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In the footsteps of soldiers

A tour around some of the key battle sites in Picardy

Belle France customers Jenny and Derek Harding embarked on the Great War Walk, a tour around some of the key battle sites in Picardy. Here, Jenny writes about their trip.

As caravanners and campers Derek and I have always  enjoyed the outdoor life, so when we saw the Belle France brochure, we were sure we had found a gem. So many places to see and things to do: cycling, walking, gourmet dining and oh, that Canal du Midi barge trip! We plumped for the Great War Walk, a week of easy walking, and as we were a little out of practise we thought this fitted the bill.

The first night

We drove from Calais to start our walk at Cheret, staying our first night at Le Clos. What a smashing chambre d’hôte, the stunning home of M. & Mme. Simonnot. Our room in the front of the house overlooked the lake and after settling in, the first job was to sort out our requirements for the next day’s walk and our luggage for the next week, which is transported each morning on to the next hotel.

War memorial on Chemin des Dames
War memorial on Chemin des Dames

Belle France supplied brilliant walking notes and IGN maps for the holiday, which were easy to follow and accurate. Except for one small error: over dinner that night M. Simonnot asked where we were walking the next day and how far it was. We duly responded that it was 8km (5.5 miles), at which point M. Simonnot asked us if we knew of a short cut: the walk from Cheret to Bouconville Vauclair turned out to be 16km! That said, it was a lovely route through woods, fields and charming villages. This first day took us through the village of Martigny Courpierre, which boasts a stunning Art Deco church that’s well worth a visit. From here we had our first view of the Chemin des Dames.

Into the Dragon's Lair

Here was the village of Ailles
Here was the village of Ailles

Staying in Bonconville Vauclair for two nights gives you a day walk which leads to the ruins of the Abbaye de Vauclair with its extensive medicinal herb garden, then on to the Caverne du Dragon. We timed our walk to get to the Caverne just in time for the guided  tour in English at noon. This was a real insight into the futility of the Great War and the vast numbers of casualties of this period in our history. The sculpture outside the museum of tall black columns, representing the African soldiers who lost their lives fighting in Europe, stretches along the ridge of the Chemin des Dames and is a truly moving sight. Next was the lost village of Craonne below the Plateau de Californie, one of the many villages that were completely lost during the Nivelle offensive, and now an arboretum.

Our next two days of walking took us along the Chemin des Dames, so called because it was made for the daughters of Henry III to travel south to visit the bishop. The route took us through lovely countryside and on forest paths, staying overnight at the village of Chamouille.

Next on the route was the medieval town of Laon. Once a hospital for German soldiers, its cathedral atop a ridge is visible for miles around. Our hotel was decorated in the Art Deco style and the food was something special. Extending our stay for two nights gave us the ability to visit the armoury housed in underground caves, and used by the Napoleonic armies to store their gun powder.

A wonderful ending

Our last day of walking took us down the hill into the Marais area below Laon and finally back to our car at Cheret. This last night was a highlight because of our evening meal, shared with a couple from Ireland on their way to the south, and a French couple on a cycle tour from Dunkerque to the Vosges. The chatter rang back and forth in both English and French, and before long we were joined by M. & Mme. Simonnot with a bottle of homemade raspberry liquor. What a great evening!

Throughout the week’s walking, the notes and maps supplied by Belle  France were excellent and the way marking of the paths was easy to follow, so we had no worries about walking unguided. We made our way home via Vimy Ridge, through its forest with the trenches and bomb craters and the large memorial to the Canadian troops.

We can't wait until next year’s Belle France brochure drops through our letterbox!

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