France 2017

After a long stint back in the Salt Mines we are back out on the road for four months. Destination sunshine, but instead of the usual Santander crossing we took the Poole – Cherbourg route this time. Horrendous journey down to Poole, accidents galore and way too much traffic on the roads, 8 hours later we arrived at Poole where they kindly allow you to park up overnight on the dock for the princely sum of £5.

Next morning we were loaded on the Brittany ferry pronto and off, blue skies, calm seas and a fabulous breakfast saw us through the 4 hours and arrival at Cherbourg.


We headed off to the coast for a free stop at the Plage Sciotot  (N 49 30 2.1  W 1 50 50.4) A few hardy souls around but as night fell everyone left except us and a few surfer vans.  We congratulated ourselves on choosing to drive down through France, smug as bugs we were thinking of pottering around in a bit of winter sun for the next couple of weeks.


Typical Baxter plan, lasted all of 24 hours, then we hit fog. Really thick fog that was freezing, down to minus 5 in the daytime. We took cover at the aire at St. Nazaire (N 47 14 13  W 2 18 01 ) For aire, read small parking area no view, just fog and an eerie feel to the place. there were two motorhomes already there, after an hour we realised they weren’t inhabited – just kind of dumped.  We knew this was a blip and fully expected the sun to be back next day – nope!! Next morning it was worse, frost so deep it looked like a good layer of snow and for so dense we could see 50 metres from the van tops.


Ooooh fab – winter sun in France 

We rapidly agreed that France in fog and frost wasn’t going to so much fun. Digging deep in the budget we hit the toll roads and try and find clearer weather. By the time we reached Bordeaux the fog had cleared, still freezing though so we headed for the campsite on the ring road, Camping Beausoleil (N44 45 20 W 0 37 39 ) mainly as the tram / bus to the city runs from a few hundred metres outside the campsite. I went to book us in, met with a rather stern lady on reception so I decided to lighten the mode by giving her the benefit of my O’level standard spoken French – she remained stern looked askance and immediately re-started the conversation in English :).

New Years Day, wrapped up against the element we took the bus to meet the tram – (€3 each bargain). We love trams, our favourite mode of transport, maybe not so much after a whole city has been out celebrating until a few hours previously. Eau-de-puke and spilled beer was very prevalent, as were some puddle type areas on the floor we avoided as best we could! I would like to write a very detailed description of Bordeaux, suffice to say we loved the recently restored neoclassical architecture, the city appears to full of things to see and do – but quite honestly it was too cold for us do much more than wander around at a fairly rapid pace to prevent frostbite.

The biggest disappointment wasn’t the weather, it was the “Miroir d’Eau”, water wasn’t on so it was just a case of standing on a concrete slab remembering how it looked on Google pictures.


Back on tolls, still in fog and we crossed the border at Irun into Spain – 10 minutes later fog lifted, sun shone – hurray for Spain. We crossed in seconds, the traffic coming in from Spain was queuing back over 4 miles in two lanes. Lots of French checks going on with police and transport, think we will avoid that route going home, but that’s too far away to worry about for now it’s all going to be about Spain :).


  Viva L’Espania


And so it ends (well for this trip anyway!)

Our last post of call, before the call of the port so to speak, was Brugge. The one sure plan we have always had was a day in Brugge before we caught the ferry home. Quite frankly we were both fairly gobsmacked as to how we managed to arrive with such impeccable timing.

Brugge is said to be one of the world’s first tourist destinations, having set up a Tourist Information as far back as 1909, they have certainly had time to work out what the tourist wants and they have it with abundance – medieval architecture, lace and chocolate are  everywhere.  We find it hard to believe anyone leaves the city without purchasing chocolate, you need a steel brace to avert your eyes from the mouth watering displays.

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The Markt – Brugge

By luck or whatever Brugge remained relatively unscathed during the war and retains most of it’s medieval architecture. We struck lucky and both the Church of our Lady and St. Salvator’s Cathedral had their scaffolding removed recently, on the downside the insides of both buildings are being restored so we missed seeing the interiors.   It was be churlish to complain though when instead we visited the Burg Square, the Markt and several other areas containing some of the most sensational buildings we have seen anywhere.

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Burg Square

We popped in Sunday for a couple of hours and decided to go back for a full day Monday thinking it would be quieter. Not a bit, possibly busier on Monday – we stayed on the town aire next to the coach drop off and pick up, hundreds of buses in and out all day with at least half of them British and the other half school children.

Despite Brugge giving the impression of a a tranquil place to visit it really isn’t. The sheer numbers of tourist, the horses and carts clattering around the cobbles and the carillon of 48 bells, added to the bells of several other churches, meant at times it was difficult to hear yourself speak.  Surely though one of the highlights of Brugge is when the carillon in the Belfry of Brugge strikes up a ringing rendition of “It’s a long way to Tipperary” on the hour, every hour – truly amazing.

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When in Rome….so obviously when in Brugge chocolate is mandatory. I never thought it would be possible to say this but, there are too many chocolate shops. It is mind blowing, hundreds and hundreds of them on every street. I needed to shop for chocolate so left Iain to his own devices for a couple of hours whilst I perused. I then came to realise the benefits of so many shops – everyone I actually went in offered me a sample chocolate! On a roll I visited eight shops before purchasing :), now slightly sick of the taste of Belgian chocolate.

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Aside from chocolate we wanted to visit Brugge to see the canals. I am going to have to say it didn’t come across as the ‘Venice of the North’ to us, a fair few canals but mainly small with lots of dead-ends. That isn’t too take away from the charm of  the canals and their setting alongside 17th century warehouses and homes, it stands on it’s own merits without needing a  Venice type canal label.

We of course took the obligatory canal boat trip, forget sedate and flowing – think more pack ’em in and speed ’em round. Due to the low bridges there are just one type of boat and they fair nip around causing a few wakes as they go.

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There endeth the Grand Depart tour around Europe for us, Zeebrugge tonight and ferry home tomorrow.

We have had the absolute time of our lives, we have seen and done more than we thought possible – it has been everything we hoped it would be and so much more. In summary :31 border crossings, 20 countries, 19,000 miles, (passports checked just twice).

We are well under our budget, amazingly, but sure we will see a lot of that go with the 25 essential maintenance jobs on the list required for the van (thank the Lord for gaffer tape its all that’s holding us together right now).

There have been a few navigational related skirmishes, but trying to get us around Europe on a 1:3 200 000 atlas was always asking for a few headaches!

We would do it all again without a moments thought – well we did think we might like one of these to go with, but guess our van will have to do.

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The first question is always where we did like best? We didn’t, honestly, every country we visited we found amazing sights, lovely people and had fun. Whenever anyone asked that questions during the trip it was always the country we had just left.

Every day was an experience, things we had only read about previously were seen in the flesh : visiting Meteora, driving Trollstigen, flying in an Airship, crossing Millau Bridge, walking into Russia (ok only two steps but we did it). Others were stark reminders of how lucky we are: the ferry fire on the Norman Atlantic, Auschwitz, the WWI and WWII battle-grounds and the military cemetery.

Our lack of real planning and direction paid off more than we could have hoped mainly because Europe is stuffed full of incredible things to see – you would struggle to miss them – luckily for us!


In the words of the that famous 20th century commentator “That’s all folks”.

The Last Post (but not quite ours)

When we left home 11 months ago we said our destination was Belgium and we would take the longest route we could to get there. Just over 11 1/2 months, 17000 miles and 600 gallons of diesel later – we have arrived :).

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Belgium held out on us slightly on the weather front as 10 miles over the border we hit pea soup fog.  We agreed it was pointless to carry on driving as we weren’t seeing anything. I had noted down details of a little camperstop outside a castle, sounded like the best plan to sit out and wait for the sunshine to come back (misplaced optimism there!)

We arrived at Wegimont Chateau and it wasn’t quite as expected,  eight spots for motorhomes but also about 200 permanent pitches where the owners stretch out to the limits of their space, a bit like a canvas city.  Showers were only allowed at set times and bingo took place each afternoon in the community tent – not somewhere we were going to be staying too long at all!


Wegimont Chateau

On the upside there was a castle on the site – or Chateau –  a Louis XIV style building that was the only Lebensborn maternity home in Belgium. During WWII, these homes were state approved associations with the goal of raising the birth rate of Aryan children via extramarital relations of German men classed as racially pure and healthy with unmarried women. Known locally as an ‘Ayran Stud Farms’, the resultant children were then adopted by likewise “racially pure and healthy” parents, particularly SS members and their families.

A cold, wet and dull day we walked around the park – full winter gear out of the cupboards including gloves for the first time in nearly a year, we managed a full sweep of the arboretum and then a quick hike around town to stock up on a few bits then back to the van for a warm up. Each time it gets a bit colder I have used this as evidence to convince Iain we should head for Portugal for some winter sun – alas so far he is holding out for heading home.


We had planned for a few days around the Liege area, however waking to sleet on Wednesday scuppered that one. Instead we aimed West and left the sleet behind, instead we hit snow! Proper white flakes of the stuff, falling fairly rapidly but luckily not sticking enough to make driving a problem.

By the time we had arrived in Tournai all signs of snow had gone, replaced with rain and a promise of sunshine later.  Tournai is the oldest town in Belgium, we had never heard of it, not sure why as its very impressive. One of Belgium’s most culturally import towns, it is chock full of magnificent buildings, including the oldest cathedral in Belgium.

As is usual for us the cathedral was shrouded in scaffolding undergoing restoration. The ‘Grand Place’ town square is a mix of trendy shops, bars and several museums set around cobbled streets with a series of water fountains – all in all a great place to spend an afternoon – unless its freezing and damp which it was so we made do with a couple of hours whistle stop tour.



As we  started off last November with a visit to the Etaples military cemetery in France so decided our penultimate stop off point would be Ypres. I have never been before, for whatever reason I thought it was a village with the famous Menin Gate.

Somewhat surprised then to find a fairly substantial city, rebuilt post WWII with German reparation money. The main buildings in the city centre have been reconstructed as close to the original as possible, it is nearly impossible to believe these building were raised to the ground so recently.  The Cloth Hall was one of the largest commercial buildings of the Middle Ages in Europe,  the new structure is the exact copy of the original medieval building.

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the Cloth Hall

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the best roof ever – anywhere

The main reason for visiting Ypres, for us as for many others, was to see the Menin Gate Memorial for the Missing. Over 54,000 Commonwealth soldiers from WWI that have no final resting place are commemorated here (with a further 35,000 names that wouldn’t fit on this memorial inscribed at the nearby Tyne Cot memorial).  We were told by a lady from the British Legion in town to be at the gate just after 7pm, even though the service is at 8pm.

We were amazed, when we arrived there were close on 1,000 people, and we were told this is the same every night of the week, every week of the year since 1928 (with a short break during WWII when Ypres was occupied). We stood with a group of Blackwatch Cadets who had travelled there for the weekend, the next night they were forming a guard of honour (the youngsters had all funded their own trips in order to stand for 10 minutes in honour of the dead).

When the three buglers from the local fire brigade sounded the Last Post, it was one of the most simple and moving events either of us have had the honour to attend.

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The Menin Gate

Quiet but not peaceful

After 20 countries we have to admit that sometimes places merge and we have to stop and think where we are. This week being in the “Little Switzerland” region of Luxembourg has been a tad confusing, as we never made Switzerland we will take it as a taster version.

We are both surprised at Luxembourg, it has been nothing that we expected. We thought such a small country would be very cramped with little outdoor space. We couldn’t have been further wrong, it’s like driving around one big parkland with the odd small village or town slotted in.  Whilst we have seen more than our fair share of forests in the last year we have never seen so many broad leaf woods. Hardly a pine or conifer in sight and being autumn the trees are magnificent it really felt as remote as Scandinavia as we drove up the German border.

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The benches come in big sizes here

As we drove through we were passing walking trails all the way, the forecast was for sunshine so we stopped for two nights at Kohnenhof so we could get out and do some walking.  Of course it rained fairly solidly all day, despite that we followed a trail up through the forests and then back down along the river. It pleases our sense of the adventure that we crossed over and back from Germany on the river footbridges twice, not even a sign that its a new country.

Language gets more confusing here all the time, we go into a shop and speak French, they respond in German – so we try a bit of German and they go to French! It seems natural to the people here to talk in both languages, we are now encountering more Dutch mixed in too. There is also a language called Luxembourgish, a French version of German but it seems not many people use that one – thankfully.


He stayed dry

Our last stop in Luxembourg has been Clervaux another postcard setting with a castle, historic church and even an Abbey on the hill. We rolled in Saturday morning looking for the crowds, nope just us then. Car-parks empty, hardly a soul around, Luxembourg feels deserted, it may be out of season but even so we have not seen a country this quiet before. The town centre consists of several shops, four good sized hotels and river running through. Anywhere else this would be a tourist magnet but for some reason not here.

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The castle, as with pretty much everything in Luxembourg, was destroyed during the Battle of the Bulge, now fully restored it houses the museum of the Battle of the Bulge, more a collection of thousands of war artifacts from guns and uniforms to cigarette tins and pieces of old crates. As with most of the country they have a U.S. Sherman tank that participated in WWII and a German 88 anti-aircraft gun, both  outside the castle walls.

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The combined ticket also took us into the model castle exhibition. A 1:100 model of every one of the 15 castles in Luxembourg including the surrounding villages,  they are well done but have to say after the third or fourth it felt like groundhog day.

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Every town and village has a tank they are rightly proud of

The castle towers house the world famous “Family of Man” photographic exhibition. First shown in 1955 in New York, it then toured the world for eight years, having shows in 37 countries and being seen by more than 9 million people.  The photographs focus on the shared  features of mankind and humanism, with over 500 photos it is a lot to take in, some sad, some funny and many thought provoking. We spent an hour walking through but could easily have spent a day to really see every photograph properly.

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from The Family of Man – one of my favourites

This morning dawned bright blue skies so we set off to for the Benedictine Abbey of St. Maurice on the hill above the town. The Neo-Romanesque structure was built in 1910 but looks much older, a footpath winds it way up through the trees and after half an hour we were at the gates. We arrived just as one of their services was finishing, from outside the church we could just hear the gentle singing of the monks, perfect voices in a perfect setting.

There was a small exhibition area we were allowed to visit which showed photographs of how the monks live such as one on a tractor, another on a computer etc. Other than that there was no admittance to the abbey as the monks live a very secluded life. They do make a slight exception from their retiring lives and open their gift shops for an hour a day 🙂 commerce doesn’t stop for even a Benedictine Monk.

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Church Saints Cosmas and Damian

As we are being blessed with a few days of Indian summer we have stayed put for the weekend, on an amazing little campsite just on the edge of town. Everything we need plus a pitch the size of our garden and joy of joys a washing machine and dryer – never realised how much I would miss our washing machine. Most weeks we do a hand-wash but as the budget looks good went mad and did two loads in the machine – woohoo.

We have spent the rest afternoon sat in the sunshine listening to the hundreds of motorbikes roaring around the country lanes vying for attention with the constant bell ringing every 15 minutes at the town church and the Abbey getting in on the act every half hour.  Sunshine forecast well into next week so the plan is to work out a plan to see as much as Belgium as we can before we head home.

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Relaxing reading for the final push North 🙂

so good they named it twice?

Sunday morning we shot through Belgium and arrived in Luxembourg (Belgium is being saved until last).  Our first impressions were so much space and a love of pink – in every hamlet and village pink paint abounds on houses, restaurants and even the odd garage. The other thing that struck us is we have hit autumn – in the space of a few hours drive the trees are in shedding leaves like there is no tomorrow.

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Our first stop was just outside Ettlebruck at Dietsch. A gigantic campsite next to the river but only five or six vans and a couple of caravans there so we had roughly 30 pitches of space each between us, or we should have. Not sure what’s with people who need to pitch next door, acres of space but three nights running vans came in and parked either side of us.


Chateau Berdorf

Monday morning dawned cold, damp and grey, we got the bikes out for a ride to on yet more brilliant cycle paths, all off road – so good that despite the cold we continued onto Colmar (home of a Goodyear factory – weirdly good smell) before retracing out steps into Ettlebruck for a warming coffee stop – they even gave us blankets at the pavement cafe.

Being slightly confused with what language we should be using we asked the waitress, she said any will do, people speak French, English, German or often Portuguese!

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The way ahead – blankets at all cafes

The town was liberted by the US in 1944 but re-taken by Germany in the December during the Battle of the Bulge. No less than General Patton himself led the the troops into retake the town again a couple of weeks later for the final liberation from the Nazi occupation. With so much fighting taking place the town has very few older buildings, lots of post war apartments, shops with the occasional ally-way of pre-war houses dotted around.


Pink painted buildings abound

Breaking a habit we went been to Luxembourg city for a day. We used the local train which  ran hourly, 40 minutes each way, a double decker train and €4 each – worth it for the journey alone.


Luxembourg Luxembourg (ie the city bit) is  ranked 1st in terms of safety out of 221 cities across the world. Not surprising in a lot of ways as its very small, most people seem to be office folk and maybe because it was raining cats and dogs there were very few tourists around.  That said there are more than enough historic buildings to visit, we saw the Ducal Palace but sadly the castle was under wraps as scaffold covers a large part.

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For a small city there is a fair bit of up and down hill to get around. There are two deep gorges running through the city, both over 230 ft deep, most of the city is built high on the cliffs each side leaving the bottom of the valleys at parkland and open green spaces. We braved the rain and headed for the Bock, a natural cliff at the edge the city that contains the ruins of a castle and miles of tunnels.

It is an easy city to walk in a few hours, the old town has a good shopping area with all the household names but the rain meant we weren’t really that interested. Wet through we gave up after a lunch stop and headed back to the campsite.

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We decided to move along to the border region and arrived in Echternach, a small town on the German border, literally – cross over a small foot bridge and you are in Germany – less than 20ft between them over a small river. The town was founded back in 698 AD by a Brit, none other than St. Wilibrord from Ripon (another Yorkshire man!).  An impressive Basilica stands in the centre of town where Wilibrords tomb is housed in the crypt. The town was very much what we thought all German towns would be more like, medieval walls with towers, cobbled streets and tall houses – most of the town was badly damaged in WWII but has since been completely restored.

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Another of the must see here is Vianden, a small village but with a whooper of a castle perched on the hillside.  Built in the 11th century it was left to fall into disrepair in the 1800’s. It was only recently in 1997 that the Grand Duke gave the castle to the state and restorations were completed.  The other main claim to fame is the annual ‘nut fair’  where local walnuts are on sale together with walnut cakes, walnut confectionary, walnut brandy and walnut liqueurs – it on this Sunday so we may go back.

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Vianden village

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Vianden castle

Whilst in the village, joy of joys, we came across a chair lift which climbed over 450 ft up a sheer cliff. We did, as you do – bloody nightmare. It started off fine, then crossed the river, followed by the main road and if that wasn’t bad enough your feet are dangling in the tree canopy all the way. Strangely enough no people coming down, just seats with beer barrels and crates!


When we got to the top it was a bit of a let down, no views of the castle as the trees have grown way too high over the years. To use the loo they want another 50 cents of your money and for the photo they took of you terrified on the way up another €6. I was going to walk down it was that bad going up, to be fair the down trip wasn’t as bad.



The Great War fields of Verdun

After two nights in Charmes we had to move on, my nerves were in shreds – a huge flock of roosting crows came into the trees around the canal at dusk. The noise was actually quite frightening, like being in the ‘Birds’, there must have been over 300-400 of them. This was nothing though compared to the encore that took place from around midnight for 2-3 hours something must disturb them as it just gets louder and louder

To the North of Nancy we found the small town of Pont-a-Mousson, with a lovely aire on the harbour. The town had a bit more life about it than Charmes, with what we call a very French town square : plenty of pavement cafes with men smoking disgustingly smelly gauloise cigarettes and drinking wine, women looking super chic clattering around the cobbles in high heels and all the teenagers loitering around looking achingly cool as they wander around with music bouncing out from iplayers.

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No matter how many lovely towns and villages there are and what tourist attractions are promoted, it is impossible not to be drawn to the history of the area, the echoes of WWI are everywhere. We drove through the Lorraine National Park along lanes not much more than forest tracks, in the midst of pretty much nowhere we came across the Calonne Trenches. A short walk from the road we found trenches together with tunnels used for supplies, medical purposes and communications bases.

Along the same pathway we came across the pit where the body of the famous French author Alain Fournier ( writer of the French classic ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’)  and 20 of his comrades were discovered in 1994,  they died in 1914 fighting in the trenches and their bodies lie undiscovered in a shallow trench for 80 years.

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Tunnels at Calonne trenches

We couldn’t help but be drawn to the Ossuary at Douaumont, which contains the remains of 130,000 unknown German and French soldiers, the skeletal remains can be seen through small windows at the lower edges of the monument. In front of the monument stands one of the National cemeteries of France, where the bodies of a further 16,142 soldiers are buried.  Iain climbed the tower and took some incredible photos of the graves whch are situated where once many of the battles took place.

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The Ossuary Douaumont


View from the Ossuary tower of some of the graves

Despite the incredible beauty of, and the stories behind, the memorials the place that probably touched both our hearts most was Fleury Devant Douaumont. There is a road sign for the start and end of the town – but no town. After being captured and recaptured during 16 battles it was totally destroyed. Nothing at all remains except the narrow roadways and where homes, businesses and civic building once stood now just a simple stone marker with an inscription as to the type of building once there.

It is one of eight towns that are officially designated as “villages that died for France”. Fleury still has a mayor and is listed as a town but the damage to the land meant a decision was made it will never be rebuilt.

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Once a thriving town

Aside from the Ossuary the other great structure of memorial is that of the Mountfaucon American Monument. It can be seen from miles and miles around, nearby stands the US cemetery with thousands more graves. The monument is just over 196 ft high we climbed to the top, up 234 spiral steps, for the views over the fields that were once the scene of the many battles of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive during World WWI. The monument faces the front line of the US army at the start of the offensive on September 26th  1918, the biggest battle in American history up to that time involving over 1.2 million US soldiers.

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Mountfaucon Monument

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The site of the Meuse-Argonne offensive


Whilst touring in the area we have seen literally hundreds of monuments from the smallest inscription on a bridge, to statues and obelisks, to the enormous Ossaury at Douaumont and the American Monument of Montfaucon -what every single one has in common is it seems to be treated with respect. There are no gates or walls surrounding any of the memorials and many of the graveyards. In most cases roads pass alongside the monument be it large or small so access is possible 24 hours a day. Yet, there is no damage, no graffiti, no vandalism. It’s hard to imagine some of these things being in the UK and not needing to be locked up with high security to prevent someone stealing the crosses or the lead guttering, or spray painting some inane message on a monument.

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 Trenches Des Baionnettes

Our week ended at Dun Sur Meuse, another small town with a  camperstop on the side of the river where we parked up with the locals. Early evening a tres jolly lady came around and collected our €6, a couple of the other French vanners got out the fishing roads and we all settled down to a stunning sunset.

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Our spell of good weather came to an end this morning, its lasted way longer than we thought so no complaints here. Probably quite a scenic drive through the Ardennes, we didn’t see much due to drizzle, fog and total concentration on looking out for a garage. Yes indeed, we pulled that old school boy trick of letting the diesel run to just on the red then looking for a garage in France on a Sunday! After a good few miles on clenched bottoms we spotted an open garage – diesel gauge now showing an attractive looking half full, rained stopped, sun peeking out and the Belgium border in front of us – all good with our world again :).

In search of the quiche

When we were leaving Alsace on route to Lorraine all we needed to do was re-trace our steps then take a left instead of a right over the Alsage – simples then. Oh no, Iain had seen a tunnel on the map, over 5 miles of tunnel so as tunnels appeal to him we needed to take that route.  Mile after mile of dead straight road under a mountain, no other vehicles in either direction – uh how much is this costing? Iain guessed at around €4, I was sure nearer €6. Oh how well we were fooled € 17.20 to drive through a dark hole! Iain is no longer allowed to choose routes.

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More of this – less of tunnels

We are in no rush at all  as we have covered pretty much all we want to (Luxembourg is yet to come but on route). We know we can be in the channel ports in a day at a push so we intend to meander around and take longer breaks for the next few weeks. In the spirit of being on a holiday from travelling we found a small campsite  on the edge of the small village of Raon L’Etape to sit in the sunshine for a few days.

It probably isn’t  visited by too many tourists, all the more mundane shops essential to daily life, just the one cafe and a rather plush outdoor swimming pool. One thing they have got a monopoly on is fountains – we counted at least six, elaborate Victorian type structures in the town centre. We stopped off at a small local shop to stock up with fruit, not sure how well our French translated as we seem to have bought shares in the shop rather than just pay for a bag of fruit!

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Raon L’Etape

Driving through the region it’s nearly impossible to go more than a few miles without reaching a war memorial or a military cemetery.  Every village or town has it’s own battle story, in most they have two – one for each war. At Raon L’Etape there was a simple plaque dedicated to the memory of 1500 soldiers of the US 100th Infantry who died, were injured or captured during a 14 day battle for the town in 1944, then in the cemetery on the way out of town were the graves of hundreds of French soldiers who died in in WWI.

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Literally a few miles up the road we came across Chipotte memorial and cemetery. The site marks the place where a WWI battle took place over 15 days, the cemetery has 1,006 individual graves and two ossuaries holding the remains of 1,899 soldiers whose remains could not be identified. Whether it be in military cemeteries or those included in town and village graveyards the crosses are all similar in that they show just a name, date of death and the words “Mort pour La France”.

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Col De La Chipotte

We have have an interest in recent history so visiting these places is always an honour, whilst it’s without a doubt often a very bleak and sad experience it seems wrong not to visit where so many have died to enable us to do what we do, travel freely around Europe.

Therefore having read about the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp being close by we both agreed to take a slight detour to visit. It is the only concentration camp that was established on French soil, mainly housing political prisoners and members of the Resistance, together with lesser numbers of Jews, gypsies etc. The camp held over 8000 at its fullest and also had 70 sub camps in the immediate region holding a further 19,000 prisoners.

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The stories remain as unbelievable as those of any other camp including medical experiments, tortures and gas chambers.  As with other camps the prisoners knew the Allies were approaching in 1944 and believed liberation and freedom was imminent. In a matter of days before the Allies arrived at the camp that hope was sadly crushed as the German’s decided to evacuate the camp and march over 7000 prisoners with them to Dachau concentration camp where most were subsequently murdered – as the memorial there says “Freedom – so near and yet so far”.

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 Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration camp

From Natzweiler we took a scenic route through Lorraine towards the Moselle River and the town of Charmes. Very few other vehicles on the roads so a peaceful afternoon to appreciate the beautiful scenery, whilst none of the villages we passed would be classed as a tourist must see they all had their own charm. In lots of ways its the older houses with plaster falling off, paint fading on the shutters and geraniums hiding much of the building that, for us, are the spirit of France (no cyclist with onions round his neck and a black and white t.shirt yet but we live in hope).

Charmes is a small village, pretty well destroyed in WWI, rebuilt and then it suffered the same fate again in WWII. On the positive side the Moselle River and the Canal De L’Est ru through the centre, and on an even better note the aire is next to the canal so we pitched up with a pretty perfect view for a few nights. Seemingly a popular stop with the French moho’s, a good number parked up with picnic tables out and a couple of petanqe tournaments taking place on the roadway.

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Canal-side home for a couple of nights

Nothing much we enjoy more than the bikes off for a cycle on a good flat canal tow-path, it is perfect cycling country here. We rode over 25 miles on tarmac paths and saw three other cyclists – not sure the French appreciate how good their velo network is.  The canal is decidedly quiet, we passed one quarry that had a few barges filling up but other than that no boats, not even a holiday barge cruising. There are plenty of locks but it seems all are now automated, there are signs for the boats to use some sort of remote key card, as they do the locks are automatically filled / emptied and the gates opened and closed, clever but not as good to watch as the old fashioned way.

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The Canal De L’Est