Thursday 25th August – Verdun
That’s it I’m never drinking champagne again!
Blooming Climate Change! Bloomin’ Global Warming!
Well, here we are in a lovely little campsite in Verdun, sitting in the shade of a heavily laden damson tree, with Bryn happily crunching damson stones at my feet.
We never intended on coming here. I knew of Verdun and of the terrible battle in the First World War, but we were heading for Dormans, a tiny little village, just south of Epernay, in the heart of the Champagne region. I had seen it mentioned in a blog as a place where someone every year stopped to buy cheap champagne from the very friendly and helpful site manager, Bernard. Indeed, I had emailed Monsieur Bernard four weeks ago to book an ‘emplacement’ and over the course of a couple of days, with the help of Google Translate, I felt I too had struck up a particularly cordial friendship with M. Bernard and I was looking forward to cementing our relationship over a glass of two of his best fizz.
Your terrific trio of Wendy, Bryn and I left Derby on Tuesday morning for a leisurely and uneventful drive to Folkestone to collect Bryn’s Animal Health Certificate, yet another layer of bureaucracy foisted on us by a Conservative Government that assured us that Brexit was going to do away with all red tape while maintaining free and easy access to Europe – we truly could have our gateau and mange it! Most vets are showing their disgust at this legislation while lining their pockets by charging between £200 and £300 to complete the certificate. Fortunately, an enterprising, or more socially conscious vet, Abbeywells, in Folkestone will complete one online for you for ‘only’ £100.
With the valuable document safely in our possession, it was back up the M20 a couple of junctions to the lovely hamlet of North Stanford and the famous Drum Inn; where for the price of a meal we were able to camp for the night. On the wall of the pub is the platinum disc awarded to the Lighthouse Family for their album, Ocean Drive. Apparently, they recorded it in a house down the lane from the pub and became good friends with the landlady; just like Bernard and I were going to be!
At silly o’clock we arose on Wednesday morning in time to walk Bryn, grab some breakfast and board the 0720 Shuttle to Calais. As we were checking Bryn and his AHC in at the reception centre, it was sad to hear an Irish couple next to us who hadn’t got the correct paperwork for their elderly greyhound and were sent away to find a vet who would issue an emergency certificate, probably at a suitably ‘emergency price’.
We drove off the Shuttle into the bright French sunshine which got higher and higher and hotter and hotter as we drove east towards the land of the suitably expensive white grape. Thank goodness the lads at the 2010 garage seem to have fixed the air-conditioning.
At 1230, a little earlier than planned we arrived at the sleepy village of Dormans, crossed the river Marne (just like Julius Caesar did in 40BC) and pulled into the campsite. So eager was I to consolidate my acquaintance with Bernard that we ignored the signs saying that the campsite was full, heady on Bernard’s assurances that there was always space and all I had to do was ring him when we arrived.
As a tried to remember the international dialling code for France (+33 if you ever need it) so I could ring my chum, a tall, grey haired, red faced and angry man came running across to us shouting, “No, no, we are full go away!” I smiled and reassured him that it was OK, I was Howard, a friend of Bernard’s and he had assured me that he would find me a place.
Well, dear reader, imagine my surprise when this hot and harassed Frenchman said he was Bernard, and he was sorry but there were no spaces despite his earlier, somewhat optimistic, assurances!
“We only want to stay one night?” “Non!”
“What about the long nights over glasses of champagne, sharing amusing anecdotes and photos of our grandchildren?” “Non!”
“May we just park here while we try to find another campsite?” “Non!”
And with that he all but pushed out of the site and slammed the outer barrier behind us. Wendy drove us away as I wept at the brutal way Bernard had brought our friendship to an end, almost before it began.
It turned out that due to the exceptionally hot and dry summer France has endured the grapes have ripened over a month early and the harvest began earlier in the week. As a result, not just Bernard’s, but every campsite in the Champagne region is full to bursting with itinerant grape pickers. We had seen on our way what looked like gypsy encampments on every scrap of waste ground.
But that is it! Never again will champagne pass my lips! From now on it is going to be cava and prosecco and other sparkling varieties all the way.
We found a layby in some shade (by now it was over 35 degrees), had some lunch and assessed our options. Verdun became the new object of our affections for no other reasons than it seemed to be far enough away from the Champagne, Wendy had seen a good site, Camping les Breuils, in the ACSI book and when I rang them the guy sounded as if it would make his year if we deigned to visit him. (I didn’t get his name as once bitten…)
Verdun, though another two hours’ drive further on, is delightful. We have taken full advantage of the campsite’s friendly little bar and dined in its bistro, but even Wendy didn’t manage to find time to enjoy the pool with its flumes and fountains. By the time we had dined, it was cool enough for us to take a wander into the town; and what a surprise! Verdun is rightly proud of a history going back ’30 centuries’. The two features that dominate the town are the Cathedral, precariously perched, high on the hill overlooking the town clustered along the banks of the river Meuse, and the vast subterranean citadel started in the 17th Century, but of course played a significant role in the Great War at the centre of the nine-month Battle of Verdun that saw 100’s of 1000’s of French and German soldiers killed. I’m not a big fan of the history of the 20th Century wars (I think there is too much fetishization of the World Wars, especially by men who took no part in either.) but it was moving to see the marks in the buildings left by shells, bullets and shrapnel and the efforts the townsfolk have taken to turn the place into a centre for world peace. We had a very pleasant stroll around a lively town centre following a trail available at the campsite and ending with an ice cream on the Quai des Londres.
And so to bed. It was still partly light, but we were knackered. The early start, the long drive, the heat and the gaslighting (or is it ghosting? – youngsters please advise?) by Bernard had all taken their toll. And, dear reader, you will be pleased to hear that your three heroes slept the sleep of the just and even I managed a good nine and a half hours kip.
Another wonderful feature of Camping les Breuils is that turning left out of the campsite leads you on to wonderful dog walking country across fields interlaced with cycling trails. Bryn and I took full advantage of that this morning before breakfast and so here I am with an hour or so before we must leave for Eguisheim, tonight’s campsite (I hope!).