Thursday, May 19, 2022

Road-Tripping Through The Battlefields Of France And Belgium: Trenches, Beaches, History, Charm – Forbes

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We’re getting back to traveling in Europe, so it’s a good time to share a remarkable family road trip we took in June, 2019. Perhaps it will inspire you to take to the road this summer, to explore and enjoy.
My son Cary is a history buff, so my husband Bill and I invited him and his partner Zhanna on a drive through some of the major European battlefields of the World Wars, in Belgium and France, ending 10 days later in Paris. Come along.
We started out from Paris’ Charles DeGaulle airport, in our big Volvo, along a now peaceful countryside studded with lovely, ancient towns. The region of Picardy, stretches north from the suburbs of Paris and vineyards of Champagne to the beaches of the Bay of Somme on the English Channel.
We wanted to first stop at The Compiègne Wagon, the train carriage in which both the Armistice of November 11, 1918 and the Armistice of June 22, 1940 were signed. To many Germans – Adolf Hitler included – the signings in the forest of Compiègne was the ultimate betrayal and a national humiliation.
But we couldn’t find the site. Things happen on road trips, as in life, especially with jet-lag. We were so tired that day that we also misdirected the GPS and wound up back at the airport, an extra four hour drive. C’est la vie! (And a reminder to take it easy after an overseas flight.)
We did visit the pretty town of Laon, high on a hill over the fields. and then drove up to to Lille, “The Capital des Flandres,” known for culture and Flemish roots.
Laon, France
We stayed in Lille for three nights, and planned to take the train the next day to Ghent, or maybe Brussels — so we chose a hotel near the train station. We decided instead to sleep in, and take some time off and just explore the local area more. We were shaken by the mistakes of the previous day.
Finally refreshed, we drove to Ypres in western Belgium, a major cloth-weaving city in the Middle Ages. Together with Bruges and Ghent it virtually controlled Flanders in the 13th century. Ypres (Dutch: Ieper, both pronounced “eeper”) has wonderful architecture and a troubled past.
Three major battles of the First World War took place near here; the most famous, the Battle of Passchendaele from July—November 1917. The Great War Museum in a former medieval cloth factory near the cathedral gives perspective.
Zhanna in a poppy field that once ran red with blood
We purchased a map at the museum and followed the circuit to see where battles took place. We meandered in poppy fields that once were scenes of bloody warfare, and thought and talked about life near solemn cemeteries and monuments, and along peaceful meadows.
At Ypres we made sure to attend the Last Post Ceremony, held every evening at 7 pm at the Menin Gate, which bears the names of more than 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient of World War I, and whose graves are unknown.
An old soldier at The Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate
The next day we drove from Lille to nearby Bruges, the capital of West Flanders in northwest Belgium, the popular city with a fairy-tale center filled with canals, cobbled streets and medieval buildings. In Burg square, the 14th-century Stadhuis (City Hall) has an ornate carved ceiling. Nearby, Markt square features a 13th-century belfry with a 47-bell carillon and tower with panoramic views.
Bruges, Belgium
We stayed for dinner so that the crowds would thin, and walked around after. I recommend staying right in Bruges, to spend early morning and evening, the best times to avoid crowds.
Next day we drove to Amiens, in France, and stayed two nights. This university city has an outstanding Gothic cathedral, floating gardens on its canals, and the Maison de Jules Verne, the novelist’s 19th-century home, now a museum.
Cary and Zhanna at the canals at Amiens
Next day we drove around the site of World War I battles, including the Battle of the Somme in 1916, one of the largest of World War I, and among the bloodiest in all of human history.
British forces suffered more than 57,000 casualties — including more than 19,000 soldiers killed — on the first day of the battle alone. In the little town of Peronne, an excellent Museum of the Great War is located in a château, illustrating the nearby battles.
Next day we stopped in Rouen, a port city on the river Seine and capital of the northern French region of Normandy. Rouen was important in the Roman era and Middle Ages, and features a cobblestoned pedestrian center with medieval half-timbered houses. The skyline is dominated by the spires of Cathédrale Notre-Dame, much-painted by Impressionist Claude Monet.
Joan D’Arc, a national heroine, was burned at the stake here, and from La Couronne, the oldest inn in France, where we lunched, we could see that famed site across the street. This is the restaurant where Julia Child, the great foodie and cookbook writer had her first meal in France, and the rest is another history of a famous woman.
On our way to our next lodging, we stopped in Honfleur, prettiest port in Normandy, on the estuary where the Seine river meets the English Channel. The Vieux-Bassin (old harbor) is lined with 16th- to 18th-century townhouses, and has been painted by artists including Monet and native son Eugène Boudin. Nearby is 15th-century St. Catherine’s Church, a vaulted timber structure erected by shipbuilders.
Lea in Honfleur
We rode a carousel, strolled a bit to enjoy the scene, and then drove on to Bayeaux, 10 kilometers from the Channel coast. The town’s medieval center contains the towering, Norman-Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame.
The famed Tapisserie de Bayeux, an 11th-century tapestry depicting the 1066 Norman invasion of England, is on display in an 18th-century seminary, and lived up to its reputation.
We spent a full day experiencing the more recent invasion: moving sites of Omaha Beach, the American cemetery, the war museum there and the surrounding gun batteries and remnants of D-Day and the tough battles of World War II.
Omaha Beach, with a remnant from the D-Day battle in 1944.
After this emotional visit, the next morning we decided not to drive to Mont St Michel, quite a haul, before driving back to Paris. A wise decision (unlike our first day, this time we erred on the side of caution), as it was a Friday and a holiday. Around the Champs Elysee, the traffic was indeed nail-biting.
When we arrived at our favorite little hotel on the Left Bank, we dropped off the car, and enjoyed a lovely few days in Paris. (That takes another article. It’s Paris!)
And that gives you an idea of our successful family trip. The independence of a car, along with thoughtfulness and enthusiasm, made it work. Consider a road trip, wherever and whatever you seek, and enjoy the journey as well as the destinations— mistakes, detours and all.


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