Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Monday, August 27 French Cottage for Nine Days

After a sound sleep, we wake to a beautiful sunny day. Dick is up by 8AM and drives to the little village up the road, Varennes en Argonne, for fresh pastries, bread and diesel. Our credit cards are not accepted in the European "Ghost" (unmanned) service stations and a nice young man in the store offers to use his own credit card to buy our gas (€65) and Dick gives him the cash.

We have breakfast and decide we will drive up Bouillon, Belgium on the River Semois stopping at several WWI sites along the way. Carolyn packs us a lunch and we take off on a route that roughly parallels the Meuse River which is absolutely beautiful country side. Our first planned stop after stumbling on a small rather depressing German cemetery

is the beautiful but somber American Cemetery at Meuse-Argonne. The US did their part of the fighting in the greater Verdun area. The US was late to enter the war, 1918, but it still took its toll on US lives. The the Meuse/Argonne Offensive fighting lasted some 45 days and the US suffered over 100,000 men wounded missing in action or killed. Of the 25,000 plus dead, many are buried in this cemetery.


Not far from the cemetery, Dick checks out the small village, Coumy, where a soldier won a Medal of Honor for taking out German machine gun nest and allowing the army to advance.
Next we visit a hill top village, Dun d' Meuse, with a commanding view of the Meuse, and a 14th century stone church.
A little further up the Meuse we cross over an old triple-ached stone bridge to see another small village, Sassy s' Meuse with an 11th century church. The steple is wood made to look like stone. Interestingly the clocks on both chruches are working.

OK, so much for quaint villages and old churches, the next stop is near Villy to check out part of the Maginot Line. This is the Villy-La Ferte fortification.


This line of strongholds across northeastern France was built to protect the French from another invasion from Germany, but it didn’t work; the Germans just went around the unfinished line. It is about 1PM so we also take time for a lunch break. While we are eating a man comes and opens the bunker for tours. The first one starts at 2:15PM so we stay for it. The inside is interesting though of course the tour is in French so Dicks has to give Carolyn a commentary on what we are seeing; this is right up his alley even if it is in French! We see Block 1

and the guide is ready to take us down and through a 300 meter tunnel to Block 2, which we saw at a distance from above. There are lots of steps and Carolyn declines. Dick decides he has seen enough so we head on to our final destination, Bouillon.

This is a beautiful part of France; hilly, heavily wooded in parts with working water ways and nice recreational areas. Bouillon is just across the border in Belgium. The town first appears in history in 988. Later Godfry of Bouillon who lead the first crusade to Jerusalem in 1096 built a fortified castle on the hill top. There is an upper town just below the castle on the hillside and a beautiful medieval town along both sides of the river. We stop at an old resort hotel for a drink and rest stop then go up to the castle and find a pin for Jack.

It is now after 5PM and the GPS says we are over 1 1/2 hours from home the shortest way. Trusting the GPS to get us home Dick hits enter and we are off! For the next hour plus, we have no clue where we are. Most of the time we are surrounded by either dense forest
or beautiful fields, beside one, we find a marker for one of the US WWI Divisions,
on roads barely wide enough for one car. Fortunately we don’t meet any one except some tractors. Of course, along the way we find another War memorial in another little village. 

As the sun begins to set we arrive home. Cocktail time is a bit late tonight, Carolyn gets dinner started with some things we got at a nice grocery we found at some point today and we sit out on the patio and enjoy a drink. It has been a pleasant day....reminiscent of the wonderful days we had in Italy in 2009. So far we are doing fine in a country where no one seems to speak any English. We who speak no French speak more French than the locals speak English. FUN!

Sunday, August 26 On to the French Battlefields and Verdun

Today is longest travel day until we get back to the states and head for home. As the crow flies it is probably a four hour drive, but we are making a big loop to see some historic battlefields that Dick has always wanted to see. We are up and on the road a little after 8. It is really raining, but we have a ways to go before we are at the first site so maybe it will clear off.

The first couple of hours is done on the motorway down through Lille and over toward Calais. West of Bethume we leave the fast moving highway and start our trek on the narrow local roads in the general direction of Abbeville.
Our first stop is in a cute little village to check out a small church and the village monument to the WWI dead from the village. The place has about ten old, typically French country houses and the monument lists 11 dead ranging in age from 18 to 43...probably all the men able to fight! This scene is repeated over and over again as we head through rural France.

The next stop is our first battlefield, Azincourt, one of the later battles of the Hundred Years War between England and France. This is the site where King Henry V’s smaller force defeated the French on October 25, 1415; thanks to the unerring accuracy and power of the English archers and their long bows. There is a nice museum with a multimedia production that sets the stage for the battle. There are all sorts of artifacts that have been found in the battlefield.
Then we drive the loop around the field and actually down a road that is right where the two armies met and the slaughter took place.

It is now about 1PM and we are on the French coast; we need to be in Verdun this evening. There are still two sites Dick wants to see in the area, but he is concerned that we have a time problem. Carolyn says go for it. We have the gites owner’s phone number and have told them we will be late. Plus Carolyn is really enjoying the French countryside!

So on to Crecy which is south of Azincourt. This battle was fought on August 26, 1346, in the early part of the Hundred Years War between Edward III of England and Philip VI of France There is a museum in town, but the town is blocked off for some kind of festival. So, we follow the signs to the battlefield which is what Dick wants to see anyway. There is a tower so you can get up high enough to see the field, but that is it.

The festival must have something to do with the battle because there are people giving wagon rides dressed in period costume on the edge of the battlefield. But this is France so we haven’t a clue! No wait, it is August 26, 2012. Do you think they might be having a Battle of Crecy festival or something? Duuuh!!

Our last stop has to do with the Battle of the Somme. We visited the Somme in 2006 and saw many of the important sites, but didn’t get over this far. Dick sets the GPS for Lochnager Crater. We wind around on very narrow roads and through small villages, each with a War Memorial and finally find the crater site.

There is a very nice memorial to the fallen here.

The explosion happened on July 1, 1916, "The First Day on the Somme" and is remembered every year. As we leave the site we see two young men selling WWI artifacts that have been found in the fields. We pick up a few for gifts. The shell timers make really interesting paper weights!

Once more Dick set the GPS for the gite and we are off. When Carolyn first planned this day she ran the sites through map quest to see how long the drive would be and it was doable. Carolyn doesn’t trust the GPS completely so she is following the progress on the map. We keep bypassing the turns for the motorway that will send us to Verdun at 130km/hr and are creeping along behind campers on narrow two lane roads. Finally we cross under the motorway and head down a parallel local road heading to a St. Quentin. The GPS is telling us it will be nearly 7PM before we reach the gite. We have a little discussion about the way Dick has set the GPS settings; seems as how he has marked no toll ways and all the motorways in France are toll ways! We get that changed instantly and we shave nearly an hour off the arrival time! Dick is in a panic about having to deal with the toll booths. After the first one (there are only two it turns out) it is a no-brainer. Every one in the car is cool and we have an uneventful trip to the gite.
We are to call the owner when we are close. So, about 5:45PM, Dick calls and struggles though a conversation and Carolyn can hear both sides through the phone. He is getting no where until he says "Gite toot suite!" and Carolyn hears "Ahh...oui, arvouir" and a giggle. We all meet at the gite in a few minutes and again struggle through trying to get the details worked out. It takes a while and she finally gets across that the tourist office in Verdun can speak English and leaves shaking her head!

The cottage is nice. It is an old house/barn that was restored in 2006. We have a nice big living/kitchen area, two bedrooms and a bath. It has a nice private back garden and is surrounded by privacy hedge. We will be very comfortable for the next nine days. Now all we need is some groceries. It is Sunday and most everything has been closed. Our only hope is Verdun.

It takes about 30 minutes to get to Verdun...we are surprised...this is a lovely city...lots of interesting, historic things to see. But right now we are looking for a little grocery and place to eat.
We find the second thing first...Chez Mamie. Cuisine Traditionnelle. It is a small place in a residential setting with red trim and red checked table clothes. We go for it. As we enter we are met with rapid fire French, we explain that we don’t have French and she shakes her head, hands us a menu, points to a table and says, "Duex manche." We look at the menu recognizing a few words. The owner/waitress points to a page with a set menu and then points to the black board...we can’t read it (well not very much)! Fortunately for us there is an American foursome sitting next to us and one of the men speaks some French. He explains about the serving options and the people tell us what they ordered all of which looks wonderful. Dick orders the salmon off the set menu and Carolyn has a huge salad with some hot salmon and some kind of potatoes added to it. WOW!!! It is the best meal of the trip so far and only €36! We visit with the people next to us...a young couple, the man’s Aunt and Grandfather who is 87. They are taking the Grandfather to places he remembers from WWII.

After a dessert of cream brulee we drive back through town and stumble onto a small grocery. With milk, eggs, butter and a few other staples, we head back to the cottage and fall into bed.

Saturday, August 25 On to Delft and Ghent

We wake up about 8AM. It is cloudy this morning and really looks like it will rain. Carolyn gets the luggage packed; Dick packs all the electronics. He goes to the lobby about 9AM for two large cups of their great hot chocolate...we wish we could take the machine with us! For breakfast we have the sweet rolls we found yesterday and the hot chocolate. Afterwards we check out and take a taxi to the Hertz place. It takes about 30 minutes to get the car and another 15 minutes for Dick to get things set to his liking.

The GPS is set for Delft, our first stop, but by the time we get on the road it is raining in earnest. Fortunately it doesn’t take long to get into the country side. We never got over to the windmill in Amsterdam, but we soon begin seeing them out in the fields. Several are actually working. About 2/3 of the way to Delft we see three windmills in a row along what looks to be a levee or canal. Since the rain has stopped, Dick takes the next exit off the motor way and he works his way back in the direction of the windmills. Low and behold we find the road that leads right to them. The one closest to the road looks like it is someone’s home. The setting is very bucolic...and just a few miles from several major metropolitan areas.

We head on into Delft and see the sign for the Delft factory so we make a stop. We have a private tour and learn some very interesting things about how the china is made.

After a visit to the showroom we head on into Delft and find a handicapped parking space near the main square. It is lunch time so we head to the square which is the medieval center of Delft. Just as we get there the heavens open up!
Fortunately it doesn’t rain long and we don’t get too wet as we stand under a shop awning. As soon as the rain does let up, we walk over a little stream into the square and find a cafĂ© for a bite of lunch. While we wait for our ham and cheese and salmon sandwiches, Carolyn walks around.
It is a pretty little village with the Saturday market in full swing. We barely finish our lunch before it is time to either feed the meter or head on to Ghent.

Back on the motor way it takes almost two hours to get to Ghent and another 30 minutes to weave our way through the narrow, one-way, medieval streets to the Ghent Marriott which is in the center of the historic district and our stop for the night. Thank goodness for a GPS!!! We are lucky and get upgraded to a canal room with a great view of the main canal and all the old buildings and church steeples...wonderful!
The people at the front desk give us a map and show us all the places we need to visit and inform us that we can pick up the canal-boat right out side the back door of the hotel. After putting things in the room, we head out to check out the city of Ghent.

Outside on the canal in front of the hotel there is a rowing festival going on. Crowds of people cheering the various groups as they row by.
There is also a bandstand set up with a band and beer bar. Our first stop is a boat ride...very interesting...lots of wonderful old buildings, churches

and bridges

plus the castle built by Philips of Alsace, Count of Flanders, in 1180, lining the banks.
It rains while we are out, but fortunately the boat has umbrellas. After the canal ride, the sun comes out as we walk to the main square, through narrow medieval streets, seeing the Belfry and Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.

Ghent is in the final stages of building a modern transit center in the center of the main square. It really looks out of place...seems like they could have designed one more in keeping with the style of the beautiful old buildings. Personally we think it will be an eyesore when finished. Yes, the city needs modern transportation but the station doesn’t have to be modern looking on the outside!

Our feet are killing us again...the cobble stones are not kind to them! Carolyn makes one last stop to find Jack a pin and finds a bonanza of delicate Belgium lace items. Back at the hotel we watch as the rowing events end and soon the water front is quiet and empty.

We enjoy a cocktail. Dinner tonight is at a little Italian place across the canal from the hotel. The price is very reasonable and the food is good!