Day Eighty One

Chris is absolutely determined to visit the Australian War Memorial this morning.  It’s only a short distance away (funny that, with him being in charge of driving and all…) near the village of Villers-Brettoneux.  I always find the memorials so unbearably sad; they stay with me long after the visit ends. 

Works are underway when we arrive, replacement of worn headstones and limestone blocks in the various memorial buildings. The entry and parking is being reworked too.  Every effort is extended to ensure the memorial looks its best. The only exception made is for some bullet damage from WWII, left for historical context. 

 Made of the whitest limestone, the memorial sits atop a hill in stark contrast to the surrounding fields 

It commemorates nearly 11,000  soldiers who died in battles across France with no known grave; their names and regiments are engraved on the memorial walls.  It’s such a depressingly long list.  

Of the graves, some are for unnamed soldiers, others named, older and young together. You can see the rank of command from their ages, even without reading details.  The youngest soldier I see was 17, a baby.  Some have Australian flags, some have poppies. One has notes and photos from Brisbane primary school kids, thanking the solders for what they did.  The Australian and French flags fly over it all.

We climb the tower to look down from above.   We are reminded that over 1,700,000 Commonwealth troops alone were killed in the course WWI and WWII.  What a dreadful loss of life. 

On the way out, I see a single, out of season, red poppy clinging tenously to an embankment.  I hope that when the present works are finished, the poppies might flourish  here once again. 

Freedom and peace are such precious gifts.  We would do well to always remember that they come at enormous cost.  Lest we forget.

Suitability sombre, we head into Villers-Brettoneux in search of lunch.  It has to be a baguette, when in France, etc. It proves a very tasty one delivering a veritable United Nations of a lunch.  French bread, Danish butter, German ham, Swedish tomatoes and Norwegian cheese.  Fabulous!   I’ll be keeping a close eye on the pain au chocolat that accidentally made their way home from the Boulangerie.  Just in case they make a bid for freedom, you understand.  

After lunch we cross into Normandy. We’re truly in French village heaven now, full of half timbered cottages in the genteel decline so specific to France.  In Germany, if a beam rots or paint fades, is repaired in style of period and restored to new.  In France, decline over centuries is met with a Gallic shrug. It only adds to the charm.

We find our way to the village of Duclair, nestled in a bend on the river Seine and take the pretty drive along the river bank.  It’s a fruit growing area, apples being a Normandy specialty along with Calvados and mussels. On our right, the Seine is enormously wide at this point, easily accommodating the huge barges that do a brisk trade up and down.  In between them, the ferry crossings and the water birds, it’s a busy  scene.  

On our left, beyond the orchards and farm houses are tall limestone cliffs, stunningly white in the sun.  Many of the local buildings are made from limestone blocks.  It’s a material that’s served the area well.

We meander happily with the river, eventually stopping at the village of Jumieges, home to the Abbaye De Jumieges and a ferry crossing.  We’re now in a green area, the Parc Naturel des Boucles de la Siene Normande.  Quite a mouthful, but essentially it’s a shelter for flora and fauna within Normandy that stretches along and beyond the Seine, virtually through to Le Havre.    

It’s late afternoon when we walk into the village, too late to visit the Abbey ruins that stand resplendently white in the afternoon light.  Limestone, of course.

We lap the village then settle for the night with my new buddy, Elliot.  He’s a fat and sassy Chartres Blue camping cat. Meow.  He just hates a pat, allowing me to scratch behind his ears with abandon, and even offers his belly.  He stops only to stand on his back legs to bat at the occasional twilight bug and to dart out to greet anyone who goes by.  He’s a very good boy.

We’re in such a beautiful part of the world.  Having zoomed down at double speed, we now have the luxury of slowing down until we have to board the ferry to cross to England.  In the meantime, I think there’s a pain au chocolat calling me….