Butte de Vauquois is one of the best examples of early mine warfare. // © 2016 Keryn Means
Feature image (above): The medieval town of Laon holds many historical WWI sites. // © 2016 Keryn Means
Stomping through war trenches and caves may not be every family’s idea of a summer vacation, but when the trek is in France, and the family is making its way across the Champagne region, parents and children may find they are suddenly more interested in World War I history than they ever were back at home.
As France celebrates the centennial of WWI, the country is pulling out all the stops, along with its American allies at the American Battle Monuments Commission. Live performances are selling out, and WWI cemeteries are getting new visitors centers, exhibits and renovations. Families who love history or have children studying early 20th-century European history (generally middle- and high-school students) will love the hands-on learning that can happen in the trenches, caves, mines and towns that saw so much devastation but returned triumphant at the end of the war.
Setting Up the Journey
Most families will want to start their trip in Paris, spending a few days exploring the major attractions in the City of Light. Parents can then pick up a rental car in town or back at the airport to road trip east to Metz. The actual drive time between the two cities is only about 3.5 hours, but there are so many stops and detours along the way that families can easily spend a week making the journey.
Accommodations will range from chain hotels in the cities to small inns and guesthouses in the countryside, but the four major locations to book are Laon, Reims, Verdun and Metz. Family-friendly chain brands such as Iberostar Hotels & Resorts and Novotel Hotels, Suites & Resorts generally have an in-house restaurant, a pool, activities for kids and spacious family rooms. Best of all, these urban properties are centrally located, making it easy for families to walk to many attractions, so they can save driving time for day trips into the country.
Laon is a medieval hill town with a beautiful cathedral that was used as a hospital during the war, while the citadel was used as a prison for both soldiers and citizens. Less than an hour away from Laon, families can take a tour of the Caverne du Dragon. This former limestone quarry, deep underground, provided shelter for the French and German soldiers who fought on the Chemins des Dames (“the ladies’ path”), along which major battles in the war were fought. Families will be able to see artifacts, learn the history of the quarry and see why this was such an important part of the war.
Eighty percent of the city of Reims was destroyed due to constant shelling by the Germans. The cathedral has great displays for families to visit and get a historic look at life in the city and how it was rebuilt. Outside of Reims, children will love wandering the passageways of La Main de Massiges, a restored trench on a hill that is continually being excavated by volunteers.
Verdun gives families easy access to one of the largest preserved WWI sites in the region at the Verdun battlefield. Two of the best day trips outside of the city include Butte de Vauquois, one of the best examples of early mine warfare, and Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, the largest American graveyard in Europe. Every summer, a reenactment that follows the stories of soldiers from both sides of the war, called “Des Flammes a la Lumiere” (“From Flames to Light”), is performed in an old quarry.
Families can round out their WWI journey in Metz, which is a gateway city into France from the German border and a quick drive to Luxembourg. This city played a more important role in World War II but is still worth a stop for families looking to explore the art scenes of France and Germany. The cathedral has one of the largest collections of stained glass in Europe. Children will love the 45-minute train ride around the city that shows off the art and architecture and includes a historical audio tour in multiple languages.
Parents can stop for champagne tastings as they cruise down the A4 highway on their way back to Paris. Before returning the car and heading home, recommend clients make a pit stop just outside of Chateau-Thierry to see WWI cannons at Bois de Belleau and the Cote 204 monument.
There’s plenty for families to discover during their WWI journey through France — so don’t be surprised if everyone comes back a history buff.