Am delighted to discover I’m staying near one of the Camino routes. The one that starts in Geneva and passes through Abbey de st Antoine (he of St Anthony’s Fire fame) i have even seen the Camino scallop signs that instantly brought back a rush of memories Now who would be stupid enough to walk all the way from Geneva to Santiago……….?
I was going to write a little blog on how French shops are almost always closed but after what I’ve seen tonight that feels a little trivial.
Expanding on a theme from the other day I’d invite you to think about the village of Vassieux-en-Vercors the next time someone refers to the French as “cheese eating surrender monkeys”
As I mentioned it was the centre of French resistance, the high plateau and the Vercors mountains being an ideal place for a guerilla force to hang out.
The French Govnt in exile backed a plan by one of the resistance leaders-The Montagnards plan- which would have seen Allied troops landed on the Vercors massif after D Day and then cutting off the Germans lines of retreat
For reasons that I’m not clear about (Though some blame de gaulle) the plan was never executed but after D Day the ranks of the Maquis resistance fighters massing in these mountains grew and grew
Allied planes dropped supplies although the heavy weapons required by the Maquis never arrived.
By July 1944 the Germans had decided to put a stop to this show of resistance.
Vassieux and other towns were bombed. And on July 20 SS paratroops (backed it must be said by collaborating French militia) landed in gliders on the plateau outside Vassieux
Other German troops and police sealed off the area and for 3 days fighting raged. Vassieux was left in ruins There are pictures of bodies lying in the streets
Around 80 civilians were killed and 130 fighters. Reports speak of torture and massacre”
We drove up the mountains tonight to see the place. Even before you get to Vassieux there is a memorial in the middle if nowhere to men killed by the Germans in the tiny villlage of Lente
But it’s the cemetery on the outskirts of Vassieux which is the most moving. The resting place of almost 800 victims of German reprisals I saw the grave of a six month old baby. And one of an 88 year old man
Many had no name…I’m guessing these were strangers who came here from other pars of France to fight
They also have the metal frames of the gliders that brought death from the skies. Quite chilling.
So next time someone makes a crack about how easily France fell..just mention the town of Vassieux
Of course when I said Vercors was in the south west I obviously meant south east. Obviously.
Well I must say this has been a very pleasant surprise.
For someone whose favourite Shakespeare play is Henry V (“naked infants spitted upon pikes”) and whose cinematic references are limited to John Cleese’s “outrageous French accent” in Holy Grail – the reality has been a revelation
The woman at the Boulangerie (whoever thought o level French would come in useful? ) smiled at my attempts to communicate and genuinely seemed to understand me.
All I need is my aunt to visit, lose her pen in a Cafe and I’m laughing.
And every bar owner I’ve met has been helpful. Even giving me free samples. Though I suspect they are playing the long game, knowing their generosity will be repaid tenfold. Or more
We’re in Vercors. I keep calling it a national park but think it might be a
Park Naturel. Which I think may mean something else
No I’ve never heard if it either but it lies in the south west, about 100
Km from Lyon
The Vercors massif towers above us here in the town of St Jean en Royans. It’s a very popular cycling destination
Yesterday as we pottered around on out hybrid bikes a veritable peleton of aged Frenchman came racing by. Not one of them under the age of 70. And all of them refusing to kow tow to modern day health and safety etiquette, instead preferring to wear those 1960s racing cloth caps with the little brim turned up. Like that bloke out of Cheap Trick.
So it’s beautiful here. Limestone gorges, rivers, mountains, little villages with be-fountained main squares
But it wasn’t always like this.
As a WW2 geek I was astounded to learn this area was a centre of French resistance. The Maquis were based here and after D Day thousands if Frenchmen took to the Mountains and proclaimed a free republic
They may have calculated that the Germans had other things on their mind further North
If they did then they were sadly mistaken. After The Allies dropped weapons and equipment onto the mountains the Germans decided enough was enough
They landed SS paratroopers and with help if Ukrainian troops they brutally crushed the resistance
A mile from here at a cross roads is a memorial to a local Gendarme murdered by the Germans.
In the town centre is a memorial to around 15 people killed in some sort of bombardment.
In the town of Vassieux most of the residents were massacred and the place razed to the ground.
So a beautiful retreat without doubt.
But a place where these hills hide some terrible memories