Monthly Archives: September 2016

We Will Remember Them – Part Deux

100 years ago, fierce battles were being fought on French soil to halt the invading German army. In the UK people are familiar with the Battle of the Somme where 420,000 British Commonwealth soldiers lost their lives. Four years ago, I visited the area with my father, who was researching our family history, and we located several graves of our ancestors who died there, as well as their names carved in the many war memorials in the region.

dscf0149However, I never realised that an equally devastating battle was being fought further south in the Marne and Meuse valleys where huge numbers of French and American soldiers lost their lives trying to stop the German advance towards Paris.

I begin my education of the region just outside the town of Fere-en-Tardenois where 6,012 American soldiers are remembered in the Oise-Aisne cemetery. A little further south I find an isolated memorial to the 42nd Rainbow Division of American troops, placed at the site of the Red Cross Farm where a bloody battle took place and where 162 soldiers were killed in July 1918. It’s a shocking reminder of the many fatally injured and dead the war left behind in the area.

optimized-dscf0196Continuing my journey, I stop in the small village of Vraux to see an Aviation Museum . On first inspection it looks like just a few exhibits in someone’s garden but I soon discover that there is a vast collection of aviation objects and memorabilia hidden away in the Tardis-like outbuildings at the back of the property.

optimized-dscf0215optimized-dscf0209

An enthusiastic volunteer explains that just north of the village was a WWII airfield, first used by the British, then the French and finally the Americans. As well as pieces of wartime aircraft, there are photos of the men who were stationed there and stories about the lives, including reconciliation between British and German soldiers and an American airman who was reunited with his long-lost French sweetheart after 43 years. They subsequently married.

Finally, I arrive at Verdun, where 300 days and nights of fighting in 1916 resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000 men. Whilst the town was badly damaged by shelling, it was in the surrounding hills that the main battle was fought. Surrounding the town were several forts and it is possible to visit some them.

optimized-dscf0260

optimized-dscf0266At Fort Douaumont I learn how it was easily captured, without a shot being fired, by a small German patrol early in the Battle of Verdun but how they subsequently suffered great losses during the French attempts to recapture it. 679 German soldiers were killed when a fire broke out within the Fort and caused an explosion of the stored ammunitions. Their bodies were entombed in one of the tunnels below the Fort where they are remembered by a simple white cross.

optimized-dscf0267

Close by is a huge cemetery, topped by a giant building shaped like the hilt of a sword driven into the ground. It is the Douaumont Ossary, where the bones of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers are held. The sight of all the crosses reminds us of just how many died to ensure the freedom which we enjoy in the 21st century.

dscf0248

dscf0241At Fort Vaux I learn about the last messenger pigeon which was sent out with a message requesting reinforcements and which died from poison gas shortly after delivering it. The pigeon in the cartoon series ‘Wacky Races’ and the one in the animated film ‘Valiant’ are loosely based on this story.

Although the Forts and the Memorials are the main focus of a visit to the Verdun Battlefields, sometimes it is the smaller things that remind us of the hardships of war. The remains of trenches, pockmarked ground from artillery shells, destroyed villages and isolated graves marking the discovery of long lost fighters. The town of Verdun today is a vibrant, bustling place with riverside cafes and designer boutiques but the memorials found there serve as daily reminders that 100 years ago life was not always so easy for the residents and the soldiers who defended them.

dscf0251dscf0234

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Will Remember Them.

Advertisements

Chateaux and Champagne

France is well known for its amazing chateaux and its expensive sparkling wine, and within my first week I have sampled them both.

dscf0087Chateau Pierrefonds sits high above the town like a fairy tale castle. Carefully restored in 1857 by Viollet-le-Duc on orders from Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie it seems so extraordinarily perfect that it could be a film set. Indeed it has been used for exactly that purpose during the Leonardo DiCaprio film ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ and the BBC TV series ‘Merlin’, where it represented Camelot.

dscf0064The extremely long Worthies room with its medieval decoration and Viollet-le-Duc’s fantastical gargoyles and statues are the highlights and a cellar full of funerary sculptures is rather spooky and disturbing (they were originally on display at Versailles). Special exhibitions give insight into the architectural restorations of Viollet-le-Duc, who also worked on the Cite of Carcassonne, as well as the world of magic lanterns, which were used to produce ghostly images in theatrical shows at the end of the 19th century.

dscf0130

 

 

Further south, a few kilometres outside the town of Fere-en-Tardenois, I find the old castle which was badly damaged during the revolution and the first world war but is slowly being restored, or at least maintained in its current state. It has a fascinating access via a 16th century two-storey gallery, not unlike the one at Chenonceau but a lot shorter. A complimentary leaflet explains that the original castle was extended by Francois I to impress his guests. Nowadays guests stay at the neighbouring luxury hotel which overlooks the old castle moat.

dscf0156I’m not that fond of champagne and my budget can’t really stretch to a bottle but, as I’m passing through the region, I decide to stop and find out more about the bubbly stuff. My introduction begins at the Epernay Tourist Office at the start of the Avenue du Champagne where top producers, such as Moet and Chandon, have their factories and offer tours which cost as much as a bottle of the end product. Luckily for me, two lesser known producers are offering free tastings in the Tourist Office, and whilst I am not enamoured with the champagne, I do learn some basic facts. 320 champagne houses are allowed to produce over 300 million bottles each year from the grapes grown in the region. Champagne is actually a mix of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes, which surprised me as the latter two are both red grapes and champagne is normally very pale in colour.

dscf0183The next day I visit the Cite du Champagne, a new guided tour offered by the house of Collet. Kevin, a smartly dressed young man who looks more like a visiting banker than a tour guide, takes me down into the cool cellars below the vineyards to explain the process of making champagne. It actually involves three stages, including a double fermentation and an expulsion of the yeast sediment after it has been allowed to settle in the neck of the bottle. Upstairs, a museum houses all manner of traditional equipment used for making champagne and old photographs help to explain how the methods have evolved over the years. However, the grapes are still picked by hand, though these days by Eastern European labourers.

champagne-revolution-1911I also learnt why the Champagne region is strictly controlled and was surprised to learn that it was historical and not economical. In 1911 the local vine growers, already suffering from the devastating phylloxera disease which destroyed many vines in the late 19th century, became unhappy with the local champagne producers who began importing grapes from other regions to make their champagne. On the 11th April up to 6,000 people marched through the streets of Epernay and Ay, torching many of the warehouses, destroying equipment and the stored bottles of champagne. The Maison Gallois (the current site of the Cite du Champagne) was razed to the ground.

In 1927 and 1936 very strict regulations were introduced to restrict the production of champagne to the local region. Luckily there are still plenty of large and small producers to keep their clients happy.

 

The Effects of the EU Referendum

I admit that I was totally shocked by the result of the EU referendum back in June. I really didn’t think that leaving the EU was a possibility. While my colleagues were sobbing in their morning cuppa, I was trying to assess exactly what the impact would be for my future European Tour.

france-spain-borderI am old enough to remember what it was like before we had freedom of movement around Europe, when there were still border posts between neighbouring countries with bureaucratic immigration and customs officials who had nothing better to do than make your life a misery, and when my parents would smuggle crates of cheap beer beneath sleeping children on the back seat. Nowadays the only time I have to show my passport is before and after the ferry crossing between England and France and I can bring back as much wine as my motorhome can carry while the officials spend their time looking for illegal immigrants in HGVs. Travellers can now breeze through the Pyrenees between France and Spain where the only sign of the previous border is a small abandoned kiosk in the middle of the road and taking a ferry between the islands of Sardinia (Italy) and Corsica (France) is as easy as going to the Isle of Wight.

Tuscany WineReports say that it will take some time to extricate ourselves from Europe and probably a lot of money, so I’m not worried about my current tour. Even in the future, I doubt that border formalities will change much from their current state. My bigger concern is that the duty free allowance will be severely reduced, in order that the British Government can claw back some of the cost of Brexit through import taxes.

The major impact for this year is the poor exchange rate between the pound and the euro and I know that my trip will be an expensive one. However, I plan to find as many free places to spend the night as possible and find some good cheap local food along the way.

The most interesting aspect of my journey will be to see the impact of the refugees, escaping from the war in Syria and other unstable nations. We are all too aware of the numbers which have made it to the Greek Islands, such as Lesbos, but I wonder how many I will encounter in mainland Greece or in Sicily. We will see.