Posts Tagged ‘France’

Motoring through the sleepy ruralness of France’s Limousin region with its gently rolling hills, mile upon mile of wheat fields, crops of sunflowers interspersed with oak and beech woodland you’d be forgiven for thinking that life here has been much the same for hundreds of years.

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And to a certain extent it probably has but an occasion in its recent history has left a scar so deep that is unlikely to ever recover. For a small town just north-west of Limoges memories from seventy years ago are still raw; events shouldered alone while the attention of the allied world was focussed on the major battle raging in the north of the country meant that no-one shared the agony of this small, tight-knit community.

On the 10th June 1944, just four days after the Normandy landings Oradour-sur-Glane, a prosperous little market town, was razed to the ground by the German S.S, its inhabitants brutally massacred.

Women and children were rounded up and locked into the church which was then set alight; men were rounded up into smaller groups, machine-gunned down, covered with hay and fuel and their bodies burned. Some were burned alive.

 There were very few survivors. On that fateful day, 642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane lost their lives.

After the war, a new Oradour-sur-Glane was built nearby but, on the orders of General de Gaulle, the original town was to remain exactly as it had been left after the atrocity as a memorial to its fallen.

Today there is a sombre visitor’s centre which leads you through a tunnel under the road to the original town where you are free to roam along the streets and view the devastation. There is no charge.

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Rusted cars remain exactly where they were torched seventy years ago; tram lines are still visible, running the length of the main street; an old sewing machine, battered yet still recognisable, has been left in the charred ruins of the tailor’s shop. Patterned ceramic tiles, fallen from the wall of the butcher’s store lay heaped on the floor while where the old garage was, an enamel placard advertising Renault Cars is still just visible.

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The butcher’s shop

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The Girl’s School

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The Church

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The Post Office with tram lines in front

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The main street leading up to the cemetery

At the top of the town, you cross a grassy flower meadow to the old cemetery. Only here is there evidence of human intervention – the place is kept respectfully neat and tidy while the ornate headstones provide testament to the truly shocking reality that so many families perished on the same day. There is a newly built underground memorial hall to the inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane. Every name of those who died is engraved on its walls while encased in modern, light-filled  vitrines are some of the artefacts taken from the victims or discovered amongst the wreckage. Spectacles, pocket watches (with the hands stopped between the hours of five and six in the evening – the time of the massacre), pots, ceramics and the metal handles of handbags – all serve as reminders that this atrocity happened to ordinary people just like us.

As you pick your way carefully back towards the visitor’s tunnel along the cobbles separated by mosses and self-seeded wild flowers the atmosphere in the ruined town is one of reverence – people walk quietly around the shattered buildings each with their own thoughts, taking a few poignant photographs.

The preserved wreckage of Oradour-sur-Glane is a very powerful memorial.

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Do you know the worst thing you can say to someone who’s worrying or has something on their mind? Telling them to forget about whatever it is and focus their attention elsewhere. Our brains don’t work like that. What happens is we tend to focus even more acutely on the thing that bothered us in the first place.

Try this little experiment. Shut your eyes. Think very hard about three yellow giraffes. Go on, see them walking serenely around, nibbling leaves from the tops of some yellowing trees. Now replace those giraffes with any other animal in a colour of your choice. Not easy, is it? And I don’t want any smart answers that the animals you chose couldn’t reach the trees anyway. I covered that when I tried it.

Since the discovery I made and revealed last week about my appalling surprise with the bathroom scales I’ve been thinking of food; it has occupied a large portion of my waking hours, and a fair slice of my sleeping ones, come to that. My mind has been consumed by visions of past memorable meals. Memorable meals don’t even have to be enjoyable. Think of school dinners for instance.

 I can remember suffering the most ghastly food at primary school. Plates of mince in runny, watery gravy served with solid peas and barely boiled potatoes; plum suet pudding drowned in lumpy custard – it was the stuff of the Dickensian workhouse. We were made to sit through playtime until we had swallowed every last morsel – our sadistic dinner ladies made sure of that by forcing us to feel grateful that we weren’t like the starving children in Africa.

 So, food is a very good way to evoke memories of places we have been. I’ve been time travelling quite a lot this week, in a gastronomic sense. When I worked just off Oxford Street in Central London, we would often go out for meals to celebrate a birthday or Christmas, or find some other excuse. We were a pretty sociable lot. One of our favourite haunts was Jimmy’s in Frith Street, Soho: a dark basement where the food was cheap, the wine on the rough side – but the kleftikon (slow cooked lamb) was to die for. Sadly, the establishment is no more, but for anyone seeking to reminisce over evenings of typical Greek fare, you can do so here. 

Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some pretty high end restaurants; some presided over by one celebrity chef or other: the sort of place that you visit once, for a treat. (Or on expenses). However, as there are now so many of them, I think that the exclusivity of these places has been eroded, and while the experience is always an indulgence, I can’t honestly remember individual dishes or one specific meal with a particular wow factor. We recently tried a Japanese restaurant in town that has received excellent reviews. As suggested, we tried their signature dish, the bento box, which gives the diner a taste of many of their dishes. I loved it and scoffed the lot. Time will tell if this will be an unforgettable outing.

Japanese Bento Box

Japanese Bento Box

Foreign travel provides the opportunity to try different local fare, some of which has become memorable and can be recalled in an instant at the mere sniff of garlic or unmistakeable aroma of Mediterranean tomatoes. I had the most wonderful salad one lunch time in a café in Grau de Roi, Languedoc – thinly sliced and layered Provencal tomatoes, a drizzle of olive oil and a few anchovies, washed down with a glass or two of chilled dry rose – heaven!

Other experiences are not quite so heavenly. On a short trip to Denmark, we seemed to be followed from meal to meal by Frikadellers – they were on every menu and consist of a hamburger covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried. Now I’m sure that the Danes do have a more varied diet – indeed, I believe that one of the most expensive restaurants in the world is in Copenhagen, but to me, whenever anyone mentions Danish cuisine, I think of these unappetising balls of deep fried mince.

On a visit to Reykjavik, we had dried salt cod and avoided the pan roasted puffin on the specials board while trips to Italy have so far been largely disappointing: I’m not big on pizzas, there is only so much pasta one can eat and if I order salad I don’t expect to have to mix up the dressing myself.

 Nothing I’ve eaten in Spain has been particularly memorable one way or the other, and I really don’t understand what all the fuss over Tapas is about. Give me a decent bowl of olives or nuts to have with an aperitif and I’m happy – I can’t be doing with bits of sausage or strips of peppers swimming around in herb scented oil.

Unsurprisingly France has been the venue for many memorable meals. One was in a roadside hostelry in southern Normandy, not far from the industrial outskirts of Evreux. We were on our way further south but had stopped off to take in Monet’s garden and needed somewhere to overnight. We pitched up late, secured a room for the night and went down to the bar for something to eat. Madame bustled around and provided a green salad (dressed), pan fried calves liver with pommes vapeur; a bowl of freshly picked cherries and some Camembert. My sort of food: delicious.

Another was inland from Biarritz. We’d driven all day to get to the coast then could find nowhere to stay so we back-tracked and found an ordinary looking little hotel on a crossroads to nowhere. Exhausted with the heat and frustration of looking for a room, we settled for their typical old French bedroom – mildewed floral wallpaper, red lino and a power shower in the corner of the room screened off by a plastic curtain. We accepted the meal that night might be a disaster but at that point, we were beyond caring.  With the tables laid outside under a large canopy and the smell of rosemary and thyme in the evening air we ate a fabulous banquet of seafood, drank rather a lot of local wine and made friends with a table of elderly French men and women who talked about the Resistance all evening and were very entertaining. The entente had never been so cordiale and we ended up sharing brandies with them until midnight so consequently didn’t notice how uncomfortable our bed really was.

So do I have a favourite food? No, not really. I invariably choose fish when we’re out because I don’t often cook it at home. I prefer salad to cooked vegetables unless they are really al dente and I don’t favour stodgy puddings. I like unpretentious food, in ambient surroundings, preferably on some shady terrace where there are no mosquitoes. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

I must leave you with a little food related anecdote. Several years ago I was working with a new eleven-year-old pupil, helping him identify meanings of some science words we would be covering during his first half term.  Mindful that this little chap was on the autistic spectrum and hoping to help him increase his social skills, I was doing my best to engage him in conversation while we tackled this task, so when the word ‘nutrition’ came up, I asked him what his favourite food was.

He put down his pen, turned to me and said scathingly, “Well, how would I know. I haven’t tried everything yet.”

Food for thought? I love my job.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that you hadn’t crossed the Channel when you arrive in Arromanches, nestling between cliffs on the north Normandy coast. There is a distinct English atmosphere, underpinned by the permanent flying of union flags alongside the tricolour and it evokes, for me, an amalgam of childhood seaside towns. The place bustles with a constant stream of tourists ready to fill the plethora of bars and cafes, or, if you feel like a treat and want to splash out, the hotel on the seafront serves fantastic plateaux de fruits de mer. There are souvenir shops selling Calvados; crepe stands and ice cream parlours; shops selling all the usual beach paraphernalia – buckets, spades, flip-flops, sun lotion and postcards. In the corner of the small car park is an old-fashioned Carousel, which whirls around all day, tinkling out fairground tunes. Arromanches–les-Bains, to give the town its full title, appears to be a typical seaside town.

Sunset over the Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches

Sunset over the Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches

But look out to sea, over swathes of flat golden sand rippled by Channel tides and you cannot fail to notice the huge concrete monoliths, strewn in the shallows like a pod of beached whales; lasting souvenirs prompting a visual reminder that this modest little seaside town has an extraordinary history. These benign marine sculptures are remnants of the Mulberry Harbour, built by British engineers, creating a port to facilitate the supply of weapons and ammunition to troops during the battle for Normandy, code name: Operation Overlord.

Nick-named Port Winston, the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches was one of two artificial harbours towed across the English Channel in pieces and put together off the Normandy coast, after 6 June, 1944 – D-Day. (The other was further west, off Omaha Beach). Port Winston, off Gold Beach, was fully operational by 18 June and was capable of moving 7000 tonnes of equipment each day via six miles of flexible steel roadways floating on steel or concrete pontoons.

The construction of the Mulberry Harbour has been heralded as one of the greatest feats of engineering during WW2 and can be studied in detail at Le Musée du Débarquement* in Arromanches, right on the sea front, opposite the Carousel. With plenty of information and artifacts, it is well worth a visit.

With your appetite for historical knowledge well and truly whetted, it is but a brisk walk up the easterly cliff road to Arromanches’ 360 Cinema. Perched high on the cliff top this is a cinema like no other: it shows a film called The Price of Liberty, screening real war-time footage interspersed with how the battlefields look today. Viewers stand in the middle of nine massive screens as the film unfolds all around them. The film runs on a loop lasting thirty minutes and, I would say, should be compulsory viewing for all.

So, Arromanches is a seaside town with an incredible recent history.  Its people are welcoming and willing to talk about their town with pride. The celebrations that go on here to mark the D-Day anniversary are echoed right along the coast, with firework displays that go on after midnight.

21 years ago, on Gold Beach at Arromanches, the Mulberry Harbour in the distance. Who would've thought?

21 years ago, on Gold Beach at Arromanches, the Mulberry Harbour in the distance. Who would’ve thought?

This year marks the 69th anniversary of the day that changed history. Our son will be there, somewhere, watching those fireworks. The first time he stepped on to Gold Beach at Arromanches, he was fourteen months old.

Now, is that destiny?

 

 

 

*For anyone considering a trip to Normandy, I’d recommend purchasing the Normandie Pass which allows visitors discounts on Museum entry fees. It only costs 1€ and can be purchased at the first place you visit. It lists all the participating partners and any seasonal promotions being offered.

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Don’t get me wrong – the tapestry is fabulous – all 230 feet of it and well worth a visit. (Especially if it’s raining, which, believe me, it will. Normandy wouldn’t be Normandy without the rain – it’s what makes it so beautiful and green). Displayed under glass in the Grand old Seminary in the heart of Bayeux, the tapestry depicts, in scenes woven on linen, the Norman invasion of Britain and has survived almost intact for nine centuries. The French do museums and exhibitions with typical style: there is a good audio guide to accompany the tour which explains events scene by scene.

Bayeux Cathedral from the British cemetery

Bayeux Cathedral from the British cemetery

However, if you cross over the river Aure, towards the cathedral (also worth a look), and head south you will come to the British Military cemetery: a complete juxtaposition of historical events within a ten minute walk.

Bayeux was the first town liberated by the allies on June 7, 1944. Over 4 500 commonwealth soldiers are buried in the cemetery; a further 1800 are commemorated on a memorial opposite the regimented rows of white gravestones. Along the frieze of this memorial is an inscription in Latin which translates as

“We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land.”

The grounds are kept in immaculate order by the war graves commission; all the white crosses have floral tributes. It is a sobering experience to walk along the rows, read the ages of the dead and contrast that with our own offspring, who at around the same age, are enjoying their gap years.

Opposite the cemetery is the Musée Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie. This is probably one of the best places for a comprehensive overview of the Normandy invasion. Easy to understand, with an archive film in both French and English, there are displays of military vehicles, maps and strategies, uniforms, and lastly, a room dedicated to the work of the photo-journalist.

Outside, next to the museum, is a small, peaceful garden, dedicated to foreign correspondents all over the world, killed in the course of duty since 1944. Called the Reporter’s Memorial, it contains over 2000 names, chiselled by decade onto large white remembrance slabs. New names are added every year and, since 1994, the town has hosted the Bayeux-Calvados prize for war-correspondents.

The Reporter's Memorial Garden, Bayeux

The Reporter’s Memorial Garden, Bayeux

Wander along the winding path between the upright steles and some names may be familiar: Robert Capa, famous for bringing images of the allies arriving on Omaha beach and who died, aged 40, in Vietnam; Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident who worked for the BBC and who was mysteriously and fatally stabbed in the thigh near Waterloo Bridge in 1978; the Irish cameraman, Simon  Cumbers, shot in Riyadh in 2004 – the same attack that left the BBC reporter, Frank Gardner, in a wheelchair.  Journalists are often regarded with the same disdain afforded to estate agents or tax collectors: those that go out to report global combat should be set apart; they are not given military training, they put themselves in mortal danger to send the rest of us news and pictures that we are at liberty to switch off in the comfort of our living rooms. The Reporter’s Memorial in Bayeux is a fitting tribute.

Robert Capa's image, capturing the allied advance on Omaha Beach

Robert Capa’s image, capturing the allied advance on Omaha Beach

As Robert Capa said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

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