In Ypres, Belgium they honor the dead of WWI with bugles playing the "Last Post" every evening at 8:00 pm underneath the arch of the Menin Gate. The gate is built over the bridge that these soldiers traveled on their way to the front. With the exception of a few years in the 40s, they have been doing this since 1928. At the conclusion of the ceremony, these lines are read and the crowd repeats the last line:
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.”
We will remember them.
It is a moving ceremony, especially as we stand and read the 54,000 names of the honored dead engraved on the arch as the bugle plays. These are the soldiers who were never identified and have no known grave; they are somewhere in the area near Ypres. The names are a roll call of the British Empire and the world, with Irish and British names mingling with Ahmed and Sayid from India. The names on the Arch are a portion of the thousands of fallen soldiers who fought over this small slice of ground. It is difficult to reconcile what it feels like to ride our bicycles through the peaceful and orderly landscape with what happened here; where the honored dead struggled and died for a tiny patch of ground. There are places where the front lines were a few meters apart, where a few steps across no mans land led to the other side; yet they were stuck there for years. Chemical warfare, tanks, machine guns, aerial bombardments, mass graves; all the trappings of modern war were first used or refined here in the Ypres salient. I am left with the impression of incredible waste, especially since all of this merely set the stage for the more widespread and terrible carnage of WWII. The well tended graveyards and memorials leave me with questions. It seems right to continue to honor and celebrate the sacrifice of our "glorious dead", but how do we then move on from the toxic brews of patriotism, nationalism, bigotry and idealism that led to these wars and all the other ones? The Museum in Ypres provides a sobering perspective that we haven't learned very much since 1918 and that the lessons of the Menin Gate have been lost on future generations. Better philosophers than I am have worked on these questions, but they continue to give me food for thought as we ride the roads of Belgium and France. There is an excellent documentary: "They Shall Not Grow Old" that I found moving as well.
From Belgium we follow the Atlantic Coast toward Normandy and the city of Caen. We ride through the cities of Dunkerque and Calais. Everyone else in Europe has headed to the ocean as well and the campgrounds are full and the beaches are crowded. There are some nice bits of riding along the dunes and some beautiful small towns, but there are also difficult bits of navigation through the cities. The route climbs and dips over headlands and we end up riding through our second heat wave of the summer. It seems dangerous and stupid to keep riding so we are forced to take shelter in a sweltering hotel room. There is no air conditioning anywhere but luckily the weather breaks and rain gives us some relief. At our next campsite the rain pins us down for two nights and we huddle in the tent all day.
When we first started we intended to do more wild camping rather than stay in developed campsites. We were concerned that they would be loud and crowded. But after struggling to to find secluded places to wild camp with water the first few days, we realized that the European system of private, paid campsites are a great way to go and that no matter how crowded, they can always fit in a pair of cyclists. We would start looking for a campsite around midday and generally just ride in and get a site in the early afternoon. The prices ranged from 7 Euros to 27 and there was no correlation between the cost and level of services. You can get a hot shower, wifi and a place to camp in the shade. Most of the time there is a hedge to divide your space from others and often you can get cold beer or eggs or even dinner. There is a distinct lack of picnic tables and we were very jealous of the other campers who have chairs. We stayed in rural farm campsites, sandy beach campsites and crowded city campsites in Amsterdam and other cities. There were always other cyclists and we would sometimes make friends and share route information and maybe a drink or dinner. Some of the sites even provided toilet paper and toilet seats. All in all, we really enjoyed camping and would definitely do it again.
After these extremes of weather, we decide to train hop on to Caen. Our original plan was to tour the beaches of Normandy and explore more WWII historical sites, but logistics and history fatigue put us on the Velo Francette, a lovely mix of canals, rivers and small roads.
We are down to the last few weeks of our time in Europe. We made the decision to book flights in August, rather than stay on until the fall. We are ready to see some friends and family. After months of traveling without an end date, it is strange to be counting down the days and kilometers. The route turns out to be a great way to end our trip, with rolling hills and shaded gravel pathways along the river. On the last day in Saumur, France we pedal through the predawn dark to catch an early morning train. A mere 12 hours later, we are in Marseille and then back to Sisteron.
Back in Sisteron, we spend our days shopping at the local market, eating at our favorite pizza place and seeking relief from the heat in the local swimming area. It feels like coming home and our friend Constantin invites us to spend the weekend at his place in the country. He picks us up in his 1985 34 foot Airstream motorhome and we spend a delightful couple of days dipping in the river and enjoying dinner at a mountain restaurant.
Our last bike ride is an easy roll downhill into our incredibly beautiful town of Sisteron. It's time to pack up and move on.