Well it was several roads really and all of varying degrees of width, road surface quality, speed limits, scenery, roadside kebab vans, les yeux des chats and cycle lanes (none of which were occupied by a man with a stripy jumper on a bike selling onions), and which collectively amounted to slightly more than three hundred kilometres. Most of the roads were very straight and at the end of each stretch of very straightness, way off in the distance, as far as les yeux could see, there was nearly always a massive church. It was as if someone in the French Road Atlas Department had been doing a huge dot-to-dot puzzle with places of worship.
The first of my many stops on this epic journey was at the quaint and quiet little village of Cattaniéres, where I had turned off the main road for the sole purpose of going for a oui. Cattaniéres, though typically French, contained a very impressive war memorial, a war cemetery round the back of a very impressive old church, and a hairdresser’s salon but nothing else. As none of these met my needs I had to do something typically French myself and that was to have a oui in a public place or, to be more precise, behind a public hedge. The village did have a post box (which is rare in France) and I did have a postcard to dispatch back to Blighty, so my visit there wasn’t a complete waste of time.
The war memorial and church in Cattaniéres.
Between Arras and Cambrai there must have been a military cemetery or monument every two or three kilometres but by the time I got to Le Cateau-Cambrésis the Matisse Museums became more prevalent. Well what I should say is that in this town there was a museum dedicated to the life and work of the artist, Henri Matisse, as previously there hadn’t been any. So I stopped there for a little gander around the town to take in the obligatory massive church, war memorial and fountain and to get my teeth into Matisse.
The museum was very interesting and well worth a visit and the €7.00 admission fee but, like many an artist, Monsieur Matisse had started out well, lost the plot a little when he became successful and then, in his final laurel-resting-on period, began to churn out a load of old pretentious bollaux which I just couldn’t get my head round. A separate piece on the work of Henri Matisse and my opinion of it follows later on in these scribbled ramblings.
His mate, Auguste Herbin, who I had never even heard of before, had followed the same path from creating works of great beauty in his former days to works of great crap in the latter ones. I thought it would have been quite appropriate to name the section of the museum displaying his later stuff as Herbin Goes Bananas and in this connection I made full use of the suggestions box by the front door.
So, having looked at some really magnificent exhibits from the world of art and a load of old tripe it seemed like a good idea to wander over the road to the Restaurant L'Estaminet du Musée for a plate of tripe (pronounced ‘treep’) which turned out to be magnificent. The waitress there, who spoke no English, was very entertaining and forced wee-fee (Wi-Fi) and her I.T. nerd daughter onto me so that I could tell the worldwide web about her treep, and she introduced me to low alcohol French cider which was also magnificent.
My plate of tripe at le Cateau-Cambrésis.
I usually find it rude to be using a mobile phone in a café, bar or restaurant but, as wee-fee had been thrust in my face by my maître d' I thought it would be equally rude not to on this occasion. So I had a root around and discovered that Henri Matisse had actually been born in Le Cateau-Cambrésis in 1869. I wondered how much tripe he had got through in his lifetime and if he had ever had trouble connecting to the internet.
Several churches and lots of miles and lots of sunshine and lovely scenery and Joseph Canteloube’s Chants d'Auvergne on the car radio later I arrived in the Charleville bit of Charleville-Mézières; twin towns which straddle the River Meuse, and the birthplace of Arthur Rimbaud the poet, and a place with a beautiful old town centre dominated by Place Ducale with lots of posh looking shopping arcades accommodating lots of very ordinary looking shops.
The huge church, fountain and statue that I found there go without saying but for the first time on my trip I heard those Benelux country church bells that always seem to ring random notes every five minutes, so I knew I must be getting close to the Belgian border. A wander over the Meuse also made me think of Belgium as that was the only place I had ever seen this broad majestic river before, except in Maastricht where it is known as the Maas.
Travelling on from there, a very windy road with no huge churches led me through miles of woodland to Monthermé which also straddled the Meuse and had an impressive flag-bedecked concrete bridge and a small theatre called Salle de Jaques Brel, inside of which a brass band concert was just beginning as I walked by. It were right Yorkshire. How queer!
Soon after departing Monthermé I suffered my first Bonnie Tyler moment (Lost in France) of my Grand Tour d'Europe. I had done trés bon while I was using my large scale map to navigate but I had had to drift off the edge of it reach this part of Europe. Just like the crew of Christopher Columbus’ ship, I had a morbid fear of what might happen if I fell off the edge of the map and today my morbidity was justified, slightly. My blooming great big European road atlas was too small a scale to show all the villages I was expecting to pass through so I only managed half of the scenic route along the side of the Meuse to Bouillon. My accidentally alternative route was in itself quite scenic but lacked the large meandering river that I had hoped for. I had spent the afternoon on page 59 of my blooming great big European road atlas which covered only France but once I crossed the river I was back on page 49 which wasn’t too bad but the facing page 48 had on it such exotic locations as Basildon and Romford which made me feel a tad nauseous.
Aided by a piece of crispy seaweed and the compass in the heel of my shoe I quickly found out where I was and although I had been pretty lost the road was still pretty (apart from the serious road traffic accident that I had to stop for) and I was heading roughly in the right direction. I felt a bit sad leaving France where I had been made to feel very welcome during the last couple of days but ten minutes later I left Belgium and was back in France and ten minutes after that, as the road meandered across the border, I was back in Belgium again. It was like doing a huge international okey-cokey.
The last few miles of my rocky road took me through Bouillon and St Hubert which looked like lovely and interesting little places with huge churches, fountains and statues made to look even lovelier in the early evening sunshine but I was tired and I needed to get somewhere where I didn’t have to drive anymore so I couldn’t stop but promised myself that one day I would return. I should have done this leg of my journey over two or three days really. Ah well, a lesson learnt!