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A SELF DRIVE HISTORY TOUR OF FRANCE
This blog post was created in partnership with Atout France, the official tourism board of France. Learn more about their services below.
Take a trip through history with this educational road trip guide to exploring WWI France. With this itinerary, you will visit four of the nine remembrance sites that commemorate US activities along the Western Front of The Great War. You will also visit the main sites of remembrance with the option to explore more if your schedule allows. This self-drive history tour of France is not only a WWI Centennial guide but also a culinary guide. Take a break from learning about the Great War and visit a few of the areas most historic champagne houses, food manufacturers, and cooking schools along the way.
1. CHATEAU OF BLERANCOURT
The first stop on your journey is the elegant seventeenth-century chateau witnessed the ravages of the French Revolution and the 'Great War' [World War I]. Anne Morgan, daughter of a wealthy American, organized at Blerancourt a group of American women volunteers who delivered medical and social services to the local French population which had been severely traumatized by the war. In 1931, Blerancourt became a French national museum on Franco-American Cooperation. The unique collection informs visitors of the American participation in the Great War, highlighting the activities of Anne Morgan's American Committee for Devastated France; of the first American 'flyboys', the Lafayette Flying Corps; of the volunteer ambulance drivers, especially those of the American Field Service.
Other points of interest in the area that we suggest visiting include the Armistice Memorial Museum commemorates the end of the war and the monument at the Battle of Belleau Wood commemorating the valor of the U.S. Marines who captured the area in 1918. After taking in a day of history, we suggest a slight detour to partake in a tasting at the Pannier Champagne house. At the heart of the Marne Valley vineyard, the Pannier house has magnificent medieval cellars dug in the XIIth century. In the semi-darkness and the cool of this underground labyrinth, Pannier Champagne slowly comes to full maturity.
NEXT STOP: 48 MINUTES
2. THE CHEMIN DES DAMES & CAVERNE DU DRAGON
Next, you will visit the Chemin des Dames, a ridge that acted as a frontline position where violent fighting took place during the Great War. Beneath the ridge is Caverne du Dragon 'The Dragon's Lair' an underground quarry that became army barracks which was used by both the French & German forces, sometimes simultaneously, as a first-aid station, command post & chapel. Visitors can follow in the footsteps of WW1 soldiers to understand the significance of the area. Two places that cannot be missed are the Plateau de Californie and the former village of Craonne.
NEXT STOP: 38 MINUTES
After a day of WWI history, we recommend reflecting on all you've learned with a glass of local champagne at Taittinger, one of the last great Champagne houses to have retained its independence and bear the name of its owners and managers. The network of cellars and Gallo-roman chalk quarries became a place of refuge for soldiers and inhabitants during WW1. Signs are still on the walls. Once you reach Reims, explore the town center & cathedral which are both designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. During WW1, Reims was 80% destroyed. On September 19th, 1914, German's fired shells at the cathedral causing it to catch fire which resulted in massive damages. Thanks to American donation, that monument was restored after the war.
You could also attend a culinary workshop next to the cathedral at Au Piano des Chefs, you will learn about the regional specialties and create delicious dishes using local ingredients. Travelers may also choose to rent a car in Reims to explore the Champagne province at length.
NEXT STOP: 1 HOUR 26 MINUTES
4. AMERICAN CEMETERY AT ROMAGNE-SOUS-MONTFAUCON
After relaxing in Reims, you will make your way to the American cemetery at Romagne sous Montfaucon. With its 14,246 crosses, the Romagne Memorial is the largest American graveyard in Europe. The Sammies who fell during the battle to liberate the Meuse-Argonne area rest in peace here. Its layout and architecture make this an essential part of any tour aiming to show what Americans mean when they say, 'We shall never forget'.The American Monument at Montfaucon-d'Argonne reaches a total height of 60 meters it is surmounted by a statue symbolizing Liberty.
Visitors can climb to the observation platform from where they can enjoy a magnificent view over almost all of the territory conquered during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. This was the biggest battle in the history of American at that time.
NEXT STOP: 40 MINUTES
5. VERDUN BATTLEFIELD MEMORIAL & FORT VAUX
Next on the battlefield tour itinerary is the Verdun Battlefield which saw 300 days and 300 nights of unbroken fighting. More than 300,000 dead and missing, 400,000 French and German wounded. This battle in 1916 was the most deadly head-on clash between France and Germany in history. A visit to this location is necessary to truly grasp the profound horror of the Great War and understand the sacrifice of a whole generation. In the heart of the Battlefield, the Verdun Memorial, which first opened in 1967 under the patronage of French Academician and war veteran Maurice Genevoix, is one of the most important Great War museums in Europe. It is also one of the only museums built on the actual site of a battle. An extra floor offers a unique panoramic view that helps visitors to understand how the earth was shattered and the landscape transformed and then rebuilt. The memorial's three levels include a collection of 2,000 objects, a multitude of photographs, many previously unseen, French and German personal accounts, and exceptional audiovisual exhibits provide insights into the experience of soldiers from all horizons who came here to fight. We suggest allowing at least 1 hr 30 for your visit. Fort Vaux which is also on the battlefield was occupied by the Germans for 8 months, providing shelter for its troops and an essential foothold that would enable it to continue its offensive. To better understand the strategic role played by this fort and its emotional impact, in particular for the Germans, a multimedia guide is available for individual visitors.
A culinary point of interest in the area is the Braquier Dragee Factory, the traditional manufacture of sugared almonds of Verdun. This delicate candy, a sugar-coated almond was considered an aid to fertility and today, no self-respecting wedding or baptism celebration would be without 'dragees' on the table.
NEXT STOP: 54 MINUTES
Metz, only an hour's drive from Luxembourg, is a great place to visit year-round. There's always something new to see or do like the summer Mirabelle Festival with its outdoor concerts, the annual flea market in the Outre Seille quarter or the renowned Christmas Markets. The mix of lively shopping streets and riverside walks makes Metz ideal for pedestrians and cyclists. Family-friendly parks and gardens abound, see the swans on the river Moselle or the eco-gardens along the river Seille, or just enjoy a stroll along the old ramparts from the Germans Gateway to the Cathedral. Metz, with its well-preserved buildings, is classed 'City of Art and Heritage'. Stroll through the picturesque medieval streets of the Colline Sainte Croix, be delighted by the elegant 18th-century classical style squares or visit the eclecticism of the early 20th century with its architectural medley in the imperial district. Travelers can also choose to rent a car in Metz and extend their stay in eastern France.
POPULAR METZ CAR RENTAL LOCATIONS
• Metz Nancy Airport Rental Car
• Metz Rail Station Rental Car
NEXT STOP: 1 HOUR
7. MONTSEC AMERICAN MONUMENT
To finish off your tour of WW1 remembrance sites, you will visit the Montsec American Memorial built by the United States in 1932 on the Butte de Montsec hill. This was constructed to commemorate the significant role that the U.S. Air Force played in the battle of Saint-Mihiel. Built of Euville stone, it consists of a circular colonnade in the manner of a Greek temple, with a bronze relief map at its center showing the American units that fought at the Saint-Mihiel Salient. It offers a magnificent panoramic view of the Lac de Madine and the Meuse hills.
NEXT STOP BACK TO CHARLES DE GAULLE AIRPORT: 3 HOURS