ALSACE-LORRAINE 2006 - Prologue

    Prefacing thoughts to the trip

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PROLOGUE  to our Autumn 2006 trip to the Somme WW1 battlefields, Reims and Champagne-country, Verdun and the Maginot Line, Alsace-Lorraine, and the Moselle (France) - Mosel (Germany) Valley:

After our 7,000 miles driving Marathon earlier in the year across the length and breadth of Greece (click here to see the webs), a trip closer to home seemed in order. Our plans therefore are to travel through the Somme battlefields area, and progress down to Reims and Champagne country, on to Verdun, the follies of the 1930s Maginot Line, and across to the beautiful villages of the Alsace wine road. We shall cross the Vosges mountains to travel the length of the Moselle valley through Lorraine, and continue down the Mosel (as the river is called in Germany) to its confluence with the Rhine at Koblenz.

Given that 1 July 2006 was the 90th anniversary of General Sir Douglas Haig's 'Big Push' across the Somme, it seemed appropriate to begin our latest venture by paying our respects at the multitude of memorials and cemeteries which litter the fields of the Somme valley. What became known as the Battle of the Somme cost 420,000 British and Commonwealth casualties, 200,000 French and 500,000 German casualties, On the first day alone, there were 60,000 British casualties, of whom 20,000 were killed - can you picture this number of mutilated corpses? This will certainly not in any sense be a relaxed opening few days to the trip, but then it wasn't exactly a picnic for the young men of 1916 who were expected to stroll across the wire of No Man's Land.  Unfortunately the opposing German machine gunners had not read Haig's script; they had managed to survive the 8 day artillery barrage, and emerged from their dugouts as the Tommies went over the top to be mown down in their thousands. As a prelude to this sorrowful part of the trip, click here for WW1 poets who poignantly bear personal witness to the appalling suffering of the so-called 'Lions led by donkeys'. We'll report via our web, frankly as usual, on the impact which the visit to the Somme has for us 90 years on.
To revive our spirits, the next phase of the trip is to Reims, the capital of the surrounding Champagne country. This magnificent city, famous for its prestigious Champagne houses such as Pommery, Taittinger, Piper-Heidsieck and Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, also has the huge Gothic Cathedral where kings of France were crowned. The region's wine routes will take us around the Montagne de Champagne, the Marne valley and the Côte des Blancs, amid hillsides covered with the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines, to visit some of the smaller producers and cooperatives. This will be a very different tasting experience from those we have been accustomed to, and the celebrity status which Champagne's prestigious name carries will probably mean bottle prices which are too silly to contemplate. But the visits should be good.

It's on from there to Verdun, the site of WW1's longest and bloodiest battle. The German Chief of Staff, Von Falkenhayn, had convinced the Kaiser that the French would collapse if defeated in a set-piece battle of attrition, and that Britain, left isolated and starved by unrestricted submarine warfare, would sue for peace. Verdun was the town selected to "bleed the French army to death"; this fortress-town guarded the approach to Paris from the German border and was of symbolic historical significance for France. The French commander Pétain defended the town, uttering the motto 'Ils ne passeront pas', and despite the utterly destructive attacks, Verdun stood undefeated. The 10 month long ordeal at Verdun between February and December 1916 left 250,000 dead and 500,000 wounded, with no strategic advantage gained by either side.  Pétain's prestige as the defender of French honour and hero of Verdun led to his later being called on to lead the French collaborationist Vichy régime in 1940 and consequently to his being condemned for treason after WW2. Today, Verdun is as much a pilgrimage site for the French as the Somme is for British visitors. Despite the atrocious cost in human lives, the successful defence of Verdun in 1916 reinforced in the minds of 1930s French military planners the apparent value of fixed fortifications for protection against invasion, leading to the construction of the Maginot line of fortifications along the German border. Rather like preserved steam engines, the Maginot line forts, bristling with 1930s technology, are now open to visitors; curiosity may well get the better of us as we pass this way en route for Alsace.

The territories of Alsace and Lorraine have been fought over between France and Germany seemingly for centuries. Originally conquered by the Franks under Clovis in the 5th century AD, the region subsequently formed part of Charlemagne's Europe-wide Carolingian Empire in the 9th century. But sandwiched between German and French speaking peoples, it soon fragmented into a number of fiefdoms whose allegiance was endlessly contested by kings of France and princes of the Holy Roman Empire. France finally annexed Alsace-Lorraine in 1648 by the Peace of Westphalia which concluded the 30 Years War, so establishing the Rhine as its eastern border. French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 returned Alsace-Lorraine to the newly founded German Empire. This control continued until 1918 with German defeat in WW1 when France re-occupied the region. Despite French reliance on the Maginot Line to protect the border, Nazi Germany occupied Alsace-Lorraine in 1940, conscripting 140,000 young Alsatians into the German army under threat of reprisals against their families. When Alsace-Lorraine reverted to France in 1945, these malgre nous - soldiers against their will - were treated as traitors by their own people, and allegations of discrimination over pensions and invalidity rights rumble on to this day. Today the River Rhine forms the border between Alsace and the modern German state. The region's culture, language, and landscape reflect this Franco-German historical influence, and we are particularly expecting to witness this distinctiveness in the many small towns and flower-decked villages of the Alsace wine road along the eastern foothills of the Vosges mountains. The wines of the Alsace Appellation Contrôlée are also distinctive, part Germanic, part Gallic and 100% Alsatian, and this is the only major French AOC to print the grape variety on the label. By repute the wines of Alsace are more aromatic than we might favour, but only extensive tasting will tell. The time we spend among the vineyards of the Alsace wine road will help to balance the gruesome recollections of the Somme and Verdun.
After crossing the Vosges mountains by the aptly named Route des Crêtes, we shall drop down into Lorraine, to visit the village of Domremy-la-Pucelle, birthplace of Joan of Arc, and then follow the valley of the River Moselle, through the cities of Nancy and Metz. Continuing across into Germany, we shall conclude the trip spending time visiting the wine producers of the Mosel (as the river is called in Germany) valley, and following the river right through to its confluence with the Rhine at Koblenz. On previous trips eastwards across Europe, we have regularly overnighted at Brodenbach in the lower Mosel valley. This trip will fulfil a promise we have frequently made, to devote quality time to this beautiful valley whose steep-sided slopes are terraced with Riesling vines.
So there we have it: our plans are reaching fruition, ferry tickets booked, preparations almost complete, and although this trip will be closer to home, we shall be covering entirely new ground with so much of interest to explore and to learn about. During the trip, we shall continue our practice of updating the web site weekly or so, reporting on our explorations with news and photos. We hope you will enjoy sharing our venture, and do email us with your views.

Sheila and Paul                                                                                Published: Friday 4 August 2006

Music this week:
La Huette

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