Friday, October 24, 2008
It's a Long Way to Caserne Maginot
Joe lived in France from 1954 to 1956. He was a young man, just out of high school, and signed up for the US Army so he could “go kill bad guys”. Instead of shipping off to Korea he was sent to the tiny outpost of Verdun, France and the Caserne (Fort) Maginot. Utilizing his skills as a “Remington Raider”, the army gave him a desk job and a place on the honor guard, which entitled him to perks unavailable to your average PFC. Plenty of weekends free to travel four hours to Paris, or four hours to Luxembourg, or four hours to Switzerland. Nice work if you can get it.
Verdun is an ancient town in the Argonne region of northeastern France and was the scene of one of the most famous and bloodiest battles of the First World War. As a matter of fact, a few weeks from now (11 November to be exact) will mark the 90th anniversary of the Armistice which ended the Great War. The local newspaper has put out a special edition, trumpeting “Merci, Amerique!”. See? They still like us.
When we first started planning our trip to Europe, Verdun was the only “must” on Joe’s list. It’s an intriguing idea to return to a place you have not visited in 54 years. We took a train out of Paris Tuesday am (with time to spare!) and traveled through Metz to Verdun, arriving around two in the afternoon. After securing a hotel, we put on our coats against the light rain and ventured into town. At the train station, Joe spotted the crumbling monument to the Voice of Liberty (La Voie de Liberte).
It was the first of several in a city Joe remembers as a “city of monuments”. We made our way into the center of town, passing the ancient town gate,
the grand monument to Verdun,
and many other memorials.
After crossing the River Meuse, we grabbed a glass of wine and a jambon sandwiche at a café. Note: grabbing a cheap bite at a bar in France is not the same as grabbing a cheap bite in an American bar. Fresh bread, local cheese and tasty sweet ham make a delicious meal. Nothing premade or (gasp!) microwaveable to be seen.
The next day, the hotel concierge pulled out a map and attempted to point us in the direction of Caserne Maginot. Apparently there are now two Casernes in the area and she wasn’t sure which one we were looking for. After assuring us a maximum 20 minute walk to our destination, the concierge waved goodbye and Joe and I headed out into the cold and damp. Following her map, we walked for a good half hour before realizing there was no Caserne anywhere to be found at this end of town. At least we managed to take some nice pictures along the way.
Retracing our steps, we asked directions again in another hotel and were sent in a different direction. Ten minutes later, we still could find no signs to any Caserne. We stopped at a small café in the neighboring town Thierville,
ordered a café au lait and tried to get directions once again. The proprietor pulled out a map and, with the help of an ancient barfly, determined that the Caserne we sought was one just a few blocks up the road.
Joe recognized the outbuildings as soon as we crested the street leading to the Caserne
and we happily took pictures in front of the deserted main gate.
A regiment of French Infantry now man the caserne, but there were no guards on duty at that gate, just a security buzzer. We were surprised no one approached the two suspicious-looking Americans taking photos of a military facility. See? This is how the Germans got in last time.
Once we got all the required photos of Joe’s former office and living quarters (from behind the fence, of course)
we headed back to our hotel for a long afternoon nap. That evening, we walked back to the center of town and discovered the medieval fortress standing sentry at the riverbank.
We also discovered a local brewpub and sampled their fresh brews. Several times.
Dinner was at the Coq Hardi (insert jokes here) where we enjoyed wine, fish, rabbit
and Calvados (the region’s famous apple brandy) for desert.
Calvados. Yeah, it was a long, long way home.