Monday, May 30, 2016

Pondering war and peace in Normandy

Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer

As I write this, it is Memorial Day in America and the 72nd anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944, is approaching. Recently, we took our first trip to Normandy where we visited some of the landing beaches, sites, memorials and cemeteries that prominently figured into D-Day, the beginning of the end of World War II.

21,000 U.S. troops landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, along with
14,000 airborne troops. 

225 U.S. Rangers scaled Pointe du Hoc on D-Day. Initially there were only
15 casualties, but during the ensuing battles to fend off five
German counterattacks, 70 percent of the troops were lost.

We prepare for our trip with a bit of homework: We watch a few documentaries and pore over Normandy guidebooks in order to refresh our memories. Many of the basics learned in school have been replaced in our minds with scenes from "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Longest Day."

Higgins Boat Monument at Utah Beach honors the important role
of landing crafts on D-Day and in other WWII operations.

Dozens of museums and memorials line the beaches along the northern coast of France. where in five days 326,547 troops from a dozen countries entered France and ultimately liberated the country and defeated Nazi Germany.

More than 9,000 U.S. soldiers are buried at the Normandy
American Cemetery on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.

For me, the German cemetery at La Cambe is the most moving site
of our Normandy trip. More than 21,000 German soldiers are buried here
— each was once somebody's child.

The Urville cemetery in Granville-Langannerie is the only Polish WWII
cemetery in France. Most of the 696 men buried here belonged to
Major-General Maczek's 1st Armored Division, which
joined the Battle of Normandy in August 1944.

We opt to skip the museums centered around weaponry or specific battles and instead spend the day outdoors, walking along the landing beaches and visiting cemeteries where thousands of those who died in the Battle of Normandy are buried. Ultimately more than 425,000 allied and German soldiers died or went missing between D-Day and the end of August when Paris was liberated. The reverence we feel for these losses is combined with sadness and an overwhelming sense of the futility of war.

Immortalized by the film "The Longest Day," American
Pvt. John Steele's parachute was caught on the church steeple
in Sainte-Mère-Église, the first French town to be liberated.
Steele hung here for two hours before being taken prisoner
by the Germans; he was later released. Today a mannequin hangs
in his honor and stained-glass windows in the church are
dedicated to the paratroopers.

On a lighter note, we are tickled by the name of this
coiffure in Sainte-Mère-Église.

A billboard in Falaise shows what the square and Saint-Gervais church
looked like during the Battle of Normandy.

Église Saint-Gervais in Falaise

A museum dedicated to the civilian casualties of the
Battle of Normandy opened this month in Falaise.

Toward the end of our week in Normandy, we spend a half day at the Caen Memorial Centre for History and Peace. Here we find perspective and understanding of the complex events leading to war, the horrific barbarism of the Nazis and the Japanese, the impact the German occupation had on the France, and the Cold War. The Caen Memorial is less about the strategy of war and more focused on understanding. This should be a mandatory field trip for all politicians.

A huge sculpture based on the iconic Alfred Eisenstaedt
photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square
on V-J Day stands outside the Caen Memorial.

Inside the Caen Memorial

Pieces of the Berlin wall are part of the Cold War
exhibition at the Caen Memorial.

Sculpture at the Caen Memorial

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Here and high in Mont-Saint-Michel

A view of Mont-Saint-Michel from the bridge connecting it to the mainland

I've dreamed of visiting le Mont-Saint-Michel for a long time. And I'm not alone: With more than a million tourists annually, this majestic medieval walled city is France's top tourist destination outside of Paris. Located where Normandy and Brittany meet, Mont-Saint-Michel stands by itself on a granite outcrop, surrounded by the flats of the Couesnon river estuary.

View of the Couesnon river estuary from Mont-Saint-Michel

We arrive early on a spring morning. It's a weekday, but also an unofficial holiday, so by the time we leave, the massive parking lot will be full and traffic will be backed up for 10 km along the access road. We take advantage of the W.C.'s at the visitors center then board the free shuttle bus which takes us two-thirds of the way across the modern bridge across the mud flats. (My friend had recommended that we hike to le Mont, but we aren't that hardy and we haven't packed the appropriate attire.)

Fishing boat on the flats of the Couesnon estuary at Mont-Saint-Michel

It's about a five-minute walk (more with with stops to take pictures) from where we disembark the bus to the city gates. We join a hefty crowd and slowly inch our way up the main rue past dozens of souvenir shops and restaurants. I note that that the famous omelets served at Restaurant Le Mére Poulard cost €35 (about $40). Soon the famous eatery will be packed with hungry tourists.

The base of the busy, and oh-so-narrow shopping
street in Mont-Saint-Michel

How much would you pay for a world-famous omelet? Mére Poulard's are 35.

Actually, most everyone here is a tourist. The village has about 30 residents. Despite the crowds, there would be something quite magical about having le Mont-Saint-Michel as your address.

Pretty home in Mont-Saint-Michel
Rooftops and a French flag as viewed from Mont-Saint-Michel

Once off the main drag, the throngs dissipate and we are free to explore the narrow streets and leisurely walk along the ancient ramparts. 

A cemetery on the way to the abbey in Mont-Saint-Michel
Saint-George and the Dragon inside
 Église Saint-Pierre on Mont-Saint-Michel

Le Mont-Saint-Michel's monastery was considered to be one of the great places of learning during the Middle Ages. Its strategic location was important in wars between the Normans and the Bretons, the French and the Normans, and the French and the English. Eventually, William the Conqueror/Duke of Normandy, set up his court at Mont-Saint-Michel. The French captured and burned down the town in 1204, then subsequently rebuilt it. Later, the English tried, unsuccessfully, to re-take Mont-Saint-Michel during the Hundred Years' War.

A grand stairway leads to the entrance to the
Benedictine abbey on Mont-Saint-Michel.

Our visit includes a tour of the Benedictine abbey that sits atop the mountain. The foundation of the massive abbey is 1,000 years old. According to legend, the Archangel Michael told the local bishop to "build here and build high." The church's architectural potpourri ranges from the Middle Ages to the late 19th century when its iconic spire was added. 

Relief sculpture of the Archangel Michael offering a suggestion to the local bishop 

Cloister at Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey

Window and bench in the Guests' Hall at
Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey

Light art is reflected on pillars in the crypt at Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey.

An enormous wheel in the monks' ossuary was installed in 1820
and used to hoist provisions to the prisoners held in
Saint-Michel Abbey when it was a prison. It's a replica 
of the pulleys used for hoisting building materials in the Middle Ages.

Knights' Hall at Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey

On the way back to our lodgings near Caen, we talk about our visit to Mont-Saint-Michel. The village and abbey are impressive, but the crowds are  outrageous. If you plan to visit, do so in the off-season on a weekday and arrive early (although Mont-Saint-Michel at night is supposed to be pretty spectacular). We picked a good weather day ... always a bonus. We are proud that we skipped the overpriced food and chachkies, but wish we had packed a picnic. We're starving, but €35 for an omelet? Sheesh!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Basque and beautiful: Hondarribia

Hondarribia in the Spanish Basque Country is our final stop
before we head home to France.

From its charming waterfront neighborhood to its ancient walled Old Town, we may have saved the best for last on our recent vacation. Tucked up against Irun where the Spanish Basque Country meets France, Hondarribia turns out to be one of our favorite sojourns during this winter's month-long trip to Spain and Portugal. (Note: Hondarribia is the Basque name; previously the city was known as Fuenterrabia.)

Fishermen's cottages along Arrantzale Auzoa in Hondarribia

We have lucked out on accommodations having booked a comfortable room in one of the quaint fishermen's cottages along Arrantzale Auzoa. Our hostess helps us navigate the winding streets and secure a parking space just up the hill. We are happy to discover an escalator that makes schlepping our luggage much easier.

After a quick mid-afternoon snack at an organic bakery, we start our explorations in the Old Town neighborhood.

Bakery along Zuloaga kalea in Hondarribia

Hondarribia has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic Age and was once a Roman port. Due to its strategic location, a wall was built around the city. This wall, much of which is still intact, proved useful as the town resisted more than nine military blockades during its history. The worst siege, in 1638, is commemorated each year on September 8 with the Alarde parade.

Baluarte de la Reina ('Queen's bastion') in Hondarribia

Within the walls, the Old Town contains beautiful Basque houses with brightly painted balconies, as well as notable Baroque, Gothic and Romanesque buildings. The narrow cobblestone streets lead us to Plaza de Armas, where we rest and enjoy a phenomenal view across Rio Bidasoa Ibaia.

Cobblestone streets in Hondarribia's Old Town

Arma Plaza (Plaza de Armas) in Hondarribia is the parade grown once used for
military training as well as for public gatherings and bullfights.

Colorful Basque homes in Hondarribia's Old Town

Doorway in in Hondarribia's Old Town
Portion of the wall that surrounds Hondarribia's Old Town

Portion of the wall that surrounds Honndarribia's Old Town
Soldier statue in Honndarribia's Old Town

We leave the Old Town and stroll along the bay, where further on lies Hondartza Playa, an 800-meter-long stretch of sandy beach. Swimming isn't on our minds on this March evening, but pintxos are.

Nautical building-topper along Honndarribia's marina

Hondarribia has become a foodie destination with a reputation right up there with its more famous neighbor San Sebastian. The fish soup at Hermandad de Pescadores is legendary, but tonight we crave a little of this and a little of that in the form of pintxos — traditional Basque tapas. Later, we'll sit on the plaza that is teaming with families and listen to a high school band. What could be better?

Getting refreshed in Hondarribia

Pintxos in Hondarribia

We are enormously entertained by a youthful band on the plaza in Hondarribia.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Feeling young in León

Banners on a lamppost in León, Spain

Our two-day stop in León on our way back to France from Portugal, yields some sweet surprises. Our accommodations on the Plaza San Marcelo may not be the most luxurious, but the 3rd floor, walk-up apartment brings me back to my college days. And our hosts, a 21-year-old student and his exuberant primary-school teacher girlfriend, are the friendliest we've encountered during our month-long trip. They are eager for us to drink in the best of the northern Spain city and insist we start our visit with some wine made by their roommate and licor de Orujo — the main ingredient of the traditional Queimada ceremony in Galicia. (It also may be useful as a paint-thinner.)

Plaza Regla in León

León's roots go back to Roman times when the site was a military encampment. In 910, the city became the capital of the Kingdom of León, one of the most influential areas of Spain in the early Middle Ages until it lost its independence and was consolidated with Castile.

Statue in León, Spain

Today, the Castilla y León region is one of the largest food-producing areas in continental Europe. León itself is a vibrant university town, known for its cathedral and, (more relevant to us), one of the few Spanish cities whose bars serve free tapas.

Along Rio Bernesga in León

Our apartment is steps away from the intriguing Casa de Botines. Designed by Antoni Gaudi and built in just 11 months, the building looks like a Gothic castle. It's a bank now, so we have to limit our admiration to the exterior, which features a statue of Saint George fighting the dragon; Gaudi later replicated the statue for his Sagrada Familia masterpiece in Barcelona.

Casa de Botines in León was designed by Antoni Gaudi in 1892.

Saint George and the Dragon on the façade of Gaudi's
Casa de Botines in León

We decide to forego visiting the Catedral De Santa Maria De Regla De León, but admire its vast golden sandstone walls from the outside. In recent years, the cathedral started charging admission in order to pay for its renovation. Our new friend tells us the costs have been more than recovered, and so, on philosophical grounds, he is opposed to paying for visits. Agreed, but I think I'll go inside the next time we visit León. Seeing light pour through 1,200 meters of stained glass (125 windows and 56 oculi) may be worth the price of admission.

Catedral de León is known as the cathedral without walls
because it has more glass and less stone than any other church in Spain.

Catedral de León at night

Another popular attraction in León is Basilica de San Isidoro. The royal mausoleum is the final resting place of 23 monarchs, 12 princes and 19 counts. The basilica's construction spanned the 10th to mid-18th centuries.

Detail above the entrance to Basilica de San Isidoro in León

Interior detail, Basilica de San Isidoro in León

The Spanish government owns a chain of hotels called paradors, which usually are converted castles monasteries or other historical buildings. León has the Hostal de San Marcos, built in the 16th century as headquarters for the Knights of Santiago. The ornate façade is Plateresque, a Spanish architectural style that is named for the method of decorating the stone surfaces.

Hostal de San Marcos in León

Penitentes walk the streets during Holy Week in Leon wearing capirotes
or pointed hoods. These somewhat unsettling figurines are found 
throughout the city including in this pharmacy window.

We unexpectedly come upon Museo Vela Zanetti. The docent is eager to share information about the museum's namesake. José Vela Zanetti (1913-1999) grew up and started his artistic training in León. His father was executed by Franco's forces during the Spanish Civil War, and Zanetti went into exile in the Dominican Republic in 1939. He is best known in America for creating the vast mural "Mankind's Struggle for Peace" at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Mural by painter Vela Zanetti in León

In addition to sightseeing, we take advantage of one of our final days in Spain by shopping for cultural necessities (OK, I mean alcohol) before heading to León's old quarter to verify that rumor about free tapas. Sí, es verdad. ¡Viva!

Ken is great at making friends with the locals on our journeys.