Monday, September 30, 2013

St. Nazaire.... Reminders Everywhere

One of the places Paul wanted to visit, due to his interest in the Second World War, was St. Nazaire, a large port town on the Atlantic coast where the Loire river empties into the sea. According to my tour guide and WWII expert, the Germans moved in with mega tons of concrete and miles of heavy-duty rebar in 1940 and profoundly changed what had been an important and picturesque harbor since the mid 1800's. 

This building sits in the middle of today's harbor, but was built in 1940 as the dry dock for the formidable German pocket battleship "Tirpitz". The English drove an old ship into the harbor and exploded it to prevent the  Tirpitz from coming in and out, and the stranded Tirpitz was finally sunk near Norway shortly thereafter. The dock was unusable until 1947.  

The wily Germans, however, continued building pens and dry docks for their u-boats, and the mark left on St Nzaire from this activity is unmistakeable. There were 14 pens built over a 3 year period, but were rendered unuseable In September, 1944. Tthe Germans were defeated and surrendered in May of 1945.
There are about 3 city blocks of hulking concrete structures along the waterfront at St. Nazaire, and until the mid 1990's were largely ignored and considered a blight on the harbor. Even now, it is difficult to get much information about them, but wandering thru these huge structures bring a chilling reminder of the might of war. 
There are still German words stenciled on the walls:
Concrete lasts 20 to 30 years before it begins to deteriorate, embedded steel rods corrode and break through the surface of the cement, and eventually even those massive buildings will crumble and fall. It has been 70 years since these giant structures were built, and as this photo shows  there are signs of decay everywhere. 
Some of the area under and inside this colossal mausoleum is now used by temporary structures which house the tourist office, a newspaper kiosk, coffee bar and small art gallery. Interestingly, information regarding the concrete structures is limited to two short paragraphs in the multi lingual visitor guide. 

Surely, St.  Nazaire must have some attraction other than decaying cement reminders of a horrible war? A walk about a half mile along the quai revealed the answer! One of about 20 beaches, most connected by wide walkways, heavily populated by walkers, runners, cyclists, and skate boarders. 
Interesting little shrimp huts dot the tidal  flats, and where there are wide stretches of dry sand, playgrounds offer amusements for children, and sunbathers soak up the sun. 
Facing the beaches are little bars and cafes all along the boardwalk, which offer a welcome stop on a warm day, and a refreshing opportunity to shake off the reminders of war and appreciate the peaceful life on the Loire Atlantique coast of France. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Chez Robinson

We lived in England for seven and a half years in the 80's and one of the treasures we have retained from that chapter in our lives is the friendship with Len and Sylvia Robinson. We traveled with them on many occasions over those few years, enjoyed frequent dinners back and forth, and lots of exposure to English village life. Several years ago the Robinson's retired to a small hamlet in rural southwestern France, and refurbished an 1800's Charantais farmhouse. 
Living in this house is like living in the pages of a book on historic rural French homes. The stone walls are 2 feet thick, the tile roof and blue shutters are required by the local authority for historical authenticity, and the rolling hills surrounding the hamlet are thickly planted with grapes, sunflowers and maize.
The previous owners of the house at some point in history made wine, and there are rusted bits and pieces which serve as reminders of that era around the property. Both Sylv and Len enjoy gardening, and have a natural affinity for what sorts of plants belong in this setting.

The naturally occurring rock of the region, a limestone with nodules of flint, iron and quartz geodes litters the garden, and forms a rockery in the pool area. A bench made from an old wine barrel nestles under the fig tree against the ivy hedge. 

Inside , the house invites the visitor to wander from room to room, as if turning the pages of a book, but enjoying it in 3-d pop up. 

The welcoming entry hall greets you, with its massive ancient fireplace, interesting furnishings and artwork. 

The dining hall, as seen from the mezzanine above,  opens onto another garden in the front of the house. 

A little day bed tucked under the stairwell in the dining room.

Massive beams and sofas on the mezzanine which serves as an overflow sleeping area. 
Stairwell leading to the mezzanine and bedrooms on the upper floor. 
Vignette behind the seating area in the sitting room. 
Sylvia in her kitchen. 
The exterior wall on the corner of the barn with a Virginia creeper type vine. The thick walls and sturdy construction offer a cool respite from the hot sun.

We are truly blessed to be invited here to spend time with such long time friends, and share this beautifully accommodating home. Life in this part of France truly is tres jolie! 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Bye-bye Bayeux, Allo Mont St Michel... And beyond

We dutifully cleaned our Gite, breakfasted on the remains of cheese, pâté melons, tomatoes and bread left from the past few days, packed the car and headed south. The car is equipped with a GPS, which is wonderful, but it speaks French, and we have great difficulty understanding how to program it. Thankfully, we brought our own from home, and it usually works well, except when it tells us to turn in places we think are incorrect. Just as a pilot should always trust his instruments, we should trust our GPS. It has never gotten us lost. I cannot say the same for my map reading and manual navigation skills. 
Paul sitting at the wheel of our slick little Peugeot. At last calculation we got about 18.5 km to the liter. If my math is correct, that's about 44 miles to the gallon! It is not a hybrid, it uses diesel, and actually shuts off while sitting idle at a signal light. Great's a Midsize and seats 4 comfortably with luggage! 

Mont St Michel is visible from several kilometers away, and as we approached we were excited to see this ancient and famous citadel looming in the distance. 
The unmistakable shape of the Mont is referenced in the pictorial embroidery of the Bayeux Tapestry, as the Abbey has served as a place of refuge and religious pilgrimage since it was founded in 708.
It now suffers the crush of 3 1/2 million visitors a year!
In order to visit, one has to park between 3 and 5 km away and pay 9.5 euros, board a shuttle bus that  takes you to a walkway, and it's a 1/2 mile hike from the drop off point to the tourist information center at the base.  Once off the shuttle bus,  the trek up to the abbey begins, passing through myriad trinket and souvenir shops, restaurants and hotel entrances. It must all be very charming, but we arrived Thursday afternoon in blustery 18 mph winds and driving rain, which doesn't equate to walking, climbing weather in my book!  Friday morning the weather had improved, but we opted for a close up camera view instead of fighting the crowds. And, although difficult to admit, my cranky left knee would probably have behaved on the uphill, but I wasn't looking forward to the down. At least we saw this amazing site from a short distance.

The little village of Beauvoir, where our hotel was located is pleasant, well kept, and decorated with pots and baskets and boxes of flowers everywhere. Only in France would you find the town recycling center camouflaged behind flower boxes! 
This area of lower Normandy grows a variety of grains, and there are still artisan millers who grind these crops into flour, for general sale and also for custom orders. This little mill sits on a hill  on the outskirts of Beauvoir. 
Tummies full after petite dejuner at our hotel, and Beauvoir in our rear view mirror, we set the GPS for St Nazaire. Arriving a bit ahead of schedule to meet friends Sylv and Len Robinson, we pulled into a large shopping center and spyed Flunch! A large, modern cafeteria perfectly suited to providing us  an inexpensive and delicious lunch.
Bright, colorful, modern, and delicious! You pour your own 50 cl carafe of wine for 4 Euros! 
Some of the offerings on the salad bar. We split a salad caprese, as seen on the square plates above, a half avocado stuffed with seafood salad, and a small meat tray, roll and wine, for 10 euro .55, the equivalent of about $13.50. Nous aimons la France!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

By Bayeux - Part 2

On June 6, 1944 the allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy with hundreds of thousands of men, hundreds of ships, landing craft, tanks and weapons of all sorts in order to turn the tide of history and liberate millions of Europeans from the clutches of Nazi Germany. 

The result as we all know from our history books, was the loss of tens of thousands of young lives, and for every casualty on the side of the allies, there were two lost from the German forces. It is one thing to read facts and figures in black type on white paper, but quite another to experience the thousands of white marble crosses in a cemetery, or see and listen to the video oral histories of those who were there. 
To experience the actual place, so peaceful now, with waves lapping gently along a 4 mile beach of pristine sand, and cliffs barely scarred by the presence of young men scrambling up to knock out German bunkers. 
Friends Cindy and Dave Henry met us in Bayeux and shared our D-Day beach experience with us. 

At Utah Beach we saw a cratered landscape that evoked an true understanding of how powerful our bombs were, and how difficult it was to accurately hit the targeted German gun emplacements. Here is one that survived intact:
And here is one that did not:
It was fascinating to see the size and bulk of the structures built on the "Atlantic Wall", that Hitler was so sure would withstand any sort of invasion. And yet in one day, June 6 1944, the wall was breached, several thousand German soldiers were held in capture, and many thousands more were dead. 
I don't understand war. I think I am deeply, philosophically opposed to war. I morn for the lives never lived by all those young men who died on those bloody beaches that day. I think if the old men who plan wars had to fight them, we wouldn't have war. BUT! What if the Allies had not intervened? How would the millions of people who were  suffering under Hitler's tyrannical regime have survived? How would their cultures have been affected? Perhaps the free people of this world have an obligation to protect the down trodden who are overrun by tyrannical regimes? I don't know. 
I do know that this famous battlefield and its many museums are worth a visit. Maybe if more government leaders visited places like Normandy, they would find a way other than going to war to solve conflicts. There is a nice quote on the wall at the visitor center at the American Cemetery
"You can manufacture tanks and purchase ammunition, But you can't buy valor, and heroes don't come off an assembly line."

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

By Bayeux - Part 1

Bayeux ( pronounced "bye euww" as in view ), Calvados, Normandy, France is an ancient, quaint, lively and historic town. Bayeux is geographically located in the heart of Normandy, the home of Camembert, Calvados, cidre (hard cider) the Bayeux Tapestry and D-Day 1944 beachesWe arranged to rent a little town house that is located in the centre ville, right around the corner from the high street which teems with restaurants, little shops, creparies and coffee bars.

Bayeux is located only 6 miles from the nearest D-Day beach, and yet was miraculously spared from any bombing or even fighting between the Germans and the allies within its town limits.
Apples are the major produce crop in this area, and farms that produce apple juice, cidre, pommeau, (which is a fortified cider) and Calvados dot the countryside. We stopped at one the other day, and were offered tastes of each of their products. Not able to just taste and leave, we bought a couple of bottles, which paired wonderfully with a Norman Apple tarte for dessert.

Bayeux' Notre Dame Cathedral dominates the skyline, and though most buildings are 3 stories or so high, one can keep ones bearings while wandering around the winding streets simply by finding a clear bit of sky and looking for the Cathedral. 
Beautiful by day or night, this imposing structure is a beautiful inside as it is outside.
Commissioned in 1066 the church sits over an ancient Roman Crypt, and for 400 years housed the Bayeux Tapestry, which was also commissioned by Bishop Odo, half brother of William the Conquerer.
The Cathedral is built in the Norman gothic style, and has undergone many remodels, repairs and restorations over the centuries.

A block down the street from the Cathedral is the museum which houses La Tapisserie de Bayeux, a 120 foot long wool on linen embroidery which chronicles a two year period of events leading up to, and subsequent Battle of Hastings.
As no cameras are allowed inside the museum, I have lifted this image off the web. It is amazing this light weight linen embroidery has lasted as it has, because no effort to preserve it had been made until early in the last century. It was hung in the cathedral each year for about a month for 400 years, but stored rolled up in a wooden box, and miraculously escaped two devastating fires. In 1792, it was used as a tarpaulin to cover a load of weapons, but was rescued by a member of the National Guard. It is a world treasure not to be missed, if ever you travel to this corner of France.

Tomorrow: By Bayeux - Part 2

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Are We There Yet?

There was a time when arriving at an airport at the start of a journey bright excitement, and the exhilaration of expectation of things to come. Thursday, our 11 AM arrival at the Delta check-in area was the start of a string of frustrating events that culminated in two very long days of travel adventure.

Upon arrival at SEA- Tac, the reader board indicated our flight was delayed by 2 hours, meaning nearly a five hour wait as we had  dutifully arrived well ahead of the suggested two hours in advance schedule. Next, the check- in kiosk, which is being used now in lieu of human airline agents, refused our check-in information, with  "seek assistance" flashing in red letters across the screen. We found an overworked but very friendly Delta assistance agent who  examined our credentials, and entered same into the machine, only to reach the same result. This complication required us to move into a very long very slow "Special Assistance " line. An hour and 15 minutes after our arrival, we had boarding passes in hand .. wait! Only two of the three needed for our days journey! It seems Delta/KLM have no association with Hop! the airline of our third leg, meaning they could not check us thru, nor check our bag thru to our final destination. Hop! Is  operated by BritAir for Air France, and serves small airports all over France. This little complication resulted in us having to claim our checked bag in Lyon, get boarding passes there, recheck our bag, and locate our departure gate. More about that below...

Proceeding to Security, we learn the security area at the far south end of the terminal is backed up and we must go to the central area, about a quarter of a mile walk, where the serpentine line moved at a snails pace, and it was a full 20 minutes before we reached the inspection area. In my own inimitable fashion,set off the alarm, and found myself being inspected and re inspected by the TSA agent, the wand passed over and under and around my body parts, and finally a swab used on my palms and subjected to the machine that reveals suspect substances. If ever there were a case for acquiring the 
TSA Pre-check, I think it is me. After reclaiming all of my possessions and getting re-dressed (shoes, jewelry, sweater, scarf), we proceed back down to the south end of the terminal and find a cafe for a bit of brunch. Tummies satisfied, the shuttle takes us out to the Delta satellite  terminal where we finally are shoehorned into our seats, and begin the long nights flight to Amsterdam.
One of the many canals visible in the morning gloom over Amsterdam.

Amsterdams Schiaphol airport is huge, modern and beautiful. It is so large, that as you are transiting on foot (Europeans walk everywhere ), there are signs that tell you how many minutes to the section of gates you are heading to. It was about a 15 minute walk from  our arrival gate to our departure gate.
Above, a wine bar and shop at the Amsterdam airport. 
Below, Chocolate! What else could you possibly need? 

Our delayed departure in Seattle meant a much shorter layover in Amsterdam, and we shortly were boarded onto a KLM city hopper to Lyon, where we landed at the regional end of the terminal, hiked into the central area, claimed our bag, cleared security and customs...( yes, once again I was patted down inspected with a beeping electronic wand) and then catapulted thru a series of walkways and elevators into a teeming court of kiosks, airline desks and confusing signs, mostly in French. A nearly sleepless 24 hours was beginning to take its toll, but amazingly, the screen on the check in kiosks recognized us immediately with our confirmation number, spit out boarding passes, and even luggage tags! Once the bags were in the hands of the airline, we proceeded back to the regional terminal area, only a 6 minute walk on the people mover conveyor belt. 

The flight to Caen ( pronounced "cun", by the way) was an uneventful hour and fifteen minutes, affording us a little catnap, staving off the inevitable exhaustion.  Picking up our rental car and finding our way via our French GPS to our Gite was uncomplicated, and our hosts were welcoming, friendly and helpful.
Madame Roquier's English is far better than my French, and we had some good laughs understanding each other. We are wonderfully situated within just a couple of blocks of the historic section of Bayeux (pronounced "beh-euu" like view).  It is a charming and medieval city, and we love being so close in. 

Too tired to consider going out to dinner,  we made a brief foray out for coffee, bread and cheese, had a little snack and fell into bed at 8:30.
Not surprisingly, we were up with the chickens, unpacked, showered and took a walk to the very large and lovely Saturday Market at Place St Jean. Our larder is stocked with fresh local produce, we bought fresh bread at the boulangerie around the corner, and life is more than good!