Scarce heard amid the guns below

As readers of this blog would know, I’ve been trying over the last couple of years to gain a better understanding of the two world wars. While I often marvel at the spectacle of war, the notion of it makes me sick…old men sending young men to die for ridiculous ends, equating war-making with jingoistic patriotism, etc.  My attempt to understand it has already given me a better sense of how and why these wars unfolded, but what I’ve read has been a historical look back. I had little appreciation for what it must have felt like to a soldier. I count myself very fortunate that I’ve never been in or in any way near a war zone.

Our recent trip to France helped me get some of that perspective. The ground at Vimy still torn up from shelling. The long, exposed run at Juno Beach with nothing between you and a German bunker but luck and prayer. The trenches at Beaumont-Hamel, with enemies almost impossibly close together. In each of these places I stopped, tried to put myself in the place of a soldier, and each time felt nervous, even frightened. I actually got physically tense. I tried to imagine myself running up that beach or climbing the firing steps, and I’d get a lump in my throat. I kept thinking to myself, how could anyone do this? How could someone charge with shells exploding around and tracers whizzing past? Just typing this now the memory is still vivid, and the lump has come back.

Whatever atrocities are committed by front-line soldiers — and those atrocities are many — it’s not their choice to be there. The tragic, unfair, unholy situation in which they find themselves spurs some to evil, some to heroism, but most simply — incredibly — to bravery. Those are who we saw buried by the thousands in the valley of the Somme this summer, and whose names were etched on the side of the Vimy memorial. Those are who we remember today.

An allied cemetery just south of Arras, on the way to Beaumont-Hamel, one of many we saw driving through the Somme valley. Mainly British and Australian, but we found Canadians there as well. Most markers had no name or nationality, and simply read A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God.
Serre Road Cemetery No. 2. An allied cemetery just south of Arras, on the way to Beaumont-Hamel, one of many we saw driving through the Somme valley. Mainly British and Australian, but we found Canadians there as well. Most markers had no name or nationality, and simply read 'A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God'.

France: day 3 & 4


We had a few nervous moments with the car but, after a tasty (local and organic) breakfast we got underway with all systems go. Knowing we might not have time to stop for lunch (or, if we do, much time to eat dinner that night) we swung by a Leclerc store and bought the essentials: ham, cheese, jam, wine and baguette. By the way, in our first 48 in France we saw half a dozen people walking down the street carrying only a baguette. We’d see a dozen more over the next week. The French really do like their baguette.

We decided to stop at Chateau de Villandry, famous for its lovely gardens. In fact, we didn’t even visit the inside of the chateau, we just walked around in the massive gardens outside. There were lots of ornamental gardens, including a maze, but there’s an actual working farm portion too…they were harvesting vegetables when we visited. There were also piles of fish in their moat, which was weird…they come right out of the water looking for food, with their dead eyes, like a doll’s eyes…uh, ahem.


We kept driving, now right along the Loire. We saw a heron and the odd roadside cat and some kind of nuclear steam cloud (don’t ask) and navigated around a detour. That was to become a recurring theme. We finally reached the tiny town of Candes-St-Martin at the confluence of the Loire and the Vienne, and parked the car so we could walk to the hill above the town for a great view of the surrounding countryside. We got another great view when we walked down the riverside.

We kept heading west along the Loire and realized, just as we’d reached the town of Saumur, that we’d somehow missed the Chateau D’Ussé entirely. We didn’t spend much time in Saumur as we were tired and hungry and late and lost, so we ate lunch at some awful touristy place right next to the chateau.

We decided to skip the rest of the drive along the Loire, to Angers, and just bust north toward our next B&B. Carmen took us a crazy route (we told her to avoid toll highways, but still…she had us on some pretty hardcore back roads), and it didn’t help that we kept hitting detours, including a visit from the Gendarmerie. Eventually we got on to progressively bigger highways, and after a few minutes on our first autoroute we were in love. After driving 40 km/h through driveways and farm lanes all day, doing 140km/h in a straight line was pretty sweet. After a long day of driving we finally reached Les Blotteries.

This was probably my favourite place of the whole trip. The house and farm were lovely, but the owner, Jean-Malo, and his dog (Madame Plume) made us feel like family the minute we arrived. We didn’t linger long that night as we decided to drive the 10 minutes to Mont Saint-Michel so we could take pictures of it at sunset.  We had to stop along the way to let a herd of sheep cross the road. Jean-Malo later insisted with a smirk that they just do that for the tourists.

We made our way back to Saint-James for dinner at the Lion D’Or, where we sampled wine from Saumur (the town redeemed itself!) before returning to Les Blotteries for a good night’s sleep. I actually didn’t want to leave the next morning after breakfast (and great conversation with his other house guest) but when the time came Jean-Malo sent us off with two bottles of locally-made apple juice, directions for a much prettier drive than we’d planned and a fresh croissant for the road. I missed he and Plume the moment we pulled away.


However, we had new adventures to get to. We took the scenic route Jean-Malo suggested, driving up the Atlantic coast toward Granville (with a semi-frantic detour in search of diesel) before turning northeast.

We stopped in Bayeux to see the famous Bayeux Tapestry and have lunch. It is at this lunch that I got myself a baddass mofo sunburn. From there we drove the short distance north to the Juno Beach Centre, a museum dedicated to the Canadian participation in the D-Day landing as well as all Canadian troops who served in WWII.

We arrived just in time to make the 3:00 tour, which is good, since it included a tour of the bunker on the beach. We find out about the museum, the sculptures, the bunker, the town and the beach itself. It’s not a bad little tour, and I have to admit to some chills when standing on the beach. There were tourists and fishermen walking up and down it when we were there, but standing at the water’s edge and looking toward the beach, it’s hard to believe someone actually mounted a successful attack that way. I couldn’t even imagine what it must have been like.

Tour finished, we called ahead to the next B&B to let them know we were coming. I had that conversation entirely in French, and realized I must be getting better at this. Five minutes later we were at the Le Mas Normand, meeting Christian and Mylene and their dogs.

Our room was tiny, but wonderful…we could see cows out one window, dogs out the other and the courtyard through our little dutch door. We didn’t have a chance to sample Christian’s cooking, so we had dinner at some bistrot in the town. When we got back to the B&B we weren’t tired, so we bundled up and sat in the courtyard and drank a bottle of wine like the party animals we are. The Belgian couple and American couple went to bed early; the two Canadian couples rolled home last, and we slept like the dead.

I swear, every single town in France has a Notre Dame Cathedral

Back in January I mentioned that our big trip this year would consist of two weeks in France. We’ve now hammered out our plan some more:


The plan is as follows. Follow along on the map for extra fun!

  1. Land in Paris (trust me, the ‘A’ is hidden behind the ‘K’) and jump in a car
  2. Visit Chartres
  3. Visit the Chateau de Chambord and start driving along the Loire valley
  4. Visit Tours, and other small towns along the way like Amboise and Candes-St-Martin
  5. Visit Angers, and from there turn north
  6. See Mont-Saint-Michel, though after the experience we had at Rocamadour I think we’ll just take pictures from the outside
  7. Visit Juno Beach
  8. Visit the Vimy Memorial
  9. Visit Reims
  10. Spend a few days in and around Epernay and Troyes, sampling Champagne and meeting up with my brother
  11. Drive back to Paris, drop the car and spend about five days there…probably visiting the Louvre a couple of times, the Musee D’Orsay, Versailles, maybe the catacombs, maybe just hanging out in St-Germain or Montparnasse.

So that’s the plan.We’ll cover A through I in first six days, then as our energy wears off we’ll start to wind down in Champagne and take the better part of the final week in Paris.

Anybody have any tips for those areas? Any can’t-misses?