It’s midsummer in Paris and there’s an ominously long line of tourists waiting outside Notre-Dame Cathedral. Things are no better 10 minutes away, at the Louvre, where sightseers slowly shuffle towards the entrance and an eventual encounter with the Mona Lisa.
Gaining admission to the Catacombs, the spooky subterranean cemetery containing the centuries-old remains of 6 million Parisians, means standing in the sweltering July sun for at least two hours, and queuing for the Eiffel Tower requires Zen-like levels of patience.
We could have paid for “skip-the-line” tickets but I’ve been to the French capital before, and Sam, my 13-year-old son, isn’t fussed about seeing the iconic attractions. His idea of bucket-list bliss is playing soccer with some local lads in the Jardin des Tuileries.
We walk the length of the Champs-Élysées, marvel at the Arc de Triomphe and watch as workmen install a grandstand in readiness for the final stage of the Tour de France. I get chatting to a doorman at the flagship Louis Vuitton store who reckons at least half the customers are now Chinese. Judging by the crowds milling outside, perhaps the French fashion house should start offering skip-the-line tickets as well.
To escape the glitz, glamour and designer handbag-related hubbub, we hop on the metro to peaceful Père Lachaise Cemetery and track down the graves of Oscar Wilde, Frédéric Chopin and Jim Morrison. In fact, it’s Sam’s interest in cemeteries that has shaped our holiday itinerary. After studying the first world war at school, he asked if we could visit the battlefields of northern France and Belgium.
Not surprisingly, soccer was at the root of his request. In a field near the Belgian city of Comines-Warneton, we stumble upon the Christmas Truce memorial, which marks the spot where, on the evening of December 24, 1914, German and British soldiers came out of their trenches, exchanged festive greetings and cigarettes, sang carols and played a game of football on the frosty ground.
Soldiers from both sides cleared no man’s land of the dead and held joint burial services. All too soon, they were ordered back into their ratholes and were firing at each other again the following day. You would be hard-pushed to find a better example of the absurdity of war.
We are travelling at the height of northern Europe’s longest, hottest heatwave in recent memory and it’s difficult to imagine the mud, blood and horror that defined the Battle of the Somme (July-November 1916). Tractors have long since replaced tanks and farmland has replaced futility but in this corner of France, no one ever forgets. We stop at cemetery after cemetery, pondering the colossal waste of life that ended 100 ago this November.
One positive outcome of visiting so many memorials to the fallen is that each time something even mildly irritating occurs – getting stuck behind a slow-moving tractor, say, or checking into a hotel room without air conditioning – Sam points out that compared to the young men who suffered here a century ago, we haven’t really got much to complain about. Good point, son.
Young men were also suffering hereabouts a couple of decades later, in 1940. At the end of May that year, hundreds of thousands of Allied servicemen were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk by the advancing German army. Many were rescued in what turned out to be a pivotal moment in the second world war. Having recently watched the 2017 blockbuster Dunkirk , we busy ourselves visualising what happened and where. The sea is tempting in the afternoon heat but neither of us fancies swimming in waters where so many perished.
Sam’s school history lessons on “the war to end all wars”, and the one that followed, might have captured his imagination but sometimes it’s more fun to go kayaking. The River Somme flows languidly through the gently rolling countryside of Picardy and a dense forest canopy means we are able to paddle downstream for a couple of hours without getting sunburned. Back at the aquatic centre, Sam spots a leaflet for D-Day Paintball, but I pull rank. We’ve had enough military-themed activities for one holiday.
“Today is the hottest day in Ghent since 2009,” announces a perspiring hotel receptionist, handing over the key to an attic room with neither air conditioning nor a fan.
First-world problems,” Sam reminds me.
The Belgian port city is at its most seductive at dusk, when the medieval cathedrals, guild houses and fairy-tale castle are reflected in the Leie River. Ghent might not be quite as beautiful as the tourist honeypot of Bruges, but I’ve always had a soft spot for diamonds in the rough. We make the most of the relaxed Flemish ambience as our final destination is likely to be rather more hectic.
Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, is home to 850,000 mostly fair-minded, tolerant people, but after welcoming (if that’s the right word) about 18 million visitors in 2017, some residents aren’t as easy-going as they used to be.
Struggling to cope with the onslaught of sightseers, host communities across Europe are adopting controversial methods of protest. In Barcelona, “tourists go home” graffiti has been daubed on walls, and in Venice, angry citizens have swum out to block cruise ships from entering the port. Amsterdammers have their bicycles.
Newly arrived foreigners stream out of Amsterdam Central Station like lambs to the slaughter. Unfamiliar with the rules of the road (or bike lane), the unsuspecting tourists are preyed upon by grumpy local cyclists who ride straight into them or, if they are feeling charitable, brake at the last minute and deliver a volley of expletives. Things can get very unpleasant but I’d like to think that on Christmas Day, the feuding parties come together for a few hours to exchange festive greetings and cigarettes, sing carols and play a game of football.
Amsterdam’s compact city centre combines sophistication with sleaze. Gabled merchant houses, stylish cafes and canal-side restaurants draw the daytime crowds while boisterous bars, throbbing clubs and coffee shops with names such as Grasshopper and Resin suggest overindulgent stag parties enlivened by alcohol poisoning and “how-did-I-end-up-with-this?” tattoos.
All that anyone could possibly require for a debauched weekend in the Dutch capital can be found within staggering distance of the Magic Mushroom Gallery (“Please note that we DO NOT SELL ILLEGAL PRODUCTS”). A cannabis seed and accessories store is two minutes from the red light district, which is conveniently close to a clinic and a Catholic church.
And therein lies Amsterdam’s problem, at least from a tourism (if not a party animal’s) perspective. Everything is concentrated in the photogenic but heavily congested downtown area. Fortunately, the authorities have recognised the need to manage the peak-season crowds. Plans are afoot to move the cruise-ship terminal out of the city centre and create new attractions aimed at drawing visitors away from A-list sights such as the Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank House.
While the tourist hordes are busy overwhelming the city, Amsterdammers wisely head to the coast, and since Sam has no interest in looking at “old buildings”, we decide to join them. After a refreshing dip at Castricum Beach, we ride rented bikes along a series of sandy cycle paths, knocking over a few dawdling Dutch pedestrians on the way.
Sometimes you’ve got to get your own back.