Sunday, July 24, 2011

Homeward Bound

Well, the time has finally come. I am in the final stages of preparing to go "home". Sky's wedding is coming up very fast (Aug 4th) and the parents have already gone home to prepare themselves. They flew out last Thursday and at the same time I caught the train back to Nuremburg to hang out for a few more days before my flight to Vancouver next Wednesday.
As the moment approaches I find myself thinking more and more what "home" means. I actually refer to a lot of places as "home" these days and I find that saying I'm going home now doesn't actually mean anything more to me than a bunch of other places. If home is where you live then for me home is here, there and everywhere and we'd often referred to where our big backpacks were as home throughout the trip. If home is somewhere you live for a while then I've had a few homes over the last couple of years; Egypt, Thailand, Philippines and Australia come to mind. Or does it need to be a proper home with a family type situation? In that case I could nominate my time in Singapore also. Friends? I have friends all over the world so I can't use that as a guideline. Family? Half my immediate family lives in Holland now so does that also qualify as home? If home is where you come from then I guess we can scrap any home for true integration of immigrants though I refuse to believe you are forever trapped by your original culture and country...
In Australia, where I worked and lived in a single city for the better part of a year but refused to properly settle by staying hostel-bound the whole time, I got a taste of "homeness" though I always longed to move on. Since then I have been visiting friends and revisiting places, all of which had a home-like feeling to them. That initial familiarity of Kuala Lumpur and then seeing the family I stayed with in Singapore again were nice but just warm ups to the Philippines. It felt like coming home when I entered the Philippines again for my 3rd visit. Does wanting to be somewhere and feeling comfortable there count as home? And then going "home" to my parents in Holland right after. Meeting up with them again is like a homecoming also... And now I'll get another one.
It needs to be done. I haven't been in Vancouver for 4 1/2 years so there is a list of things I need to deal with, people I need to finally meet (like the bride to be!), etc.
I am confident that this will remain more of a visit than me calling it quits and settling down so the blog will remain active and I will continue to post and let you know how well I deal with the culture shock of returning to Vancouver.

Monday, July 18, 2011

D-Day Beaches Trip - Part 3

We were lucky to find anywhere to stay in Amiens. Another problem we keep having, and something that seems strange to me after all the 24 hour hostel receptions I had in Australia, is hotel receptions that close. The magic number here seems to be 11pm, after that, you are not going to find a place to stay. So we were approaching Amiens with great haste to get there before 11pm only to find that the city center was all blocked off for some sort of festival. We couldn't get into the center and were driving around in circles with the clock ticking down but finally found a place as we started to head out of town in defeat. We made it with about 4 minutes to spare...
Amiens wasn't even an essential stop but seemed like an acceptable slight detour off the route home mainly so I could see the UNESCO-listed cathedral. I thought dad would be annoyed but even he liked this one. Very ornate and with a nave nearly as tall as the one in Cologne, it also feels huge on the inside. It was a case of me not bringing my camera with me so I don't have any photos of Amiens.
After our quick look at Amiens we headed north to Belgium where it immediately started to rain for the rest of the day. We stopped quickly in Tournai to see the belltower, then went to Ypres. Our theme has mainly been WW2 but how could we not visit Ypres, one of the main battle points of WW1 on the front line of the battle of the Somme? It was rebuilt after being completely destroyed and the cloth hall in the central square is pretty cool looking. We also saw the Menin Gate, on which is written the names of nearly 55,000 British commonwealth soldiers (including those from Canada, India, the West Indies and Australia) who have no grave. I thought the numbers of WW2 were staggering but WW1 is so much higher as to be insane. Was life really so cheap 100 years ago?

Cloth hall of Ypres.

Menin Gate.

There are tons of cemeteries and monuments and other attractions dotted around west flanders but the weather was miserable and we were feeling pretty exhausted and overloaded from the days before so we opted for a quick run through of a few key spots. We visited the Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest British Commonwealth military cemetery on foreign soil. It's disappointing in comparison to the American one the day before. It has 11,000+ graves and a wall with another 35,000 names of soldiers also without graves in a much smaller area. The layout and upkeep are inferior as well. In general everywhere we got the impression that things were not being as well maintained. But then it is getting close to the 100 year mark and the last survivor of the WW1 trenches died in 2009 so it's bound to start to go at some point...

Tyne Cot cemetery.

We then went to the John McCrae cemetery which was named after the poet who wrote the famous poem In Flanders Fields at that spot during the war, though he is not buried there. There are a few poppies kicking around here and there but you need a healthy imagination to see it as it would've been under fire during the Great War. A little less imagination is needed to get a feel for conditions in the trenches out at the Trenches of Death site that have been recreated along the banks of a canal on the site of some very fierce fighting during the Battle of the Somme. We'd arrived there a few minutes after closing but could see the artificial trenches and walk along the bank anyway.

John McCrae cemetery.

Checking out the trenches.

From there drove home via a quick stop in Ghent. I wasn't expecting anything of Ghent but the center looked kind of nice even though we got busted by the cops for driving through the pedestrianized area. (We had no idea because of all the other vehicles driving around and parked there because they were part of a set up crew for yet another festival...) We parked for an hour and ran around in the wet before finally coming home with another successful trip under our belts.

Not hard to imagine Ghent as once being part of the Netherlands.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

D-Day Beaches Trip - Part 2

The following day, rather than go straight to the beaches from Rouen, I decided that we really had to detour out a little further west and go to Mont St Michel. It is amazing. A fortified monastery on a little mountain island 1km off the coast and connected by a causeway, it looks so commanding and impregnable from a distance. And it was. The monastery dates back 1300 years though most of it was built much later. It is truly an architectural wonder though as it consists of halls and rooms on top of halls, built in such a way that the top can support a much larger church than is possible on the very top of the hill. It is also surrounded by huge tidal flats that once completely surrounded and protected the mount.

That's a long way to run in the pouring rain...

Unfortunately the weather was terrible and we had hard rain the entire day. Not just wet but pouring with rivers running down the steps and walkways up the mount. We had to run a long way from the car to the island and then up the hill to the monastery and were completely soaked before we even started. Of course I didn't have any extra clothes and we didn't even think to bring an umbrella. The site is very famous and a huge tourist attractions and even on a terrible day like this there were crowds of tourists there too, all fighting over the same dry spots....I will definitely have to come back again some day and enjoy the whole thing at a more leisurely pace instead of feeling like a fish swimming upriver to spawn....
From there we drove through the rains northeast to Bayeux, the closest and most central town inland from the D-Day beaches (the first liberated in WW2) and location of a thorough, recommended museum on the Normandy invasion. We got there in time to visit the museum before it closed and then retired early for the evening to dry off and prepare for the long day to come.
There were 5 beaches along a 100km front that were invaded on D-Day (June 6th, 1944). From west to east they were called Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. The Americans took Utah and Omaha, the British landed at Gold and Sword while the Canadians were at Juno. The most famous and site of the heaviest fighting and more perilous foothold in Normandy at the end of that day was at Omaha beach which had a roughly 10% death rate for the invading American forces. I won't get into all the figures and statistics but the numbers are staggering. Every little village has it's own small museum and memorial to whatever unit liberated it. There are a lot of visitors to the beaches but the whole area is so big that we didn't feel like it was too busy. Our plan was to head out to the furthest west beach (Utah) and work our way east from there stopping at whatever took our fancy. Utah beach wasn't very busy and actually looked like a beach. I don't know what I was expecting, I have never been a huge WW2 fan and don't know the battles in detail, but for some reason I wasn't expecting to see a long sandy coastline with sand dunes.

Utah beach.

The weather turned out to be really nice all day but my camera was dead from the rain the day before. I still turned on and sounded like it was snapping photos but the LCD screen was blank white so from this point forward I thought I had a broken camera. I kept taking or trying to take photos the remainder of the trip but didn't take it too seriously and often didn't bother to take my camera with me at all when we made short stops. So all the rest of the photos were blind shots and rather lucky because it was only after I got home and I checked my chip that I knew that my camera had still been working. Good thing I'm a dork and kept trying :)
From Utah beach it is only a couple of km to St Mere-Eglise a small village I'd never heard of but dad insisted we go because of his remembrance of the old movie "The Longest Day" which I had never seen. It was in this village that the 82nd airborne was dropped the night prior to D-Day and where one paratrooper was famously stuck hanging from the church belltower but survived the ensuing firefight. Today there is a dummy still hanging from the top of the church to remind us of the event and info signs posted in various places around the main square and along the street showing photos and telling small stories of events taking place at that spot. This seemed to be a very common method of personalizing the war for each village and sharing it with tourists.

The dummy paratrooper hanging from the church in Saint Mere-Eglise.

Utah beach is the furthest from the other beaches and was not immediately linked up with the others nor is it really a continuous stretch of beach to the other ones (which do seem to be all connected with each other naturally) so we had to drive a little towards Omaha before first reaching Pointe du Hoc. Pointe du Hoc is a must-see stop if you are visiting the beaches and doing a war sites tour. It was probably the most interesting spot of the whole day for me. It has been left as a "ruins" in that the area is still full of craters from the bombardments, some easily 5m deep, and the twisted concrete bunkers that had also been hit. It was a strategically important point as it overlooks both Utah and Omaha beach and so on D-Day 225 US Rangers scaled the 100ft cliffs in 5 minutes under fire, and secured the area and destroyed the artillery within half an hour of landing on the beach below. Not bad at all. 2 days later when they were finally relieved there were only 90 guys remaining, having been subjected to repeated counter-attacks without reinforcements.

Pointe du Hoc.

From Pointe du Hoc we continued east to Omaha beach, by far the most interesting of the actual beach sites and the one with the most memorials and information about the war. We would later to go to Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. Gold and Juno had a very touristy/resorty feel to them, and at Sword we didn't even find any obvious markers though they must be there somewhere. All the beaches were long sandy beaches and had at least a few swimmers and sunbathers and I had to ask myself the question of which is more messed up, war tourists like us that want to run around on a beach because thousands of people died there, or people that just want to be on a beach and use it like a beach and forget about all the thousands that died there? To me war tourism is all a little messed up. There is honouring the dead and being respectful and then there's the tacky souvenir side of it all as well which just seems wrong. To what extent do all these villages remember the war and events just to profit from the tourism industry it creates? But everywhere does that in the end I suppose. I found it very educating and interesting in any case, linking up all the various events from all the sites I've been to all over Europe and tying history together. It's part of the enlightening process of travel. To see the Normandy beaches, the bridge of the river Kwai in Thailand, the fortifications in northern Norway, dive on the sunken Japanese navy in the Philippines, visit Auschwitz in Poland, read about the siege of Leningrad in one of it's museums, the list goes on and on, and it's all part of the same war, with the same people and events leading up to it. I don't know how to explain it but it really gives you that sense of global interconnectedness and how important what we do today in one place is to people on the other side of the world at some later date. We are one and have a responsibility to each other everywhere.
Anyway, back to Omaha beach where we could see the largest monuments and get the most information. I had no idea that during the war they had to use artificial harbours, called Mulberry (one at Omaha and one at Gold) for months during 1944 and that at the time they were the busiest ports in northern Europe. You can still see the remains of the one off Gold beach during low tide. Also just behind the beach is the American military cemetery, the largest on foreign soil that they have with over 9000 graves. It's an impressive cemetery, very well maintained and with a large visitor center that is effectively a free museum about the battle for Normandy.

Omaha beach.

The American cemetary.

We were also able to see some artillery bunkers with guns still attached at a site called Longues sur mer. There is tons of stuff everywhere along the coast really and we quickly realized that A. there is no way to do it all in a day and B. you don't need to because it gets very repetitive. But I'm sure we still missed a lot of good stuff.

The guns at Longues sur mer.

The remains of the Mulberry at Gold beach.

Juno beach.

Sword beach.

There is apparently a good museum at Arromanches at Gold beach but we had to keep going so we could set foot on all 5 beaches before crossing over the Pegasus bridge (a key initial objective and the eastern edge of the initial landings) and onward to Amiens where we stayed the night.

D-Day Beaches Trip - Part 1

After a bit of down time dad and I finally got away again to do our second war sites trip. This one was the one dad had been talking about doing for months before I even arrived in Europe so we had to make sure it went well and took 4 days to make sure we had time to see all we wanted. Of course if you give me free reign with an itinerary in a region then I'm going to pack in everything possible and we had 4 long busy days full of "surprise" destinations.
Our trip started at 6:30pm on Sunday, our first destination, Bruges, Belgium.
Bruges is the most popular tourist town in Belgium. Normally that sort of thing would really turn me off but it is a really pretty town. It's power and influence peaked in the 14th century and then died pretty much right after its link to the ocean silted up. It's very well preserved, has nice architecture and what's best is that it's got a moat ring around the old town and a swan-filled canal system still in use, particularly by little tour cruises. Very picturesque! We arrived just before dark, checked into a hotel and then ran around the old town in the dark. There was a small concert going on in front of the town hall and this was to be a recurring theme throughout our trip, central squares full of festivities resulting in blocked photo opportunities or closed roads making it much harder to navigate around. We also ran around Bruges again the next morning to see things in the light of day. I think we both enjoyed the night more as there were much fewer people about. I definitely enjoyed the place though and really do prefer these smaller towns to the big capitals.


The famous Bruges Belfry.

After the morning in Bruges we had to start getting serious about our war sites so drove first to Dunkirk and then to Calais. Dunkirk was of course the site of the largest military evacuation ever when 300,000 troops were evacuated off the beaches over a month at the beginning of WW2. Nearby Calais is the closest point to the UK and a port that everyone always seems to want to control. I hadn't realized that it was English territory for 200 years from the 1300's to 1500's. We went down to the beach at both places and kept moving on. There are some small museums, monuments, belfries and cemetaries but they were either closed or low on our priority list.

Town hall of Calais.

Beaches of Calais.

We continued west along the coast. It's a pretty landscape but unfortunately the day was too hazy to give us any view of the British coast from the various lookout points along the way.

The coast near Calais from Pointe Blanc Nez.

We finished our day in Rouen, a city further south and notable for it's crooked and leaning half-timbered houses which reminded me of York. There is also a monument to Joan of Arc who was burned to the stake as a heretic there in 1431 and is now considered a saint. Rouen currently has the tallest cathedral in France as well at 151m. It was the tallest building in the world for a few years until the Cologne cathedral was completed (which we saw at the end of the last trip).



Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The German Rhein (Luxembourg Trip - Part 3)

From Luxembourg city we drove east, just over the border to Trier, Germany. I hadn't really heard of Trier before but it is the oldest city in Germany and was an old Roman town. There is the remains of an amphitheater as well as a few other ruins but by the time we got there it was closed for the day. There is also a very old city gate, the Porta Nigra, from the 2nd century and the church dates back to the 4th century as well. The church is interesting because there is now a second church built beside it and pretty much connected to the first but in a different style. The central square was also quite nice to sit at and enjoy the atmosphere and we ended up staying the night in Trier. Carl Marx was also from Trier.

Trier church. With the newer one on the right.

Ruins in Trier.

The Porta Nigra city gate.

The main market square of Trier.

The following morning we got up early and continued east to Mainz. Mainz is close to Frankfurt and sits on the Rhine river. The stretch of the Rhine from Mainz to Koblenz is considered the upper middle Rhine and is listed as a UNESCO heritage site (like Trier and Luxembourg city). We got to Mainz, ran around the centre for an hour to see the not terribly exciting pedestrian area and cathedral and bought a map of the Rhine valley between Mainz and Cologne. Mainz' additional claim to fame is as the home of Gutenberg the guy that invented the movable type printing press in the 1450's.


Gutenberg museum in Mainz.

It took us 6-7 hours to drive the 100km stretch between Mainz and Koblenz with all the stops along the way. We took our time as there seem to be castles on both sides of the river every couple of km. Not huge castles but still the real things and some dating back well over 1000 years.
There are roads going along both banks and I can't imagine you'd go wrong travelling along either. We were on the west bank. As it formed part of the frontier of the Roman empire, there are more ruins and older towns on the west bank, though maybe it's better to drive on the east side and get a better view of the castles... Actually the best would be to take one of the river cruises and enjoy both sides at once.
We stopped at some of the main little towns along the way like Bingen, Bacharach, St. Goar and then crossed the river to get on the last tour of Marksburg castle. Bacharach was probably the nicest for me. Small walled town with a castle above and 16 towers along the wall. You can't walk on the wall or anything but the whole affect was pretty. I was expecting it to be very busy and touristy along this route which it normally is, but apparently the summer tourist season is just getting started because of the bad weather throughout June. It was perfect weather with low crowds and traffic for us so we were very pleased. We also periodically ran up to some of the castles to get a view over the river as well. Some of the castles are museums but many have been turned into hostels or hotels as well. Lots of freight traffic on the river and vineyards stretching up along the banks. It is the wine region of Germany after all.

The view from Bingen.


One of the towers along the wall of Bacharach.

The castle, now hostel, Bacharach.

View from above Bacharach castle.

Castles like these are dotted all along the Rhine in this area.

Lunch in St. Goar.

Note the vineyards on the hills.

Marksburg castle is the best preserved.


After Marksburg we were running out of time so continued on the highway to Bonn to do a quick drive through of the centre and then stopped in Cologne to see the massive cathedral there. Cologne cathedral is the tallest Roman Catholic cathedral in the world and has the largest twin tower facade in the world as well. It's massive but what I couldn't get over was how think and solid it looked in the front. There is nothing delicate about it and yet it has a ton of decor as well. We were able to get inside for a quick look around but it's built so proportionally that once inside it's hard to compare how tall it is to any other tall cathedral in Europe. The effect to me was all on the outside. It might be considered cheating a little that they took over 600 years to build something so big though.

Cologne catherdral.

We were there for sunset and then started the 3 hour journey home to Alkmaar to discover that the girls had left that morning for an overnight trip back to Paris to pick up things forgotten on our last trip down there and no doubt to do a little extra shopping as well.