The following day, we left our itinerary up to Roger. We wanted to see significant sites around Verdun, the main area he worked as a tour guide.
He started us off with a piece of WWII history on an out-of-the-way road—a bridge that was initially used for D-Day. It was saved and reused as this bridge. Driving over it, we imagined its significance during the Second World War.
Then we headed into Verdun, a stunning mixture of medieval and modern. The castle-like structures and fortresses lined narrow roads, and I spotted plenty of WWI shell and bullet-marked buildings.
A passage on a cobblestone street led under arches to the inner courtyard of the Episcopal Palace that now holds the World Centre for Peace (including a WWI museum) and a cathedral. The serenity of the nearly empty cathedral was captivating. Roger took us below to show paintings that had been covered by rubble from the war and later rediscovered. They were over one thousand years old.
The outside of the cathedral looked much as it had for the past thousand years except for the World War I shells that had shattered ancient stones.
Then it was off on one of our more daring adventures that involved an unlocked gate, a narrow gravel road, and citadel walls.
As we drove between the walls, Roger made comments about how he wasn’t entirely sure this area was open to the public, yet he had taken tour groups here in the past and hoped the gate at the other end would be unlocked. Otherwise, we would have to back all the way down that long, narrow road. The whole time I wondered if we would have the opportunity to encounter French police.
But it was spectacular.
Roger explained the intricacies of the citadel walls and how they had protected Verdun in medieval times. Over the wall, modern apartment buildings loomed.
We finally made it to the other end that opened to a grassy courtyard filled with statues long forgotten, and wound our way around to the gate that, thankfully, was unlocked. No police showed up, but there was a middle-aged couple passing by on bicycles. Roger called to them in French, encouraging them to take a ride through the citadel walls.
They stared at him a while and then finally began speaking English! They hadn’t understood a word he said.
Outside of Verdun in a wooded area that rolled continually between the trees with shell holes, was the destroyed village of Fleury. One story says that the only thing found after the war was a piece of the church bell.
We walked solemnly on the paths in-between craters and monuments that marked the Mairie (town hall), tavern, kitchens, and other buildings. A newer church—less than 100 years old—lay at the bottom of the hill to receive visitors to the village that was obliterated during the First World War.
After a history lesson on how shells were armed and why unexploded ones are still dangerous today, Roger took us to a place I had read about but didn’t know if we would get to visit—the Douaumont Ossuary. It was overwhelming.
In front of the ship-size stone structure lay a cemetery filled with white crosses. But it’s the ossuary itself that is the most sobering.
“The ossuary is a memorial containing the remains of both French and German soldiers who died on the Verdun battlefield. Through small outside windows, the skeletal remains of at least 130,000 unidentified combatants of both nations can be seen filling up alcoves at the lower edge of the building. On the inside of the ossuary building, the ceiling and walls are partly covered by plaques bearing names of French soldiers who died during the Battle of Verdun. Sloping downhill in front of the monument lies the largest single French military cemetery of the First World War with 16,142 graves. It was inaugurated in 1923 by Verdun veteran André Maginot, who would later design the Maginot Line.”
They don’t allow pictures inside, and I chose not to take any of the outside windows around the base of the ossuary. They had built the windows to show grieving families that yes, the bones and remains of over 130,000 soldiers rested there under the care of the chapel and the ossuary. Today, you can still look in the windows and see the skeletons. It’s a chilling experience.
We saw the monument of André Maginot being carried on a rifle between two soldiers. He was known as a strong advocate for wounded veterans.
From there, we headed to a popular monument site—something known for its story of fixed bayonets. Roger told how the story had gotten confused. An American philanthropist built the monument shortly after the war to honor French soldiers when he heard the tale of how they’d been buried alive in a trench as they stood with fixed bayonets, ready to go over the top. The story is said to be inaccurate, but the monument still stands today as a symbol of the strong connection between Americans and the French. That’s how Roger explained it.
Back in Verdun, Roger wanted to show us that the old city was more than tragic World War I history. We dipped into a specialty chocolate shop to take in the sugar and plethora of options. (My conservative selection was gone by the end of the day. Yum!) We had eaten lunch at a grocery store where they had chicken and vegetables—a little taste of home.
The day ended at Roger’s house where we exchanged books, conversation, and thank yous for the hundredth time.
Our experience in France would have been nothing of what it was if not for Roger. I doubt we would have located Forest Ferme, and definitely not the overlook at Voncq—a true highlight of the trip, and the reason I had gone to France.
We said our goodbyes and headed back to begin packing at our quaint, comfortable hotel with its friendly owner and classic French breakfast bar.
The first night, the room was a bit stuffy with the air conditioner neatly taped closed. I had asked the owner about it. He chuckled.
“Yes, my wife, she says, ‘Americans like their air conditioning.’ I usually don’t get them ready to open until next week, but tonight, for you ladies, I’ll have it ready.”
I met some pretty friendly French people over there.
But the time had come to depart and do some exploring on our own.