Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Back from the Dark Ages

Thirteen countries, four thousand miles and five thousand photographs later, we arrived back in the US, land of good food, relaxed living and Internet. Of the thirteen countries, the combined land area and the combined population of three of them are less than the land area and population respectively of little old Rhode Island! As for European cuisine, forget it! Despite numerous forays into indicated restaurant districts, we managed no more than three or four enjoyable meals during the entire trip. The remainder of the offerings, while not good, were certainly not cheap!
The map below gives a rough outline of where serendipity took us - just click on it for more detail.
In addition to weight restrictions, width restrictions and height restrictions we traversed grades as steep as 25% and climbed hairpin roads so tight that we had to perform three-point-turns at some of the corners. Overall, the little wagon took all of this in her stride and produced a useful 23 MPG to boot - just as well with diesel prices at around $5.50 per gallon. Other posts will be dated as they happened and will appear below this post. More to follow...

Monday, June 04, 2007

Charleville, France

More accurately, Charleville is now named Charleville-Mézières after half-a-dozen local communities, including Mézières, were rolled together in the mid-nineties to form the present 100,000 plus urban area. The actual city Charleville was built between 1606 and 1627 under the direction of Charles de Gonzague, the local head honcho, and was the manifestation of his Utopian vision of the future. At that time, the River Meuse that runs through town, served as the border with Germany making the area of significant commercial importance. Since then, Germany has "moved away", so to speak, and is currently separated from Charleville by, among other things, miles of French territory and the country of Belgium. The Place Ducale (Ducal Square) is a major feature of the town which is otherwise famous as a world center for marionettes and the birthplace of the French poet and celebrated shirt-lifter, Arthur Rimbaud. The Institute of Marionettes is actually in Place Winston Churchill and sports an entertaining clock that puts on a different automated puppet show on the hour, every hour from 10 am until 9 pm. A jolly place for an impromptu overnight stay.

The Ducal Square is HUGE, well kept, symmetrical
and hosts a market every Saturday

Pleasant arcades run along the front of the building facing the square

Clock tower from an arcade

This is Charles de Gonzague (actually, it's a statue of him)

The fanciful Town Hall

A detail of the Town Hall

War Memorial to French dead in Place Winston Churchill

Another massive church near the Town Hall

Interior of church

Ferry across the Meuse from the campground

Bouillon, Belgium

Everyone is probably familiar with bouillon cubes, those 50% plus chunks of salt and pan scrapings used to add some zing to insipid, but otherwise nourishing meals. Well, as you might have guessed, those malodorous morsels are in no way connected with Bouillon in Belgium. The most popular local urban myth, in fact, suggests that the name is from Godfrey of Bouillon who sold the castle back in 1096 and went off to fight the Crusades. It transpires that he won the fight, because in 1099 he was offered the job of King of Jerusalem but turned it down in favor of becoming the Warden of the Holy Sepulcher. Too bad for him though, for he died the next year, in 1100 aged 39, and was buried in the St. Sepulcher's church, close to the Calvary. In hindsight, he might have done better to have continued Duking in Belgium. About the size of Maryland, Belgium has a population of 10 million or so and has remained organized as a constitutional monarchy since it was established in its present form in 1830. One is left with the impression however, that having being tromped over several times by invaders and liberators alike in WWI, with their flotilla of tanks and other armaments, and then several times more in WWII, the national psyche is also quite trampled. One inconvenient legacy of the tumultuous history of the country is the official recognition of three national languages - French, German and Dutch - with English making an unofficial, but widely spoken fourth. Our route took us through southern Belgium and, apart from Bouillon which seemed to be prospering as a tourist resort, northern Luxembourg and everywhere we visited in Belgium seemed to be in pretty poor shape. This general aura of impoverishment, we were to discover, remained with us for several days as we crossed the war ravaged and somewhat forgotten areas of northeastern France. Bouillon however, was delightful. The huge rock on which the castle is built is almost encircled by a broad meander of the Semois river and the town is built along both river banks below. Across the river, behind the narrow strip of buildings, the Ardenne forest rises steeply on the hillsides.

View from the castle

View to the west behind the castle showing the river meander

Tourist Central - area of hotels, tat stores and restaurants

Like so many towns and cities through this area, the
churches is disproportionately large for the community

Interior of the church

Bastogne, Belgium

Sometimes referred to as "Nuts!" City, Bastogne is a small town of about 13,000 in the Ardenne Forest region of Belgium. As WWII was coming to an end, Bastogne played a pivotal role in the infamous Battle of the Bulge.
On June 6th, 1944, the Allies landed in Normandy France and, within 5 days, had put 16 divisions ashore commencing the liberation of Europe. With France and Belgium freed from their occupiers by the end of September, the Allies moved briefly into Germany where they were initially repulsed by fierce German resistance. The battle line quickly stabilized
at the Belgian border - the famous Siegfried line.
There next followed a deplorable period of indecisiveness and inaction with Patton wanting to go south, Montgomery urging a march on Berlin, Roosevelt temporarily distracted by the upcoming election in the US and Eisenhower tearing his hair out waiting for policy decisions. The Germans seized on this tactical hiatus and planned the recapture of Belgium, particularly the port of Antwerp. By this means they would sever Allied supply lines and maroon the entire English and American liberation armies in Belgium and Holland. Having amassed an army of 250,000 men, the Germans launched their furious counter-offensive on December 16th, 1944.
Bastogne was an early German objective in this onslaught and proved to be a formidable
obstacle. After more than a week of merciless bombardment, the Germans demanded that the city be surrendered to them. US forces were actually garrisoned in the town and the area was under the control of US General Anthony McAuliffe. Apparently, McAuliffe's response to the surrender demand was "Nuts!", giving rise to the town's irreverent nickname. For another month, the town remained under siege, successfully stalling the entire German advance while being effectively leveled. By January 28th 1945, with 7,500 Americans and 10,700 Germans dead, 46,000 Americans and 34,000 Germans wounded, a further 21,000 Americans and 32,000 Germans missing or imprisoned, the Battle of the Bulge was over and the liberation of Europe was assured. Bastogne was subsequently rebuilt and the main square is now named McAuliffe Square in honor of the American general. A Sherman tank sits on one side of the square as a symbol of the victory and, a couple of miles outside of town, stands the Mardasson Memorial, another tribute to the heroic sacrifices made by the fallen.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Grand Duchy of Luxembourg

In 1927, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was granted a Royal Charter and, over the last eighty years, has grown fitfully to become the largest broadcaster in the world with 26,000 employees and an annual budget of around $8 billion. Beginning in 1922 as the British Broadcasting Company Ltd., a brainchild of four or five wannabe radio manufacturers, the effort was powerfully validated by the Royal Charter status and has pretty much danced to its own tune since. Ever zealous of its perceived position of guardian of public morals, British values and overall British taste, it frequently acted as bully-boy in efforts to keep competing and “degenerate” broadcasters off the air. In the early to mid fifties, we gangling teenagers knew nothing, and cared less, about such sinister doings – all we wanted was to hear the latest teenage music, a genre that was completely off the BBC radar. Throughout the British Isles, there were three radio channels, period. No other choices existed, no commercial radio, no country, rock, easy listening, nothing – just The Home Service, The Light Programme and Radio Three. This situation actually, was not materially altered until the advent of the offshore Pirate Stations in the mid-sixties, that increasingly ate into the listening audience of the venerable BBC, eventually prompting an inquiry by the government in the early seventies and culminating in a welter of changes in broadcast philosophy.
But back to the fifties. There was at least one illicit option to hear sinful commercial radio in the English language and, almost to a person, everyone between the ages of 12 and 25 tuned to 208 meters on the medium waveband every night to get their fill of the depraved sounds of Kay Starr lasciviously crooning the Wheel of Fortune or, worse yet, Patti Page singing her siren song How Much is that Doggie in the Window. Not only was this deplorable behavior frowned upon by parents and the establishment alike, it also did contain elements of international illegality and, with these ingredients alone, was pretty much assured of a wide audience regardless of program content. So, just who was this malignant Pied Piper, tearing at the very fabric of British sangfroid and openly defying the subtle brainwasher that was the BBC? None other than Radio Luxembourg. Since 1933 in fact, this tiny country had broadcast programming in English, French and German using internationally alloted frequencies intended for domestic use. Having acquired the frequencies the company simply ignored transmission power limitations, built some honking great megawatt transmitters and blew away every other broadcaster in the area. So it was that we have always nurtured a particular fondness for this diminutive principality. Sadly, Radio Luxembourg closed its doors in 1992 - the victim of its own success since there were now dozens of similar format stations available locally with high quality FM stereo sound.
Like NY, NY, Luxembourg, Luxembourg is so good it has to be said twice. About half the size of Delaware or 2/3rd the size of Rhode Island, Luxembourg, the country, has a population of a scant 480,000. Luxembourg, the city, is home to about 76,000 people in an area of less than 20 square miles. With a turbulent history, having been sold at one point due to the lack of a male heir, lopped in half following a squabble with Belgium, occupied by Germany for the duration of WWI and then jackbooted over again in WWII by Hitlers henchmen, the Head Honcho finally swore off neutrality and became a serious joiner. The Duke and his entourage, starting in 1942, joined the Allies, the UN, NATO and, as soon as it was invented, the European Economic Community. Luxembourg has subsequently become yet another example of the contradiction To the Vanquished come the Spoils for, even after all that slapping around, they now enjoy the highest GDP per capita in the entire world and are one of the wealthiest per capita countries to boot. Puzzling, isn't it?
All of that aside, Luxembourg (the city), remains, to us anyway, a confusing place. Odd mixes of old and new, the city center sits on a plateau, perched precariously in places atop precipitous cliffs that drop into the narrow valleys of the Alzette and Pétrusse rivers, which merge in the old town. The 230' gorges cut by the rivers are spanned by various bridges and viaducts, including the Adolphe Bridge, Grand Duchess Charlotte Bridge, and the Passerelle. Although not a large city, the layout is complex - set on several levels, straddling hills and dropping into the two gorges while still retaining tracts of farmland within the city limits. Notable was the absence of cheesy souvenir and fudge shops - seems that the rent has been driven out of their league by the presence of numerous Haute Couture establishment and other exclusive emporia more suited to the pocketbooks of the natives. At Hamm, a district of the city, there is an American Cemetery containing the graves of more than 5,000 American dead, including the remains of General George S. Patton.

Saint Laurentius Church

Luxembourg City Hall

Notre Dame Cathedral

Cathedral Entrance

Cathedral Interior

Equestrian statue of Guillaume II in Guillaume Square

The Grand Ducal Palace

The Duke's Crest

One of the Dukes "Minders"

Exit point for security forces across from the Palace

St Michaels Church

Gateway under the old castle approach road. Massive
fortifications were built on the Bock, a huge sandstone
formation riddled with casemates, tunnels through
which supplies were moved and from which cannons
were fired

Part of the fortifications of the Bock

View down into the old town from the Bock

Chapel of St Quirin

Huge courtyard of the Neumunster Abbey

The Gella Fra Monument to WWII Volunteers

Detail of the monument

Another view of the Notre Dame Cathedral

The Adolphe Bridge

America's cultural contribution