This daylog is part of a series of four detailing my recent holiday. The preceding two were accidentally posted with 'don't display' checked, but should nevertheless be read first. Start Thou Here.

Today, we planned to visit Verdun, site of a terrible battle in 1916-17. We set off at leisurely pace up the valley of the Meuse from our hotel at Sedan. On the way, we decided to visit a medieval church at Avioth, in the hills close to the Belgian border. On the way there, we passed through a little town called Mouzon, not far from where we'd started, where, as we turned a corner in the winding main street, we discovered a huge abbey church with a pair of steepled west towers. I did my best to photograph this, but the height of the spires and the narrowness of the street made it practically impossible. The inside of the church was equally impressive, with a baldachino over the altar which, despite its classical design, matched the gothic surroundings very well. Apsidal chapels let on to an ambulatory aisle, and there was a requiem chapel (which we couldn't get access to) on an upper level, leading off a second ambulatory.

Avioth church was somewhat less well-kept than Mouzon, but fascinating nonetheless. Avioth is high up in the hills of the eastern Ardennes, about a thousand feet above sea level, and it was cold and wet when we arrived. We rushed into the church to get out of the weather, and so we didn't really look at the external architecture until later. Inside, there were a number of remarkable things to see. The church was originally established as a shrine to Notre Dame d'Avioth, as represented by the medieval statue of that name, which sat on a stone reliquary or sacrament house to the left of the altar. (There was also a better sacrament house on the right-hand side of the altar, presumably still used to hold the consecrated bread.) According to the Michelin Green Guide, the statue of Notre Dame d'Avioth is made of lime and dates from the middle ages. What I saw didn't appear to fit that description. I may simply be a lousy judge of statuary, but I'd guess that the chipped-looking effigy I was looking at was a 19th-century replica in lacquered wood. Judgement on this point was not helped by the tasteless modern dress adorning the statue. My own guess is that the original is housed inside the left-hand sacrament house. This would require it to be about half the height of the one displayed, and it would thus be able to sit on the empty stone throne about a span and a half wide which is fixed to the screen beside the present statue's seat. Many marble plaques surround the reliquary, thanking Our Lady of Avioth for various miracles. A set of polychrome saints look down from plinths at the clerestory level, and traces of wall-painting can be seen in many places. Just in front of the painted wooden pulpit stands an Ecce Homo in which Jesus is dressed as he usually is in such depictions - loincloth and crown of thorns - but Pontius Pilate appears clothed as a high-ranking courtier of the Holy Roman Empire. This piece is a reminder that at one time, Avioth and much of the surrounding area were not in France, but part of the Spanish, later Austrian, Netherlands.

Another such reminder could be seen at our next port of call, the fortified town of Montmédy, just south of Avioth on the way to Verdun, which was originally defended by the Spanish. The fortifications were later reinforced by the great French engineer Vauban, and (as in many of the towns he worked on) there's a little café there called 'le Vauban'. We had lunch there, and looked into the church. The church and many of the houses in the fortified section of the town, were not in a good state of repair, but the church was full of artists, sketching various views of the interior. As there were still heavy showers at this point, we declined to walk around the ramparts, but instead pressed on to Verdun at last.

Verdun is in the upper valley of the Meuse, and as our previous two stops had not been, we found ourselves descending rapidly as we crossed the battlefield which lies to the north of the town. We passed, but did not investigate, the sites of several villages obliterated by the fighting of 1916 and never rebuilt. All around the city there were signs to the graveyards of the French, German and American soliders who died in over a year of combat. Verdun is in many ways to the French as the Somme is to the British: the major killing-field of the First World War. (I know there are still others.) Hundreds of thousands of men died in a few square miles of now-tranquil countryside. The speed of the advances made by each army was heartbreakingly slow. In a few minutes, we drove through territory that had taken the German forces weeks to capture, and French forces a year to liberate. The town itself was never captured, although the German army came very close to it in the summer of 1916, and almost cut it off. The only access was by a road to the south-west that came to be known as the Voie Sacrée - the Sacred Way. Whereas British cities ruined during the Second World War, such as Coventry, have been mainly rebuilt in a modern style, Verdun (and other places in France heavily shelled in one or both world wars) has been reconstructed in a style pretty much as it would have been previously.

The exception to this is the cathedral, which actually regressed in style. The shelling revealed a Romanesque crypt and south door, closed up after a great fire in the eighteenth century, when a lot of the present classical ornamentation was put in. The crypt has been rebuilt with central columns whose capitals depict, amongst other things, scenes and objects from the Great War. Also in the cathedral was a display about the life of St Theresa of Lisieux, about whom I previously knew virtually nothing. Since the previous day I had been wondering who was depicted in church statues, very popular in the region, showing a brown-robed nun holding a cross and a garland of white flowers. The display indicated that it was intended to be this saint, also known as St Theresa of the Child Jesus. What was strange to me was that although there are perfectly good photographs of her, none of the statues I had seen - including the one at Verdun itself - looked anything like her.

After the cathedral, we briefly visited the archbishop's palace, which now houses a public library and a centre for world peace. Then we moved on to the underground citadel, home to an exhibition about the defence of the city during the war. As at Reims the day before, the tour was by means of an electric 'gondola' car. The light and sound shows were spectacular, with an eerie 3-D effect in the (acted) movies depicting characters from the war. The whole place was heartbreaking, and I found myself wondering why anyone fights wars. Outside in the open air again, we noticed a plaque on the wall of the citadel marking the site of the city's Gestapo office. A little way beyond, a wall was plastered with Jean-Marie le Pen posters proclaiming 'France for the French!'

Back to the hotel, up the Meuse valley. On the way, we passed a lovely, if slightly delapidated, church in the style more characteristic of the Rhine valley, and stopped for a panoramic view over the alluvial plain of the middle valley of the Meuse. Then we returned to our hotel for the last dinner of the holiday, which, dispiritingly, was the same menu as the previous night.