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Culture

Former Fortress Rolls Out Welcome Mat

Once an impenetrable fortress repelling all invaders in the heart of the French Ardennes, Europe's biggest fortified castle is now luring tourists with offers of nights among the shining armor.

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Seducing tourists with its romantic appeal

After decades of neglect, a three-star hotel opened in August last year within the towering walls of Sedan castle, a medieval compound in north-eastern France close to the Belgium border. Some 40 rooms have been totally refurbished with all the modern comforts of the 21st century confined within the original stone ramparts of the castle which dates back to the 15th century.

"We wanted to offer a real step back into the past," said hotel manager Albert-Jean Ruault, who has also decided that in keeping with the castle's historic atmosphere, cars will soon be banned within its walls.

Burg von Sedan

The restaurant at the Sedan castle

The hotel is not quite finished and by summer another 13 suites and luxury duplexes are due to be opened, as well as several conference rooms and a restaurant. Medieval paintings adorn the massive inner stone walls in the castle which with its 35,000 square meters (377,000 sq. feet) is said to be the largest in Europe.

Romantic ambience

"We have lots of clients from Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Britain and Holland," said Ruault, who reckons their occupancy rate has been some 63 percent in the first six months of business.

Die Ardennen

Clients are drawn by the castle's stunning location, towering above the town of Sedan on the banks of the river Meuse, as well as being seduced by the romance of staying in a castle dating back more than 500 years. "There are other hotels in French castles, but few are older than the 18th century, and there are some castles in Germany which have been turned into hotels. But it's pretty unique to have one in a medieval fortified castle," he added.

Medieval weekends are organized in the hotel, featuring banquets from the era complete with minstrels, falconers and jugglers. And in May, Sedan will host its 10th medieval festival across the town with jousting, competitions and encampments.

"We didn't have enough high-quality establishments in this area," said former mayor Jean-Paul Bachy, who is hoping that the Ardennes can shake off its image as just a place to transit through on the way to other tourist spots in France.

Saving Sedan from ruin

Ruault said the hotel project, undertaken by France Patrimoine, a company specializing in constructing hotels in historic monuments, virtually saved the castle from falling into ruin. The property of the army until 1962, the castle was then handed over to the town hall for one symbolic franc. A vote was held at the time on whether to save the castle or raze it to the ground. The protectionists won the day by only one vote.

But then in the 1990s, the castle was virtually abandoned due to a lack of funds. "Three or four years ago it was a ruin," recalled Ruault. Thanks to EU funding, and the mobilization of local investors, building work to repair and save the castle finally began at the end of 2002, a welcome shot in the arm for local businesses.

"There were lots of constraints. We had to preserve the exterior as it was, the size of the windows, the color of the walls, and we had to find local materials and stone to replace those that were missing," said Ruault.

Today the hotel covers about one third of the castle, which welcomes some 60,000 visitors a year to its remaining museum buildings, part of which are also to be restored in the coming

years.

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