Monday, May 19, 2014

Postcard from...Canterbury, England

To me there is just something so pretty about vines and trees against a backdrop of stones, especially old irregular shaped stones like most of the ones in this photo so when we found these stone walls behind Canterbury Cathedral I just had to stop and take pictures from all angles.

Canterbury is a historic English cathedral city and UNESCO World Heritage site that is consistently one of the most visited towns in the United Kingdom. At the heart of the city is Canterbury Cathedral that is well known for several reasons especially as the site of Thomas Becket's murder in 1170 right in the cathedral by the followers of King Henry II. Since then the cathedral has become a place of pilgrimage for Christians all over the world. This pilgrimage is the theme for the classic The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer from the 14th century.

There is just so much history in this little town that it is definitely worth a visit and you have to leave yourself plenty of time to just stroll through the narrow little streets, have lunch in a local pub (bangers and mash...yum!), and browse the little shops.

For those of you that visit regularly I just wanted to let you know that I'll be taking a break for a few weeks. I've got some traveling coming up and will be getting ready for both of those trips in the next week or so. When I return I'll pick back up with the next part of our wonderful trip to Normandy and Ypres and after that I'll be blogging about a completely different part of the globe as we take a cruise to the Caribbean. 

Until then, happy travels and I'll be back in a few weeks!

Photo taken August 2, 2013

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Exploring Normandy and Ypres: Battle Plan Day 3 {Part 1}

Actual Date of Event: March 12, 2014

In my post from Thursday we left off with a wonderful little picnic to end our day after visiting Point du Hoc, Omaha Beach, and the Normandy American Military Cemetery.

Our foggy walk to breakfast at our hotel
On the third day of our trip we awoke to another foggy morning and headed out to Bayeux to visit a few sites. The first stop on our itinerary was the Bayeux War Cemetery which is the resting place of over 4,000 fallen Commonwealth soldiers. To learn a little more about this cemetery and view my photos please visit my post from a few weeks ago about the WWII Commonwealth War Cemeteries.

After visiting the cemetery it was time for us to step waaaay back in time to see a cathedral that dates back to the 11th century- the Bayeux Cathedral.

Before being able to wander off to the cathedral we had to first find some parking on the narrow little streets of Bayeux and this is where, once again (in my experience anyway), the stereotype that French people are rude was proven absolutely UNtrue. We figured we had to pay for the parking but couldn't find where to actually put our money in a meter so I popped into a little shop to ask for assistance. This very sweet lady came out from the back of her store and with a big friendly smile gave me all the information we needed to find the meter and what to do with the parking permit once we got it from the machine- and she did so without even raising an eyebrow or looking at me confused (at my far less than perfect French) when I spoke to her.  And then she wished us a good day and off we went. I really can not say enough that every time I've needed help in France (and there have been a good many times I'm afraid) everyone has just been so helpful. I have had restaurants let me in early to feed me when they hadn't opened for their evening meal yet, a man who used his credit card to pay for gas for my car when the pump wouldn't accept my card (I did give him cash), and one guy that even moved the car for me when I couldn't get the darn thing out from between two boulders I had parked it between ...and he could have drove away with the car and stolen it if he'd wanted to! Yes kind French folks have certainly helped me out of some pickles. But I digress... back to Bayeux Cathedral.

The entrance to Bayeux Cathedral
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Bayeux dates back to the days of William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings and it is stunning! It is a combination of a Romanesque style in the the 11th century crypt and Gothic style in the 13th century nave. It was consecrated in 1077 in the presence of William the Conqueror which when you stop and think about it is pretty awesome-we were actually walking in the footsteps of the man who was Duke of Normandy and King of England! So darn cool.

Inside is even more beautiful than outside, if that's possible

The cathedral was also once the home, from the 11th to 18th centuries, of the Bayeux Tapestry which was probably displayed for the first time on the day the cathedral was consecrated. Also there are sculpted scenes here showing the life of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was assassinated in Canterbury by the order of King Henry II of England.

Details from the front of the cathedral - some so intricate and all so much work
When you travel in Europe always look up....ceilings are works of art in themselves.

More of the details inside the cathedral.
After touring all around the Cathedral we made our way along the narrow pretty streets of the town until we heard rushing water and there, out of nowhere, was the little water wheel I had seen in pictures before visiting but didn't know if we'd find. What a treat!

I thought one of the nicest touches were the poppies in the window boxes. Aren't they pretty?

I probably could have stayed and taken photos of this building at every angle for the rest of the morning but we were also on our way to see the Bayeux Tapestry in the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux. When we arrived they were going to close shortly (for lunch I think?) but fortunately for us they said we would have enough time to see the tapestry if that was good and since that's really what we came for we decided it would be all right to miss out on the rest of the museum. Maybe we'll be back another day to see the rest.

Unfortunately you can't take pictures of the tapestry (which isn't really a tapestry but is really an embroidered cloth) but when you hear that it is is LONG. As part of our entrance fee we were given a handset that told the story of the tapestry as you slowly made your way along the length of it. When we stepped in the room where it's kept we thought "wow!" it's really long but that was only half of it as it then went around the corner and kept right on going!

The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story in a series of about fifty scenes of the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Essex, and culminates in the Battle of Hastings. Miraculously this piece of history has survived over nine centuries and still retains the colours and exceptional needlework.

To view each scene of the tapestry, along with a brief description of that scene, please visit the site.

In addition to this the Bayeux Tapestry is also on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register which " lists documentary heritage which has been recommended by the International Advisory Committee, and endorsed by the Director-General of UNESCO, as corresponding to the selection criteria regarding world significance and outstanding universal value." 

I didn't even realise this register existed alongside the list of World Heritage Sites! Don't worry though L, I'm not going to make it a goal to see everything on this list too. I think we have enough to see for one lifetime. :-)

After this it was time to stop and have a bite to eat for lunch before we headed out of town and on to our next stop at the Longues Battery and then on to Arromanche. I was so looking forward to seeing Arromanche again, this time with L, as it was one of my favourite places when I visited Normandy a few years ago. In the next post I'll show you around those sites and the Musée d'Embarquement.
Monday, May 12, 2014

Postcard from...Paris, France

I can't believe it took until my fourth visit to Paris to actually make it to Montmarte to see the breathtaking Basilique du Sacré Coeur. What was I waiting for?

It's not hard to find the basilica as it sits in the 18e arrondissement atop the the butte Montmarte, which is the highest point in the city, and offers a great vantage point to look down over the whole city and take some great photos or just sit and people watch. It's also in a very vibrant part of town (though really what part of Paris doesn't feel like that?) with street artists and galleries to take in.

Construction of the Basilica started in 1876 with Paul Abadie as the lead architect. When he died in 1884, he was succeeded by Lucien Magne, who added an 83 meter (272 ft) tall clock tower. The Savoyarde clock installed here is one of the world's largest. Construction was completed in 1914 and it was consecrated in 1919 after the end of WWI.

How does Sacré-Coeur manage to stay such a beaming white colour amid the air pollution of a big city like Paris? This can be attributed to the Château-Landon stones that were used to build it. When it rains, the stones react to the water and secrete calcite, which acts like a bleacher. Ingenious!

Photo taken July 17, 2011
Thursday, May 8, 2014

Exploring Normandy and Ypres: Battle Plan Day 2 {Part 3}

Actual Event Date: March 11, 2014

After visiting Utah Beach, the Utah Beach Museum and the German Military Cemetery our next stop on the Battle Plan was Pointe du Hoc.

Pointe du Hoc

Photo by L

We had only allotted about 15 minutes for this site on the Battle Plan but after arriving we quickly realized we would be spending quite a bit more time here. There was quite a large area to roam around with gun placements, bunkers, and bomb craters to explore and then a beautiful view of the coast.

Pointe du Hoc is a 30 m (100 ft) cliff on a small rocky beach that offered no protection to the soldiers tasked with scaling it on their rope ladders. It is between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach and was a well fortified part of the Atlantic Wall that the Germans had created.

On D-Day the US Army Rangers Assault Group were assigned to land there, scale the cliffs, and overtake the German defenses. While they were shelled upon by the nearby Maisy Battery and German soldiers firing at them from the cliff's edge with machine guns and grenades, they reached the top and soon discovered that the guns in the emplacements had been replaced with telephone poles. The German troops had moved the guns inland to an apple orchard to save them from bombing and then left them unguarded. Once found by the Rangers they were quickly destroyed.

Although the Rangers mission on D-Day was considered a success as they seized this land from the German soldiers the casualties were many. Two hundred and twenty-five men landed on the beaches but at the end of the two days of fighting only ninety remained.

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach is a six mile stretch of beach overlooked by cliffs that made it very difficult to attack for the Americans on D-Day. In addition to the cliffs the Germans had built intimidating defenses around the the beach with things like 'dragon's teeth' which were designed to take out the bottoms of landing craft and in case they didn't work they were mined as well. Gun emplacements covered the beach and there was a system of trenches in places to allow the German troops to move about.

Tasked with attacking this beach were troops from the US 1st Army and their plan was to land infantry troops along with Sherman tanks to give them a lot of fire power against the Germans. However, these tanks never made it as they were released from their landing craft too far away from the beach and all but two of the 29 were swamped and sank. In addition to this, due to strong tides and winds, many of the American troops landed in the wrong place which caused confusion about which unit was where and what they were to do.

The only way off the beach and out of the line of fire from the German machine guns was to sprint across the beach and then scale the cliffs. Some small naval crafts got as close in to shore as they could and attacked the German gun emplacements in order to provide some protection to the soldiers on the beach. Despite the odds, by nightfall the Americans had gained a hold on the beach with 34,000 troops successfully landed. Sadly though it was at a high price as 2,400 soldiers died on Omaha Beach that day.

On the center of Omaha beach is the 'Les Braves' monument for the American soldiers who helped to liberate France. The sculptor Anilore Banon said this:

I created this scuplture to honour the courage of these men:
Sons, husbands and fathers, who endangered and often sacrificed their lives in the hope of freeing the French people.

Les Braves consists of three elements:
The wings of Hope
So that the spirit which carried these men on June 6th, 1944 continues to inspire us, reminding us that together it is always possible to changing the future.
Rise, Freedom!
So that the example of those who rose against barbarity, helps us remain standing strong against all forms of inhumanity.
The Wings of Fraternity
So that this surge of brotherhood always reminds us of our responsibility towards others as well as ourselves.
On June 6th, 1944 these man were more than soldiers, they were our brothers.

Normandy American Military Cemetery and Memorial

Built on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach this cemetery is the resting place for 9,387 soldiers, 307 of whom are unknown.

On June 8, 1944 the US First Army established the first American cemetery on European soil in WWII. After the war the current cemetery was established just a short distance from the original one. Like all other military cemeteries France has granted the United States a special, perpetual concession to the land which means it's free of any charge or tax.

Only some of the US soldiers who died in France are buried here because when it came time for a permanent burial the soldier's next of kin were given the choice to have their loved ones repatriated for burial in the US, or to let them rest in France.

In addition to the cemetery there is a memorial at this site that commemorates the lives of 1,557 Americans who lost their lives in Normandy but could not be located or identified. At the center of a semicircle of columns is a 22 foot bronze statue called 'The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves'. In front of the memorial is a reflecting pool where visitors can watch the ceremony of the Lowering of the Colors that happens at the end of each afternoon to the sound of a military hymn.

After our very full day filled with history we decided that dinner that evening would be something we both enjoy- a picnic in our room. We stopped at a grocery store on the way back to the hotel, picked up some cheese, a baguette (mais oui...we were after all in France!), and some other treats and enjoyed our very casual and relaxing dinner.

Bon appétit!

In my next post about this trip we'll start in Bayeux where we visit the Bayeux British Cemetery but also took a little detour from WWII history and stepped further back in time to visit the Bayeux Cathedral and Tapestry.
Monday, May 5, 2014

Postcard from...Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands with a population of more than one million and a population of bicycles that surely must equal that. My goodness there are A LOT of bicycles here! If you arrive by train at the Amsterdam Central Station look to your right when you come out on to the street. I guarantee you have never seen so many bikes in one place in your life. How anyone can find their bike in the thousands that are there is beyond me but they must as you also see people riding them everywhere too. Really with streets along canals, like in this photo, how could you not get out and about and enjoy the sights by bike?

The canal system in Amsterdam was built during the 17th century when it became the wealthiest city in the world and immigration was at its peak. This was considered the city's Golden Age. Amsterdam is now sometimes referred to as the Venice of the North because of all the wonderful canals that criss-cross their way through the city and the 1,500 bridges that cross those canals. These 17th century canals are also listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list

Photo taken July 23, 2011
Sunday, May 4, 2014

Day Trips: A Drizzly Day at Dover Castle {Part 2}

Actual Date of Event: October 13, 2013

Last Sunday was the first part of our day in Dover spent wandering through the great castle, church, and the grounds but today is something a little unexpected- the Secret Wartime Tunnels.

* All of the photos in this post were taken by L...well except for the last one as he tends not to take pictures of his food, unlike me. :-) *

In the Middle Ages tunnels were constructed under Dover Castle to be used as a protected line of communication for the soldiers stationed in the northern outposts and to allow for the garrison to gather before attacks without being seen. Later during the Napoleonic Wars the tunnels were expanded to prepare the castle for a French invasion. Seven tunnels were dug to serve as barracks for soldiers who had already filled up the castle and the town. These tunnels were capable of holding 2,000 troops and are the only underground barracks ever built in Britain.

In WWII the tunnels were used again as the center from which Admiral Ramsay and his team worked around the clock for nine days on Operation Dynamo- the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and French troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. It was estimated that 45,000 troops could be brought back to Britain but on May 26th there were about 400,000 troops awaiting rescue on the beaches. By June 4th, nearly all were evacuated with 338,000 men brought back. Admiral Ramsay used as many Royal Navy vessels as the could gather, along with a now famous flotilla of 'little ships'- the civilian and merchant boats. Churchill called it a 'miracle of deliverance'.

Communication Post inside the tunnels

Various rooms along the tour

Some parts of the tunnels were dark and a little eery.

During the Cold War the tunnels were expanded again to form a Regional Centre of Government in the event of nuclear war but with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the need for this facility decreased. In the early 1990s it was decommissioned and areas of the tunnels were open to the public.

When visiting you have to take the guided tour as many parts of the tunnels are not open to the public. It was a really good tour though and we didn't feel rushed along as we visited communication centers, hospital bays and even dining areas that smelled like roast beef! There were also many places along the tour where they projected video along the walls of the tunnel sometimes making it seem like you were in the room as actual events played out as the shadows of the officers went about their duties.

This video does a much better job of showing you the tour than I can explain.

*Please note that some scenes may be upsetting.

After such an interesting tour of the tunnels and around the grounds and look out posts we had worked up an appetite! Well not really after such a good lunch but there was cream tea to be had so off we went back to the café for a spot of tea and that oh so delicious clotted cream with raspberry jam on a scone. Is there a better afternoon snack to have in this world? At this point I'm going to have to go with no and think I will be hard pressed to ever find anything that will make me change my mind.

For more information about Dover Castle and the other castles under the care of English Heritage you can visit their site here. I can't wait to move over and become a member- there are over 400 sites to visit. I'm going to be a busy bee!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Exploring Normandy and Ypres: Battle Plan Day 2 {Part 2}

Actual Date of Event: March 11, 2014

Last Friday we left off having just visited the Crisbecq and Azeville batteries and now we were on the short drive to Utah Beach and the museum that has been built at this beach.

The US Navy Monument which is the only monument dedicated to the US Navy outside of the US

Utah Beach

Utah Beach was the code name for the westernmost of the Allied landing beaches during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, as part of Operation Overlord. The US 4th Infantry Division landed on this beach, a little off course, but with relatively little resistance as compared to Omaha Beach that suffered with fierce fighting.

The landing was a success due to several military divisions who played a part in the D-Day landings.

It started at 11:00 PM the night before with the first Allied bombs falling near the planned landing beach. Then at 1:15 AM, 13,000 paratroopers dropped behind the enemy lines with a mission to neutralize German defenses, secure the landing area, and prevent the arrival of German reinforcements.

Naval Forces 

At 5:36 AM the Allied fleet of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers launched an uninterrupted barrage of fire at the German defenses along the coast and even further inland to the Crisbecq and Azeville batteries. One German soldier noted upon seeing the armada as the sun rose that "The sea was black with ships."

Air Forces 

From 6:10 to 6:25 AM all along the coastline was pounded with the bombs from B26 bombers. The timing of this operation was critical because with only five minutes to spare the first landing craft were due to arrive at 6:30 AM and going off schedule at all would put those troops in danger of friendly fire.

One of the men, Major Dwight Dewhurst, led the final bombing run over Utah Beach. In the museum an original B-26 is painted in the colours of his plane called the "Dinah Might". Major Dewhurst was born in San Antonio, TX and enlisted in the Air Force six months before the attack on Pearl Harbour. Over the course of WWII he accomplished 85 combat missions against the Germans but sadly, shortly after returning home to Texas after the war he was killed in a car accident and left behind his wife and two young sons.

B26 Marauder in the hangar of the Utah Beach Museum

Land Forces

After spending a night at sea crammed into the landing barges the troops start landing on the beach at 6:30 AM. When they landed they needed to wade through 220 yards in the water, carrying 70 lbs of equipment, and then run another 550 yards under fire from the Germans. Fortunately due to the actions of the Naval and Air Forces the enemy lines were greatly weakened and they were able to reach the anti-tank wall in just 30 minutes.

By nightfall of June 6th, 23,000 men had landed on Utah Beach.

Examples of obstacles on the beaches that the troops had to contend with

View of Utah Beach Museum - photo by L

Utah Beach Museum

The museum stands on the actual site where the American troops landed and tells the story of the war through different sections set up in chronological order.

The story starts with the German defenses and Rommel's part in the building of the Atlantic Wall. It continues by telling visitors what life was like for the local people living under the German Occupation. And finally, visitors learn about D-Day through the preparation of the landings to the final outcome and success.

There were lots of artifacts, photos, letters, and machinery- the ones below are some that made me stop and linger on them.

From Left to Right- 1) Bulky, heavy boots (weighing up to three lbs each) worn by German soldiers. Sadly the felt often contained human hair from prisoners in concentration camps;  2) Documents, cards, money etc. found in the wreckage of the USS Rich; 3) Respect for the fallen- American soldiers often witnessed French civilians covering the bodies of fallen soldiers, praying for them, and placing flowers on their bodies.

This museum, and certainly the beach, are well worth the visit for everyone- not just Americans. I think it's important for us to learn about the contributions of all the Allied countries that took part and not to limit ourselves to only our own country. We should learn the whole story.

German Military Cemetery at La Cambe

After visiting Utah Beach we then made our way to the German military cemetery and Peace Garden. Even though the soldiers lying here are the "enemy" they are, still, fellow human beings. Many of them were very young, did not ask to go to war, and were someone's father, husband, brother, or son.

In the centre of the cemetery is a large mound of earth that covers the common grave of 207 unknown and 89 identified German soldiers. At the very top is a large dark cross with a statue on either side made of basalt lava. This is then surrounded by 49 rectangular grave fields with up to 400 graves each, identified with flat grave markers. All total there are 21,139 fallen German soldiers laid to rest in this cemetery.

The sign in front of the cemetery reads as follows:

The German Cemetery at La Cambe: In the Same Soil of France

Until 1947, this was an American cemetery. The remains were exhumed and shipped to the United States. It has been German since 1948, and contains over 21,000 graves. With its melancholy rigour, it is a graveyard for soldiers not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.

The German War Graves Commission cares for their cemeteries as well as the Commonwealth War Graves Commissions do and this cemetery was a somber and peaceful place of rest.

After our visit we decided it was time to think about some lunch and make our way to the Maisy Battery. We opted for a quick picnic in the car and ended up eating outside the battery as it was closed when we arrived. Turned out that was OK as Pointe due Hoc was next on the itinerary and it had so much more to see than anticipated and ran well over the 15 minutes we had allotted for it on the Battle Plan.

In my next post we'll visit Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, and the American Military Cemertery to finish off our second day of the trip.