Archive for the ‘France’ Category

Verdun- Honour or Insanity?

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

Karina at the Butte de Montsec memorialNow I confess to being a bit of history buff. Real history often makes better reading than any fiction. So I wanted to visit at least one of the World War One battlefields of northern France. I would have preferred the Somme, where my granddad served and was captured, or Arras, but that would have required a significant amount more driving, and Verdun lay between us and the bubbly producing towns of Champagne. After Luxembourg, and staying at the camping ground of god’s waiting room (couples in their 80’s staring motionless at the grass all day), we swung through the pretty cathedral town of Metz, where i had a beer and watched the Germany v Romania game in a cafe with an excitable deaf romanian, we went southwest into the forest near the Moselle River looking for a place to camp. I can’t think of moselle without thinking of barbeques in Australia in the late 70’s and the women gettingAl at Montsec memorial. Van in background stuck into the the green casks and bottles of ‘Moselle’ wine. I picked out the top of the only hill in the area to stay the night, the Butte de Montsec, that turned out to have an American war memorial on top of it like a greek temple. With the red sunset over the lake and escarpments below, and then a big moon rising, it was quite an atmospheric place to park up.

Karina piloted the VW through the narrow country lanes and villes of the Lorraine countryside, and we had breakfast at Bar-de-luc, which is famous for it’s currants, but we just had a coffee and croque monsiuer (cheesey bechamel sauce and ardennes ham on toast) that was the best I’d ever scoffed.Al in fron of church, Metz

After that, we choofed north to Verdun. Now Verdun saw some of the heaviest fighting and casualties of the Great war, almost a million dead in 14 months of mainly French and Germans soldiers fighting over the same small patch of blasted earth. You see streets and squares named after it all over France. We went to the citadelle museum in the town and took an amusing electric cart, almost like the Ghost Train at the fair, that had automated film and displays about life inside the citadelle during the battle. It had an effective bit where you were asked to imagine you were flying over the fields of france, with model farms laid out below our cart and a giant fan simulaing the flying experience. As good as it was, it seemed difficult to see how this bit in anyway related to the verdun conflict. It finished by talking about the pride of the french defence and the honour it had won, as our electric car rolled through a Get Smart like tunnel of raising flags, medals and banners with the Marsellie playing. As an afterthought, they mentioned their dedication to peace, which I thought was a bit rich given the previous room. We walked out through a collection of propaganda posters from both French and German sides from the period. My take on it is that the Battles of Verdun, the Somme, and other slaughters like Fromelle and Bullecourt, is that they stand as testiment to how leaders and men can dangerously abuse power, and manipulate societies so they will send men in their millions to be mown down like wheat and blasted to blood and bone, and asked to murder and maim other men, and be at the whim and command of a self aggrandising fools serving their own ambitions, and then call it glorius and honourable, and shout down and humliate and imprison and execute anyone who dissents or refuses to take part. The millions dead should be used as a warning, but even this century we’re still getting dragged into wars that benefit only the few. That’s my two cents. After the citadelle we drove around a few of the nearby battlefields and memorials of the Douamont. The unwooded area still has the overgrown shell craters of 90 years ago and rusting barb wire.

Opening Gambit

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

Hello and welcome to my blog,

Detailing our adventures from London to far off Australia.

We are now in Amsterdam and I finally have a chance to post. We’re camping near the mouth of the Amstel river about 15minutes bike ride from the centre. Have taken lots of snaps and vids, testing out the equipment, and will post them up soon.

Amsterdam has always been one of my favourite places on la continent, very compact and relaxed and set up for living. We have our bikes instead of hiring the big-arsed dutch bikes, which makes a nice change.

Holland won their opening match in the Euro 2008 against a lackluster Italy the night we arrived, and there are still plenty of orange shirts and dutch flags to be seen. We thought we’d see Sex & the City movie last night but it turned out to be the opening night party at the cinema. We hung out and watched for a while, as unidentified Dutch celebrities and notables stepped out of black Mercedes in their glad rags into the waiting paparazzi and TV cameras. None of the principal cast were appearing so after a while we pedaled home.

We are heading off this morning probably into germany, turning back south again towards Luxembourg, where we can set up a series of holding companies linked to accounts in the Cayman Islands. Third gear is a bit sticky, though there is not a lot I can do except to baby the Capyvara, as we’ve dubbed our brick-like campervan, and practice my double clutching. I might change the transmission oil, if I can find a giant allen key for the plug, and see if that makes a difference.

Here are some posts I cooked earlier:

Saturday Afternoon, Balham London

As these things go, our leaving was rushed and without fanfare, save for Declan and Jozer giving us a wave goodbye. We threw the last things into the van. “We’ll sort it out once we are on the road”, we said. We had to make it into Tottenham Court Road by 6pm to get our Vodaphone mobile internet dongle before the shop closed, otherwise you might not be reading this now.

For those who are mechanically minded, we’d bought a bronze ’83 2 litre air-cooled VW campervan, T3 model (T25 in England). It was an old bird, but mechanically looked fairly sound and was Left hand Drive which is important both for driving in Europe and when we sell it. A couple of the door latches had packed it in, and it’s service history had more parts than the end credits on an Altman film. Your always rolling the dice when you buy an old second car, but Ive bought along plenty of spare parts and greased her up suitably.

We met up with our film maker friend, Marcelo Starobinas, who was buying CDs nearby and gave him a lift to Southbank. He was in good spirits, as he had recently proposed to his girlfriend Duda, and gave us some advice on filming. I switched on the new GPS and typed in Dover. It immediately directed us north back into the tangled streets of the City. We followed it a while out of curiosity as it demanded we make impossible turns and drive down blocked roads, before switching it off. It would come in handy, however, because as soon we hit the motorway my speedometer began oscillating wildly before stopping completely, and the GPS served as a backup. I hoped optimistically that this would be the only thing that went wrong.

Dover. Saturday Midnight

Karina’s 10 year old copy of Lets Go Europe says that Dover ferries 18 million people across the ditch each year, but I reckon it just has parking for that many. We waited for the midnight ferry in a vast loading bay with a few other cars and trucks. Some guys kicked a football in a circle around while we walked across swathes of empty tarmac in the cold night air to find a snack machine that was out of order.

The giant Seafrance ferry that ploughed across to Calais was mainly shutdown, but we shared an overpriced fish and chips. The few benches in the snackbar were already taken up with sleeping people. We went outside and contemplated having a Titanic moment on the prow but wearing only a t-shirt the freezing weather forced me back inside, where I snuck into the crew lounge and karina and two german guys joined us. One of them went straight into sleep aponea, snoring and gasping loudly.

Calais, Sunday

We parked up next to the plage , (that’s beach for those who aren’t au fait with the parlez) in a deserted car park and set up the bed for the first time. This involved shifting around lots of bags and boxes we hadn’t gotten around to sorting. We were awoken by a mix of ferry foghorns and seagulls and peering though our van curtains we found the beach was already full of people. I probably shouldn’t have parked sideways taking up three spaces, but luckily France doesn’t share London zealous parking inspectors who hover like vultures smelling the blood of a poor punter whose meter is about to expire.

We thought about going to the huge Hypermarkets where the English buy their low tax ciggies and booze but being Sunday these were closed. So we filled the tank and gunned her back out onto the motorway where it reached our cruising speed of 85 kmh and the cars flowed around us like a brick in the gutter.

Bruge, Sunday

Bruge looks achingly picturesque, with its medieval architecture and café filled squares and alleys. But like Dubrovnik, there’s something about it that bothers me. I think it’s when I realize, “Not many real people actually live here”. A city without lots of people actually living and doing normal jobs and buying groceries is just Disneyland. We sunk a few beers, which is one of the cities attractions, but after previous sessions in Belgos, a London Belgian-themed restaurant, Id already tried most of the beers on the menu and then some. We got talking to a nice bloke, greg, who was had been taking his invalid parents around but finally had a bit of free time to himself. He had a pretty senior role with BT, managing the sale and setup of financial information exchanges for blue chip companies. I found it interesting but as we discussed network latency I could see Karina’s eyes start to glaze over. Though knocking back the 8% Belgian beer mine were starting to do the same. We piloted our bikes over the canals and cobbled streets and out to where the Lidl and Aldi supermarket start to takeover the scenery, to our campground that seemed to be filled mainly with german couples in their 70’s and their big motorhomes.

We stopped in Antwerp the next day and visited their famous zoo. It was nice, and tranquil shady walk on a hot day, though in my opinion Melbourne zoo shits all over it for animal displays. The tigers barely had room to turn around.  When you look into zoo animals eyes you can see the madness that captivity brews in them.