My son Cary is a history buff, so my husband Bill and I invited him and his partner Zhanna to a walk through some of the main European battlefields of the world wars, in Belgium and France, ending 10 days later in Paris. Come.
We set off from Paris Charles DeGaulle airport, in our big Volvo, along a now peaceful countryside dotted with beautiful old towns. the Picardy region, stretches north from the Parisian suburbs and from the Champagne vineyards to the beaches of the Bay of Somme on the English Channel.
We first wanted to stop at Compiègne Wagon, the wagon in which both the Armistice of November 11, 1918 and the Armistice of June 22, 1940 were signed. For many Germans – Adolf Hitler included – the signatures in the Compiègne forest were the ultimate betrayal and a national humiliation.
But we couldn’t find the site. There are things happening on road trips, as in life, especially with jet lag. We were so tired that day that we also misdirected the GPS and ended up at the airport and another four hours of driving. It’s life! (And a reminder to relax after an overseas flight.)
We visited the pretty town of Laon, high on a hill above the fields. then drive to Little, “The Capital of Flanders”, known for its culture and Flemish roots.
We spent three nights in Lille and planned to take the train the next day to Ghent, or maybe Brussels – so we chose a hotel near the station. Instead, we decided to sleep, take some time and explore the area more. We were shaken by the mistakes of the day before.
Finally refreshed, we headed to Ypres in western Belgium, a large weaving town in the Middle Ages. Along with Bruges and Ghent, it virtually controlled Flanders in the 13th century. Ypres (Dutch: Ieper, both pronounced “eeper”) has wonderful architecture and a troubled past.
Three major battles of World War I took place near here; the most famous, the Battle of Passchendaele in July-November 1917. The Great War Museum in an old medieval sheet factory near the cathedral provides a perspective.
We bought a map at the museum and took the tour to see where the battles were going. We strolled through poppy fields that were once scenes of bloody warfare, and thought about and talked about life near solemn cemeteries and monuments, and along peaceful meadows.
In Ypres, we made sure to attend the Last Post ceremony, which was held every night at 7 p.m. at the Menin Gate, which bears the names of more than 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient during World War I, and whose graves are unknown.
The next day we went from nearby Lille Used, the capital of West Flanders in northwestern Belgium, the popular city with a fairytale center filled with canals, cobbled streets and medieval buildings. In Burg Square, the 14th-century Stadhuis (Town Hall) features an ornate carved ceiling. Nearby, Markt Square has a 13th century belfry with a 47-bell carillon and a tower offering panoramic views.
We stayed for dinner so the crowds would dissipate and we walked around afterwards. I recommend staying in Bruges, to spend early morning and evening, the best times to avoid the crowds.
The next day we went to Amiens, in France, and stayed for two nights. This university city has a remarkable Gothic cathedral, gardens floating on its canals and the Maison de Jules Verne, the home of the 19th century novelist, now a museum.
The next day we toured the site of WWI battles including the Battle of the Somme in 1916, one of the most important of the First World War and among the bloodiest in all of human history.
British forces suffered more than 57,000 casualties, including over 19,000 soldiers killed, on the first day of the battle alone. In the small town of Péronne, an excellent museum of the Great War is located in a castle, illustrating the battles nearby.
The next day we stopped Rouen, a port city on the Seine and the capital of the northern region of France, Normandy. Rouen was important during Roman times and the Middle Ages, and has a cobbled pedestrian center with medieval half-timbered houses. The skyline is dominated by the spiers of Notre-Dame Cathedral, heavily painted by the impressionist Claude Monet.
Jeanne D’Arc, a national heroine, was burned at the stake here, and of The Crowned, the oldest inn in France, where we had lunch, we could see this famous site across the street. This is the restaurant where Julia Child, the great foodie and cookbook writer, had her first meal in France, and the rest is another story of a famous woman.
On our way to our next accommodation, we stopped at Honfleur, prettiest port in Normandy, on the estuary where the Seine meets the Channel. The Vieux-Bassin is bordered by townhouses from the 16th to the 18th century and was painted by artists including Monet and his native son Eugène Boudin. Nearby is the 15th-century Church of St. Catherine, a vaulted wooden structure erected by shipbuilders.
We got on a carousel, wandered around for a bit to enjoy the scene, and then we went to Bayeaux, 10 kilometers from the Channel coast. The medieval city center contains cobbled streets, half-timbered houses and the imposing Norman Gothic Notre-Dame cathedral.
The famous Bayeux tapestry, an 11th century tapestry depicting the Norman invasion of England in 1066, is on display in an 18th century seminary and lives up to its reputation.
We spent a whole day experiencing the most recent invasion: the moving sites of Omaha Beach, the American Cemetery, the War Museum and the surrounding artillery batteries and the remains of D-Day and the hard battles of World War II.
After this moving visit, the next morning, we decided not to drive up to Mont St Michel, quite a journey, before returning to Paris. A wise decision (unlike our first day this time we wandered out of caution) as it was a Friday and a public holiday. Around the Champs Elysées, traffic was indeed fierce.
Arrived at our favorite little hotel on the Left Bank, we dropped the car off and spent a pleasant few days in Paris. (This takes another article. It’s Paris!)
And that gives you an idea of our successful family trip. The independence of a car, along with thoughtfulness and enthusiasm, made it work. Consider a road trip, wherever and whatever you are looking for, and enjoy the trip as well as the destinations: mistakes, detours and all.