Part 2 of The Ultimate WWII History Road Trip: Epernay and the Maginot Line

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Day 4: Epernay

We got on the road about 9am after saying goodbye to everyone and made the short drive through the forest green French countryside to nearby Bayeux, the home of the Bayeux Tapestry.  Bayeux is a cute town with a gorgeous cathedral, but the centerpiece is definitely the Tapestry Museum.  The tapestry itself is over 21 meters long and is so big that it has to be wrapped around the room.  It’s remarkably well preserved, and the audio guide talks you through each panel as you snake around the exhibit.  I was excited to discover that I didn’t need the audio guide, because I was able to follow along with the clearly visible Latin text embroidery.  Score one for the nerds!  It was, however, nice to hear a bit of the backstory behind the tapestry, something the Latin translations wouldn’t have provided.  It was sewn (do you sew tapestries? embroider?) to commemorate William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  Since Willie was a Norman, and we were in Normandy, it would make sense that the tapestry would be celebrating the defeat of the English.  It was incredible to see something that’s almost a millennium old and so well preserved, and I learned more about the betrayal of Harold and how it led to a Norman taking the English throne.  Deception! Lies! Murder! Royal Husbands of Medieval Times Style.

After Bayeux, we set out for the town of Epernay in the Champagne region of France.  We drove past Paris (which has skyscrapers?), catching a quick glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, and grabbed some food at a French gas station on our way to the Champagne region.  Before you get all grossed out at our culinary choices, keep in mind that French gas station food consists of fresh chicken and mustard baguette sandwiches, not some questionable mayonnaise sandwich that you see in the States.  “Gross gas station food” isn’t even in their vocabulary (::quickly looks up French dictionary to check::).  Nope.  Not in it.  As we made the drive, we kept hearing the same songs on the radio, so now Sia’s Cheap Thrills will forever remind me of Paris skyscrapers and gas station baguettes.

Pop that bub

Pop that bub

As we entered the Champagne region, we encountered nothing but small towns and sprawling green vineyards and farmland.  The scenery was just incredible, and we even stopped the car at one point and got out to take pictures. The town of Epernay was just as picturesque, and full of champagne, so there’s that.  We checked into Hotel La Cloche, right by the Notre Dame Cathedral (this is France, so every cathedral is basically called Notre Dame), where we had a great view from our room window.  We walked to the nearby Avenue de Champagne, a wide street lined with sprawling chateaus and both small and large champagne houses.  The first house we passed was the Moet and Chandon “house” (more like a fortress) where there was a large statue of THE Dom Perignon standing in the courtyard.  Turns out the guy was a monk who spent 47 years creating and perfecting champagne.  Putting those holy orders to good use, I guess.

That's one brilliant, innovative, and audacious barrel!

That’s one brilliant, innovative, and audacious barrel!

Our first stop was the Mercier house, which was recommended as being the most “Disneyland” of the houses.  With a description like that, there better be some serious “Be Our Guest” shit going down.  Mercier is the most popular champagne in France, so you can imagine the house wasn’t exactly in a tiny hut.  There was a GIANT barrel in the middle of the Visitors’ Center, and we received audio guides for while we waited for our tour to begin.  We heard stories of Eugene Mercier’s life, including the story behind the giant barrel and how he made a movie (this was the 19th century, so it was a big deal) of his champagne house.  He was only 20 years old when he founded the house, and the guide used a long list of glorifying adjectives to describe him: innovator, brilliant, and audacious were just some of his attributes apparently.  My only accomplishment at 20 was being able to drag myself out of bed for an 8:30 am class.  Courtney: Brilliant! Innovator! Audacious!

Our guide met us and we took an elevator down to the champagne cellar.  One side of the elevator was glass, and we passed very Disney like animatronic characters “working” in the cellars.  I was a bit miffed to see that none of them was Mrs. Potts.  When in the basement, we climbed aboard a train and rode through just part of the 18 km of cellar tunnels.  Our audio guides detailed the process of making champagne, which comes from the Pinot Noir (red grape with white juice), Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier grapes, and the act of getting rid of the sediments (disengorgement) before corking. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking and agree: What a gross word.  We passed row after row of bottles (probably empty since they don’t do their production there anymore) and a few statues and mosaics before disembarking the train and going to the tasting room.  We each had three tastings with our ticket price: Brut, Brut Reserve, and Rose and Blanc which we shared as our third.    The Blanc was our favorite, so we made sure to stock up on that, the Brut, Brut Reserve, some champagne flutes, and a poster before crossing the street to our next stop.

I WILL climb that thing if there's champagne at the top.

I WILL climb that thing if there’s champagne at the top.

Champagne de Castellane was recommended by the Ebner’s because they actually do their production in house.  Since it was late in the afternoon, it was just us and a British couple getting a private tour.  Our guide, Lily, was incredibly sweet and knowledgeable; it was definitely a more intimate tour than the one we had just taken, albeit with fewer animatronics.  We again heard the process of making champagne, and Lily kept quizzing me on the percentage of grapes used in Castellane champagne (It’s 35% pinot noir, 35% chardonnay, and 30% pinot meunier in case you were wondering).  The walls were lined with these fantastic posters and the labels of previous champagne offerings, and we briefly passed through a museum that used mannequins to explain the process of making champagne before going down to the cellar tunnels.  A bit smaller than Mercier, this one was only 6 kilometers of tunnels.  The big difference was that there were actual bottles aging and people working.  There were displays of old machines used for “riddling” and wine bottle placement throughout the years.  As the timeline in the displays progressed, the bottles got further and further apart; that’s because they quickly realized that champagne bottles tend to explode if they’re too close to one another.  Because, you know, SCIENCE.  We were also “treated” to the super secret place where they store all the good shit, including a bottle from 1915.  It was there that we learned that for champagne to be called “vintage”, it must be labeled with a year; all other champagnes are a blend of years. We then went into the production area, which was absolutely hypnotic:  there were so many machines in motion, and everything was so precise.  I could’ve watched it for hours.

The tasting was last, and we definitely preferred Castellane’s Brut to Mercier’s; it was so rich and creamy that we bought two bottles.  We also had a glass of their Croix Rouge, which was good but a little sweeter than we like.  After buying our bottles and more flutes and another poster (their art game was on fleek, as the kids these days say), we climbed the Castellane Tower to get a view over the region.  The climb, although made less brutal by the different displays on each floor, was definitely worth the wait though, because it was a clear day and you could see vineyards for a mile around.

The weather decided, however, to no longer be clear the second we stepped outside of the door.  The skies opened up, and we had to press against a house garage, under a little ledge overhang, to avoid the pouring rain.  Fortunately, it let up after about ten minutes, so we dropped off our things at the hotel and had doner kebab in a small place off Rue Gambetta.  We stopped in a bar after that, a place called La Banque, which the British couple on our tour recommended.  They had an extensive champagne list, and I chose another Brut, Etienne Saint Germain, which didn’t quite live up to the one we just had at Castellane.

After a Grimbergen Blanche beer at a nearby pizza place, we admitted to each other that we were still hungry.  We popped into a Carrefour and got a baguette, some blue cheese, these little sausages, steak flavored potato chips, and red wine for our room. Feeling all French with our purchases, we watched Game of Thrones and The Americans on El’s laptop and drank wine and ate cheese and bread in bed (we quickly abandoned the sausages because they were solid fat).  We had a little trouble falling asleep (despite the wine) because the hotel was right on the square, and we kept hearing the shower in the room next to us.  It was pretty noisy for a while, but the wine eventually took charge and we were soon snoozing.

Day 5: Fort Hackenberg (Maginot Line) and Saarbrucken, Germany

We hit the road first thing in the morning and drove through numerous small towns, forests, and fields of green.  Our destination was Fort Hackenberg, a Maginot Line fort located in the middle of nowhere in the Moselle Valley.  We drove almost two hours and had lunch at a roadside kebab restaurant (the only food place for miles) before we reached the fort.  The fort is conspicuously set among the forest trees on top of a hill, accessible only by a narrow dirt road.  It was like they wanted it to be a surprise or something.  There is a small window at which to buy tickets and a screened in waiting area, but that’s about it besides the fort itself.  In the parking lot, there’s a memorial statue and French and British flags all around.

Fort Hackenberg on the Maginot Line

Fort Hackenberg on the Maginot Line

We met our English guide, Quinton, who took a British couple and us on our almost two and a half hour tour.  Quinton is a college student who lives near the Fort and is studying for a tourism degree.  Where was that degree when I was in college????  Anyway, even though it was hot outside, we put on sweatshirts because it was only about 50 degrees inside the fort (it was almost 90 meters underground).

The majority of the tour was walking, and we explored a huge swath of the fort; there were some blocks that were off-limits because the walls, made of gypsum which expands greatly, were too close together for it to be safe.  Quinton was a great tour guide and took us through the munitions area, kitchens, and barracks to name a few.  It was interesting to hear a Frenchman’s perspective on the Maginot Line because he was very insistent that it worked because its purpose was to “delay the invasion so reinforcements could arrive” rather than stop it.  I guess his is a popular opinion in France, which I could understand.  No one likes to admit when they effed up.  While walking around, he shared a lot of information about the construction of the fort, and how everything was “very modern for its time”.  We were impressed by how the engineers considered every detail, from how to feed 1,000 men who didn’t see the sun for three months at a time to how to “recycle” the air and water (there was a spring below the fort).  They were very aware of potential dangers and had alternatives put in place; the one mentioned by Quinton was the use of an elaborate pulley system while transporting ammunition to avoid causing sparks.  The fort was even pressurized to force out any potential chemical gas being deployed by the enemy.  Smart thinkin’, Lincoln.

You can see the tracks running through the tunnels of Fort Hackenberg

You can see the tracks running through the tunnels of Fort Hackenberg

We also enjoyed the timeline tidbits that Quinton shared.  He told several stories about how the fort was attacked by the Germans, and how this massive door made of concrete and steel and weighing eight tons was rocked by dynamite and bent.  It was also interesting how many French soldiers were able to escape inside, despite the door being shut, via a little side door that was hidden in the wall.  There was also a massive explosion in the munitions area that was done by the French once they realized the Germans would take over the fort.

The massive door that got blown up

The massive door that got blown up

As we continued through the tour, we also heard about the rations provided to soldiers, which included a shit amount of booze every day to keep up morale.  The fort commander, also in an effort to boost morale, would have the soldiers paint the walls in their free time.  We walked through this small museum that had surprisingly incredible artifacts from a massive firearms collection to uniforms (including the alpine soldiers and Turkish and Moroccan soldiers) and war-era posters.  It was a really impressive collection, worthy of any war museum.

The aftermath of Patton's attack

The aftermath of Patton’s attack

After walking for a while, we took a train to Blocks 8 and 9 where we got to see some of the (still working but unloaded) fort defenses.  Quinton demonstrated how to work the grenade launcher and 135 mm gun that was also a rotating turret.  Since we had to take an elevator to the weapons, we were able to go outside of the blocks and see the damage inflicted by Patton’s 3rd army.  Apparently a Frenchman had told Patton where to strike, and they bombed the hell out of it.  You could tell the difference between blocks 8 and 9 because one was still in great condition, while the other was blackened with smoke and had bent pieces of steel still around it.  It was a sharp contrast to the incredible Moselle Valley below us.  After finishing up the tour in the gift shop, we got back in the car and drove on roads that wound through farmland and hills and occasional villages that were like ghost towns.  In the entire time we had been driving, we didn’t see a single person walking around in these towns.  Maybe they were eating cheese and drinking wine in bed?

The 135 mm rotating turret gun

The 135 mm rotating turret gun

Since we were so close to the German border, and pretty French fooded out at this point, we drove to Saarbrucken to eat dinner.  The city is very modern and industrial, basically the total opposite of the region we were just in.  We walked around a bit and consulted Google for a German restaurant recommendation.  We drove to a small restaurant that looked like it was in someone’s home, the appropriately named Deutschhaus, where everything was in German and no one spoke anything but.  El got to dust off his translation skills and was able to translate the menu and communicate with the waitress like a champ.  They had a salad bar that I pretty much took over because our meals had been seriously lacking veggies to this point.  Don’t worry; I counterbalanced the healthiness with rosti and rahmschnitzel (like a jaegerschnitzel), all washed down with a Franziskaner Hefeweizen.  The food was really good, but I was only able to eat half of my meal because the schnitzel took up the entire plate.  Half was ambitious as it was.

After dinner, we drove back into France (How often can you seriously say that line?) to our hotel in Saint-Avold.  The only place I could find in that area was this highway hotel, but it was pretty decent.  We flipped through the TV channels in our room, but the only English programs we could find included this Netherlands hunting show where they were searching for “radioactive boars” (?) and the Amy Winehouse Story.  As interesting as hunting radioactive boars sounded, we ended up watching the whole Amy Winehouse documentary and went to bed super depressed.

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