But it wasn't just for the ancient history; I have always wanted to see some of the important sites of World Wars One & Two. Plus, I love medieval history. Okay, I love all history, and Northern France is such an incredible history lesson, better than any CD Rom or DVD. I also wanted to see how different Northern France was from Paris; would it be as different as Northern England was from London? (it was).
Every day in France during this two-week adventure by motorcycle was the same: beautiful villages, incredible lunches, breakfasts with baguette or pan a chocolat and amazing cheese, supper from a can and cooked on the camp stove and accompanied by delicious, cheap French red wine, and history, history, history. We even treated ourselves to restaurant suppers three evenings (free range beef, fresh mussels, fish... heaven). The weather in Northern France was almost always dry and mostly sunny; even when it was cold at night, I was oh-so-cozy in my 15 year-old Thermarest sleeping bag and mattress. The trip was, in short, awesome. We camped every night, in the three-person dome tent altered by Stefan (there are tiny white Christmas lights inside, that plug into the Africa Twin motor bike battery; makes trying to find things at night oh-so-easy).
I also have to say that the citizens of Northern France are wonderful: no matter what tiny village we were in, no matter how provincial the restaurant, the people were always kind and welcoming and tried to help us. No one dissed us for not being able to speak in French, and they seemed thrilled when we tried (we know about 10 words between each other). Many seemed amused that we were a mixed couple (German and USA). No wonder the place is crawling with Brits -- it's a wonderful, wonderful vacation region.
We headed out by motorcycle on September 6 through Belgium, and camped our first night on the coast at an almost deserted, very ugly but decent camp site (too many mobile homes way too close to one another), near the entrance of an Atlantic Wall museum (there is more than one in Europe). The best part: when the woman camping next to us in her tiny camper trailer brought over her leftover coffee (I think she felt sorry for us, camping in a tent, thinking that we were cold, which we weren't). Free coffee!! Unfortunately, the war museum has the stupidest/briefest opening hours EVER. Since they obviously didn't want visitors, we headed out the next day further West. The ride was... well, boring, with little that was visually-appealing. I was fascinated at all the canals though; I had no idea that Belgium -- and Northern France -- had so many canals.
Almost as soon as we crossed into France (maybe even a little before), the landscape changed and the villages became quaint and beautiful. As you approach the WWI battlegrounds, which are now rolling farmlands, you start to see tidy walled graveyards from the Great War. After a while, you see them everywhere. We stopped at several, big and small. And you read the names of these kids who were fighting in the trenches... WWI always really gets to me; I know every war is harsh and disgusting, but WWI was particularly so. Trench warfare, the mustard gas, the mindless and meaningless and endless charges that gained no ground, and in the end, what was gained? Nothing...
The Canadian Battlefield Memorial Park, north of Arras, commemorates Canadian sacrifices during WWI. The Park is a terrific place to spend a few hours learning about WWI. It's a huge place with plenty to see, and all of the tour guides are young Canadians. The Canadian National Vimy Memorial is a stunning, huge monument, just recently cleaned and restored. From a distance, it looks like something out of Lord of the Rings . Under the eerie, pock-marked landscape of this park in Northern France is an extensive network of tunnels used during WWI. There is a one-hour tour of a small part of the tunnels, and it is so worth your time. One of the chilling things we learned on the tour: over on the German side was a young Adolf Hitler who, unfortunately, wasn't killed during his time as a runner (messenger).
I also have to acknowledge something that happened to me at this park, something that I've never encountered before: a group of very well-behaved pre-teens and teenaged boys. They were on the tour of the tunnels with us, and they said crazy things, like "Excuse me" and "Thank you." They also did crazy things, like not talk when the tour guide was talking, not try to write on the walls, not yell or scream just to hear their own voices underground, and on and on. They even asked interesting questions. I ended up having to say something to their chaperones. They were from Britain, I don't know where. But it was unbelievable. This is probably just going to add to my intolerance of teens and pre-teens, because now I know there's an alternative to their behavior.
Continuing our WWI tour, we stopped at the Cimetiere Militaire Allemand / German Military Cemetary at La Cambe. It's very hard to find, due to not-great marking on the road, but it's worth it. It's out in the middle of the countryside, surrounded by farm fields. Since it's mostly WWI casualties, there are Jewish graves -- reminding us of how integrated Jews were in Germany once upon a time...
We stopped at a tourist office somewhere and got handed the free Bayeaux-Bessin Tourist Guide 2007. It is AWESOME. In addition to details on every World War II site and monument in the area, there are also details on other types of museums, parks and gardens, horse-back riding, tours, arts and crafts shops, camping and other accommodations, and on and on. It was incredibly handy! Every time someone later tried to give it to us, we told them we had it and that we LOVED it. Please, Bayeux-Bessin, do this guide for 2008!
Our base in Normandy for WWII site exploration was at Camping Port'land, a four star camp site just outside of Port en Bessin - Huppain in Normandy. We stayed at the site two nights, as it was perfectly located amid all the WWII sites we wanted to see in the area. The staff was AWESOME -- so nice and welcoming. The facilities were spotless, with free hot water (wahoo!). And we could order bread the night before for each morning, which we did -- pan a chocolat (which I had for the first time from the French Bakery in Kabul and loved) and a baguette. The site was mostly empty -- I'm not sure I would have liked it had it been full, as it was very family oriented, and ya'll know how I feel about kids... oh how I love off-season traveling! The second night, we walked over to Port en Bessin for a good dinner at a restaurant overlooking the port and watching the fishermen go out on their boats for the night.
I am in love with Normandy. The villages were adorable, but it was the farms and chateaus that made me want to move there. I haven't been that enchanted with landscape since we were in Northern England.
Anyway... over those two and a half days in Normandy, we went to these WWII sites:
The 70-hectare Cimetiere Americain de Normandy (American Cemetary of Normandy) which overlooks Omaha Beach. The film at the visitor's center was surprisingly tasteful -- much more about making the fighting men of D-Day as real, citizens of the world, just like anyone, rather than rah rah USA USA. And I appreciated that. Stefan did too... We looked up some of my family names: Cravens, Denton, Beasley, Morris, Figgins, Gibson... but as far as I know, I had just one relative in the area at the time, and he landed on one of the beaches the day after D-Day.
Point du Hoc, an almost impregnable German stronghold high on a cliff over-looking the Normandy beaches. It's now a peaceful park with craters and battery ruins every where. Gives you an excellent idea of the post-D-Day landscape, as well as the challenges faced by the Allies in taking the cliffs.
We went to Utah Beach as well, and got to actually walk on the beach, and two harness racers went trotting by. So beautiful.
On our way out of the area, we stopped outside the church at St-Mere-Eglise, made famous on the night of June 6: the 82nd and the 101st Airborne landed on the western flanks of the Normandy bridgehead, part of the largest airborne assault ever attempted. St Mere Eglise became the first French town liberated by US forces in World War Two. But what makes it even more famous is the story of paratrooper Jon Steele. His parachute was caught in the steeple of the village church, leaving him hanging from its roof. The wounded paratrooper hung there for two hours, pretending to be dead and was somewhat deafened by the tolling bells and a German machine gun nest nearby, before the Germans took him prisoner. Other paratroopers caught in trees around the church were shot. Steele was rescued by US troops. He died in Kentucky in the 1960s -- was he a Kentuckian? I never found out.
After leaving the beach area, on our way further West, I saw a sign for another American cemetary, and it took us a while, but we finally found it: the Brittany American Cemetery and Memorial, which covers 28 acres of rolling farm country near the eastern edge of Brittany and contains the remains of 4,410 war dead, most of whom lost their lives in the Normandy and Brittany campaigns of 1944.
While in the area, I also insisted that we see the Bayeaux Tapestry (Tapisserie de Bayeux), something I remember studying back at Western Kentucky University during my "Humanities Semester" in the Fall of 1984. The museum is very hard to find in downtown Bayeux and has very little parking -- be warned. The "tapestry" is actually not a tapestry but, rather, a vast wool embroidery. It's 1000 years old and illustrates William's conquest of England. It's kind of like a giant comic strip. The audio guide gives good details, but not nearly enough -- like, what's up with those naked people in the bottom panel, the ones that look like nekkid men wrestlers? The audio also goes WAY too fast -- find the pause button on the audio guide, because, otherwise, you will feel like you are jogging along. The gift shop is excellent.
We headed farther West and made it to the island of Mont St-Michel (Mont Saint Michel?) before sunset. We could park on the levee because it was late. Mont St-Michel is just as magical as it looks in photos -- like something out of a fairy tale. I felt like a little girl, walking into a storybook. We wandered around the mostly empty streets, and headed to a tower over-looking the incoming tide. I decided to call Mamaw for her 90th birthday, and describe to her where I was. We talked for several minutes, and she told me about her birthday party earlier, where she was asked to sing "The couple that prays together stays together." And then she said, "Here, I'll sing it for you now." And she did. And I cried and cried and cried. You haven't lived until you have stood on a tower in Mont St-Michel at sunset while your grandmother sings to you over the phone.
We camped in a town back on the mainland, outside a run down chateau -- my theory is the guy inherited the property, doesn't work, and leases out the yard to campers to pay his annual property taxes. It was run down, but the bathrooms were clean!
The next day, we headed back to Mont St-Michel, to get a better look inside during the day time and visit the Abbey. Per the recommendation in Lonely Planet France (thank you again, Lee Family, for giving me your copy when you were done with it during your world tour once upon a time), I wanted to do the tour with the live guide, rather than the headset. Our timing was perfect -- we got there just before the English tour was supposed to start (hiking up all those many, many steps in quick time was not fun). And our tour guide was unintentionally hilarious , a tough, very knowledgeable French woman fed up with tourists trying to pick flowers, touch delicate facades and talking to loud in what is still a religious site (there are two religious orders that live there). The entire group, mostly Brits, were stifling giggles as she fussed at loud, clueless tourists and then made comments under her breath about them. She also gave us wonderful background on the various rooms of the abbey and what life was like there in medieval times. She pointed out fascinating things, like that one of the facades that wasn't destroyed by revolutionaries because they didn't know it was a representation of Christ -- it's an image of a man gathering grapes. I was so glad we had visited the night before -- the site is PACKED in the day time, even in October. The guide said that Mont St-Michel had no off-season anymore.
We then headed further west, to Carnac to partake of ancient sites. To help you understand what I'm about to talk about, herés a little summary of terms:
cairns are burial tombs that resemble a huge mound of small rocks. But a cairn actually covers a dolmen, which is a corridor of massive stones, placed to create walls and a ceiling, and usually leading to a small chamber that's also surrounded by massive stones. The stones of the dolmen may or may not have carvings on them. The corridors may be just a couple of meters or much more. Most require those entering to stoop - in other words, forcing you to bow as you approach the final chamber. Dolmens often have had all of their outside rocks and earth removed, making them appear as large tables of rocks, ala the Flintstones.While perusing the brochures available at a campsite where we stayed near Trégastel, I picked up a guide to the area -- it was all in French, but featured a map in the middle which showed all of the ancient sites -- cairns, dolmens and menhirs -- in the area, sites not marked on any of our other maps. So we headed to the "commune de Médréac" to look for the Alignements de Lampouy. The first ancient site we encountered was the Menhir de la Pierre Longue, which is part of these alignments. They are out in the middle of nowhere -- there is no tourist office, and just a few signs. You are driving around this little country road and, hey, what's that huge, tall rock standing out in a field doing there? And as you look around, you start to see the remains of the stone alignments on the other side of the road, and at least one other standing stone in the distance. It reminded me of what it's like in Kilmarten, the area in Scotland that has neolithic sites almost no matter where you look in the landscape. Nearby the Menhir de la Pierre Longue is a Roman road, which is a tree-covered path, often lower than the surrounding fields. Roman roads are everywhere in Brittany; what a great way it would be to tour the area!
Nearby cairns can often be found standing stones, either as stone circles (like Stonehenge or sites at Kilmarten or Orkney) or stone alignments (like in France). A single standing stone is a menhir.
Cairns, dolmens and standing stones in Europe are at least 5,000 years old -- often more. They are megaliths -- monuments made up of large blocks of stone, and they are part of the Neolithic period of mankind -- much older than Celtic cultures, which they definitely influenced. The site were most probably used by both Celts and the Romans as well. We love these sites because they are amazing feats of engineering (many cairns are waterproof even today, with no cement or modern sealing materials), and because we see them as attempts at understanding the forces of nature -- in other words, attempts at science.
There are neolithic sites throughout this area, and I don't think they are all marked, even on local maps; going out of Trégastel, we passed a standing stone in the middle of a farm field, but didn't stop. I started to see standing stones in people's yards, and it was obvious that they were real ones, not ornaments carved recently.
Just as we were about to start our visits to sites that charge a fee, we got the news: it was free museum and historical sites weekend in France! Major savings, which we used to buy and drink lots and lots of wine.
Other neolithic and Roman sites we saw as we moved West and South:
The Dolmens de Kerguntuill are out in the middle of nowhere and not at all easy to find, but we were delighted once we did. There are two, and you have to wonder, as you stare at the surrounding fields, what else might be around in the area, hidden by local land owners who don't want the government messin' with their stuff.
The Alignments of Kerzerho / Alignements et géants de Kerzerho, in the commune d'Erdeven are very large stone alignments -- stones much larger than those at Carnac -- and they obviously once went all through the area. Now, a road runs through the middle of them, and a few houses are built right up against the stone field. These were some of my favorite alignments though, because of the size of the stones and how easy it was to imagine how huge the area was once. A Roman road is nearby.
Near Locmariaquer are three monuments that date back 6500 years (around 4500 BCE) and a very large tourist center and gift shop: the Table des Marchands is a 30 meter-long dolmen, and Er Grah is a big, entirely-closed cairn nearby. Next to these is the Grand Menhir Brisé, the region's largest menhir, which once stood 20m high; it is now broken and lying on its side. It was once part of an alignment of stones. Archaeologists believe, based on evidence, that this alignment was purposely destroyed by the Neolithic people themselves. Not too long ago, it was discovered that one of the massive pieces of the grand menhir is one of the ceiling stones in the main chamber at the Cairn de Gavrinis (see below). When I found out about that connection, I got a shiver -- I don't know why. Another piece makes up the ceiling of the Table des Marchands dolmen and the Er Grah cairn.
Driving through a village on our way to the site I discuss in the next paragraph, we saw a sign for another dolman, and parked on the side of the road. We walked down an alley between two houses, and came to a small wooded area. And there were a series of steps leading down to the entrance of the dolmen. Good thing we had headlamps! There is no fence around it, no guards, no nothing. We know nothing about it except that it is there. I cannot stress enough that there are Neolithic sites everywhere throughout the area -- some people have standing stones in their yards! We even saw a dolmen on the side of a road leaving Carnac that had no sign, and was next to a house. So we named it the Jayne and Stefan cairn. We visited at least two other dolmens whose names I don't have, both stripped of the small stones that once covered them.
We then headed for the coast to find the Dolmen des Pierres Plates, which Stefan had found by accident on his first trip to the area. There's no office, no brochures, no entrance fee -- it's out near the beach (it was much, much more inland in ancient times) and open to anyone and anything. The dolmen has been stripped long ago of its covering of small stones, but is none-the-less quite impressive, because it's much longer than most dolmens, and has a side chamber off the entryway. There are a lot of carvings on the stones inside the tomb, which you may not see unless you take photos inside and then look at your photos later. But dang it if this site isn't hard to find!
Ofcourse we visited the main alignments of Carnac, which start with the Alignements du Ménec and "end" with the Kerlescan alignments. The entire site covers four kilometers. And there's always at least one Roman road is nearby. The field of the Ménec alignments was open already for the Autumn; it's closed all Spring and Summer, to protect the grasses growing around the standing stones (and, therefore, protects the stones themselves). It was great to get to walk in that vast field of large aligned stones, and wonder what in the heck they were for, how the people were motivated to put them there, and on and on. Across from the field of stones called Le Manio is private property, with a portion open to the public so that you can visit the Kercado dolmen. Unlike other dolmens in the area, this one is still covered in small stones. Royalists hid there during the Revolution. As I stood far outside the entrance, facing away from the structure, I noticed a standing stone. I found out later, while doing research to write the travelogue you are reading now, that the dolmen is surrounded by a wide enclosure consisting of 27 small menhirs, well preserved to the south.
The Cairn de Gavrinis - Sagemore, which we found out about because, once again, I was perusing brochures at a campsite. The brochure was entirely in French, but between Stefan's German and my Spanish, we were able to figure out that reservations were required -- maybe for a boat to the site, maybe for the entire site. Turns out both are true. We went to a tourist office in Carnac and the helpful staff person graciously called in our reservations for the next day. This is an amazing cairn, with an inside that's covered in beautiful swirling carvings -- the most decorations I've seen in a cairn by far. We left by boat at Larmor Baden, and got to barely glimpse the nearby standing stones on another island -- the whole area in neolithic times was not covered in water. More about the area around Gavrinis here.
We stayed at several really good camp sites throughout this tour of ancient sites, like the Camping Municipal de Cruckin, the municipal camp site at Paimpol, and you can imagine how much fun I had with the word "Cruckin." And Le Moustoir, a great place to be based to see the sites in and around Carnac, where we were entertained by many fat baby hedgehogs.
It was time to start heading back East. Since we had come well North of Paris over to the coast, we decided to go back well-South of Paris.
One evening, we stayed in a tiny, tiny village -- and I mean tiny -- at a farm that had a series of well-groomed camp sites on the grounds. It was lovely, and the added bonus was the cat -- almost a kitten, really -- who felt the site was hers and that we needed to pay her appropriate attention. Stefan refused, ofcourse, as he hates cats. I completely babied her (but didn't feed her -- I don't feed any animals but my own). She really wanted in the tent, but Stefan refused. So she stood outside the tent almost the whole night; I almost stepped on her when I went out for a very late night whiz, and had to close the tent flap behind me for fear she'd crawl in the sleeping bag with Stefan. The next morning, I noticed she also made herself at home at other sites, going in freely to the RVs. At breakfast the next morning, as we sat eating our day-old baguette, some cold cuts and cheese, a French woman from one of the RVs came walking into our site with a pot of coffee. Seemed she had made too much and wanted to share. Or, she felt sorry for us for sleeping "outside." We were oh-so-happy to get free coffee again.
Another night, stayed at the Château de la Rolandiére outside of Trogues. It was the second time we had stayed on a chateau lawn on this trip, though the chateau was *much* nicer, and this place offered the oh-so-wonderful baguette-in-the-morning service. The bathroom facilities were clean and fine and all that -- but strange. We decided, given the use of metal and how it was all one unit, that it had been on a ship. But the camp host said no, it was just a very old structure. The wind blew quite a bit, and I sat inside the tent while Stefan sat outside watching the helicopter-like leaves fall all around him.
As we drove farther west, we made for the infamous Verdun Battlefields of World War I via The Voie Sacrée (Sacred Way), a road that was built to supply the French and their allies entrenched against the Germans in the Great War. I got very solemn as we drove along.
Per a recommendation in Lonely Planet France , we visited the Citadelle Souterraine (underground Citaadel), a bigger-than-big, impregnable fortress against any future German aggression, per the horrors of WWI (the Germans agreed that it was impregnable and, therefore, simply went around it, through Belgium, for WWII) The structure is incredibly impressive -- jaw-droppingly so -- but the presentation inside was cheesy, riding around in these little cars and seeing mannequins dressed up as WWI soldiers. We wished they had used REAL photos from the days, rather than reenactment films, which just never looked nor felt real (everyone was nice and clean and well-rested, even in the trenches). After a lot of confusion about which road to take, we headed out of town. We missed out on the Verdun Memorial, as we got there just at closing time. So we went to the Memorial Ossuaire nearby. And... I didn't like it. It's literally built on the bones of the dead from WWI -- you can see them right there through the windows of what you think is the basement. The structure looks like a tribute to the glory of war, rather than to the horrors of such. But it was worth the visit -- it's always worth it to go to such places and remind yourself of the horrors of war. There is nothing to celebrate about such. Nothing.
We also missed out on Der Kaisertunnel, the German version of WWI tunnels. It's open only the first Sunday of every month, and open during the week by appointment only. We missed out on so much in this area -- this is a two-day visit, no question.
More info about all this should be at the Verdun Tourism web site. I wouldn't know, since I could never get the dang thing to load.
We camped one last night just outside of Verdun in a big, mostly empty municipal camp ground staffed by yet-another-friendly French person. In the morning, a woman was walking on the dirt road behind us to the office to check out, and as I said "Bon jour", she made the shiver motion -- her way of asking if we had been cold in the night. I got this a lot from RV folks at various camp sites.
We stopped at Luxembourg on the way home, so Stefan could get cheap cigs, and then headed back to Sinzig -- the trip was officially over on September 22.
And... I'm not going to let France off completely; while being no where nearly as bad as Italy when it comes to stray dogs, they were here and there. And I saw way, way too many dogs tied to a chain in a back yard, and all the signs around the dog that he or she didn't spent much time anywhere else. Come on France... you're better than that...
I wish we could have brought back lots of French wine and cheese, but on the motorcycle, there was just no room for such.
Pictures of the adventure (lots of us and large rocks).
And if you are in the area, or are interested in Neolithic sites in general, I highly recommend the small book The Carnac alignments Neolithic temples (ISSN 1159-1722; ISBN 2-85822-386-6), by Jean-Pierre Mohen. It has a very good map in the map that gives the most detailed notices we could find on where neolithic sites are. It also answered a lot of my questions regarding what the sites may have been for, who built them, where the stones came from, etc.
Another good resources is this site map in English to a web site about the Mégalithes du Morbihan (the Megaliths of Morbihan).
For more info on all the things we saw in France, no matter from what period of history, see the Centre des monuments nationaux
What I was reading on this trip: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, and lots of brochures.
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