Across the French region of the Somme and the northern region of Belgium known as Flanders is an area of outstanding natural beauty, steeped in history with rich culinary traditions. Through this area runs the Western Front, a series of trenches built by the Germans in WWI stretching 700km from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. Following the Western Front along quiet roads and bike paths, this reflective cycle journey first stops at Villers Bretonneaux, where in April 1918 the Australian Corps successfully stopped the advancing German troops. En route to Flanders you can stop to visit museums, cemeteries and moving memorials dedicated to the brave soldiers who fought in WWI. Whilst the historic focus of this self guided cycle is firmly on the sights of importance for Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and British people, there are so many more reasons to visit the spectacular region. The warm welcome from the locals, the tantalising cuisine where local ingredients are sourced to produce satisfying meals, and the varying hues of the landscape are what make this ride so special. In the evening, stay in a selection of handpicked hotels and take the time to stroll around the interesting town centres to gain further appreciation of the impact of the war history on the region.
This trip involves 6 days cycling between 40 and 73km per day over a mix of flat and undulating terrain. The route travels along quiet back roads with low traffic. When entering and leaving towns you will be on roads with more traffic where care needs to be taken. We recommend that you undertake some pre trip training to ensure you get the most out of your cycle trip and are comfortable cycling in areas of medium traffic. During the cycle you need only carry your camera and water bottle etc. Your luggage is transported for you between hotels. *For safety reasons, we insist that cycle helmets are worn – these will be provided to you with your bike.
On arrival in Amiens make your way to your hotel which is located in the centre of town near the Cathedral. This beautiful edifice is the largest example of Gothic architecture in France and is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site. The Cathedral boasts a soaring nave and its said it could easily accommodate the Notre Dame twice over. Miraculously, the Cathedral survived WWI. There are a number of commemorative plaques, in memory of soldiers from the Allied Front. Amiens was home to Jules Verne for a number of years and it was here that he wrote most of his novels. Take time out to stroll along the canal path before you begin your cycle tour.
The ride begins eastwards following the River Somme and after about 19km, you arrive in Villers Bretonneaux. It was here that between the 24th and 26th April in 1918, the Australian expeditionary army corps successfully stopped the advancing German troops and, as a consequence, prevented the city of Amiens from being taken. The Australian National Memorial and the Franco-Australian Museum, within the Victoria School, offer a fascinating and detailed insight into these events.
Continuing eastwards, you cross the Hamel battlefield to gain access to the other side of the River Somme, at Cerisy, then enjoy magnificent river views along the road leading to Albert. The town of Albert was the epicentre of the great battle of the Somme and was also the principal industrial town in the Ancre Valley. The Somme Museum, established within an anti-aircraft underground shelter, retraces military life during the First World War.
Following the main road out of town, you head north towards the Ancre Valley before climbing towards Thiepval Ridge. The first large offensive was launched on 1st of July 1916 here, involving 20,000 men from the British Reserve Army and was known as 'the bloodiest day in British military history'. Thiepval was liberated three months later, on 27th of September 1916. You pass the Belfast Tower, erected in 1921 in memory of the Ulster Battalion which so courageously fought that day at Thiepval.
After crossing Ancre, you arrive at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial, dedicated to the Newfoundland Regiment which was all but annihilated in the space of thirty minutes after the German soldiers opened fire. A little further on, you arrive at the German cemetery Fricourt and two memorial sites, one dedicated to the South African regiment and known as Delville Wood, the other dedicated to the New Zealand division called Longueval.
The cycle route then takes you to the village of Pozieres, where the Australian regiment, completely exhausted by relentless artillery attacks, was eventually relieved by the Canadians. The names of over 14,000 casualties are engraved on the cemetery walls here.
You then leave the Somme department and cycle for a further 20km through countryside before reaching Arras, the Artois capital. With its Flemish baroque style, Arras has a long and established reputation for its superb draperies and tapestries, and the city's wealth and influence is evident today. The architecture, dating from the Flemish Baroque period through to the Art Deco style, will charm and captivate you. Two World Heritage listed sites, the Belfry and Vauban's Citadel, merit a visit, as do the 'Boves', underground passages dating from medieval times and expanded by the New Zealand Tunnelling Company. Robespierre, the influential figure of the French Revolution, was born in Arras.
Your hotel is ideally situated in the heart of the city. In the evening, take some time out to relax at one of the cafes in the celebrated Place des Heros.
Following the River Scarpe, you then head north for about 20km until you reach Vimy. On 17th of April 1917, this large park became the centrepiece of a ferocious battle between the German army and Canadian troops, the latter losing more than 11,000 soldiers. The impressive Canadian National Vimy Memorial was built on the Vimy Ridge and commemorates those who lost their lives here.
After a pause at Souchez village, you climb Lorette's Hill, where in May 1915, French and German troops fought to gain control of Artois. The cemetery Notre Dame de Lorette, where 40,000 soldiers found their final resting place, is considered the most important French military cemetery of today.
Continuing north, you cross a section of mining area and arrive in Bethune, where you spend the night. Historically, Bethune has always been considered a bourgeois town, accumulating wealth from neighbouring agricultural land, from a prolific textile industry dating back to the Middle Ages and from a thriving mechanical/chemical industry. Although Bethune managed to escape German occupation, the town centre was badly bombed in May 1918 and with the exception of the belfry, was almost entirely destroyed.
Since 1964, the town has been twinned with Hastings in England, where another great battle took place and a certain William the Conqueror was crowned the new King of England.
Welcome to Flanders, or 'the flat land': the title of one of Jacques Brel's songs, where he describes the flat landscape, void of mountains. Gastronomically, the region's specialties reflect the celebrated reputation of its people - their warmth! Delight in sampling regional dishes such as Carbonade Flamande, Maroilles, Welsh Potjevleesch or Waterzooi, all accompanied by freshly made chips and a quality beer from one of the neighbouring abbeys. Flanders was formerly one of the richest and most coveted of French provinces, and also one of the most densely populated. It played a very significant role in the French Industrial Revolution.
If you opt for the longer of the two cycle routes today, you will arrive at Fromelles, a small village which became the centre of combat between the Commonwealth (principally Australians) and the Germans. Between 19th and 20th July 1916, around 8,500 soldiers were killed.
Rejoining the shorter route, you head towards Bailleul, the capital of the 'Monts de Flandres', a series of small hills which rise to about 160m. From the top there are magnificent views of the surrounding countryside. You can take time out to relax in one of the region's typical inns. Also worthy of a visit is the 'Abbaye du Mont des Cats', where you can delight in sampling local cheese and beer produced by the local Trappist monks. The Franco-American writer Marguerite Yourcenar grew up in this charming, picturesque region.
You then cross into Belgium and head towards Ypres, where you will spend the next two nights.
In October 1914, the Western Front battle lines halted several kilometres from the town of Ypres and formed a salient along the German lines. This wealthy Flemish town witnessed five different battles, where soldiers from all corners of the world joined forces to take part in the combat. Today's cycle route will retrace these historic events from Zonnebeke to Langemark Poelkapelle and including Passchendaele. More than 300,000 allied soldiers, 250,000 of them from the Commonwealth, died during these ferocious battles and there are more than 170 cemeteries in the surrounding countryside.
Returning to Ypres, it is really difficult to imagine that this medieval town was almost entirely destroyed at the end of the First World War.Ypres' prosperity really developed during the Middle Ages, when it was known as the 'Craftsman's Textile Capital'. The Tapestry/Textile Market Hall, one of the largest Gothic-style buildings in Europe, was unfortunately destroyed during the German air raids but has been restored to its former glory.
A visit to the museum 'In Flanders Fields' allows visitors to retrace the life of a soldier or a civilian during the war. Ypres also boasts an abundance of fine chocolate producers as well as several delicious local specialties: waffles, Tapjesvlees, Patte de Chat and Cuberdon.
At 8pm at the Menin Gate (la Porte de Menin, or in Dutch 'Menenpoort'), there is event that you shouldn't miss: everyday since 1928, buglers sound the 'Last Post' in memory of the Commonwealth troops.
After enjoying a hearty Flemish breakfast, you head south east, crossing the Flemish countryside until you arrive at the French border town of Warneton. Here you join the Lys canal and follow the original canal towpaths, from where you can watch the canal barges as they transport goods between Paris and Rotterdam. At each lock there is a small town. Take time out to relax at Quesnoy-sur-Deule, a charming border town, or enjoy a cup of tea on a barge cafe at Wambrechies.
You enter the city of Lille (Rijsel in Flemish) by way of the magnificent citadel, a military edifice built by Vauban during the 17th century and aptly named 'Queen of the Citadels'. Your hotel is situated in the heart of the city, in the 'Grand Place'. The old city of Lille, the opera and railway station are within easy walking distance. The fifth largest urban area in France, Lille enjoys a wonderfully rich and influential history. Charles de Gaulle was born here and his birthplace is open to the public. Louis Pasteur also spent a part of his esteemed life in Lille. If time allows, this jewel of the north is surely worth an extra day's stay.
Trip concludes in Lille after breakfast.
The tour was very well designed, allowing a variety of options for WW1 cemetery/memorial visits. To get the most out of the route (which contains far more than what you can fit in each day) it is recommended to do some research before the tour. The Australian, Canadian, British and French memorials were incredibly moving. It was all so interesting! The route was varied across farming areas, small villages and well thought out access into the larger towns and cities. The choice of hotels were excellent (and we appreciated our early bookings ensuring we had great rooms and locations). Just make sure you plan to have food in your panniers, as there were very few places to stop for food out in the countryside! We had a fantastic time, and thoroughly enjoyed exploring this important part of Australia's war history, in Europe, at cycle pace.
Anonymous, Australia, 12 Dec 2016
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