I fear there are going to be fewer posts this year as a blog of any type is a beast that must be fed regularly and let’s face it, how many pictures of cake, castles, churches & cathedrals can anyone take. So with this in mind please join Ralph (the trans-gender GPS), Norman (the self-trimming motorhome), Deb (the automatic missed turn & speeding alarm) & myself (the wind generator) for our trek through central Europe.
Timing of our journey placed us in the Northern French WW1 battlefields a few days ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing. As many of the surrounding villages were liberated by ANZAC forces there were Australian flags proudly displayed in most main streets.
Scattered throughout the fields are the many memorials dedicated to the various Australian & New Zealand regiments that fought here. On the eve of ANZAC day we arrived at Villers Bretonneux to find they were preparing for a televised service and were expecting 6,000 people to attend.
We paid our respects and moved on to Le Quesnoy for the 25th April, as this was primarily a NZ memorial with only a few hundred in attendance.
Rolling forward to the next war and in the Vosges mountains of eastern France we stumbled upon Natzweiler-Struthof. This is a little known site that was initially set up as a forced labour camp when the Nazis discovered pink granite nearby. While the original prisoners consisted of resistance fighters & undesirables, the camp eventually started taking in Jews and so a gas chamber was installed and the transition to death camp was complete.
The camp was empty when the allies reached it in the closing stages of the war but they quickly were able to ascertain what had been going on there. However, when both the allies and the Russians liberated the much larger occupied camps in the east and the atrocities there came to light, Natzweiler-Struthof was soon forgotten.
Lightening the mood we stopped in Essoyes for lunch and learned that this is where Renoir spent his last 30 or so summers. It was easy to see why as the entire area looked as if it had been lifted from one of his paintings. Not far from his workshop you can visit his grave where this bronze bust makes it easy to find.
Leaving behind the battlefields of the Somme & Verdun valleys we arrived at the much-anticipated region of ‘Champagne’. Vineyards as far as the eye could see for several days (and very pleasant nights) before we reached the region’s self-proclaimed capital of ‘Epernay’.
Arriving mid morning we strolled down the ‘Avenue de Champagne’ admiring all the magnificent chateaux that housed the caves (cellar doors) for all the different brands.
We obviously recognised marques like Moet & Chandon, Bollinger & Veuve Clicquot however our first tasting was at the domestic Collard-Picard as it had a very nice garden with a great setting.
At lunch someone told us about another tasting available at Mercier which was actually a tour that included a tasting. Although not well known outside of France because they export very little, Mercier is one of the largest producers. The lobby is dominated by a huge wooden keg that was transported to Paris in 1889. It held the equivalent of over 200,000 bottles of champagne!. Mercier was the “Henry Ford” of champagne in that he was the first to innovate mass production and make champagne affordable to the masses.
Then you descend 30m underground and board a train through the 18km of tunnels underneath as you visit each stage of production and peruse their 5 years worth of stock!
Colmar is the birthplace of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the French sculptor who is best known for designing the Statue of Liberty. This 30m replica was commissioned on the 100th anniversary of his death and sits in the middle of a busy roundabout at the city’s entrance.
Riquewihr is a delightful little village up in the vineyards of Alsace. It’s steep cobblestoned main street is lined with shops whose produce naturally go well with wine. At each end is a business which looks like a small wine bar with only a few tables but they are actually tasting caves as we found out when we took shelter in one from the rain.
Strasbourg is the capital of the Alsace region which prior to WW1 belonged to Germany. When the Nazis repossessed it they outlawed the speaking of French all together. It is no wonder then that most of the villages, street names, food & architecture in the region have a distinct German influence.
The cathedral’s south transept houses an 18-metre astronomical clock from the 1800s but it’s forerunner dated back to the 1500s
We had a great day in Strasbourg but Deb & I really enjoy the little villages, rural countryside and amazing landscapes so we are expecting great things as we next cross into Germany and travel east through the Black Forest and the Bavarian Alps.