Argonne

October 24-29 2017

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We used the VRBO.com site to find La Miellerie, in the tiny village of Vaux-les-Mourons, in the Argonne region of France, close to the Belgian border. We chose this area because it was about 1 ½ hours from Paris and boasted a beekeeper as the owner. It was a good choice and kept us fully occupied for our six day visit. The weather in Northern France was certainly chillier than Southern Italy, where we had been for the past four weeks, but it was fine for touring the countryside. 

We arrived at La Miellerie in our rental car on Tuesday afternoon and were greeted by the owners Jacques Caron and his wife Joëlle Billard. They showed us to our very comfortable apartment in an extension of the farm property. Jacques and Joëlle live in the front section next to the road, the original barns, which now house their honey processing operation are in the middle and we were in the end unit. We had a good sized sitting and dining area, a kitchen, a master bedroom with ensuite and a second full bathroom on the ground floor. The boys had a twin bedroom off the mezzanine level and another double bedroom on that level was reserved for Erica, who would be joining us the following Saturday and Sunday. 

We brought our bags inside and left to buy groceries for our stay. Vaux-les-Mourons was too small to have any grocery stores but there was a boulangerie in Challerange, 3 km away and major grocery stores in the larger town, Vouziers, about 14 km away. We bought essentials for breakfast and dinner in Vouziers and a baguette and chocolate éclairs in Challerange.  

Back at the farm, the boys found a ping pong table in a large garage next to our apartment and played the first of many games. Just before dinner we sent the boys to feed the chickens and geese that resided in a large pen next to our apartment. After dinner was games time. Atticus and Roman were already good cribbage players and soon became very good at Hearts. Andrew later suggested we teach them bridge, which we will have to do, perhaps next year.

School break does not mean all fun and games. Both Atticus and Roman had books to read and homework assigned to be finished before returning to school after their two week break. We established a half hour for reading once or twice a day and time to do written assignments as well. In between time, we explored the surrounding countryside.  

On our drive to Vaux-les-Mourons we passed large mounds of root vegetables being loaded into huge trucks. Ray finally realized they were sugar beets, a major crop in this area of France. Apparently Napoleon was responsible for introducing the sugar beet to France in response to British blockades of cane sugar during the Napoleonic Wars. We also stopped at a large memorial to French Soldiers who had fought in WWI. We soon realized that the Argonne, so close to the Belgian and German borders, was the site of numerous WWI battles and therefore, contained multiple memorials and military cemeteries. We visited several of them over the next few days. 

There were several brochures in our apartment suggesting places of interest in the area. I think our visit to Parc Argonne Découverte was the favourite visit for Atticus and Roman. We thoroughly enjoyed it too. The park had originally been devoted to Nocturnal animals but had been expanded to include a farm yard area, several wild animals, various narrow wooden bridges to test your balancing skills, and a large maze of above ground bouncy netted corridors, called Le Hamac à Bonds, to run through. We first visited the farm area where the boys got quite adept getting a large turkey to display his tail feathers and emit a noisy gobble-gobble in answer to their mimicking a turkey gobble-gobble. We spent quite a bit of time in the indoor pavilion, darkened like the night, where fascinating displays of live night animals and insects in aquariums and niches lined intersecting corridors. We picked the right time of day to visit. We joined all the other visitors around the large wolf enclosure to see an attendant come and feed the pack of about 9 or 10 wolves. It was fascinating to see and hear about the hierarchy or a wolf pack. Our visit ended with a session for the boys in the Hamac area. They were having such a good time racing through and playing tag that we were there until the park closed at 6 PM. 

Another day we drove to the village of Vauquois, where Erica had found a suggested short walk for us. Vauquois was the site of a WWI underground war on the Butte de Vauquois, a small hill in the town. 1914 became a stalled situation on the ground for both German and Allied Forces. The Germans began digging tunnels under the small Vauquois hill. The Allied forces followed suit and soon began the war of the Tunnels, with both sides dynamiting the tunnels of the opposing forces, causing huge craters where the tunnels had collapsed. The town hall and local church were originally on the top of the hill but were destroyed during the siege and later built at the bottom of the hill. The area has been left as it was after WWI and 1 km of the tunnels have been restored and are available to explore, by prior arrangement. A large group of French people, all wearing white hard hats, had just finishing a tour of the tunnels when we arrived. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that a tour was possible. We were there just for a walk, which we did, amazed by the damage done to a simple hill so long ago. We ended our visit to Vauquois by walking to the local French cemetery with graves for 4000 soldiers killed in area battles between 1914 and 1918. 

We returned to the car and followed the signs to the town of Varennes-en-Argonne, completely destroyed during WWI, but rebuilt afterwards. The State of Pennsylvania built a huge, immaculately kept monument in 1927, commemorating the American part in liberating the town of Varennes. On our way back to our apartment, we stopped briefly to visit a German cemetery, deep in the forest. It was much gloomier than the French cemeteries in the open, but still well cared for. 

The next day we drove to the American Cemetery in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, the biggest war cemetery in Europe with 14,246 crosses honouring American soldiers, most killed over a 47 day period, Sept – Nov 1918, in the Meuse-Argonne area. It was a very impressive, well kept cemetery spread over 130.5 acres.  

We headed out early Saturday to drive to Reims as Erica was scheduled to arrive by train at 10 AM.  Despite heavy fog and chilly temperatures, we made it in time. Coffee and a breakfast snack was the first order of business since we had left earlier than usual and we needed the sun to have a chance to rise higher and warm us up.  

The Cathedral in Reims, where Kings of France were crowned, is a must see. The cathedral sustained heavy damage during WWI but was restored, with help from the Rockefeller foundation, and reopened in 1938. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the cathedral was certainly impressive. Since my name is Jeanne, I am always interested in the most famous personage with the same name, Jeanne d’Arc. Because of Jeanne's efforts against the English, Charles VII was crowned in Reims in 1429. There was an equestrian statue of Jeanne outside the cathedral and another smaller statue inside in front of a stained glass window. I like the original spelling of Jehanne because it is easier to pronounce than my more modern name. The stained glass windows in the Cathedral were magnificent, especially the rose window over the entrance. Another set of windows commissioned to replace war damage were designed by French artist Marc Chagall. 

Erica, as a librarian, is always interested in other libraries of note. The Carnegie Reims library is right behind the cathedral so of course we visited. It was built with money donated by Andrew Carnegie after WWI. Until 2003 it was the main library in Reims. Because of its Art Deco architecture, it is included in the French inventory of historic monuments. 

This is champagne country and a winery tour was in order. After lunch we drove to Epernay to visit the Mercier Champagne winery. Founded in 1858 by 20 year old Eugene Mercier. It was an interesting tour that we all enjoyed. We even bought two bottles to take back to Paris to be enjoyed with dinner. 

We had scheduled a session with Jacques Caron to learn about the bees for Sunday morning, when Erica would be with us. Jacques is a retired phys-ed High school teacher, now full time apiarist. He has hives in 4 locations but they are all dormant until next spring. The hives taper off in August and go into stall mode from September until April. Jacques kept us interested for two hours as he went over the history of beehives and explaining the the roles of the Queen and worker bees; quite fascinating.

After our session, we quickly finished packing and took off for Paris, stopping for lunch in Chateau Thierry. Chateau Thierry was the birthplace of the famous fable author, Jean de La Fontaine, born in 1621. All the French schoolchildren have to memorize at least one of his stories. We ate large and delicious lunch in a restaurant Erica found on an internet search. I had a lamb shank, Atticus had a duck breast, Ray had a large warm brie salad, Roman had a large burger with fries and salad, and Erica had Boeuf Bourgignon; all very tasty and filling. The boys requested ice cream extravaganzas for which the restaurant is know. Roman chose a banana split and Atticus had a huge Sundae. We had to help them finish them.  

We drove back to Paris after lunch, arriving about 5 PM. It had been a good week with our grandsons. 

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