Feting French heroes, known and unknown

Of the many delights of living in Paris is the ability to enjoy history, art and culture, thanks to the city’s outstanding museums. The Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and the Centre Georges Pompidou are some of the world’s most popular museums located in the French capital.

But there are others like Musée Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Musée de Cluny and Musée des Arts et Metiers that also leave visitors spellbound. That museums in Paris and other big cities preserve and present history in a captivating manner is not unexpected. But what is surprising is that the same ethos can be found in museums located in places that are not frequented by tourists very often.

On a recent, week-long road trip from Paris to the French Alps, this writer encountered two such museums, in Verdun and Arbois. When you think of the First World War, one of the names that automatically come to mind is the Battle of Verdun. The 10-month-long battle (February to December 1916) claimed more than 3,00,000 lives from both the French and the German sides. A museum inside a subterranean structure in Verdun brings some of the events related to the battle to life. The Citadelle Souterraine, where the museum is located, provided critical logistical support to the French forces during the battle. Located just a few kilometres from the front, this fortified structure housed an ammunition depot, a bakery, an infirmary and dormitories for soldiers.

A self-driven, six-seater wagon takes visitors to these places where one can still see beds, furnaces and medical kits. As the wagon passes through a maze of dark tunnels inside the citadel, sound effects, photographs, archival videos and holographic reconstructions displayed on walls bring to life the events that took place in and around the citadel more than a century ago.

One of the most moving moments of the 35-minute ride is watching the reconstruction of the story of the Unknown Soldier memorial. It was in this citadel in November 1920 that a corporal named Auguste Thien was asked to place a bunch of flowers on one of the eight coffins of the unknown soldiers, who died for France in the First World War.

Thien placed the flowers on the sixth coffin. The remains from this coffin were laid to rest in January 1921 at the base of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Since 1923, a flame next to the memorial of the Unknown Soldier has been kept burning.

Land of yellow wine

The next stop of the road trip was a camping site in the Jura mountains, near the Swiss border. On our way to the site, we stopped at Arbois, a region known for yellow wine and is also called
le pays de Pasteur
(the land of Pasteur). The great French scientist Louis Pasteur spent his early years there and kept returning to his house in the city throughout his life. The house has been turned into a museum. Normally, one would be content to just stroll through, observe the objects and read the information related to them. But to make the experience more interesting, visitors are provided with iPads and headphones.

This voice is of Pasteur’s ‘nephew’, who, besides acting as a guide, also narrates interesting anecdotes about his famous uncle, like the latter’s passion for billiards.

The highlight of the tour is a visit to Pasteur’s laboratory. The lab contains microscopes, flasks, test tubes, etc. that Pasteur used. There is also a pen, his handwritten notes and a really worn-out bicycle. When you leave the museum, you think that you know Pasteur like a friend.

Museums across France, be it in big cities like Paris or small towns like Verdun and Arbois which are not frequented by tourists, preserve and present history in a captivating manner

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