Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A-Z Blogging Challenge - Normandy

This will be a whistle-stop tour of some of the places I’ve visited in Normandy, in the north of France, during my several visits to the area.

Caen, now capital of the Basse-Normandie region, was William the Conqueror’s city, and the castle he built there has been restored following the damage it suffered during World War II. It now contains the Museum of Normandy and the Museum of Fine Arts. The Abbaye des Hommes was the final resting place of William the Conqueror but his grave was destroyed by the Calvinists in the 16th century.

Not far from Caen is the town of Bayeux. Its main claim to fame (and the reason for most tourist visits) is the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy in 1066. Tapestry is the wrong word, as it is actually an embroidered cloth, 22feet long (68m) and 1.6 wide (0.5m). French legend says that Odo, bishop of Bayeux (and Duke William’s half-brother), commissioned the tapestry and that it was created by William’s wife, Mathilde, and her maid-servants. However, various other theories exist, and many historians now think it was designed and created by Anglo-Saxon embroiderers in England.

Moving forward in history brings us to Rouen, the capital of Haute-Normandie, at one time the capital of Anglo-Norman dynasty. Edward IV, king of England in the 15th century, was born in Rouen in 1442. Eleven years earlier, Joan of Arc had been burned at the stake in the city.

Rouen’s Cathedral is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture, and several famous people are buried here, including Rollo, the Viking founder of the principality that became known as Normandy. There is also a tomb that contains the heart of Richard the Lionheart (the rest of him is buried at Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon).
In the 20th century, the Normandy landings in June 1944, led to the liberation of Normandy from the Germans, and two months later, to the liberation of France, and within a year, the defeat of Germany.There are still many reminders of the battles which took place in the summer of 1944. At Arromanches, you can still see the remains of the ‘Mulberry’ (artificial) harbours,built by the Allies to facilitate the unloading of cargo during the invasion of Normandy. Prefabricated in Britain, they were towed across the English Channel. Arromanches also has a museum dedicated to the invasion.
Remains of Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches

Further west the coast was the area designated as ‘Omaha Beach’, one of the five sectors of the invasion, where American troops attacked to secure a beachhead linking two of the other sectors (Gold and Utah). The defences were unexpectedly strong and the American forces sustained heavy losses during the landing and the fighting that followed. The Normandy American Cemetery was created on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, and contains the remains of nearly 10,000 American service personnel, most of whom were killed during the Normandy invasion. The names of a further 1,500 of the missing are shown on the walls surrounding the garden near the main memorial. The cemetery was shown at the beginning of Spielberg’s movie, Saving Private Ryan.


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

A-Z Blogging Challenge - Marseille

Marseille from the church of Notre Dame le Garde on an outcrop above the city
Marseille is the second largest city in France and its largest commercial port. About 600 B.C. the Greeks established the settlement of Massalia which became one of the major trading ports in the ancient world. The town later allied itself with the Roman Republic, mainly as protection against the Etruscans and Carthage, but lost its independent status in the 1st century BC and became part of the Roman Empire.
It continued to thrive during the Middle Ages, despite setbacks when it was attacked by the Saracens and by Spain. It’s also thought that Marseille was the first place in France to suffer an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1348, which later spread throughout Europe.
Le Vieux Port - The Old Port
By the end of the Middle Ages, Marseille was incorporated into France, and continued to play an important trading and naval role. Various forts were built around the port which can still be seen today.
Fort Saint Jean at the north entrance to the harbour
Fort Saint Nicholas on the south side
You can also take a boat trip out to the Chateau d’If, made famous by the Alexandre Dumas novel, The Count of Monte Cristo.
The local people supported the French Revolution and in 1792, the city sent 500 volunteers to Paris to help defend the revolutionary government. On their march northwards to Paris, they sang their rallying call, which came to be known as La Marseillaise, and is now France’s national anthem.
In modern times, Marseille has continued as a trading and commercial centre, and industry has expanded, with petroleum refining and shipbuilding being the main industries. It also attracts millions of tourists, including the Mediterranean cruise ships. Last year it was designated as European Capital of Culture. Its main cultural attraction is the Opera House, originally built in the 18th century.
The city is also renowned for its food, especially bouillabaisse, a kind of fish stew containing at least three types of fresh local fish, and served with rouille (mayonnaise) on toasted bread.

Monday, 14 April 2014

A-Z Blogging Challenge- Lille

Lille, in northern France, is the fourth largest city in France, after Paris, Marseille, and Lyon. According to an old legend, in 620 A.D., Salvert, prince of Dijon, was making his way to England with his pregnant wife, Ermengart. While travelling through Flanders, they fell into a trap laid by the local lord, the giant Phinart. The prince and his men were killed, but Ermengart fled and found refuge at a hermit's cottage in the forest, where she gave birth to a son. Upon her death, she entrusted the baby to the hermit. He baptized him with his own name, Lydéric.When, as a youth, Lydéric discovered the truth about his origins, he set out to search for Phinart. He found him at the court of Dagobert I at Soissons, and killed him in a duel to avenge his parents’ deaths. Phinaert's lands were given to Lydéric, and he founded the city of Lille in 640 A.D.

In the Middle Ages, the city became the centre of the textile industry with an important cloth fair. Originally ruled by the Count of Flanders, the city was successively ruled by France, Burgundy, and even by Spain when it controlled the area known as the Spanish Netherlands (i.e. Belgium, Luxemburg, and part of northern France) and became part of France in the 17th century. Evidently the citizens did not take kindly to this until some important public works endeared them to the king, but even then many of them continued to consider themselves as Flemish, and not French.

In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Austrians who were occupying the United Provinces (Belgium and the Netherlands) laid siege to the city. The city resisted despite many buildings being damaged by artillery, and the Austrians left after eight days. Some buildings in Lille still have cannonballs embedded in their walls, dating from this time! (see the black 'dots' on this photo) 

The ‘Column of the Goddess’ was erected in the Grand Place in 1842 to commemorate this event.

Lille was occupied by the Germans during the two World Wars, and in the post-war years, its prosperity suffered with the decline of the textile and mining industries. In more recent years, it has become a transport hub, linked to Paris, Brussels and London by the high-speed train network. Modern employment has changed from manufacturing and mining to service industries, and it has become an important retail and financial centre.

Each September it holds La Braderie, a huge street fair and market, with craft and food stalls, street theatre, live music, and people in traditional costumes. In recent years, it has also provided a Christmas market with a variety of stalls and displays in the Grand Place and adjoining streets.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

A-Z Blogging Challenge - Krakow

I’ve been to Krakow in the south of Poland a couple of times. The first time was on a general tour, when we saw the main tourist sites, particularly Krakow’s main square with its impressive Cloth Hall, and the dozens of cafes lining the square where you can sit and watch the world go by.

The hall is home to dozens of Polish craft stalls (along with the usual tourist souvenirs, of course) and is a riot of colour with Polish costumes and hand-made jewellery.

The walking tour of the city took us into the old town, and to Wavel Castle above the River Vistula.

On this visit, we went to the nearby Wielicza salt mines where there were some amazing salt sculptures and carved reliefs, including this one of the Last Supper.

We also enjoyed a traditional Polish evening with singing and dancing.

Our next visit was part of an historical tour, and the visit to Krakow concentrated on the story of Oskar Schindler, who saved several hundred Jewish workers by employing them in his factory.

We visited the factory and actually went up to his office. As we went up the stairs, I'm not sure whether my excitement was because Schindler himself had climbed those stairs, or whether it was because Liam Neeson had done so when they were filming the movie!

Our next stop was in what had been the Jewish ghetto, in the Podgorze district of the city. In May 1940, all the Jews in Krakow were forced to live in this walled area. Over 15,000 people were crammed into an area previously inhabited by 3,000 people. There were 320 residential buildings, and four Jewish families were forced to reside in apartments intended for one family.

It is somewhat ironic that the house in this photo was the home of Amon Goeth (later to be the commandant of the labour camp) and adjoined the ghetto, whose walls were made up of brick panels shaped like gravestones.
From 1942 onwards, deportations started to remove the ghetto inhabitants to concentration camps, and the final ‘liquidation’ of the ghetto took place in March 1943. 8,000 Jews, deemed fit for work, were sent to the Plaszow labour camp across the river. Nothing now remains of the camp (as it was completely destroyed by the Nazis in 1945 before the Russian army arrived there). The memorial to all the victims was erected in 1964.

The Kasimierz area of Krakow had been inhabited by the Jews from the Middle Ages until they were forced into the ghetto in 1940. In more recent years (i.e. since the 1980s) Jewish people have started to return to Kasimierz. Some old sites have been restored, and the area is now thriving again with Jewish restaurants, bars, bookstores, and other shops. A lot of Spielberg’s movie, Schindler’s List, was filmed in this area.

Friday, 11 April 2014

A-Z Blogging Challenge - Jerusalem

Stepping outside Europe today, as I haven't been to Jerez, Jutland, or Juan-les-Pins, and I only have a photo of the hotel where we once stayed overnight in Jena.

I've visited Jerusalem once, as part of a three-day cruise from Cyprus about twenty years ago.

You might wonder what this photo is doing in a blog about Jerusalem. The reason is that this is the café where we stopped just a few miles outside Jerusalem. Yes, an Elvis-themed café, with Elvis memorabilia and posters, Elvis 'souvenirs' on sale, and Elvis songs playing non-stop. Bizarre!

Here's our first view of Jerusalem as we drove towards the city from Bethlehem.

Our first stop was at the Jaffa Gate, where we were accosted by dozens of small boys, all offering us a dozen postcards - 'very cheap - very cheap'.

On into the Old City, which was a warren of narrow crowded streets.

Our guide rushed us through the bazaar, even though I could have spent ages in some of the small shops, like this one.

We also had a rushed, and very crowded, visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
After this our guide left us for about ninety minutes at the Wailing Wall. We didn't have a map, so didn't dare venture too far away fear of getting lost, and we couldn't even find a café nearby!
We discovered later that other groups had been taken on a far more extensive tour of the city, but the only other sight we saw was this view of the Mount of Olives (taken during a five minute photo stop)

Then we were rushed off to visit a diamond factory somewhere - although I think our guide's hopes of some commission from sales came to nothing, as none of us could afford the prices of the diamonds.
So, although I can say I have 'been' to Jerusalem, it was a disappointing visit, and I'd love to return to see more of it.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

A-Z Blogging Challenge - Innsbruck

Innsbruck, capital of the Tyrol region of Austria, is situated in the Inn valley. At the end of the 15th century the Emperor Maximilian I moved his court to Innsbruck, and many buildings from the Middle Ages have survived in the ‘old town'.

The ‘Golden Roof’ is probably Innsbruck’s most famous sight, with over 2,500 gilded shingles. It was added to the building for Emperor Maximilian in 1500, and he and his wife used the balcony to watch festivals, tournaments, and other events in the square below. The house itself was built by Archduke Friedrich I in the early 15th century.

Maria Theresien Strasse is the entrance to the old town. In the centre is St Anne’s Column, built in 1703 to commemorate the liberation of Tyrol from Bavarian troops.

It was a very hot day when I visited Innsbruck, as one of the leaders of a school party, and we teachers were quite content to sit at one of the cafes on this street with coffee and cakes, while the 30 teenagers invaded all the shops!

We also visited the Bergisel Ski Jump, from which we had a fantastic view of the city, but as we visited in the height of summer, it looked very strange with no snow on it!

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

A-Z Blogging Challenge - Holocaust Memorials

During my visits to Germany and Poland, I have visited several concentration camps. Some people think these places should be obliterated, but personally I think they act as a memorial to the millions who lost their lives here during World War Two. I’ve visited different ones at different times, but always found them a sobering reminder of man’s inhumanity.
The first camp I visited was Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I will never forget my first sight of the watchtower and the arch through which the ‘transports’ passed into the camp.

The sheer size of the camp was mind-blowing too, stretching nearly a mile into the distance to where the gas chambers were situated (and have now been demolished).

It was a beautiful spring day when I first visited Auschwitz, and somehow that didn't seem right. You tend to imagine the camp in monochrome because of the photos you've seen, but when I was part way down this rail track, we heard a train's hooter somewhere in the distance, and the hairs on my neck stood on end.

The Auschwitz Labour Camp (as distinct from Birkenau, the death camp) was a couple of miles away, and again the entrance seemed only too familiar, with the inscription ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work makes you free). The barrack blocks that housed the workers were surrounded by electric fences, and the displays of suitcases, shoes, pots and pans, steel-rimmed spectacles, prayer shawls (and Zyklon B  cyanide canisters) in one of the blocks were heartrending, reminding you of all the people who lost their lives here.

There is very little left of the Bergen-Belsen camp, near to the town of Celle in Northern Germany, apart from the mass graves and various memorials.
This is the Jewish memorial, which reads: ‘Israel and the world shall remember 30,000 Jews exterminated in the concentration camp of Bergen Belsen at the hands of the murderous Nazis.’ It was erected on April 15, 1946, the first anniversary of the liberation of the camp. There is another memorial that commemorates the camp’s other victims – gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and political opponents of the Nazis.
One memorial at Belsen attracts especial attention – that of Anne Frank and her sister Margot, who both died there about a month before the camp was liberated. The long mound in the background (left centre of the photo) is one of the mass graves.

Sachsenhausen Camp, near Berlin, was established in 1936, was mainly a transit camp, and also a training camp for S.S. officers who were then deployed to other camps. Between 1936 and 1945, about 200,000 people passed through the camp, and about 100,000 died there as a result of exhaustion, disease, malnutrition or because of brutal medical experimentation. The gate to the camp had the usual ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ words.

In the large roll-call area, now with a memorial wall denoting the shapes of the barrack buildings, there were shoe-testing tracks – areas with different surfaces, gravel, cinders, large stones etc. Prisoners had to march round these all day, testing the soles of army boots to see what type performed the best.

Finally, Dachau Camp, near Munich, which was established in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power, was a camp for political prisoners. Over 200,000 from all over Europe were imprisoned here, and more than 43,000 of them died. The barrack blocks were designed to hold 200 prisoners but, by the end of the war, each barrack was catastrophically overcrowded with up to 2,000 people.

'Arbeit Macht Frei' takes on a bitter and tragic meaning, as a result.

All these sites remind us of an atrocity that should never be forgotten.