Gare Du Nord is awash with all varieties of travelers, the workers, business men, holiday makers, and day trippers like me. Many stand with heads back observing the click, click, click action of the TID Board (train information board), yellow and black flashing French destinations and departure times every few minutes. I love the sound, it means I am closer to ride and my journey to the Somme. For a three month trip away to Ireland, United Kingdom, France and Italy this day was the only trip that I had researched before departing Australia. It means a great deal to me and I feel so many emotions right now.
Last night my thought of this journey returned to my feeling of sadness, as I think of the loss at war, then my own personal loss. It is difficult to imagine my loss multiplied for all the loss of war.
The train slides slowly out of the station, until it is well out of the rail yard, unit it picks up speed and it seems as the engines warm up, we go faster. I see gypsy shanties, already busy motor ways, and a river; a swan nestled on a little island in a dam, huge power lines and small villages.
Green and gold fields are flashing up to my window again, under a haze of fog. The closeness of the fog puts another layer of somber on this day. This will also be one of discovery and excitement. I have been planning the trip for so long. What will I find, what will I see, what will I really feel? Will I find my Great Uncle Metre’s name at Villers-Bretonneux. Of course I am hopeful, but you never know.
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………So twelve hours later I am on the train back to Paris from Arras. What an unforgettable day. I will forget how bitterly cold I was but I hope I never forget what I saw and learnt today. I shared my amazing and moving day out on The Somme with three lovely women. Yvonne (from Melbourne), a retired TAA Flight Attendant and married to a retired Cathay pilot, Sue (retired from her job as a HR manager for Qantas) and Jan (also ex TAA Flight Attendant). They were warm, friendly and here for the same reasons as me – to search for names and places of lost ones, family who fought in the war, just to see and try and learn a little of what happened out on those fields.
There is so much history, many harsh tragic facts. It was so very emotional when I found my Great Uncle Metre’s name on the wall of the missing at the Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, among around 10,000 names of missing Australian Soldiers. I wonder if Uncle Metre’s body will ever be found. They are still finding so many. Five British soldiers were found just last year in a field we drove past at Bullecourt. I wish I could remember more. How is it, the trenches and remnants’ are still so close to the surface, like lots of emotions I imagine.
How difficult life must have been, to be so cold, so wet, so hungry, in so much pain. Imagine being happy the ground was frozen, as it was better than sloshing around in the muddy, wet conditions. Imagine the despair felt as your friends lay dying beside you, and there was nothing you could do to ease their pain, other than maybe holding their hand, say a prayer, and swear that you will send their love to their families.
Then it would be the same again, day after day…
What do I feel now? Overwhelmed for being a participant in such an extraordinary day; Feeling numbed by all the ruthless facts and numbers of casualties; 60,000 Australian soldiers lost their lives in World War I. Ten thousand Australian soldiers who lost their lives were never identified. Certainly there is a large part of my mind that will stay occupied with these thoughts for a long time.
There is still much passion out there in the fields. That is what would keep Peter (tour guide) and his wife busy in their tour business – helping people like me to learn the hard life of those that fought for us. Not just for people who had relatives in the war, but anyone’s who is interested in why we have the Australia we have today. LEST WE FORGET.
And there is no doubt in my mind that what our brave soldiers fought for in the war enables me to have the freedom to journey the world until my heart desires. And I had much desire for my next stop in Tours south of Paris.So I left Paris by train and made my way to Tours in the Loire Valley, where I stayed for three days packed with culture, delicious food and brilliant weather. I loved Tours, and I guess for a couple of reasons. Firstly the streets were wider, the sun had finally come out and I loved the architecture – all the shuttered buildings (no high rises, it reminded me a little of Versailles). To top it all off the people, Monique and Jean-Noel at their lovely Hotel Monsard were so friendly and interested in trying to help me. I felt like I had come home. They even went and bought soya milk for me to have on my cereal. Is it not funny that just plain normality and a smile make my day? And then there was Onslow – their beautiful Labrador who just lay in the hallway at the front of the hotel waiting patiently for someone (always me) to stop and pat him. So after such a welcome, I knew it was going to be a fun place. I wandered along the Loire River (it flows really fast), into the old part of the town that dates back at least 500 years (they have the same Tudor style buildings that I saw in England). I found probably the most beautiful church I have ever seen, Saint Gatien Cathedral, it also dates back forever. The original church where this current one now stands (that took around 3 centuries to complete) was built in 500 maybe. When you walk inside and look up, it looks like the roof might actually reach heaven, it just goes forever and there are many stunning stained glass windows that tell stories of saints from long ago. Among other sites, I visited their Musee, had a picnic lunch in the park – in the sunny summer that I had finally caught up with – very exciting. It reached 18 degrees I think. I visited the flower markets – they run Wednesday of every week and there are many gorgeous flowers and plants. As usual I drew much enjoyment and content from wandering the streets, especially in the old part of the city. A day trip out of Tours was one of those experiences that fed my senses so well and engraved great memories in my mind to take away as souvenirs from this part of my trip. In a group we were taken to Amboise Chateau (there is many of Chateaus you can visit in the area). In the grounds of this chateau is a little church which is the final resting place of Leonardo Da Vinci. If it was not too much trouble, I would love to be half as smart as this man was. We also went to the chateau where Leonardo lived for his final three years (he was invited by the King Francois 1 to come and stay with him – who would not want a man like this to come and help you build prototypes for weapons and all other amazing inventions, let alone paint for you and have a wonderful conversation with. So by all accounts Leonardo was very happy living here (it is now a museum with models of all his amazing inventions and there is a wonderful garden as well). After saying goodbye to Leonardo we went to Chateau Chenonceau (via a delicious wine tasting), which is I believe to be is one of the favourites of all the big chateau’s you can visit. It is stunning and is built on the River Cher. Do a quick Google if you have time and have not been there, and you will get the picture. Forget the rooms where the kings and queens lived, you should have seen the kitchen. Wow! It covered at least half a dozen rooms and you can sort of imagine the gastronomical feasts that would have been served up from there. They have it set up like it would have been with all these magnificent copper pots and huge kitchen tables – awesome. From the gardens, come all the amazing flowers that are on display in the chateau. There is 1 hectare of rose gardens alone, and then there is the biggest vegetable garden I have ever seen. While Chenonceau does not have the same bling as Versailles, it certainly has grace and class and I loved soaking up its beauty as I traversed the neatest tracks through immaculate amazing gardens.