October 22, 2007 GMT
Up and Over

15-21 Oct 07

Against common sense we continued to head north after Laon into cooler and wetter weather. We were traveling north to see some old friends now living in Belgium and it would have taken more than a little cool weather to keep us away.

We decided, for no particular reason, to spend a night in Brussels. A number of our friends and acquaintances have been posted to Brussels for work over the years and we felt we should have a look at the place for ourselves.

We charged across the border and ploughed into the city an hour later. The first thing we noticed was that there are few if any bikes and the drivers are hopeless compared with the ever courteous French. We have played in some of the worst traffic in the world over the years and Brussels doesn’t rate as a congested city. The drivers, however, are keen to make up for the lack of volume and chaos by a lack of manners.

Riding the fully laden Beemer in the city is an interesting exercise. I reckon it is like riding an elephant. You are pretty sure you are in control, but you know that is only because the elephant doesn’t have anything else to do right now!

After a tour of the town we decided that a night in Brussels would be like a night in Inala and, having had a night in Inala already, we headed out of town to look at another part of Belgium. We settled on Waterloo.

The main attraction at Waterloo is, of course, the site of the famous battle that saw the last defeat of the Emperor Napoleon. Regardless of our grip of the history, we would have known who the other major protagonist was by the number of GB number plates around the area. Unfortunately we found the tourist sites to be in a poor state of repair.

The main feature is this statue of a lion, facing towards Paris, erected by the victors.

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This act of hubris by the victors set the tone of European relations for the next 80 years.

We refused to pay the €6 entrance fee to the monument and wandered around the high hedge built to block the view. On the back side we saw a rabbit head under the hedge and investigated to find a tunnel through. We climbed through, had a look, and took our photo.

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Next to the Lion on the Hill is a better monument; a pile of EU subsidized sugar beet waits to be collected.

It was time to go onto Jurbise.

Bob and Bronwyn Blevins live in a small village near the NATO Headquarters where Bob works as a lawyer. When we arrived Bronwyn’s parents were in residence but the house had plenty of space for the extras.

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Bob and Bronwyn, Bronwyn’s parents Dawn and Bob and a couple of blow-ins.

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Three days in residence gave us time to get a little domesticated…..

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….work out how to make Belgium charcoal burn, and…

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…play with the dog Sandy (gorgeous girl).

One highlight of our visit was to meet the neighbors Alan and Françoise. Alan is a keen biker and we spent some time comparing bikes and riding experiences.

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I don’t think Alan’s BMW RT 800 was ever sold in Australia. It is, however, an ideal bike for the environment with good weather protection and excellent luggage. Alan has done 110 trouble free km. I hope I do as well with my BMW.

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We also me Sophie, a veteran marathon runner, part time philosopher and generally good bloke.

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It rained for two days while we were in Belgium so we were happy to find a dry road for the run back to France.

Amiens, 150 km south in the Départment of the Somme, was our next stop to visit the WWI battlefields most important to Australians.

From a neat and warm hotel in the middle of town we discovered another great little French city.

Amiens has the biggest cathedral, a Notre Dame of course, in France. This gothic monster would swallow up two of the Paris version.

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The Amiens Cathedral Notre Dame is a monster. The tiny blue dot on the steps is Jo. I couldn’t get back far enough to get another 20m of the spire in the frame.

Two nights in Amiens allowed us to visit Villers-Bretonneux and the nearby Australian Memorial. V-B was completely destroyed in what they called the Great War, although my grandfather, who fought at the nearby Mont St-Quentin once pointed out to me that there was noting great about it.

The Franco-Australian Museum in Victoria School in V-B is modest and well presented. It has some excellent photos and a few quality exhibits. It was well worth our €4 entry and we stayed until the attendant told us she was closing to take the mandatory long French lunch.

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Jo amongst the exhibits in the Franco-Australian Museum in Villers-Bretonneux.

Feeling like lunch ourselves, we headed out to the Australian Memorial near Villers-Bretonneux and parked the bike in front of one of the impressive porticos that mark the entry. Armed with our lunch box we headed up into the cemetery section of the area and found a bench to spread out our bread, cheese, ham and wine. Out of the wind, and in the sun, the memorial is a beautiful place clearly intended to inspire contemplation.

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Right out front is always a good place to park a bike.

While we were there three men with a taxi waiting moved quickly around the memorial and departed. An older gentleman walked through as quickly as he was able, puffed up to the top of the memorial tower to take a photo before rushing away to his waiting taxi. A young man moved through quickly but stopped to share some wine and bread with us before rushing off with a glance at his watch.

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The memorial tower at the Australian Memorial is beautifully maintained.

As we packed our modest lunch and continued with our visit two women arrived and stomped through at the double march. They spent less than 5 minutes in the park and when I spoke to one of them she said she has to rush because they must be someplace else, sometime soon. She left with the parting remark that: “they were all so young.”

Jo and I were left a little unsettled by our fellow visitors. Surely this place is not the type of tourist attraction that you can collect like a stamp. Why would you come if you couldn’t spend even a few minutes thinking about what it all means?

The final insult was the comment about the age of soldiers. If this person had really looked she would have seen that this is not a memorial to the naive enthusiasm of the Gallipoli force. The Army that triumphed at Amiens was hardened and experienced. Its legacy was not the heroism of its soldiers, although there was plenty of that. Rather, it was a force that best understood modern planning and staff work. Its greatest battles were won through detailed planning and an understanding of how to coordinate the forces in a modern battle.

We rode back to Amiens grumbling about “bloody Australians”.

Amiens city itself has some wonderful features:

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Swamp areas near the town were drained with a series of canals that provided high ground for vegetable growing (called Hortillonnages) providing a wonderful park area in the middle of the modern town.

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Canals in town at the Saint-Leu district provide a distinctly Venetian feel.

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All of this water provides great opportunities for local recreation. Here they fish for, you guessed it, carp.

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Jules Verne was a famous Amiens resident and we took the deluxe tour of his house where most of his books were written. As usual, it is a well presented attraction and well worth the entry.

We put back our departure form France for a day to allow the worst of the traffic returning to England after the RWC Final to clear and, on a cold, wet morning on 22 Oct, we rode up to Calais and onto the Channel Tunnel Train.

Our 5 weeks in France are over and there is still much we don’t understand about this wonderful country. We will be back in Paris in a couple of weeks; maybe we will find some answers there.

Posted by Mike Hannan at October 22, 2007 01:59 PM GMT
 
 

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