Monday, September 4, 2017

The World War II Tour, Part Three: PARIS!

from the Seine
I was struggling to reconcile my purpose for being in Paris with the harsh reality of the May heatwave. I felt compelled to explore this favorite city, but I struggled to stay moving in the steaming hot fondue that was Paris. Another conflict appeared: I wanted to learn about the Parisian experience in World War II, but my guidebook warned me that Parisians did not much want to talk about that war. Can we blame them? Their city was overrun by Nazis. Here's one World War II fact that I took away: Paris was not bombed. Its architecture survived so that I could gaze upon it from the rooftop of a department store in the scorching heat. Sure there are bullet holes in the Ecole Militaire, the German stronghold during the last days of the occupation. These pock marks for all I knew, could have been part of some fancy concrete effect. When I learned that these were bullet holes, after the chill in my spine subsided, I realized that they remained to serve as a subtle reminder of that dreadful time, but more importantly that this beloved city survived the war and its culture flourishes today.

Our group visited the Eiffel tower and walked through the Marais to a quiet courtyard garden where our Parisian guide, Christoph who had been with us since London, told us he takes his family on weekends.


What is that? Anybody know? Please don't tell me it's an artichoke.


Christoph pointed out subtle clues on the surrounding buildings that designated them as royal or governmental. He also brought us to a department store which is also kind of a mall called Galeries Lafayette where we ascended by elevators to a level where we could see a fantastic glass dome.
The glass dome and the upper levels of shopping
Then we ascended further, by stairs to that rooftop for an incredible 360-degree view of the city.
The famous tower right of center, and on the left...the Paris Opera!! (You can't tell from the photo how HOT it was up there!)
This is the back of the Paris Opera, a sign that I must examine the front and inside ASAP!
 It was hotter than fondue up there: I was now a noodle swimming in a boiling saucepan of water. The roots of this mega-shopping experience date back to the late nineteenth century, but the Art Nouveau elements, including that grand dome and the opera-inspired staircase, are from a renovation and enlargement in 1912.

I got to walk around the Arc de Triomph on this trip,

Kinda artsy.

This sign is telling you that you have to walk under the street to get to the Arch.
Photographic evidence that I was, indeed, there.
 and explore the neighborhood around Notre Dame.

When they are holding their own head like that, it means they were a martyr.

It was in this neighborhood that I found a pink Eiffel Tower for my cousin's granddaughter who is obsessed with Paris and I scored a purple tower for her sister. I ended up with three Eiffel Tower scarves because I couldn't decide which color to get, and I'm a bit obsessed myself. There was a relaxing cafe lunch near here, too.

There was a World War II site on our itinerary, the Shoah Memorial.

eternal flame
This site is a moving memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. In another section, names are carved into stone, and photos displayed with horrific stories attached. Visitors are moved and tears are shed. There was a display of World War II comics on the top floor. I was fascinated to learn how many comics were inspired by war, not just in the U.S., but other countries, too. The bookstore attached to the memorial had books on this subject but they were in French and I'd be kidding myself to think I could read my way through them. I could read the titles easily, though!

Many of my fellow travelers elected to visit the Louvre on our free afternoon, and we walked around this museum's fountains and pyramid to get the lay of the land ahead of time.

 There was a dog by one of the fountains who looked a lot like my Gladys, but at the same time she didn't really look like a Sheltie. But she kind of did.

She was friendly and took edible handouts from people, and my heart was breaking to think that this distant cousin of my loyal canine companion was having to walk the hot streets of Paris in all that fur scrounging to make a living. Alas, no. She had humans sitting by the fountain, but like most dogs in Paris is allowed to walk leash-less. Later we walked under the Louvre where there is a kind of concourse in order to learn where the Metro station is, and where to buy museum tickets without standing in a long line.

I learned most of this on a different trip to Paris ten years before, and toured the crowded Louvre, too. I decided on this trip to do something different. I remembered how much I enjoyed touring the Vienna Opera and seeing as how opera and ballet are traditionally so important to Paris's music scene, I planned a trip to the Palais Garnier (L'Opera de Charles Garnier). Christoph, our guide, showed me how to get there efficiently, by foot in the hot oxygen-less heat and since I arrived an hour before a tour in English, I bought some cold water and sat on the steps with many other exhausted Parisians and Paris visitors to rest my feet, drink my water, and people-watch. I can do that for hours in a good spot, and this was a great spot with vehicular traffic circling around the opera island of culture and no shortage of people walking every which way.

Finally it was time for the tour and I got to explore this monument to Paris culture. Our guide was exceptional--I think she came from Sweden--and told us stories about the building and its symbols. There's a lizard, a brass lizard, creeping up one of the staircases because to the French lizards are good luck. I actually did narrow down the collection of photos to this group, nonetheless you have a ton of Palais Garnier views coming at you right now!
L'Opera de Charles Garnier (He's the architect. There are other opera houses in the city, but this is the GARNIER.)

"Use the entrance under the eagles," he said, "because that's the King's entrance!"

IMAGINE attending a performance here!
Even the floors!

The floors! (detail of photo just above)
Good luck lizard

Marc Chagall painted the chandelier.

Even the seats in the auditorium are fancy. ('Abonne' means a subscriber sits here.)

This is where you hang out during intermission.
I was exhausted after this tour, but it was that happy-exhausted that comes from finally touring the Paris Opera. I found my way via the Paris Metro back to Notre Dame where our group met for a farewell dinner (duck confit) and dessert (Creme Brulee) and another kind of dessert, a cruise on the Seine! I did this on my ten-years-ago trip, too, but it was pouring and my photos were not so great. I'll end with the 2017 shots:

Pirate ship?

The Musee d'Orsay, formerly a train station.

Notre Dame

Monday, June 5, 2017

Normandy: World War II Tour, Part Deux

German bunker; now ours.
This World War II-themed tour connected England (Portsmouth) with France (Caen) with a seven-hour ferry cruise. Emanating from Cape May as I do, I didn't think the ferry cruise would be a highlight. Then I realized that this route over the English Channel was very similar to the route that the Allied forces took on D-Day 73 years ago TODAY! That realization cast a solemn note onto the cruise, but that shouldn't infer that the trip wasn't fun. It was! It was windy on deck, and very refreshing, and the enormous ferry was fun to explore.

We dined aboard ship, and the part of this meal I remember best was the eclair I had for dessert which had chocolate cream inside. We arrived in France rather late, so headed straight for our hotel in Caen, a city in Normandy.

The flags of the Allies outside the Caen Memorial
Bright and early the next day, we were off to the Caen Memorial. This huge modern structure featured a museum-like exhibit of artifacts from the Normandy region.

Book casualty of war
 Let me set the Normandy scene: Normandy is the region, and the beaches on which the Allied forces came ashore were Utah (American troops), Omaha (American), Gold (British), Juno (Canadian), and Sword (British and some Canadian). Each of these beach areas is a village with a French name known to the locals. Caen is a moderately-sized city which the Allied forces were heading for after taking the beaches. Although these battles were extremely bloody, the Allies did manage to reclaim the areas from the Germans as they made their way inland to Paris and points beyond.

At the Caen Memorial, we watched a compelling movie about D-Day and the events following. I don't remember how long the movie was, and I can't even estimate the time because I was so captivated by it. Somehow, the film-makers were able to tell this story without words. There were pictures and video clips, but no words. Sure this was a handy device to use for multilingual visitors, but honestly, the wordless movie was SO GOOD. It prepared me for the sites I would see next.

We jumped on our bus with a local guide named Mario who would tell us all about the area, D-Day, and the events following. Our first stop was Point du Hoc, a piece of land that juts out into the English Channel. Point du Hoc is a promontory, meaning that it ends with cliffs that fall into the channel. When the U.S. Army Ranger Assault Group arrived, they had to scale those cliffs to get to the Germans hiding out in pillboxes, bunkers, and hidey-holes.

This is a 'pillbox' bunker
Only one or two guys would fit in this hidey-hole.
 We got to tour and inspect those concrete ruins, climbing on, in, and down into to see Point du Hoc from the perspective of the Germans. These concrete ruins were fascinating, but the craters really grabbed my attention. Point du Hoc was assaulted by explosives from Allied aircraft, but also from ships at sea. Those very strong explosives made craters that can still be seen today, 73 years later. The round craters were made by bombs dropped by aircraft, but the oblong or oval craters were made by missiles launched from ships. their flight would make an arc and then when they hit they would push the earth in front of them resulting in deep, oblong craters. They are huge!

HUGE craters!
Back on the bus, we toured through some cute French seaside towns sprinkled with tanks, vehicles, and other war-like artifacts. Having recently read through the Normandy chapter of Donald Miller's The Story of World War II, I was aware of the carnage at Omaha Beach 73 years ago. The vicious battle was here between the Americans and Germans, thousands of guys died, and dead bodies were lined up on the beach for retrieval. Yet, people were frolicking, and swimming, and playing in the sand as if it were any other beach. I felt the same kind of internal schism that I felt on the ferry. I don't resent the beach-goers, but I could never enjoy a relaxing day in the sand there as I do at home...knowing what I know. It was a moving thing to see this beach site, so similar to my own favorite beach in New Jersey, but not exactly.

Omaha Beach
Finally, we arrived at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. The photographs you've seen of this place are no substitute for being there. It is huge. Hundreds and hundreds of crosses and stars of David mark the graves of Americans who lost their lives here 73 years ago.

The whole time we were there, I could hear the waves of the English Channel crashing--I hadn't realized that this cemetery was so close to the water. As sad as it was, it was beautiful, too. There's a chapel in the middle and a large memorial near the entrance surrounded by a wall in which the names of MIA soldiers and sailors are engraved. Now and then there would be a name marked with a brass rosette--this would be a person whose remains were found later. This site effectively illustrates the magnitude of those Normandy battles.
The cemetery chapel

The cemetery memorial
Having no relatives here that I know of, I went in search of the Roosevelt brothers that our tour guide Mario told us about. I remember learning their stories on a documentary years ago. Quentin Roosevelt was President Roosevelt's youngest son, and he died in France during World War I (1918). His family was given special dispensation (eventually) to have Quentin's remains exhumed and re-buried here next to his brother, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. He died at Normandy during the World War II battles on July 12, 1944. His grave marker is distinctive with its gold Medal of Honor designation. Mario explained that these would be easy to find as they sat at the edge of the second block of graves on the English Channel side of the huge cemetery. I walked right to them, and when I was there, a rope was tied around the area to keep people off, perhaps to let the grass get started growing in the spring.

The Roosevelt Brothers, Quentin and Theodore, Jr.
 It was a long day exploring the emotional sites of Normandy. I was just saying to a friend that I feel that I lived through World War II since I had such a strong connection to my parents who did. Seeing these parts of Normandy was meaningful to me and got me thinking of all I knew from them and all I've learned recently in preparation for this trip. It was a special day and was topped off by a lovely dinner in Caen, on a pedestrian street full of quaint restaurants and European beauty. This is what we fought for.

Caen street: Dinner!
Could this street be prettier?
Caen menu
Caen dessert