Day 10 - Jun 11, Sun - Contrexéville to Meaux

Rode 0 miles today (all travel via our rental car)

We departed from Contrexéville around 9:45 am and drove to Vittel, with a brief stop on the edge of town for me to photograph the site of the former Hotel du Nord. While I was doing that, Steve bought some water and potato chips at a gas station. We stopped again at the traffic circle outside of Contrexéville to photograph the art -- two women entwined in a dance while hoisting vessels of water.

Outside Contrexeville

Roundabout art outside of Contrexéville

In Vittel, we parked and walked to the grand park. We noticed all the Tour de France signs for upcoming July 4 & 5th passing of the race through this town and stopped briefly in a bike shop to look around but didn't buy anything.

It was a hot day. The high temperature reached about 87. We were happy to be in an air-conditioned car and not on bicycles on this, the hottest day of our trip. We drove north toward Meaux, stopping at a toll booth to use the restroom, and after we got back on the road, we ate our lunch of sandwiches made from the breakfast bar at Hotel Cosmos.

The countryside we traveled through was beautiful. Once we reached Vitry-les-François, we were driving a highway route that for the most part was parallel to the route we took on bicycles the past week, but because we were on the highway, we climbed to higher ground more frequently and were treated to panoramic vistas of vast fields of grain, wooded hills (mountains?), wind farms and an occasional glimpse of the Marne. Near Reims, we could see the Montagne de Reims off to our left (to the west of our route.) This is a large forested and mountainous region within the region of Champagne.

Haute-Marne landscape

Landscape of the Haute-Marne (snapshot from the moving car -- another reason that traveling by bicycle is more civil)

Near Fismes, we stopped at a McDonald's to use the restroom and get some coffee. We encountered a complicated electronic kiosk for ordering, and even after we switched it to English, it still seemed foreign and baffling. The coffee was essential, though,because we are both suffering from early stages of head colds and are going through kleenex and benadryl at an alarming rate. (By the way, the McDonald’s was the only place on the whole trip where our credit card and debit card were declined.)

Rejected by McDonald's

Trying to buy coffee at McDonald's

In mid-afternoon, we arrived at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery (6,012 graves), where we met caretaker Hubert Caloud (originally from Waterloo, IA.) He was pleased to chat with fellow midwesterners. A guy from Wisconsin (but originally from Beecher, IL) arrived while we were there, and we all enjoyed the irony of us being so far from home but having so much in common.

Bert Caloud was very helpful with information about where the 168th Regiment's movements would have been on July 27, 1918, the day that Harry Swift was injured. We made notes, consulted our maps and headed toward Sergy.

Oise-Aisne American Military Cemetery

Oise-Aisne American Military Cemetery

We stopped in Sergy for a photo of the village's monument "a ses enfants Morts pour la France." Harry's unit was on the right flank of the Alabama regiment after leaving Croix-Rouge Farm and made their way toward Cierges. The Alabama regiment headed more toward Sergy (I think.) We drove a loop from Sergy toward Cierges, stopping now and then to make photographs of the terrain so I can share them with people in Washington, IA. Many of the men who were killed that day were from Washington.


Landscape near Cierges

I photographed the River Ourcq at Sergy - the photo shows what a tiny stream it was (Iowa soldiers were amused that it was considered a "river.") A lieutenant in Harry's company (Company K) kept a journal during his time in the service. He (Lt. John Tabor) was a New Yorker, and he noted in his journal that the men in his company remarked what beautiful country they were in. Even while they were being shot at, they were able to appreciate the beauty of this place, so you can imagine that the countryside is truly remarkable. Doughboy farmers from Iowa certainly would have found the land something worth defending.

Ourcq River

The Ourcq River near Cierges

We drove next to Les Fantômes, a memorial near Oulchy-le-Château. This is a sculpture of ghostly figures by Paul Landowski, commemorating the Second Battle of the Marne. The figures include a young man, an old man, a worker, a soldier -- figures that the artist wanted to "raise" from the dead he had seen in the trenches. The sculpture overlooks a vast plain and faces east. We could see for 10 or 15 miles from the top of the hill behind the sculpture, and it was still and quiet up there, giving us plenty of thoughts to contemplate. (See for more information.)

Les Fantomes

Les Fantômes

From Les Fantômes, we drove toward Belleau Wood, though we knew we were too late in the day to get into the cemetery. We stopped to pay respect at the closed gate and said a prayer for the thousands who are buried there and for the Marines in general.

Just outside of the gates of Belleau Wood, we found another demarcation stone. On our way out of the area, we drove past a German cemetery with thousands of war dead from the battle at Belleau Wood.

Demarcation stone at Belleau Wood

Demarcation stone at Belleau Wood

Now we were exhausted -- riding in a car is tiring! -- and wanted to get to our hotel. We dragged ourselves into Hotel Campanile in Meaux around 6:30 pm. We retrieved our luggage and bike bags -- stored in the conference room at the hotel right where we had left them. The draft beer was most refreshing. We could barely manage a dinner -- salads and a bacon pizza. I think the waitress was amused at how slowly we were moving. I was feeling raw and gnarly and was happy to get to finally get to bed around 10 pm.

Lessons learned:

  1. Traveling by car fools one into thinking you can do more than you should in one day.
  2. McDonald's coffee in France is pretty bad.

Continued, Day 11