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. 

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