Friday, November 16, 2012

France (VI): A Pretty Burg

From Aire-sur-la-Lys, there is a long, straight road that runs all the way up to Cassel. I made excellent time and my bike completed the Cassel Run in under 12 parsecs. As I got further north and closer to Belgium, the town names began looking distinctly Flemish. I didn't expect that in France.

I continued until I reached the old fortified town of Bergues, which is just to the south of Dunkerque, from where the Allies were evacuated in WWII.

I did the 5km walk around the old walls.

And that's about it for my trip. The next day I did a long, unpleasant ride into a gale along a canal towpath to get me back to Calais, where I spent the night before catching the bus back to England.

Overall, it was another great cycle tour. I took my cooker on this trip, but couldn't get the stupid French meths to light, so I didn't get to cook my own food.

I conveniently missed the tedious jubilee celebrations in the UK, but did spend a lot of the week in the rain. Provence certainly would've been warmer. It was election season while I was there, so in every town campaign posters were plastered everywhere.

When I got back to England, my odometer was on 497kms and I had to bike another 10kms to get home. There was a huge downpour and my bike computer stopped working, so I never made it to 500kms. Well, I did, but I didn't.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

France (V): An Aire of Neglect

From Arras I swung north again, with frequent stops at the ever-present Commonwealth cemeteries. I must say, they are all immaculately maintained.

The signs at the gate tell you the nationalities of the soldiers buried there. They are mostly British, although there are always some Australians and more Canadians than you would expect. New Zealanders are quite rare. I think many of them are at Caterpillar Valley to the south of Arras. In one cemetery there was a single Chinese grave. God knows how he got caught up in it all.

I detoured north-west to the town of Fresnicourt-le-Dolmen, which had an intriguing icon on the map. Sure enough, in a secluded spot outside the town I found a dolmen. Apparently this one is called "La Table des Fées" (the Fairies' Table), and legend has it that fairies gather around it. On a completely unrelated note, I paused there for lunch.

These Gauls are crazy

Somewhere around Bethune, I met the Canal d'Aire and began cycling along the canal towpath.  It was like a wide, sealed footpath and it was perfect for zooming along. I followed it all the way to Aire-sur-la-Lys.

ASLL has a similar history to Bruges. Built at the junction of the canal and the Lys river, it made considerable wealth by being at a key point in the canal network. However, when the railways replaced barges, its power began to fade. ASLL is pretty, but unlike Bruges it has an air of shabbiness and decline now.

The perfect evening after a day on the bike: a large pizza with olives, capers and anchovies, Game of Thrones, a bottle of French wine and iced tea:

France (IV): The Battle of Arras

The New Zealand tunnels were never actually used for a major push, but a lot of fighting occurred around Arras. The Canadians took Vimy Ridge at high cost and the British also took high casualties. The Australians fought to the south. The WWI cemetery in Arras is large, containing about 35,000 graves.

While the Kiwis were winning the war underground, the Germans were certainly winning above the ground. Pilots fought dogfights over Arras, including the devastating "Red Baron" von Richthofen (80 kills) and his brother Lothar (40 kills). In "Bloody April", the English pilots around Arras had an average flying life of 18 hours.

Arras wasn't just involved in the first world war. Outside the citadel, German soldiers executed over 200 members of the resistance in WWII. They are commemorated in the quarry where they died on Le Mur des Fusillés.

On a happier note, on the walk between the Wellington quarry and the citadel, I spotted an excavation of Roman ruins.


"The General" by Siegfried Sassoon

Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
                  *          *          *
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

France (III): Pain in Arras

I rolled into Arras in the evening. I had a printed Google Map of the town showing me where the municipal campground was, but I spend hours hunting around and couldn't find it. The phone number doesn't work, either. There are Google hits for it, but I don't think it exists. Perhaps it closed down.

It was getting dark, so I decided to grab a hotel room. But that was problematic, too. It turned out the congress was in town and the place was full. I telephoned tonnes of hotels, and was rejected by all, until I finally found a place with a spare room. Oh well, it was a great way to practice my French.

New Zealand played an important role in Arras in the first world war. The town is built on a series of abandoned chalk quarries. A plan was devised to dig through the chalk to the enemy trenches, blast out the walls and send forth a huge fighting force without them having to cross no man's land.

The New Zealand Tunnelling Company were the first Kiwis on the Western Front. When they arrived, the Germans had tunnels under Arras of their own. Apparently, the miners on each side could hear the enemy digging towards them. The New Zealanders were mostly ex-miners and they swung the tunnelling contest back in the allies favour.

They created 20km of tunnels, capable of housing 24,000 men and had electricity, water, latrines and an operating theatre. The areas were named after parts of New Zealand. There is now a great tour where you can descend 18m into the ground in an elevator and walk around in the tunnels in the Wellington quarry.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

France (II): Somme Where, Out There...

The Somme, of course, immediately conjures visions of horrific WWI trench warfare. The Battle of the Somme lasted slightly less than 6 months, but claimed over 1 million lives. The first day of fighting remains the bloodiest day in British history, with about 60,000 casualties.

I wasn't long on the road before I hit my first Commonwealth cemetery.

Poppy Fields: Not Just in Flanders

This guy was a second lieutenant in the air force, before being killed at 19.

A New Zealander. Our soldiers did not get a quote on their graves.

A German grave. I find it interesting that they bury both sides together.

Monday, November 12, 2012

France (I): We All Went Down to Montreuil...

In early June, I caught the European Bike Express. It is a bus that drives down England and then down through France to Spain towing a bike trailer, specifically to transport cycle tourists. My spiritual brethren!

I wanted to take it to Provence, but that would've meant spending an extra day and night on the bus, so I settled for bailing out at Calais.

My First Visit to the White Cliffs

It didn't start brilliantly. The ferry arrived in the evening and the bus drove me through Calais and out the other side to an area of motorway on-ramps before turfing me out in the twilight. I had a map of Calais, but I couldn't work out where I was. I biked back into town and eventually found my way to the hotel. It was a bit stressful.

The hotel staff were very nice, however. They let me store my bike in the breakfast lounge overnight.

Next Morning, Outside the Hotel in Calais

The first day was a long and relentlessly rainy one. I left Calais to the west. In the countryside outside Calais, a scruffy pedestrian flagged me down. "Parlez vous Anglais?" I asked. He stared at me. "Parlez vous Francais?" I asked. He continued to stare, then said "Praha". Praha is the local name for Prague. I replied "Praha? Czech?". He nodded. I pointed east. "It's that way, mate". He nodded and resumed walking. I wish I knew how that story ends.

At a village outside Calais I had an experience designed to remind me that I was in France. A guy offered to give me directions and asked for my map. He was looking at the wrong page, so I tried to show him where we were. He snapped: "Don't tell me where we are! This is my country!" He did advise me to skip the busy coast road, though, which was probably a good idea. I used back roads to trundle down to Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Outside BSM, I stopped at Napolean's Column of the Grande Armée, which is a 53m high memorial based on Trajan's Column. Apparently, on a good day you can see England from the top, but in these conditions I could barely see the top from directly underneath. From there I swung inland to the old walled town of Montreuil.

Between the rain and the endless rolling hills, it took a lot longer to get there than I expected, and I hadn't booked at the camping ground. When I arrived, they were full up but I summoned all my French skills and the manager eventually relented and let me pitch my tent on a little corner of grass.

When you think about it, it's a lot like the nativity.

View from the Camping Ground

You can see why the town is a draw for kayakers.

Old Buildings in the Walled Town of Montreuil

From there I rolled south, past Valloires Abbey, to Crécy. Along the way I moved from the Pas de Calais region into the Somme.

The Battle of Crécy is overshadowed by the later Battle of Agincourt, but Crécy was the template that Henry V followed, whereby a small, outnumbered force of English archers rained arrows down on the heavily-armoured French horse and won a decisive victory.

This is the field where the battle took place. Phillip of France's mounted troops were about where that brown strip is. The English bowmen, under the Black Prince, were positioned this side of the large tree.

The Viewing Tower

I went to the public toilet over the road, where there was a urinal on the back wall. I looked at it and noticed that there was no pipe connecting the urinal to the drain in the ground. I assumed that was just a quirky design feature, but it quickly became apparent that a vital piece of the plumbing was missing. Long story short: much like Edward III, I pissed all over France at Crécy.

From there I headed east to the pretty town of Auxi-le-Chateau. I knew there was a camping ground, but I couldn't find any sign of it. I rode round and round the town, and eventually asked a kid standing on a driveway where the camp ground was. He said he didn't know. I then looked above him and saw that the sign he was standing under said "Camping Municipal". Stupid kid.