Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lest We Forget

Reposting this from 2 year ago, after Andrew and I visited various war sites in France.

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.
Upon arriving we decided to take a good look around the shore. It looks like a regular beach, there isn’t much left at Juno (although I think that’s not necessarily the case at other landing points) aside from the remnants of a couple of German bunkers, but I found it fascinating anyway. After a half an hour or so we headed into the museum and were attended by some very friendly Canadians (I think it had been a quite morning and they were a tad bored). We chatted as we paid our entrance and signed up for the tour later that day before entering the exhibit. I found the permanent exhibit at Juno exceedingly interesting. I could remember bits and pieces of the information conveyed from school history classes (always my favourite topic). It seemed to me that the designers had made a concerted effort to demonstrate to the rest of the world what Canada was like during the first and second world war, and the toll (different for the war-torn countries in Europe) it took on our country.
The statue outside the Juno Beach Centre.
A close up of the statue outside the Juno Beach Centre.
We took our sweet time going through the museum before heading out to meet our tour guide at 3:00 pm (we headed into the exhibit around 12:00 pm). By this point, the beautiful spring day had turned into an unpleasant, cold, rainy one and so everyone huddled under hoods and umbrellas to stay dry. Our interpreter explained to us the purpose of the Juno Beach Centre, took us into the remains of the German observation bunker, and described what storming Juno would have been like. Afterward we chatted some more with her and were invited to join the Canadian interpreters at O’Donnell’s (the Irish Pub) in Cean later that evening. Before leaving the site we briefly checked the temporary exhibit, which was on the Metis. We didn’t stay long as we hadn’t had lunch (now 5:00 pm) and our return bus was in an hour.
A view of Juno Beach Centre and the observation bunker.
An interior shot of the bunker.
By this point the weather had cleared up again and was quite cheery. We grabbed a quick (and delicious) meal at a local restaurant before heading to our bus stop. Then we waited. And we waited. And we waited until almost half an hour after the bus was supposed to come. Not sure what else to do we headed back to Juno Beach since we knew the Canadian interpreters were heading back to Caen that evening. We felt bad bumming a ride, but we didn’t know how else to get back to our hotel. Being Canadians, and just friendly people in general, they helped us out and six of us piled into a tiny car in order to get back to Caen. I sat on Andrew’s lap while my head touched the roof. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride I’d experienced, but it got us where we were going.

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.
When we were done at the castle we headed out a different exit, which took us higher up the cliffs. At the very top were the remains of some kind of fortifications, but its purpose wasn’t clear. Not too far a long the road there was another bunker, and keen to see what it was and I managed to convince Andrew and our friend to wander down to check it out. As it turned out, we couldn’t get into this particular bunker. The door was boarded up, and the windows were too narrow to shimmy through; however, I noticed there was another building not too much farther along. We continued along on the agreement that this would be the last stop and we lucked out. This bunker was open. We approached it from the front, but quickly discovered we could climb onto the top and around to the other side where the door was still open. Although the main room was pitch-black, we ventured through to what was probably the observation room. Clearly the teens of Dieppe had been visiting this place for decades as the floor was littered with bottle caps and graffiti covered the walls.
The German pillbox.
The entrance to the German pillbox.
The view of the beach from the German pill box
After this exploration we did indeed head back to the car where we made a most unfortunate discovery. We’d received a parking ticket! It hadn’t occurred to us that we might have to pay for parking and so we'd just left the car without thinking more than 3 hours before. We tried to use our GPS to locate the police station where the tickets were issued, but had some difficulty determining exactly where we were supposed to go. In the end it turned out that all we had to do was go to the nearest convenience store and purchase a special stamp that covered the amount we were fined and put it in the mail. Once this task was covered we headed off for Arras, another 2.5 hour journey. We made it (though not without a few “Re-calculating route” comments from the GPS) and while it was still light outside. Parking was a bit of a challenge, but I’ll get to that…

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.
The monument.
The Vimy monument is an imposing figure when you arrive at the site, even on a grey, windy day. The two columns tower over the ridge, and the base is just plain massive. As we approached we noticed a Canadian interpreter standing by unoccupied, so we asked her if she could show us around the monument and she seemed happy to oblige us. She walked with us along the path and explained the history of the monument, its construction, the meaning of figures (such as the mourning parents, Mother Canada, etc) and kindly answered our questions. Eventually we wander about the monument on our own, taking a closer look at the carvings and gazing over the over 11,000 names carved on the walls. After some time we decided to drive (thinking the distance was greater than it was) over to the visitor's centre.

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.
Once we’d completed our tour we carried on to the two war cemeteries located in the park. As we walked, we passed the herd of sheep that live on the grounds. They are the park’s lawnmower as the heavily cratered ground are not amenable to electric or gas run mowers. We took our time as we passed through the rows of headstones. Not all of the stones had names, some just stated “a soldier or the great war” where the buried soldier is unidentified. Before departing from the park we returned to the monument once more for a second look around. Before coming I wasn’t sure how I would react to visiting these war sites. I thought my imagination and my emotions might overwhelm me and that I might break down into tears. I didn’t, but I was definitely full of thoughts of what it must have been like to be at war.
The sheep mowing the lawn at Vimy.
We headed back into town around 5:30 pm. We returned our rental car (after a couple of loops of the streets of Arras as we tried to figure out exactly where we had to go), and managed to grab some dinner before our train embarked for Paris. We said goodbye to our friend, who was heading further north, then relaxed on the train as we ate our dinner. We were in Paris a little less than an hour later. It probably took us no more than twenty minutes to get from the train to our hotel, which we booked based on it’s proximity to the train station. We watched several episodes of Simpsons in French as we re-packed our luggage and wrote postcards.

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.
We spent much of the day at the Lourve and even after 6 hours of wandering and admiring we probably only saw half of the collection. I liked the Venus de Milo a great deal. She wasn’t as heavily admired as La Joconde, so I was able to stand to one side and see her clearly. Several of the other visitors to the Louvre took pictures of themselves in front of paintings and statues. I found this excessively strange and while I was standing near the Venus de Milo I had a very strong urge to mess up people’s photos. I managed to contain myself and not make faces or other such nonesense, but it was tempting nonetheless.

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.
After we’d finished our tour of Notre Dame, we headed out toward the Eiffel Tower, but stopped before we managed to leave the church square to watch a couple of street artists paint “name pictures.” In what was probably less than ten minutes, these artists were able to spell out the names of their customers using the figures of birds, fish, flowers and other scenes. We had our last name “Milne” drawn as the artists only charged 5 euros. Once our painting was dry and we were able to roll it up, we carried on our way. We opted to walk along the river bank, which was quite pleasant; however, by the time we’d reached the Tower, almost an hour later, it had begun to rain. The lines for the elevator up the tower were 45-minutes long and by this time it was almost 8:00 pm. I had hoped to go up as Andrew had not been to the Tower before, but we hadn’t had a proper lunch and we had to get up early the next day to get our train back to Germany.
The Eiffel Tower.
We had some difficulty working out the local train system in Paris, figuring out how much tickets were and which trains would take us where, but we got it figured out and got back to the area of Paris where our hotel was with surprising ease. The only thing left to do was pick a restaurant for dinner. I had noticed two potential restaurants the night before when we arrived in Paris, so we consulted the menus posted outside and selected one where enjoyed a delightful meal. It seems pre-ordering a three-course meal is common in France. You pick your starter, entree and desert from the menu, and the evening precedes with little interruption and much delicious food. I started with french onion soup, followed it with duck comfit, and finished with an apple tart.

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.


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