In Search of Battles Past
MEUSE, FRANCE - When an opportunity came up to join an expedition exploring key sites from WWI in the Meuse and Lorraine regions of France, I wasn't quite sure what to expect.
On the schedule were American cemeteries, wartime trenches, some of the most notorious battlefields from the First World War, forts, wartime museums, and the bones and skulls of the dead. http://atoutfrance-presskit.com/index.php/work/
I imagined a heart-wrenching experience digging deep into the region’s tragic WWI history. One that would be both muddy and wet, as well as educational on a slice of history that I knew little about. Both the biggest American offensive in history, the Meuse-Argonne offensive, as well as the 300-day Battle of Verdun, the longest and largest battle in WWI, were fought in these parts.
While the three days we spent exploring what remains of this history proved to be both wet, muddy, and emotional, between the main attraction of wartime history, which is the region’s biggest tourist draw, I also discovered many of the cultural and culinary delights the area has to offer. And we had some fun along the way. What's more, my brief time in the trenches with five other women, left me with some great new friends, giving me a taste of the comradeship that must have developed to keep the soldiers going through such dark and terrible times.
Friday Morning: The Pompidou-Metz
It's an easy hop from London to the Meuse. After taking the EuroStar (https://www.eurostar.com/uk-en/?) from London to Gare du Nord, we walked to the nearby Gare de l’Est and boarded the 90-minute train to Metz, the starting point for this trip. In the space of four hours, here I was in a brave new world.
Rain is a feature here in November, so we decided to start the day in the Centre Pompidou-Metz. (http://mobile.centrepompidou-metz.fr) . The sight of Shigeru Ban’s white structure, that looks almost alien in design, greeted us a few steps from the station. The museum doesn't only look interesting. It also features world class exhibitions. The current Japan-ness show, about architecture and urban planning in Japan since 1945, is extensive and stunning in scope. Models and sketches of some truly wacky projects fill a huge section of the museum. Upstairs, a golden polka dot extravaganza, called the Infinity Mirror Room, by artist Yayoi Kusama, was also on display. The glittering space provided the perfect backdrop for the ultimate Instagram Selfie.
I spend a lot of time in France, but I was truly delighted by the delicious quality of food served in some of the restaurants that we visited on this trip. I'm also dairy and gluten free but found no problem in eating here. We enjoyed a heart-warming meal in a buzzing restaurant where the group got to know each other a bit better that first lunchtime at Restaurant le Romarin, feeling like locals (www.romarinmetz.fr).
I've seen a lot of cathedrals but the proportions of the Metz cathedral, and its modern take on traditional church windows, some of which were designed by Marc Chagall, made the Metz Cathedral a memorable experience. (http://www.cathedrale-metz.fr).
The sound of the organ playing, while I inspected these beautiful works of art and peered up at the ceilings high above, still haunts me. Our next stop was another landmark, the nearby Neo-Romanesque station. It is often described as one of the most beautiful in France. Our tour of this erstwhile Prussian town, that was German during the war, continued with a look at the old city. It included an introduction to some of the bombastic residential architecture in this Gallo-Roman town which is richly decorated with Medieval churches, indoor markets and old cobblestoned streets.
After a full day exploring Metz, we left for the town of Verdun to check into Les Jardins du Mess, a fabulous hotel overlooking the Meuse river and surrounding historic buildings in the area. Verdun was the site of the longest battle in WWI.
Upon checking into the hotel, I discovered that our generous modern suites included bathtubs so large that I was almost tempted not to visit the nearby pool for my daily swim, but it looked stunning from photos.
The Aquadrome Verdun is an architectural landmark, thanks to the delightful juxtaposition of a glass wing that contains the pool, extending from a historic stone building. A huge photography will be on display there from December as part of the great open-air exhibition “Beauty will save the World”. After a quick session of laps at the pool, I joined our group for a scrumptious dinner of duck decorated in brussel sprout leaves, at the hotel, before sinking into the bathtub late at night and enjoying the great river-side views.
After a big breakfast of fruit, juices galore and eggs, it was time for a sugar high. Our first stop for the day was the historic Braquier coated almond factory.
It was the workers' day off but we were able to inspect machines and tools for making these diminutive treats, before sampling this 'gourmand' product that comes in all shapes and sizes in the shop.
After chomping our way through three-dozen different almond delights, it was soon time for more food and a fascinating introduction into the wartime history of the region. It was now November 11th, Memorial Day Weekend, and we headed to a grass-roots restaurant and museum, Romagne 14-18, which is on former battleground.
A pit stop, en route, in Varennes-en-Argonne, introduced us to the towering Pennsylvania Monument to the American soldiers who liberated the city in WWI. We learned about how, by chance, this was also where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were captured during the French Revolution. The king was disguised as a servant of the baroness Von Korff.
The restaurant at Romagne 14-18 served hearty plates of meats and cheeses for lunch. We were warned by the fire, before inspecting the museum in a barn, created by the Dutch owner Jean- Paul de Vrees. It is filled with some of the 200,000 remnants of war he has dug up, using his own hands, around his home.
He has dedicated part of the museum to the memories of American soldiers, some of whose remains he has discovered here. De Vrees has found some of their families and put in display some of their letters, badges and photographs.
Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery
As the afternoon drew to a close, we headed to the American cemetery, Meuse-Argonne, where more than 14,000 American soldiers, a fraction of the great numbers that lost their lives here during WWI, are still buried. Once upon a time, more than 28,000 were buried in the cemetery. Some were later repatriated to the U.S.
There was a moving, candle-lighting ceremony in remembrance of the soldiers. Their names were read out over loud speaker, as 3,000 candles flickered in the dusk. Next year, the US army will send over a large number of soldiers to mark the centenary of the end of WWI, at a larger ceremony.
After paying our respect in the rain, we drove to theChâteau des Monthairons, now a vast hotel, where we were to spend the night, enjoy a gourmet dinner, and the spa with its jacuzzi, treatments rooms and saunas. The meal was splendid. The duck was cooked in herbs from the garden at this family run establishment. The meal culminated in a death by chocolate dessert, and a local cheese plate that was rich and tangy. I soon fell into a deep slumber in my duplex. I awoke to verdant views of the gardens that surround the Chateau, and a river where guests swim in the summer.
The day began in the hands of our capable and knowledgeable guide Florence Lamousse.
Florence had guided us so far. Now she was to take us to the Ossuaire de Douaumont, another key site in the area. Here the bones and skulls of 130,000 unknown French and German soldiers, from the Battle of Verdun, can be seen through glass windows built into the facades of this beautifully restored building.
We watched a film that explained more about the war, learnt about the Egyptian style architecture of this imposing structure, and visited tombs for the dead, arranged according to the villages these fallen soldiers came from. There were 300,000 missing French and German soldiers by the end of this battle.
We were warmly greeted and fed on piping hot vegetable soup and salmon at hotel and restaurant Les Orchidees, before visiting the Fort Vaux, one of the major historic sites of the battlefield of Verdun.
We headed to the state-of-the-art Verdun Memorial museum that was recreated in 2016. A film introduced the war, and how it started, to visitors.
We walked upon the debris of war displayed beneath glass floors, watched footage of it on screens, hanging between model aircraft, enjoyed views of the surrounding fields and ossuary, and spent hours exploring the many items on display in shiny glass cabinets.
It is an impressive museum, from both the perspective of the design and contents. It was, however, soon time for the trip to draw to a close. Chomping on sugar coated almonds, we drove back to the station to catch our train to Paris with Florence, our faithful guide, telling us more about the bravery of the American, French and German soldiers that lost their lives here, during some of the most epic battles of WWI, as we went.
We drove back to the station to catch our train that would bring us back to Paris within just an hour.
And on the way back home, after all these visits on WWI historic sites, I kept the feeling that our first-world problems are nothing, and thought with a deeper understanding of why my English mother has always been so grateful for the Americans who saved us during two world wars.