Friday thought #84 WW1 battlegrounds – Flanders and the Somme

A slight variation on my usual posts, but nevertheless, a place that I have recently visited and something which I would like to share.

Whether or not history is something that interests you, I believe that there are certain things which should never be forgotten and we should always be reminded of, no matter how long ago they happened or how distant those memories start to become. The World Wars are two such things, and on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, 2016 became the year I finally got the chance to visit some of the WW1 battlegrounds in Northern France, something which I have wanted to do for as long as I can remember.

I won’t go into too much detail, as everyone’s experience and interest is different, and I don’t think photographs will ever do justice to the places themselves, but I will share some of them all the same and hope that you can get a feel for these incredible sites. If you ever get the chance to visit, please do, it is an experience like no other.

The countrysides of Northern France and Belgium are quite literally full of history. You need only drive 5 minutes before coming across a memorial, a graveyard or simply a vast expanse where bloody battles were fought. The Battle of the Somme lasted for just over 4 months and with over 1 million men killed or wounded, it is known as one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

We visited as many of these sites as we could in 2 days and only wished we had been able to stay another week. The memories of the soldiers who gave their lives have been beautifully preserved and the War Graves Commission have done an incredible job in ensuring that the name of every single soldier who died is carefully engraved and remembered, even those who were never found.

The standout place for us, and the place that will stay in my memory forever are the preserved trenches in the Beaumont Hamel memorial park. The site has been preserved by the Canadian Government to commemorate all the Newfoundlanders who fought in the First World War, and must be seen to be believed. The original trenches are still there, complete with the remains of the barbed wire fences where the soldiers went over the top. Visitors pass the British front line and walk across no-mans-land to reach the trenches where the German front line stood exactly 100 years ago. Perhaps for some this means nothing, or perhaps as part of a noisy guided tour group in August, some of the atmosphere is lost, but on a freezing new year’s eve we found ourselves to be the only visitors walking through this eerie landscape, and looking across no-mans-land in the perfect silence brought tears to our eyes imagining what had happened here.

60,000 men died on the first day of the Somme, some just teenagers. I hope that people will always visit the Somme, as what happened here should never be forgotten.

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Thiepval Memorial, where the names of over 72,000 soldiers are engraved, soldiers with no known grave who were never found
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The Menin Gate memorial in Ypres, France. This impressive structure holds the names of over 60,000 men who fought in the First World War, and every night come rain or shine, the Last Post is played here as a tribute to those who died.
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Vimy Ridge, a Canadian national memorial with over 11,000 names carved on it
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Lochnagar Crater – the mine hole created by the blast which signalled the start of the battle of the Somme
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Looking out through the mist at the cemetery behind the Thiepval memorial
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One of the many beautiful cemeteries which dominate the landscape
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The reconstructed trenches at Vimy Ridge, exactly where the original trenches lay

 

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The Tyne Cot Cemetery, no words can describe this…
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Hundreds and hundreds of tributes to soldiers who gave their lives, some engraved with names, some simply dedicated to ‘A Soldier of the Great War’
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The British front line at Beaumont Hamel, complete with the long rusted remains of the barbed wire fences
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The German front line, a terrifyingly short distance from the allied lines
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Friday thought #49 Money vs lifestyle

I’ve written about this before, but it’s a subject I think about a lot. Whether through choice or necessity, the vast majority of people work either very hard, or an enormous amount, and I would never criticise anyone for the lifestyle choices they make. Everyone is different and everyone has their reasons for the decisions they make. Right from an early age I knew that a standard lifestyle was never going to be for me. The thought of working in an office terrified me and I always leant towards seasons abroad or travelling.

I spent the summer between finishing school and starting university in France, which set the standard for the next 3 years. I think once you’ve had the taste of an outdoor, slightly alternative lifestyle, it’s hard to ever imagine going back to a ‘normal 9-5 job’. I found out that what made me happiest was being outdoors and being barefoot. Whether that was in the mountains or on the beach didn’t matter, it was the fresh air and the outdoors that I loved. I discovered that I was a simple person who didn’t need much, as long as I had the outdoors, I didn’t feel trapped, I was happy.

And I’ve never really looked back, I found ways to make it work in France, and carved out a pretty good life for myself as a teacher in Switzerland. I’m happy to work hard, and when I put my mind to it I think I do a damn good job, but leaving home at 6am every morning, sitting in a traffic jam and driving for over an hour each way just to get to work, wore me in to the ground. Wrong or right, I knew that I wasn’t happy anymore, so after a few years of this I knew I had a choice, accept it or change it. Many people do this for their whole working lives, and I admire them for it, it shows a lot more commitment and dedication than I will ever have, but I knew it wasn’t for me and despite how much I enjoyed my job, I knew this lifestyle was never going to make me happy.

So I chose to change it. Me and my boyfriend made the rather life changing decision to hand in our notices and move to Austria. We knew we wanted to stay in the mountains, but we needed something more, something different. I’ve realised that there are 2 types of people, those who seek the path of least resistance, and those who constantly seek something more challenging. Neither is to be criticised nor celebrated, as both are perfectly acceptable life choices, indeed I often envy those who choose to keep things simple, life is complicated enough without adding in extra issues like language barriers and trying to get your head around an entirely new country’s social system. But I’ve discovered that it’s those extra barriers that keep me going. As much as it’s a very tempting prospect on paper, I’ve had to admit to myself that I don’t want to settle for the easy path. An cruisey job which pays well sounds like the dream, but I thrive on new challenges, on throwing myself in at the deep end and on feeling a bit terrified.

Quitting your job on a whim and moving to another country is never going to be the best decision financially, but you need to decide how much money you really need and what is going to make you happy. My commute has gone from waking up before dawn and a 2 hour round trip in a car, to a 10 minute cycle along a river and flexible working hours. I’m so much happier and I’m so glad we made the decision we did. You only get one shot at life and sometimes you have to stick your neck out and take a risk. If it works, brilliant, and if it doesn’t, well at least now you know!

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Welcome to Innsbruck, Austria, where time and lifestyle take precedent over money…

Friday thought #48 Impressions of Innsbruck

Apologies for the brief hiatus, but the last 2 weeks have been pretty hectic; myself and my boyfriend completely shifting our lives from the French Alps to the Austrian ones, and all the admin and stress that goes hand in hand with it. From furniture arriving to getting the internet connected, and from starting new jobs and learning a new language to most importantly of all, exploring our new home, there hasn’t been a lot of down time.

There will be a lot more to come on Austria, and the reasons for the move, but for now my first impressions of Innsbruck have been rather good:

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The all important Germanic beer at lunchtime outside a mountain hut. As a general rule I don’t even like beer, but Weissbier is different…
Just one of hundreds of secret, deserted and beautiful forest paths the mountains of Innsbruck have to offer
Just one of hundreds of secret, deserted and beautiful forest paths the mountains of Innsbruck have to offer
A local Flea Market; fascinating! It's incredible to see the junk people are selling. But I did manage to get myself a superb town bike at a bargain rate!
A local Flea Market; fascinating! It’s incredible to see the junk people are selling. But I did manage to get myself a superb town bike at a bargain rate!

Friday thought #47 Being a tourist in Chamonix

With only a couple of days to go until I leave Chamonix for good, it seemed only right to do some of the tourist things that I’ve never got round to doing in my almost 9 years here, plus some of the old favourites that I will never get tired of. August is by far the busiest time of year in Chamonix, with wall to wall people lining the already crowded pedestrian streets and a permanent line of cars trying to park in the town centre. These last 2 weeks of the summer are especially busy with the world famous ultra marathon ‘Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc’ looming; there are runners literally everywhere and the town is absolutely at capacity, but every now and again you just have to brave the crowds and even embrace the overwhelming busy-ness of it, because people come here for a reason. It’s amazing! Some of my highlights over the last couple of weeks:

The endlessly spectacular Aiguille de Midi:

If you ever get bored of the views from the top of here, there’s something wrong with you…

View down the famous arête and across to Switzerland from the top of the Aiguille de Midi
View down the famous arête and across to Switzerland from the top of the Aiguille de Midi
Looking down the Chamonix valley towards Les Houches across the Bossons Glacier
Looking down the Chamonix valley towards Les Houches across the Bossons Glacier
Majestic Mont Blanc with climbers in the foreground just finishing the Cosmiques Arête
Majestic Mont Blanc with climbers in the foreground just finishing the Cosmiques Arête

The tramway du Mont Blanc and hiking up to the Tête Rousse mountain hut This is the start of the classic route up to Mont Blanc and a path well travelled by many thousands of people. A beautiful day out:

The Glacier de Bionassay on the way up to the Tête Rousse hut
The Glacier de Bionassay on the way up to the Tête Rousse hut
The stunning Tramway du Mont Blanc, over 100 years old, how on earth did they build it in 1907??!
The stunning Tramway du Mont Blanc, over 100 years old, how on earth did they build it in 1907??!
So many ibex en route, we lost count
So many ibex en route, we lost count

The Lac D’Emosson funicular

An incredible 3 part ride from the tiny Swiss town of Le Châtelard up to the Emosson dam and reservoir. Two incredibly steep funicular railway rides with a beautifully quaint and spectacular open air train ride in between. Absolutely worth a visit.

One of the 2 incredible funicular railways
One of the 2 incredible funicular railways
Setting off on the tiny tourist train
Setting off on the tiny tourist train
Rounding the corner to catch our first sight of the Emosson dam
Rounding the corner to catch our first sight of the Emosson dam

Friday thought #46 The wonder of the EU

It’s a commonly discussed fact amongst Brits that ‘70% of Americans don’t even have a passport’. Whether or not this is factually correct nobody is really sure, but it’s one of those ‘facts’ that everybody seems to know, most likely because living in Europe, the thought of not owning a passport is utterly ridiculous.

2 months ago I think I would probably have agreed, how could anybody live without owning a passport? Flying is so commonplace for us Brits, and with our country being so small, to fly pretty much anywhere means to leave the country. Our passports are somewhere close by at all times. For many years I lived in France and worked in Switzerland, so crossed the border twice a day without giving it a second thought. But I must admit that spending some time travelling around the States has made me view the no passport issue in a completely different light.

The USA literally has everything you could ever need with regards to landscape, climate and sports. It has coastlines and beaches, mountains, deserts, lakes, snow and sun; meaning that every sport from skiing to surfing is possible somewhere in the States. Within Europe, if you wish to ski, you need to fly to a country which has mountains and snow, if you want a beach holiday, countries such as Spain or Greece are an obvious choice. People in Europe take it for granted that they can jump on a plane and in less than 2 hours be in a completely different climate, scenery, culture and language. But what they forget is that the entire continent of Europe could fit neatly in to the outline of the USA with an enormous amount of room to spare. The distance from one side of Montana to the other is approximately 560 miles. As a comparison, if you were to start in Milan, Italy, and drive north east for roughly the same distance, you would cross Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Germany, finally ending your journey in Prague, deep in the heart of the Czech Republic. That’s 5 European countries versus not even leaving one of America’s 50 states.

Many Europeans would consider themselves well travelled, worldly people, after all, they may visit 2 or 3 different countries each year. Yet although it would be an impossible statistic to calculate, I would be very interested to know the percentage of Europeans who have never left Europe. I’d guess the vast majority. Europe contains approximately 50 countries (debatable due to questions such as whether to class the UK as one country or 4 separate ones), the USA contains 50 states. I would hazard that most Europeans rarely leave Europe, most Americans never leave America. It’s really not that different. Europe is made up of countries, the USA of states. It’s a big expense and a long journey to leave Europe and travel to Australasia, Asia, Africa or America, so we tend to stay within the confines of the continent. This is presumably no different for Americans. If you live in Texas and want a ski holiday, why fly to France when you have Colorado just a short flight away?

Being in the States also brought it home to me just how unique the European Union is. I completely take it for granted that despite being British, I’ve lived in France for the last 9 years, worked in Switzerland for the past 4, and am about to move to Austria. No visas needed, no green cards and no need to make a special application. You can move around freely within all the countries in the EU, working and living. In no other place in the World does this happen, and we are so very fortunate that we have this available to us.

Put in perspective it becomes a lot more clear why so many Americans would choose to stay within the States. Europeans must simply count themselves lucky that they have such a diversity of cultures at their doorstep and the freedom to move around amongst them, and cut their American friends a bit of slack!

A comparison rarely considered...
A comparison rarely considered…

Friday thought #36 A weekend in Provence

 France is a wonderful country. It has beaches, mountains, rugged coastlines, fantastic climbing, amazing cycling, brilliant skiing, hot weather, snow, quaint countrysides… the list could go on and on! It doesn’t surprise me at all that it’s known as one of the World’s top holiday destinations.

Taking advantage of a long weekend, that wasn’t a bank holiday weekend (!) we decided on a spur of the moment trip down to the magical land of Provence. Only 3 1/2 hours drive, pretty much guaranteed sunshine, and the prospect of a few days camping, climbing, swimming, and reading books in the sunshine was mighty appealing! The month of May is the time to go, especially if you plan to do any kind of sporting activities, as from June onwards it becomes unbearably hot if you aren’t in close proximity to water at all times! Right now the temperatures are hovering around 28-30 degrees, perfect for a bit of daytime swimming and evening climbing in the cooler temperatures. We sought out some wild swimming in nearby rivers and found some shady crags to climb at, a perfect mini-break!

I can’t ask more from life than waking up to the sounds of birds singing their morning chorus, a nearby cockerel crowing his heart out, the cows gently clanging their bells, and the church bell chiming. Simple pleasures, and long may they last…

The village of Orpierres nestled in its little nook
The tiny village of Orpierres nestled in its little nook
We love everything about Provence, even the forest paths...
We love everything about Provence, even the forest paths…
My all time favourite bridge, wonky, haphazard and full of rustic charm; only to be found in rural France!
My all time favourite bridge; wonky, haphazard and full of rustic charm; only to be found in rural France!
Not a bad spot for some wild swimming
Not a bad spot for some wild swimming
And a bit more...
And a bit more…
This little chap sat with us all morning!
This little chap sat with us all morning!

Friday thought #27 Will the mountain environment ever get boring?

You may or may not have ever heard of the Vallée Blanche, some of you may have even skied it, but regardless of your previous knowledge, the pictures of this stunning ski run speak for themselves. Essentially it is a completely off piste ski trail, 18km long, ungroomed, unpatrolled, and follows an enormous glacier down the Chamonix Valley, marking the border between Italy and France. You enter the Vallée Blanche at your own risk, preferably with a guide, as there are no end of crevasses waiting to swallow you up if you head the wrong way. From start to finish the whole experience is simply breathtaking, in the sense that it literally will take your breath away. I’d say it’s worth learning how to ski if only so you get the chance to do this at least once in your life!

It has to be done on a sunny day as the views are just as important, if not more important than the skiing. To reach the start you have to fight your way on to arguably one of the busiest ski lifts in the World and trying to get a space on it between 8 and 10am is every man for himself, yet as we recently discovered, heading back round for lap number 2 in the afternoon is more than worth the effort. After the pandemonium of the morning, at 2.30pm we had the lift to ourselves, and saw just 2 other people in the distance during the entire run down, easily 2 hours of solitude in what has to be one of the most stunning places on earth. Add to this tranquility the beauty of skiing home at dusk watching the sun creep its way downwards behind the mountains and it all makes for a pretty magical day.

Thank you Chamonix.

Just taking a break next to the ice fall...
Just taking a break next to the ice fall…
Heading down the arête for lap number 2, wait till the afternoon and you have your own private mountain!
Heading down the arête for lap number 2, wait till the afternoon and you have your own private mountain!
Stunning ice, different every time
Stunning ice formations, although not sure it it’s pointing at something worthy of note or giving me the finger!
Heading home in to the sunset. So clichéd but in this case very true!
Heading home in to the sunset. So clichéd but in this case very true!