I celebrated this year’s summer holiday in France. Due to corona, our options were fairly limited compared to previous years. As we were not overly enthusiastic about getting on a germ tube we opted for a destination somewhere in Europe. Realising that it is highly unlikely that I will be on a plane this year feels rather odd, though it is great for the climate of course. I cannot remember the last year I have not taken at least one flight somewhere. Anyway, we selected France because it seemed like a reasonable semi corona-free option with (maybe even more importantly) great food and good weather. As lockdowns, quarantine requirements and the use of face masks change almost on a daily basis, we did not really make a plan beforehand. With our car and camping gear we would have sufficient flexibility to move around or go home in case things would get too tricky (fortunately, they did not). We carefully kept an eye on all corona maps and dashboards available to see which regions in France were not yet affected by the second wave of infections that seems to be rolling across Europe at the moment. Lucky for us, there were still plenty of places to go to.
We started off on the shores of Somme in Northern France. Most famous for the First World War battle of the Somme in 1916, we thought this would be a cheerful spot to kick off our holiday. In the Netherlands we learn all about the Second World War at school, we commemorate the fallen and celebrate our freedom in May and it is just generally present. The First World War not so much, I guess mainly because we did not really play a part in it. Back then, we were like Switzerland, all about neutrality. The war did affect us in terms of violated airspace, food shortages, refugees and whatnot, but these were minor nuisances compared to all the horror that befell us in World War II. As a result, I do not know that much about what the British call ‘the Great War’. Sure, I have seen movies, maybe even read a book or two. It was even part of the history courses during my International Relations studies, but somehow I am just not that familiar with the First World War as I am with the Second. This fuelled my curiosity for the places in Northern France (as well as Alsace and Belgium) where unspeakable tragedies happened.
The battle of the Somme took place between July and November 1916 and in these four months, three million men fought in the battle leaving one million of them wounded or killed at the end. The battle resulted in British and French forces penetrating 10 kilometres into German-occupied territory. Ten kilometres, when in good shape that is the length of my average run… That is 100,000 wounded or dead per kilometre. Until today, experts cannot agree on whether the outcome was an offensive victory for the British and the French or a defensive victory for the Germans. I think it is hard to speak of victory at all. Today, numerous cemeteries and memorials remind us of the lives that were destroyed during the battle and the war. Ablain St. Nazaire French Military Cemetery, the largest French military cemetery in the world, is an endless sea of crosses (marking 40,000 graves in total) and the occasional rectangle for those that were not of the Christian faith (quite progressive for that time). A lighthouse serves to remember all the dead whose names were unknown. Even more impressive is L’Anneau de la Mémoire (Ring of Remembrance), 500 metal panels arranged as an ellipse, listing all 576,606 soldiers from 40 different countries that died in the North of France during World War I. Just the sheer sight of all these names on the panels is a painful and overwhelming reminder of how many lives have been lost fighting just a part of one single war. Interestingly, the names of the fallen are listed alphabetically, without mention of nationality or rank. A bit like an old-fashioned phone book, which makes it even more clear that in death we are all equal.
There are some parts in the area where you can still see the trenches that were dug out. Overgrown by grass, but it is not difficult to imagine what it must have been like moving around dodging enemy fire (especially not because I watched the movie 1917 earlier this year). All these memorial grounds are quite interesting from a national sovereignty perspective as well. Apparently, it is not uncommon to hand over these small pieces of land to the country burying its dead on it. As a result, we were able to quickly visit Canada and the United States this holiday, without showing our passports or a need for quarantine for that matter. Fortunately, all our war-related sadness was alleviated by the famous sunflower fields reaching beyond the horizon. No matter the unspeakable horrors that took place, the sun always creates new life.
A little piece of festival
We left the Somme behind and drove south towards the Vendée, a wetland area that is not as touristic as other parts of France. Plenty of opportunity for us to enjoy quiet campsite life, eat cheese and drink wine. One afternoon we went canoeing in the Marais Poitevin regional park. Also called ‘Green Venice’, it is a maze of smaller and larger canals surrounded by trees. It reminded me a bit of the Biesbosch, a beautiful stretch of nature in the southwest of the Netherlands.
Continuing our crisscross journey through France, our next stop was the south-eastern half of Brittany. We found a great campsite that felt a bit like a festival terrain. Corona ruined our festival plans for this summer, and who knows for how much longer, so it was lovely to enjoy a similar vibe here. There were flowers all around and a grass pitch were we could enjoy the last rays of sunshine, eat a crêpe caramel au beurre salé and watch other people doing the same. Getting into our festival and hippy spirit we even joined a yoga class. In French, which was quite a funny experience given that I barely speak a word of French. I can read quite well, thanks to my knowledge of Spanish and Romance languages in general, but discerning familiar words from a spoken sentence is much more difficult. It was interesting to notice that I could actually understand quite a bit (aided by the fact that I have done some yoga before) especially the parts about opening up your coeur (heart) to the soleil (sun). And apparently yoga does not need (understandable) words to be pleasant.
A new perspective
I have to admit, the last time I was in France was in 2011 when I spent less than 48 hours in Paris. Before that, it was probably about thirty years ago when I used to spend the summer holiday with my family camping in the south of France. Like any proper Dutch family we had a caravan, naturally. I have nothing but good memories of these holidays, but somehow the French people I met abroad in the years since have changed my perception of the country and its people. The ones that I met were often not very friendly or outright mean and in addition I guess I let myself be indoctrinated by stories of the chauvinist and hostile French that do not speak a word of English. I can now admit that my assumptions were wrong and am happy to do so. In general, people were super friendly (or at least just as friendly as they are in Spain, Italy or wherever), almost everyone speaks some English (or tries at least) and there are plenty of McDonalds’ to be found. One of the things that rather impressed me was the state of the public toilets. I remember smelly, gross cubicles but my, has that changed! Public toilets nowadays are there whenever you need them to be, they are clean, toilet paper and soap are available and you do not even have to pay for them. In one place, they even had an eco-friendly toilet using solar energy to process the wastewater. And it was not even smelly!
The beaches of Normandy
The weather in western Brittany was not looking great (who wants rain and thunderstorms when they are out camping?) so we decided to move north to Normandy. We skipped famous Mont Saint Michel because, according to our maps, the area was a corona hotspot and we were not really keen on extremely touristy places. Instead, we drove straight to the northern Atlantic shores where we could visit the beaches where the Allied forces landed during the Second World War (Operation Overlord, commonly known as D-Day). On June 6, 1944, the unbelievably impressive largest amphibious invasion in history marked a turning point in World War II. In three months, an astounding 2.5 million men, four million ton of equipment and 500,000 vehicles were unloaded onto French shores. At some beaches, bunkers and even guns have been preserved to remind us of this wondrous intervention. In Arromanches-les-Bains one can still see a few of the 146 massive cement caissons that were sunk to form the prefabricated marinas needed to transport all these materials. And that is what struck me most when visiting the D-Day beaches, the realisation that so much material (weaponry, vehicles, bridges) had been manufactured for this war, only to be destroyed, leading to more production and destruction. I find it difficult to picture the enormous industrial operation this war has been, keeping factories running only to have all its output smashed so soon after leaving the factory. It feels a bit pointless…
Croissants and cheese
One cannot write about a trip to France without writing about food. Because boy did we enjoy all of our meals (ok except maybe for that tuna salad that we made ourselves that just had too many ingredients). It starts with breakfast: freshly baked croissants, pain du chocolat or whatever other pastries are available at the boulangerie. Supplemented by a slice of baguette, pain complet or pain du maïs soaked in Nutella. Like in Spain, many restaurants in France serve a (very affordable) set menu for lunch, that would not be complete without a glass of wine. These menus usually consist of three courses that are as simple as they are delicious. I was over the moon when one day I discovered that the menu for that day included boeuf bourguignon (my favourite dish) and crème brulée. As we spent quite some time along the Atlantic coast, we also spent quite some time eating mouth-wateringly fresh fish, straight from the ocean onto our plates. Our afternoon drinks were another daily highlight: a cold local white wine with varying types of sausage and cheese. We had smelly cheese, herb-flavoured sausage, sausage with nuts, cheese that surprisingly lacked all smell and much more. It is not difficult to make life agreeable with these means at your disposal.
Did I mention the wine?
One can also not write about a trip to France without writing about drinks. I am big on wine so I was looking forward to supermarket wines of excellent quality, visiting wine chateaux and sipping a glass with that three-course lunch. I was not disappointed, ok maybe only by the amount of wine I was able to drink in the two weeks I was there. Our aim was to drink local wines as much as possible but we also drank a lot of Viognier just because it is so good. We had a cuvée (quality mix) of chenin grapes, aged at oak barrels, from 2014. We had a Loire Valley rosé that was not that interesting. And we drank champagne, bubbles, bubbles, bubbles. We ended our trip in Epernay, self-declared champagne capital of the world. In the heart of the Champagne region, surrounded by hills covered in vines, its Avenue de Champagne is a 1.5 kilometre stretch housing the most luxurious and famous champagne houses worldwide. They reside in 19th century villas, each one even more beautiful than its neighbour. When in Epernay… we decided to end our trip with some well-earned luxury after all those nights on an air mattress in our small little tent. We spent two nights in Villa Eugene, a beautiful five-star villa hotel at the end of the Avenue the Champagne in the same 19th century style with hints of art deco and art nouveaux. When we were there it was about 35 degrees so the pool came in handy, as did the waiter with his endless supply of champagne (living the life).
For those who do not know, champagne is a sparkling wine made from three grape varieties: white Chardonnay and red Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Its particular grape pressing and fermentation methods lead to a unique type of drink. It can only be called champagne when it comes from the Champagne region in France and is produced following a strict set of rules. Most importantly: it is delicious! Unlike most wines, a bottle of champagne is not from the harvest of a single year but instead the result of a delicate process of mixing various years to obtain a continuous quality. If you buy two bottles of a Moët & Chandon brut, you can expect it to taste more or less the same. Exceptions are millésimés, champagne that comes from a single vintage and matures for at least three years. We tried one from 1990 and one from 1995 (unfortunately, the even older 1987 was sold out…). I have never even drank wine that was this old. Vintage champagne is more yellow of colour, has a strong smell and is served in a wine glass (one thing I learned is that there are many different glasses to serve champagne in). To be honest, I thought it tasted like old wine. Sure, the idea of drinking something that has been made so long ago is appealing but the taste really was not in my opinion. It was fun to try though. We also visited the cellars of Mercier, one of the larger champagne houses. Underneath the city, including the Avenue de Champagne, they have 18 kilometres of labyrinth in which they mature their precious champagnes. Naturally, we took the underground train to explore all this. The two days living the life of a rockstar (including supercars in the parking lot of the hotel) suited us pretty well so we decided we would come back once we are able to drive our own Ferrari onto the parking lot.
I greatly enjoyed our two-week trip covering northern, southern and western France. It had been ages since I last properly visited the country and it feels good to be able to refresh my memories and add many happy new ones. For various reasons (that I might disclose at a later moment) I am utterly in love and very familiar with Spain. Therefore, it is rather difficult for me not to compare other Mediterranean countries to all the things I know and like about Spain. France is different, obviously, and even though I have done some comparing I realised that it is not about that. It is a beautiful country, only a couple of hours drive away, with great people and great food (and drinks). On top of that, there is lots of sunshine, which is definitely a precondition for a lovely holiday. After all those travels spent in hostels it was amazing to be camping again (even though the tent was a bit too small and my back and the air mattress did not quite get along). So I am not too worried about the impact of corona on my travel plans, I will just return to France.