Come and walk along the battlefields in France and Belgium – the pleasures as well as the history
National road trip day was last week and the 77th anniversary of D-Day is approaching June 6, so now is a good time to share a remarkable family road trip we did in June 2019. route 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 to a walk through some of the main European battlefields of the world wars, in Belgium and France, ending 10 days later in Paris. Come.
We set off from Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris, in our large Volvo, along a now peaceful countryside dotted with pretty old towns. the Picardy region, extends north of the Parisian suburbs and the Champagne vineyards to the beaches of the Baie de Somme on the English Channel.
We first wanted to stop at the Wagon de Compiègne, the train car in which both the armistice of November 11, 1918 and the armistice of June 22, 1940 were signed. For many Germans – including Adolf Hitler – the signing 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 the jet lag. We were so tired that day that we also misdirected the GPS and headed back to the airport, and another four hours of driving. It’s life! (And a reminder to relax after an overseas flight.)
We visited the pretty town of Laon, high on a hill above the fields. then i went up to Lille, “The Capital of Flanders”, known for its culture and Flemish roots.
We spent three nights in Lille and planned to take the train the next day to Ghent, or maybe Brussels – so we chose a hotel near the station. Instead, we decided to sleep and take some time to explore the area further. We were shaken by the mistakes of the day before.
Finally refreshed, we headed to Ypres in the west of Belgium, a large city of fabric weaving in the Middle Ages. Along with Bruges and Ghent, he practically controlled Flanders in the 13th century. Ypres (Dutch: Ieper, both pronounced “eeper”) has wonderful architecture and a troubled past.
Three major World War I battles took place near here; the most famous, the Battle of Passchendaele from July to November 1917. The Great War Museum in a former medieval fabric factory near the cathedral provides perspective.
We bought a map at the museum and took the tour to see where the battles were going. We meandered through poppy fields that were once scenes of bloody warfare, and thought about and talked about life near cemeteries and solemn monuments, and along peaceful meadows.
In Ypres, we made sure to attend the Last Post ceremony, which takes place every night at 7 p.m. at the Menin Gate, which bears the names of more than 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient in World War I, and whose graves are unknown.
The next day we went from nearby Lille Bruges, the capital of West Flanders in northwestern Belgium, the popular city with a fairy-tale center filled with canals, cobbled streets and medieval buildings. In Burg Square, the 14th-century Stadhuis (Town Hall) has an ornate carved ceiling. Nearby, Markt Square has a 13th-century belfry with a 47-bell chime and a tower with panoramic views.
We stayed for dinner to clear the crowds and walked around afterwards. I recommend staying in Bruges, to spend early morning and evening, the best times to avoid the crowds.
The next day we went to Amiens, in France, and stayed there for two nights. This university town has an exceptional Gothic cathedral, gardens floating on its canals and the Maison de Jules Verne, the home of the 19th century novelist, now a museum.
The next day we toured the site of WWI battles including the Battle of the Somme in 1916, one of the most important of the First World War and one of the bloodiest in all of human history.
British forces suffered more than 57,000 casualties – including over 19,000 soldiers killed – on the first day of the battle alone. In the small town of Peronne, an excellent museum of the Great War is located in a castle, illustrating the battles nearby.
The next day we stopped Rouen, a port city on the Seine and the capital of the northern France region of Normandy. Rouen was important during Roman times and the Middle Ages, and has a cobbled pedestrian center with medieval half-timbered houses. The horizon is dominated by the spiers of Notre-Dame cathedral, very painted by the impressionist Claude Monet.
Joan D’Arc, a national heroine, was burned at the stake here, and of The Crowned, the oldest inn in France, where we had lunch, we could see this famous 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 story of a famous woman.
On the way to our next accommodation, we stopped at Honfleur, prettiest port in Normandy, on the estuary where the Seine meets the Channel. The Vieux-Bassin (old port) is lined with townhouses from the 16th to the 18th century and was painted by artists such as Monet and his son, Eugène Boudin. Nearby is the 15th-century Church of St. Catherine, a vaulted wooden structure erected by shipbuilders.
We rode a carousel, walked around for a bit to enjoy the scene, then we went to Bayeaux, 10 kilometers from the Channel coast. The medieval city center includes cobbled streets, half-timbered houses and the imposing Norman Gothic Notre-Dame cathedral.
The famous Bayeux tapestry, an 11th century tapestry depicting the Norman invasion of England in 1066, is on display in an 18th century seminary and has lived up to its reputation.
We spent a whole day experiencing the most recent invasion: the moving sites of Omaha Beach, the American Cemetery, the War Museum and the surrounding cannon batteries and the remains of D-Day and the difficult battles of WWII.
After this moving visit, the next morning, we decided not to go to Mont St Michel, a lot of route, before returning 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 public holiday. Around the Champs-Elysées, traffic was indeed biting.
When we got to our favorite little hotel on the Left Bank, we dropped the car off and had a lovely few days in Paris. (This 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 are looking for, and enjoy the trip and the destinations – mistakes, detours and all.