Northwest Europe - the road less travelled
- Categorized in: October 2011
Although I was happy to be in France, the fact was that I would be leaving it rather quickly. In the interest of boosting the total number of countries visited, I had planned a route that cut through as many borders as possible before I came to the North Sea shoreline.
This meant heading in a more northerly than westerly direction once I got inside France, in order to pass through Luxembourg, Belgium and finally Holland before jumping on a ferry to the East Anglian port of Harwich in England. So there would be no Champagne for me, no Paris, no Pas de Calais, no Kentish orchards or South Downs or Thames Estuary. Instead I would head off through the lesser-known backwaters of this familiar part of Europe.
The Vosges mountains, the forests of the Ardennes, the rolling hills of eastern Belgium, Waterloo, Brussels - that conglomeration of Flemish villages that styles itself the capital of the European Union, the clinically bland flatlands and canals of southern Holland, and the North Sea ports of the low countries.
I can’t say anyone has ever tried to goad me into giving up precious vacation time to take in the sights of this rather unglamorous itinerary, so my expectations were not high. However, I am very glad that this is the route I took as it opened my eyes to things I never expected, and happily dissolved several prejudices which I admit to harbouring about parts of this region.
One of the reasons I found it all interesting was because of a book which I was listening to. It was called Citizen Soldiers by an American historian named Stephen Ambrose, and it was about the US war effort in the European Theatre of Operations during the Second World War.
This may sound terribly dull to a lot of you, but for me at the time, it was a bit like having an extended guided tour around a fairly huge and significant theatre of war, where the Western Front had been won and lost. It was interesting, for example, to hear about the rain that bogged down the US Third Army around Nancy and Metz in October 1944, as I cycled along, soaked to the bone through exactly the same country at the same time of year, imagining the miserable conditions everyone involved had to put up with during the protracted end to the War in Europe. And this, for me, was just the prelude to winter. For them, there had been far worse to come.
For the two days from Colmar to the little Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, it rained hard. Although I had enough clothes and some waterproofing to avoid getting too chilly through most of my body, my feet were permanently sodden and consequently freezing cold. And this isn’t much fun.
The vines of the Route des Vins
Leaving Colmar the road followed “La Route des Vins”, allegedly a big tourist draw for Alsace, which climbs up into the Vosges mountains through a carpet of vines. Had the sun been out, this would have been a real treat. As it was, I wasn’t aware of much other than the drip drip drip of rain off the pine trees onto the sodden earth beneath, the steady rhythm of my legs working their way up over the pass, and the sleek black tarmac of this beautifully maintained road.
Some company for the road?
Descending down the other side of this little mountain range, the road and landscape flattened out into an unremarkable agricultural scene of freshly ploughed fields, small woods and sugar beet. At this point it didn’t feel too dissimilar to a ride through the Norfolk countryside of my home on a wet autumn day.
I passed the night out of the rain in an over-priced motel in a town called Lunéville, about 20km east of Nancy. It is famous for a couple of reasons, neither of which would interest you, I suspect.
It was probably the least remarkable place I stayed in the whole of Europe, and when I set out the following morning the rain was heavy once more.
And yet, there was something quite satisfying about this. I had to admit I was enjoying my days in the rain – however cold my feet were. This is probably because I was so entirely ensconced in the story I was listening to, but also because it was fun bobbing up and down with the landscape in northern France, along some obscure back lanes, and through non-descript villages, imagining tanks, and shells, and mortars, and bivouacs, American GIs quoting scripture and "bustin' heads", and British officers drinking tea when they should have been fighting, and German school-kids filling up the widening holes in the front line as Yankee motorized infantry tried to overtake the Wehrmacht’s horse-drawn carts in their flight across France.
I struggled my way through the city of Metz, which looked drab and depressing in the rain, listening to how here the Allied advance was held up in the autumn of ’44 as a prelude to the turgid blood-letting of both sides in the Hürtgen Forest to the north over the winter months. And then Hitler’s last roll of the dice in the West, the Ardennes Offensive, better known as the Battle of the Bulge, which came in December of '44.
North from Metz, I began noticing a sequence of milestones erected at every kilometre to commemorate “La Voie de la Liberté”. This tracks just one of the many paths taken by the US Army, starting from Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy, site of the D-Day parachute drops by the 82nd Airborne Division, and then following General Patton’s advance across France to Metz, before turning north to Bastogne (where I was also headed). I’ve no idea whether this Voie is generally well known, but as I followed it, the stones were a constant reminder that the ground I was covering had been the scene of the climax of one of the definitive conflicts of the 20th century, which undoubtedly had shaped Europe as it is today.
The heart of Luxembourg City
That evening I reached Luxembourg, a city with one of the oddest lay-outs I have ever seen, being spread around above and below a series of cliff faces that give the impression that the city’s founders had decided to build it in a quarry. The effect is that one is either “up” or “down”. And there are a lot of steps to get from the one to the other.
Morning on the way "up"
For my one night there, I had arranged to meet up with a Turkish girl called Emel, through the Couch-Surfing network. She was a bright little thing, incredibly friendly and lively, with eyes that were always laughing and a curly tumble of brown hair. I spend the evening with her and several of her friends, talking about faraway places. One or two of them seemed to find it almost incredible that I had arrived in Luxembourg on a bicycle from Hong Kong. I was starting to wonder whether I really had myself by then.
Was I really so close to the end? Had I really come across China, and Central Asia and the Caucasus and the Ukraine? On a bike?
Or did I just dream all that?
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