The Battle of the Bulge(Theme music) - Dommartin-le-St Pere,France to Villiers St Gertrude,The Ardennes,Belgium - 25th June 2016

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June 25th 2016
Published: June 30th 2016
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It was another night of trucks rumbling occasionally through the village going who knows where. Our hosts are very apologetic of the trucks but of course there is nothing they can do about it and we didn’t know that they would be a problem because of a road closure when we booked the apartment.

Apart from that the apartment has been very comfortable and has had everything we needed to make our stay comfortable. Gretchen has ‘redesigned’ the apartment since we have been here. Certainly the bathroom is huge compared to say the kitchen which is a ‘skinny’ galley affair and there seems a lot of waste space in the bathroom that could have been better utilised.

No time for sleeping in today as we have a lengthy journey ahead of us which will be made longer in time if we can track down some memorials to the Battle of the Bulge(WW2)on the road as we head to our destination for the night.

The weather is rather drizzly and the forecast on the road ahead is similar so the best we can hope for is that the forecasters have got it wrong.

Loading up the car in the wet conditions wasn’t that pleasant and it took a bit longer than usual as we tried to avoid the worst of the rain.

Ingrid had gone to work so it was just Stephane and daughter Leonie there to farewell us. They have been very friendly hosts and we were glad we chose this place to get a little taste of rural village France.

It was just 15C and there was still some drizzle as we hit the D2 and headed north.

The wheat in the fields looked like it had benefitted from the three previous days of fine, warm weather and it had the appearance of having turned more yellow than when we had arrived in the area at the start of the week.

Our direction was back through Wassy, a town that we have been through now 3 times in the few days we have had in the area.

Just before Wassy is the village of Brousseva.Initially,when we had passed through on the two previous occasions ,we thought that there might have been coal mining going on under the town as there is a huge pile of what appeared to be tailings just outside the town.However,we decided today that it is a foundry that is the town’s main employer and probably has been for years as there is a line of two story workers houses on the other side of the town from the foundry works not dissimilar to the coal mining towns we have seen in Wales.

By the time we had St Dizier it was mid morning and the town was busy with Saturday shoppers out and about. For some reason Gina had decided that going through the centre of the town was faster than alternative routes we thought we might have been directed to around the sizable town.

One good thing today is that it is too wet for the usual cyclists we could have expected to encounter on the road today and that goes for motor cyclists too. Sometimes a bit of rain works in our favour when we have a bit of distance to cover.

Our direction moved a little to the northeast and we took a break in Verdun to get ourselves some lunch and do a little bit of shopping to top up the grocery box.

We have been to Verdun before but only saw a small piece of the town on that occasion and where we were today was nothing like our first trip where we had stopped beside the River Meuse and the old town wall. Mind you the weather was fine and warm on that previous occasion unlike today and everything looks different when the sun is shining.

We stopped at a rest area just a short distance from town the D603 which is designated as Route Battle of Verdun in memory of the bloody battle that went on for 10 months and was the longest engagement of WW1.Between February and December 1916 over one million soldiers from Germany and France lost their lives as the advantage swung one way then the other in the valley around Verdun where the River Meuse runs.

Adjacent to the rest area was a German war cemetery containing over 6000 dead although many must have been in a mass grave or were simply recorded on the memorial board because their bodies were never found or identified as there weren’t that many crosses in the graveyard.

I had a strange feeling I had been here before, although as mentioned earlier, the day we had completed a driving tour of the area had been fine and warm and today was in sharp contrast.

Even though it was still drizzling I walked through the cemetery taking a moment to stop at a couple of crosses that for their own reasons stood out from the others which all looked the same.

One was a cross where a small wreath had been laid a couple of days before exactly 100 years to the day that the soldier commemorated had been recorded as being killed on the battlefield. There was something hauntingly touching about this small black cross with the wreath of red flowers identifying a man who had died in battle 100 years previously.

The other was a small headstone with the Star of David rather than a black cross that marked the grave of a Jewish soldier who died fighting for Germany in June 1916 in the Battle of Verdun. How things changed for even German Jews in the lead up and during WW2 around 20 years later when Hitler and his Nazi followers wanted to exterminate all Jewish people no matter from which country they came from.

As I headed away from the cemetery a bus pulled up on the other side of the road and people started spilling out and walked across to the cemetery. Some of them were oblivious to the traffic coming in the other direction at open road speed. Thankfully all of them made it across without adding to the population of the cemetery.

The bus was from Germany so we assumed they were here to pay their respects to their fellow countrymen who died in action 100 years ago.

All along the highway known as the Battle of Verdun Highway are white painted markers every kilometre reminding you of what happened in this area 100 years ago.

Continuing on into Belgium we were getting into ‘Battle of the Bulge’ country but there were no obvious memorials as we passed through or nearby small towns that featured during Hitler’s last push to try and strike at the Allie’s weakest spot as the British and American forces who had been chasing the retreating Germans out of France and Belgium had left a gap in their lines where their numbers were not great.

The road to Houffalize came off the main highway the A26 and we took it thinking that surely here there would be some sort of memorial as this had been the last major battle and had been fought over with a good number of lives lost.

Despite the now heavily overcast sky and continuing drizzle it was a picturesque town with a number of people out enjoying the cafes and bars on a Saturday afternoon.

We did find a relic of the Battle of the Bulge here, namely a German tank that had survived the battle in one piece and had been caught when the Germans retreated from the town. However that was about all there was and we drove back out of the town and back to the main road a little frustrated from not finding what we thought would have been here.

Although time was marching on we had one more town to visit to see what sort of memorial we could find to the Battle of the Bulge.

I was fairly sure that our accommodation was near St Vith and that once we had been to see what might be there we would just have a short drive to end our travel for the day.

There was a small memorial to the Americans on the outskirts of the town but nothing else and again we gave up frustrated by not finding something.

We put our final address into Gina and were horrified that we still had over 50km to go to get to our destination and it wasn’t as if the countryside was particularly scenic offering any different views that what we had had for the last couple of hours. Part of the problem had been that Villiers Saint Gertrude was too small to be included on our atlas and I had checked its location a couple of days ago using Google maps and it did look close. What I hadn’t checked was that there were direct routes from St Vith and that we had to back track from where we had come for about half the distance.

Belgium might be flat as you get close to the sea but the border on its eastern flank with Luxembourg and Germany has rolling hills with a number of narrow and steep gorges. The land has significant coverage of pine like trees and it was these two factors that made the Battle of the Bulge difficult for both armies to gain an advantage until the sheer weight of numbers and equipment, plus the fact that Germany was also trying to stop the advancing Russians on the other side of Germany that saw the Allies win through.

Villiers St Gertrude was a tiny village hidden away in the forest about a kilometre off the N827.

As there wasn’t a lot else to the village we found our accommodation easily and went to check in.

Initially one of the guests met us at the reception counter for the boutique B&B and explained that the owner was away elsewhere on the property getting the sauna ready for some other guests but he expected the owner would soon arrive to show us to our room.

Closer inspection of what the B&B was all about revealed it was a wellness spa and health retreat. Shame we wouldn’t be here long enough to indulge in the facilities!

Eventually the owner did appear as we came back from the parked car with our overnight suitcase and back packs and he showed us to our room. This is the first time in many nights that we haven’t been accommodated in an apartment and the lack of space almost felt claustrophobic.

The owner had given us suggestions of restaurants nearby and after refreshing ourselves up with a pre dinner drink we drove the short distance to Weris across the valley from St Gertrude.

Belgium language in both the spoken and written forms is a curious mix of French and Dutch as the country has a history of being part of both of those countries in years long ago.

There were a couple of restaurants in close vicinity of where we parked the car but we chose the one the B&B owner had more favourably recommended.

The menu including the drinks list was in Belgian

But there were a couple of words that were in English and we went for the dish we could partially recognise and a beer that we thought we had had before in a Belgian cafe in Auckland a number of years ago.

When the beer arrived and was a raspberry colour we should have known that the arrival of the Fillet Americain was also going to give us a surprise.

The beer actually was quite refreshing and it seemed to match the pleasant evening weather with a warm sun that had developed after we arrived at the restaurant.

The arrival of the main course bought an end to our anticipation of a delicious and tasty American style hamburger.

At first we thought the chef had gone on strike and that no one else on the staff knew how to cook the generous size raw meat pattie.

We both looked at the plates before us and wondered whether we should point out to the waiter when he returned with a huge bowl of hot and very tasty fries that he had picked up two plates that were waiting for the chef to take the patties from to throw on the grill and cook.

We weren’t sure but we guessed that perhaps the name of the dish was a salute to the liberating American forces of 70 odd years ago and that somewhere through the years the story about how the Americans cooked their patties had been lost on the locals. Or had it been that the American forces of 1944 simply had to eat their meat raw in the cold weather when many soldiers in the field had to get by on very limited rations and no hot food.

I managed to get through my generous size patty mixing the tasty fries in while Gretchen struggled with hers and covered up what she didn’t eat with her napkins when the waiter came to clear our plates.

We realised we should have confirmed with the waiter when we placed our order as to what exactly was Filet Americain but hindsight is a great thing after the event and we thought we were reasonably sure it would have come cooked!

When we got back to the B&B Gretchen checked out the dish using Google and found that it was in fact a traditional Dutch dish similar to Steak Tartar which some restaurants in New Zealand serve and is 'raw meat' as well.

Before she turned off the light for the night she told me that as long as the restaurant used fresh meat and put the pattie together in hygienic conditions we should wake up OK in the morning.

With that we both dozed off to sleep hoping that we would awake OK in the morning for tomorrow its onto Holland and a couple of nights with Wim and Diny in Zwolle.

PS:The Battle of the Bulge movie theme I don't find that inspiring but it is appropriate to play the music which relates to what the greater part of today was given over to.Enjoy as always on Youtube


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