Saturday, February 17, 2018

Verdun, France: The City Behind the Greatest Battle in History

Many younger people (30-something and younger) may probably have not heard about Verdun in France.

It is a small city located on the River Meuse in the Lorraine region in the north of France. It is not too far away from Luxembourg. It is a fortified city, however, not much has remained of its fortifications except for the Chatel Gate and the Citadel.

The main tourism draw of the city and its nearby environs are its contributions to history and memorial monuments of the First World War, namely the Battle of Verdun, the world's longest and largest battle ever. Other than that Verdun is a relatively quiet and very local city.

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Where we Stayed in Verdun

After the 4.5 hour trip from Utrecht, the Netherlands, we arrived in Verdun. We were able to find the B&B Hotel we booked last minute quickly. Because it was a public (Christian Catholic) holiday in mainland Europe, many of the hotels were fully booked. Dutchman and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on accommodation and we were lucky to have found an available room in this hotel, which is more like a European version of a roadhouse.

The B&B Hotel accommodation was quite basic yet modern and clean. Our room was very straightforward but I liked the idea that it looks new and more importantly, hygienic. Hotels like this are best suited for an overnight stay or short few days holidays. There is free spacious parking which is very important for us since we were coming with the car.

The hotel offers breakfast as an additional service but we opted to have breakfast at the Cora supermarket nearby because it is much cheaper, plus it gets us on the road quickly. We are after all on a road trip holiday with Verdun as our home base.

Local Specialty: Dragees 

During the check-in at the B&B Hotel, we were given a small gift by the reception. Sugared almond candies called ‘Dragees’ are a local delicacy and which the city is famous for in France. They were really good and I was planning on buying more at the oldest dragee candy store in the city but never got to do it with a grumpy Dutchman beside me.

Dragee candy - sugar coated almonds. Dragees Braquier I guess is the oldest confectionery shop selling these candies. There are other coating and colour versions of the dragees as well.

The supermarket where we had breakfast each day. I also managed to buy a few fares for our little picnic in the lake (which I will post separately) and to bring home as well. The local supermarkets are always a part of my destinations when I travel.

At the hotel’s reception, we were able to find a lot of travel brochures, reading materials about the city and maps. Verdun is not really a go-to city for the usual tourism purpose. It has become popular because of its tragic history. The ‘Battle of Verdun’ in 1916 which lasted 300 days, the longest and largest battle in the First World War – approximately 700,000 casualties and 300,000 young soldiers met their fate on the valleys of Verdun. So yes, there are full maps and directions of the battlefields available. This place is meant for a self-ride road trip but there are organized tours available as well, mostly catering to the older generation.

After settling our stuff in the hotel, Dutchman and I decided to hit the city. We don’t really have major plans for the day. We’ll go around for a city stroll, perhaps have coffee somewhere and then an early dinner.

Since the hotel is located outside the city center, we have decided to take the car. With that, we do not waste time getting to the city and we get on with the walk right away.

Moi here at the outdoor terrace of the hotel. We had only great sunny skies weather during our 4-day stay in Verdun.

The local Verdun scenes. The old houses in the old center have the typically French flair - colorful wooden window shutters.

This one has a very nice balcony garden.

The Chatel Gate on the Pont Chaussee, the only remaining fortification of Verdun, apart from the Citadel.

Stroll into Verdun Town

Verdun is a fortified city that lies on the River Meuse. There is not much left of the fortification except the Chatel Gate and the Citadel.

Frankly speaking, there is really not much to see and do in Verdun so most tourists visiting here come for the battlefields which are located in the nearby environs.

What I do like about the city is its promenade, the Quai de Londres on Canal d'Est. Cafes and restaurants with outdoor terraces face the water and are open until late in the evening. On the quay, you can find boats are docked which adds to a very friendly atmosphere.  Many people sit on the steps of the promenade which is facing the water and boats. It can get lively here. This area I would say is the heart of Verdun where locals and tourists come together.

So I took some photos during the walk:

We start our walk just before the Pont Chaussee. We managed to find parking beside this monument. These are some of the famous generals during the war.

Some of the scenes during our walk in the city.

This is the Comite Memorial Verdun on Place de la Liberation. It is also a museum.

Here is an excerpt from the website of the Comite Memorial:
The Comité national du souvenir de Verdun (CNSV, Verdun national memorial committee) was set up in 1951 by Maurice Genevoix, Secretary in Perpetuity to the Académie française and himself a World War One veteran, under the patronage of the President of the Republic. On 23 October 1960, led by Maurice Genevoix, the committee decided to build a memorial on the site of the former railway station in Fleury, one of the villages razed to the ground and declared to have “died for France”. After being given public-benefit status in 1962, the committee launched a national campaign, seeking contributions for the construction of the Verdun Memorial Museum. Donations poured in and the museum was opened in 1967. The aim of the committee is to keep alive the memory of the Battle of Verdun and ensure the museum’s sustainability and long-lasting influence.

This boat is literally a houseboat docked on the quay and I quite like its spacious terrace rendering a great view, of course, of the city. 

We did some strolling as well in Park Japiot and along the Canal d' Est.

This is the promenade on Quai de Londres on Canal d'Est. The British managed to leave one of their iconic public telephone booths on the promenade. Quite apt actually since Quai de Londres is London Quay in English =)

Avenue de la Victoire leading to the Comite Memorial Verdun.

Le Barge is a cafe and pub on a boat. We liked the atmosphere so we promised to come back after dinner for coffee here.

Outdoor terraces on Quai de Londres.

We probably walked an hour or two and because it was a religious public holiday many of the shops were closed. The cafes and restaurants though were open.

First Evening Dinner in Town

We have decided to have an early dinner. Before the trip, I did some research on Tripadvisor and a restaurant called Romeo e Giulietta was on its #1 list with great reviews. So I was particularly eyeing this restaurant for our dinner but we were turned away as it was already a full house for the evening.

I seldom reserve a table at restaurants when visiting small cities. I mean, who would have thought a restaurant would be full in small-city Verdun? It makes me wonder if the guests were locals or they were also checking Tripadvisor like me. Well, I wrongly underestimated the popularity of this restaurant but no worries, there are other restaurants down on the promenade. They might not be the best, but they do have better views =)

The popular restaurant that was full.

We found Restaurant Cote Quai on the promenade. Most of the restaurants here are quite casual but the atmosphere is something to like for. It is full of people and the locals hang out on the steps of the promenade which is in front of the cafes and restaurants face. Thus, in terms of ambiance, this was indeed a better choice, however, I am sure that the other restaurant we first went to is much better when it comes to the food.

We both ordered their meat dishes. Dutchman had a local steak, fries, and salad while I had a burger meat topped with an egg, and some fries and salad as well. The service was quite quick and we are loving the lively surroundings.

Our food verdict: It was not something to go wild about but it was okay. It served its purpose.

Dinner on the promenade, on Quai de Londres in Verdun.

First evening dinner in Verdun at Restaurant Cote Quai.

After dinner, we proceeded to Le Barge, which is an open café and pub on a boat on Canal d'Est. It is just right across from where we had dinner. We saw it earlier during our walk and were very charmed by it. We promised ourselves to have coffee here after dinner.

I ordered the Gourmet Café so we have some tiny desserts to share to go with our coffee. From where we sat, we could see the Chatel Gate and Pont Chaussee, as well the cafes and restaurants on Quai de Londres promenade.The view from the boat cafe was fantastic, especially with the shimmering lights against the dark blue skies. It is May so we have longer daylight.

What can I say, this was a very nice closing to our first evening in the city.

Dessert and coffee after dinner with a view to the Chatel Gate.

Looking towards Quai de Londres promenade.

Second and Third Evening Dinners

Our second evening dinner at Restaurant Le Bonsejour was a funny one where I ordered pig’s trotters not knowing what it was. Most French people outside Paris do not speak English. I am sure they understand and can speak a bit as they learn English in school but they just do not want to speak it. It is a French oddity which you will find less prominent in other countries in Europe. Read here: Lost in French Menu Translation

And our last evening’s dinner was at the Buffalo Grill located a few addresses away on the same street as the B&B Hotel. We got lazy after a very long hot day outdoors chasing battlefields, memorials and a picnic on the lake, we didn’t want to go out any more into town for dinner, so we just picked the nearest walking distance restaurant.

Back ribs for dinner with fries and barbecue sauce.

I would have thought that the Buffalo Grill is an American joint but it is actually a French chain restaurant with an American twist. The restaurant is designed like an American diner and the menus have been patterned as well to the American style. We both ordered the ribs which have the taste of the ribs sold here in the Netherlands at the supermarkets which reminds me of Turkish/Moroccan spices. I cannot really say that I am a fan of the taste. Luckily, Dutchman has a bigger appetite than me so he helped me finish the ribs.

This was an okay dinner, a real value for money, although I wouldn’t want to go back to a similar restaurant like this anytime soon.

They also served popcorn for starters, and some bread and salad to go with the ribs. It was a lot!

We finished the dinner with coffee. Outside of the Buffalo Grill Restaurant is a totem pole.

Beside the restaurant is this shop selling ONLY deep frozen items. I have never seen such a shop dedicated to all things frozen, and especially in France.

The French Generals

On our last day in Verdun, we have decided to take things slow again. We will be driving back to the Netherlands in the afternoon so planned to go back into town and check out the generals in the citadel. The Dutchman wanted to see them again whereas I wanted to see the citadel. A good comprise I guess, haha.

The generals are actually statues of all French generals during the war. I don’t know them but Dutchman knows most of them. All I know is that these generals are hugely responsible for the deaths of the 300,000 soldiers and 400,000 wounded. Although Philippe Petain was the one who restored the army's morale after the uprising there. He later became a Nazi collaborator in the Second World War but was spared from execution because of his exemplary service to the country in the First World War in Verdun.

Perhaps the most famous French general that we know today is Charles de Gaulle, mainly because the primary international airport of France in Paris is named after him, otherwise, I am sure majority of the passengers flying in and out of the airport does not have a clue who or what Charles de Gaulle is.

The French generals of the war. The statues are located beside the citadel fortification.

It must have sucked being a military officer during those times.

Yes, those were different times of course. A time with different standards, a time where people have a different mentality, and what they did was for a different purpose.

Underground Citadel of Verdun 

After getting acquainted with the generals, we proceeded to the citadel. We were not sure if we can enter the citadel for free but we thought we will try and find out.

In my experiences, many citadels in Europe are generally open to the public. I remember many years back where Dutchman and I stayed for a long weekend in Sedan in the Champagne-Ardennes region, in a large citadel with a castle wherein they transformed one of its wings into a hotel. But helaas, not this one in Verdun.

The entrance to the citadel which was built circa 1624.

As we entered the subterranean entrance of the citadel, we were greeted with a well-regulated indoor temperature. There are pictures on the walls depicting life inside the citadel during the war. There is also a shop selling souvenir items and a cashier for the day tickets. Then we saw a moving mini train coming into view. The train lets you go into the subterranean citadel and we were quite curious about it, how far it can go into the fortification's tunnels. We have read that the tunnels are 7 kilometers long.

Since it was our last day in Verdun we thought we’ll give it a try. Dutchman was not really into this touristy mini trains but we were curious, and we also had the idea that the train will give us a tour of the citadel. It did, but it was not the magnitude we have expected. Instead, we only managed to see a small selected albeit theatrically designed for the show part of the citadel. Oh well.

The train ride was basically a light and sound show with historical narration.

Real-life pictures of military officers and soldiers inside the tunnels of the citadel during the Battle of Verdun in the First World War.

The tunnel to the touristy train ride + light and sound show + historical narration. It was not allowed to take pictures inside so this is the last one I took.

As for our visits to the battlefields and other war memorial monuments, I will be posting them separately.

Travel Period: May 2017
Destination: Verdun, Lorraine (Grand Est), France

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Happy Travels! Enjoy Life =)

All pictures were taken by a point and shoot pocket camera or a smartphone.

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