Casteau, Vimy Ridge, and Arras make for an unforgettable roadtrip.
Every good travel experience contains a quest of some kind, a search for something special. When you're in southern Belgium and northern France, there's no end to the opportunities to explore with exceptional sites to discover. We started out on a quest of sorts in Belgium, paying homage to Canadians of the past, and what started out as a simple ride became one of the best roadtrips of our life.
Leaving our home base of Mons, we headed first to the nearby village of Casteau. As history lovers, Casteau had an irresistible allure. This humble hamlet was reputedly the place where the first and last shots of World War I were fired, just 400 meters apart. We had read a lot about Casteau and we were eager to discover the monuments for ourselves.
We easily located the nearly restored monument that marks the spot where the first shots of war were fired. Its simple design makes it all the more poignant and it's not difficult to imagine how the area looked 100 years ago.
Directly across the road from the monument was a second plaque, one we weren't expecting to see at all. It marked the exact spot the 116th Canadian Infantry Battalion stopped at the moment of the cease fire in 1918. In addition to the plaque, Canadian and Belgian flags were on display and there was an empty flower box which would be filled once again in the spring.
The second part of our quest proved to be more difficult. From what we had read, there was a plaque marking the spot where the last shot had been fired, just 400 meters from the first. We searched up and down the village to no avail, fanning out in every direction to search for it. Interestingly, in the centre of Mons (the exact place we had departed from that morning!) there is a plaque on the Hotel de Ville commemorating that city's liberation by the Canadians and it states that the last shots of the war were fired THERE!
Alas, we did make two interesting discoveries during our search. The first was a tiny old chapel, just next to the village cenotaph. The second was a war memorial outside the main gates of S.H.A.P.E (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, command central of the NATO military forces). Suffice to say, we weren't able to come to any firm conclusions about the location of the last shots but we had a wonderful and enlightening time during our search.
While our success was limited on our initial quest, seeing the beautiful tributes to the Canadian troops in Casteau sparked a spontaneous, second part of our trip. Less than two hours away was one of the most poignant war memorials in the world, honoring the Canadians who fought at Vimy Ridge, France, in World War I. We were too close not to go - we knew we had to extend our road trip and pay our respects in France.
If it's your first time roadtripping in rural Europe like it was for us, there are a few things to take into consideration. Distances are relatively short, making it very easy to include extra excursions in your itinerary. I recommend carrying an up-to-date paper road atlas as well as relying on your GPS - there are plenty of narrow, mud packed, isolated rural roads that are just waiting to cause trouble and they're in cahoots with your devil-may-care GPS! Happily, we didn't get bogged down (barely!) but we were thrilled we had purchased extra insurance all the same. Finally, while Europe has arguably the best cuisine in the world, you won't experience any of it in roadside gas stations, where the food is just as bad as it would be at any North American rest stop. Stock up on pain au chocolate at a local bakery before you hit the road!
When we caught our first glimpse of the imposing Vimy Ridge memorial as we drove through the French countryside, we knew we had made the right decision to extend our roadtrip. The soaring stone columns of the memorial stand in sharp contrast to the downy grass covering thousands of tiny mounds of soil that still bear the scars of war. It's a beautiful tribute to the Canadian sacrifice in World War I and it is a moving place to spend time in reflection on how many people and communities suffered during the campaign - and continue to suffer in war zones today.
One of the best things about our visit was speaking with the Canadian staff who work at the visitors' centre and offer guided tours of the tunnel system that played such an important role in the eventual capture of Vimy Ridge during the war. The staff were so warm, friendly, and helpful that they made me even more proud to be a Canadian than in seeing the memorial itself. They really are incredible ambassadors for Canada and I can't imagine a better team to help guide visitors through the moving exhibits. While the center and the adjacent Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries close at 5:00 pm, the memorial itself is always open and it's well worth driving to see it even if you're passing through after hours.
With the light fading fast, we decided to add one more stop on what was already a full day. Just a few minutes from Vimy is the city of Arras and it's well worth a visit. If you're staying in the area, a lot of people rent bicycles to make the journey between Arras and Vimy - and if you're driving like we were, keep an eye out for cyclists and hikers on the narrow roads!
Arras is a special city in many ways. It has a unique city centre with double squares, known as Grand Place and Petite Place, which are home to 155 Flemish-Barouque style houses that date back to the 17th century. Curiously, the centre of Grand Place is used as a parking lot at night. At first, this seemed so unusual to us that it was almost offensive. How dare such a beautiful square be used for something so prosaic as parking! But the more we thought about it, the more it made sense. Unlike so many cities at home in North America, Arras really is alive at night. The two squares are filled with people walking and talking, stopping at cafes and sitting at bars. The parking situation is a welcome relief for roadtrippers and I suspect it's just as welcome for residents as well!
But beneath the beautiful houses and the practical square is something you'd never expect. 10 meters below ground is a series of tunnels and galleries called "Boves" that date back to the 10th century. Originally used as a way to connect the cellars of adjacent houses, the Boves were critical to the British, who held the city in World War I. The Boves played an important role in both World Wars, as residents stored valuables in there to protect them from bombing - and the residents themselves took shelter there in World War II. I had originally toured the Boves during my first backpacking trip, many years ago, and I was sorry we had arrived too late to do the tour again.
Happily, even in the early evening there were still plenty of charms to enjoy in Arras, not the least of which were culinary in nature! We stocked up on apple pastries, fancy cream cakes, chocolates, and strong coffee, and took another stroll around both squares before finally calling it a day and reluctantly leaving France to return back to Belgium.
While visiting so many sites related to the wars was a sobering experience, it was also a moving and uplifting one as well. We met so many lovely people and enjoyed so much beautiful countryside. And we learned so much about our own history and fellow citizens. It was an important reminder that there is so much inspiration and knowledge to be gleamed from the past and, all in all, we had a road trip we'll never forget.
How has history influenced your travels?
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