A Pilgrimage to the Western Front
03.10.2013 - 07.10.2013
Having chateaued ourselves out, we moved on to Picardie which is an area north of Paris and south of Amiens. Our intention had been to stay in Reims (FYI pronounced in a most nasal and guttural tone as Runce - don't ask me I don't get it either!). But because we'd changed our plans I had terrible trouble getting accom in the area.
That was mainly because our stay included a weekend. With Reims, and Epernay to it's south, being the centre of the Champagne region and only about an hour by train from Paris, accom was extortionately expensive. Presumably it's a popular weekend getaway. So we ended up staying in this little Picardie village called Sery Magneval about 4kms outside another unknown town called Crepy en Valois, endlessly now known to us as CREEPY,
The town was a little south of, and about half way between the two areas we were interested in, Reims and Amiens.
The house was an old cottage probably a couple of hundred years old and partially renovated into the country holiday house for some Parisians who were in fact heading to Spain and arranged for a neighbour to let us in. Sadly, we hit another repetitive theme here, two staircases with more skinny French circular staircases that take up little real estate in the house because they are so narrow at one end and desperately steep.
Our bedroom and bathroom and toilet were two floors up. The only way I could feel safe moving up and down these stairs was to lean my back against the wall as I crept very carefully step by step down the widest part of the steps which was of course the furthest part from any balustrade or anything to hang onto.
So yes we are back to that defining theme of this trip TFS - Those Friggin' Steps.
The one great thing about this house was it had a really good kitchen. By this stage, we were hanging out for a home-cooked meal. Yes I know another first world problem!
So with not even any shops in Sery Magneval, and nothing enticing on the restaurant front in Creepy, we spent 4 nights cooking for ourselves which was fabulous. Still didn't make up for TFS though!
There were two main reasons for visiting the area, champagne and WW1.
We were astounded to discover that while the village of Villers Brettoneux and some of the surrounding famous towns of the "Western Front" on the Somme river are household names in Australia, most French have never heard of them!!!
With uncles who had fought on the Western Front, I was very keen to get some sense of the history of Aussie soldiers battling in the region during WW1. I wasn't in the least bit interested in the Normandy Beaches of WW2. It was time for this little Aussie to make the pilgrimage to that part of France. Of course, a pilgrimage to Gallipoli is also still on our wish list for a later trip. But what happened, 3 years after Gallipoli, in Picardie is just as important to Aussie history. So off we went to Villers Brettoneux.
Interestingly at Melbourne airport on our departure I picked up Tom Kenneally's book Daughters of Mars and have been engrossed. This was about Aussie nurses behind the front both in the Dardanelles and on the Western Front. It's been fascinating and I highly recommend it.
VIllers Brettoneux is absolutely Aussiefied. The museum is above the school. The school that was rebuilt after the war thanks to the donations of Victorian school children and everywhere is the message. Never forget the Australians. Even the very contemporary local creche was called Les Marsupiaux and everyone in town is welcoming of Aussies.
More sombre however was the amazingly beautiful Australian National War Memorial. It was damaged during WW2 and the buildings still bear the bullet marks as do many buildings in the Picardie region. It was really eerie and evocative to be there alone on the hillside looking over land Australian soldiers fought to save, but standing among hundreds of war graves. Many of the graves have no names and bear only the words A Soldier of the Great War - Known Unto God. And above stands a wall with the names of 11,000 soldiers killed there.
To see these graves was immeasurably moving. It is undoubtedly a sad place but I am so glad we went there. There was more we wanted to see but we ran out of time. What was striking though was that wherever we went in towns tiny and large were war cemeteries. French, British, Australian, Canadian and of course civilians as well. They were very stark reminders of what to us is unimaginable. And then we drove home to our holiday house and saw again that town's memorial.
We wanted to go on to Amiems and see the Cathedral there, but we got stuck in a traffic jam! Turned out to be some massive train festival. We turned around and went home instead.
Having got so sick of TFS we hatched a plan to abandon one night of our booking and head into Reims and stay in a hotel for one night.
But our adventure in Picardie still had one last little battle for us.
We had risen early to pack up, tidy up the house and head to Reims. Having just ditched the leftover milk and wine and a little leftover jam down the sink, P suddenly noticed water (no actually curdled milk and lots of water) spreading out from under the kitchen bench. We found that the Dodgy Brothers plumbing under the sink had come apart and everything we had put down the sink had fallen into the back (walled off) section of the cupboard and was now leaking out across the floor and spreading at a furious pace.
After using all the paper towel, and tea towels, I made a trip up and down TFS for a towel for more mopping and P crawled under the sink to reconnect the pieces as best he could!
So onto showering packing stripping beds only to discover when we got downstairs, and had the car mostly packed, it had started leaking again but this time the hoses still seemed to be connected.
By this time the language was curdling the air!!!!
Over to the neighbour, who sent her husband over and made it very obvious that this was not her problem. Hubby insisted on finding the mains and switching off the supply (despite it being a drain problem). Wifey had a bitch about how she wasn't being paid for this and we all locked up the house having done all we could. I made contact with AirBnB who promised to contact the owner whom I hadn't been able to reach.
And then we couldn't even get the hell out of there, because the whole area and the whole drive to Reims, we were enveloped in thick fog!!!
After all of these sorry events, the hotel was heavenly! Our stay there also allowed us to go on a tour of the "caves" or lengthy passages of chalk-walled cellars in which French Champagne is traditionally prepared and stored. Oh the sight of all those MILLIONS of bottles, I was just dribbling. So it was lucky there was a tasting at the end. And then we want to a bar and tasted a couple more varieties.
Plus of course we also explored the Reims Cathedral, site of numerous coronations of French Kings and with some stunning stained glass windows (including one by Chagall in the 60s).
The next morning, I woke very excited, it was time to leave our car and head to Paris.