Tag Archives: France

June 6, 1944 — June 4, 2017, Omaha Beach

Original Monument

We’ve seen the documentaries. We’ve seen the movies. We’ve read the books.

 

Until you see Omaha Beach at the state of tide matching the invasion, until you have seen the fortified cliffs and overgrown ancient dune line walling off an advance and providing cover for enemy snipers, until you have seen the hedgerows that provided the enemy infantry cover, until you’ve seen the roads designed for ox carts — the documentaries, the movies, the books are just attempts at understanding.

 

The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves by Donald Harcourt De Lue at the American Cemetery

How do one million (by July 4, 1944) commit themselves to throwing their lives against such barricades, again and again and again? Are there even people like that today, in those numbers?

I knew a few. My university President, Earl Rudder lead the Rangers up the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. My thesis adviser humped a BAR almost as long as he was tall up that beach. My dad and Janet’s dad served elsewhere, but they served for the duration. There were others we’ve met, but not many would talk.

Now that we’ve seen Omaha Beach, we think we may understand why. Now that we have been to the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, we think we may understand why. Now that we’ve heard French teachers in their twenties tell their pre-teen students, “And that is why we will always love the Americans,” we think we may understand.

It was a two hour coach ride to the Invasion Beaches. I tried to read, but too many signs held names of places I remembered from the attempts at understanding. When we arrived in Arromanches, we found ourselves in the midst of many other coach arrivals, a commemorative triathalon, a parking snafu and paucity of instructions on where to go and how to get there. Nico, the Program Director stepped in and eventually got things sorted. Good Man.

A Reminder in Place

The Mulberry-B Museum was jammed, and we missed our planned film time and spent most of our time queued up for the next showing. Fortunately, the museum was small enough we could take it in from where we queued. Mulberry was the artificial harbor towed from England to France to provide logistics support for the invasion since it had been determined no French port nearby could be made usable in time, even assuming an immediate liberation of the port.

Much Clatter

From there we went to lunch, which the restaurant handled pretty well since there were instantly 160 of us at the door. It wasn’t the best meal we’d had in France, but I would have had it again (even though we are not sure what one item was). From the restaurant, we reboarded our coaches and spent the rest of the afternoon visiting key locations along the beach and the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.

Old Soldiers

There we watched as two survivors of D-Day placed roses at the markers of people who had fallen beside them on the day of the invasion. We were OK until the bagpipes started.

Known only to God

 

 

We, too, placed roses and chose to do so at the markers of those “known only to God.” After that there was a small remembrance ceremony, and then suddenly I realized an in-trail formation of aircraft was approaching — five C-130s, a CASA and an Osprey from my old outfit flew over a low altitude and full speed  — twice. It was entirely coincidence, but it brought back many thoughts from the days when I was a burial detail commander for a year. We had time to visit the Memorial Center, and we’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

 

It was another two hours back to the ship. The bus was very quiet. For some, it was age. For some, it was the meal. For some, it was the understanding.

Rainy Rouen

The meteo-radar did not look promising when we woke approaching Rouen. Wet weather due west was headed due east. When the time came to head into the town, the wet weather was upon us. Have you ever noticed cities smell different when they are wet?

Rouen has a reputation. The place where Jeanne d’Arc was burned at the stake in 1431, a medieval financial powerhouse from 1499, a continuous allied bombing target in WWII (1942-1944) because of its rail yards and other logistic targets, but today a big part of its fame comes from the very large number of timber, wattle and daub structures still standing (if barely, in a case or two), and its city clock.

This town house was built in the late 1400s before the 1520 law that forbade overhanging upper floors

As we walked through the central section of the city we were surrounded by the architectural evidence that France* was English and England was French for a very large part of medieval and renaissance history. Between the timbers is wattle, a lattice of stripped branches, straw and mud. As noted before, restoration is a career in France. *OK, Normandy.

As with all our tours, both included and optional, our guide was excellent and kept her cool when harassed by a loitering guy dressed as a chicken. The bicycle fair was a nice positive after that bit of nonsense.

It was a crowded day, Father’s Day in France, and once again we received stern warnings about pickpockets. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to keep one of our group from donating the contents of her purse to a passing one.

 

Rouen is one of the places we’d like to see more of. Our walk around encompassed just a few city blocks, and there is so much more here. Even so, we’d wait for a sunny day.

Giverny!

In 1986, we were lucky enough to see the traveling exhibition of French Impressionist works at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in D.C. It was essentially eight mini-exhibitions, with each new NGA gallery devoted to one of the Parisian shows of the 1880s. We were particularly taken by the works of Monet and Seurat.

Monet, early Spring at Giverny

Over the years as gardening increasingly captured our interest, and especially Ikebana where Janet was concerned, we started thinking seriously about a visit to Giverny, the garden home and studios of Monet just outside Vernon. It only took 31 years to get there.

What follows is a largely un-captioned celebration of color and remembrance. While Monet lived on the edge of starvation in his early years (as most impressionists), he became wealthy after conceiving of “series” paintings which captured the changes brought to images by the changes in lighting as morning passed to evening. Much of that wealth went into land acquisition and gardening, and oh, what a garden. As we arrived with Spring in France, the garden is between Winter wild and Summer spectacular. Should you get to Giverny, be sure to visit the Musee des Impressionnismes there. It may be one of the best in its size class anywhere.

Lyon and Environs (a.m., Day 2)

On sort à Beaujolais! We’re off to Beaujolais! The morning is allocated to wine tasting in the north of the Beaujolais Province (almost to Mâcon) and the afternoon is for packing and such, as tomorrow is departure day for all but 24 of us. (The Heimdal has had 180 guests aboard.) We would have cruised to Mâcon, but high water levels made it impossible to get under the bridges.

To keep from overwhelming individual wineries, our various buses went their separate ways, including the one that got lost. Ours went to the commune of Pierreclos and its Chateau. The trip was a winding climb which left a few folks queasy. It was much greener than the trip to Pérouges. The bus required most of the road when we left the highway system. We were surrounded by grapevines, and the lecture from guide Annabelle was excellent. We thought we knew quite a bit about grapes and wine, and then she started using the view to provide talking points about vini-culture. Merci, Annabelle.

On our way, we saw Solutré, a rock massif with paleo-human significance that  was discovered as a paleo site in 1866 by the French geologist and paleontologist Henry Testot-Ferry. It is now the Parc archéologique et botanique de Solutré. Occupied by humans for 55,000+ years, it is the cradle of the Pouilly-Fuissé wine appellation.

The Chateau was classically French. No longer a winery, (that work was moved elsewhere) it sits surrounded by grapevines and serves as a point of sale, teaching venue, and inn. Its tasting room was in the wine cellar where the rocks just exuded age. We were offered a Mâcon Pierreclos Chardonnay, a Pouilly-Fuisse, a Gamay Beaujolais, and a Bourgogne followed by a Creme de Cassis for the making of Kir Royales and such. As a palette cleanser, we were served bread and Gougère — unfilled  pate-a-choux pastries garnished with Gruyere.

The young ladies at the Chateau were charming and earnestly wanted one to enjoy the experience. No one pushed the wine.  We bought all but the Beaujolais and Cassis. We didn’t worry about getting them home, we still have eight days in France.

A word about our bus drivers. We’ve ridden a lot of buses on ski trips, garden trips, day trips, you name it. We have never encountered a group of drivers so competent as the ones we had on this trip. They maneuver these behemoths through streets intended for horse and carriage. We have seen them literally thread through spaces with less than three inches on each side. Their temperament has been nothing but helpful, and they keep the buses spotless inside and out.

 

Lyon and Environs (p.m., Day 1)

Click for Full Size

With so much focus on the Romans, Viking added a tour at the medieval town of Pérouges. Out on the highway toward Grenoble and the Alps, it sat on a small hill surrounded by farm lands and fish ponds. Pérouges was inhabited by farmers, linen weavers and other craftsmen until trains and highways were routed away from it taking their supplies and sales from them.

It was likely founded by a Gallic colony returning from Perugia in Italy prior to 1167. It had a unusual ring wall in that it included the back church wall. There was a high gallery at the back of the 15th century church which seemed out of place until our guide Stephania explained that it connected the battlements on either side of the church. The town’s main gate dates back prior to 1236. The wood and forgings are original.

Stephania also explained that much of our misunderstanding of the medieval period comes from towns like Pérouges. You will notice in the photo gallery the town is brown. It wasn’t in medieval times. All of the bare rock and construction materials would have been plastered smooth and painted bright colors.

Pérouges was falling apart when a public-private partnership sought to restore it. Each partner was given 99 years to get the work done. Otherwise the property would revert and be demolished for safety reasons. When it came to plastering the buildings, it was expensive and not particularly durable. No consensus could be reached other than to declare the unplastered buildings as fully restored per the purchase agreements.

So what gives this small, out of the way town the potential mislead so many? It’s been used for movie filming (notably, the Three Musketeers, 1961) and was the inspiration for theater and opera sets. So, to some degree, the misinformation went viral. So glad that’s so rare.

 

not much Gallete left, can you spell l-o-c-u-s-t-s?

Before we left, we sampled a Galette Pérougienne (or Galette de Pérouges) from a recipe created by Marie-Louise Thibaut in 1912 when she settled in the village with her husband. We decided to wet our whistle with very expensive (those glasses were small), very sweet, carbonated rosé. Well, that’s not what we decided, that’s just what resulted. The restaurant was quintessential country French and very well known. What doesn’t get much press is the 100 year old sausage hanging from a ceiling fixture. It was hung there when a son went off to WWI — to be eaten when he returned…

Lyon and Environs (a.m., Day 1)

The Musée des Confluences is a science center and anthropology museum — it was our wake up call.

Lugdunum may have been musical to Roman ears, but Lyon sounded much better to us — regardless of intonation. You see, France has many, many flavors of French, and as soon as you speak French learned in a non-local home or classroom, they shift, either to formal French or English (in our case). It became a game.

Magali

We would use French, and they would answer in English. We would speak English, and they would answer in local French. But Bonjour Madame ou Monsieur was guaranteed to get a sincere and friendly effort to communicate. With 30% of English being French in direct or derivative origin, it’s actually fun if one lets it be.

So far, we and the French we have spoken with, have all walked away with a smile. One thing throughout the trip was we never had to point to a menu item. Our French was always good enough to get us what we expected. Magali, like all our French guides, was more than willing to assist us with pronunciation and word selection and gender. Some of the glottals required a six year old’s throat.

Since we would be in Lyon for more than a day, we chose our cool first morning tour to focus on the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. The less than fully religious here refer to it as the upside down elephant*. Its design  dates to the mid 1800s, but its traditional elements make it feel older. Unlike just about everything we’ve seen so far, it wasn’t wrapped in controversy beyond the usual secular-religious tug of war. It was built in thanks for the sparing of Lyon in the Franco-Prussian War.

After crossing a lane of bike traffic moving at breakneck speed with the help of all the crew including the Captain, we loaded ourselves in another coach to cross the river and climb the hill.

Lyon is the third largest city in France. It’s a foodie city, and the foodies get their Euro working in banking, as well as for the chemical, pharmaceutical, and biotech industries — and bistros, cafes, restaurants and brasserie…  A word about that, Bistros** mean fast, Cafe means coffee. Restaurants mean at least two course meals. Brasseries are where one gets beer. In practice, it’s not so tightly defined, but that’s the etymology. There are said to be 2500 eateries of some description in the city center alone, and the tourists make up a very small portion of the business. This is a working city with an appetite and always has been.

One of its unique attributes are Traboules. These are hidden, street-level tunnels that were cut between businesses and townhouses to facilitate the silk trade — IT geeks would call it a sneaker-net — a network hidden within and beneath the acknowledged infrastructure. These were neither dark nor dank. People lived in houses that fronted them. They were just an extensive array of short cuts designed to reduce the number of Francs it took to make more Francs.

The first part of the gallery is a traboule that underruns a townhouse. The second is a traboule that runs behind a business and apartments.

Did we say Lyon is a foodie city? The following gallery encompasses a single block. There are hundreds of blocks.

On our return to the ship, our Maitre’d, Manuel, and the dining staff awaited us with a presentation of the “Taste of Provence,” a melange of culinary specialties from the area. Ou, La, La!

* Upside Down Elephant

 

 

 

 

**The word bistro derived from the Russian bystro (быстро), “quickly”. It entered the French language during the Battle of Paris (1814). Russian officers or cossacks who wanted to be served quickly would shout “bystro. “The French turned it from an irritant to an attribute. OBTW, Bistro = Bistrot