Hope you had a great Christmas! After a few last minute preparations on Christmas Eve and dinner with the couple who arrived at La Villatte last week to stay in the cottage, we had a lovely Christmas Day, enjoying warm hospitality and a delicious lunch with a French family down the road. It was a very different day for us this year, not having our own family around and feeling out of season. Although it was a cold, wet day, we didn’t get the white Christmas we were dreaming of!
Wednesday saw us saying a sad ‘au revoir’ to our cosy French farmhouse as we loaded our belongings into our car and headed north. Skirting round Paris, we had one last glimpse of the Eiffel Tower then made our way to the department of Somme, named after the river Somme which runs through it. The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the First World War. Villers-Bretonneux, a small town in the Somme, has strong ties with Australia, one being the Victoria School, built by money raised by Victorian families, many of whom had lost loved ones in the WWI battles that took place in this area. The Australian Memorial is on a hill just outside the town – in the cemetery lie around 2000 soldiers, 770 of them Australian, who died on the Western Front defending towns such as Amiens and Villers-Bretonneux. Many of the headstones are inscribed to an ‘Unknown Soldier.’ The walls of the Memorial name another 11,000 Australians who fought in northern France and have no known grave. The Somme is infamous for its mud, and even walking on the grass around the Memorial grounds, our shoes were soon caked in sticky, thick mud. We tried to imagine what it would have been like for the soldiers having to live in it for 4 years. Our visit was in wind-swept, cold and wet conditions – fitting for such a sombre place. Afterwards, I wrote a few words to try and capture the feeling the Memorial gave us, so here they are:
Mud sticks, thick, heavy
Weighing weary legs
Drag one leaden foot and the other
Through sludge and muck
Inching forward on the Western Front
Bullets fly, thick, heavy
Slaying weary men
Drag one leaden body and another
Through sludge and muck
Falling grimly on the Western Front
River floods, thick, heavy
Churning blood and mud
Drag one leaden life and another
Through sludge and luck
Fading slowly on the Western Front
Death crawls, thick, heavy
Stealing soldiers’ breath
Drag one leaden gasp and another
Through sludge and pluck
Lying still on the Western Front
From V-B, we went into Amiens, a very pretty place, where we wandered the streets, the Christmas markets and the town’s three large cathedrals.
On Thursday, we left Amiens just after 8am. Sunrise finally occurred at 8:50! We passed many war cemeteries – there’s 280 in the region, all the resting places of, or memorials to, WWI soldiers. We arrived in Bruges, in Belgium, around 11am and spent the rest of the day walking round the beautiful cobblestone streets and window-shopping. Of course we had to try some of the chocolate Bruges is famous for. It was cold and wet, and crowded! A cafe waiter told us this is now busiest time of year in Bruges! Although Belgium is only 30,500 sq m in area, it has three official languages and Bruges is in the Dutch-speaking region, so we felt a bit out of depth language-wise. At one of the restaurants the menu was in six languages so resembled a telephone book.
Friday we decided to head further north and drove into the Netherlands, which involved going through a 6.6 km long tunnel under an estuary coming off the North Sea. We visited Middelburg and Goes, both very attractive canal towns. Much of that area is below sea-level and the country is flat, protected by dykes and man-made, earth walls. The preferred mode of transport is the bicycle and they have right of way! We were very impressed with the dedicated cycle paths the criss-cross the Zeeland region. After a good look around, we drove back to Bruges for the night.
We left Bruges early on Saturday, stopping for a while in Gent, then Tournai. With Tournai being in the French-speaking region, we felt a bit more at home again! We arrived in Lille, quite a big town with some beautiful buildings. The streets are great for pedestrians, of which there are many! What hit us immediately, was the realisation that we hadn’t seen any beggars on the streets of Belgium or the Netherlands yet here on French streets, they’re everywhere. We wonder if the French government is more tolerant of them, or whether they’ve just lost control.
From Lille, on Sunday 30th, we catch the Eurostar train under the Channel to London to spend 10 days in England. That’s the subject of next week’s blog post! Hope you have an enjoyable New Year’s celebration, if you’re staying up to see it in!
Chris & David