“Be warned: Dead men tell no tales!” exclaims the blurb for Pirates of the Caribbean, one of Paris Disneyland’s theme attractions. Personally, I’d rather walk the plank than endure processions of prancing cartoon characters. But the Seine-et-Marne departement has more than infantile jollities to tempt you outside of Paris for a day.
Thirty-five minutes by train from Gare de l’Est, Meaux is a market town on the Marne river.
Given the proximity to Paris, property prices are less than you might expect. In Meaux and nearby villages, 120,000 euro – 250,000 euro ($151,000 – $315,000) delivers plenty of individual houses, some spacious enough for a small B&B. For example, 209,000 euro ($263,000) buys a restored, 1,400-square-foot stone house with a garden and small swimming pool in a village 20 minutes drive from Meaux.
Although only nine miles from Disneyland, culturally it could be 9,000 miles away. Here the dead do tell tales.
On the outward journey, I wasn’t picturing barbed wire trenches and armies marching to war. Dotted with farms, rivers and woodland, the Ile-de-France countryside is pastorally tranquil. It’s beyond comprehension that this was once a human abattoir.
Despite growing up in the UK with Armistice Day’s remembrance poppies, World War I always seemed so distant. It belonged in history lessons, novels-turned-movies, poems by melancholy-looking English officers. The carnage of 1914-1918 never really struck home until Meaux.
The town is home to the Musée de la Grande Guerre—the Museum of the Great War which opened last November. At its heart is a collection of 50,000 WWI artifacts and memorabilia. Even if military history isn’t a passion, it’s easy to lose half a day.
Most galleries and exhibits carry English translations. There’s a multi-sensory recreation of a battlefield with trenches and no man’s land, but it’s as much an insight into the era’s social conditions and the everyday life and amusements of the poilus. During WWI, France nicknamed its soldiers poilus—meaning the hairy ones.
Memories of Meaux: A Painful Past
On paper, the stark figure of 9 million dead and 21 million wounded is almost incomprehensible. But seeing personal possessions is like a punch in the guts. For me, what struck the heaviest blows were the trench art, the primitive prosthetic limbs and little things like a soldier’s wallet containing a photograph of his sweetheart. Did she mourn for a year or forever? Did she herself survive? This is not war as celebration, far from it.
Two key battles raged on Meaux’s doorstep in both 1914 and 1918. An immaculate vintage taxi cab seems an odd exhibit for a war museum, but during the first Battle of the Marne, 600 Parisian taxicabs were commandeered to bring French infantry troops to the front. I didn’t know about mobile pigeon lofts either—special trucks used to transport carrier pigeons. The museum also has a recreation of an American camp. Over 85,000 American soldiers fought in the Second Battle of the Marne. At least 12,000 never went home.
Including the French themselves, “remembrance tourism” attracts around 20 million visitors to the country’s war cemeteries and battle sites. As the centennial of World War I’s beginning approaches, visitor numbers are expected to increase even more. With its showpiece museum, Meaux will be firmly on the map.
Even without the new museum, Meaux is worth visiting to get the feel for a French provincial town. With the remains of Roman rampart walls, the Episcopal palace gardens and some medieval half-timbered houses, the most photogenic quarter is around St Etienne’s cathedral. If you’re into sculptures and gargoyles, it comes with plenty of “stone devils piercing the clouds.” On a Saturday, cross the river into the market quarter. Local food specialties include Brie de Meaux cheese and mustard.
Editor’s note: If you’re interested in discovering more about alluring France, you’ll find plenty in the issues of International Living magazine.