Hunsruck and the Ardenne

Thursday 24th June 2010, Ida Oberstein, Hunsruck
(We have already written about the Rhine and the Moselle, covering much the same area that we have travelled today on 18th and 19th June, 2007)

Well the hooting, shouting, police sirens and general hullabaloo went on until at least midnight. It seems Germany beat Ghana one nil. We understand their next match is with England. We are not sure when it is but have decided it would be wiser to be out of Germany before then so are heading towards the borders of France and Luxembourg.

Having made our way across Koblenz this morning we continued down the north bank of the Moselle, trying, as best we may, not to cover exactly the same route as on our last visit to the region. The day has been unbearably hot and we have ended up doing far too much driving. This evening we are both very weary.

Village church on the banks of the Moselle amidst the vineyards

Stopping for a drink in the shade at the little village of Moselkern we recognised it as one we had passed through last time on our way to see the castle at Burg Eltz. Outside the village church we found a small Merovingian cross dating from the 7th century, depicting the crucifixion. It was apparently discovered in the village in 1800, in perfect condition. It is claimed to be the earliest depiction of Christ on the cross north of the Alps. (What a superlative!) We are pretty sure what we saw was a copy, the original is probably in a museum, but it was certainly a delicate piece of carving.

Merovingian cross from the 7th century, Moselkern

Typical village on the Moselle set amidst the vineyards

Further down the Moselle, above Cochem, we crossed the river and climbed up onto the plateau that lies between the Rhine and the Moselle. Known as the Hunsrück, we had found it a lovely area on our last visit and we were not disappointed this time. Beneath a shady tree with a wide vista across the countryside we stopped for a picnic lunch just outside of Kastellaun.

Kastellaun with its castle seen from our picnic spot

Still trying to avoid the same routes as last time we struck off towards Simmern. It is one of the larger towns in this, the most deserted region of Germany. It is no more than a large village but pleasant to stroll around on a hot afternoon. There were only two points of interest, both of them ecclesiastical. Having wallowed in the coolness of the Protestant church we did the same in the Catholic one, lingering until we felt cool enough to face the inferno of the street outside. The latter church had six confessionals along the walls, each able to accommodate two sinners at a time. However, we decided it was probably a bit like Lidls with six check-outs but only ever one open! In any case nowadays it's doubtful if there is more than one priest available locally to hear confession and what on earth can the local inhabitants find to confess? Absolutely nothing happens except the occasional visit to the hairdresser or couple of elderly ladies meeting for cakes on the town square. So rare are sinners that the only charismatic figure ever to have entered the village was a robber named Schinderhannes, who was imprisoned in the tower for several months in 1799 until he found a way to escape. He has become the folk hero of the town and we dutifully clambered up to see the tower in the heat of the afternoon, only to find it closed for restoration.

Scale model of the Schinderhannesturm, Simmern

It took an ice cream sitting on the town hall steps to revive us, after which we continued across the Hunsrück in what we fondly, but falsely hoped was the right direction, following the Gem trail across the region.

Rathaus, a shady place for eating ice cream, Simmern

The trouble with Germany is that it has Umleitungen, or diversions - thousands of them. There are entire factories devoted to producing Umleitung signs while local councils are forever clamouring for more. When they run out of correct signs they simply put up any Umleitung sign they can find. Thus we passed a road sign saying lorries were diverted. It failed to say cars were also diverted. Several kilometres further on the road was closed and we had to drive back again. Following the sign for diverted lorries we made a massive sweep of the countryside, covering some 25 kilometres, only to find ourselves back where we'd started! They had run out of Umleitung signs half way round the diversion! Later we found another Umleitung sign crossed out. What did that mean for heaven's sake? The air was electric blue in Modestine! The Hunsrück is far too large and empty an area in which to get lost.

The area is important for slate quarrying, mining and processing gem stones and cutting and polishing diamonds. This part too, is also rather industrial and unattractive. When we finally reached Idar-Oberstein we were past being interested. It was not an attractive town, straggling for ever along the Nahe valley, and the heat was still blistering. All we wanted was to get out and find our way to somewhere cool. Driving out into the countryside on the far side of town we chanced upon this campsite beside a small river. The site has seen better days and there is an odd collection of what appears to be permanent residents, but we seem to be the only tourists they've had for ages. It's cheap and although the grass needs cutting and there are too many flies by the river, at least there appear to be hot showers and clean loos.

Friday 25th June 2010, Saarburg, Hunsrück
We passed this way in 2007 and tonight we have returned to the same campsite. It was here that we first learnt about the special discounts at many sites for members of the Dutch camping club ACSI. Since we joined it three years ago it must have saved us a small fortune. We are the only non-Dutch people staying on this site. The instructions for working the showers were written up in Dutch and there is the permanent sound of clogs grating on gravel, as fellow campers make their way around the site. This evening we listened in as our neighbour read a bedtime story in Dutch to his little daughter who was wearing a flowery nightie and wooden clogs.

We are though, still in Germany. Luxemburg and France are just down the road so today has probably been our last chance for Ian to indulge in Kaffee und Kuchen. (He's already dreaming of pain aux raisins once we are back in France.)

As we left last night's campsite this morning the sun was already hot and glaring. We drove across a near deserted countryside of forests and cornfields to Hermeskeil, one of the only places larger than a village marked on our map. It is pleasant enough but the most exciting thing to see, according to the map displayed outside the town hall, appeared to be the Franciscan monastery, built in 1935, destroyed in the war and restored in the 1980s! Hard as it was to resist, we decided to give it a miss.

To be fair, there was a swimming pool, a small railway museum and a collection of old aircraft to attract possible visitors. There were also several attractive modern bronze sculptures placed around the town by the local bank.

Benefits of a bank account rather than a sock or piggy bank. Sculpture sponsored by the local bank, Hermeskeil

We'd explored the town far more quickly than expected so continued on to Saarburg, a town we knew we loved but had not anticipated visiting again. On the way we sought in vain for some shade somewhere on the wide open landscape to stop for a picnic coffee. There was not a building in sight anywhere for mile after mile, and hedges and trees were way back from the roadside. Eventually we stopped at a wayside chapel with a nearby shelter and a tree to keep Modestine cool. We discovered that the shelter had been built in the 1920s to provide cover for workers and their animals in the fields. They had to travel very long distances from the nearest villages and needed somewhere to rest and eat their meals, also for emergency shelter from the heat or rain. The tiny chapel had benches inside and the shelter still had tethering rings for the animals.

Wayside chapel and shelter for agricultural workers and their horses, Hunsrück

In Saarburg we had to leave Modestine parked for most of the day in full sunshine. The temperature reached 38.5 inside and all afternoon it has been in the high thirties around the town. We both feel we need some exercise but it is impossible to do anything except seek out the shade.

It was lovely though to find ourselves back in this pretty little town with its high waterfall cascading through the centre and its many little cafes with their bright umbrellas along the banks of the stream. Its high castle overlooks the curve of the Saar river far below, with long pleasure boats moored on the bank or making their way upriver towards Trier, while its funicular carries visitors up from the baking streets to the cool woodland above the vineyards that cover the steep surrounding hillsides.

Waterfall in the centre of Saarburg

Town centre, Saarburg

Pleasure boat on the river Saar, seen from the castle, Saarburg

We sheltered from the heat over a very nice lunch of salad and Schnitzel before climbing up to the castle ruins. We even climbed the spiral staircase inside the tower, but that was because it was cool inside. Our reward was a wonderful view over the town and the river and a slight breeze. Even so, we couldn't stay there for long and returned down to the town where Ian indulged in his last German cake full of chocolate, cream and cherries.

Castle tower, Saarburg

View from the castle onto the town and river, Saarburg

We took shelter for an hour on the internet in the local computer shop, waving the mouse mats as fans. Camping can be worse when it is hot than in the depths of winter as we have no way to keep cool. Finally we made our way here and found a pitch with a tiny corner of shade where we huddled with glasses of cold water until the temperature dropped enough for us to cross to the showers and wash away the stickiness of the day. Now, at 11pm, it's 27C. Fortunately external temperatures drop right down over night.

Please see our entry for Tuesday 19th June 2007 for our earlier account with photos of Saarburg.

We had thought to spend a few more days making our way slowly across Luxemburg and France but Ian needs to do some work in the archives in Caen and Genevieve says it would be better for her if we came sooner rather than later. So tomorrow we leave Germany and return back into France.

Saturday 26th June 2010, Sedan, France
In rapid succession we have been popping in and out of the Benelux countries all morning. Following our breakfast in Germany we passed into Luxembourg, where we gave a starving Modestine her breakfast of best quality diesel at around 87 pence a litre. We also stopped to look around the town of Bettenburg. You will not find it listed in any directory of Europe's most attractive and vibrant towns. Sadly though, you may well find it listed amongst the most exciting places in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

Before we could say "European Union" we were into France. It was now coffee time and Ian's thoughts were beginning to turn to refreshment. So off we headed into Belgium. Where else when one needs a bun? It was also possibly the last chance we would ever have to visit Belgium! We may well return this way again, but would Belgium still be there? Such is the animosity between the French speaking Walloons and the Flemish speaking population that a referendum is currently being held to consider the country splitting in two! Then what, we wonder? Would it work? Or would the Walloons be absorbed into Luxembourg or France whilst the Flems found themselves part of the Netherlands?

In Virton we found a baker's, its shelves piles high with sticky, iced, curly yeast buns full of currents - the classic Belgium bun. Somewhere between the door and the counter, Ian's eyes became bewitched by sticky, mocha cream sponge cakes and he forgot all about his mission. He returned to me clutching a sealed cake box containing his treasure which he later enjoyed in a shady park with a cup of our own coffee.

Seductive Belgian cake, Virton

Before leaving Belgium we had chance to browse the local newspaper. It has a full page feature on the paedophilia scandal surrounding the bishop of Bruges, Primate of Belgium! What is it about Belgium that it is repeatedly involved in the most horrible and sordid cases concerning child sex abuse? It is generally a friendly, pleasant country, rather sleepy perhaps. Certainly not the place to expect a major scandal within in the Catholic Church.

So by midday we'd been through four countries and we'd not even had lunch yet! During the afternoon we drove out of Belgium and back into France arriving in Sedan mid afternoon. We have no guidebooks to France with us as we never expected to be here, but we both knew the town was famous for inventing the Sedan chair. Stopping at the lights to let traffic out from the side road we were disappointed not to see a couple of men trotting along carrying a chair on poles between them.

Actually Sedan is a very big disappointment all round. It epitomises everything that is horrid and ugly about France which has struck us all the more forcibly having arrived from Germany. What impression must visitors from there, and from the Benelux countries, have seeing such a dirty, decayed and crumpled town as Sedan when they cross over the border into France? The town must always have been dirty and neglected which is no doubt why the Sedan chair was invented here in the 17th century as a way for the wealthy citizens to move around the streets without soiling themselves on the accumulated rubbish. Today the streets looked as if they had not been cleaned since, with broken tiles, fallen plaster, cigarette stubs, broken glass, plastic bottles, food wrappings and half eaten food littering the roads, graffiti on the walls and an air of total neglect and lack of care by the citizens. Pigeons mess on the seats and flap around in the gutter and it stands to reason that rats must be lurking beneath the manhole covers Ian so eagerly photographs. Even the botanical gardens were strewn with rubbish and the dog fouling was beyond belief. Please note, I have not once mentioned this last problem during our travels until now. Other countries are just more civilised than the French. Loath as I am to say so, there is a large sector of the French population that is both dirty and negligent. A man passed us today in the street tugging a large resisting dog along the pavement. Unable to contain itself the poor dog dropped a huge deposit outside a lady's house. While she was complaining to the owner the dog produced another one. They were both left exactly where they were. Neither the lady, nor the owner had any interest in cleaning it off the pavement. When we returned later it had been trampled and skidded all along the pavement by busy shoppers returning home. No wonder most French houses don't have fitted carpets!

We walked down to the river Meuse. It could have been attractive but the banks were covered in rubbish with unsavoury junkies squatting on the pavement. Back amidst the streets of once attractive old houses we noted the blistered, damaged shutters hanging from broken windows, the patches where plaster had fallen from the facades and the broken steps and dirty entrances. If only the local authority made some effort to improve the state of the town there may be some hope the residents would follow. As it is, what is the point? What can an individual house owner do?

Enough. Sorry, but it is just so infuriating to see how little the French care about their so beautiful country. Fortunately not everywhere is as bad as Sedan – though an awful lot comes close.

Sedan was the scene of the decisive battle in the Franco-Prussian war in September 1870. The French defeat led to the fall of the second French Empire. In World War two the town was just beyond the northern end of the Maginot line, a series of defensive fortifications stretching from Switzerland along the banks of the Rhine to hold back Germany. In the event, Germany simply came round it through Belgium.

Monument to those who died in the Franco-Prussian war, 1870/71

Sedan also has, according to the tourist guide we picked up, the largest mediaeval fortified castle in Europe. It is certainly massive but exposed battlements had small appeal on such a hot day. Sedan was an independent principality for a couple of centuries until it was annexed by France in 1642 – hence such a large fort and a later residential palace for the princes next to it. The fort has been tinkered with by Vauban of course but it was sufficiently impregnable that even he could find little to do beyond a few watch towers on the battlements. Most of the towns along the French/German border have strong artillery forts and most were designed by Vauban. There seems hardly a fort anywhere in France with which he has not been involved.

Palace of the Princes beside the fortified castle, Sedan

Sedan gave shelter to many French Huguenots during the 16th and 17th centuries. Their skills, particularly in the area of textile manufacture, brought prosperity to the town and beautiful streets of graceful houses were built by the new bourgeoisie. These are the very streets and buildings we have seen so neglected today.

One of the main streets with 17th and 18th century houses, Sedan

We'd left Modestine by the impressive war memorial, its three corners supported by bronze boars! What is their significance? (Ian, who always seems to know these things - curse him - has just told me the boar appears on Sedan's coat of arms and the local Gallic tribe was named after the animal.)

On the banks of the Meuse is the municipal campsite. It is of the standard you would expect from such a negligent local authority. In fairness it is clean, but very antiquated with only one normal loo, several holes in the ground and no toilet paper. We have been used to luxury German campsites with Miele or Bosch washing machines, not huge stone troughs and wash boards! Still, we have had warm showers and found shelter from the heat under the trees and it's only nine euros a night. I couldn't face driving the forty kilometres to the nearest one listed in our book. Nearby there is an open air concert of pop and rock music taking place and it's so hot we need all the doors and windows open. We should be well and truly rocked to sleep tonight!

Sunday 27th June 2010, Ressons-le-Long, near Soissons, Picardie
Today dawned as hot and bright as ever. Even now, at 9pm it is still 30 degrees and that is under the shade of the trees.

Generally though, it has been a very good day. We are driving westwards across France on minor roads and we are discovering that the countryside of the Ardennes and Picardie is far more lovely than we imagined. The Ardennes area is actually rather hilly with lots of woodland and even hedges, while, as the song from the First World War says, roses really are blooming in Picardie! Every village is massed with them. Out on the open plains though, the sun beats down. Impossible to have animals exposed out there and as far as we could see were fields of wheat and barley, blue linseed, flowering potatoes and broad beans and brassicas. At lunch time we passed through an area of small lakes at Chivres-en-Leonnois where we pulled off to park in a patch of shade for Modestine. Beside the lake we set up our picnic table and as we ate we watched dragon flies skimming the surface and water boatmen scudding around just below. From time to time there was a smack of water as a fish came up for extra air. It was tempting to stay there dozing all afternoon but there is no peace for the wicked and Laon awaited us.

Passing through the village of Liesse we stopped to look in the church. It's the best way to cool down from time to time. A note on the church door said it would open at 2.30 but in an emergency we could ring the bell. What kind of an emergency would justify ringing the bell we wondered? Well, it was only 5 minutes to opening time and wanting to cool down was hardly sufficient excuse to call the priest from his Sunday lunch!

It was icy cool when we entered, and it proved to be an interesting little church. We discovered a diorama depicting three crusaders who had been captured and taken off to Egypt where their captors tried to persuade them to abandon their faith and become Muslims. The Sultan's daughter was sent to them to explain the Muslim faith. They told her of the Christian one and she expressed an interest to see a statue of the virgin and child. During the night a black statue miraculously appeared in the prison and next day the crusaders gave it to the princess. She converted to Christianity and helped the knights to escape, travelling with them. They travelled on foot up the Nile until they fell asleep exhausted. When they woke, they, the princess and the statue had all been transported to the little village of Liesse which happened to be where the knights lived. The Princess was baptised by the Bishop in the cathedral at Laon and the statue has stood in the church of Liesse ever since, carrying out all kinds of miracles. Having learnt all this from the diorama we entered the main church where the virgin and child stand on the altar. The church walls are covered with marble plaques thanking her for miracles she has performed. The last one seems to have been in 1938. We later found a chapel devoted to her in Laon Cathedral, and another black statue - so now we don't know which is the original and which the copy.

One of the nine tableaux telling the story of the miraculous statue of Notre Dame de Liesse

Statue on the altar of the church of Notre Dame de Liesse

Statue of Notre Dame de Liesse (probably a copy, seen in the Cathedral at Laon.)

Also in Liesse stands the war memorial to the dead of the 1914-18 war. It is the first time we have ever seen one painted. But then, why not?

War memorial, Liesse

As we approached Laon across the flat fields of the department of the Aisne, we saw the city rising up the sides of a high hill. At the summit stood the Cathedral with its open towers showing dark against the sky. The access road up to the mediaeval citadel wound steeply around the hillside. Being Sunday we parked easily enough. At other times there is a funicular railway to carry passengers up from the modern town some 100 metres below.

Mediaeval street in Laon

The magnificent early gothic cathedral was completed in 1235 and was the model for several later cathedrals across France including Chartres, Reims, Dijon, and Limbourg (which we visited a few days back in Germany.) Northern France has some stunning, towering gothic cathedrals, including Beauvais, Rheims and Rouen. Laon's cathedral is visible from miles around rather than crowded in by the rest of the town. Its towers are open sided, and carved animals climb all over them like goats on a mountainside. Above the triple tympanum are the carved heads of a hippopotamus and a rhinoceros! Inside, the blue and red stained glass in the rose window is particularly colourful and there is a lovely 11th century baptismal font. The overriding impression though is space with high columns soaring 26 metres to the restrained rib vaulted roof of the nave with light streaming down from the clerestory windows and the lantern tower at the crossing of the transepts, 42 metres high!

Facade of the cathedral, Laon

Detail of the facade of the cathedral showing animals, Laon

Hippopotamus on the facade of the cathedral, Laon

11th century baptismal font, Laon cathedral

Rose window, Laon cathedral

Interior of Laon cathedral

Looking up into the Norman-style lantern tower, Laon

There is a municipal campsite in Laon but looking down from the old town we could see it glinting in the sunshine out on the exposed plain. Without shade we would not survive! So we drove on to this site which is very pleasant and well endowed with trees.

When Neil was about two years old he had an imaginary friend called Longy Bongy who shared our lives for some time until one day we realised he had moved away. Since then he has faded from our memories. Until today. We can now report that he took himself off to the Ardennes, to his ancestral home! Neil had never mentioned that he was French or we would have realised his name should have been spelt Logny Bogny though it is pronounced pretty much the same.

Village in the Ardennes, ancestral home of Neil's imaginary friend, Logny Bogny