This morning started off well enough. I had a short lie and found a bike shop on the way out of town and was able to get my bike chain oiled. These small things allowed me to push on hard through the morning climbs.
Generally feeling great, my spirits were lifted seeing the kilometre markers for the Voie de Liberte. They served to remind me of the purpose of the trip and I had seen them before, but only in Carentan during my first day in France.
Every kilometre that passed I saw another marker, thrusting a fist in the air each time, I felt great. I spotted some poppies near the side of the road; I stopped and attached them to my bag next to the badges from the Caen Memorial Museum. Knowing I only had about 50km to Verdun, and didn’t plan on cycling much further meant there was no pressure to push too hard.
I managed to reach the town of Verdun in good time and began the climb into the forest where a significant amount of the fighting in World War 1 took place. The relentless and infamous trench warfare came alive as I cycled further.
Just out of town I noticed another open field on my right, and again there was a cemetery. This one was much bigger than that one I saw yesterday, which was also bigger than the one on the way to Paris in Normandy. I didn’t even try to begin to estimate the number of headstones. It was simply overwhelming.
I lost track of time walking around the site in complete reflection. After finally composing my thoughts, I pushed on up the hill.
My loneliness on the road was relieved as I came across an older couple climbing the same hill. Gilbert was 75 and his wife Vichelle was 68. They used to do big bike tours but now were doing smaller cycling loops by taking the bikes in the car to see different parts of France. We stopped at just one of the many large memorial statues in the forests and talked for a while. They mentioned they had a grandson who was my age, but he was more into the gym than cycling. They took a photo of me to show to him; I took a photo of them to show to you.
The forest contains many memorials for the fallen. I am determined to re-visit this place later in life and see them all – others would be welcome, and we don’t have to cycle!
A larger memorial caught my eye. It described one of the nine towns that was completely levelled during the relentless shelling of the war. Small markers pointed out where each house had been; now gone forever.
After seeing the Museum being ripped apart by a bulldozer, I was frustrated. The web said it was a great monument to visit. In the distance I saw another large building. This was Duadeaumont, another cemetery, again with white cross gravestones. This one was even bigger. Much bigger.
I wandered the field to try to comprehend the scale. The enormity was partly the point, it wasn’t there to be measurable.
I visited the building’s museum and learnt that in the basement there were the remaining bones of the unknown dead who were dragged out of the woods after the war. French, English, German. All together in one spot. 130,000 men’s worth of them.
In a solemn daze I climbed to the top of the building to look out over the cemetery and forest. At the top I met an Englishman, on a gorgeous BMW motorbike who was just touring the area alone, and a couple from Australia who had spent the month touring France and Germany. Speaking English and learning their stories was a nice relief from the heavy emotional surrounding.
After a quick sandwich I pushed on, planning to stop at the next hotel in time for a conference call. There was nothing for miles, and I mean 40 miles. I spent 65km on the bike trying to find a hotel. No-one had a clue. No-one even knew what Wi-Fi was. I really was in a strange part of the country. My phone signal wouldn’t work and I found myself stuck not knowing what to do. I pushed on until eventually I got service.
Still unable to find anywhere to stop for the night but not wanting to ride too far, I asked everyone if they knew of a hotel. No-one did. Eventually I made it to Luxembourg and finally found an internet connection.
Coming into town I coasted for about 10 kilometres and descended steep roads with switch-backs. This proved to me that all the hard work I had put in over the past couple of days was to climb that height. I didn’t realise before, but now feel better that I have been given back the height I climbed.
Also I just hit the trip’s 1000km mark coming into town! It’s still not half way though, with about 1200km to go.
Tomorrow will be a relaxed short trip into Luxembourg City, where I’ll be taking that “rest day” I’d planned.