So we are in a hotel in Arras with TV. BBC wasn’t coming through so we are getting in touch with the world through CNN. Apparently there were riots last night in France on the anniversary of the Riots of 2005. Might explain the soldier with the automatic rifle held across his chest at the Lille Flandres train station last night. But then again I’ve seen armed milatary in France on previous trips – especially at the Eiffel Tower. Definitely gives me that slightly uneasy feeling.
So this morning we started in Lille, France. I’ve been to Lille previously staying in the same hostel where we slept several years ago. I used it as a transition point of seeing Vimy Ridge and taking the Eurostar through the Chunnel to London. This time we are seeing Vimy but no London for Bryan this trip. But it was only 1-1/2 hours away! Well you can’t see and do everything.
We figured that Vimy Ridge was probably about 35 km away from Lille. The day was initially rainy but then stopped while we were in the bookstore looking for local maps for cycling. Now we spent some time in the store but relatively little for it being the largest bookstore in Europe. Probably helps that the majority of books were in French which neither Bryan or myself would be able to read with ease. We did both separately discover the Classics sections with bilingual books – one page in French and the cross-page in English. So we’ll see how we do with “The Heart of Darkness” and a series of short stories by Twain. We didn’t find any classic French books translated to English. Just the reverse.
Anyway, maps found for Lille to Arras and also the Loire valley, we headed off on our bikes after a baguette lunch eaten on the fountain of the main square. Our cycling hiatus is over. For today anyway. I doubt we’ll be doing much cycling in Paris, though.
I HATE cycling through cities without good maps or a sign-posted route. What should have been a pleasant cycle started off with the frustration of trying to get out of the city. I had looked at a map and it looked like we could easily follow the canal out of town. But it turned out that you actually couldn’t cycle along the canal so our route was created on the go with a lot of guessing. But eventually we did hit the countryside. Then Bryan had his first flat on his new tires and they had only been on for about 20 km. He wondered if it was an installatin error but it was a puncture from a piece of glass. I guess it is about 15 flats for Bryan and 1 for me. I love my Bontrager RaceLite triple-puncture resistent tires. They have done a good job.
You may have noticed that we like cycling along canals when the option exists. Today was no exception and part of our trip did end up along the canal from Lille to Douai. Canals are easy. They are flat, often straight, and very hard to get lost on. But eventually we had to leave it and proceeded to get lost in another city, Lens. Unfortunately tonight there seemed to be a football game at the city’s stadium and the city was frantic with cars on the street and parked on the sidewalks and people singing as they walked down the street. Not the easiest to manouevre through. Again without a detailed map. There were lots of signs pointing towards the towns we were looking for but usually to the freeway route. I am not insane enough to take my bike out on an expressway even if it wasn’t illegal. I hate cycling through traffic especially when I’m not sure where I am going. Our day was slipping away and I was getting a bit testy. And then we saw the sign for “Memorial Canadien 5 km”. Ahh, so close to our destination. But then we had to actually climb the ridge with a strong head wind. We reached the top at dusk with just enough light to look at the Vimy Monument which is currently under restoration and see the bomb cratered land and the restored trenches.
Most Canadians know that Vimy Ridge was an important historical moment in Canada. Not everyone knows why. Vimy Ridge is a 14 km long high point which became an integral part of the German defense system during the First World War. It was so well defended that the Allied forces we unable to take the ridge during the first three years of the war. That is until April 9, 1917 when all four of the Canadian Corps, fighting together for the first time, stormed and captured the ridge except for Hill 145, the location of today’s monument, which they took 3 days later. This was a major turning point in the war.
Unfortunatly the monument is still under restoration. When I visited Vimy 5 years ago I was struck by how worn the limestone statues looked. It definitely needed some work. It looks like many of the statues are being carved from scratch. There is quite a commanding view from the monument. There are sheep grazing in bombed-crater land looking one direction and then turning around yields an expansive view given the sudden drop in elevation. Unfortunatly there is a lot of industry with many large black “pyramids”.
Fighting a trench war is unimaginable to me. The restored trenches with the concrete sand bags are such a prettied-up version from the real thing with the rats, mud, and bodies. There are these huge craters all around the trenches. Near misses as I am sure there were many direct hits.
We left Vimy Ridge at dark and made our way to Arras where we have bunkered down in a hotel on the main square.
Time changes tomorrow. The hotel owner reminded us but we were also able to read it on the electric billboard giving city announcements. That’s the thing about France. We can actually read things with a reasonable understanding. And we are trying to speak French but invariably revert to English or a combination of the two.
Time for bed. Trains to Paris tomorrow.