The train, multi-national: April 28th, 2010
Today was a travel day. We spent approximately 9 hours on the train (not including the local train in Italy to get us to Milano, about 30 minutes), plus layover time (which was around 15-20 minutes at Milano and Zurich), plus a 45-minute, hectic crossing of Paris from one train station to another. We got into Caen, France around 9:00 pm. It took us a few minutes more to figure out where to go for our hotel, but thanks to the assistance of some friendly Red Cross workers we were on our way. Unfortunately, once we got to our hotel they didn’t have our reservation, which was what we feared would happen. We had had some difficulties with the online reservation system earlier and had only an email from a staff member saying we had a room. The staff covered the confusion reasonably well and we were provided accomodations after only a short delay. Once installed into our room Andrew ran out to grab some dinner (donair). We scarfed it down and we went to sleep pretty much immediately afterward.
Caen/Courseulles-sur-Mer, France: April 29th, 2010
On our first morning in Caen we knew where we wanted to go, but we weren’t sure how we were going to get there. Our hoped for destination was Juno Beach, the landing location of the Canadian Army in 1944 when Operation Overlord was put into action. The night before I had noticed signs pointing to the tourist office, so once we were washed and dressed (although not yet fed) we headed out in search of information. It was a nice morning, promising warmth and sunshine, which helped our somewhat aimless wander through Caen. The signs to the tourist office continued; however, the exact direction they were pointing in was sometimes unclear. We did get lost (although not by too much), but we eventually found our goal. The office wasn’t open until 10:00 am, so we took the downtime to score breakfast (some kind of bun-thing with chocolate chips).
Once the tourist office was open, we were helped by a friendly employee. We thought at first we might be able to take a tour to see all of the landing beaches (Gold, Sword, Omaha, Juno and Utah), but the bus was full. When we explained the most important stop for us was Juno, we were informed we could take a local bus directly there, although we would have to wait a bit for the next one (in about 30 minutes), and the trip would take approximately an hour. We located our bus stop, only a couple of blocks away, then took a walk around the immediate area to see what else was around. Most places were closed at this time, but we did pick up a couple of hot drinks before returning to the stop. The bus ride to Courseulles-sur-Mer (the town beside Juno) was pleasant, and as I said, an hour long. It was nice to see the French countryside and the small towns along the way. Our stop was about a 7-10 minute walk about from the beach.
|The beach at Juno.|
|The statue outside the Juno Beach Centre.|
|A close up of the statue outside the Juno Beach Centre.|
|A view of Juno Beach Centre and the observation bunker.|
|An interior shot of the bunker.|
I don’t remember when we finally got back to our hotel, but it was around 8:00 pm. We had dinner (Moroccan food) then got ourselves ready to go back out. Perhaps if we hadn’t needed to go back to Juno Beach to get a ride we would have stayed in and gone to bed at a reasonable hour. Instead we went out into Caen around 9:00 pm, located O’Donnell’s, and ended up staying out until 1:00 am. We drank and danced, and in general had a good time with our new Canadian friends. We also made arrangements to pick up one of the newest interpreters who hadn’t yet started work, and take him with us on our journey to Arras (via Dieppe) the next day.
Arras (via Dieppe), France: April 30th, 2010
We woke up far earlier than we would have liked given our late return to our hotel, and walked to the nearby Hertz to see if we could arrange a car rental. This was one of the few aspects of the trip we hadn’t arranged before hand. As it turned out, the rental wasn’t a problem (although somewhat expensive given the add-on fee for the second driver, the drop off for a different city and the GPS). We had the car in maybe 20 or 25 minutes and were off. We ended up driving several (many, like way more than necessary) blocks to just park a street over from where we started then walked to our hotel. We had two things to do before we headed off: 1) Call the folks at Juno to confirm we did have a car and could take our new friend with us, and 2) eat some breakfast. Phoning ended up being more of a challenge then we’d anticipated. Andrew’s cell phone wouldn’t work, nor did the one in our hotel room. We had to keep bothering the hotel front desk workers until we got through.
At around 10:00 am we headed off. I agreed to drive the first leg, so we set up the GPS and off we went. I actually kind of enjoyed driving in France. The rental car was a standard, which was fine as I learned on one, but it did make city driving slightly more difficult as the occasional stall was a problem. The drive out to Courseulles-sur-Mer took around 30 minutes. We didn’t stop long, just giving ourselves enough time to pop into the visitors centre to say hello and thanks, then we were off again. Our first destination was Dieppe, the coastal town the Canadian army attempted to liberate in 1942. The operation was a disaster, although some people try to see it as a training ground and major cause of the success experienced in Operation Overlord. A moment’s consideration for driving cross country in France: it is different then driving across Canada (no really?). In Canada, you tend to get on a highway and drive for ages until you reach your destination. In France I was constantly taking exits, going through roundabouts, and slowing down to pass through small villages. Although the speed limit got up to 130 km/hr at one point, I was generally traveling at something more like 60 or 70 km/hr.
We arrived in Dieppe around 2:00 pm and wound our way to the Canadian museum there. To our unfortunately luck, it was not open (we were a few days ahead of peak season and only had limited hours). We grabbed some lunch at a nearby café then headed out to investigate the beach. It was rocky, but pleasant, and giant cliffs over looked the coast. Our next stop was the Canadian park, at the base of one of the cliffs and over looked by the Dieppe castle. The park was quite pretty, with a few commemorative statues and cheerful flowers. A few locals were sitting and relaxing as we strolled around. After a bit we decided to see if we could get on top of the cliffs for a better view point and headed off down the street. We came to a driveway leading up to the castle and decided to check it out. Entrance was only 4 euros so we went in. The castle contained a collection of naval themed art, and ivory pieces. It was pleasant enough, although didn’t linger for more than an hour.
|The beach at Dieppe, with the cliffs over looking the water.|
|The Canadian Park, at the base of the cliffs.|
|The castle on the top of the cliffs.|
|The German pillbox.|
|The entrance to the German pillbox.|
|The view of the beach from the German pill box|
Arras, Vimy Ridge, France: May 1st, 2010
We had breakfast at our hotel that morning (all you can eat, with lots of fruit, breads, cheeses, etc) and checked out before heading out to retrieve the car. The night before Andrew had parked in the square nearby, believing that it was safe to do so over night. Well, it was safe, and we didn’t receive another parking ticket, but it was surrounded. An outdoor market had filled the streets around the square that the morning. On first glance we weren’t too sure how we were going to get out of our spot, but after a quick survey of the land, Andrew was able to determine it was possible. We slowly inched our way out, having to wait for people to get out of our way as we crept along the street. We found another parking lot nearby that was free (and you know, a proper lot). Andrew headed back to meet up with our friend, while I checked out the market in search of some lunch food.
Around 10:30 or 11:00 am we headed off for Vimy. It was probably a good thing we’d rented a car, as even though we could have made it to Arras by train, we would have been hard pressed to find our way out to the ridge. No public transportation goes that way and it’s a solid 10 miles (not km) outside the city. I was surprised when we reached the park to find that there were all kinds of joggers and walkers on the trails--I’m not sure why, maybe because to me this seems like an almost sacred place, but to the people who live there I suppose it’s just another park with some war monuments. As we followed the signs around the park to the Vimy monument I marveled at the enormous crater holes left behind from the shelling and landmines during the war. Numerous signs had been posted warning visitors to not step onto the fenced off areas as active mines are still buried in the ground.
|A view of the Vimy memorial from the parking lot.|
At the visitor’s centre we were able to sign up for a tour over the trenches and subways left behind at Vimy. We picked up some pins, postcards and stamps as we waited for our tour to start. Remains of both the allied and Germany trenches are still in place. We were able to pass through these trenches, and gain the faintest of ideas of what it might have been like to spend time in the trenches, only a few feet away from the German lines. These trenches are dry of course, and didn’t smell, so we couldn’t really image what it might be like to spend hours in these mazes. We also ventured into the Grange subway system and saw the only remaining piece of authentic first world war graffiti--a maple leaf carved into a stone wall.
|The maple leaf graffiti, protected behind a sheet of plexi-glass.|
|The remains of the trenches at Vimy. These were the Canadian trenches.|
|The sheep mowing the lawn at Vimy.|
Paris, France: May 2nd, 2010
We awoke early-ish (around 7:45 am, I forget for sure) as we hoped to go to the Lourve first thing in the morning. After a filling breakfast at the hotel, we headed out on foot, zig-zagging through the streets to the museum. I had hoped that, as this day was a Sunday, and the day after a national holiday, the Louvre wouldn’t be too busy. As it turned out, I had hoped in vein. When we arrived at museum only a few minutes after 9:00 am, a sizeable crowd had already assembled. The line moved quickly, although it wasn’t until we passed under one of the archways, which opened up to the main courtyard (where the glass pyramids are), that we realized how enormous the line was. Additionally, we discovered that the entrance was free this day. So, we were able to get into the Louvre without paying, but because of that there were probably twice the number of people than normal, and we couldn’t get anywhere near La Joconde (the Mona Lisa).
|One of the courtyards of the Louvre, and first part of the line leading into the museum.|
Once we left the Lourve we decided to walk to the cathedral of Notre Dame. I actually enjoyed reading Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, so I wanted to see inside the church, which I hadn’t had the chance to the last time I was in Paris. It was raining when we left the Louvre so we opted to grab a snack before heading all the way to the cathedral. By luck we were in the café long enough for things to dry up and so the 30 minute walk was pleasant, warm even. Entrance to the cathedral was free and so we happily wandered in. I was surprised to see that Notre Dame has modernized itself. There are monitors mounted on the pillars for the congregation members, the confession booths had been remodeled with glass walls, and there were posters advertising the cathedral’s charitable works. All of these things were absent from the churches we saw in Italy and Germany.
|The cathdral of Notre Dame, slightly off kilter.|
|The Eiffel Tower.|
The Trip Home: May 3rd, 2010
Finally, and briefly, we caught a train from Paris to Mannheim. Our next train was 10 minutes late, and packed, but when it finally arrived it successfully took us from Mannheim on to the Frankfurt airport. We had some confusion over where exactly to check in, but we managed it with sufficient time to stop at the airport McDonalds for a meal, which included veggie burgers, curly fries and beer. The plane was full, and also somewhat late to take off. We had to hurry through Pearson to catch our final connection from Toronto to Edmonton. Just before 10:00 pm we staggered through our apartment door, gave our cat several pets and nuzzles, then went to bed.
|Andrew and I, on our last train, on our way back to Germany to catch our plane home.|
|Enjoying our one an only McDonalds meal while in Europe.|