Travel-22: Playing Catch-up
France, Belgium and a bit of Spain
It was nip and tuck for awhile what with Covid-19 and my being in passport purgatory because of a lost passport card.
But it all worked out and on April 28, I flew via Iceland to Paris, France, to start a World War I tour.
(I flew Icelandair as they have the cheapest business class seats; they don’t lie flat.)
Concerned about long arrival lines in Paris, I entered the European Union in Reykjavik, so on arrival I walked right out of the terminal and onto a downtown bus and then a train to Chateau-Thierry where the tour commenced.
We were a small group of five friends plus two guides filling a seven-seat van to the gills.
The tour was a north by northwest arc seeing the stunning French countryside where Americans fought at Belleau Wood and Montfaucon. We ended at Ypres (“Eep”) in Belgium to see Flanders and the ghastly opposing battle trenches, sometimes just 50 feet from each other.
WWI is the real “forgotten” war.
As The Military Times points out, the battle of Montfaucon “was America’s deadliest battle ever, with 26,000 U.S. soldiers killed, tens of thousands wounded and more ammunition fired than in the whole of the Civil War.”
We ended with a stop at the American Cemetery in Normandy, overlooking Omaha Beach, where Superintendent Scott DesJardins gave us a spellbinding narrative of the battle.
As we went our ways, some heading home; I rented a car in Caen, France, and headed for the Lot Valley to see the extraordinary cave paintings dating from 30,000 years ago during the Paleolithic age.
I visited the recreation of the now-closed Lascaux cave and walked through the real thing at Pech-Merle, probably the best cave you can still actually enter.
Many caves were discovered during the early 20th century by kids exploring in the woods; one was found when a dog chased a rabbit down a hole as the teens followed.
The caves are rooted in the limestone geology where time, water and chemical reactions result in vast underground spaces.
Why did these early ancestors venture deep into pitch black caves to create images of animals and abstract designs? What need were they fulfilling?
Some propose that it is a spiritual act where painters and their clan discovered a sacred space and then created the art as part of a ritual.
Our Lascaux guide observed that these people were fulfilled, happy and at the “top of their game.”
Being the end of an ice age, the environment was harsh, still, they had food, clothing and shelter and were intent on a creative mission that, whatever the purpose, is evidence of sophistication, planning and the appreciation of beauty.
Cave art suggests that human spirituality is both ancient and innate and is perhaps connected to our realization that we are a perishable commodity.
I’ll go back again for sure.
On the way to a wedding south of Madrid I spent the day in Bilbao, Spain, to see the much vaunted Guggenheim art museum designed by Frank Gehry.
It’s a very modern “cave” filled with contemporary art: all metal, glass and curves.
I then drove five hours south to Madrid, surprised to see mountains with traces of snow on the way; Madrid is 2,100 feet above sea level and the vegetation and trees reflect that — it was breezy, even chilly, along the route.
In Aranjuez, where I stayed, there is a royal site complete with a stunning palace and gardens, the hotel was a former military officer’s quarters, part of the palace complex.
Spanish night-life vibe is languorous with people heading to dinner at 10PM while families stroll the plazas and chat in groups.
To avoid a $900 surcharge for dropping the rental car in Madrid, I backtracked to Paris, stopping in Bordeaux, France, on the way, a city I would like to see more of.
Bordeaux, a great port, is situated on the Garrone river which empties into the Bay of Biscay.
So it was three “trips” in one, the past and the future, love, war and the eternal quest for understanding; 30,000 years in 19 days.