Pere-Lachaise and Parc des Buttes Chaumont

With the recent heat wave in Paris, I looked for ways to escape, and places with shady trees seemed like a great idea. My first stop was the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in the 20th arrondissement. I followed the Rick Steves walk for this and I recommend that anyone planning this visit do the same as Rick Steves very kindly arranges his walking tour so that most of it is downhill. Upon entering, I witnessed a current funeral in progress. I was a little surprised. It had not occurred to me that this cemetery was still in use, I had assumed it was historical. I quickly put my camera away and walked out of sight of the red-nosed, tissue holding, black-clad mourners and headed for the next stop. There were memorials to countries who had lost men while fighting with France in various wars. Of these, I was struck by the memorial to the Russians of World War II. Notice the many fresh flowers at his feet.

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Next up was Oscar Wilde. Apparently power washed and surrounded by plexiglass, which had only a few lipstick prints on it.

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Just after Oscar Wilde’s gravesite I was accosted by a strange long-haired gentleman, who insisted in some language that wasn’t English or French that I follow him with my camera. He had two other tourists hostage and gestured wildly towards this grave, telling us in broken various languages that this man was the REAL inventor of the Zeppelin. Sadly, I had followed this strange man because I thought he was talking about Led Zeppelin. I was thinking, “I didn’t know John Bonham was buried here”. He isn’t, but this man is.

Joseph Spiess, real inventor of the airship?

Joseph Spiess, real inventor of the airship?

I googled him (Joseph Spiess) and apparently strange cemetery man was correct. Moving on…

I saw Gertrude Stein’s spartan grave, as well as Alice B Toklas, whose name is engraved on the back of Stein’s, although I later learned that she is actually buried next to her, not with her.

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Then came the memorials to the Jews who died in concentration camps. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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Just around the bend from this area is Paris’s Alamo. Apparently, members of the Paris Commune barricaded themselves inside this wall, but were eventually overtaken and shot in this spot in March 1871.

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I stopped briefly after this to have a small picnic on a bench. Then ventured further on, taking pictures of a few non-famous graves that I found interesting for one reason or another.

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Does anyone else find this disturbing?

Does anyone else find this disturbing?

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Now, I don’t want to alienate anyone here, but I have never really been a fan of The Doors, except for one song, and I just don’t get the fascination with Jim Morrison, so I walked past his grave without pausing. I walked on to Frederic Chopin and met a woman holding the same Rick Steves Paris book I was holding. We laughed and then talked a bit. She was newly arrived and asked if I had done any other tours, and if he was accurate in his recommendations. I told her that I didn’t like Montmartre, but she had been there the day before and liked it even less than I did, as she met a group of women, one of whom had been pick-pocketed and lost quite a bit of money. The only other thing I told her was that the famous #69 bus was just way too hot to ride this time of year. We said our goodbyes and I moved on.

My next stop was Abelard and Heloise, but I have recently learned in school that their relationship was possibly toxic; that Peter Abelard may have been abusive, so I didn’t feel any emotion at the tragic love story. In fact I ignored Abelard, and just looked at Heloise. I wasn’t terribly interested in the remaining graves on the walking tour, so I chose to exit here. It was hot hot hot, and even though I was walking downhill in mostly shade, it had started to feel like work. I got on the Metro and went to Parc des Buttes Chaumont since it was in the next arrondissement. This park was recommended to me by a former co-worker and now Facebook friend (Hi Roger!).

It’s a lovely park, from what I saw of it. Looking at the map, I think I only scratched the surface, although the heat, combined with the hills made it seem as though I had hiked the Himalayas. I took the Metro to the Buttes Chaumont stop and not surprisingly, found the entrance to the park very close to the Metro. I immediately climbed a mountain (okay so it was a small hill) and found nothing at the top but a few benches, that famous Parisian gravel, and lovers hidden in the grasses.

Seriously, there are 6 or 8 people in this picture

Seriously, there are 6 or 8 people in this picture

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I felt a bit like a voyeur, so I trekked back down the mountain and turned left onto a path, which led me past bridges, tons of people laying on the grass, kids playing in a stream…..

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Then another bigger bridge (designed by Gustave Eiffel) leading to the Temple Sibylle.

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I think if I had known the history of this park, I might not have been so eager to see it. According to Wikipedia,  it’s near a place where for around 400 years they used to display the dead bodies of hanged criminals, and then it was used as a garbage dump, a place to cut up dead horses, and to dump sewage. Nice, huh? I’m especially happy that I didn’t know this when I got mis-directed by some badly placed orange barrier fence and ended up basically climbing a dirt hill (along with another poor stranger who made the same mistake I did) to make it back onto a path and had to take off my shoes and shake all the dirt out.

Anyway, here are some views from the temple, including a view of Sacre Coeur.

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And  views of the temple from the lakeside

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A dog chasing fish. I could have jumped right in there with him, it was that hot.

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This is a beautiful park, with drink and snack stands as well as more than one cafe. In fact, on my way out, there was quite a party going on at one of the cafes called Rosa Bonheur. I didn’t get a picture because I was busy dying from the heat and my mountain climbing adventure.

But this park is definitely worth the Metro ride, especially if you pack a picnic, and just buy cold drinks and glaces when you get there.

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No Bubbly For Me in Reims

Today was my train ride to Reims/Epernay. The train to Reims was much nicer than any train I’ve been on so far. The day started kind of blech, with cold temps and a dull grey sky. I hopped off the train at 8:44AM. It’s too early for champagne so I went to the travel center outside the station to get a map, then I was pulled by an unknown force down a small alley and found this restaurant. I would have come back for lunch but the menu, strangely enough, was all burritos, quesadillas, enchiladas, and tacos. Fitting, I guess, since it reminds me so much of Old Town San Diego.

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On to the Reims Cathedral. When the townspeople started building this cathedral, they knew they would never see it completed, they could only hope it would be finished in their grandchildren’s lifetimes. I can’t imagine anyone starting a project like that today, that wouldn’t see completion in their lifetime. I was inside taking pictures and acting like a tourist, I heard a tone, then beautiful singing. There was a group of maybe 20 people, also tourists, standing in the center of the main aisle singing. It was beautiful. I started to record it, but soon had to shut off the camera, and I just sat at the base of a column and let some tears leak out. It wasn’t so much a religious experience as one of beauty. The singers stopped and became tourists again, walking around snapping photos. I loved the window just above the door

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DSCN2031The Marc Chagall windows at the back of the church.

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The ceiling

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The rose window, which is the original glass from 1255, although it was removed during WWI to save it.

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Some windows that were damaged in the war were replaced by the champagne makers in the area, and show harvesting scenes.

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This is actually a historically important cathedral, as most of the kings of France were crowned here after 1027. Joan of Arc famously led Charles VII here. Almost forgot, here are some pics of the outside.

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Beside the church and about a block away is a library donated by one of my favorite Scotsmen, Andrew Carnegie.

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Beautiful Art Deco.

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Chandelier.

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Now I have never seen such a huge card catalog, nor such a pretty one.

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Now that some morning has gone by, I decided to sip some champagne. Unfortunately the travel center in front of the cathedral was so busy that by the time they made my reservation, left me standing at the counter waiting to pay, while an intern said she couldn’t do anything, watching her colleague run all around yelling at people, I finally told them I thought there wasn’t any more time for me to get to the champagne house. The woman apologized profusely, saying she has been trying to get help all morning, but…I have a train to catch and taking the next tour is cutting it too close. By now I’m hungry so I walked to the main drag with all the restaurants and decided on an Italian place I saw earlier. I couldn’t help it, they had a gorgonzola pasta and I couldn’t resist.

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After I ate, I walked to the Museum of the Surrender, to see the actual room where the Germans signed the surrender papers to begin the end of WWII. Apparently there’s a ticker tape of the news, and the walls still have maps with troop positions. Unfortunately I didn’t notice that it closes from 12-2 so I could only photograph the building. 😦

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On the way back I swung by the Porte de Mars, a Roman gate from the 2nd century. The. Second. Century! Sorry, but as a history geek, this stuff really thrills me. It was one of 4 gates into the city and the only one left standing after WWI. You can see the different levels of construction by the deterioration of the columns.

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My time in Reims was strange. Usually I am a planner, but being on an extended journey (56 days), it can become all planning and no doing if I’m not careful. This was the closest trip to the city and I had had the itch to travel for a while so I planned it last minute and didn’t have time to obsess over schedules and such. 🙂 I think I paid the price, not getting to do 2 of the 3 things I wanted to do there, but I did see enough to know that I am not interested in going back. Here are some random shots I took around the city.

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Epernay is another story, and another blog post. It’s 12:30PM already and I don’t want to stay inside all day writing.

Normandy D Day Beaches Tour Part 2

There was a point I wanted to make in my last post that I forgot. From Pointe du Hoc we could see the location of one of the battles of the American Civil War, in which the Alabama was sunk. Also, inland from Omaha Beach is Formigny, where the last battle of the 100 Years War was fought. It’s funny how history not only repeats itself, but sometimes in the same places.

We left Pointe du Hoc and drove through pretty Norman landscape.

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While in America, it’s baseball, hot dogs and apple pie, in Normandy it’s cows, apple trees, and hedgerows. I always pictured hedgerows as rows of shrubs, but I found that hedgerows are berms at least three feet high with tall trees planted on them in long rows. Every 10 years the branches are cut for firewood, and every 100 years the trees are harvested for lumber. Normandy was covered with hedgerows so each little field had to be won. Tanks could not go through hedgerows without exposing their undercarriage and making them vulnerable. 70% of the hedgerows have been removed since World War II so here’s a picture of one from Flickr since the ones I took in the rain are bad.

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On the way, our docent told us some of the background of D-Day, that there were only 3 days per month that the landing could occur because the Allies needed a good moon, a low tide rising at dawn, and of course good weather. These three things were supposed to occur on June 5, 6, and 7 of 1944. D-Day, or Operation Overlord was set for June 5th, but bad weather looked as if it would scrap the whole operation. Then a report came in that there would be a brief break in the bad weather, and because of where the break was coming from, the Germans were not aware of this small bit of good weather. General Rommel went home to see his wife for her birthday, and the other German generals went a few hours away to go over strategy and play war games. I won’t go into detail about it all, but it was an intricate, detailed, and complex operation. There were engineering teams, wire cutting teams, bazooka teams, flamethrower teams…on and on. To hear the plan, and find out what went wrong while being in the area it took place, I was amazed that the whole operation wasn’t aborted. And it almost was. We stopped at Omaha Beach, where unfortunately you can buy an ice cream or a crepe or any number of tacky souvenirs from little shops across the street. I didn’t take pictures of these, I turned my back to them and concentrated on the beach and the monument.

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I didn’t realize until I got home that this monument is specifically dedicated to the Americans who liberated France. When I saw all the flags of all the countries who fought on the Allied side, I assumed the monument was dedicated to all of them. I’m almost happy that I didn’t know, because I got goosebumps just reading it so being there, I may have embarrassed myself and cried or something. 🙂

My daughter and I walked to the water to get a feel for just how far these men had to trudge across the beach.

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Of course we weren’t wet, weighed down with 80 pounds of supplies, dodging bullets, grenades, or running through an obstacle course of barbed wire, land mines,  etc, but I’ll tell you it was a wide each and a long walk. I rolled up my pants and walked into the water, I guess as a tribute or for solidarity.

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Our next stop was the American Cemetery and Memorial. No pictures I have ever seen had prepared me for the scope of this hallowed place. Unless taken from the air, there is no way to get every grave in a photo. There are so many….they just go on and on…and on some more. There are 9387 headstones. 45 sets of brothers. 4 women. 3 Medal of Honor recipients. 1 father and son. And we’re not even done. There is a Garden of the Missing with a 360 degree wall containing the names of 1557 more missing in action. The men are buried, not by rank, or division, or by any other means except as they came. One whole unit of brothers, comrades in arms, together as a whole without any distinction. Even the unknowns are buried with the identified.

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Our docent was very respectful and basically just slowly led us through, silently raising his arm as we came to each new set of headstones, sweeping his arm to show us each new section. We were given time to wander and look for specific graves if we wished. My daughter and I didn’t have anyone specific to look for so we separated and when we came together again, found that we had each picked a random man to honor. She placed a beautiful shell she had found on the beach atop one headstone, and I had placed my hand on another and whispered thank you.

Fron certain angles, it looks as though the headstones roll gently into the sea.

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We were then gathered at one point and our docent showed us the exact spot where the first soldier climbed to the top.

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I was no longer taking notes so I have forgotten his name. I’m sure it’s well documented elsewhere. This land has been donated in perpetuity to the American people. The number of graves is not representative of the D Day casualties. Some men were sent home to be buried, some men and women killed after D Day are here. Before we left, our docent took us to see the headstone of Elizabeth Richardson, the American Red Cross worker known as the Doughnut Lady. The doughnuts were a cover, her real mission was to give the men someone to talk to. She helped thousands of soldiers unburden themselves before she herself was killed in an accident.

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Our docent also took us to the memorial and talked a little about the invasion, the plan, and the end of the war, using the huge maps contained in the memorial to demonstrate.

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The stones on the floor of the memorial are from Omaha Beach.

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The ceiling looks familiar…

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The “Spirit of American Youth Rising From The Waves” sculpture was created by a New Jersey artist.

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It is important to remember that this cemetery is only one of 18 American graveyards on foreign soil. This is the biggest attraction in the area, and schoolchildren come here and to all the sites along this stretch from all over France.

After leaving here we went up into the hills of Les Bains to an overlook from which we could see the remnants of Mulberry Harbor. It is hard to imagine from here that these remnants are three stories high.

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Our last stop was the German battery at Longues sur Mer. Here the land has been filled in and while it should be compelling because the actual guns are still here, I felt disconnected, and it was more museum-ish in feel than Pointe du Hoc.

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This battery is surrounded by fields of poppies, and you will be happy that my camera died just then. 🙂

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Actually my camera told me it was “exhausted” which always cracks me up a little, as if it is accusing me of overuse.

This tour was amazing, and I recommend Context Travel to anyone, as this is my second tour with them and their docents are personable as well as extremely knowledgable. The only drawback to being on a tour like this is not being able to see other points of interest not on the schedule. I knew that there was little chance of seeing the somber German cemetery located here, especially since someone ::cough:: caused the tour to be delayed, but at lunch I also learned that William the Conqueror’s Memorial was here, and as we drove home, we drove right past the building that contained the Bayeux Tapestries, and our driver, remembering my comment at lunch, also pointed out the exit to Memorial du Guillaume Le Conqueror to me. I hated to see our van pass right by without stopping. Only a 2 hour train ride from Paris, then another half hour drive, I could easily go back.

It was a long day, but worth it in so many ways. Thanks for coming along.

Normandy D-Day Beaches Tour Part 1

Yesterday my daughter and I took a tour to Normandy booked through Context. They explain it best themselves: “Context provides an in-depth alternative to traditional tours. We are a network of architects, historians, art historians, and other specialists who organize walks in 21 cities around the world—and counting” What I like best about them is that their docents are experts, usually with a PhD in the field related to the tour. They don’t work off a script, and can answer all kinds of questions. They took care of everything, even the train round trip and emailed us the tickets. We visited Pointe du Hoc, went to a small fishing town for lunch, then visited Omaha Beach, the American Cemetery and memorial, a cliff with a view of Mulberry Harbor, and the German battery at Longues sur mer.

Our day started with the 9:10 train from Paris to Caen. Here we had a small problem which was entirely my fault, and taught me not to depend on electronics. I had forwarded my confirmation email to my daughter’s phone because my phone is not global capable. What I didn’t realize is that without wifi, her phone only displays the 5 most recent emails, so we were unable to view the details of the confirmation, including where to meet and the emergency number to call. I stood in the train station under the “Meeting Point” sign, but we were actually supposed to meet at a cafe across the street. We found wifi, and after being unable to use a pay phone, went to the train ticket counter, where a lovely woman used the office phone to call Context for me. It didn’t occur to me until disaster struck that I could have written down the information on a piece of paper and stuck it in my purse! Luckily, the tour takes the long way out of Caen to pass by historic sights, and the other members were willing to come back for us, so 10 minutes later we were apologetically climbing into the van and on our way, missing only the historical sights in town, and we sped on the highway to our first destination. We were a group of 8. 6 tourists, our docent, and driver.

It was raining so our docent suggested we have lunch first. We traveled through D’Isigny sur mer, the home of Walt Disney’s ancestors, to a tiny town called Grandcamp-Maisy, and La P’Tite Fringale.

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We had savory crepes for lunch and some of us had the formule menu which included a drink and a sweet dessert crepe. The inside of this place reminded some of us of the Jersey Shore. Nets strung alone the walls and ceiling, many seashore themed items, including a seagull that squawked and made waves crashing on the shore sounds whenever anyone walked by it. We cringed whenever anyone walked in. I definitely recommend this place if you ever find yourself in this tiny town. As an added benefit, prices here are less than half what they are in Paris. My daughter instantly fell in love with this town and even found her dream house for sale.

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The skies started to clear as we made our way to Pointe du Hoc. Pointe du Hoc is located between Utah and Omaha beaches. This is a German stronghold that was critical to the success of D Day because it contained long range artillery that could shoot 11 miles. At one point, our docent took us down to the huge observation bunker and said that this was the eyes of the Germans. We bent down to look inside and there were tourists looking out at us!

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It was momentarily a bit shocking, but we all seemed to feel the same because there were some gasps and embarrassed laughter. It has been left much as it was, the craters from the shelling and bombing had not been filled in as they have in other historical sites. Our docent even explained that the round craters were from bombs, while the oblong craters were from shells launched from ships.

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We went inside the storage tunnels (above) and bunkers where the German soldiers lived, and you can still see the scorched ceilings from the Allied flamethrowers.

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I asked what kind of time period these craters were created over, thinking hours or days, but the answer was a matter of minutes. I can’t even begin to imagine the noise, ground-shaking bomb blasts, explosions, and terror involved in those minutes.

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Here is the roof of the building that has been blown off and is now laying to the left. Look at how thick that roof is, and it was ripped off and flipped over. As much as war stories and movies have always scared me and caused me to fear the Nazis of World War II, and the fact that this was a German artillery position was terrifying in itself, I couldn’t help but feel the humanness of those soldiers in those moments, who were after all someone’s father, brother, son, husband. Our docent told us that 225 Rangers were sent up the cliffs. They succeeded in destroying the guns and cut off the highway. Two days later when they were relieved, only 90 men remained. My mind is now on the American Rangers who are also fathers, sons, and brothers, husbands. This site is fascinating and terrifying at the same time, and I found it haunting, especially the wild and windswept landscape with no whitewashed tourist-friendly atmosphere. The only monument or plaque in sight is the ranger memorial, which itself looks almost as rugged as the landscape.

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To the left is my daughter and our docent. Near the monument is some tourist trying to get good cell reception, I guess. Standing at the edge of this cliff, and looking over, it looks impossible to even contemplate a human being trying to get to the top. Just the moss covering the rocks, never mind the sheer steepness of the cliffs. Oh, and the enemy firing on you as you climb….

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I think I’ll do this in parts. I need a break.