Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tomorrow is "D" Day!

"D" for Dutch, that is. Today, we get to run the gauntlet of Swine Flu, as we submit ourselves to that horrifying purgatory, euphemistically marketed as air travel. In my book, there remains not a single redeeming feature of the entire panoply of indignities laughably referred to as jet-setting.
Be that as it may, a one hour trip to Chicago, in zero time (Eastern to Central zone), is our first
treat, followed by four or five hours of R&R in that perpetual construction site, O'Hare. Next, a nine hour assault on the senses while risking deep vein thrombosis, claustrophobia and practicing hyper-bladder control. Finally, the thrill of the cattle pens as one is herded at snails pace through immigration, baggage collection and finally customs before being ejected into the swampy terrain surrounding Schipool Airport in the Netherlands.
By then, it will be 21 hours since we last got up and it will be about 9:00 AM in the morn
ing with a full day ahead. But, all is not lost, as gradually, we should regain contol of our lives. Just have to get to Rotterdam, find our RV - home for the next nine weeks - get it out of storage, get some gas cylinders, electric power cord, food and water, find out how everything is supposed to work, locate a campsite and collapse in an exhausted stupor.
I can't express how much I am looking forward to Friday morning when, if all goes more or less to plan, I will be free to proudly empty our adorable toilet cassette under the admiring gaze of our fellow campers.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Horsham and beyond, England - June 13, 2008

Horsham is a market town of about 50,000 on the River Arun in the county of West Sussex. The first mention of Horsham was in King Eadreds land charter of 947 CE. The town seems to have grown up around the Carfax, which is nowadays a large, pedestrianized square, complete with a bandstand but was originally a junction of five roads. Like so many mid-sized English towns, Horsham exudes a friendly community atmosphere around this downtown area and supports numerous, well attended activities. See here for pictures.
After leaving Horsham we stopped briefly at the still picturesque village of Cowfold on the final leg of our journey back to Heidi's home in East Sussex. Another hugely enjoyed trundle around Europe was
over and we were back to the reality of airlines and schedules as we made our way home to Indiana. This final entry of our 2008 odyssey has ended about 10 months after the event and just in time for the start of our 2009 adventure that begins on April 30th. Watch this space...

Salisbury, England - June 11, 2008

Salisbury is an English cathedral city in the county of Wiltshire, where the rivers Nadder, Ebble, Wylye and Bourne join the Avon, which flows south to the sea. The city's origins can be traced back to the Iron Age and the location was most probably chosen for its abundance of water. The first cathedral, built by St Bishop Osmund between 1075 and 1092, actually at Old Sarum, and was replaced by a larger one on the same site around 1120. Later, the clergy fell out with the military command at Old Sarum and, in 1220, started building a new cathedral a couple of miles away.
Thus began the city of New Sarum, now known as Salisbury. The main body of the church was completed in just 38 years and is considered a masterpiece of Early English architecture
. The 400 foot spire, the tallest in the UK, wasn't built until later. The cathedral contains the best preserved of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta as well as the oldest surviving mechanical clock in Britain that was installed in 1386.
The new town was laid out in a grid pattern, and by the 14th century, was the foremost town in Wiltshire. The city wall, built in the 14th century, originally had four gates, High Street Gate, St Ann's Gate, the Queen's Gate, and St Nicholas's Gate. A fifth gate was created in the 19th century. Salisbury has been a market town since 1227 and nowadays the market is held every Tuesday and Saturday. Stonehenge is about 8 miles northwest of town and, along with Old Sarum and the original cathedral, the area attracts a lot of visitors. Pictures of Olde England here.

The Ferry, Cherbourg to Poole - June 11, 2008

Our previous three channel crossings had all been between Dover and Calais so, particularly since we were on the Cherbourg Peninsular, we decided to do something different. The route from Cherbourg to Poole is 80 miles - almost four times the Dover-Calais trip - which suggested a lengthy trip. But wait, there is an express ferry that completes the crossing in two hours, slightly quicker than the Dover-Calais trip and with assigned seating to boot - Whoopee! See here for boat ride views.

Cherbourg, France - June 10, 2008

Since 2000, Cherbourg has officially been Cherbourg-Octeville, having absorbed Octeville and produced the second largest city (after Caen) in the Basse-Normandie region, with a population of more than 40,000. Prior to the Napoleonic era, Cherbourg had been a comfortable coastal town with a relatively modest natural harbor. Napolean, fearing a British naval incursion, ordered underwater obstructions to be sunk across the harbor entrance which were later fortified with tons of masonry rubble.
Although this work began in a timely manner in 1784, it was not actually completed until 1850, thirty-five years after Napolean got whooped at Waterloo and was sent into exile.
The legacy of Bony's paranoia however, led to Cherbourg's development into a major transatlantic port, elevating it to strategic importance during WWII. The Battle of Cherbourg, fought in June 1944 following the Normandy Invasion, ended with the capture of Cherbourg on June 30, by the Allies. Cherbourg is still home to a French Navy arsenal.
Despite generally negative remarks garnered from various reviews and sundry malcontents, we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon poking around town, checking out the old fortifications on the hill to the south and watching activities in the leisurely harbor.
More pictures here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Valognes, France - June 10, 2008

Pretty much dead center in the Cherbourg Peninsula, Valognes lies directly on the path to a primary Allied objective, a deep water port on the northern tip of the peninsula, Cherbourg itself. The Allied advance, which reached Valognes on June 20th, 1944, was delayed for a while by the massive damage caused by bombardments earlier in the war.
Incredibly however, the town, which is mentioned twice in the movie Saving Private Ryan, still contains a few prime 18th century town houses, despite the worst ravages of two world wars. We camped here overnight in an odd little municipal park. More pictures here.

Sainte-Mère-Église, France - June 10, 2008

Sainte-Mère-Église straddles the N13 road on the Cherbourg peninsula, the major route connecting the D-Day landing zone and Cherbourg. As such, it was a key Allied objective to seize this tiny town from the Germans and thus impede any enemy efforts to send reinforcements from the heavily fortified port.
This task, Operation Boston,
fell to mixed units of 82nd and 101st U.S. Airborne Divisions who started dropping on the town as early as 1:40 AM on June 6th, 1944. Heavy casualties were taken, partly due to light from burning building illuminating the paratroopers and making them easy targets for small arms fire. Perhaps the most famous incident of the night involved paratrooper John Steele of the 505th PIR. His parachute caught on the spire of the town church and he spent the night feigning death while dangling there and watching events unfold in the square below. This, and other incidents from the same attack, were woven into the movie The Longest Day.
The outcome was that the town was taken by the early morning of June
6th and tenuously held with small arms until the afternoon of June 7th, at which time tanks and equipment began to arrive from Omaha Beach. Along with several other towns in the area, Sainte-Mère-Église claims to have been the first one to be liberated and with this version of events, it would be difficult to dispute this.
Somewhat belatedly - on November 6, 2007 - Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France, conferred the Legion of Honor medal on six of the US combatants involved in this action. Click here to see dangling paratrooper.

Grandcamp-Maisy, france - June 10, 2008

In November 1972, the commune formerly known as Grandcamp-les-Bains amalgamated with the adjacent village of Maisy forming a new entity of 1,750 people, named Grandcamp-Maisy. Today, Grandcamp-Maisy is an active fishing port, with a fish market, a post office and the inevitable boulangerie.
Back in WWII however, both Grandcamp-les-Bains and Maisy, housed ferocious gun batteries that formed part of Hitler's Atlantic Wall - the intended impregnable coastal defenses against an Allied amphibious attack.
The first battery, known as La Martine, was equipped with four, 100 mm Czech cannon, with a range of about 6 miles. La Perruque, the second emplacement 1/3 mile to the east, bristled with four, 155 mm French howitzers, with a range close to 7 miles. These French guns, commandeered by the Germans, were actually a holdover from World War I, a quarter of a century earlier. Both sites were protected by mine fields, and anti aircraft emplacements. We stayed overnight in a gruesome campsite right on the ocean or, more accurately, the English Channel. More pictures of this quaint town here.

The Beaches, Normandy - June 9, 2008

The "beaches" - Sword, Gold, Juno, Utah and Omaha - are, of course, where the WWII D-Day landings occurred, starting the liberation of northern Europe. The overall invasion, code named Operation Overlord, began on June 6, 1944 and, on that day alone, a total pf 160,000 men from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States of America were landed in France. The battle for Normandy continued for more than two months. From the establishment of a foothold in France to the liberation of Paris on 25 August and finally the German retreat across the Seine on 30 August. 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 8 million tons of supplies poured into the region across these beaches due to the Allies inability to capture a deep water port until November of that year. These staggering achievements were made possible using a Mulberry harbor, a contraption that had been pre-built in sections in England, towed across the channel to Arromanches-Les-Bains, assembled and planted in the ocean floor within a mere three days of the initial assault. This fabricated port, nicknamed Port Winston, was as large as Dover port in England and contained 10 miles of roads, a breakwater system and 33 jetties. Parts of this construction are still visible today. The actual beach visits, like the Curate's Egg, were good in parts. Ranging from crassly aggravating to emotionally overwhelming and some shades in between, Arromanches-Les-Bains was the low point of our day. With ice cream, tee shirts and postcard sales obliterating all sense of decorum and respect - a complete disgrace for France and a sobering shock for overseas visitors. At the other end of the spectrum was the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. This 170 acre, immaculately kept memory to the 9,387 Americans who lost their lives and the 1,557 Americans missing in action during the Normandy invasion, was a truly stunning, gut-wrenching experience. More pictures here.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bayeux, France - June 9, 2008

Bayeux, just nine miles from the D-Day beaches, survived WWII essentially unscathed. The Bayeux War Cemetery and Memorial on the other hand, is the largest British WWII cemetery in France, with 3,935 British graves and 466 German, most of them lost in the Invasion of Normandy.A digression. By the middle of the 11th century, England's King Edward had failed to produce an heir, which left an English nobleman named Harold, and William, Duke of Normandy, as the top contenders for the job. Harold, in truth anything but noble, was later captured while fighting in Normandy, and in exchange for his life, promised William that when the King died, he would allow William to have the throne of England. Silly Willy agreed and let Harold go home.
In a while, King Edward did die, and lowlife Harold immediately claimed the throne. Duke William was miffed and, in 1066, promptly took off to England with his army. Fourteen hours later, the Battle of Hastings was over, Harold was dead and the Duke added both King-of-England and William-the-Conqueror to his resume. The sweet irony in this, is that many historians believe that if William, the Frenchie, had not won this battle, and hapless Harry had become king, England would not have become the most powerful country in the world and French may have been the official language of the New World. So far, so good! End of digression.
A few years after the Battle of Hastings, Bishop Odo of Bayeux commissioned a work known as Queen Matilda's Tapestry, to be hung in the town's soon-to-be cathedral. From about 1070 to 1080, English nuns crafted a tapestry that is 230 feet long and about 3 feet wide, comprising 58 seperate scenes telling the story of the battle. Meanwhile, t
he Cathédral Notre-Dame was completed and was consecrated on July 14, 1077, ready for the great work. The Bayeux Tapestry, as it came to be known, is now displayed in a local museum and, by current accounts, remains in excellent condition more than 900 years later. Pics about town here.

Saint-Lô, France - June 8, 2008

In June 1940, less than a year after the start of WWII, the German army occupied Saint-Lô, a town of 20,000 located on a strategic crossroad in Normandy. Following massive bombing by the American Air Force during the Normandy landings in 1944, the town was estimated to have been 95% destroyed, earning it the dubious title The Capital of Ruins. The damage was so severe by the end of the war, that it was debated whether to rebuild, or simply abandon the place as a memorial.
In the event, reconstruction
won out and was begun in 1948. Saint-Lô is now restored to a quiet market town, the capital of the Manche department in Normandy, and surrounded by farms specializing in the breeding of Thoroughbred race horses.One beneficial side effect of the 1944 bombardment was the unearthing of long since buried medieval ramparts overlooking the river Vire, which were also restored. As partial reparations for the destruction of the city, America established the Memorial Hospital in Saint-Lô, which at the time, was the largest hospital in Europe.
Some of the few standing structures at the close of hostilities were the remnants of the 13th to the 15th century Notre-Dame church, its roof and facade destroyed, as well as one and a half of its two towers. The church was patched up during the post-war restoration but remains something of a kludge to this day. An unusual feature of the church that escaped significant damage, is an outdoor pulpit that had been previously saved from demolition in the 19th century, by Victor Hugo. Brief slideshow here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mont St Michel, France - June 7, 2008

Sometimes billed as the 8th Wonder of the World, Mont St Michel is quite astounding. A hunk of granite jutting up from the sand, this former tidal island is about six tenths of a mile off the north coast of France in Normandy. The village built on this rock is literally brimming with cafes, bars and all the usual tasteless tourist tackiness but, the big attraction is the huge abbey perched right on the top - breathtaking! Since at least the 3rd century CE the Mont (then known as Mont Tombe) has been the location for one form or another of religious vessel. By the 11th century, already a major place of pilgrimage, the small chapel atop the rock, began its intermittent growth towards an abbey, commonly known as the Merveille or Wonder. The huge Gothic styled structure includes storerooms, a knights hall, a refectory, a chaplaincy and a guest hall. Illustrious visitors over the centuries include Saint Louis, Louis XI, and Francois I. Not everything was plain sailing however, for, as later architects worked on their ever expanding plans, there were several dramatic collapses as the weight of their endeavors crushed earlier construction. As if more drama was needed, Mont Saint Michel Bay has the highest tides in Europe - up to 45 feet during the spring tides. The sandy shore has a shallow slope and the sea therefore, recedes as much as nine miles at ebb tide, uncovering huge mussel beds and oyster farms as it goes. A scary aspect of this, put to the test many times each year apparently, is that during the flow tide, the water advances at up to 12 MPH and there are numerous patches of quicksand to negotiate on the way back to dry land. See more pictures here.

St Malo, France - June 7, 2008

San Malo turned out to be nothing like we expected. Rather than a seaside city with rambling narrow streets, a rich mix of architecture and peppered throughout with a parks and treed squares, we found a uniform set of multi-story, precision built stone buildings, surrounded entirely with massive, crenelated ramparts. So much for romance. Anyway, it is at the seaside, so we were almost right.
Indeed, it seems that the people of Saint-Malo were the first French sailors to sail around the fearsome Cape Horn at the end of the 17th century, and on to exotic places like Chile for nitrate, California or Australia for wood and wheat, New-Caledonia for nickel and so on. More snaps available here.

Cite d'Alet, France - June 7, 2008

The campsite chosen for our visit to St Malo sits on a small promontory above Saint Servan Sur Mer where the Cite d'Alet once was. Standing at the gateway to the river Rance, this area was in use in pre-Roman times as a critical part of the area defense. A bracing walk around the Promenade de la Corniche provides good views of the fortified town and of the Gulf of Saint-Malo. At the highest point of town, close to the campsite, are the remains of the Cathedral of St-Pierre dating from somewhere around 900 CE. The high ground here was used by the Germans, during WWII, as a gun emplacement, the remains of which are now a war memorial. Created in 1994 by the town of Saint-Malo, the 39/45 Memorial, among other features, has a restored anti-aircraft bunker, built into the ancient fort of the Alet city, with 3 levels and 10 rooms equipped as it would have been during hostilities. Down in the area of Saint Père cove, stands the stalwart Tour Solidor, a fortified building built between 1369 and 1382. Pictures here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Dinan, France - June 6, 2008

Dinan had not appeared on our radar and was, therefore, not on our itinerary, until the campground manager at Fourgeres assured us that it was worth a look. From our perspective, he was absolutely correct.
In North East Brittany, this nicely restored, walled medieval town, with a population around 11,000, was indeed a treat.
Dinan's history involves ongoing feuds with England, most notably, the Duke of Lancaster’s invasion of 1357. This altercation ended when the local hero, Bertrand Du Guesclin, duffed up the leading English Knight in a one-on one combat. This victory rescued Bertrand's brother from prison and kept the city in French hands. More pictures here.

Combourg, France - June 6, 2008

On the way to Dinan, it had come perilously close to lunchtime and Marian was becoming restless - one might even say vicious - so we careened into Combourg for a snack.
Combourg, population less than 5,000, is in the Ille et Vilaine department and, while not really a tourist destination, does have a fine chateau. Built originally in 1016, the sturdy, turreted chateau is owned by the
Chateaubriand family and is surrounded by expansive landscaped gardens. François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848), a famous (in France anyway) Romantic writer, grew up in the castle.
Outside of the castle, there is a market every Monday, a full time church, some kitschy shops and that's about it. See here for a few snaps.

Fougères, France - June 5, 2008

Without much of a plan, we arrived in Fougères and latched onto the first parking opportunity we came across. It turned out to be on the opposite side of town to where the "goodies" are, but it was hassle free and secure. Fougères is probably best known for its medieval Chateau de Fougères, with its 13 towers all poised on a granite outcrop in the center of the original old town. Built between the 12th and 15th centuries as an outpost of medieval Brittany, it remains one of the best preserved fortifications in Europe. Its defenses were continually refined over a period of four centuries, making the castle a treasure trove of military history. Located, as it is, at the gates of Brittany, Fougères remained a strategic military possession during the middle ages, over which the English and French fought up to 1488.
In the 19th century, the town evolved into a shoe manufacturing mecca and, by the end of that century, had more than sixty factories churning out shoes for women. This industry has since all but vanished with just a few factories producing high-line footwear. Click here for more pictures.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Proud to be an American?

This op-ed piece appeared today. I sure hope there is a master plan to backup this make-nice, self-flagellating, pandering twaddle, or we could all be in for a rough ride!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Angers, France - June 4th, 2008

Angers was altogether a pleasant experience. The campsite was clean and secure, the weather had improved significantly, the advertised WiFi was actually installed and, moreover, worked! And then there was Angers itself - a lively, clean and interesting place to visit - a Great Day!
Previously the capital of the ancient county of Anjou (now more or less the Maine-et-Loire
department) Angers straddles the river Maine, which feeds the river Loire just south of the city. The earliest sign of human presence in the Angers area is a stone tool dated to the Lower Paleolithic time - 400,000 BC - while the earliest identified inhabitants were a Gallic tribe that was run off by the Romans. For pictures around town, click here.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Loudun, France - June 3, 2008

Quickly christened, by us, as Lousy Loudun, we had a hard day trying to get excited about this town of 9,000 in the Vienne département of the Poitou-Charentes région. Lots of work and not much juice, is how it turned out. Still, when your main claim to fame is a convent load of ravaged nuns it must make it a tough sell to the average tourist. Let me explain...In a 1952 book, written by Aldous Huxley and titled The Devils of Loudun, the author relates the story of the trial of Urbain Grandier, priest of the town, who was tortured and then burned at the stake, in 1634. Found guilty of being in league with the devil and of having seduced an entire convent of nuns, Grandier's alleged exertions are seen by many scholars as one of the most sensational cases of mass possession and sexual hysteria in recorded history. Later, Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, perhaps in unseemly excitement at the revelations, created the opera Die Teufel von Loudun, based on the Huxley book. Imagine, an opera wherein a superfluity of nuns are ravished by the town priest - a must-see piece of theater! Check here for more pictures - no nuns, guaranteed.

Another Perspective

Click here to read a European's view of the current lop-sided Euro-American relationship. Now ask yourself, as America prepares to rush headlong into socialized medicine and perhaps nationalization, who do you think will be paying for the free world defense? Hang on to your billfolds...

Richlieu, France - June 2, 2008

While chugging along the D749 toward our campsite for the night, my neurotic co-pilot suddenly commanded "Turn off here!" and, if 50 years of servitude had taught me anything, I knew better than to ask questions. Thus we came to Richelieu, a strange little town in the middle of nowhere.
The fourth of five children, Armand Jean du Plessis de
Richelieu was born in Paris in 1585 to Francois du Plessis. Armand was destined to have a momentous impact on France in particular, Europe in general and the future dynamics of global politics throughout subsequent history. His meteoric rise from minor nobility to Bishop at age 21, next to Cardinal and then to all-powerful First Minister for Louis XIII in 1624, is the stuff of storybooks. In actuality of course, he is depicted as a serious bad-ass in Alexander Dumas' "Three Musketeers".
Anyway, after he had made his pile (and a lot of enemies along the way) he acquired a huge tract of land in the Indre-et-Loire department, built an expansive park, a grandiose palace - the largest in France until the Palace of Versailes was built some decades later -
and, to top it off, an entire town to house his court. Even Obama would have been impressed!
The palace was demolished following the revolution but the town remains to memorialize this talented, but devious and ruthless politician.
In fitting style, Richelieu built one of the earliest rectilinear towns with rigorous precision, in which every dimension was set out in fathoms. The result is a curious, time-warped and somewhat souless community.
More views here.

Angle-sur-l'Anglin, France - June 2, 2008

Ranked as "One of the most beautiful villages in France", Angles-sur-l'Anglin is a French commune in the department of Vienne which derives its name from a tribe of Angles, which in turn, gave their name to the River Anglin. The locals are called Anglois who, like the English, take their name from an energetic Saxon tribe that invaded the area 2,000 years ago. In 1948 the Roc-aux-Sorciers, one of the most outstanding sources of Paleolithic art known, was discovered in the Anglin valley, extending its occupied history back as far as 14,000 years. More pictures here.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

St Savin sur Gartempe - June 2, 2008

Saint-Savin sur Gartempe is a tiny town in the Vienne department which just happens to have a campground, hence our arrival there. While driving there, we had encountered a variety of cyclists along the road, all with their bicycles heavily laden with bulging panniers and the like. Shortly after we got settled at the campground, we learned what was causing those bulges when the entire clutch of cyclists arrived, spread out across the meadow, extracted their camping gear and proceeded to build their tent village. Our humbling realization was, if we had been in the group, we would have been the youngest guys there! By the time we looked out next morning, the cyclists had decamped and departed, enabling us to chalk up the entire event to our imagination.There are conflicting accounts of the origins of St-Savin. It seems to have got its start during the 8th century when Baidilius, Abbot of Marmoutier, ordered a church built to shelter a couple of 5th century martyrs, Savin and Cyprian, that he said he "found". As luck would have it, Charlemagne happened along shortly afterward and built a castle just down the street, effectively protecting the church from a Viking pillage or two. The crypt of the original church survives in the present Abbey Church which itself was rebuilt in the 11th century. The spire was added in the 14th century and the entire complex has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. See here for more pictures.