Friday, September 28, 2018

Dalmatia and Slovenia

13 September, Airbnb, Dubrovnik, Croatia
No air-bridge for our budget flight, but we were treated to yet another beautiful, clear, crisp, early autumn morning as we boarded our flight to Dubrovnik. Although the English have been complaining about the heat this year, they must surely appreciate this Indian summer weather.

From the outside, Stansted looks like a fairly small terminal. It isn’t on the scale of Heathrow, but it is much bigger that it seems. It is, however, very traveller friendly, and far better organised than other, much larger European airports.

Customs in Dubrovnik was relatively painless; again a small airport with high volume traffic and well organised processes. Our Airbnb host was to meet us at the Main Bus station in the city. We were sceptical, because we have never been managed to have a pre-arranged pick-up actually work. But against all odds, there he was, Luka, our man!

Our home for the next few days is a thoroughly modern little apartment on the hillside just a 15 minute walk from the old city, a very Mediterranean little compound with grape vines and fruit trees.

Our bus made a stop in the centre of the old city. Thousands of tourists were massed in the small square at the bus station, lined up behind guides waving numbered paddles in the air. Oh no! Our worst fear. Cruise ships! Sure enough, as we approached our stop, the Main Bus station at the harbour, there they were, lined up in their multi-storey grossness. Our host, Luka, didn’t seem too happy about the thronging crowds either. His advice was reassuring however. The boats will leave tonight and it will be quiet for a couple of days.

 It has to be said, so let’s say it now. Your average Croatian is not one of the world’s happiest souls. Avoiding eye contact, grunting a begrudged greeting to our cheery hello and ignoring our attempts at thank you, which, in Croatian is easy for us, “koala,” or that’s how it sounds. We have encountered this attitude in the past throughout much of Eastern Europe and in some parts of Russia, although it must be said that it as not quite as pervasive in western Russia. Perhaps we have just been a little overwhelmed by our week in England, where everybody is so cheery that it becomes just a little too much of what we call “jolly hockey sticks” behaviour.

14 September, Dubrovnik
Most of our previous travels in Europe have been in the shoulder, or even off season. We have become accustomed to chilly weather, forests of leafless trees and quiet streets with mostly closed shops, restaurants and attractions. This trip, we are just off the top of the peak season, particularly here on the Dalmatian Coast. Dubrovnik was positively drowning in tourists today. Cruise ship shore parties moved through the streets like herds of cattle, tagged with their group number and following a cheery leader waving their numbered paddle. More subtle were the electronically tethered groups with their earpieces and chest mounted receivers all radio-tuned to their guru. There were still a few umbrella- waving Asian group leaders, steering their highly-disciplined charges along the ancient streets of this beautiful city.

Who can begrudge the good citizens of Dubrovnik this tourism bounty? Less than a quarter of a century ago the city was under siege, its ancient city walls and narrow, medieval streets shelled and bombed, in the worst European war since the end of WWII. So, pack a stack of cash or a big credit card limit before you take to the hot crowded streets of modern Dubrovnik, because its good citizens are out to make up for their losses.

For younger folk, there is a lot to do in the pristine waters around the city. Armadas of kayaks paddle around the beautiful rocky cliffs, jet-skis zoom hither and non and thousands of sun lovers lounge on the beaches.  The less adventurous wander the narrow streets and steep lanes and gasp at the panoramas that can be seen from the 2kms of city walls.

High summer here must be almost unbearable. It was a beautiful day today with a forecast temperature of 29C. But down amongst the white, reflective floors and walls of the crowded city, the “feels like” temperature was more like 35C.

We had planned just one day for Dubrovnik itself and that was all we needed as it turned out. Tomorrow we are off into Bosnia and Herzegovina to the city of Mostar, another place that fell victim to the horrors of the 1992-5 Homeland War.

15 September, Dubrovnik
An early indication of the political complexity of the Balkans was the fact that our tour today was to include six border crossings. Our bus pickup point was just a couple of minutes away from our apartment, so we were away quick enough in what was to be a very long and somewhat confusing day. We were travelling to the Bosnia and Herzegovina city of Mostar, just 90 kms from Dubrovnik.

Our guide was an extremely well informed and articulate young woman who was very keen for her charges to gain some understanding of the history of the Balkans and of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular. From what we can gather the problems of the region started from the first time roaming Slavic tribes from the north moved into the peninsula about 600AD. Previously, coastal ports like Dubrovnik and Split had been settled by the Ancient Greeks and then the Romans. What the Slavs bought to the region was an unsettled tribal settlement pattern that was to prove difficult enough, but added to this mix, the invasion of the Ottoman Turks and, much later the Austro-Hungarians and the stew becomes frightfully lumpy!

Today the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina is really two clearly-defined geographical regions, Bosnia and Herzegovina, plus two internal republics, one Serbian Orthodox Christian and one Bosniak Muslim. The republics form a federation, but are not adjacent geographically. They are determined by the ethnic mix of an area. Simple enough so far? Wait, there is more. Bosnia and Herzegovina has three Presidents, one Bosniak Muslim, one Serbian Orthodox and one Croatian Catholic. Yes there are significant numbers of Croatians in B-H, about 20%, so they get a say as well, but not their own internal Republic. These Presidents rotate through the position.

 In Mostar, as in many other cities in the Balkans, the scars of the Homeland War of 1992-95, at least the physical ones, can still be seen. While most of the beautiful old town has been rebuilt, there are still bombed-out buildings everywhere and shrapnel scars on many other buildings.

We were lucky enough to be able to engage a group of young people in Mostar in an interesting conversation about how modern B&H works. To cut a very long and very frank conversation short, it doesn’t. The contrast between Croatia and B&H is stark. As soon as we crossed the border , housing standards declined dramatically, deserted factories haunted the outskirts of the towns and many houses looked deserted. Apparently B&H is experiencing about 40% unemployment and a serious population decline, as those with marketable skills emigrate to countries in Western Europe.

Despite all of this, Mostar itself is booming. Tourists throng the reconstructed streets of the Old City and marvel at the reconstructed arched bridge over the river that divides the minaret-spiked side of the river from the cross-topped towers on the Christian side. The young people we spoke to told us that they know many people who have never crossed that bridge and they never will.

On the way back through four more border check points, we stopped off at Kravica Waterfalls, nice and very popular with the locals and throngs of tourists as well, but we think we have been spoiled by our recent visit to the Iguazu Falls in Argentina.

16 September, Airbnb, Split, Croatia
Five hours on the bus today, but the scenery along the Dalmatian Coast made it well worth while. We are fairly regular users of long distance bus stations, most notably in South America. Our experiences have almost universally been confusing at the best and simply terrifying at worst. We had high hopes of a far more organised experience here in Croatia. Not to be. Seems bus stations the world over work on the principle of the more chaotic the better.

Despite the crowds of puzzled punters roaming aimlessly along the platform and not at all helpful signage, we did manage to find our bus which, with true European efficiency, departed two minutes early.

Split is a much bigger city than Dubrovnik, so we hope that the thousands of tourists corralled on the cruise boats we passed lurking in the harbour on our way into town will be a little more spread out here. We have never been fans of the notion of cruise ship-based tourism, but that is just a personal travel preference. What we do have a difficulty with is the many thousands of people these ships off-load into popular places like Dubrovnik and the hundreds of other ports around the world they visit. Locals we speak to in many of these popular destinations are also beginning to oppose the massive influx of bodies into their city.

While there is no question that the thousands of tourists delivered to their towns are a financial boon, in many places the numbers are just unmanageable. In Dubrovnik, for example, the city has now restricted the number of ships allowed to off-load passengers to two per day. This was in response to a recent incident where 14,000 visitors were unloaded within a few hours, physically clogging the entrance to the old city, while the hundreds of buses required to move them about blocked the narrow city streets, causing total gridlock.

We understand that local people in other popular destinations such as Venice are having the same reaction. It is impossible to imagine what will happen when the Chinese tourists we are now seeing in fairly small numbers in Europe start arriving en masse.

17 September, Split
The harbour was clear of cruise ships this morning. Those we spotted on our way into town yesterday must have skulked away in the night. This morning we were able to walk the narrow streets of the Palace of Diocletian, the original Roman town, in reasonable peace.

Split is very different in appearance to Dubrovnik. The heart of the old city is the palace itself. Around 3000 people live within the walls of the palace. Over the millennia, they and their predecessors have rebuilt the city, creating a fascinating mix of styles reflecting the major phases of the city’s history.

Much of what we see today seems to have been built using the original Roman building materials. Roman temples have become Cathedrals. Ancient palace portals have become the entries to medieval palaces and more modest pillars and arches grace the entry to currently occupied private houses, restaurants and public buildings. Ancient palace walls support more modest homes, probably built in the late middle ages.

The Greeks, Romans, Barbarian tribes, Venetians, Slavic tribes, Hungarians and Austrians have all had their turn at changing the character of Split. Through all this, the mercantile nature of the city has allowed it to trade on and continue to reinvent itself.
Despite previous comments about the universal chaos of bus stations, we are finding the online booking of buses extremely convenient. E-Tickets, using QR Codes on our smart phones, are accepted by many companies. So far we have been able to book our travels with companies that don’t require printed tickets. What is a bit of a shock is that some companies charge for luggage! Not a lot, just a few dollars a bag. So far there have been very frequent services between our destinations and fares are very reasonable at about AUD$6-7 per hour of travel, even less on longer trips. Sadly, buses are nowhere as flash as in South America. Perhaps we were just spoilt by fully reclining seats and cabin service.

18 September, Split
The number 37 bus was just where it was supposed to be in the northern bus station in Split, 1km or so from our apartment. Even at 9:30am the walk became more of a very slow stroll in the early morning heat. We were off to visit Trogir, a well-preserved medieval old town and Solin an outer suburb of Split, where extensive ruins  of the ancient Roman town of Solana can be found.

Our trip took us through those ugly industrial suburbs that are characteristic of most of the world’s port cities, though it has to be said that Split’s industrial areas are in very sharp contrast to the beauty of the old city itself.

Trogir is fairly much a mini-Split. The cathedral and tower are  cut down version of the more grand Split ones. The main difference is the more medieval feel to the city. It is about an hour on the local bus to Trogir, but very few travellers arrive this way. Most take tours out of Split, an option we had considered, but the cost difference was enough to see us on the number 37 local bus at around AUD$8 each to Trogir as opposed to $60+ each for the tour. We also wanted to stop off in Solin on the way back, which turned out to be a little more of a hassle than we had expected.

The Roman ruins in Solin are not very well known and seem to be off most of the main tourist bus menus. We were not well prepared for our visit. We knew roughly where to get off the bus, but we weren’t sure where the entry to the site was. A quick consultation with a very hot and weary looking German couple at the bus stop put us on the right road to the entrance which was about 2km from where we got off the bus. The temperature was in the high 20s – low 30s, but the sun was a demon! To top that all off we were short of water and for once there weren’t any kiosks in sight.  It might sound silly from us coming from the sub-tropics as we do, but this Mediterranean heat is a bit of a killer. After another application of sunscreen we finally found the entrance and a fountain to top up our water.

The ruins were quite extensive and fairly well signed and best of all, we had them fairly much to ourselves. The Romans were no fools, the hillside site they chose picked up the breezes from the sea below and as long as there was some shade, it was a reasonably pleasant stroll through the ruins and the olive and grape fields that were interspersed with the stony tracks that in some areas exposed old Roman cobbled streets. As with many of these ancient sites, it is interesting to see what those who followed the original builders did with the ruins they came across. Christian occupiers built churches with the very stones their pagan predecessors had used. Even today, houses that border the original Roman site have been constructed using rubble from the ancient ruins. The best preserved ruins were those of the old amphitheatre at the lower level of the old city site where the oval-shaped field of the theatre was fairly intact, as were the arches that would have held up the higher levels of seating.

Dreading the hot climb back up the hill to the site entrance and the long haul back to our bus stop, we explored a little bush path behind the amphitheatre that bought us out on the edge of a short stretch of two lane, uncrossable  freeway. All was not lost. We spied an underpass that led us to a bus stop on a service road, saving us a 3km walk in the blistering sun.

A civilised start tomorrow to catch a 10:15am bus to Zadar, our last stop on the Dalmatian coast.

19 September, Airbnb, Zadar, Croatia
Packed bus today for the 2hr 30mins trip to Zadar. Nevertheless, it was a very comfortable trip on a super smooth motorway. Many of the legs of our journey here in Croatia have not been served by regular train services. Though we prefer train travel where possible, the cost difference in these parts is prohibitive. A bus trip like ours today cost around AUD$15 each and the buses leave every hour or so. Trains for a similar distance are around AUD$50 or more and the frequency is down to a couple of trains a day.

Bus travel is not for those who lump heaps of luggage about with them. The companies here charge for extra baggage above a 20kg limit. Some even charge a small amount for any stowed bags. Bus stations are often crowded places where you don’t want to be struggling between parked and moving buses dragging a couple of trundle bags.

Longer trips, more than a few hours, can be a bit of a bladder challenge. In South America, the buses have good, generally clean toilets. Here, longer trips do include the odd comfort stop, but they are usually only 5 minutes, just enough for a quick fag for the frequently puffing Croatians, more on this later, and a quick dash to the, usually, pay loos of two to five kuna.

While the towns and cities of Croatia are just amazing, with interesting histories and great architecture, the countryside of the Dalmatian coast is less than inspiring, with stony hills covered with stunted vegetation, peppered every now and then with struggling olive plantations or vineyards. However, the deep blue waters of the Adriatic and the sunshine surely compensate. The coast line is almost continuously built up. Croatia has a population of just over 4 million, smaller than New Zealand. The number of condos and holiday homes crowding up the coastal slopes could easily accommodate twice the local population and there are enough boats moored in the hundreds of marinas along the coast to evacuate Dunkirk a hundred times over.

Back to the frequently puffing Croatians. The number of smokers here is just staggering. We have noticed the same sort of plain packaging with dramatic and graphic photographs of cancer suffers as we have at home, but it just isn’t having the same impact. School kids light up on the footpath outside their schools. Twenty somethings roll their own in street-side cafes, where smoking is still allowed and most older folk seem to be smokers too. A contributing factor may well be the cost of cigarettes. A pack of 30 is just AUD$6!

20 September, Zadar
 We seem to be settling into a bit of a routine at this point in our trip. Three days in a city, one to arrive and get sorted and oriented, one day to see the local sight and a side trip for the third.

Our main reason for coming to Zadar was in fact  the city’s proximity to the Plitvice Lakes National Park. We had investigated a full day tour for around AUD$100 each, until we came upon the Elegance Tours no-frills option. This company has hit on a nice niche market for those who don’t want the fully-guided tour which may well provide a guide and some, hopefully, well-informed commentary on the area and those who don’t want to negotiate the local bus network to make the trip to the park.

Our trip was just what those who paid the AUD$100 got, but without the guide. We paid under half the price of the guided tours and got fairly much the same thing. We met at the company office in the city and walked to the nice air-conditioned, 15 seater bus for the two hour drive to the Park. We were given good advice on how to best see the park and set loose for six hours to do our own thing.

The park is rather large and a little crowded, but we understand it is much worse in the peak season. The entry fee of AUD$35 included a bus ride through some of the less scenic areas and a nice, electric boat trip along the lakes. It was a mild, 20C day and most of the walk was in the shade of the birch and pine forests. We probably covered 10 to 12 kms, but at a very sedate pace as the ever-present tour groups still managed to clog the paths, waving their selfie-sticks and posing with their group while the rest of us waited patiently on the narrow boardwalks behind them.

21 September, Zadar
We had never heard of Zadar until we started to do some research on Croatia. The city is a real find, small enough to be easily manageable on foot, yet far enough away from the normal cruise liner routes to be not too crowded. The city’s narrow medieval and even ancient streets are lined with coffee shops and restaurants for those who wish to join the locals for the seemingly all day drinking and talking-fests that occupy the lives of many of those who live on the beautiful Dalmatian coast.

The Croatians seem to have a real knack for combining building styles from the many cultures that have dominated their region over the past 2000 years or more. The Romanesque church of St Donatus is a prime example. While extremely Roman in external appearance, it was actually originally built around 950AD, using materials scrounged from the ancient Roman Forum, the original pavements on which it still stands today. Inside the church, stone blocks bearing Roman inscriptions hold up more modern pillars. The external walls are also built on a base of fallen sections of fluted ancient Roman pillars. The structure’s long history has been modified by the Ottomans, Venetians and, more recently, by modern European builders in the early 20th century.  Just to complete the long history of modernization, a computerised light and sound display runs in the church every night.

We usually visit archaeological museums in places like this and to be honest they get to be a bit same old, same old. The Zadar Archaeological museum is a significant exception. Sure, it has the same old stuff, but with a well-sequenced and extremely well-written commentary. They even go to the trouble of providing translations of the Roman inscriptions on the many large and small artefacts on display. To top it all off, everything is linked to the city of Zadar and surrounds.

22 September, Airbnb, Zagreb
Leaving our apartment in Zadar was a bit sad. It was probably the best Airbnb we have ever had, a real “don’t judge a book by its cover” story. The place was an absolute gem, newly-renovated, beautifully fitted out and right in the centre of the city. Sadly for the hosts, the building looks like a run-down tenement block. The four flights of stairs and no elevator would put most people off. We just loved it.

Settled into our Zagreb apartment tonight, we have done our shopping, thrown our bags on the spare bed, hung up our gear for tomorrow and cracked a couple of beers.

Our bus was 30 minutes late out of Zadar, then there was an hour long traffic block due to road works on the motorway, so we ended up over two hours late. Luckily, our apartment is just over the road from the bus station and we were in constant communication with our host, who had the keys, so he wasn’t hanging around for all that time. The supermarket is five minutes down the road, so we have “hunted and gathered” our dinner  and done a quick orientation of the neighbourhood.

Sounds like good luck doesn’t it? Not at all. It’s all down to planning, which is not difficult at all with the technology available to us today. We constantly wonder how on earth we managed 20 or 30 years ago with just paper maps.

Silly as it might sound, we can’t remember whether we have been in Zagreb before. If we have, it was over 30 years ago when the Balkan states were Yugoslavia and our memories are of depressing, dark, dismal cities and country roads, where old women carried bundles of sticks on their backs and men pushed wheel barrows loaded with produce, along rutted roads heading to town and village markets. That was Yugoslavia in 1987. Even in 2000,  neighbouring counties of Eastern Europe like Romania and Bulgaria were much the same. Horse-drawn carts and people travelling on donkeys were a common sight.

24 September, Zagreb
Zagreb was a little slow to awaken yesterday, on what was a fairly fine autumn Sunday. The area we are in is very close to the old city centre, but the view from our 11th floor perch is of rows of renovated Soviet-era housing blocks, thankfully not as depressing as they would have been in their original livery.

Our usual round of museums was easily achieved in a half day or so. Of note were the Zagreb City Museum, surprisingly large and informative, the Archaeological Museum, with its excellent Egyptian collection and best of all, the Image of War Photographic Museum. We have become interested in the complex history of the Balkans and in particular the wars of the 1990s. This small exhibition of, often graphic, war photographs is a moving condemnation of the almost tribal infighting that bought misery and tragedy to this region.

We were awoken by howling winds at 4:00am and shuddered at the thought of following through on our plans to bus it out to the small city of Varazdin, with its well-preserved, medieval Old City. After a miserable start, the skies cleared and by the time we reached our destination, it was sunny and clear.

We have constantly complained about the crowds in Dalmatia. Today we had the town to ourselves, almost. There they were, a small group of Chinese tourists, just five or six young people, but they are  what we call The Vanguard. We have seen them in their own country. They love to travel and there are a lot of them! They are coming! in Australia they came from nowhere to be the largest group of incoming tourists in less than a decade.

Everything was closed in Varazdin today, Monday.  We had planned on just a few hours anyhow, so we were happy to wander the cobbled streets and small squares.

Our bus trip back to Zagreb was through some beautiful, almost Swiss-like countryside. The storms overnight had cleaned up the air and visibility was almost limitless. Rolling hills, with colourful villages topping the ridges and fields flowing down into the valleys met our view at every turn. Again we wondered how four million people could have so many houses. Surely, we have seen enough apartment blocks and houses to accommodate many times the nation’s population.

Tomorrow we leave Croatia after almost two weeks. We can’t help but feel great sympathy for the Croatians in their struggle to maintain their national identity in the face of the tensions in the Balkans, not just in recent history, but over the centuries. Sure we have only heard one side of the story, but it has to said that their arguments are cogent and believable.

Visitors to Croatia shouldn’t expect a uniformly open and warm welcome. There is a certain gruffness in the national character that many outsiders may find abrasive. This is merely our impression and doesn’t apply to all.

27 September, Airbnb, Ljubljana, Slovenia
We’ve had a busy couple of days since our bus trip from Zagreb to Ljubljana. Again, our apartment is just a short walk from the bus station and ten minutes or so from the centre of the old city. Yesterday we took the local train, an hour or so, to the small village of Postojna and then walked the two kilometres to the caves, Slovenia’s main tourist attraction.

The temperature has dropped markedly since we left the coast, so the walk to the caves, in the autumn sun, was a welcome heart starter. We had pre-booked our tour of the caves and a visit to nearby  Predjama Castle. Booking in advance was probably a good idea. Even this late in the season, plenty of buses were disgorging hordes of excited tourists in the carpark as we arrived.
The caves are the largest we have visited. Twenty four kms of caves have been explored, though only about 4kms are included in the extremely well-organised tour. When we booked our visit to the caves and castle, we thought there was a free shuttle bus between the two as they are nine kilometres apart. To our dismay, the shuttle service ended in very early September and we were now up for a 30 euro taxi ride to the castle and back.

Talk about the luck of the Irish! As we were asking the staff in the Ticket Office to call us a cab, we overheard a young couple at the next counter being told that they would need to take a cab as well. After a quick negotiation we agreed to share a taxi. The young guy was in fact Irish and we thought his partner was English/Indian. During the taxi ride, we got chatting about our travels and the young woman’s accent took on a fairly obvious Australian flavour. Turns out she was from Melbourne, born and bred. He was from County Wicklow where Paul’s family originated and his mother was an O’Neill. He had lived and worked in Australia as well.

The castle was rather spectacular. Built into a large cave opening, it made great use of the hidden, natural tunnels and caverns behind it. At one point in its history, it withstood a year-long siege by bringing food and water into the castle through the hidden cave system. Just to rub salt into the wounds of the frustrated attackers, the besieged garrison taunted them by throwing them fresh food from the castle walls. At one point, they threw a freshly-slaughtered cow down to feed their enemies. (Shades of Monty Python)

Another beautiful, clear, but crisp morning of 4 degrees greeted us today. Ljubljana is a great city for walking, with a touch of Vienna and Prague about it, not surprising given how long it was under Hapsburg rule. We headed for the Castle that overlooks the city centre, taking the funicular rather than the long, steep, walking path. Sadly, the castle was a bit of a disappointment.

Rebuilt, rather than restored, it felt a little like a Disney Fantasy World experience rather than an historical one. An open-air  restaurant in the courtyard didn’t fit with our ten year old memories of a lovely old castle. However, we have to admit it is tourist-friendly, with well-presented exhibits and a safe climb to the tower. For the rest of the day we wandered through the mostly pedestrian-only streets, visited a couple of museums which chronicled the archaeological and social history of the city and country and lapped up the increasingly warm sunshine and central European ambience.

We have returned to the land of the Euro, but supermarket prices are on a par with the Croatian kuna and museum prices accommodate us old folk. The cost of the Funicular plus Castle was seven euros per person, about AUD11  and the museums were four euros, about AUD6.50. Try getting into an Australian Museum for that price!

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Southern England

7 September, Airbnb, Amesbury, UK
Seems like a long time since we left France, but the time warp is probably because we have done so much in the few days we have been in the UK.

We had a relatively smooth transition through the two airports, but that all came to a grinding halt when we got to the Europcar depot to pick up our hire car. Granted it was a busy time, but an hour wait is just ridiculous. There were about 20 service points in the office, four or five were operating, but another  half a dozen staff were wandering about behind the counter, chatting with their mates, while a score or so customers waited for service. Some lessons to be learnt here?

Brilliant sunshine awoke us yesterday. Just an amazing day. We headed off to Salisbury to visit the Cathedral and poke around the city. Salisbury has suffered a bit from the poisoning of an ex-Russian agent and his daughter a few months back. A second incident here in Amesbury hasn’t helped matters. Salisbury has responded with some creative moves to get visitors back. All parking in the city is free and so is the Park-n-Ride bus service from the outskirts of the city to the centre. We grabbed the chance to avoid trying to find parking in the city.

The cathedral and nearby museum were must-dos, but a tad expensive. Fortified by the Wiltshire version of a Cornish pasty, we headed off to the small town of Devizes to check out the Wiltshire Museum, a great introduction to the history and archaeology of the area.

We are again on the trail of places William Armstrong visited during his time in England and France a century ago.

After his long voyage from Australia in late 1916, William entered training at Larkhill Camp, just outside Amesbury. Yesterday we drove along the Packway, the main road through the camps where hundreds of thousands of troops were stationed before heading off to the front lines in Belgium and France. Today the area is still home to major military installations. We asked at the gates of a couple of camps, but had no luck in finding anything that would have existed during the period that William was posted here.

We were confident today that we would see some of the territory William did 100 years ago. Bulford Manor, in the small village of the same name, was a convalescent hospital where William was posted after an appendix operation in 1917. His diary contained a couple of photographs of the manor, one a group shot in which he was included. We found the Manor and it was almost as it was at the time, except for the ivy that had covered most of the front of the building.

Bulford Manor. c. 1915

Bulford Manor, 2018

Our greatest success of the day was in Figheldean, a tiny village just north of Bulford. William came here twice during his stay in England. The village was just a picture, with thatched roofs, cottage gardens and a village character by the name of Reg. We had approached a couple of locals on the single street through the village, asking about the old blacksmith’s forge, mentioned in William’s diary.  Everybody said we needed to find Reg.

Australian troops in Figheldean, 1917

Same house in Figheldean, 2018

Eventually we did, up on the hill behind the village where he was working on his allotment, tending his chooks, vegetables and two of the most ugly pigs we have ever seen.

Reg knew exactly where the forge had been, near a chestnut tree, reminiscent of the “spreading chestnut tree” in Longfellow’s poem “The Village Blacksmith”. Sadly the tree had been cut down just 7 years back, as it was becoming a danger to traffic. We had in fact walked past the remaining stump on our way up to the allotments.

Village blacksmith under the Chestnut tree, circa. 1915

Stump of the Old Chestnut Tree, 2018

William’s memory done, we visited the Avebury stone circles and later in the afternoon Lacock Abbey. Both were UK National Trust Sites, which allowed us to use our National Trust for Scotland cards, saving us close to 70 pounds for entry and parking, which was almost what our joint National Trust for Scotland membership cost us. These entry fees are just not affordable without membership.

On the way home we thought we might take a bit of a scenic drive through some of the many small towns and villages of Wiltshire. Silly move. It was Friday afternoon and every country lane and winding side road was jammed with traffic. Too many cars and not enough roads!

9 September, Amesbury
26C and clear sunny skies at 3:00pm, not what we have come to expect of England in September. The down side of the great weather is that it brings all the  locals out in force. The last couple of days have been spent playing tourist, as our duty to William is done, having found as much as there is to see of the world he knew here 100 years ago.

We joined the National Trust for Scotland before we left home because it was way cheaper than the United Kingdom NT or the English National Heritage. The National Trust for Scotland has reciprocal rights with the UK National Trust and indeed the National Trust of Australia. We made back our joint seniors’ membership after the first couple of visits to sites in England. The entry prices are just outrageous. Avebury stone circles, including Avebury Manor was AUD$25 each plus $12 for parking. Other places we have visited have been AUD$20-30 each! The message is, if you are interested in historical sites and the splendid Manor houses and Castles that abound in the UK, get a subscription to either the National Trust or English Heritage. As we said before the National Trust for Scotland was our choice, because of the reciprocal rights and our future plans to visit Scotland early next year.

Wiltshire has numerous ancient sites, perhaps the best known being Stonehenge. We first visited Stonehenge in 1976, when you could walk among the stones, touch them and get a real “Stonehenge Experience.” Now, the “Stonehenge Experience” involves the obligatory audio-visual presentation and a guided walk around the site, along roped-off paths. We have driven past Stonehenge at least once every day since we have been here and we are just as happy to view it from the road rather than paying the AUD$28 each for the pleasure. Sadly our Scottish NT pass is excluded from free entry.

Today we made the rounds of some of the lesser known “pre-history” sites on Salisbury Plain, Woodhenge and Old Sarum.  Woodhenge probably pre-dates Stonehenge, but as it was a monument constructed of large wooden poles, it disappeared from history very quickly, until 1922 when aerial photographs exposed the marks of the stumps. The site today is marked by concrete blocks that show the locations of the original circles.

Old Sarum was first built in Norman times. Substantial as it was, it was located in an inhospitable area so the castle and the accompanying cathedral eventually fell into disrepair. In Tudor times, Henry VIII gave permission for the local nobles to use the ruins as a source of building materials. The Cathedral was moved to Salisbury, so providing us with one of the most magnificent late medieval buildings in Europe.

Probably motivated by one of our favourite 60s songs (“Winchester Cathedral” by the New Vaudeville Band) as much as anything else, we headed off to Winchester this afternoon to visit the Cathedral. Disaster! A local flower display was on exhibition in the Cathedral and we would have been up for an entry fee of AUD$20 each just to walk past the flowers to see the Cathedral. Sad, because Jane Austen is buried there.

11 September, Amesbury
Had our one visit to an English Pub tonight, just a little local around the corner from our AirBnB. The atmosphere is always the same. Cosy, friendly and chatty as is most of southern England. We haven’t been down this way through Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset areas for many years. The amount of open countryside is a bit of an eye-opener. Rolling hills of newly-harvested fields and large copses of trees. All the cities in this part of the UK are reasonably small and easily negotiated, even though some of the back streets and country lanes are a tad narrow.

We have definitely given the area a good going over. Yesterday we visited Wells, mainly to see the cathedral. Many travellers get a little weary of cathedrals, and we have been the same at times, but many of the English Cathedrals are such architectural masterpieces and of such historical significance that we just can’t pass them by. Wells was no exception to this rule. Beautifully restored and maintained, it is a real treasure. The surrounding streets boast some of the most original medieval  streetscapes in Europe.

We had believed that we could walk to the top of Cheddar Gorge, just outside the famous cheese town of the same name. After a couple of kms, ducking traffic on the narrow road through the pass, we were wondering why nobody else was trudging the same, sometimes dangerous, path except for a few rock climbers. Eventually we turned back, as every bend that promised a peak in the pass just exposed another steep slope. Returning to the carpark at the bottom of the gorge we decided to drive up to see what we might have missed. Good call! There was a top to the pass but nothing to see but trees!

Our afternoon was spent careering down extremely tight lanes to get to Brean Down Fort, on the English side of the Bristol Channel. Just across the expansive muddy river mouth, (it was low tide) was Cardiff. The whole area was crammed full of holiday camps, camping grounds and caravan parks. Negotiating the single lane access road would be hell in high summer!

A very long day on back roads brings us to one of our major problems travelling in this or in fact any part of England. Put simply, too many cars and not enough roads. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that most resident’s cars have to be parked on the road, outside their homes because there are very few houses with their own parking. There must surely come a point in England, when traffic will just grind to a halt, because all car owners decided to hit the roads at once. The motorways aren’t too bad, they mostly flow fairly well. But the A-Roads, second class highways that feed onto and off the motorways, are often single lane and heavily trafficked, passing through towns and villages where roads are lined with parked cars, leaving passageways that are way too narrow to deal with the large semi-trailers/lorries, that tussle with cars and vans through tight bends bordered by stone walls.

An easy last day today, down to Portsmouth to visit a fairly new museum on the D-Day invasion. A great museum, but a little restricted in space. For the first time on this leg of the trip, the weather was a little unpleasant; no rain, but blowing a gale down on the seafront.

We have really enjoyed our digs here in Amesbury. A spacious cottage backing on to a dairy farm, the property we are on has apple and pear trees in full fruit. Free entertainment is also provided by the family’s three little girls and their friends who are revelling in the last warm days of summer, charging about the yard on their bikes and collecting fallen fruit to throw over the fence to the cows grazing in the field behind their house.

Nothing much has changed in the centre of town over the past 100 years as the two photos below attest.

Amesbury High Street, 1905

Amesbury High Street, 2018

12 September, Hampstead Hotel, Stansted Airport
Just a stone's throw from the Stansted terminal, we are all set for the next phase of our trip, back to old Yugoslavia. We were last in Yugoslavia in 1987, when Tito was the leader of what seemed to a united country - just an illusion as it turned out. Within a few years of Tito's death, a series of bloody conflicts broke out throughout the Balkans. Ancient tensions between Serbs and Croats, Christians and Muslims erupted in a truly horrible conflict that eventually drew in the European Union and the USA.

Peace has been restored and several Balkan states have joined the EU, ensuring some hope of a lasting peace.

On our last trip, shops and supermarkets had very restricted food items available, the road infrastructure was frankly primitive and the future looked glum.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Flanders and the Somme

28 August, AirBnB, Amiens, France
Our home for the next week is a fantastic house on Rue Jean Boen in Amiens, a “row house” built just after the First World War. We are within walking distance of the city centre and the fabulous Amiens Cathedral, which miraculously escaped total destruction during two wars in the 20th century. All around us are the sites of major battles on the Somme between 1914 and 1918.

Our flight to Paris on China Southern Airlines, via Guangzhou, was just fine, although a bit of a challenge for us, as we were both in the grip of “le Rhume” or common cold. Except that one of us had the far more severe strain, ‘le Rhume masculine”.

We have travelled China Southern before and shake our heads in wonder at those who, mostly, never having flown with a Chinese airline, are totally convinced that their planes are falling apart, the service is poor, they constantly cancel flights and, worst of all, the staff don’t speak English. In truth the planes are mostly brand new, the Chinese Airports just amazing, the pilots, some of whom are Australian, are professional and highly skilled and the staff indeed speak English.

Our transit through Charles de Gaulle Airport took about an hour, most of which was travelling from one terminal to another and collecting bags. Driving out of the airport in our hire car was a little more of a challenge. The helpful Hertz counter staff pointed to a towering ramp over their car park in the centre of the airport and said, “Just get up there and take the Autoroute to Lille”. After a lap or two of the airport freeway ramps, we found our way to the correct one and amid congratulatory honks from fellow motorists, made our leisurely progress out of the airport complex.

At this early point in our travels, we should issue a word of caution about the accuracy of comments on travel blogs and services. Having read many comments online about the difficulties of paying with credit cards on French Autoroutes, we approached our first toll pay point with some trepidation and  gingerly inserted our card, which might well be gobbled up by the toll machine and... no problem at all.  We think most of these reported issues are from Americans, yes them again, whose cards are being rejected because the highly sophisticated US banking system has been so slow in producing cards with the chips that have been common in the rest of the world for almost a decade.
29 August, Hotel Campanile, Lille.

A long day on the road today heading north-west to Etaples on the channel coast and on to Flanders to Fromelles. We plotted a course through small towns and villages, avoiding the tolls on the autoroutes. But it was such a miserable rainy day that we could have just as well coughed up for the tolls, because the rural scene was rather dismal.

We were visiting the large Commonwealth War Cemetery at Etaples to find the grave of Michael English, Paul’s grand-mother’s cousin who was killed near Pozieres in September 1916. Michael had enlisted under an assumed name to avoid the consequences of fathering a child out of wedlock. Just before he embarked for Europe, he did the right thing and married the young woman, just weeks before the birth of their daughter, Hilda. Paul had done a lot of research on Michael, his family and his life before the war and as a result of this research, had convinced the War Graves Commission to change the inscription on his tombstone to his real name. It took many months to get them to agree and many more to have the work completed, so it was nice today to see the real Michael recognised on his tombstone.

When William Armstrong first landed in France in 1917, he joined his battalion Lottinghen, near the Belgium border. Keeping faith with our commitment to trace William’s journey to his death at Mont St Quentin, we detoured to Lottinghen in the hope of getting some feel for what the village might have been like in 1917. Sadly, there was nothing left that William might have seen during his stay near the village.

Fromelles is a well-known battle for Australians. In just a couple of days the Australian 5th Division suffered more than 5500 causalities. Several battalions were all but wiped-out and, in the end, nothing was gained. It was an early taste of what was to come. Just outside the modern Fromelles is the new Australian Cemetery where around 250 soldiers, left in no-man’s land, buried after the war in an area known as Pheasant’s Wood and forgotten, have been reburied. They were found in a mass grave in2009 and modern DNA technology allowed many to be identified.

Not far away was VC Corner Cemetery a name given to the area by British and Australian soldiers, because one apparently deserved a VC just to move through the trenches on this part of the front. There are no tombstones in the cemetery because the bodies weren’t exhumed  until the early 1920s and by that time it was deemed impossible to identify them. The names of those originally buried in the area were recorded. Today, 400 rose bushes mark the un-identified graves and the names of those known to be buried there are recorded on a memorial wall.
The Australian Fromelles Memorial Park is located on no-man’s-land between the Australian and German lines as they were in 1916. It is only a small area on land that was donated by a local farmer. The centre piece is the “Cobbers” statue, depicting a digger carrying his wounded mate back to the lines.

We are spending the night away from our rented digs in Amiens in a not so classy motel on the outskirts of Lille. Tomorrow we’ll do the rounds of the important battlefield sites in southern Belgium.

30 August, AirBnB, Amiens
Back in Amiens tonight after a couple of very full days through the Flanders battlefields. We have covered about 500km in this time on a mix of tiny country lanes, highways, motorways and town and city streets that have been so narrow that we have had to hold our breath to get through. Everything we have read has told us that the French toll autoroutes are extremely expensive. We haven’t found them so. Given the time and fuel savings, paying  AUD10 -12 to go 100kms isn’t that bad.

While on the topic of roads, we should talk about French drivers. On the whole, particularly on the autoroutes, they are very good. Mind you, one slip at 130km/hr in three lanes of heavy traffic including thousands of trucks and you and several others would probably be toast. Most European drivers would quickly come to grief on Australian motorways where passing on the wrong side (ie the left) is common. In Europe it is just never done. In slow-moving city and town traffic, a bit of that stereotypical French rudeness comes out, barging through tight corners and closing-up to prevent access from cross streets in heavy traffic.

An early start this morning saw us in the small town of Nieppe before 9:00am. Again there was little that William Armstrong would have recognised from his time billeted here. The town was destroyed during WWI and it also lay in the way of the Allies’ invasion of the Continent in WWII.

The Belgium town of Nieuwkerke, described as Neuve Eglise a few times in William’s diary, has some recognition of the Australian troops being stationed here, if only in the small Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery attached to the town’s church cemetery. The graves are well kept. On the day we were there a team in a CWGC truck was trimming the edges and mowing the lawns.

Next on our list was Messines. William didn’t mention Messines in his diary, but the battles fought around the town were important ones from the ANZAC perspective. The town itself was finally liberated by the New Zealand Division and an important monument to Kiwi soldiers with no known grave is just outside the town.

In this area of the Front, an unofficial Christmas truce supposedly took place in 1914. There is some question whether the soccer game between the Tommies and the Hun actually occurred. Whether it is fact or legend, it made for a very different monument on the side of a boggy farm road where piles of soccer balls have been left to commemorate the event.

The monumental battles that occurred around the Ypres salient were before William’s time at the Front, but we have come to realise that just visiting those places that were on William’s itinerary would miss a lot of important battlefield sites, so we expanded our programme today to include Ypres and Zonnebeke, both of which have significant Australian connections.

The Menin Gate in Ypres commemorates all British Empire troops who died in Belgium, but have no known grave. Fifty-four thousand names line the walls of this triumphant arch, six thousand of them Australians. The town has been rebuilt close to its pre-war grandeur. The church, the spectacular town square and the historic Cloth Hall look just as they did prior to 1914. Much of the reconstruction here was done using materials scavenged from the rubble.

Zonnebeke and Ypres both have great WWI museums, but for us the Memorial Museum of Passchendaele 1917, with its great recreations of life in the trenches, was the highlight.

None of the museums or monuments we have visited so far have rightly disproportionally represented the role of the USA in these battles. There is no question that the waves of US troops arriving at the front in late 1917 made an enormous difference to the final outcome, but the “Yankie-doodle” winning the war notion is just not true. In terms of losses, Canada, Australia and the US suffered roughly the same numbers of casualties, but we smaller nations were coming off vastly smaller populations and over a far longer period. When the American troops came up to the front fighting alongside Australian troops, they were described as extremely heroic but reckless and sometimes ill-disciplined. Little wonder that when some US and Australian Battalions were integrated for a short period in mid-1918, their officers  argued to limit the co-operation due to concerns about the discipline of their charges.

31 August 2018, Amiens
Today is the centenary of the death of Janita’s great-uncle, William John Armstrong. We had a much bigger day than we had intended because we were directed way off course by our Satnav. Not really “her” fault, because we had set it to avoid tolls. Our toll-free path took us on a route close to a lot of places we had intended to visit on another day. So we just went with the flow and roamed over most of the Somme Battlefields picking up many of the places William’s 24th Btn passed through in the months before his death.

The Australian presence on this, not insignificant part of the front line, was more important  than we had imagined. About 400,000 Australians fought in Flanders and on the Somme over the period 1916 to 1918. In that period 60,000 were killed and many tens of thousands more were wounded. In the scale of the carnage of the First World War this is just a drop in the bucket. French losses were well over a million, Britain just short of that, Germany and Austria millions more. What these figures don’t effectively show is the impact on countries like Canada, New Zealand and Australia whose populations were much smaller than the European Allies. France and Britain had populations of around 40 million. Australia’s population was a little less than 4 million - a factor of 10. So on a per capita basis, Australia put 4 million men in the field and lost 600,000. And it should never be forgotten that Australia’s army was all volunteer and that the impact back home was just as devastating as it was for European combatants.

William’s diary refers to several towns that he was billeted in as the front moved and his battalion was taken in and out of the line. We picked up more of these places today, Pont Noyelles and Millencourt, but again there was little left after the 100 years that have passed since he was here.

Our roundabout route towards Peronne took us to Pozieres where the 1st Australian Division monument is located and the area where Michael English fought with the 9th Btn in 1916. A couple of important sites around Peronne are legendary in Australian Military history.  The Windmill and Mouquet Farm are two such spots that now have Australian Monuments. Michael English fought at both and was fatally injured at Mouquet Farm.

Just outside the small village of Thiepval is the main British Memorial to those with no known graves. It is an enormous arch with more than 50,000 names of the missing. The small museum on the site has an impressive, cartoon-style mural showing British soldiers moving up to the front line, engaging in combat and staggering away in the aftermath.

Today is what this part of our trip was all about. Today, 100 years ago, William John Armstrong was killed in Gotlieb Trench at the foot of Mont St Quentin. We placed a small laminated biography of William’s life on his grave and along with a collection of remembrance poppies, hand-made by generations of his descendants. We also placed biography cards on the graves of two other soldiers who we knew had died with William, Charles Doble and William Love.

Grave of William John Armstrong, 31 August, 2018

While we were at the cemetery, we met a couple of Australian soldiers, one a Major attached to the Australian Embassy in Paris, who were arranging a VIP ceremony at the cemetery. Chatting with them we  learnt that the official events to be conducted over the next couple of days required registration to guarantee entry and that there was a civic reception for families of relatives killed in the battle of Mont St Quentin. We were left with the impression  from the Major, that it was almost impossible to register at this late date. Right, Major Smartie-Pants, we thought. We’ll just see about that. Off to City Hall we marched and after some hassles, caused by language difficulties, or normal Friday afternoon Public Service lethargy, we managed to leave a message for the Council Manager who eventually sorted out registrations for us. So we were off to the Civic Reception with the Mayor and the Major General commanding, 2nd Division Australian Army.

The exact location where William was killed

Our last task for the day was to find the actual location of the trench where William was killed. After a lot of research using Army burial references, Australian and British Army Ordinance Maps and Red Cross data we were very confident that we had the location within 20m. That’s all very well on a computer screen, but standing in an open field it’s not as easy at it might seem. However using our phone GPS we were 90% sure we were on the trench line and at the exact spot where a German High Explosive shell ended the lives of William and close to a score of his comrades.

1 September 2018, Amiens
Nice late start today after a couple of very hectic long days. The Australian National Monument at Villers- Bretonneux is a must-do part of any battlefields tour, as is the Franco-Australian Museum in the town itself. We had been to the town museum before so we gave that a miss.

The Australian National Monument is a spectacular sight, built on the very battle field where most of the soldiers buried here were killed. Our visit here was also part of our William Armstrong pilgrimage. The brother of William’s fiancĂ©e, Irene Macklin, Albert, was killed here in April 1918 in the battle which finally liberated the village and secured this part of the line. William and Albert were great mates and Albert is often mentioned in William’s diary. We found his grave and left a flag.

The John Monash Centre has recently been opened in an underground complex behind the National Monument. We had to literally run through it as we were running late for our appointment for the Mayor and the civic reception. We will be back tomorrow, because it looks just fantastic.

After all our rush we were a little early for the civic reception, so we waited around with a surprisingly large crowd of families whose relatives has taken part in the battle. The reception started with a visit to the City Museum which featured a display on the role of Australia in liberating the town. To our surprise the quote from Percy Smythe’s diary was featured. The speeches were a bit long,  in the sweltering hot council hall, but very nice things were said about the sacrifices of Australian troops and the gratitude of the local citizens. We had been told that there would be a surprise for the families and there sure was. With great French flair the back doors of the reception hall were flung open onto the town square, revealing the Somme Battlefields Pipe and Drum Band playing a great medley of pipe favourites including Waltzing Matilda. The band was encircled by performers dressed in WWI period costume, soldiers, nurses and even mounted cavalry. We were lucky enough to be standing right at the back of the hall and so were treated to the full dramatic impact of the event.

Well done Peronne!

2 September, Amiens
The centenary of the liberation of Peronne. Three Divisions of the AIF finally liberated the city of Peronne after three days of  fighting that cost 3000 casualties, including William John Armstrong. We had VIP access to the official ceremony and a concert preceding it that commenced at 3:00 PM, so we had some spare time to go back to the Australian Memorial in Villers Bretonneux to spend some more time at the fabulous John Monash Centre. We have visited hundreds of museums of all kinds in many countries but very few would match the quality of this museum. Nobody, Australian on not, who has any interest in military history should miss this brilliantly designed and technically  superb museum.

A short drive from the Australian Memorial is the site where the German Ace, (The Red Baron) Baron Manfred von Richtofen’s plane crashed after being shot down by Australian machine gunners. A few hundred metres up the road from the Red Baron site is Le Hamel, the site of what is often lauded as the first action of WWI in which the co-ordinated use of infantry, tanks, artillery and aircraft was employed. Sir John Monash’s meticulously planned attack saw the Australian infantry advance, shielded by tanks, preceded by an advancing artillery barrage, all supported by aircraft. Monash had predicted the operation would take 90 minutes. It took 93 minutes.

The thick undergrowth around the Australian Monument at Le Hamel still contains some remnants of the old German trenches the Australians occupied once the battle was over. This was also the point from which the Australian machine gunners who shot down the Red Baron were located.

Back in Peronne by 3:00pm, we attended the concert organised for descendant families by the city. An excellent military band belted out French martial tunes and several popular American swing numbers, followed by the mandatory Australian and French National anthems. Then it was off to the 2nd Division Monument on the Rue Des Australiens for the official ceremony.
It has to be said that all this is really a big deal for the city of Peronne and surrounds. The ceremony was very formal and very military as might be expected, but due attention was paid to the families who, after 100 years, had come all this way to commemorate the contribution of their family member. Janita was able to place a tribute on the monument to commemorate William.

Not all that long a drive home to Amiens, but a burning car on the Autoroute slowed us up a little, so we are just getting dinner sorted at 9:30pm.

3 September, Amiens
Not totally “battlefielded-out” yet, but close. Just a few boxes left to tick today before we drive back to Paris and fly to the UK.
The small village of Bertangles is almost a suburb of Amiens these days, but in 1918, it was far enough away from the dangers of the front to allow it to host the headquarters of the newly-formed Australian Corps commanded by Lt General John Monash. Surviving video of events of this period are rare, but there is a short segment of a film made in 1918 when King George V  knighted Sir John Monash of the steps of Chateau Bertangles. Standing at the gares of the Chateaux today it was very easy to overlay the images of 100 years ago over the current scene. (add both photos)

A subplot of our travels in the Somme has been the “search for the Red Baron”, a character who is probably best remembered by baby boomers, through the 70s hit song “Snoopy and the Red Baron.” The Baron was of course a real German Ace pilot who was famous for the havoc he and his “Flying Circus” caused among allied pilots. He claimed 80 plus kills and was by far the most feared German fighter pilot.

Our interest in the Baron doesn’t just stem from our love of the Royal Guardsmen, the group who sang the song, but from a close family connection to the Baron’s demise. We are in possession of a small piece of the Red Baron’s plane. In a framed tribute to the Baron on the wall in our study is a piece of the wing fabric of the plane shot down by Australian machine gunners. This souvenir was bought back to Australia by Paul’s great-uncle Lieutenant, later Colonel, Frederick Rosenskjar and was lost among news clippings for close to 100 years until we found it by chance.
So we have visited the crash site, the location where the machine gun crew fired from and now, today, we visited the original grave site where the Australian Army buried him with full military honours. The Baron was not allowed to remain at rest here however. He was exhumed and moved twice before he finally found peace in a family plot in Westphalia, Germany. Perhaps one day we will find his final resting place.

This afternoon we wandered down to central Amiens and visited the Cathedral which managed to survive the war relatively intact. We noticed that the head of St John the Baptist was located here, and as those who have followed our blogs over the years would know, we are big fans of bits of saints’ bodies. Sadly, today is Monday and the saint’s head is not on view today.

Of more real interest were the many plaques through the cathedral showing the restoration of the building after the city was liberated by Australian and Canadian troops in 1918. Apparently the Australian soldiers had a big impact on the city and citizens of Amiens and also more widely through northern France and Belgium. They played an important part in restoring the Cathedral. One comment on a plaque stated that the Australians were “omnipresent in Amiens”. We wondered if this was some sort of a comment on them being some sort of a problem. Given everything else we know about how the diggers were seen, this doesn’t jell. A couple of things came to mind. First and foremost is the belief that “our boys” were willing to muck in and help. From what we see in photographs of the time and from what we have read this is most likely true. These were mostly country lads who enlisted and served with the mates they went to school with or played sport against. There were no home leave options for Australian troops, so their leave was in London or Paris if they were extremely lucky, or, leave was in a city like Amiens, near the front. These were practical men with all sorts of skills that could be employed to break the boredom of behind the lines life.

So we leave tomorrow, firmly convinced that the respect and even reverence for the role of Australian diggers here is not just rhetoric, but a genuine expression of gratitude and camaraderie. One hundred years on it is a comfort that the sacrifice of so many Australian lives is so appreciated and that the loss of William John Armstrong and Michael Joseph English and the 60,000 other Australian at peace somewhere in France and Belgium will never be forgotten

4 September, Ibis Hotel, Paris CDG Airport
A glum morning greeted us as we drove off to Paris this morning. Excellent timing. It has been fantastic, warm and sunny all week. Other than slightly more difficult driving conditions, we haven’t been overly stressed. CDG is a monster of an airport with an extremely complex road network that we had to negotiate to return our car. Finding the Hire Car return area is such a challenge that some people prefer to return their vehicles to suburban depots in suburban Paris. Meticulous preparation was our key. We followed step by step photographs from Google Maps.

Early start tomorrow for a 10:30 am flight to Heathrow.