Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Visiting Omaha

We started the day with a visit to Bayeux. The first problem is that parking spaces are at a premium. I used the parking lot shark technique – follow someone who appears to be heading for their car and snatch their spot as they drive off. We finally found something resembling a parking space and took off on foot to find the tapestry.

They are proud of their little piece of cloth and would have you spend several hours reading descriptive material and watching films before seeing the real deal. We skipped all that and went right to tapestry. The free audio guides are adequate to describe the scenes on the tapestry.

Lunch was at a little outside cafe. I think my wife has finally gotten used to the French and their dogs. They take their dogs everywhere and it is not unusual to see them in a restaurant. A large black lab lay at her feet for the whole meal and she didn’t blink.

After the tapestry, we headed for the coast and the invasion beaches. We went to Port-en-Bessen and along the way happened upon a museum filled with D Day artifacts salvaged from the sea. In the parking lot were two examples of Double Drive Sherman tanks. These were secret amphibious tanks with propeller drives described previously. They were supported by an inflatable canvas “hull” and were supposed to propel themselves ashore unaided. These had to be some of the tanks lost by the 741st Tank Battalion. All but two of their 16 tanks were swamped trying to swim to the beach. These had lost their canvass “hulls” but remnants of the inflatable support struts were still attached along with the inflating mechanism and tubing. Their gun barrels were locked in the high elevation they had to have to clear the canvas skirt that kept them afloat. Uncle Phillip was in the 743rd Tank Battalion. When the LST driver carrying his tanks realized what was happening to the 741st, he elected ignore his orders and take his tanks all the way to the beach, an action that probably had a major impact on the outcome of the day.

When you approach the beaches from land it is not obvious that there is a beach. The land slopes gently up to an almost vertical bluff, and from the coast road, you can’t see what’s on the other side. We took the coast road that paralleled the beach until we got to Colleville. There we took a road down to the beach. This was probably the same route that most of the troops used to get off the beach on D Day. It was one of the major routes up the bluffs which were impassable to vehicles except in a few draws. And the Germans had these pretty well defended.

We parked on Omaha Beach in the shadow of the monument to the 1st Division. My wife is surprised to see the beach being used for recreation. Families were picnicking, flying kites and enjoying the day. I think she found it a little surreal. You tend to forget that this place, with all its history, is still a beach. But from this vantage point you get a better idea of what the soldiers faced. At low tide, they had to cross 300 yards of open beach. When they reached the high tide line, the beach ended in a strip of cobble stones and a shallow ledge about 2 feet high. Beyond that is another 100 yards of open ground leading to a bluff over 100 feet high. And the whole thing is strung with barbed wire, mines and covered with intersecting machine gun fire.

From here we headed back up the bluff for the American Cemetery at St. Laurent-sur-Mere. It’s late August and the lines of traffic are long. It seems for every car leaving, there are five wanting to get in. We arrive just after a heavy rain. I am astonished at the number of Europeans who are making the pilgrimage to the cemetery. Certainly they must have better things to do than to sit in traffic waiting to visit a cemetery with 10,000 graves, but then maybe we Americans underestimate the appreciation Europe still has for their liberation from the Nazis. I saw a similar appreciation in the South Korea. I hope the Iraqis will feel the same in 50 years.

The American Cemetery is another item on my list of things to see before you die.

From the cemetery we drove to Vierville-sur-Mer. This is far end of Omaha Beach. This is the beach area where my uncle came ashore. It was one of the main exits from the beach but the Germans had built a large concrete wall blocking the road. There were also gun emplacements where 88 mm guns could shoot the length of Omaha Beach. This is where the boys of Bedford, Virginia landed - just behind the tanks of the 743rd. Today the old gun emplacement serves as a memorial to the National Guard. This is the view the German gunners had. Try to imagine crossing that beach at low tide under fire form this gun.

The next stop was Pont-du-Hoc where Rangers climbed the cliffs only to find that the guns they were supposed to attack had been moved further inland. They found the guns and destroyed them anyway and then dug in until help arrived. It was two days before some tanks of the 743rd were able to get over to relieve the Rangers. I like to think Uncle Philip’s tank was one of them.

Pont-du-Hoc has been left much as it was in June 1944, bomb craters and all.

Pont-du-Hoc has seen several improvements since I was here a year ago. A new parking lot, landscaping and observation platforms had been built for the 60th anniversary. And again I saw European tourists flocking here with children in tow. Like kids everywhere, they enjoy climbing in and around the old gun emplacements.

Since I didn’t want to overload my wife with D-Day stuff, we ended the war tour and went back to La Ducrie. Dinner that night was in a small bistro in the city of St. Lo. We were reminded of the friendliness of the French again when the family at the table next to ours offered translation help with the menu and then we spent some time giving their young boys some practice In English.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Researching Family History

We leave Giverny and head for Lower Normandy. I got lost several times with the ring road around Caen being the biggest problem. (The Michelin directions were not clear on which exit to take.) We stopped for lunch in Bayeux. Leaving there, we passed the British Cemetery. A unique feature of the British Cemetery is that each headstone contains a personal statement or quote about the soldier buried there, making it a very personal and moving experience. Across the street from the cemetery is the Musee Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie. The Sherman tank parked out front is reportedly Patton’s personal tank. We arrived at La Ducrie, our 500 year old castle B&B destination in the little town of l’Hommet d’Arthenay in the early afternoon.

While my wife took a nap, I drove the local roads around nearby Le Dezert with maps and aerial photographs in hand to locate the site where my uncle Philip was killed in WW II. He landed on the beach as part of the 743rd Tank Battalion. They were a secret weapon called the "double drive tank". It could float and propel itself to shore. A canvas “hull” was inflated with an air compressor to support 80 tons of tank. They landed 10 minutes ahead of the main landing and probably would have sunk in the heavy seas if not for the personal initiative of their LST driver. He realized that the seas were too big for the flimsy canvas “hulls” and, contrary to his orders, took his vessel all the way in and landed the tanks directly on the beach. You can see an example of these tanks near Bayeux. They are from the ill fated 741st Tank Battalion. These tanks launched while in the open sea and foundered in the heavy seas.

Uncle Philip survived D Day and fought in Normandy until July 9, 1944 when most of his company was wiped out in a German ambush.

This area of Normandy has not changed very much in the last 60 years. The local roads in 1944 were still the same in 2004. The hedgerows, or bocage, is still very thick with the only concession to present day being that they now use mechanical trimmers to keep it from growing out over the roadway. (Its essentially a bush hog used in the vertical) I had aerial photographs from 1944 and 1996 and I could match the shapes of fields between the two photographs. At times it is like driving through a tunnel and you can understand why this feature was such a problem to the soldiers. The road is lower than the field and the hedgerow extends more than 20 feet high. It is impossible to see through the thick undergrowth. As best as I can tell, I get within one field of the spot where his tank was hit. (As it was raining and I didn’t know the owners, I didn’t want to go wandering across a cow pasture). His company lost 60% of their tanks that day when they were ambushed by an SS Panzer unit.

Normandy is full of stories. Our host at the B&B related the story a 93 year old local woman told at ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary. The castle, La Ducrie, was used by the local tax collector in the 1600s and a secret chamber had been carved into the floor in what is now the La Salle de Monnaie to hold the taxes. The Germans had raped and killed her two sisters-in-law and she had crawled into the secret compartment to hide. She remained there for three days until she heard American voices.

Dinner that evening was in a nearby town of St. Fromond. Of course no one spoke English but we were able to muddle through OK. The one surprise was an appetizer that had andouille sausage in it. We found out later that, unlike Louisiana andouille, the French version is made from intestines and stomachs. It was scratched of our menu list from then on.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sauf Lundi

It's Monday and we are looking for other sightseeing opportunities. We learned very quickly, however, what “sauf Lundi” means. After deciding that nothing nearby was open, my wife got the idea to go to Paris. I balked and told her no way was I driving into Paris! I would however check the train schedule and we could take the train. So, less than an hour later we were in Gare St. Lazare getting a taxi for the Musee d’Orsay to continue the Monet venue. With our taxi barely avoiding an accident as he made a left turn across two lanes of traffic near the Place de la Concorde, we arrived at the Musee d’Orsay to find, alas, that the Musee d’Orsay is open every day “sauf Lundi”. However, since the Louvre is just on the other side of the Seine, we decide to do the Louvre.

The Louvre is the best $10 deal in France. It is also a huge building. The trick is to pick the type of art you want to see and then concentrate on those wings. And , of course, there’s the Mona Lisa. Like all dutiful first timers, we planned to see her. We followed the direction and got into the queue. Rope barricades and bullet proof glass protected us from getting too close, and a large man with an unpleasant disposition chided the line to keep moving. The Mona Lisa is smaller in person than you would expect. And having to view her at while shuffling along in a queue did not add to the ambiance of the moment.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Monet and Richard the Lion Heart

Breakfast consisted of ham, cheese and bread. The coffee was a dark roast which reminded us of good New Orleans coffee but we would soon tire of this standard French breakfast.

It’s Sunday and we headed out to Monet’s house. Monet’s garden was on my list of “things to see before you die”.

Monet was probably one of those guys that the towns people loved to hate. He brought in the artistic riff raff from Paris, turning a peaceful country town into the hippie haven of the time. And he was a cantankerous and demanding old fart. While he hired the locals to work on his garden, being an artist, he was probably merciless in his micro-management of their labor. But they love him now and have built a major tourism industry around him.

The surprise was that his house displays what may be the largest collection of Japanese wood block prints outside of Japan. He became infatuated with Japanese woodblock prints and became an avid collector. Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaru…they are all here and fill the walls in every room. And the bonus was that we even saw a print that we have in the small collection that I acquired years ago when I lived in Japan.

The house and garden took about half of the day, so after lunch we set out to find Richard the Lion Heart’s castle. Normandy had been swapped between England and France since Guillame le Conquerant won the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Richard the Lion Heart built a castle overlooking the Seine River in the year 1098. The ruins are still there. Of course, the original reason for the location was to be able to see long distances and observe anyone trying to attack. But now it is simply one of the best views in the Seine River valley.

After exploring the ruins, we looked for a place to buy a cold drink. However, it was France and it was Sunday and everything, including McDonalds and gas stations, were closed. We were lucky to find a small restaurant near Giverny open for dinner that evening where we ate a romantic dinner under the stars.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Accommodations in Giverny

I got lost again trying leaving Brugge. I went down a street that was blocked for construction and it turned into a dead end. I must have looked like I knew what I was doing because a two other cars followed me into the same trap. We all had to back up. But at least getting out of Brugge was a little easier. You just drive in one direction until you hit the ring road and then follow it around until you get where you want to cross the moat and exit. And so, with a minor detour, we are off to France.

I had my first encounter with the French near Lille. I was slightly lost and needing gas. I stopped at a Shell station and took my map in to ask where I was. Of course, the young man at the counter didn’t speak English and I had a limited knowledge of French. We did our best in sign language and we were joined by a truck driver who added his knowledge to the mix. In the end, I was successful in finding out where I was and I was pleasantly surprised at the patient helpfulness of these two strangers. It would be the first of many meetings with helpful French people.

Normandy is beautiful. It’s agricultural land with rolling hills, quaint towns and the odd chateau on the top of a hill. The view when we came to the edge of the bluff and descended into the Seine River valley was spectacular.

I had booked us into what I thought was going to be a beautiful river side hotel near the town of Vernon. I had my first pangs of doubt when I saw a weatherbeaten sign that directed me through a dark and narrow tunnel under the rail road tracks. The pictures on the web site must have been taken in better times because we found the place to be in dire need of maintenance and a coat of paint. And it didn’t have air conditioning.

We immediately set off looking for an alternate hotel and quickly discovered that air conditioning was not a common hotel amenity in Normandy. We eventually settled for a Comfort Inn that at least was clean and well cared for. And we left the windows open.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Getting Scammed in Brugge

The stars came into alignment and I was able bring my wife along with me while I attended a series of HAZOP meetings in Amsterdam. The plan was to take a week of vacation after the HAZOP and drive down to France. I had an outstanding promise to take her to Monet's gardens and this was going to be the opportunity to make good on it.

We had been urged by friends to stop and see Brugge, so armed with maps and driving directions from Michelin, we set out for Brugge. Our car was an Opel Signum (2.2 liter). It’s Opel’s version of a station wagon and while it’s comfortable, it’s a bit underpowered. At times it made me yearn for my Dodge V8 – until I hit the gas stations. And the “NL” on the license plate advertised to all that we are Dutch. This would later prove useful as it was a built in excuse for driving mistakes.

I didn’t get lost until we neared Brugge and I didn’t really get lost until we entered the town. Brugge is a medieval town ringed by a moat. Once inside the ring road, you are confronted with narrow cobblestone one way streets. I knew that the hotel was near the town center, so my plan was to head for the town center and look for a sign. But somehow, you just couldn’t get to where you wanted to go. There was always a one way street preventing you from heading in the direction you want to go. But wait, I had upgraded my cell phone to work in Europe. I’ll call the hotel and ask directions. And so I did, but the hotel staff was no help. They apparently knew as much about the city as I did. After about the third time driving around the same loop, an old man on a bicycle rode up to us and asked if we spoke English. (My wife claims he saw a big, fair haired guy with Netherlands plates and because he was Belgian, refused to speak Dutch and therefore wanted to converse only in English - or Flemish) We told him we were Americans and we were looking for the Crowne Plaza. “Follow me”, he says, and off we go following a 75 year old man on a bicycle. Within 3 minutes he had us in front of the hotel. He pulls up next to me and asks, “Do you have any American money for me?” Not wanting to seem cheap and relieved that we were at the hotel so easily, I peeled of a $20 bill and thought it well worth the money. I later decided that this guy had developed a very nice scheme to supplement his retirement income. Find lost tourists and guide them to their destination for a gratuity. After all, I had paid him the equivalent of $400/hr, tax free. I became convinced of it when I observed other old men offering directions to lost tourists. You gotta love the Belgians!

So we spent the afternoon touring Brugge. We ate lunch on the town square and a took horse and buggy ride. Dinner was a bowl of steamed mussels on the same town square. The friends who recommended Brugge were not wrong. It is a lovely town and perfect for a relaxing weekend break. Unfortunately we had to get underway the next day for France and Giverny.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Greasing of the Poles

The Annual Greasing of the Poles is a pre-Lenten activity that has been carried out by the New Orleans Royal Sonesta Hotel for over 30 years. A heavy lubricant is liberally spread over the vertical supports for the hotel's balconies to prevent over exuberent revelers from climbing the poles in search of beads. A press release from the hotel says it all.

"The practice of greasing the support poles was first initiated by the Royal Sonesta as a safe and creative measure to hinder overzealous revelers from shimmying up the support poles onto prized French Quarter balconies. In typical New Orleans style, this preventive exercise quickly grew into a ceremony and unique street party. Today Greasing of the Poles is a spectacle to behold attracting quite a crowd as well as media from across the globe."