While originally planning another short trip to check out another nearby city — this time Amiens — I realized how close the city is to part of the Western Front of WWI. For this we’d need a car or an (expensive) tour. After finding a good rental car deal, we quickly put together a four-day trip to check out some of the most important WWI and WWII sites here in France.
While the concept of a low season certainly exists in many tourist-heavy areas of the United States, for the most part you can visit anywhere and expect to find everything still open. Not here. As you see int he pictures, January is definitely the low season in Normandy and the Somme River valley, and as such, 98 percent of restaurants and museums are closed.
Of course, we didn’t find this out until we had already booked the car and the AirBNBs. In the end, it did not turn out to be a problem. If you’ve been to history museums in the U.S., it’s likely you have a seen a lot of war memorabilia: uniforms, weapons, shells, etc. It was much more important just to be at these sights, and in the end, I think we got a lot more out of these visits then if we had been in a tour group or dealing with the crowds of tourists that visit every summer.
We still spent our first day exploring Amiens, which is a quiet city situated about halfway between Paris and Lille on the Belgian border. Of everywhere we went on this trip, I’d say this is the place you’d probably want to wait for warmer weather to visit.
Situated along the Somme, Amiens has an impressive network of canals that features les hortillonnages, a large network of floating gardens that you can only navigate with a boat. Of course, in the winter, it’s not as pretty. However, we stayed with great hosts, enjoyed some local food, and it was a great launching point for touring the Battle of the Somme sights the following day.
The next morning was sunny, but quite blustery. Perfect for spending several hours out in open fields. Amiens is a short drive to the small town of Albert, and from there, it is less than 10 km to the part of the Western Front that saw the bloody, brutal Battle of the Somme unfold over five months in 1916. It was this battle that demonstrates just how horrible trench and attrition warfare was. I guess I’ll leave it to you to determine which historians you side with on the necessity of this offensive, but this was one of the more depressing places I’ve ever been in my life.
Driving throughout the area, it is hard to picture the land being home to some of the most intense fighting of WWI (more than 1.3 million casualties). Most of it is now farmland. A few sites, however, have been well preserved, allowing you to see the outlines of the trenches and bomb craters. This year is the centennial of the Battle of the Somme, and it appears there will be several ceremonies this summer to herald the event.
After leaving Avril Williams’ trench, it was on to Normandy. The weather was definitely not friendly (rainy and windy), but we were told that it was typical for the time of year and place. Anyway, Normandy is gorgeous. Green, lush, hilly — it reminded me a lot of Ireland. It is also apple country; cider was much more ubiquitous here than wine. It was a welcome respite.
After a lovely stay in a cozy farm house, we headed out the next morning to drive along the beaches of Normandy that were host to the D-Day landing. We spent the first day touring the eastern beaches — Sword, Juno and Gold — that British and Canadian troops landed on. The land is not as unforgiving here, so the towns have transformed over the years into typical seaside towns. Boats, bars, condos, etc. The difference was striking.
After a short overnight stay in Bayeux, we visited Pointe du Hoc and Omaha Beach, essential sights in Normandy for interested Americans. The craggy, hilly landscape is now gorgeous, but was pure hell for soldiers to scale. The rugged landscape and foresight of the American Battle Monuments Commission has protected the hallowed ground from development. Haunting and overwhelming is the only way I can describe how it felt to be there.
Standing on Omaha beach, inside a WWI trench, etc. can put your problems in pretty harsh perspective pretty damn quickly. I didn’t need to walk through a museum to remind me of all the horrible things that went down at these places. And without the hordes of other tourists or a pushy tour guide, you are able to better take in these settings at your own pace. It was the perfect way to experience these sights.