Nine years ago, I traveled with my family to Paris for a week. It was our first international trip, and my sister and I relished the idea of exotic Paris. We had a magical time gallivanting around the Champs Élysées and seeing the majestic Versailles Palace.
One of those days, we rented a car and drove out several hours to a heavily wooded area in the middle of nowhere. My memory is quite fuzzy with the details of this part of the trip, but I do remember the significance in history. We were traipsing through the old and decrepit forts of Verdun, one of the most heavily demolished areas during WWI.
The last several months, most of Europe has been posting remembrances and having celebrations for the 100 year anniversary of the Great War including a beautiful tribute at the Tower of London with their Sea of Poppies, but in Verdun, 2016 marks the 100 year anniversary of the year-long battle. My father is a big WWI buff with a special fascination for the Verdun battles, so we made a point to plan a trip with my parents and explore the historically war-torn areas of the country once again.
But before we got to our destination in a small town just south of Verdun, the drive through the French countryside is worth an entry of its own. From Paris, we first crossed the French Champagne-Ardenne region of Northern France and were met with a massive iron sculpture of a boar affectionately named Woinic. He is the biggest wild boar in history and is a symbol for the Ardennes area. Why is a boar a symbol for a region? I’m not 100% sure.
But the boar is also the inspiration for two local beers (thanks to a Belgium influence): Woinic Triple and Woinic Rouge. We did not partake in the drinks, but we certainly did admire the 50 ton feat by Eric Sleziak as we passed through the small, highway-stop town.
Historically, the Ardennes region, which spreads through Luxembourg, Belgium, and Germany, was a place for three major battles during both WWI and WWII: the Battle of Ardennes (WWI), the Battle of France (WWII), and the Battle of the Bulge (WWII). It was originally thought that the terrain would make fighting difficult, but the Germans found a way and took advantage of the lightly defended area and stake their claim until each war ended.
The next town we stopped in was a small village called Mouzon. There is not much known about the small Ardennes village, but the historical church that sat in the center of town captured our attention to pull over and snap some photos. The village was incredibly picturesque with narrow roads, corner bakeries, and even a one-car arch called the Bourgogne Gate which stood beautifully as though welcoming people into the city center.
The Notre-Dame of Mouzon Cathedral is something you cannot miss as you drive through the city. It sits firmly at the end of the street before taking a right turn out of town. A church has stood on that ground since as early as the 9th century. It continued to be expanded and reformed through time until a fire broke out in 1212 destroying the vast majority of the structure. Slowly, but surely, through the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the church was rebuilt and reestablished until the French Revolution took many of the goods out of the church and had them auctioned off for cash.
To save its destruction, the town asked for it to be known as a parish church and to preach the Temple of Reason, a form of freemasonry that was intended to replace Christianity at the time of the “Terror.” But over the following decades, the church did revert back to traditional preaching until WWII when it was heavily damaged. Today, the glass has been replaced and the structure still stands. It shows just how determined a small town will be to hold on to its traditions.
Sedan was another town we just drove through. Even though we didn’t get out of the car to really explore the area, I still wanted to investigate more about the city since it holds some serious historical significance. The town was founded in 1424 and was later an asylum for Protestant refugees during the Wars of Religion with the Catholics. Between two and four million people were killed during this war, but the end in 1598 saw rights given to the Protestants, even though hostility never was eradicated.
In 1870, Sedan saw some action during the Franco-Prussian War. The French Emperor, Napoleon III, was taken prisoner during the First Battle of Sedan which essentially gave the winning hand to Prussia. While the fighting continued, it was certainly under new French management. Fast-forward a few decades to WWI and the Germans took Sedan as a major stronghold for four years. The last crown prince of Germany and Prussia, Wilhelm, paraded through the city before it went back to French hands at the end of the war. But in WWII, the Germans took the city back winning the Second Battle of Sedan in 1940. This allowed the Germans to win the Battle of France easily. Of course, history tells us how the rest of WWII went for the Germans.
Still standing is the Chateau du Sedan, which claims to be the biggest medieval castle in Europe with seven levels and 30,000 square meters of real estate. If you’re exploring the north of France, Sedan looks to be a major city to stop in, so don’t miss it!
But it was time to finally make it to Juvigny-sur-Loison, where we were staying for the next few days. This tiny village in the heart of French farmland was perfectly idyllic and so quiet. The charm of the town can be summed up in the 8:30am blaring horn of the baguette lady who comes street by street in her bread truck offering fresh bread and pastries at 1 Euro a piece. I ran outside both mornings to retrieve fresh delicacies, and my parents relished in the quaint village life.
According to history, the small town was founded in 874 by Queen Richilde of Provence and her husband, Charles the Bald, King of the Franks, and an abbey was built. Like the church in Mouzon, this abbey was sold during the French Revolution, and it was completely destroyed. Besides that brief history, the town was largely left alone and used as farmland. Currently, there are no more than 300 inhabitants in the small area adding to the quiet and quaint charm.
Around the corner from our flat sits the historic Church of St. Denis, built in 1772. It was so lovely to hear the church bells in the early and late hours, but what was even more lovely was being able to stand outside on the balcony and see endless and countless stars overhead. The light pollution was very minimal giving way to millions upon billions of sparkling lights in the black sky.
Our trip was just beginning with the Verdun battlefields as our next priority. But I would be remiss to not mention the smaller villages along the way. For a quiet and relaxing time in Northern France, rent a car and take a drive.
Stay tuned next week for the haunting and rich historic forts of Verdun.