to the 20th century, as well as archaeological finds, coins, medals and seals, military and religious objects and lithographs.

There are also private bequests from local luminaries such as the 19th and 20th century Rethélois painter Eugène Thiéry, as well as Asiatic objects from the collection of one-time Governor of Indo-China, Paul Luce, and sculptures and paintings from the collection of lawyer Paul Chappe.

Recognised by the French Ministry of Culture as a ‘Museum of France’, the Museum also holds regular educational activities, workshops and events.

Musée Verlaine 1 rue du pont paquis 08310 Juniville. Open from 1 April to 31 October, from Tuesday to Sunday, 2pm to 6pm.

The tenth Edition of the Viola de Gamba Baroque music festival will be held between 26 June and 28 June.

L’Agora Médiathèque-Musée, rond-point de L’Octroi, Rethel
Tel: 00 33 3 24 72 74 85

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