Monthly Archives: Jul 2014

La famille française

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When my wonderful friend Kat disappeared to Montreal for three years, to study and work with JEM (Jeunesse en Mission, or YWAM), she came home with not only increased love for the French community in general, but also for one member of this community in particular: Joël, from the south of France. They were married in 2008, and much to my delight, moved into a house within walking distance of our apartment in Winnipeg. However, whenever I talk about these dear friends to others, the reaction is the same: “Wait… He’s from the south of France? And they stayed here??” While though there are many good answers to these questions, it was only after finally having the chance to visit his beautiful home and family in les Cévennes that I could truly appreciate the enormous sacrifice Joël made by moving to Canada.

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Les Cévennes, a low mountain chain winding between the Languedoc Roussillon and Auvergne in the South of France, are a unique region of France. The only French national park in the low mountains, the région Cévénol is filled not only with incredible natural beauty, like beech forests, chestnut trees, ancient oliviers, and the clear waters of the Gardon rivers; but is also home to many layers of fascinating history. From the brief but bloody Camisard wars, to the long years of peaceful resistance by the Huguenots against a tyrannical monarchy; from ancient trade routes with Asia and the silk worm industry that brought wealth to the Cévennes in the 19th century to ancient tombs of Celtic tribes dating from the last millennium BC, one would need a personal tour guide to thoroughly appreciate the richness of this region (and fancy that, we just happened to have one! :D)

A barrow (ancient tomb) of tribal Celts
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En route (well, “en route” in a “I’m a Canadian and have a rental car, so no distance is that far!!” kinda way) to Les Taillades, where Joël’s parents live, we stopped in Toulouse to visit Joël’s sister Hélène and her husband Yannick, and the third member of their household:

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Helene works as a social worker in a community épicerie, or grocery store, where we spent our mornings volunteering. At the épicerie, clients with financial needs can purchase good quality food at a fraction of the price, while receiving one-on-one financial counseling from the trained staff. It is an amazing alternative to a soup kitchen, since it not only empowers clients through the independence to choose their own food, but it also gives the clients tools to address the root causes of their difficulties in order to break the cycle of poverty.

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View of “La Ville Rose” from the seaside Ferris wheel:
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Our first (but thankfully far from last!) French cheese course:
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As we drove from Toulouse to Les Taillades, plains began to softly roll into hills. Joël’s parents, Mado and Michel, met us at the Anduze bus station. Michel just retired this year after twenty-some years of running Le Musée du Desert, a museum chronicling the history of the Huguenots (French Protestants) in the Cévénol region. It was evident that they were loving the luxury of retirement – sleeping in, long afternoons playing hilarious Scandinavian lawn games – but old habits die hard, and almost immediately upon greeting us at the bus station, Michel’s inner historian rose to the fore.

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Michel obviously knew his stuff: As we stood in the street receiving his history lesson, a young guy walking by stopped and exclaimed, “That’s true, man! I’m glad somebody knows the real history of this place!”

After so many years of friendship with Kat and Joël, it was so special to finally see the places and people that have inspired so many of their stories. Mado and Michel were incredible hosts, making sure that we experienced la vraie vie française.

Le Pont des Camisards
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One of the secret caves in which Huguenots would hold their forbidden church services
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One of Michel’s many riddles and word games (“Michel, t’es juste comme Joël!” :P)
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Gastronomical delights: Breakfast in a bowl, French barbeque with regional sausages, homemade digestifs…
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Quintessential afternoon activities:
Mökkly aka Scandinavian bowling
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Pétanque aka French bocce ball that is played intensely and everywhere from our backyard… (les Parisiens vs. les Canadiens – we only lost by 2!!)
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…to Nîmes’ centre square
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Our private tour of Le Musée du Desert
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Secret cupboard used by Huguenots to hide from the King’s soldiers
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“Résister!” The motto of the Huguenots during their long years of persecution
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Ps. Joël, I peed in your bedroom 😛
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Le Pont du Gare: the tallest aqueduct ever constructed by the Romans (1st century AD)
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Olive tree, providing shade since the year 908
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Marché du St. Jean de Gare
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Lunch with beautiful Mami, Joël’s grandmother
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Le Gardon
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Only a 10-minute walk to an oasis from the heat!
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And finally, bien sûr: le fromage. Oh, le fromage…
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Hélène, Yannick, Mado, Michel, Nico, Clémence, Laure, Mami… Merci encore pour une visite inoubliable. Votre générosité était un bénédiction énorme. On est hâte à vous voir bientôt – soit en Winnipeg, soit encore à la France! Gros bisous!! xxx

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Les miscellanées

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Those of you regular followers of saratreetravels may have noticed a few inconsistencies in these archives, and it’s high time that those were addressed. Yes, we were in Rome and Venice, in Vienna and Paris, and yes, those places were as beautiful and unique as everyone knows them to be. And that is precisely the reason they have not appeared here: these are places that belong to all of humanity and have already been well-documented elsewhere.

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Why bring this up now? Because the flipside of this coin is that sometimes a bizarre and incredible experience occurs off the beaten track and MUST be documented, despite not fitting into any logical itinerary. Renting a car and having multiple schedule-free days seems to invite these experiences, so here goes:

Carcassonne

If you batted even a slight eyelash of recognition at this name, odds are you are a board game fan of the Settlers of Catan variety. In Carcassonne, players strategically build towers, walls, and roads in order to edge their opponents out of valuable territories. The bottom of the game box offers a short description of the real Carcassonne, a walled city in France built over the course of many centuries, but most players are more concerned with keeping the cat off their neatly arranged rows of tiles.

When we saw that our route was going to take us within one exit of this difficult-to-pronounce city, we thought it was at least worth a stop. We followed the signs through a fairly modern and non-board-game-inspiring city, turned a corner, and suddenly saw exactly what we were looking for.

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The impossible abundance of castles in Europe can leave a visitor befuddled, particularly when they are used so casually as landmarks (“oh, you’re looking for a kebab stand? There’s one just left of that castle over there.”). Yet Carcassonne may well be the most awe-inspiring one we’ve seen yet, with the almost-eerie lack of tourists being an added bonus. We spent the brief time we had clambering up its turrets and through its endless rings of walls. We highly recommend it for your next road trip through the south of France (or at least your next board game night!)

2. La montagne des singes

As we sipped our welcome-wine with our fantastic Airbnb hosts in Alsace, they started informing us of the many interesting sights in the area. Concentrating hard to keep up with the rapid French (I’m okay in a sprint, but the endurance marathons kill me!), I vaguely understood that there was a mountain not too far away that caused Sara to make a rather surprised and bemused face. Once I pinpointed the mystery word in question, I nudged Sara and asked, “Quel est ‘singes’?”, to which she quickly muttered, “Monkey!” and continued the conversation.

So, somewhere in France close to the German border there is a mountain of monkeys. And that was after translation!

Upon actually visiting this mountain, however, we can confirm that there is indeed a mountain filled with an endangered species of Moroccan monkey. No cages, just a big park where the monkeys can safely swing from trees and enjoy the popcorn that is given freely to visitors at the entry gate.

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Human parents really need to perfect this one-handed babysitting technique:
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This adorable puckered-lip face, I later learned, is how monkeys signal that they are about to attack. The big fangs-bared face, meanwhile, is how they show affection. Obviously my lack of French was not the only translation issue.
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3. From Here to Now to You

Maybe it’s not off the beaten track (downtown Paris is pretty sufficiently beaten), but it certainly doesn’t happen every day. As Sara previously mentioned, buying Jack Johnson tickets in Paris was actually the first concrete travel plan we made, way back in February. The man is not only rhythmic genius and guitar god, but his inspiring words of love, for his family and for the world as a whole, make his music addictive on a much deeper level as well.

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Merci beaucoup, Jacques, for an amazing evening! And merci, Europe, for all the unexpected finds!

The right place at the right time

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Throughout our travels, Sara and I have often thought about how great it would be to arrive in a new city just as some big significant event is beginning, to witness the locals celebrating something they are legitimately passionate about. Alas, this has never happened (save for an incident involving prom queens hurling watermelons at crowds and shirtless men with tridents) …until now.

As plans with our incredible Swiss cousins took shape, we realized that we were taking a very serendipitous detour. Instead of heading south to the French Riviera (where hostels and train tickets had already been scooped up by throngs of tourists), we were very nicely positioned to rent a car and hit not one but THREE events of extreme national importance.

We bid a fond farewell to Andreas, Simone, and their boys at the Basel airport, since we’d have to pick the car up in France in order to avoid border-crossing fees. Fortunately we didn’t actually have to fly anywhere:

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Our faithful steed
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After enjoying a glass of local Alsacian wine with our lovely airbnb hosts, we headed to our first stop: Germany. No particular destination, just anywhere with a screen, some Deutsch brew, and some patriotic football fans. In the town of Kehl, just across the Rhine, we found exactly what we were looking for:

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The crowd thinned a bit after halftime, when the torrential downpour started growing increasingly cold. Fortunately it left only the most hardcore fans (and us, but I suppose that makes us hardcore).

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It was pretty tearing to see the country we were IN (and had grown to love) going up against the country we’d long adopted as our second home. Ultimately I’m glad Germany won, not only because the chorus of horns honking echoed behind us the whole way back into France, but let’s face it, the winning goal was REALLY impressive.

Our second stop was an hour drive south, to the small city of Mulhouse (pronounced muh-LOOZ), where stage 10 of the Tour de France was departing. Despite the banner-waving crowds and adorable tweens running around with notepads hoping for autographs, we were able to get right up to the makeshift fence as the cyclists took their place at the starting line.

The starting line. Full disclosure, the in-town starting lines are purely for show…the cyclists will bike a few kilometres out of town, where they will legitimately start the race with a little less pomp and ceremony. If you’ve ever wondered how the race works (when most of the images we see on TV involve cyclists packed together like sardines, unable to pass each other), check it out here, it’s pretty much the most complicated thing on earth!
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Locals appreciating the scene from the comfort of their own balconies.
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The yellow jersey, the race’s most prestigious symbol, worn here by the current first place contestant, Tony Gallopin (alas, he would be forced to give it up at the end of the day!)
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The day happened to be the 14th of July, known throughout the world as Bastille Day, but in France simply as fête national. We were told that Strasbourg had some of the best fireworks around, but some less-than-accurate directions steered us the wrong way. As we finally found the right exit off the freeway, however, the sky exploded in front of us. A convenient construction barrier on the side of the exit ramp provided the perfect place to watch the celebration.

Strasbourg’s fireworks display, celebrating the victory of reason over monarchical insanity.
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The closed exit ramp was a pain to most, but it afforded an excellent view for us!
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In sum, Glückwünsch, Deutschland; bonne voyage, cyclistes; and heureuse Fête Nationale, France. Thanks for a ridiculously eventful 48 hours!

Swiss Bliss (zwöi)

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Continued from some previous bliss with other Swiss…

From Bern, we took the train to Chur, the closest train station to the hamlet of Ober-Says where my cousin Andreas and his wife Simone lived. Andreas had come to visit his (and my) Uncle Jeff over two different summers, so we had gotten to know each other then. However, while I knew hypothetically that Jeff and his family were Swiss, my only interactions with both Jeff and Andreas had only ever been in Manitoba, so I couldn’t actually imagine seeing Andreas at home in Switzerland. Furthermore, the last time I had seen Andreas was not only the summer of my & Josh’s wedding (so we were already a bit preoccupied), but it was also during their holiday to Canada that summer that Simone, only six months pregnant, had gone into labour and ended up giving birth to their second son in the backseat of my aunt’s car in the middle of rural Manitoba and had to spend the next three months caring for her son in hospital. Therefore, the last time I had seen Andreas and Simone, there hadn’t really been a lot of time for hanging out together!

As a result, we really had no idea what to expect when we stepped off the train. What we got was two blonde tow-headed Swiss boys hurtling towards us with fistfuls of waving Canada flags, and hugely welcoming hugs from Andreas and Simone.

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They asked us how long we planned to stay, and we proposed three days, but when they hesitated, we hastily assured them we could leave earlier if three days was too much. “Well, we have this whole week off and then we were going to take you to Simone’s family’s place this weekend as well, but if you have to leave earlier than we don’t want to keep you…”

Hosts that want you to stay longer? We would never say no to that!

With our week-long stay confirmed, they got down to business. Spreading out a map of Switzerland on the table between us, our hosts extraordinaires proceeded to plot out all possible destinations and activities for our “programme” together.
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Hang on to your hats… It was a packed week, and we have the pictures to prove it! 🙂

The “4 Countries Before Lunch” Roadtrip (Lichtenstein, Austria, Germany, & Switzerland!)

A little (okay, a lot) of rain couldn’t dampen Lichtenstein’s mysterious beauty
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The Bodensee (finally seeing it for ourselves after hearing about it from so many Bodenseehof alum!)
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Mid-roadtrip power-nap
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Dinner with Simone’s sister Andrea in quaint Appenzell (ps. Andreas – where is my beer?! :P)
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App dinner

High-Ropes Climbing Garden

Choo-choo… Loading our car onto a train to pass through the mountain on the way there
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Snowball fights in July as we passed over the mountain on the way back!
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The Great Canadian Breakfast (where our hosts proceeded to write down every single Canadian breakfast food they could think of, then looked at the list and mused, “Maybe we will need to invite another family to help eat.”)
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Roadtrip to Italian Switzerland in search of sunshine!
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Paddle!

Josh’s Alpine driving lessons in a standard proved that Simone has the patience of a saint (apparently my terror was palpable from the backseat)
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Weekend with Simone’s family

Ruk-Shuk (thanks to Simone for introducing us to this truly awesome Canadian game!)
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Schwingen/Hoselupf aka Swiss German wrestling pants (apparently it’s a thing… I plan to ask Uncle Jeff for a demonstration! :P)
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A beautiful little walk turned deluge! (Josh & I seem to attract flash floods on this trip…)
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Ps. Dankeschön to Elizabeth for the towels and clothes dryer!!

The best way to learn a language: hang out with 3-year olds (they are always excited to name farm animals and colours, and only judge you a little bit when you can’t count to 10)
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Andreas, Simone, Aric, & Gabriel: You have redefined the meaning of “hospitality” for us.

    VIELEN DANK / DANGGE

for an incredibly fun, beautiful, relaxing, and entertaining week. We cannot wait to host you in Winnipeg next time! 🙂

Fam!!!!

Swiss Bliss (äis)

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Way back in February, Josh and I sat down for the first time to actually start making concrete plans for this trip. We went online, bought tickets to see Jack Johnson in Paris, and considered our trip planning done! In my excitement, I did what I so rarely do and updated my status on Facebook. The next day, there was something even more engaging than the morale-boosting “likes” from all my friends: a comment posted by Andréanne, my exchange partner from a 2004 Québec trip. Although Andréanne and I had connected incredibly well during the exchange and became fast friends, we had lost touch upon returning home and had not spoken to each other in 10 years. And yet here was her comment: “Just so you know, I’m living in Switzerland ;)”

To backpackers, Switzerland is like the steak section in a restaurant menu. It’s smack in the middle of all the other options, tempting you with its decadence, but you force your eyes to roam around it because it’s so prohibitively expensive. However, as stated so many times before, our whole goal for this trip was to pursue any connections we had across this continent. So, one sunny afternoon in July, Josh and I hopped off the Lausanne metro at the hospital where Andréanne was working as a nurse. Leaving Josh in the waiting room, I nervously rode the elevator up to the Urology department (this was thankfully a travel experience new to me), found the nurses’ desk… And there was Andréanne jumping up to meet me, looking so familiar I refused to believe it had been 10 years since I had hugged her goodbye at the airport!

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We had a wonderful few days reconnecting and wandering over beautiful Lausanne, making ourselves “comme chez nous!” as Andréanne insisted.

Our lovely tour guide
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An incredible thing to stumble upon: Roman ruins from the ancient city of Lousonna
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Lac Ouchy (note the impending clouds of doom…)
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From sunny skies to hurricane rains: getting blown away while attempting to watch the France/Germany World Cup match!
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From Lausanne, we caught a train to Bern, where my uncle’s sister Irene and her husband Martin had offered to host us for the weekend.

A Swiss feast of Raclette
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Bern’s bears!
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The next day, Irene & Martin took us hiking up to Mürren, a village nestled at the feet of the Schilthorn Mountain. We spent a wonderful day admiring the Alpine wildflowers, wildlife and, of course, the majestic Alps themselves.

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A lovely lunch stop
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Not a bad view for a coffee break…
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Trummelbach Falls: a series of 10 glacier waterfalls churning INSIDE a mountain
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Fall dark
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Our evenings were spent not only devouring raclette, but also learning more about Irene’s work in raising awareness and fighting against human trafficking. Compounded with what we had learned about human trafficking in the Red Light District of Amsterdam, it was both empowering and humbling to hear Irene’s stories of horror and courage, and then to have her ask us (and expect an answer), “And what are you planning to do about it?”

There is so much injustice, exploitation, and tragedy in the world that there is a lot to talk about. But I know I can get carried away with rhetoric and forget that merely talking about injustice takes time away from actually working to alleviate it.

Hold me accountable to this! In spring, I started volunteering with the WISH (Winnipeg Interprofessional Student-Run Health) Clinic. WISH acknowledges that health is affected by social as well as physical determinants, and thus works to provide “non-judgmental, socially responsible, holistic health care to a population that struggles with poorer health than the rest of the city.” WISH is an incredible community of students, healthcare professionals, and the Point Douglas residents who together want to learn to care for each other better. I can think of no better place to lay aside my rhetoric, so feel free to hold me accountable to continuing to volunteer with these guys this fall.

A huge thank you to Andréanne, Martin & Irene for opening up their homes to us and giving us so much to think about. However, our time in Switzerland was not over yet…

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Vimy

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As a recently graduated Canadian history teacher, it was difficult to justify passing through northern France and NOT paying a visit to Vimy Ridge. Being in the middle of nowhere, as battlefields often were back then, we opted to rent a car and make the two-hour drive from Paris on our own. Driving a car in Europe was an experience in and of itself, but that’s another post.

After WWII, France (understandably) took on the task of restoring the battlefields from hellish wastelands to useable property. Only Vimy remains, dedicated to Canada as a token of thanks for the sacrifices made in April 1917. The Canadian government maintains the area, preserving the site of this gruesome battle in order to remind all of us of the cost of war.

The view from the Ridge. It’s easy to see why this was a strategic point to capture, with invaders having nothing to protect them from the artillery on top. The Vimy Glide was Canada’s strategic response, and remains one of Canada’s most significant military strokes of genius.
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The memorial. The looming clouds of that particular day were an excellent backdrop to the blinding white of this awe-inspiring marble monument.
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Though now covered with grass, the pounding of artillery shells is still visible in the unnatural craters that mark the landscape.
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Both the Canadian and German trenches have been preserved, creating a shoulder-high labyrinth that crisscrosses the ridge.
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The gap between the white signpost on the right and the hilltop on the left marks the closest point between the two systems of trenches. Both sides were fully aware of how near they were to the other, and yet they refrained from attacking until the orders came. We’re reminded that these soldiers, brave as they were, were pawns in a game being played very far away.
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Beneath the trenches ran an equally immense system of tunnels used for delivering supplies and carting away the wounded. As the battle progressed, the tunnels became yet another theatre of war, with each side literally ‘undermining’ the other and collapsing their lines of supply.
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The Vimy Ridge Memorial does an incredible job of confirming exactly what we as history teachers try to convey to our students: the battle was incredibly significant for Canada as a sovereign nation and a necessary victory within the context of the war. More importantly, it honours the sacrifice made by each of these soldiers, while at the same time acknowledging that war is insanity and must never be considered as an option for resolving conflict between nations.