Sunday, 11 November 2012


Since Hennie loves history, we decided to visit Delville Wood. Both of us remembered reading books about it, but neither of us could recall much of the detail. Joretha and her mother was keen, thus on the Thursday we embarked on our road trip to Longueval, the little town closest to the wood.
At the end of the day we had to conclude it was one of the best days of the whole holiday, and highly recommended for fellow South African visitors to France!  And to publish this on the 95th anniversary of Armistace day seems, somehow, appropriate.

Bernafay Wood Cemetery
On our way there, the road led us through lush green surrounds dotted more and more with the bright red of the poppie flower.  We drove past various cemeteries, where we stopped and were increasingly becoming more subdued reading about the large waste of lives in WWI, specifically in relation to the very small advances that were gained during those battles.  What specifically struck us where how well these cemeteries were maintained.  Beautiful.
Finally we arrived at Delville Wood. They say that ghosts still haunt the wood where a massacre took place in 1916.

For most people the Somme is transfixed in the amber of July 1st, 1916, when in the bombardment along an eighteen mile front 60,000 men lost their lives. To South Africans it can be narrowed down further, to the six days of July 15th-20th when in the uninterrupted and intense fighting for Delville Wood, the 154 acres of trees and scrubland became a byword for valour. It was a six-day massacre of nearly 2,500 young men.

The battle of Delville Wood is the first major engagement entered into by the South African 1st Infantry Brigade on the Western Front in World War 1. Though there are some discrepancies in the numbers for casualties across the internet sources I searched, the fact remains that the numbers are frightening. The numbers that seems to have the most credibility indicates that 123 officers and 3032 other ranks entered the wood on July 15th, 1916. Six days later only nineteen officers and 600 other ranks walked out unscathed. (Data from the SADF unit service cards and archived sources). Other sources indicate an even higher casualty rate.

Delville Wood was an important area in the war as it provided a position from where the Allied forces could launch attacks on the Germans. Even though the battle was considered a victory for the Allied forces, the tragedy is the very high casualty rate considering the marginal gains achieved.

In 1920, the government of SA purchased the site to serve as a memorial to those of that nation who fell, not only in France, but also in Flanders and Belgium. The memorial was erected in 1926. Above the entrance Arch the following words are inscribed: “their ideal is our legacy, their sacrifice our inspiration”. A large stone was later (1952) added in front of the memorial to commemorate those that died in WWII.
A: Car park/Information centre
B Main Entrance
C Memorial
D Museum and cross of consecration
E The last tree
F: Davies-Hill tree memorial
G: Site of the SA HQ
H: Point of entrance on 15 July 1916
South African memorial
A museum was later built on the site (1984-1986), behind the memorial, based on the design of the Castle in Cape Town. 

Bronze frieze inside museum
The museum has an engraved glass window depicting the wood after the battle, and striking sets of bronze panels featuring the work of four South African artists. The panels show SA’s involvement in World Wars I and II and the Korean War. 
The most heart rendering is however the panel showing a group of Soldiers leaving the Delville Wood after six days of hell. In addition, there are several displays within the museum, including battles relics found during the museum's construction.
It felt totally weird to read Afrikaans script in the middel of France.  The descriptions inside the museum is in both Afrikaans and English.
The last tree
When the battle was over, all that was left of the wood was burnt-out stumps and a single hornebeam tree. Today this is the only living witness of the battle.Cuttings were taken from this tree and planted in SA, inter alia at General Smuts’ home in Irene.

The forest was replanted, and this holds also an interesting story. Back in 1688 when the French Hugenots arrived in South Africa, one Jean Gardiol brought six acorns to South Africa which was planted. From the trees that germinated from those seeds, new seeds were collected. These were used to plant a double row of Oak trees to line the path to the Memorial and Museum.

One of the old bridle paths
Stone marker with the "name" of the street
The memorial and museum stand within the re-grown wood, and it is possible to walk along the same "rides" or tracks that used to exist before and during the war. As was customary, these tracks were given street names, such as Princess Street and Rotten Row.   Walking through the solemn wood the remnants of the trenches are still clearly visible. The whole time it felt as if we were walking on sacred ground and the conversation remained hushed.
Remnants of the trenches still clearly visible

The Delville Wood Cemetery is opposite the memorial. 
View from the museum towards the cemetary
Entrance to the Delville Wood Cemetery
The cemetery was created after the armistace and is thus not a war-time cemetary. It is madu up by the concentration of graves from a number of smaller cemeteries from the area, but mainly from burials of those recovered from the battlefields. It is the third largest British cemetary on the Somme, with 5523 graves. Nearly two-thirds (3593) of the burials are unknown, probably because of the time that has elapsed since the battle and when the bodies were recovered.

"Two South African soldiers of the Great War" 
Three bodies were found during the building of the museum at Delville Wood in the 1980s, and they were also buried in the cemetery. Despite the proximity to the Delville Wood, there are relatively few South African graves in the cemetery. There are 160 South Africans buried in the cemetery, 56 of which remained unidentified.   Apparently the wood was never cleared, thus the wood remains the final resting place for a majority of the men, most probably due to the state the bodies were in after the severe bombardments.



Sunday, 29 July 2012

La cité en forme de bouchon de champagne

The City in the shape of a champagne cork!

It seems there is a competition between the cities and towns in the Champagne area as which is the most authentic champagne town.  In the middle-ages Troyes was the capital of Champagne.  Not sure if that is the reason the outline of the town is in the shape of a champagne cork.  (In my opinion you must have consumed at least a bottle to identify the cork from an aerial photo!)  However, the town is also called the “town of ten churches” but for most people in the neighbourhood the town is best known for its factory outlets of famous brands.  In other words: Shopping!

Walking between the half-timbered houses on the picturesque cobbled street you constantly have to stop gawping at all the history.  So much of the town has been preserved, and it is jaw dropping to think of the hundreds of years that have passed since some of the houses were built until today.  If those walls could talk…

Some of the buildings are listing precariously, and the building techniques of the time allowed for buildings to lean “backwards”.  I think some of current day builders in South Africa are reverting to old techniques with walls that are supposed to be straight following strange curves – especially in our house. 
See how the building is leaning backwards
The buildings following an odd curve

Garden at Sainte-Madeleine
We did not have time to visit any of the churches, which are renowned for their stained glass buildings.  We visited the Jardin des Innocents, the former cemetery located next to Sainte-Madeleine, claimed to be perhaps the oldest and one of the most beautiful churches in Troyes.  The construction of this church dates from 1120 (!) but was rebuilt around 1200 in a Gothic style.  Apparently all still-borne children were buried here until the 1800's.

The food market in Troyes

Foret de la Montagne de Reims and Champagne tasting

This morning we went out for a walk in the magnificent forest that has been inviting us from our room window since our arrival. The natural forest covers the crowns of the hills before making way for vineyards on the lower slopes.  

Inside the national park you can also find the very strange, weird, mysterious Faux de Verzy.  It is a variety of beech and is also called “tortuosa” because of the deformities of the trunk and branches.   The story is that the trees grow very slowly but get very old.  Not sure how to confirm this, as strangely enough there is very little information about it.   Apparently scientist have been trying to figure this growth pattern out for years, and not having success.   It grows in the form of an igloo with new roots forming where the branches touch the ground.  The trees are protected by barriers with nice signposting and some even being honoured with names.  On is called le faux de la Demoiselle, in honour of Joan of Arc, said to have slept in the forest.

The walk in the forest was like food for the soul. We also walked up to the lookout at Mt Sinai, the highest point in the park (at only about 280m above sea level) for a most beautiful view over the area. Here you could see the remnants of a bunker I assume dating from WW11.

After a quick sip of bubbly to revive the spirits at Louis de Sacy Champagne House in Verzy, we trekked through the vineyards back towards Verzenay. Louis de Sacy is a well-established brand of champagne in France, though this was my first introduction to the champagne. The “original” Louis de Sacy was born in Paris in the 17th century, and the business is currently in the 12thgeneration of the family. 

The trek may sound impressive, but the villages are a mere 3km apart. It was amazing to see people working in the vineyards, totally different to the South African approach. (Much less people doing the work). En route our path crossed that of the famous Phare of Verzenay.

In 1909 a forward thinking wine merchant got this brilliant idea to build a light house in the middle of nowhere, as an advertising gimmick.  It had a restaurant and dance hall for parties year round.  Sadly the shells of the First World War brought an end to all the fun and the building became a derelict structure.  Then in 1987 the Municipality of Verzenay acquired the lighthouse and converted it into a museum for champagne, which opened in 1999.  Once again the beauty of the lighthouse is displayed at night through colourful lighting.  The Musée de la Vigne is well worth a visit, if not for the views of the surrounding vineyards, then to learn more about the history of champagne and how it is manufactured.

After managing to find Joretha’s house in the labyrinth of streets in Verzenay, we had a quick lunch before walking to Maison Jacques Rosseaux for a champagne tasting.  We we greated by Celine, probably the fourth generation of the family in the business, who showed us around the cellar and explained the champagne-making business.  They currently also press grapes for Mumm.  Celine’s passion for the business is contagious and we spent a lovely hour with her, sometimes struggling to understand her “Frenglish”.  In the end she lent us a book of pictures of Verzenay and gave us a gift of a wine-stopper for a champagne bottle and bottle cages.  The champagnes we tasted were all blends of pinot noir and chardonnay, without the pinot meunier, which I am not that used to. 

Thereafter we took another short walk up the road to the champagne house of Jean-Yves de Carlini.  This again is a family business, started in 1955, that produces about 70 000 bottles a year.  They make quite a variety of champagnes, and I very much liked the Extra Brut.  She also allowed us to taste the Millésime 2000, which is a ten-year old champagne. 

Back home at the Despres we were treated to a lovely salmon dinner and chocolate moelleux for dessert.  The after-dinner cheeses on offer were St Nectaire, Comte and Pont l’Eveque.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

 Our Arrival and Hautvillers

 We were quite tired after a sleepless night on the plane, next to the toilets, when we arrived in Paris.  We took the RER to Gare du Nord, and quickly walked the small distance to Gare de L’Est station to catch the TGV to Reims.  As we travelled at great speed eastwards from Paris the fantastic green scenery flashed past.  We heaved a sigh of relieve that everything went according to plan when Joretha was there to pick us up at the train station in Reims.  After a quick stop at a local Boulanger to pick up baguettes, (and drooling over all the nice cakes!) we headed to their home in Verzenay.  At home hubby Jean-Luc and her mother Maxie was busy in the kitchen preparing Cocq-au-Vin, the first of a string of gastronomic delights that awaited us at Maison DesPres.
Lookout over the Marne river

Markers indicating whose vineyard it is.

Abby with Dom Pérignon's grave in Hautvillers

Hennie rubbing the Dom's belly and hoping for good luck and lots of champagne!

 The afternoon we took a drive through a part of the Montagne de Reims Regional National Park, a wooded range of hills in the Champagne area, in the direction of Épernay, to a small village called Hautvillers.  Situated on sunny vine planted hillsides, the town is made famous due to a certain Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon.

Cafe in Hautvillers
Hautvillers’s streets and alleys are lined with naïve style, colourful wrought iron signs, revealing the activities undertaken behind the closed doors of the village houses and buildings.

In many a legend Dom Pérignon is credited being the inventor of champagne.  It would seem reality is not that good a story though.  But I like this semi-bald man with his pot belly to be involved.  We visited the abbey church of Saint Sindulphe, built in 1518 by Don Roger where Dom Pérignon served as cellerar of the Abbey until his death in 1715.  Inside the Abbey the grave of Dom Pérignon lies alongside that of Dom Riunart, whose nephew in founded in 1729 what would become the oldest champagne house in the World, Ruinart.

We went to an independent small champagne producer, G Tribaut, where we tasted about 6 different types of champagne.  And those tasting glasses are not small!  The tastings are for free.  Whilst there various Belgiums came across the border and bought cases of champagne, making our small haul of 6 bottles look totally insignificant.
The first of many champagne tasting sessions!