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U.S. Colonel Christopher Miller surveys war-caused ruins in Montfaucon-d'Argonne, in the Lorraine region of France. (Photograph by Kris Davidson)

Insider’s Guide to the Western Front

A hundred years after the start of World War I, northeastern France is in the spotlight, providing a beautiful backdrop to experience in person the horror and heroism of the Great War.

You’ll need a car to fully explore the rural WWI sites in Lorraine, the epicenter of Western Front centenary observances. Americans especially can expect a warm welcome, since most locals who live along the western front today still feel a deep gratitude to the U.S. soldiers who fought and died there.

Here’s a brief guide to planning your visit:

> WWI Centenary

  • Special events commemorating the Great War are planned throughout France this year and next, including the 2014 Tour de France route (July 5-27), which will run through many frontline cities, including Verdun. The Centenary Mission website is the clearinghouse for all official French and local government-sponsored events.
  • In Verdun, the sound-and-light extravaganza From Flames to Light takes place in an abandoned quarry daily from mid-June to the end of July every year (English headsets available). 
  • Jean-Paul de Vries leads chatty tours (with stops in local cafés) covering the now bucolic American battlefields in the Argonne Forest area, such as the Sergeant York trail

> Where to Stay

  • A turreted manor anchoring a 35-acre park, the Château des Monthairons (from $135) is a 25-room, family-owned hotel. The on-site restaurant turns out classic French meals in the intimate, parquet-floored dining room.
  • Within walking distance of the American Cemetery in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, cozy B&B Villa Nantrisé (from $80) features self-serve wine and beer, heated towel racks, and hearty Scandinavia-meets-France breakfasts. 

> What to Read

  • Edward G. Lengel’s To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 (2008) does a masterful job recounting the greatest battle the U.S. military had conducted up to that point. Compelling individual stories highlight participants from generals to doughboys.
  • All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), by Erich Maria Remarque, is the definitive war novel to date. The young German protagonist reflects the thoughts of a generation of Great War soldiers.

> Regional Travel Trivia

  • Seventy percent of France’s best Brie cheese, the milky Brie de Meaux, is made in the Meuse area.
  • Lorraine native son Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, along with a French military officer, made the first untethered ascent in a hot-air balloon, in 1783. 
  • With its dense forests, Meuse is the only place in France where boar hunting is on the rise.

This piece, written by Ceil Miller Bouchet, first appeared in Traveler magazine’s May 2014 issue. Bouchet is a travel/wine writer and the author of a forthcoming memoir, The Bordeaux Diaries. Follow her on Twitter@CeilBouchet.

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