Travel: Arras, Lille & Normandy, France
Vive La France!
(PART 1 OF 2)
We arrived at Charles de Gaulle/Roissy International Airport in Paris and transferred to the Train à grande vitesse (high-speed train) for Arras, Nord Pas de Calais. Arriving in Arras, opposite the railway station, is the War Memorial, which depicts a French WWI soldier leaning against the monument, watching over an angel with outspread wings, representing peace. And that set the tone for the trip.
We checked in for two nights at the Holiday Inn Express in the city centre. This hotel has all the amenities. The next morning, we took a two-hour guided tour of Arras. Then we rented a car for the remainder of the trip. The Pas de Calais area is simple to navigate if you have a GPS (recommended). We really loved modern-day Arras, which has been meticulously restored to its pre-World War I grandeur. This town has two large squares: the Grande Place and the Place des Héros, also called the Petite Place. Most notable are the Gothic town hall (rebuilt in a slightly less grandiose style after the war) and the 19th-century cathedral. The original cathedral of Arras, built between 1030 and 1396, was one of the most beautiful Gothic structures in northern France but was destroyed in the French Revolution. The abbey’s church was demolished and rebuilt in fashionable classical style in 1833 and now serves as the town’s cathedral.
During WWI, Arras was literally the front line. Battles were fought around the city and at nearby Vimy Ridge. The Wellington Quarry – la Carrière Wellington is an underground museum built in a section of the many kilometres of tunnels dug by Allied Forces in the 1914-1918 war. Following the arrival of the British in the Arras sector in March 1916, a network of tunnels was dug beneath the Ronville and Saint-Sauveur districts of Arras. These new tunnels and rooms were linked to the existing ancient tunnels and quarries or pits already under the city. The new tunnels were fitted with running water and electricity supplies. Accommodation in the underground city was available for the soldiers to live and sleep in, and there was a large hospital for treating the wounded in a labyrinth of rooms with enough space to fit 700 beds and operating theatres. Signposted names and numbers were given to the tunnels and rooms underground. The New Zealanders based in this particular system named the place “Wellington“, after the capital city of New Zealand. For eight days, 24,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers lived in secret in these tunnels specially adapted by New Zealand sappers from medieval chalk quarries. The Wellington Quarry tour follows a duck board trail through 17 stops which – using films, pictures and audio accounts – recreates different aspects of the soldiers’ lives during those tense days. A film graphically recounts the battle that ensued and its effects on the outcome of the Great War.
We made our way to the Vimy Memorial just north of town. The Battle of Vimy Ridge marked the first time Canada fielded an entire army of her own (four Canadian divisions). It was fought there on Easter Weekend 1917 as part of the broader Allied offensive known as the Battle of Arras. The Vimy Memorial is a spectacular and stunning tribute to Canada’s war dead. Visiting this monument was a powerful experience and I daresay I shed a private tear. My great uncle died in France in WW1 at age 21. All of the cemeteries and landscapes in this region are peaceful and beautiful. We left Vimy and visited the German War Cemetery located in Neuville-Saint-Vaast, a village near Arras. Established by the French in 1919 as a cemetery for German war casualties from the regions north and east of Arras, it is now administered by the German War Graves Commission and is the largest German cemetery in France, containing 44,833 burials. Next we went to the Canadian Artillery Memorial, near the village of Thélus. The memorial commemorates the exemplary action of the Canadian artillery during the taking of Vimy Ridge.
We left the Arras region and took a leisurely afternoon drive to the beautiful French town of Lille. Prior to WW2, Lille was an industrial centre for northern France. It has evolved over the past 60 years into a stylish metropolis; its modern architecture compliments the city’s historic buildings.
We checked into the Novotel Lille Centre Grand Place, a classy four-star hotel close to the Grand Place and the old town. Lille’s narrow streets and old world charm are distinguished by an array of exceptional restaurants and classy shops. We arrived at 5pm and everyone seemed to be out in the cafes. I’ve never seen so many cobblestone streets! One of the highlights of our trip was dinner at Le Fossile Restaurant in Lille.
Situated on a leafy corner a block from our hotel, Le Fossile has been serving patrons in Lille for over 35 years. The brick restaurant has exposed dark wooden beams, Tiffany-style lamps, and a wine cellar that stores cognacs and armagnacs from 1882 until the present day. A perfect onglet steak is served. We started with escargots ‘Fossile’ followed by the onglet with shallots which is carved tableside. We finished with dessert and a café ‘Fossile’ with armagnac. This is one of the meals on my …“most memorable meals ever list”.
The next morning, we spent hours just walking around and taking in the historic sites of Lille. Be sure to visit Lille’s citadel. We arrived the day before the Lille Flea Market, Europe’s biggest event of early fall. Two million stallholders, onlookers, bargain hunters of all kinds – young, old, children, families – all descend on the city for two days and nights, selling their wares along kilometres of pavements and squares, and on the banks of the Deûle in the shadow of Lille’s colourful old Flemish buildings. The excitement was palpable as people set up for the giant flea market.
We departed Lille for Boulogne-sur-Mer. The drive through the hills and valleys of northern France is very relaxing. We stopped at La Coupole in the village of Helfaut in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.
In July 1943, the Germans began the construction of a base (La Coupole) from which to build and launch V-2 rockets. Today, La Coupole and the area is preserved as a museum featuring a riveting history of WW2 and a particularly touching tribute to the French Resistance and to Jewish victims of the war. Our next stop at Boulogne-sur-Mer and the Normandy Beaches would prove to be as exciting as the rest of our visit to Normandy. But that’s a story for another time.
Helpful web sites
www.arras-france.com, www.hiexpress.com, www.franceguide.com
www.carriere-wellington.com, www.lacoupole-france.com, www.lefossile.com
Part 2 of 2
The Normandy Coast, Dieppe, Rouen, Honfleur, Bessin near Bayeux
Arras and Lille were wonderful and we were now headed to the Normandy coast which covers 360 miles and features the famous cities of Caen, Rouen and Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Our first overnight stop will be Boulogne-sur-Mer www.tourisme-boulognesurmer.com, which is the largest fishing port in France.
The best surprise of the Normandy trip was the pleasant drive through the rolling hills and dotted farm houses that encapsulate the entire region. We lucked in because in six days of driving though Normandy we had one day of overcast skies and rain. Otherwise it was sunny with not a cloud in the sky. The lush green valleys and pleasant towns have a calming effect that is hard to describe. We stopped several times at local cafes and the locals could not have been more pleasant or welcoming. I was excited about getting to the coast. I can sense the coast from miles away – it must be my Cape Breton roots. As soon as we got to the coast I pulled over and just took a big breath of the fresh sea air that gives you such a natural high. It’s an exalting sensation – the closest thing I can compare it to is the “big sky” feeling you get when you visit Alberta for the first time. The natural high is immense.
Boulogne is a busy coastal town with people out on the beach, in the water and in the restaurants and pubs. Its cobbled streets and lively market is anchored in the city centre (Place Dalton) by the 13th century St Nicola Church, protector of Boulogne’s sailors.
Boulogne is on a downward slope to the sea. At the top of Rue de Lille is “old town”, the historic and religious centre. We took a guided tour through its narrow alleys and visited the 13th century Castle-Museum, the Belfry and Notre-Dame Basilica. We stayed at the Hôtel Les Terrasses de L’Enclos, a century old-building beautifully refurnished with modern amenities and scenic room views of the silhouette of old Boulogne. They offer a pleasant French breakfast of home-baked bread, croissants, homemade jams and strong coffee. First up was a visit to the beach next to the Nausicaä (the National Sea Centre) to go land yachting. Imagine sitting on go-cart with a sail that whips you down a sandy beach (yes, the sand must be hard packed). We took a quick lesson and within minutes were pros. A key factor is wind – we had brief moments where we picked up speed followed by complete stops when the wind passed. It was fun and something I’d like to do again. The Nausicaä has to be one of the most impressive and relevant sea museums in the world. Our two-hour tour was like a journey through the world’s oceans and reminded us of our dependence on the sea. The museum curators have cleverly interspersed the history of the local seafaring people within a larger narrative about the fragility of the world’s oceans and the need for sustainable conservation of all ecosystems. Boulogne provided one of our great gastronomic experiences of the trip at the Brasserie de la Mer Boulogne-sur-Mer (http://www.auxpecheursdetaples.fr/boulogne.htm). A stylish and friendly place with seafood dishes to die for: the mixed grill of fish, cod, salmon, julienne St. Jacques, prawns and bacon, herring and potato terrine, scallops (a portion is five) and the fish of the day (a whitefish type of haddock type). My son tried the Crème brûlée and announced it was as good as mom’s which is very high praise indeed. It was delicious. Now it was off to Dieppe and the Normandy D-Day Beaches.
A dramatic chapter of Normandy’s history is its role as the epicenter of the World War II D-Day landings. This epic tale is one of tragedy and victory. The most appropriate place to start our D-Day tour of the region was in Dieppe (www.dieppetourisme.com).
For most Canadians the word Dieppe evokes a strong response. Five thousand troops of the 2nd Canadian Infantry. An army formation made up of two or more brigades, usually fifteen thousand or more men. The Canadian Army had both infantry and armoured (ie, tank) divisions. Division landed at the French port of Dieppe on the English Channel Coast in August 1942. The purpose was to make a successful raid on German-occupied Europe over water, and then to hold Dieppe briefly. The results were disastrous. In a nine-hour raid involving nearly 5,000 Canadian soldiers, more than 900 were killed and 1,874 taken prisoner – more prisoners than the army lost in the 11 months of the 1944-45 NW Europe campaign.
As we drove into Dieppe we were struck by the quaint beauty of this seaside gem. Cafés along the waterfront were bristling with activity and the stores in the market square were just closing down for the day. The coastal road in front of the town abruptly ends and the road veers in a u-turn back toward the centre. There is a rock face right at that turn and painted on that rock face is a huge Canadian flag that says “thank you, Canada”. It was an unexpected sight but speaks volumes about the feeling of the people of Dieppe towards Canada. I immediately felt comfortable and at home – almost like Dieppe was somehow a part of Canada. We visited the only Dieppe Museum that pays tribute to our soldiers’ sacrifices. It is a small museum next to the beach run by local French veterans. It has artefacts and uniforms and an impressive collection from many of the Canadian soldiers who fought in the battle. Despite numerous attempts by these French vets to engage the Canadian government and officials from Canada’s War Museum, no Canadian government officials had ever visited this place. The French veterans opened the museum to keep the memory of the Dieppe Raid alive. (OLM has since met the officials at the Canadian War Museum to advise them of the collection and French Veterans’ requests but 10 months later they have yet to engage these French veterans to try and secure this important collection which is a critical piece of our national history).
We stayed at the Au Grand-Duquesne Hotel in the city centre next to the market. This boutique hotel is a unique and stylish place, just a stone’s throw from the Dieppe harbour. The best reason to stay here is its gourmet restaurant and exceptional wine cellar. Any trip to Normandy cannot pass without experiencing a classic Normandy recipe perfectly executed. We tried their escargots and a lamb dish, with an elegant Côtes du Rhône. The Friday night atmosphere (it’s a favourite haunt of the locals) and service were a perfect way to celebrate Dieppe… and toast our Canadian vets.
The next morning we departed for the Château de Taillis August 1944 Museum in Duclaire, a pretty town near Rouen. We strolled around for over an hour absorbing ourselves in their authentic collection of D-Day artefacts from Allied and German soldiers. The goal of the museum is to be an educational resource for area students who have never been touched by war (www.chateau?du?taillis.com).
Afterwards we were off to Normandy’s historic capital city – Rouen (www.rouentourisme.com). Described by Victor Hugo as “The city of 100 steeples”, Rouen is also known as the place where Joan of Arc was convicted and burned at the stake in 1431 at the Place du Vieux Marché or as the city that was the inspiration for Monet’s Cathedral Series. Rouen was heavily damaged and lay in ruins at the end of World War II after a particularly brutal occupation by the Nazis. Liberated by the Canadian First Army on August 30, 1944, the residents used ingenuity and determination to rebuild Rouen to its former glory. Today it is a spectacular city of young families and busy professionals. We walked along the Seine and stopped for a wonderful lunch at the Brasserie Paul next to the Cathedral. Then we were off to see the Gros Horloge, a beautiful golden clock in the centre of Rouen. You can climb the belfry (steep spiral staircase) to see how the clock mechanism works and view the town bells. At the top of the belfry is a magnificent overview of the city of Rouen with its charming half-timbered houses, historic Place du Vieux Marché (Old Market Place), home to the modern Church of Jeanne d’Arc and the daily market which is the heart of Rouen. The Place also features numerous restaurants including Les-Maraichers, a favourite of the locals.
The Inter-hôtel Notre?Dame (www.hotelnotredame.com) is a safe bet in Rouen. It is centrally located, clean, comfortable, and quiet and offers easy access parking and a nice breakfast! The next morning we departed for Honfleur, the picturesque and colorful harbor city located on an estuary of the Seine River. Honfleur’s timber-framed houses and the narrow backstreets inspired the painters Claude Monet, Eugène Boudin, Johan Jongkind, and Gustave Courbet and it is regarded as the birthplace of Impressionism. Saint Catherine Church, built in the 16th century in the port of Honfleur, is the largest wooden church in France and offers mass and religious services daily. The “Vieux Bassin” in Honfleur is packed with tourists and sightseers. For Canadians, Honfleur is historic. In 1506, Jean Denis departed Honfleur for Newfoundland and the mouth of the Saint Lawrence. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain departed from Honfleur and arrived in Quebec, becoming the “The Father of New France” and founder of Canada. For my son and me, it was a wonderful moment to be in the town where it all began. We felt a kinship with the place that maybe only Canadians can feel. The irony was not lost on us that it would be Canadians, the proud descendents of Champlain, who would come back to the Honfleur region hundreds of years later to free the French from their Nazi captors.
Our final Normandy trek was to the D-Day beaches. During the nights of June 5 and 6, 1944, more than 16,000 paratroopers landed in Normandy. British, American and Canadian troops landed on various beaches on the Normandy coast and engaged in heavy fighting which eventually led to the end of the European theatre of WWII. A key objective in the days after the invasion was to take the city of Caen from the Germans. We decided to go to the Caen Memorial first before heading to the beaches. Established in 1988 and dedicated to peace, the Caen Memorial (Le Mémorial de Caen – www.memorial?caen.fr/portailgb) is regarded as the best World War II museum in France.
Over the next two days we stopped at all the the D-Day landing beaches, including Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, Sword Beach, Juno and Gold beaches. Highlights included visiting the Canadian military cemetery of Bény-sur-Mer and the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer where many of the soldiers featured in the famous series Band of Brothers are laid to rest. We spent half a day at the The Juno Beach Centre at Courseulles-sur-Mer, which opened on June 6, 2003. The Centre presents the war effort made by all Canadians, civilian and military alike, both at home and on the various fronts during the Second World War. The Minister of Canadian Heritage has designated the Juno Beach landing site to be a site of national historic significance to Canada.
After the beach visits we went to Bayeux and checked in at the Hôtel le Brunville. Located in the heart of Bayeux this hotel proved to be a great staging point for day trips in the area.
The beaches of Bessin near Bayeux are still known for the Allied landings in June 1944. Historically the beaches of Bessin have always been popular seaside resorts. Back in 1858 with the opening of the Paris-Caen-Cherbourg railway, people started to flock to the beaches at Asnelles, Arromanches, Courseulles-sur-Mer, Vierville-sur-Mer and Grandcamp-Maisy. The joy of sea-bathing and seaside recreation attracted wealthy Parisian families which led to the development of the Hôtel Belle-Plage, Grand Hôtel des Bains in Asnelles, Hôtel des Touristes in Vierville and many opulent villas like the Villa Les Tourelles in Arromanches and the Villa les Hirondelles in Grandcamp-Maisy by the sea. My favourite place for the entire trip was the beach town of Ouistreham. We stayed at the hotel La Mare Ô Poissons (www.lamareopoissons.fr) and had a gourmet dinner in the restaurant. We walked through the picturesque town and strolled along its beaches. Today these spots are as popular as ever for the French and for foreign tourists who visit to enjoy a tranquil respite of sandy beaches, mild temperatures, natural beauty and the exceptional and welcoming hospitality provided by the locals. Seaside recreation is thriving in France’s Normandy region; the soldiers who liberated it would be pleased to see that all is back as it should be.
We dedicate this story to Garth Webb (1918-2012), Meritorious Service Cross, D-Day Veteran Founder and past President, the Juno Beach Centre and a True Canadian Hero.
Musée du Débarquement ? place du 6 juin – 14117 Arromanches www.musee?arromanches.fr – T 00 33 2 31 22 34 31 contact : Madame Isabelle MARIE, directrice des publics
Overnight in Bayeux
A twin room has been booked (half pension including 2 dinners, the room, breakfasts and city taxes) at Hôtel le Brunville
9 rue Genas Duhomme à Bayeux ? Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 31 21 18 00 – www.hotels?bayeux?14.com