12 July 2009

2006: Historic Countryside

12 July

Early morning is spent finding a petrol station (they were there by the dozen until we left the beaten path), then in the grandeur of the church of St Martin-Arlon, Belgium. It's just a few miles from the border between Belgium and Luxembourg, and my visit there a few years back was one I've been wanting to share since.

While the sunshine was not as brilliant as that day in March, the church itself delivered. With highly-detailed stained glass, especially within the Rose Window over the altar, the grey-marble pulpit, and the burnished-wood confessionals along the north wall, this church is among my five favourites for overall beauty.

The Rose Window is the star of the show. In the centre is a bright red medallion naming God in Hebrew. Surrounding are angels, and on the outer edge are the 12 zodiacal signs, though I am curious why the zodiac was included. Mary, St John the Baptist, the sun and moon complete the window.

The foundation for the church itself was set in 1907, and completed just in time for World War I. It was designed and built in the style of classic Gothic for the end of the 13th century. The octagonal spire and bronze cross tower 300 feet over the neighbourhood, and total square footage pretty closely resembles an American football pitch.

On the road again, we decided that, due to road works on the main highway between Arlon and Brussels, we would try our luck with the slower path through the western edge of the Ardennes, touring past fairytale towns that each have a 20th-century tale to tell regarding humanity. Bastogne, Malmedy, Spa, Houffelize, Esch sur Sûre (displayed here), and hundreds (if not thousands) of others; each story different, yet remarkably similar. It is hard to imagine over one million combatants in this area during the winter of 1944 and the following spring, each killing for its own dogma, causing such destruction and pain, especially with a countryside 62 years later so incredibly beautiful and tranquil... The memorial in Malmedy to the civilians who died when bombed during December 1944 was especially poignant. It posts not only the names of the dead, but their age as well. From enfants barely months old to elders in their nineties, all were swept aside by events beyond ability to change their fate.

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Most of northern France appears to be quite agricultural, which surprised me (and I'm not completely sure why). Corn, wheat, barley, sunflowers, romaine lettuce, you name it, it's grown here. Town after town surrounded by farm and dairy land as far as the eye can see. If it weren't for the signs (and the language), you could persuade yourself you were in Iowa or Nebraska quite easily. Even near Chartres, which is (I'm guessing) less than 60 miles from Paris, you are surrounded by the green of plenty.


Condoms are regularly available in vending machines outside pharmacies (and elsewhere). A good thing, in my not-so-humble opinion. However, public urination for men is either legal or is at least condoned. I thought it was an aberration of my last visit, but no. Some at least attempt to find a tree or large bush, but others just pull over and anchor aweigh. Culture shock; France, Belgium, Holland, there must be something in the water, no pun intended.


French television is a trip to watch. From Spongebob Squarepants ("Bob Lépange") to naked men and women in commercials, you certainly aren't in Kansas anymore. Oh, and to the best of my poor channel-surfing recollection of Bob, he sounds more macho here, too (grin).

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