Hey folks! It’s taken me some time, but I am finally getting around to finishing my story of this past year’s Eurotrip. The year of 2016 is rapidly coming to a close, so I really wanted to get this done before New Year’s. After all, this trip marked the centennial of the Battle of the Somme, Beaumont Hamel, and many other World War I events. Leaving it until next year just seemed wrong.
Picking up where I left off, my family and I witnessed some really amazing things during the first week that we were in Normandy. Our visit coincided with the 72nd anniversary of the D-Day and the Liberation of Normandy. And once we had finished witnessing these, visited the D-Day beaches, taking part in the commemorative ceremony at Grangue, and paying our respects to my great-uncle Wilmott, we got in some last-minute visits and started carrying on to Belgium and Holland.
Our first stop after the ceremony at Grangues was to the town of Cabourg, located on the Normandy coast overlooking the English Channel. This place is famous for being a the favorite hangout of French writer Marcel Proust, and is the home of many waterfront hotels and casinos. Personally, I felt it was a bit Niagra Falls-esque, that is to say, a bit tacky. But we still got in a lovely walk along the waterfront (Promenade Marcel Proust) and enjoyed some lunch at the famous Grand Hotel Cabourg.
Upon returning to Grangues, we packed up and got ready for the next part of our adventure, which included stops in the border towns of Amiens and Albert…
During the Great War (aka. World War I), Amiens found itself being on the front-lines of battle. Between 1914 and 1918, it was occupied by both the Germans and the Allied forces. And the Battle of Amiens (1918) was the beginning of the Hundred Days Offensive, where Allied troops (led by the Canadian Corps) began pushing the Germans out of France completely and back through Belgium. In World War II, it was heavily bombed by the British Air Force and suffered immense damage. After the liberation, the city was rebuilt and has gone on to become a very modern urban environment.
Once we arrived, we checked in at a Best Western, located next to a park where a big ol’ monument honoring Charles de Gaulle and the French resistance stood. From there, we set off on foot to the old part of the city to see the Cathedral and take in some of the local culture. The Cathedral Amiens was quite the sight, as it is the tallest classic Gothic churches in France, and is today recognized as a World Heritage Site.
The interior was quite amazing and we took many pictures. We also got treated to images like the one above that showed how the Cathedral was fortified during the war. After a few hours inside, we stepped out into the courtyard and enjoyed some sour ale at a bar sitting right next to it (my wife and folks were not fans of it!) By dinner time, we enjoyed some rather lackluster burgers at another joint that honestly had horse meat on the menu (steak cheval, I kid you not!)
That night, we didn’t all sleep so well. My wife and I had a cramped room that was tucked in the inner corner of the building, and the heat was sweltering. I opened the room’s only window, but she feared a pigeon would fly in (a realistic anxiety, since they seemed to be nesting right outside). As such, we basically tossed and turned and got a very restless sleep. By morning, we weren’t so happy. But we soldiered on to our next destination!
After taking our breakfast in the downstairs dining hall and continued on to our destination for the day – the border town of Albert. Here was another historic town that was on the front lines during World War I, specifically during the Battle of the Somme. It also boasts an impressive cathedral – the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières – that saw its share of action as well. And today, it has an impressive WWI museum that is major draw.
To give you a little history lesson, the Basilica dates back to the 19th century and was built in the Byzantine tradition. Its tower features a gold statue, known as the “Golden Virgin”, which shows the Virgin Mary holding forth a baby Jesus. On January 15th, 1915 – while French, British and German forces were battling for control of the border region – a shell struck the tower and bent it to a near-horizontal position. There it would remain for years to come, and a popular mythology quickly emerged, claiming that whoever knocked it over would be the side that would lose the war.
By the time of the German Spring Offensive of 1918, British shelling destroyed the church. And after the war, like every other town and landmark in the region, the Basilica was rebuilt, complete with the statue of the Golden Virgin on top. Another thing which survived the war was an underground tunnel that sits beneath the cathedral, where wounded were brought when the town was on the front lines. Today, that tunnel serves as a museum, where rooms that sat to the sides of the tunnel are now displays showing equipment and recreated scenes of the war.
Unfortunately, I have no pictures from the tunnels to post, so my meager descriptions will have to do. For one, despite being brightly painted and well-lit, they retain an undeniable sense of claustrophobia. The entire time I was wandering through them, I felt the oppressive feeling that comes from being underground and there only being a few feet between one wall and the other. This really helps to impress upon you how awful it must have been during the war, when the entire place would have been lit by gas lamps or a few bulbs and it was overcrowded with wounded soldiers, nurses and equipment.
Once you get the other end, there is a lovely shop that sells lots of (what I assume were) historical recreations – helmets, bullets, badges, uniforms. I have heard tell that some people have retrieved various war artifacts from their fields, or have memorabilia lying around the house, and have chosen to sell them. However, the stuff we saw seemed in too good of shape to be a century old.
Speaking of which, we also took this day to visit Beaumont Hamel, the memorial where the Newfoundland Regiment suffered terrible losses during the Battle of the Somme. We had missed the centennial celebrations, which took place a few days before on July 1st, 2016, which was a bit of a blessing. According to the tour guides, the place was packed to capacity, with people even standing in the fields (which are usually off-limits due to worries of there still be unexploded ordinance).
Like last time, before going to the site, we stopped in at Avril’s Tea Room for some eats. This consisted of chocolate milk (the powdered-chocolate mix and milk, which you have to keep stirring if you don’t want a mouth of powder!) and some slices of quiche with bacon (very salty!). Luckily, one of Avril’s cats was doing the rounds and helped me eat some of the bacon bits.
This was followed by a quick demonstration in a neighboring field, where I showed my parents my latest Taekwon-Do pattern. We all used to train together, and got our Third Degree Black Belts at the same time (1997). However, they quit a few years later and I’ve been training (and keeping them in the loop with occasional demonstrations) ever since. We then visited a farmer’s field that sits next to Beaumont Hamel because my father wanted to see if he could find a crater that he had read about.
Unfortunately, we never found the crater. The field was dense with what we took to be rye and was pretty much impenetrable. And after fearing that were dangerously close to trespassing, we fell back aways and started looking in a plot that was mostly dirt for some shrapnel. As I explained from our last trip, shrapel and unexploded ordinance often turns up in fields throughout Flanders. This, more than monuments and grave sites, lets you know just how totally the landscape was altered by the war years.
And much like the last time we went digging – outside of Langemark cemetery in Belgium – we seriously hit a motherload here! Within minutes of searching, we found several large pieces of metal that bore markings that indicated that they were from an artillery shell. And my father found several shrapnel balls that were still intact! We packed this up in a little bag, and then proceeded to Beaumont Hamel.
As I described it last time, the site is a preserved battlefield. Though it is now grown over with grass, the field still bears the marks of war. As you enter, you see where the British and Newfoundland troops (then part of the Commonwealth and not Canada), were stationed. When you spot the key locations, like the danger tree, and the German lines at the far side of the field, you come to understand how staggeringly wasteful the First World War was. Thousands of men died within the space of a few minutes, and on a stretch of land measuring not much longer than a football field.
We got to see more of it this time, walking from one end to the other. This included all the grave sites and monuments that dot the field, the British and Commonwealth lines, the German lines, and the visitor center. And with this visit complete, we proceeded on to our next (and possibly favorite) destination!
This town is one that captured the hearts of my wife and I after our first visit in 2014. In fact, it would be fair to say it captured my heart long before I visited, thanks to my fathers descriptions of this town, its people and its deep connection to the events of WWI. In fact, I think I spoke so at length of these in my posts about our 2014 visit that I almost feel like nothing more needs to be said.
Psyche! Okay, so we turned up in Ypres midway through our trip. And we checked back into the hotel that served us so well last time. This would be the local Albion, which endeared itself to us in large part because of their awesome breakfasts! I can’t emphasize enough how wonderful a good Belgian breakfast is. Seriously, it combines the best aspects of a French and German breakfast – hard boiled eggs, meats, cheese, muesli, yogurt, croissants, bread and bakes goods, jams and spreads, and lots of butter! And the coffee is none too shabby either!
We had already laid out which places we wanted to see – the In Flanders Fields Museum, the Menin Gate, the Market Place during Market Day (Saturday), the British Grenadier Bookshop, the medieval walls, and of course the many monuments and cemeteries that are in driving distance from the town.
The wife and I also took the opportunity to go for a job around the wall which guards the old part of town. We had done this the last time we visited – in 2014 – and wanted to see more of it. After running along the part that follows the canal, we ran across the bridge, around the other side through one of the wall’s main gates, and then farther around to the section of the old city that the wall doesn’t encompass.
After that, we had a nice meal near the Cathedral that sits next to the In Flander’s Fields museum, where I discovered a new type of food (Flemish Stew, which is cubed beef is a rich ale gravy, usually served with salad and mashed potatoes) and a new beer (Keizer Karel, a nice Belgian Blond ale), both of which I loved!
But the greatest jaunt we made was definitely to the Vimy Monument, commemorating the battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. Visiting this place is tantamount to to a holy pilgrimage for Canadians, as it commemorates the battle that effectively defined Canada as a nation. Once again, we took the underground tour, passing into the tunnels that the Canadian and British used before the battle in an attempt to place mines under the German trenches. As the craters in the region can attest, the resulting explosions were quite large!
One thing I absolutely must include is the story of my mother’s lost purse, and the story of our lunch. I cannot impress upon people enough how excellent French culture is at doing a simple lunch. Pull into any roadside bakery, get yourselves some subs made with French baguettes – they have all kinds of interesting options, from sliced meet to curried chicken or pesto and veggies – and grab some delicious baked goods for desert. This time around, we all got assorted baguette subs and some delicious apple tarts (my mother got a pistachio cream goodie). We bought these before going to the monument and then ate at the picnic area afterwards.
We packed up to leave after all that, got back tot he hotel, and realized my mother left her purse behind. We called the staff at the monument only to find that they were closed for the day. So my folks went back to look for it. As it turns out, there was an RV parked by the picnic area. When my folks returned, the nice couple who owned it (a lovely French Canadian couple) had picked it up and were holding it in case we returned. When they saw my folks, they let them know it was safe and sound and turned it over.
That was a load of my folks minds, let me tell you. They were already dealing with the stress of knowing that one of their beloved cats (Beethoven, their oldest), had broken his leg in an accident (he’s doing fine, btw). With all that complete, we retired back to town for a quiet dinner and a nice sleep. On the next day, we made for our next stop on the tour.
That consisted of seeing locations in central Belgium, Holland, and then our return to France. All of which will be covered in Part the Last!