It was a long day today, with seemingly endless travel.
After having worked out all my hotel/travel needs last night though, things were looking up.
We got up and had the included breakfast down at the hotel dining area. It was the usual croissants, bread, cereal and juice. A decent breakfast to get you going in the morning. We carried all our carefully repacked suitcases and bags down to the car and we were off by about 0930. A bit late, but we didn’t have very far to go this time. Amiens on a Sunday was dead calm, as I suppose are most cities at 0930 on a Sunday. I’m just not normally up to see it.
The GPS gave us a choice of Toll or no Toll again on our way to Vimy, and the difference was only about 5 minutes and it was 25 km shorter. Excellent. Sure, it meant more small roads, but that’s the opportunity to see more of France before we leave. It was a nice drive and the weather was good. Go figure. After 3 weeks of rain/clouds/sun the weather seems to finally turn the corner as we are leaving.
We arrived at Vimy around 1015. The signage made me feel like we were back home in Canada, they were all the style used by our military. Dark green with white lettering and white border. The site, it appears is one giant field of unexploded ordinance – nice. The first thing we came upon was "the trenches". The trenches had been excavated from the original trenches that had been built in 1917. They were now lined with cement shaped like sandbags. I was surprised how deep some of the trenches were. It seemed that if you were to have to climb out or jump in, it was a long way either way. Perhaps those parts were designed to allow soldiers to move like a corridor rather than in a defensive or offensive way. It was interesting to read about the elaborate network that had been built and the dangers of simply moving within the trenches. Runners, messengers, would be a common target of opposition snipers as killing them meant disrupting communications between the command in the back and the soldiers up front. There is a centre which explains about the battle for Vimy ridge in the overall scenario of WWI as well as the roll played by Canada. It was a decisive battle for Canada as part of a great offensive to turn the tide of the war. We lost many, many men during the battle, and the Germans totalled 20,000 casualties.
It was a short drive from the trenches to the memorial which had been built to honour and remember Canadian efforts and sacrifices during the battle for Vimy and other places during WWI. The memorial was huge. It stands 10 storeys tall and is two tall columns made of white granite and topped with figures, looking to me as if it were heaven reaching down to help the soldiers. The "front" which seems to actually be the back, is the are from which you approach the monument. I think a bit of redesign on the parking lot and paths would go a long way toward having you approach the monument from the slope below seeing the weeping woman in the front and the memorial for lost soldiers at the base, rather than coming across it if you walk around. When I saw the monument standing out against the dark clouds in the background it made me pause and again imagine those trenches, German and Allied, that lined the ridge and were the only shelter these men had when rain, artillery and bullets came down upon them. For a young Canada’s international contribution to a war, it was certainly a place to leave our mark.
Interesting side note: The government of Canada has cordoned off many acres of the fields of Vimy ridge due to the massive amounts of unexploded bombs and artillery. In order to keep some semblance of trimming to the area they have brought in sheep to help control the grass and wildflower growing. There are hundreds of sheep grazing in the danger zone. When I came up to the interpreter at the memorial I had to ask her, "Apparently the sheep are expendable. Has one ever blown up?"
Her answer surprised me, "You know, that’s probably the most common question that is asked of me. No, one never has, but I wish one would while I was around so I could finally answer with Yes."
We moved on by 1145 and were on our last leg of our time in France. We were headed for Calais. Of course you can’t get there without shelling out about another 10 euros. I think the drive through France cost about 50 euros in tolls by the time we got out! As we were approaching Calais I noticed that our fuel was getting low and Mrs D suggested we stop at one of the service centres along the autoroute for gas. I told her that if we did that, we’d have to fill up again in Calais anyway so I was going to wait and fill in Calais.
As we approached Calais, my low fuel light came on. No problem. The vehicle estimated that I had about 85km left in the tank and Calais was only about 60. We continued to follow the GPS and the signs for the Ferry terminal. As we got to the edge of the city it became apparent that the distance remaining in the tank was decreasing more rapidly than hoped. I had to find a gas station. SOON. We took the first exit off the autoroute and started looking for gas stations. I plugged "petrol station" into the GPS. 1km away. Perfect. We followed Tom Tom as it carefully and methodically took us to a gas station. All automated. Excellent. I pulled up and put my card in. It spit it out. I put my card in another way. It spit it out again. It would seem that I needed a chipped card, which apparently all Europeans have, and very few of us in North America do :( No problem. We punch in the next closest station and head off. As we approach the location we soon realize that there USED to be a gas station here. Ugh. We anxiously plug in the NEXT gas station. It’s Sunday – closed. The one after: closed. Turns out that Sunday is very much a "Day of Rest" in Calais. Uh Oh! I’m starting to get the "I told you so" from Mrs D, and the car pings loudly at me with a "WARNING". I am running REALLY low. One more try. This one is open and staffed. Thank God. The car laps up a happy 60 euros of gas and is full. Phew. With that little crisis avoided we head off to the ferry.
We arrive at the ferry area and I’m a little concerned that there isn’t quite the signage I had hoped for. We do manage to not end up in the car lanes though and I find my way to the parking lot. There is a small building that is advertising tickets for the P&O ferry. Perfect. I park near it and go in and ask to buy a ticket. "I’d like two tickets for the next sailing please – foot passengers" Not so easy. This was the little booth where you buy tickets for CAR traffic. Foot passengers would have to buy them in the building at the end. I asked about a Hertz counter and he mentioned that they were in the same building. OK, off we went. We got down to the end of the parking lot and it was pretty busy (and big). In my mind I kept replaying what the Hertz lady had said to me the night before "Just leave the car in the lot". Did she mean THIS lot? It was huge, what if they never found my car? What if they took another day to find it? Would I be billed? I circled around until I found a fairly close spot. We carefully made sure that we removed EVERYTHING we had from the car. Double checked. Good. I locked the car and said goodbye to our trusty little Punto that had taken us so many kilometres through 4 different countries. We were now foot travellers. Dragging our suitcases and shouldering our backpacks and camera bags we headed for the ferry building. We found the Hertz counter and the little after hours key drop. Mrs D photoed me dropping off the key for proof because neither of us really had much confidence that they would find the car.
We still had to buy our tickets. Not far from where we had dropped the key was the ticket booth. We asked for the price. 40.60 euros for two people. We had just enough in euros with about 40 euro cents to spare. Perfect. our euro budget was excellent. We had to hurry. The ferry was a 1400 ferry and it was already 1340. We whisked over through the doors and were met by British Customs and Immigration. We filled out the little forms and had missed a field. The grumpy guy at the counter made sure we got it all right. 3 weeks of travelling and only one grumpy person. Not bad.
After doing the customs thing, next stop was a little waiting room. From there, they shuttled you via a bus to the ferry. The ferry docks were HUGE and there was an immense amount of traffic, both passenger and freight. What a operation. It puts our little BC ferry operation to shame. We were deposited at the foot of the ferry. Our next task was to get on. This meant winding your way up about 4 storeys to the entrance via an interminably switchbacked covered gangplank to get on. Whew. We were already tired of being foot passengers. We found a spot at the front of the boat and settled in. Not long after, the boat was on its way. Turns out that it was a good thing we caught this boat as the 1500 sailing is a Dangerous Goods sailing so the next passenger ferry wouldn’t have been until 1600.
The boat is huge. There are many amenities on the ship as well as a full bar and duty free. Strange. The trip was only going to be 90 minutes. It seemed to be over amenitized for such a short trip. Mrs D had a bit of a rest while I went out to explore the outside and shoot the white cliffs of Dover as we approached. I had the added bonus of getting some good shots of a herring gull that would sail along right next to us on the breeze and zip over and grab food from passengers that were all too happy to feed it. Fun.
1430 UK time, we landed and proceeded to reverse the gangplank thing. Down is WAY easier than up. As foot passengers we emptied into a largely empty receiving terminal at Dover. It was strange, very few people travel without a vehicle on this crossing. From the terminal we took a shuttle to the Dover Priory train station. I was glad we took the shuttle. Internet commentary had said the station was within walking distance, but then again anything is if you’re willing to walk for enough hours.
The train ride to London was uneventful. It filled up quite a bit and we felt a bit awkward taking up 4 seats with our luggage etc, but hey… there’s only so much you can do with it all 🙂
We had elected to transfer to the Picadilly line at Victoria Station. I don’t know how I missed this zoo of activity previously in London. Oh my God! People bustling every which way, a gazillion STEPS to haul luggage up and down. We managed to find our way to get a tube ticket. Tickets purchased, we hauled our luggage up and down MORE steps and then packed ourselves onto a fairly busy tube. It was surprising really – 1600 on a Sunday and the station was just teeming with life. I can’t imagine what it would be like at rush hour. Oy Vey!
Our journey almost complete, we stood for most of the ride on the tube out to Heathrow. It’s a 1 hour ride on the underground. Wow. Surprisingly long ride. We were almost there… you could almost feel it.
Now the choice was to take the 4 pounds/person "Hoppa Bus" or the free city bus. Tough choice, but I managed to make it. We were going free :) With that litle 4 minute ride completed we were FINALLY at the hotel. Total travel time from dropping off our car: 6 hours. Ugh. We checked in at the Holiday Inn, Heathrow and had a nice, albeit expensive dinner. It was a buffet, but the servers around the room were incredibly attentive and made sure that our plates were cleared ASAP and our water glasses kept full. Nice place. We stayed for 45 pounds. Nice price.
This would be our last real day of vacation. Tomorrow we’re leaving back to North America.