Sunday 5 September – Dover to Sangatte:
Stu took off early to drop the car off and walk back. He left his phone behind to charge. Of course he did. It was Father’s Day in Australia and our kids were calling. And, he was gone for ages, which was a bit weird. It’s was to be just a key drop but the depot that was supposed to be closed was open and the guy in front of Stu had a dispute about damage. Lucky my paranoia had meant I’d left plenty of time to catch the ferry. It turned out that if we’d been 10 minutes earlier, they’d have bumped us to the previous ferry.
Dover seems like it could be, or perhaps once was, a nice place, but our impression of it is that it’s quite grotty and unloved. We’ll be back though, because we do want to see that castle.
A taxi ride to the ferry terminal and an uneventful trip across the channel. I enjoy the ferry, though it would be nice not to have to cart all our gear on board. There was supposed to be checked luggage but somehow we missed it. There was a lady on the French side getting cabs for people so we took one to our B&B at Sangatte – Kerloan. It’s lovely. We had a choice of rooms and chose the Pink Room which opens onto the terrace.
A walk around town and I dipped my toe in the English Channel – or perhaps I should say “la Manche”, since I was in France. Too cold for swimming.
We had dinner at the pub next door and managed not to order the horse chops. Stu, I think, would have but he’d probably like our daughter to speak to him again. We chatted with an English couple who had much better French than us. Oh look. Another country where you can take your dog to the pub. Australia: you need to get your act together.
Monday 7 September – Sangatte to Ypres:
Clear blue skies and not too cool. Breakfast was typically French with croissants, baguettes, cheese, yoghurt and more.
We caught a taxi back to Calais to pick up our hire car and meet Stu’s cousin who had decided to travel with us for a few days till she met up with a friend. Figuring out the workings of our little Audi, we were underway and decided to take the coast road for the scenery.
We hadn’t travelled far before we all yelled “Market!”, found somewhere to park and went to buy food. Fruit, tomatoes, pate, smoked ham, cheese, bread. If only our markets at home were like this. There was a yummy lunch right there.
It didn’t take us long to realise it was going to be a slow trip if we stayed on the coast road so, despite the beautiful scenery, we opted for the motorway for the rest of the trip to Etaples.
At the cemetery we found the grave of Stu’s great uncle who was injured at Passchendaele and died at the hospital at Etaples in 1917. This is the largest of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in France, with over 10,000 WWI burials. So we were understandably concerned that we wouldn’t be able to find Uncle Stan and had done quite a lot of research on his grave number and its location in the cemetery. Surprisingly, we needn’t have bothered. This was something we found in all the war cemeteries we visited. There were maps, an index and even a visitors book tucked away in a spot in the wall. But all intact. Sad to say, this wouldn’t have happened in Australia. I’m pretty sure they’d have been vandalised. We were very impressed.
We’d intended to lunch with Uncle Stan but it was way too hot so we took our market-bought picnic to the shade near the Chinese memorial and the Indian graves.
Our next mission for the day was to get to Ypres. Driving down the motorway, at one stage we wondered what the vast expanse of concrete and empty buildings was for. Not very bright, us Aussies. I suddenly noticed the language on the signs had changed and realised that had been the old border crossing.
In Ypres we drove round in circles looking for our Couchsurfing accommodation, which we did eventually find … by accident. We had a few drinks with our host then walked to the Menin Gate for the evening service. The gate is a memorial to British and Australian war dead who have no known graves. It has 56,000 names on it and they ran out of space when they got to 1917. Every night there’s a ceremony and the Last Post is played. Even though none of our family is listed on the wall, it’s a very emotional ceremony. I was surprised how many people were there.
Afterwards we had dinner on the square and enjoyed the mild evening. The city seems so old that it’s hard to believe it was completely destroyed during WWI and then rebuilt (at German expense) from the original Medieval plans.
Tuesday 8 September – Ypres to Amiens:
Our host took us for a walk around part of the rebuilt city wall then left us at the excellent “In Flanders Fields” museum where, as usual, we didn’t have enough time.
After lunch we headed back to France and had to restrain ourselves from stopping at every cemetery we saw.
We couldn’t find any accommodation in Villers-Bretonneux so checked into the “Premier Class” motel. “Premier Class” is potentially the most optimistic euphemism ever, but at €44/night for the 3 of us plus €4.95 each for breakfast we weren’t complaining.
Back in Villers-Bretonneux we visited the Australian Memorial. The internet said the tower was rarely open. The sign at the cemetery said we had to key from the local Gendarmes. The tower was open. Perhaps the Gendarmes were sick of bloody Australians asking for the key and just left it open.
Before heading home for the night we located the French-Australian museum which we’ll visit in the morning.
Wednesday 9 September – Amiens to Passy-Grigny:
Despite the cramped quarters we all slept fairly well. But never again will I complain about the size of the bathrooms on cruise ships. At least the room was dark and quiet. Breakfast was totally ordinary without being awful.
We went straight back to Villers-Bretonneux to the museum, which is a wonderful tribute to the Australians in the Somme. It amazes me at how recently some of the artefacts have been found. One rifle recovered in 2006 was loaded, primed and ready to fire. I guess it wouldn’t have gone off but you never know.
We discovered it was market day so, of course we had to stop. New travel rule: Go to the markets in France. Go to them all. Buy awesome food.
We’d been given a list of “must try” cheeses. They man in the cheese van didn’t speak any English but heard us discussing our list and helped us out with a taste of mimolette. We weren’t too keen on this one and were glad we hadn’t bought it. Then he sold us some Saint-Marcellin, which he said was similar to the Saint-Félicien, and was delicious. He offered us a taste of the brie. We didn’t think this was going to be anything special. After all, we’ve eaten plenty of brie at home. But oh, wow! It was the best any of us had and so, of course, we bought some of that too. We could go broke buying cheese in France.
Villers-Brettoneaux pays tribute to the Australians who fought for the town in WWI. Nowhere is this more obvious that at the Town Hall where the entrance is adorned with 2 kangaroos. It’s quite humbling to experience this collective remembrance.
We finally dragged ourselves away from the market and the food and headed for Albert where we inflicted ourselves on the unsuspecting tourist information centre. Well, it wasn’t quite that bad. We wanted to find Lochnagar Crater, Le Grande Mine, one of the largest WWI mine craters still in existence. We also found out about Musée Somme 1916 in Albert itself, which we visited and enjoyed. Wonderful photos and lots of relics. Some of the cartoons from “The Bystander’s Fragments from France” were quite funny in a dark way. We got a few dirty looks from other visitors when we laughed.
Le Grande Mine is yet another example of the destruction from the war that leaves you wondering how there was anything left and how anyone survived. The private owner of the land allows access to the site and the small memorial remains well kept. It’s hard to gauge the size of the crater from the photos – look for the person on the opposite rim in the first photo to get some idea. Impossible to imagine what it must have been like to have things blowing up around you like that for years on end.
The poppies that are so symbolic of this war seemed fragile in the wind. The contrast of the violent destruction and the gentle beauty of nature makes it obvious. You can see why these flowers which stubbornly refuse to be beaten by the death around them are the emblem of remembrance.
We had our picnic lunch in a British Cemetery for no other reason than there was a walled area where we could get out of the rather nasty wind. I don’t think any of the soldiers buried there would have minded, though I’m sure they could have given us lessons in what real discomfort is.
We had phone numbers for 2 gîtes so we picked one based on its location near Reims and Epernay and I rang and booked in for 2 nights in my stilted French and followed the directions. As we drove down the track and came over the rise, Cousin and I couldn’t believe what we saw. “That can’t be it” was about all we could say … but it was. It looked like an old stone farm house with a church attached. And that’s exactly what it was. A 12th century Knights Templar church which the owners are doing up. The attached farmhouse is the best B&B we’ve stayed in so far and for only €68/night for the 3 of us. We had a really lovely 2 room suite with 1 bathroom and 2 toilets. Gorgeous. The owner gave us great explanations of the area and where we could go walking, despite only having limited English and me having limited French. Amazing the conversations you can have.
There wasn’t much open on a Wednesday night in September so we went into Dormans for dinner where we found a pizza restaurant, though none of us ordered pizza. We guessed at some of the menu items with varying results. Cousin fared the worst. We asked what it was and in basic words and actions we realised she’d ordered “birds intestines”. Stu ate it. We weren’t so keen.
Back at the B&B we started chatting to a group of Belgians. Some of them spoke some English but one man spoke none at all. Our Flemish is non-existent but he and Stu were able to have an animated conversation in the universal language of Fishing.
Thursday 10 September – in Passy-Grigny:
Cousin and I went for a walk which turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. We thought we’d get forest and rolling hills. While there was some of that (I’ve been very selective with the photos) what we actually got was a track to the motorway. We did see some sort of animal on a distant hill, so we’re calling it a deer and claiming the sighting.
Breakfast was fabulous – all fresh and delicious. Stewed peaches from their garden, very fresh croissants and bread, and cheese. And good coffee!.
We had a mad panic after breakfast when we couldn’t find the car key, but it was eventually located and we headed to Epernay where we had coffee and hot chocolate at a brasserie while we wated for our booking on the Grand Vintage tour of Moët et Chandon. Another panic as Cousin couldn’t find her wallet. Must have been the day for it.
The 28km network of “caves” (cellars) is the largest in Champagne and is a maze of passages with champagne in various stages of production, each on marked with a secret code. We each enjoyed 2 flutes of the 2003 vintage.
After lunch Stu and Cousin dropped me home for a Nana nap and they went to Reims to see the Cathedral which they loved. They also tripped around the countryside in search of food and drink – not a particularly onerous task in France – and came back with a gourmet selection of pates, cheeses and win, including a bottle of my favourite champagne, Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve.
By the time they got back I was drinking champagne and eating smoked salmon and chees with a Belgian couple. We shared dinner and travel stories with them. A lovely end to our too-short visit to the region.