It is difficult to write about Oradour-sur-Glane, even more challenging to do so without resorting to cliches, but I will try.
In 1944, Oradour-sur-Glane was a prosperous village of about 350 people. Its location, on the River Glane about fifteen miles from Limoges, made it a popular destination for picnicking and fishing.
On 10 June, four days after the Normandy landings, the town was bustling with activity. Its population had grown with the arrival of refugees from other areas, school was in session (as was customary in France until early this century), and monthly tobacco rations were being handed out to the area’s residents.
Before I recount the day’s events, it’s important you understand that many French citizens resisted the occupation of their country. Some in the Resistance knew D-Day was approaching, and to try to ensure the success of that operation, the Maquis were making life as miserable as possible for the occupying forces. There were attacks on German divisions, there were German soldiers being killed by Resistance groups in the area around Oradour, and the Nazis had begun to respond to such activity with ever increasing savagery.
According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia“those who had seen service on the eastern front and whose response to partisan activity had been conditioned by the extraordinary brutality of anti-partisan measures there, radicalized and intensified responses to real and perceived resistance activity.”
The 2nd Waffen Panzer Division Das Reich was one such troop, having seen two years of combat action including against the partisans (Resistance) on the eastern front. And it was they who approached Oradour on 10 June 1944.
Led by SS Major Adolf Diekmann, the division rounded up the town’s inhabitants on the “fairground” or village green.
First, they claimed to be checking identification cards. Then, the Nazis said they were searching for weapons. And finally, they began to separate the men from the women and children.
The latter were herded into the church, the former divided into six groups which are moved into various buildings while the town was searched.
Around five, an explosion served as a signal to commence firing machine guns at the groups of men. They shot until all the bodies lay still.
At five, soldiers entered the church, placing a large chest trailing a long fuse near the altar, and then retreating, lighting the fuse before shutting the door. The chest exploded creating a suffocating smoke. The women scrambled frantically toward the door, eventually ramming through, only to be met by machine gun fire.
One woman, Mme. Rouffanche, survived by somehow climbing on the altar and jumping out a window, surviving the ten foot drop to the embankment below. Another woman followed, handing out her baby before jumping, but the child’s cries attracted the attention of soldiers who shot all three, killing the mother and infant. Mme. Rouffanche was injured but managed to crawl into a garden where she spent the night among the pea plants.
In the end, 642 civilians — the youngest only eight months old — were killed. Six people survived.
The Nazis then looted the village, burning the remains of the dead as well as the structures of the town.
A little later, the tram from Limoges arrived. The soldiers forced the passengers off the train and sent it back empty. Strangely, they held the passengers for two hours, warned them not to enter the village, and then released them to find their way home.
The tram tracks are still there, and the station.
The village is still there too, or what remains of it. In 1946, the French government proclaimed the whole town a memorial and gave orders for it to be preserved.
“The German Army High Command … offered this explanation to the State Secretary in the Vichy Ministry ofDefense, General Eugène Bridoux, after Vichy diplomats had sent a formal protest note that contained an accurate account of the events of June 10. The German explanation stated that:
The men of the village died during the fight
The fight had been initiated from the village
The women and children had taken refuge inside the church and died as the result of an explosion from an nearby insurgent ammunition supply dump that ignited the inside of the church.“
As I tried to translate the signs of the village — “Ah, this was a bakery, and here was a dentist” — I couldn’t help but be struck by the ordinariness of the lives that were snuffed out suddenly and seemingly without reason, certainly without justification.
There were other signs.
The memorial also has a crypt filled with the daily bits and pieces found among the remains, the sort of items a person might carry in their pocket.
There were also children’s toys.
Oradour was just a town that fell in the path of the 2nd Waffen Panzer Division Das Reich on their way to Normandy.
To walk its streets was to struggle to comprehend the magnitude of what happened there. Worse, to do so two weeks ago was to be forced to reflect on the likelihood of it happening again.
Now, two weeks later, after seeing the photos and reading the stories from Mariupol and Bucha, I know that it has, and still, I cannot comprehend … not any of it, not then, and not now.
There is no magic there, or mayhem, only futility and loss.
Following our usual procedure, we arrived at Auntie J. and Uncle G.’s after a brief detour down their neighbor’s driveway/farm track. During our stay we enjoyed many convivial glasses of wine, delicious meals prepared by Auntie J., and forays to see the sites of the area, during which we tried to walk off some of the calories.
We walked across this viaduct. Since I don’t have the best head for heights, so I stayed right in the middle. The view was lovely, but I find I didn’t take any pictures, probably because I was concentrating too hard on crossing without freezing in place!
The next day, we visited the ruins of the castle at Saint-Germaine-de-Confolens. Local lore says there has been a castle on this site for over a thousand years.
The castle was cordoned off, so we weren’t able to take a closer look, but we enjoyed looking just the same. The town and river are beautiful.
Whenever we visit the UK and France, as an American, I find it hard to imagine living in buildings that have been there for centuries. At home, a structure is old if it survives fifty years!
French graves often have these little plaques, which Uncle G. explained are given by family, friends, and/or organizations the deceased may have belonged to. He learned this while riding with his local cycling club when the group stopped to place one such memorial for a member who had died.
One afternoon, we walked into Pleuville. The commune (area), which is also called Pleuville, was divided by the occupying Germans during the second world war. From the time of the occupation until 11 November 1942, the village of Pleuville was in “Vichy France” (the so-called “free” zone), but the its nearest neighbor, La Courcelle, was occupied. As a result, Pleuville (the village) was a hotbed of resistance, with messages, and even people, regularly smuggled across the line.
We also passed this grave marker in the back of someone’s garden. Auntie J. knew, or at least knew of, the people who own the house, and I think she said the deceased wasn’t related to them. It’s nice they are maintaining the grave though, isn’t it?
Back at Auntie J. and Uncle G.’s I was taken by the sight of this old gate, which I thought was picturesque.
On our last day, we went to dinner at this restaurant. Of course, I can’t remember its name or where it was, but the setting was beautiful, and the food phenomenal.
We had one more outing with J. and G., but it requires its own post, so you’ll have to wait.
Meanwhile, I’m happy to report our stay with them was all travel magic and no mayhem!
Obviously, I’m sure they don’t do that now due to COVID concerns, but it was a great idea. Bring them in each night, throw them in the washer, and put them out again the next day. Simple!
It was the same in France, and I took a few pictures to show you what I mean.
First of all, in most cases, the plumbing was amazing.
You think I’m joking? I’m not.
I had the best shower ever at Auntie G’s house.
I mean, look at this thing! There’s the “gentle rainfall” option for overhead, which I was able to pair with the wall-based squirty things — here’s the important part — without losing water pressure or changing the temperature!
Hard to believe, I know.
Plus, I had the option of the handheld nozzle for rinsing my hair.
Now, before you tell me you’re sure they sell this type of shower in other countries, I’m going to cut you off and say, “I know!”
I’ve taken showers with a similar setup in hotels, and they were — excuse my French — merde! If I turned on the wall-based nozzles, I lost all pressure in the rainfall showerhead. Sometimes the temperature changed too.
When I raved about their shower to Auntie G. and Uncle R., they told me the water pressure is much higher in France, and although French plumbers are notoriously expensive and hard to schedule, their work is excellent.
Auntie J. and Uncle G. agreed.
Our hotel in Paris seemed to be the unfortunate exception to this rule. The water was warm, but the pressure was nearly non-existent, so maybe showering heaven only exists in certain regions of France.
More research may be necessary, and I might just be the one to do it!
Have a look at this water bottle. Do you notice anything different? Study the cap. Do you see how it’s attached to the bottle, even though the bottle is open?
This means when the bottle is recycled, the cap is too.
Think about it. How many times have you seen little bottle caps just like this one by the side of the road or in a parking lot? Wouldn’t it be better if the cap stayed with the bottle in the waste/recycle stream?
Then, even if the bottle isn’t recycled, at least it’s less likely a bird will eat the cap. And, unfortunately, it’s not likely to be recycled either in the U.S. or France because our rates of recycling are 34% and 35%, respectively. (Germany puts us all to shame coming in at 62% [possibly because the homeless do a lot of trade in bottles — see earlier link about Berlin], and even the UK does better [39%]).
On a side note, while looking up information about birds eating plastic, I found this story about a man who invented a bird feeder that accepts bottle caps from birds as payment for their food. Talk about clever!
When we went through TSA on this trip (I think it was in Cleveland, but it may have been JFK), we were told we had to take our shoes off, which I found a little annoying. A couple of years ago, we paid to get “known traveler” numbers, were therefore TSA Prechecked and not supposed to have to take off our shoes or unpack our electronics and liquids. I had chosen my footwear accordingly — a comfortable pair of slip-on, go-anywhere Blundstone boots. And these boots, while slip-on, are challenging to get off and on.
When we got to the TSA agent by the belt where we had to put our carry-ons, I asked him, “What does TSA Precheck do for us?”
His answer? “You don’t have to take off your shoes.”
“But, we were told to take them off,” I replied.
“Oh.” he said. “Does it say ‘pre-check’ on your ticket?”
I showed him my ticket.
“You can put them back on,” he said.
Well, that was a super-helpful exchange.
Anyway, when we finally cleared TSA, I found a place to sit down and put on my boots.
It did not have a shoehorn. It never would have occurred to me to look for one.
In France, they have shoehorns — cheap ones, obviously, because I’m sure they get stolen — but shoehorns attached to the little benches after TSA.
How clever is that?
And before you start talking about foot hygiene, let me just say, I would have happily made use of that shoehorn with my boots. You may feel differently, but I say five seconds contact with someone else’s foot cooties on the outside of my socks is a risk I’m willing to take.
So, how about it, what clever details have you encountered in your travels? Feel free to leave a comment and share your experiences.
Travel Magic and Mayhem Score: Miniscule moment of mayhem in US TSA line and small amounts of travel magic encountering new ideas in France.
The sky was an eerie color as we drove from Bordeaux to Orgnac sur Vezere, which I now know can be attributed to the Sahara sandstorm.
Still, the drive was pretty much routine, that is we only got lost — I prefer to think of it as slightly misplaced — at the very end when we missed Auntie #1’s road, and we had to backtrack (just a little). So, as I say, routine for us when traveling in France.
Upon arrival, Auntie G. and Uncle R. made us very welcome. Neither set of Aunties and Uncles had seen any family members for two years thanks to the pandemic, so they were very happy to see us! You can read more about their place in my 2019 blog post about their gite.
Here’s a view from their place.
We had planned to stay only two nights with Auntie G. and Uncle R., which turned out to be a good thing as a close friend of theirs, who had been very ill, died while we were there. Since they were involved with his care and looking after the widow, as well as grieving themselves, they weren’t able to go to Lascaux with us.
We set off on our own. As usual, I navigated with the aid of the GPS (SatNav) and my French road atlas. Eager to see more of the countryside, we decided to avoid the highways. The GPS took this to mean we wanted to visit every hamlet between Orgnac and Montignac, where Lascaux IV is located.
For once, I’m not exaggerating. Since I was following along in the atlas, I could see several times where the GPS had us get off a well-traveled road to take another much smaller road — sometimes more of a track — that did kind of a “U” and ended up back on the well-traveled road perhaps a half-mile from where we’d turned off. Since the distance we drove on the smaller road was usually more than the distance we would have gone on the well-traveled road, this made no sense.
On a positive note, I’m sure we were the first visitors from America to see some of those hamlets since World War II, so at least we gained that distinction.
In case you haven’t heard of Lascaux, here’s a little background on these ancient cave paintings. Due to the damage from the volume of visitors, you can no longer visit the actual caves. Instead, the government entity responsible for French culture created a replica called Lascaux II, which has since been replaced by Lascaux IV.
Although this sounds like it wouldn’t be nearly as authentic, the replicas were painted using the same techniques and paints as the original and are said to be quite spectacular.
We don’t know because we didn’t see them, showing up fifteen minutes before the next French tour and about twenty-three hours before the next English one.
Lest you think we are complete idiots, I’d like to point out that I looked at the website before we visited, and although it mentions buying tickets ahead of time, the link was a dead one. And nowhere on the site — at least not in any obvious place one might look — does it say anything about English and French tour times, although I’ve just now managed to find the place to purchase a ticket, and it doesn’t specify either.
I asked if there was any kind of self-guided tour, and the answer was a firm, “Non.”
Ah, well. Another time, perhaps. And maybe then, Auntie G. and Uncle R. will be able to go with us.
Instead, we turned back the way we came, deciding to stop at Saint Robert, a medieval village we’d passed on the way.
The church was built in the 11th century, so the town is quite old.
As we wandered through the town, I couldn’t help wondering what its residents thought of strangers like us showing up and walking their streets and pathways. I also considered the fact that they all must be quite fit because the village is built on a steep incline.
That night, we all went to dinner in Uzerche. The Engineer and I had wandered around this town in 2019, and it’s a beautiful place. I wish I had written down the name of the restaurant we went to, but I think it was the Hotel Restaurant Jean Teyssier because I recall Auntie G. maybe saying something about a hotel. On the Yelp map, it looks like it’s in the right place too.
Well! France’s reputation for great food is well-deserved! Every meal we ate was delicious (with the exception of our self-cooked eggs). Also, I’ve noticed servers seem to approach their work with an air of professionalism not always found in the US, and rarely found in the UK. There’s no waiting for plates to be cleared as new courses are served, no looking around to find someone to ask for another drink, and yet, no hovering at one’s elbow either.
I found myself thinking, “Yes! This is how things should be done!”
The restaurant in Uzerche was no exception. Our server (I’m pretty sure he was actually the maitre’ d) was wonderful. When he learned we lived in the US, he asked if we watched baseball or the NFL. When I said neither, that we only enjoyed Premier League football, he asked which teams we supported. I said Liverpool and think I made a friend for life. It’s always fun to bond with another Liverpool fan. Go Reds!
Uncle R. had him select a bottle of wine, which Monsieur Maitre’ D proffered efficiently and with style. As we perused the menu, M. Maitre’ D helped by describing any dish we were interested in. This helped immensely, much better than piecing the information together from my phrase book.
The restaurant offered a fixed price menu, which is common in France (and some other parts of Europe too). A customer may order an entree (what we call an appetizer or starter) and a plat principal (what we call an entree or main dish) with or without dessert, a plat principal with dessert, or a plat principal and fromage (cheese) to finish the meal, with set prices for each variation. In each category except cheese, one is given three or four options.
It’s a great way to do things, simpler for the chef and servers, and less expensive for customers.
Once we decided on our selections, M. Maitre’ D, reappeared with what appeared to be little appetizers for everyone. I was confused because I’d opted for the plat principal and dessert choice, but found out later this how things work at nicer restaurants in France.
These little appetizers are called amuse-bouche (mouth amuser) and are chosen and created by the chef to prepare diners for the meal and to give them an idea of the chef’s style.
Ours were a salmon mousse – delectable! – and some kind of curryish lentil sauce or soup. I practically licked my bowl!
For my plat principal, I had sea bream stuffed with a mashed potato filling with just drizzle of a delicious creamy sauce. Again, I was scraping the plate, trying to scoop up every delectable morsel.
As for dessert, it was creme brulee, predictable tourist choice, I know, but oh, my heavens! Swoon!
We greatly enjoyed the opportunity to partake of such an incredible meal with family, and I think for Auntie G. and Uncle R., it was a break from what seemed to be a difficult time.
The following morning we would set out for Auntie #2’s. But that story will wait for a future post.
Travel Magic and Mayhem Score: The magic of discovering Saint Robert, a visit with Auntie #1 and Uncle R., and that fabulous meal in Uzerche more than made up for a little mayhem with our Lascaux mishap.
Before we went to France in 2019, we were in Kentucky, and I made The Engineer stop at a Liquor Barn, kind of like a supermarket of alcoholic beverages. We were inside wandering the aisles of the wine department when a salesman approached, volunteering that he knew a lot about wine and asking what we were looking for. I told him we were interested in trying some French wine before our trip, and he pulled a few bottles from the shelves saying they’d be a good start.
The only one I remember is Chateau La Freynelle Bordeaux Blanc. We like that wine, like it a lot. Surprisingly, because I’m not an oenophile, the critics seem to agree. Wine Enthusiastgave the 2018 vintage an 87 and “The Reverse Wine Snob” called it “A juicy French Bordeaux blend that is a great alternative to boring whites.”
Still, our 2019 trip was already jam packed, with no room left for any extra stops. It also hadn’t occurred to me we might actually be able to visit the actual Chateau where they make such deliciousness!
That particular lightbulb didn’t go on until much later when I spoke to the wine specialists at the grocery store where I work. One told me the store might be able to arrange visits to some vineyards, and the other mentioned La Cite’ du Vin, a new(ish) museum of wine in Bordeaux.
Pulling out my big map of France, I saw Bordeaux was only about two hours from each of The Engineer’s aunties, who we planned to visit again.
And that’s how we ended up in Bordeaux a few short weeks ago.
The drive there was dreary, under an atmospheric sky.
When we stopped for fuel, I took a picture of how much it cost to fill the tank of our compact rental car. Fuel, which is sold by the litre, is a lot more expensive than here in the US. However, public transport is a much better, and most cars get many more miles to the gallon than the ones driven in America. I saw very few of the huge trucks and SUVs so common here, and there are charging stations for electric cars in the cities.
The morning after arriving in Bordeaux, we took the tram to La Cite’ du Vin. It was cheap, easy to use, and riding it gave us a 44-minute tour of the area.
As for the museum, I liked it, and The Engineer was bored.
The exhibits are interactive but in a techy kind of way. Upon entering, each visitor receives a pair of (uncomfortable) headphones attached to what lookes like an iPhone. You sort of point your “phone” at each display, then select the topic you want to explore.
The audio and video sync so you see and hear about the subject in whichever of the eight languages you selected when you bought your ticket. Some of the subjects were more physically interactive, exploring the smells used to describe wines and selecting wines to pair with different foods.
The virtual sommelier gave mixed reviews on my choices. For one, he said, “Why not?” and talked about my unexpected, but interesting, pairing. On another, he said, “You’ll never be a sommelier if you make choices like that!” His response made me giggle.
To end the tour, visitors take the elevator to an upper floor for a glass of wine.
I liked the ceiling.
The view was nice, but the glass of wine was small, so we headed out to see a little more of the city of Bordeaux.
We ate at a small cafe across from the river Garonne, on which Bordeaux is situated. The server didn’t speak English, so we got out the phrasebook to figure out what to order. A minute or so later, she appeared with the chef, who asked in a stiff Scottish brogue, “Can I help you?” After telling him we wanted to order lunch, he said, “What do you want?” (Sadly, I can’t capture the sound of his speech in writing, so you’ll just have to imagine it.)
He asked what we’d like in it and how we’d like it done — something neither of us had ever been asked before in regard to an omelette. We settled on some ingredients, omelette well-cooked, and I asked for a “pain du chocolat,” which he corrected to something else.
A few minutes later, we received a huge omelette, with a beautiful salad, and my chocolate pastry.
It was wonderful, a small incident of travel magic.
Because we’d had such a nice lunch, and dinner options were limited around our hotel, we did a little shopping at the local Aldi, which was similar enough to our local ones at home that I could navigate with no problem.
Cans of beer were 44c, and the baguette we bought was under a euro; if I recall correctly, it was under 50c. We bought a big hunk of cheese, a baguette, four cans of beer, a bottle of wine, a bag of crisps, a large bar of chocolate, some fruit, and a package of about fifteen mini squares of chocolate. I may have forgotten a few items, but the bill was only 18 euro, far less than a meal out.
It was even less than the 34 euro it would have cost to eat breakfast at the hotel, and since we had the bread and cheese and fruit for both dinner that night and breakfast the following morning, I think we did well. And it was delicious. We only finished the hunk of cheese at Auntie #2’s house on the last night before we left to return to Paris for our flight home!
But before we left Bordeaux to visit those aunties, we were off to the vineyard.
I had emailed Chateau La Freynelle when I was planning our trip, asking if we might arrange a tour and tasting, and gotten a reply a few days later from Veronique Barthe saying they would be delighted to welcome us. I was thrilled!
Veronique is the first female head of her family’s vineyard/chateau, taking the reins in 1990 after it had passed from father to son for seven generations since the French Revolution, so she’s a bit of a trailblazer.
As seems to happen whenever we look for anything in France, we spent some time trying to find the vineyard, despite having GPS and an address. There are vines everywhere and many, many chateaus, but eventually we found the right road and saw a small sign for La Freynelle.
We were met by Jade, who had arranged the logistics of our visit, and as she greeted us, she remarked on the condition of our car, saying it had caught the sand from the Sahara too. Although we’d noticed the dust on our hotel window and car that morning (how could you not?), we hadn’t known where it had come from. It was interesting to learn the explanation.
Jade was pursuing a Masters Degree, with a focus on marketing wine, and was interning at La Freynelle. She couldn’t have been nicer as she showed us around.
I can’t describe how welcome Jade made us feel — as if we were celebrities instead of just a couple of people from Ohio who like to drink wine. We’ve been to some tastings here at home, and although they have been fine, we’ve never been treated as we were at Chateau La Freynelle, like honored guests instead of a couple of novices come to sample wines.
Jade told us about each wine, providing just enough detail for our level of knowledge. We also talked about climate change, and the steps they were taking to deal with, mostly experimenting with new grape varietals if I remember correctly.
The changing temperature is a great concern because the rules for watering vines in France are very strict. In fact, according to Jade, irrigation is not allowed in the Bordeaux appellation. From what I’ve read that’s because watered vines can grow bigger grapes, but those grapes make a poorer quality wine.
It’s certainly a challenging time to be a winemaker.
Tasting so many good wines made it difficult to decide what kind to buy, even though I’d previously received a price list via email and been amazed at the price difference between a bottle at the Chateau and one at an Ohio grocery store.
I’d also already hatched a plan to buy several cartons to take as host/hostess gifts to The Engineer’s Aunties (and Uncles) and bought a couple of reusable wine bags for travel at La Cite’ du Vin so we could take some home.
Eventually, I came to a conclusion, and Jade packed up the bottles.
Of course, I promptly forgot who was meant to get what, and had to figure it all out again when we arrived at Auntie #1’s!
Before going outside, I took one final picture of the building.
As we said goodbye, The Engineer asked if we could picnic under a tree in the parking area, which was fine as long as we watched out for boars.
Fortunately, we planned to stay in the car anyway because it was chilly, and we were able to enjoy our lunch — more bread and cheese 🙂 — before hitting the road for Auntie #1’s house.
Travel Magic and Mayhem score: 100% Magic thanks to Jade and Chateu La Freynelle.
What happened at Omaha Beach on D-Day (also known as Operation Overlord) is a tale too big to relate here, and I couldn’t do it justice anyway. With a good overview on the Brittanica website and countless books, anything I could tell you would be superflous, so I will share what I noticed when we visited Omaha and Gold Beaches.
To see Omaha in person is to comprehend the distance soldiers had to cross (under heavy enemy fire) to reach the base of the hillock/dune they needed to climb to reach the bunkers they were meant to capture.
Those bunkers were full of German soldiers who, instead of being “softened” by pre-invasion shelling, had merely been put on high alert.
According to Ben, the beach is about 400 feet wide, which my mind translates to the length of one and a third high school football fields. The beach ends in a breakwall, behind which is a road, and an area of brush. These also had to be crossed before the soldier could attempt to clamber up the hill/dune, all the while being shot at by the German soldiers at more or less pointblank range.
The bunkers were — and are — all along the coast, designed by the Germans not to shoot at enemy ships, but to take out any invading troops on the beach.
Unsurprisingly, some soldiers who reached the protection of the breakwall were unwilling to go further, but as Colonol George Taylor told them, “There are only two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now, let’s get the hell out of here.”
The soldiers attacked, and eventually, one by one, the German guns went silent.
Operation Overlord was a massive operation: The logistics of the invasion are almost beyond comprehension. Imagine planning to land 150,000 troops, 11,000 aircraft, 20,000 vehicles, 1,000 tanks, and nearly 7,000 sea vessels from multiple countries on about 50 miles of beach under heavy enemy fire in one day. Then, try to imagine doing so under a cloak of complete secrecy where few involved in the plan have any idea of its totality. (For a more complete overview of those numbers, go here and/or here.)
What’s incredible is not that so many things went wrong, but that the plan ultimately succeeded despite the cost in lives.
That success comes down to one thing: the sheer bravery of the troops on the beaches and those who dropped behind enemy lines.
There was also some good old British ingenuity involved, learned the hard way at Dieppe in 1942. Realizing the Germans nearly insurmountable defenses were centered around the ports of France, the Brits came up with a way around those defenses.
These manmade harbors were called — for reasons known only to the Brits — “mulberries,” and there were two of them, made in England, and fully functional twelve days after the invasion. The one built for the use of American troops near Omaha Beach was destroyed in a storm, but you can still see the remains of the one used by the Brits by Arromanches (Gold Beach).
Also on Gold Beach (Ver-sur-Mer), we came across this sign.
Byrd is my maiden name (hence the name of this blog), and when I saw it on this sign, I had to find out why it was there. It’s possible — perhaps even likely — Richard Evelyn Byrd, aviator, explorer and naval officer, and I share a common ancestor, but what was he doing in France?
As it happens, he was crash-landing an airplane during a flight that began as an effort to win the Orteig Prize, a prize that had already been won by Charles Lindbergh.
Seventeen years later, the beach at Ver-sur-Mer became Gold Beach.
To end this post on a lighter note, I’m sharing the photo below, which I think qualifies as travel magic because it’s so unexpected.
It brightened my day to see that someone had turned a gun bunker into what appears to be a shed, complete with concrete steps to the roof, a bit like beating swords into plowshare to paraphrase the Bible verse.
On that positive note, I’ll close this post. A bientot!
Angoville-au-Plain is a tiny, a quiet village clustered around an ancient church. And inside this church, the stains on the pews tell a story of compassion and bravery; a broken floor tile may tell of a miracle.
For this village, like so many others in France, was the center of a fierce, multi-day battle in June 1944. And this old church, like so many churches in history, became a place of sanctuary — for wounded soldiers, both Allied and German.
It was here that two medics, Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore, set up an aid station. The medics treated the wounded, then searched the fields for more, bringing those they found back to the church to be cared for, regardless of their allegiance.
And when the Americans retreated, Wright and Moore stayed behind, unwilling to leave the hurt and dying.
The history of Angoville-au-Plain and its church is indeed a moving one, and it touched my heart. But what I keep coming back to, what I want to emphasize is how many places there are in France like Angoville-au-Plain, especially near Normandy and in southwest France (where we went later).
We’d be driving along, and it’s like, “Oh, there’s another little memorial. I wonder what happened there.” Every town, every village, has some kind of monument to the men they lost in World War I, the war they called “The Great War,” the one everyone believed had ended war forever. Some of the lists of names are astoundingly long for the size of the community.
Sadly, most of these towns and villages also have little additions to those memorials dedicated to the men lost in World War II, in battles that happened just twenty-some years later.
I think we Americans find it hard to comprehend what it’s like for a country to be invaded and occupied, especially when it has happened repeatedly. Seeing these reminders of the great suffering caused by such events is eye-opening. At least it has been for me.
To experience even such a minimal exposure to wounds left by this kind of trauma cannot help but broaden one’s perspective. That, to my mind, is the real magic of travel.
It’s 5:00 am, and my brain and body have suddenly remembered it’s 11:00 am in France, waking to remind me why we were ended up outside Gare du Nord where I took the picture of the Metro sign. It’s no use to try to fall back to sleep; I will write my next installment instead.
We ended up in Gare du Nord to try to find a French sim card for my phone so we would would be able to call, text, and use data, particularly the GPS (“SatNav” in England and Europe). Gare du Nord is quite a busy station with lots of stores, so we figured it would be easier, and after wallking around (something we do much of when on a trip), we found a store called “The Phone Store.” Eureka!
Not really. It turned out they sell phones, but not sim cards. They gave us directions to another place, which we didn’t find, and eventually we gave up and went back to the hotel, where I used the WiFi to look up where we might be more successful.
All signs pointed to Relay. This was encouraging until The Engineer pointed out I’d nipped into one that evening and straight back out having not seen any sim cards. However, the information I found pointed out the stores kept the cards behind the counter, and I’d not gone up to the counter because there was a long line.
We resolved to try again in the morning.
Now, my unrestful brain is prodding me to say something about the French vaccine pass, which we expected to have to get. We never did because — with the exception of one restaurant — they accepted our vaccination cards everwhere. And by the time the restaurant refused us entry, the mandate was being lifted the next morning.
But, back to our trip to Normandy. Because the hotel’s breakfast had been so lavish the day before, we made sure we were up to enjoy it before leaving for Gare du Nord. The cheeses! The meats! The yogurt! The latte machine! Even the not-very-warm roast potatoes, sausages, omelettes and potato casseroles were tasty.
Also, they had a little device where you could boil your own eggs, which meant we could hard boil a few for our trip, to take along with some fruit for a light lunch on the train. So clever (both the device and us, or so we thought)!
The Engineer put in a couple of eggs while we enjoyed our breakfast, allowing plenty of time to make sure they were completely cooked. Then, we packed up and headed to the train station, where we eventually managed to get a sim card.
The data never worked very well, probably because we were mostly in rural areas, but we re-discovered something we’d learned on our previous trip. If you put the destination in your map app before leaving WiFi, the app will continue to give you direction to where you’re going even when you no longer have access to WiFi, either until you reach your destination or until you make a completely wrong turn. If you do make a wrong turn, the map will continue to show you where you’re at, and you can usually find your way to the destination.
It can’t look up a new destination until you have data or WiFi, but seems to use satellites to let you know where you are.
But perhaps you already know this?
During our previous trip, we’d also discovered how wonderful trains are in France (link goes to first installment of posts about that trip) and resolved to make use of them again this time.
Initially, we planned to travel all the way from Paris to Carentan, where we’d be picked up by our tour, then return to Carentan on Sunday to take a train to Bordeaux on Sunday after our tour. Only there was no train to Bordeaux on Sunday from Carentan. Carentan is a fairly small town, so it seems travel by train there is limited.
No problem, we thought. We’d just rent a car on Sunday and drive to Bordeaux.
Nope. The car rental agency in Carentan was closed on Sunday.
And when we tried to rent a car for Friday, the website kept glitching to change the rental date to Saturday … when the agency isn’t open. We considered putting in Thursday, but worried because we weren’t sure it would come up properly.
While this certainly doesn’t qualify as travel mayhem, it’s a fact to remember when traveling. Although people may be similar the world over, the customs are not.
Thus, one should not be surprised if one is unable to rent a car or take a train from a small town in France on a Sunday. It’s their country, they run it, we are visitors traveling to explore new places and customs.
These customs may include different ideas about when businesses should be open.
In the end, we decided to take the train to Caen, which we knew somewhat from our previous trip, rent a car on Thursday, and drive the rest of the way to “The Manor,” where we’d be staying as part of the tour in a hamlet near Picauville.
According to Ben, our guide, a group of houses isn’t a village unless it has a church. The group of houses where the Manor is located doesn’t, therefore it qualifies only as a hamlet.
It’s tiny; I’d guess no more than 50 people living there now, and I’m sure there wasn’t many more on 6 June 1944, but it was nonetheless highly contested ground, which we shall explore later.
On the train, we settled in to enjoy the trip. Eventually deciding it was time for lunch, we got out our eggs and fruit, along with some snacks I’d brought from home. (Travel can be unpredictable, so I always carry snacks.)
I carefully cracked open my egg … and discovered it was basically raw. Not runny. Raw. Apparently, though our idea was clever, the egg boiler wasn’t, at least as not as clever as it originally appeared. Or maybe the hotel employees just hadn’t kept it full enough or hot enough.
No matter. It’s hardly travel mayhem; perhaps we should call it “Travel Mischief?”
About three hours after leaving Paris, we arrived at Caen, picking up our car at an agency near the train station. It was a turquoise Citroen C3, which we ended up christening C3PO for its habit of beeping at us whenever The Engineer strayed near the center line or a car came too close (a frequent occurrence in France).
Amazingly, it looked like we would be arriving too early, so we stopped off at Sainte-Mere-Eglise. I’d heard the story of John Steele (probably from a movie), a paratrooper who had the misfortune to land on the Sainte-Mere church roof.
I wanted to have a look at the church.
Steele survived by playing dead and was eventually taken prisoner, but managed to escape and survive the war, dying in 1969.
There is a dummy paratrooper hung on the church to commemorate the event. According to Ben, the parachute is the wrong color as white chutes were only used for backup, and it’s hung on the wrong side to make it more visible.
Other than that, it’s completely accurate. 🙂
Sainte-Mere was the first town to be liberated in Normandy, though The Engineer, C3PO, and I later blundered through Ranville, a village that has the distinction of being the first village to be liberated.
That day, however, a quick look at the time showed we would now be only fifteen minutes early, and we set off for Picauville and The Manor, which we found without incident thanks to Ben’s excellent directions.
As we venture further into Normandy, I must preface these blog posts by admitting how hopeless I am about the details of history. I remember past events instead as stories about people. As a result, Ben’s method of touring, which focused on individuals, suited me, as well as The Engineer, not a fan of museums.
Thus, although Ben certainly gave dates and places, I will share the stories I remember. If you are interested in more details, there are inumerable books and websites that can provide them. Ben’s tours involved driving around, stopping at what seemed to be a random landmark, getting out of the car, and showing us pictures of what it looked like in 1944 and explaining what happened to people there.
First, The Manor: As I mentioned, it is near the (very) small village of Picauville, and is a cluster of old buildings, several of which belong to Ben and his wife Hannah.
Ben has lived in France for about thirty years, and it wasn’t until after he bought his property that he discovered it was directly across from one of the paratrooper drop zones. Also, he learned a C-47 crashed in the field near his house, killing the paratroopers onboard.
As he came to know his neighbors, some of them elderly and alive during D-Day, Ben, who is an avid history buff, began to learn the story of what happened around Picauville and their hamlet that day.
One of the stories Ben told was that of Lucien and his little brother Albert, who were children living in a house nearby during D-Day (also referred to as Operation Overlord).
On the day before the invasion, Lucien had been pushing Albert on a swing when Albert fell off and hit his head. Probably concussed, he later began to vomit, and as they sheltered from the planes, his parents began to fear for his life.
A village girl ran out and grabbed a passing Amerian medic. Because she had no English, she dragged him to where the sick boy lay, hoping the man could help.
The paratrooper gave Lucien’s parents some tablets from his pack and gestured that the child should take them. Albert took the pills, and his sickness passed. The medic promised to return the next day.
Ben’s theory is the tablets were the 1944 equivalent of Dramamine, given to Allied troops to prevent motion sickness on the way over, and that Albert’s illness might have passed anyway.
Albert’s family believed differently, and I tend to agree with them. A small child unable to keep anything down can quickly become dehydrated and possibly die, so it may be that the paratrooper really did save Albert.
Lucien was so driven by his debt of gratitude that he felt he had to commemorate the paratroopers in some way.
And so he built this wall, which is now an official memorial and can never be destroyed, even if his family property passes out of family hands.
Sadly, for many years, Lucien was unable to learn the name of the medic, who they knew had perished during the battle for the hamlet and so never returned.
Later, Ben shared the story of the wall with Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of General Eisenhower (Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force during D-Day), when she visited the area with students.
Susan, did a bit more research and was, according to Ben, about 99% sure she and her students had found the right man. Since she was visiting France again later that year (2016), Ben arranged for her to reveal share the information then.
He said Lucien was concerned that it might be a long name because the only stones in the wall left uncarved were on the small side.
Ben was worried about that 1% possibility it might not be the right man, but when Susan showed Lucien and Albert the picture of Frank Mackey, they immediately recognized him, and Lucien was able to complete his wall at last.
Click here to watch a YouTube video of the moment.
Later, that day, we stopped at a nondescript bridge near the “Memorial des Parachutistes — La Fiere.” We’d driven over it the day before, not realizing it was one of the two bridges integral to the invasion.
On D-Day, it was absolutely imperative the Allied paratroopers take and hold two bridges near Sainte-Mere until 4:00 pm. The bridges were over the Merderet River, and the paratroopers would be relieved by the forces moving inward from the beaches. These bridges were the only way troops could move heavy equipment in the area, where fields turn into lakes during the cold months, a characteristic the Germans had exacerbated by keeping nearby locks closed.
The task of holding the bridge proved even more daunting than expected.
The one we parked by was just a tiny bridge in an out of the way place, not much to look at, but 254 allied troops were killed and 525 wounded during the three-day battle for the site.
A contemporary account of the incident said a man could have walked from the church to the bridge over the bodies of soldiers without touching the ground.
Here is a picture of that church, taken near the bridge, which was to the left of the where I stood.
The paratroopers held that bridge until 8 June, when they were finally relieved by other troops.
These paratroopers, with little in their favor, had one stroke of luck, when German General Wilhelm Falley was killed in a firefight with American paratroopers near his headquarters at the Chateau de Bernaville. According to Ben, Falley was in a vehicle on his way to a bus he’d parked behind the chateau as a backup headquarters since he expected enemy troops to look for him in the Chateau.
According to Ben, if he’d gone to the Chateau, instead of being so cautious, he might have survived. Ben also told us the paratroopers didn’t even know who they’d killed; they were just trying to meet up with the rest of their troop and left the general lying in the road.
We went to that spot, an unremarkable place in a small road behind a Chateau in France. There are many such sites in the country — completely unexceptional except for the appalling loss of human life required to take them back from Hitler’s troops and liberate Europe from his clutches.
As we explored these places, none of us could avoid noticing horrifying parallels to the current situation in the Ukraine. One can’t help but wonder if, in a decade or two, our children and grandchildren will be walking around the Ukrainian countryside gazing at similar sites.
Utah Beach was next, and Ben explained that the troops landing there had an easier time than those at Omaha because they landed in slightly the wrong place, where the German troops had already been shelled. This happened more or less accidentally because of the way the air bombings were carried out.
“Easier” doesn’t mean easy, however; according to Wikipedia, some 197 men were killed, but that was much fewer than Omaha, as we shall learn later.
By this time, the morning drizzle had cleared, allowing us to explore in bright sunshine.
I must end here since I have to get ready for work, but I’ll continue with Day 1 of Normandy in the next post. Au revoir until then!
Due to the aforementioned copious amounts of wine, we were moving a little sluggishly on the day we left Orgnac Sur Vezere and ended up arriving a bit later than planned at Auntie J’s.
Still, she and her husband welcomed us with a spread of delicious French cheeses, crust bread and pate.
I can’t remember the names of all the types of cheese, but there was a Bleu, a Brie, a cheddar, and two from sheep’s milk (or was it goat’s? I always mix them up.). I hate bleu cheese except for in bleu cheese dressing with Buffalo wings (which I know doesn’t make any sense) and am not a huge fan of Brie, so would normally have focused on the cheddar, which was very good – crumbly and sharp.
Still, I tried the Brie, and it was delicious, creamy and smooth. But the goat (sheep?) was amazing, so buttery I found it hard to stop eating it.
Eventually, we also had more wine.
I took a picture so I could try to get some when I got home.
Let me just say right here that everything good you’ve ever heard about French cheese, wine or bread is true.
They are incredible.
We had a nice, though too-short, visit with Auntie J and Uncle G and enjoyed meeting some of their friends (also English ex-pats).
We even managed to fit in a short walk between the rain showers. They also live in the country as you can see from these photos of their street.
Or maybe you can’t tell from the picture. Their street is not actually in a town, although it’s not too far from one, and they are surrounded by farmers’ fields.
I never realized how rural France is before this trip. It makes sense though; all those delicious cheeses, wines, and pate have to come from somewhere!
The value of “terroir” is held much more highly in France than it is in the US. If you’re not familiar with the concept, Wikipedia defines it thus: “Terroir(French pronunciation: [tɛʁwaʁ]fromterre, “land”) is the set of allenvironmental factorsthat affect acrop‘sphenotype, including unique environment contexts, farming practices and a crop’s specific growthhabitat. Collectively, these contextual characteristics are said to have a character;terroiralso refers to this character” (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terroir).
Perhaps we are beginning to catch on, however, with more people focusing on eating more local foods (I see this for myself in the grocery store where I work). But in a country where the average piece of produce travels 1,500 miles, its clear we still have a way to go (figure from https://foodrevolution.org/blog/why-buy-local-food/).
We belong to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture – see here: https://www.localharvest.org/csa/ for more information) which makes eating local vegetables easier, at least in the summer. Sometimes, our problem is the opposite – figuring out what to do with all those lovely vegetables!
A few years ago, I had a flash of inspiration and began a yearly tradition of making hot pepper jelly, which has become a much sought after Christmas gift.
And this week, I got the idea that I should make strawberry jam with berries for our local market (probably as a displacement activity so I could put off cleaning house). I made a total of twenty-six jars, in three batches, two pots of strawberry margarita (complete with tequila and triple sec) and one pot of plain strawberry jam.
The Margarita jam is beautiful (and delicious).
The plain jam has yet to set, and looks like it’s been frosted because I couldn’t skim off all the froth.
No matter. I’ve decided what to do if it never sets (which can happen).
Strawberry jalapeño jam, anyone?
Anyway, France has the idea of eating local foods perfected.
And Auntie J and Uncle G seem to have learned the knack as well.
We had to leave too soon, and again departed later than initially planned, this time due to wanting to prolong our visit since it had been so short.
This meant we hit Paris at rush hour. The less said about that, the better, except to say I am very grateful to The Engineer for driving. Also, this meant we didn’t have time to take Le Metro to see Notre Dame.
After the stressful drive (or in my case, ride), we were grateful to hear the desk employee at our hotel say, “Of course, I have upgraded you to a lovely suite.” (This phrase works best if said with a lilting French accent.)
We followed dinner at the hotel with a good night’s sleep, then packing up and racing to the airport where we stood in line for a security check that had nine gates going through one line with one X-ray machine and four employees.
I was sure we’d miss the plane
We didn’t, and later that night, we fell asleep, home in our own bed.
Thank you for sharing my trip memories with me.
I’ll leave you with two random leftover photos that I like but have nothing much to do with anything else.
This is an old Citroen. I liked it because it looked so vintage French.
And this is a closeup of a tree. I liked the the way the moss contrasted with the texture of the bark.
From Grenoble, we headed to Orgnac Sur Vezere before going on to Pleuville (literally “Raintown,” which proved apt).
You won’t find them on the map, but I’ve circled the general area in the southwest to give you a general idea. Getting there would require a car, which I had sorted while still at home. Or so I thought.
Imagine our surprise when we finally managed to find the car rental office tucked away in a corner beneath the train station and found a hand-written sign saying they were closed. (It turned out to be a legal holiday of some sort – kind of like the American ones where some things are closed and some are open.)
Our plans for a leisurely day’s drive went kaplooey. But we were in luck! There was another rental agency open next door.
The worker managed to bridge the language barrier enough to say they were out of cars and to tell us our agency sometimes worked with the Novotel and left keys there.
Dragging our suitcases behind us, we trekked back across under the station and up the stairs to find the hotel.
The desk workers spoke excellent English. They were also very kind. Despite knowing we weren’t staying at the hotel, they called the rental agency at the Lyon airport (which was open) to find out about our car.
And they were the ones to point out that our reservation was for two days prior.
I’m not sure if it was our travel agent’s error or mine – a bit of both I suspect, but it was certainly my mistake to not catch it.
The Novotel employees told us there were several other car agencies on the street opposite the train station and recommended we try there.
Knowing how difficult it would be to book a car by phone in French, I asked if we could come back for more help if the other agencies weren’t open, and our saviors agreed.
By this point I was beginning to realize we would probably have to go to Lyon.
But first, back down the steps, under the station, and up the other side we went, suitcases and all.
All three of the other agencies were closed.
Once again we took the now familiar trip through the station and back to the Novotel where the generous and gracious Charlotte not only called to confirm the Lyon agency had plenty of cars, she also booked and printed coach tickets for a one-hour ride to Lyon.
The coach was leaving almost immediately so with quick but effusively heartfelt thanks, we took the steps at a run to find the bus outside.
At Lyon, we eventually managed to the bus stop for the car rental and waited in the rain for the shuttle.
At least it was a warm rain.
Arriving at the rental kiosk, we asked about a car. On the name tag of the woman who helped us, it said “English, Italian” under her name. I can only assume that meant she spoke not only French and English (perfectly), but also Italian.
I find that amazing. I would love to be proven wrong, but I believe such skills are not common in the service industry in the US.
If only I could remember her name! The tweet I posted tagging the agency with thanks for the help would have been more specific. (They did get in touch with me so I think I was able to provide enough details for them to identify her. Naturally I did the same for Novotel’s Charlotte, and they also responded.)
Anyway, our tri-lingual rental agent found a car, wrote up the rental agreement, and as he signed, The Engineer remembered to ask if it has a sat-nav (GPS).
No problem. She found another car with the feature and wrote up another agreement, which my husband signed.
We dragged our suitcases outside in the rain, loaded up the car, got in, and tried to figure out how to work the instrument but couldn’t get it to do anything but talk to us. In French because, well, we were in France
After about twenty minutes, I finally convinced The Engineer it’s no good, we’re going to have to impose once more and ask for help.
If you never realized it, car rental agencies operate on a one way system. You go out in one direction and come in another. So the only way to take the car back to the office was to drive the wrong way on the one-way system.
The Engineer went in to talk to the agent. She came out, sat down in the driver’s seat and tried to make the sat-nav work.
Only it didn’t.
Feeling slightly cheered that it wasn’t us being stupid, we waited in the car out of the rain because she offered to not only go write another agreement (number three!), but also to bring the new car to us so we didn’t have to get any wetter.
The next time you hear anyone talk about the aloof French, please remember these two parts of our story.
As my husband drove, I somewhat tardily managed to program the GPS (correctly, as it turns out) and we headed for Orgnac with me presiding over the map (which I had brought from home – I’m not completely stupid), and the Google directions I’d looked up and screenshotted the night before.
All agreed on the route, which was fortunate indeed because Auntie G and her husband don’t actually live in a town.
See the lake in the distance? And the neighbor’s cows? This was truly a place to get away from it all.
Below are some photos of our accommodations.
Getting up to the bedroom was just slightly tricky.
This is the sight I woke up to.
I asked Auntie G how old the house was.
“No idea,” was the reply.
Judging by these beams, the answer is “Very old.”
Here’s the front of the house.
Just kidding. That’s the Pompadour Chateau, which was closed on the day we visited.
But this is the back of Auntie G’s house.
It’s in the process of being renovated so they can live there and rent out the part of the house they live in now.
Since we couldn’t see the chateau, we drove to Uzerche and walked around (in the rain). It is a lovely town with an interesting history. (Go here https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uzerche and read under “strategic location.”) I liked this door.
Here’s another picture of the view from the gite to give you an idea of what the weather was like during most of our stay.
The history of La Resistance is ever present in many parts of France including the area around Orgnac Sur Vezere.
It is clear from memorials like this one (just down the road from the gite) just how dangerous it was to even live in wartime France.
This commemorates the murder of three French civilians in retaliation for the killing of some Nazi officers. Two of the men killed were only in their twenties.
There is a misconception some Americans have about the French in World War II, which I’d like to address here. Since we are fortunate enough to live in a country that has never been invaded (unless you count our ancestors taking over the country from Native Americans), we would do well to avoid judging others who have, and to remember that governments don’t always represent the will of the people.
In traveling around France, I came to appreciate how many civilians died under Nazi rule and how many risked their lives to try to get their country back.
End of sermon.
We had a delightful stay with The Engineer’s aunt and uncle, with the added bonus of getting to see both his cousins (and two of his young second cousins) plus his other Aunt and Uncle who had come over for a holiday, and I am so grateful to Auntie G and Uncle R for feeding us, putting us up, and sharing (copious amounts of) wine with us.
And here, because I forgot to put it in the Grenoble photos is something I saw on the streets there (not in Uzerche, Orgnac, or at Auntie G’s).
That’s right. It’s a street side condom vending machine (with not one, not two, not even three, but four options!)