We arrived in the city of Verdun on Tuesday via the TGV, whose motto is: “Someone’s steering this thing, right?”
With only minor head-scratching over the map, we walked from the train station to the hotel. Not only was Le Coq Hardi a lovely hotel, but it had a gloriously towering monument right up the street. I guess when the street name is l’Avenue de Victoire, that’s to be expected.
Once we dropped our bags in our rooms, we headed out for a late lunch. I had a tasty assortment of cheese and my first beer of the trip.
* Sip of History: Verdun lies in the Lorraine region, which, together with the region of Alsace, went back and forth between French and German ownership several times. The Germans may not have been perfect, but they did encourage an appreciation of beer.
After lunch, we explored. We walked along the Meuse River, passed through the old city gates, noted tempting-looking eateries [who am I kidding? They were all tempting!] saw a handful of monuments, and found the city’s Citadel.
* Sip of History: Verdun was the site of two World War I battles. The first was in 1916, between the French and Germans, when the French famously declared “They shall not pass.” The second was in 1918, this time with the U.S. involved — this was the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
That evening, we ate dinner at our hotel’s restaurant, where I had the best fish — filet of sole — that I’ve ever eaten. Let’s just say there was butter.
Wednesday was touring day! While Erin, Adam and I went for a run, Mom and Dad picked up the rental car Dad had reserved. After breakfast, we all piled into the car — a Mercedes, somehow, diesel, with everything so automatic that it was spooky — and ventured forth into the Lorraine countryside.
Our mission that day was to trace the steps of my great-grandfather, who fought in the 1918 battle. We did just that. We started at Chattancourt, visited Le Mort-Homme (Dead Man’s Hill), and drove through some of the most beautiful countryside I’ve ever seen. We made a side trip to the American military cemetery.
* Sip of History: The American military cemetery at Verdun is the largest in France. Yup, it’s bigger than Normandy’s.
We walked quietly amidst ruins where towns once stood, and as we drove along, kept seeing signs that noted a “Village Detruit” — a village completely destroyed by war. As we drove along the remote forest-lined road where Great-Grandpa last fought before thankfully coming home, it felt like time had stood still. Sure, the trees had grown back, but other than that, not much seemed to have changed in the last century. I guess that’s a monument in itself.
All in all, a humbling day.
The next day was devoted to the 1916 battle. We visited two forts: Fort de Vaux, and Fort de Douaumont.
* Sip of History: The forts were part of a chain designed to render Verdun impregnable. It was a terrific idea…on paper. Unfortunately, the forts’ designers didn’t count on weaponry advancements and the effect of constant artillery pummeling.
We learned that at Fort de Vaux, the French held out for an unreal length of time before finally succumbing to the Germans. We learned that the Germans captured Douaumont and clung to it with all their might for eight months before finally succumbing to the French. We learned that in both forts, life was rotten: over-crowding, cave-ins, fires, sickness, and the occasional release of poisonous chemicals were all standard.
Again, a humbling day.
* Sip of Here-and-Now: Not many Americans visit Verdun, probably because we weren’t involved in World War I for very long. My opinion? More should. There is plenty to learn and see, from the grim French sign advising “Better to die under the rubble of the fort than to surrender,” to the expansive American cemetery, to the somber dignity of the German shrines.
* Food Note: When in Verdun, the best way to do lunch is on the side of the road with a baguette, a couple different cheeses, and a bottle of beer. Also, eat as much Quiche Lorraine as humanly possible. Maybe more.
* Running Note: Verdun is proof that it’s tough to beat a run alongside a river. We ran along the Meuse several times, and it was lovely. We even saw a fly-fisherman.
With a new respect for the past, we returned to Paris on Friday.
EPILOGUE: The weather finally turned gorgeous at the end of our trip. Better late than never, right? On Saturday, we visited Montmartre. We snapped photos of the Moulin Rouge, ambled through the exquisite Basilique, and walked down the famous staircase. We ate lunch at a bustling cafe, walked through the cemetery (in which we nearly got lost) and by the end of the day, we were darn near experts at riding the Paris Metro!
We ate yet another delicious supper, and for dessert, at the risk of making this post superlative-heavy, I had the best chocolate mousse I’ve ever had. A fitting end to the journey, I’d say.
The next day, we got up early, caught our shuttle to Charles de Gaulle, and before we knew it, we were over the Atlantic, westward-bound. I thought of the traditional words of customers leaving a French cafe:
Merci, au revoir.