We mapped the 350KM route from Alsace, through Lorraine and on to Champagne.
As usual we had a lot to pack in – I never have been one for a beach holiday. This is not the same for Rania who puts her love of the sea down to being an Aquarian. We therefore do spend some beach time every two to three years, always mixed in with some cultural pursuits however to keep me occupied!
Back to the present, we had by now got used to the frustrating toll system of the French motorways. Having to stop every 20-30 KM to pay €2-4 was aggravating. Thankfully I had obtained a foreign fee-free credit card from Halifax Bank before we left so did not need to carry heaps of small coinage.
We chose Metz for our first stop over nearby Nancy. We had toyed with both but common sense prevailed (at least Rania saw sense!), so it was the larger of the two cities that would fill hour ninety-minute stopover.
Another very worthwhile stop off too. A very pleasant cobbled square with gushing fountain was our setting for our morning coffee, sat in the shadow of the ochre coloured theatre, opera house and baroque church.
The Gothic cathedral was also announcing itself to us as it peaked over the smaller riverside town houses that obscured its entire greatness. We crossed the River Moselle via a wooden footbridge and soon found ourselves in full view of the enormous landmark.
The cathedral shared its square with the hotel de ville and other municipal buildings, but there was no doubt as to who was master of this location. Of Strasbourg proportions, this giant was a far lighter stone than its Alsace equivalent but equally as impressive with all the Gothic adornments you would expect.
The interior was equally impressive and suitably embellished by the haunting organ music that seeped out of every stony pore of its being.
Returning to the motor via the lively alleyways of the pannier market, we set course for Verdun, scene of the bloodiest battles of WWII and home to French and American cemeteries & memorials, plus several strategically important wartime forts.
We opted to visit a French cemetery with its Thunderbird like memorial building.
Row upon row of white crosses, each with its own lovingly tended red rose bush. The French flag billowed in the light breeze, standing over its fallen menfolk, who had bravely perished in their fight with the Nazi enemy.
The ten month Battle of Verdun was one of the longest and hardest fought battles of the first Great War and also accounted for the biggest number of casualties – over seven hundred thousand casualties, roughly split 50/50
The area was of great strategic importance, being so close to the then German border and therefore a main frontier to be defended to try and keep the storm troopers out of French soil.
I have spoken to many people who have visited the British war graves in Ypres and the Somme in Belgium and to a person they have said how poignant, but at the same time uplifting the experience had been. There lay fallen heroes, each one of whom had given their lives to secure freedom for their compatriots back home.
Although the 15,000 brave knights that lay here were not our kin, the feeling was no less soulful for us. They represented our friends and defenders of democracy, free-speech and of what we all believe in. They had paid the ultimate sacrifice to ensure these ideals were upheld for future generations and they continue to deserve our unrelenting respect for this.
Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité
As we climbed the steps to the space-age memorial, the deafening roar of fighter jets on a training exercise reminded us all that war was still very much part of our modern world, as we continue to refuse to learn from the painful past of never to be forgotten conflicts.
France and Germany are now of course great allies, along with the UK the powerhouses of Western Europe. This was symbolised by the plaque in French and German commemorating the 1984 unveiling of the memorial by then French President Francois Mitterand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
The purposely plain interior displayed the names of the fallen as an eternal flame symbolised the fact that we shall never forget.
We stayed for an hour and realised that we had not uttered a word to each other until it was time to leave. The sombre necropolis had a profound affect, exactly it’s purpose.
We then drove to the nearby ruins of a fort. The route was noticeable for the undulating grassy banks that flanked the road. These were not however glacial features but the result of thousands of tonnes of bombardment. Another lasting reminder of the damages of war.
We scampered amongst the fortification remnants. From the crown of the hill on which the stronghold had stood, you could see for miles around, right into the heart of Lorraine. The area is once again a forest of pine as far as the eye can see. Seventy years later, nature had once again healed the wounds inflicted by its human enemies.
On The Road Again
The final leg of today’s journey would take us to the Champagne region, continuing the wine theme that had run through our Gallic gallivanting.
The journey was now on a far more pleasant A road, cutting a swathe through fields, meadows and farmland. As usual, traffic was extremely light, the benefit of a country five times the size of the UK but with roughly the same (official) population.
Although there were no major towns to speak of along the route, we were amazed to find one hamlet with an impressive cathedral. There was obviously money in these parts and the landowners had clubbed together at some stage to build a magnificent church for the whole area.
We stopped to admire the structure and took the opportunity for coffee and cake at the village cafe.
Rania has an excellent French accent and the more time we spent in France, the better this and her vocabulary got. I was astounded when she held a conversation with the cafe bar owner and four locals who were drinking Stella Artois.
“Does somebody own the car outside with a dog in it? It is hot and looks very thirsty.”
I was torn between being impressed by the display of language skills and her concern for the dog, with what I expected to be the indignant rebuff from the rural drinkers.
They were however clearly impressed too and soon after the pooch was in the bar lapping from a water bowl. Well done all round Mrs.L!
We arrived in Epernay early evening, on the cusp of nightfall. Luckily our hotel had the foresight to place conspicuous signage from the Avenue de Champagne entry point onwards, so we were soon drawing up alongside Villa Pierre.
We were met by the very cheery Pierre and his two balls of black wool with tiny teeth and high-pitched bark, introduced as Daisy and Maisy.
The trio led us to our very comfortable second floor room and we soon joined them again downstairs for dinner.
Pierre was also the chef and he conjured up what was to be crowned the best meal of the trip.
It was not difficult to sleep that night, especially after the gratis cognac Pierre bestowed upon us.