My travels in northern France have always provided vivid reminders of the battle for Normandy, which raged from D-Day through the summer of 1944. Though partially healed by the decades, scars still remain in the rolling countryside, picturesque villages, and gentle beaches.
Sixty-nine years ago today, the Allies waded ashore on the beaches of Normandy, France, and began the liberation of Europe from Hitler. A US veteran of the Normandy campaign said recently, “Out of my squad of 13, only 3 survived.” His story was not unique. The fighting was ferocious, and casualties on both sides were severe.
On each of my visits to this beautiful area, I have been struck by the locals’ affection for Americans. The French are not normally known for their liking of the US tourist, but in Normandy, the appreciation for the US sacrifice is strong. Several coastal villages fly American flags and bear plaques in the town square commemorating the day of their liberation by US troops in June of 1944.
Some reminders are particularly evocative for me. For example, I find few sites as poignant as the rusted ports lurking in the waves just off the coast of Arromanches-les-Bains.
Not far from the immaculate rows of gleaming marble headstones of the US cemetery at Omaha Beach, the tiny beach village of Arromanches-les-Bains was chosen to be the main port of the Allies. Still visible in the surf are the ghostly hulks of the prefabricated ports known as “Mulberry Harbors”, designed to move those millions of pounds of Allied men, vehicles, and supplies from ship to shore in the fight against Hitler.
The skeletal iron beasts, now rusted and worn away by decades of tide and salt water, serve as a reminder of the world-changing event that came to Normandy’s shores. And they remind us of the ordinary people—most now passed away—who found themselves swept up in the gale force of history.
The years go on, but the echoes remain.
As a fan of great museums, England, and historical stuff in general, I’m excited about a brand new museum that has just opened this week.
Located in the historic dockyard of Portsmouth on England’s picturesque south coast, the Mary Rose Museum houses the sixteenth-century hulk of the HMS Mary Rose, the pride of Henry VIII’s navy. Built in 1511, the massive warship sank off the coast of England in 1545 while fighting the French fleet. After ages under the waves, her remains were resurrected from the sea by marine archaeologists and installed in the new museum. A museum that, incidentally, is situated in the very dockyard in which the ship herself was constructed.
But it’s the collection of objects from within the ship—thousands of sixteenth-century items being called the largest trove of Tudor-era artifacts ever assembled—that are the real stars of the museum. By a stroke of fate, the silt of the sea floor created a virtually airtight tomb for the small objects within the vessel. The resulting collection of relics is so well preserved that it has been dubbed “the English Pompeii” for its quality and poignancy.
The artifacts on display within the hull include miraculously preserved musical instruments, rosaries, board games, silverware, weapons, book covers, medical equipment, furniture, coins, and even the remains of several of the Mary Rose’s sailors. Facial reconstructions of the recovered skulls put a human dimension to the 500 men who perished with the ship, as do the everyday items they used. Combs with Tudor-era lice still trapped in them are also in the exhibit, as are the remains of the ship’s dog.
Taken together they are sure to tell a story of lives lived and lost within a sixteenth-century ship’s creaking timbers.
I can wait to see this for myself.
There seems to be an interesting trend starting in the theatre world, one which has history lovers and travel addicts like me very, very intrigued.
Theatrical companies are facing declining audiences as many now flock to the more realistic experiences of the modern digitally-enhanced blockbuster, and they have been forced to get creative in their choice of staging. This has prompted some to do away with the stage altogether; catering to people’s interest in a more, shall we say, “immersive” theatre experience. As a result, some highly respected British drama companies are beginning to hold performances of historically-based plays on the very sites where those stories actually took place.
The latest—and largest—to follow this new trend is none other than Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The revered drama company recently announced plans to spend its new season performing the Bard’s three Henry VI plays, which cover the tumultuous and violent reign of Henry VI and the medieval War of the Roses, on the sites where the plays’ historic battles took place. The drenched-in-history surroundings of Tewkesbury, St Albans, Barnet, and Towton (no, NOT Downton) will see productions of the classic works set where the fifteenth-century king and his knights duked it out with his rivals for the crown.
A similar performance was also held at the Bosworth battlefield in a production of Shakespeare’s epic Richard III, the main character of which has recently gained new fame after his remains were unearthed in a car park near the site of his death in combat. Across the Channel, a performance of Henry V—famous for his victory over the French and his “Band of Brothers” speech riling up his hopelessly outnumbered troops—will take place in Agincourt, the site of his unlikely triumph.
So, if you find yourself near any of these historic and serene locales this year, you might just be able to experience a world-class performance of a classic play—on the soil upon which it all happened.
Suddenly, a night at the theatre doesn’t sound so boring, does it?
We all know that most cities are desperate for tourism money in this lousy economy. Some are going to great lengths to generate interest. Now a PR man (or woman) has looked at a map and cooked up the tourism industry’s latest publicity stunt: Two towns, separated by an ocean and thousands of miles, plan to launch a joint promotional effort to entice tourists with a day of celebration that boldly promises to be a total snooze.
It all began when a UK traveler, passing through the west coast of America on vacation, happened upon a community with a name similar to his own hamlet back in Scotland. Before long, the Oregon town of Boring had itself a “sister city” called Dull, a tiny Scottish village.
Now an article in the UK paper Telegraph describes Boring and Dull’s plan to make August 9th— the anniversary of their union , or whatever—a mutual, transatlantic day of celebration of all things uninteresting. The intention is to draw free publicity to their respective communities’ charms. With a low population, rainy climate, and eight hours’ time difference, it is still unclear whether Boring and Dull’s event will be, well, eventful.
Lonely Planet has compiled his Top 10 Countries list for 2013: I always find amusing to check whether or not I have picked a “Top destination” for my next travel plans…
In 2013, Asia wins the golden medal with Sri Lanka: a country that, according to Lonely Planet, has finally healed the scars of a civil war and is ready to welcome visitors again thanks to cheap connecting flights from Asian travel hubs Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.
Montenegro comes second: I have recently visited, and I definitely agree with the nomination. The quality of the tourist infrastructure and the affordable prices make for great adventure between mountains and seaside.
South Korea wins the bronze thanks to its great opportunities for hiking and exploring the great outdoors.
The list goes on and you may see for yourself. Ecuador, Madagascar and Turkey are some of the other selected countries.
I was expecting to find Kyrgyzstan among the selected destinations: with the recent start of a visa-free regime for most nationalities, and having some of the most dramatic scenery in Central Asia, I kind of expected it to pop up in the list…
Do you agree with Lonely Planet? Can you recommend any other destination with a great potential for travel this year?
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
The massive amounts of Soviet-era and communist monuments were the strangest. As an American and son of Polish revolutionary parents who were involved in overthrowing the communist government in Poland, it was very interesting to see such communist icons be idolized and celebrated. Most places don’t exactly have Karl Marx statues these days.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
People still drive the Yugo here – commonly known as the worst car in history. I learned a few Yugo jokes while here: How do you instantly double the value of a Yugo? Fill up the fuel tank. Why are there rear-window heaters in the Yugo? To warm your hands while you push it.
Growing up in the Midwest, my Thanksgiving was the traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, devoured at a relative’s home in suburban Chicago. But I grew up to be an inveterate traveler and spent the holiday in many places—one of the best was the historic, colorful Belgian city of Bruges.
Several years ago I was serving an internship at the US Embassy in London, and received a four-day weekend as per Federal law. I packed a bag, recruited a friend, and took advantage of the holiday to visit one of my favorite Northern European locations.
Bruges is a lovely little time capsule, a prosperous medieval port city that saw its fortunes vanish when its waterway silted up. The city’s centuries of slumber had an unintended boon for twenty-first century travelers: its cathedral, cobbled alleyways, picture-book canals, and magnificent Market Square survive to thrill romantics and history buffs alike.
My friend, a fellow American who was visiting me from back home, had never heard of the place. This presented another great opportunity I relished: playing tour guide in Europe. At first she was skeptical of spending the holiday in an unfamiliar city, but seemed to warm to the idea when told that Belgium makes the finest chocolate and beer in the galaxy (in fact, Belgium has almost as many beers as there are days in the year).
Having won her interest, we met up in London on a Wednesday, flew to the Brussels and caught a train to Bruges. A steady rain greeted us as we settled into a little bed and breakfast I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I promised my exhausted buddy that tomorrow would be a lot more fun.
Thanksgiving was spent showing my hometown friend some of Bruges’ charms, like the bell tower that has overlooked the Market Square since 1300, the gorgeous Crusader-financed Basilica of the Holy Blood, and the terrific Gruuthuse Museum housed in the former home of a wealthy medieval merchant. Under a chilly drizzle, we munched on hot, greasy French fries from a stand in the Market Square and then checked out the Michelangelo kept in a nearby church. A major part of the experience was, of course, browsing the numerous chocolate shops lining the alleyways just off the colorful square.
Our thanksgiving feast was in a little Italian café off a cobbled lane, where a pizza was washed down with a delicious locally-crafted strawberry-flavored beer (Frambozen). Dark chocolate, freshly made by a nearby confectioner’s, was the dessert. After introducing my pal to a few more fine Belgian beers (Trappist monk-brewed dark, and a white beer called Dentergems), a post-feast stroll around the backstreets capped off the night. The following Sunday I returned to London while my friend flew home to Chicago with a bagful of pralines, a hangover, and a few good stories.
I’ve had many interesting Thanksgiving experiences before and since, but my holiday spent in the historic, idyllic little Belgian city still brings a smile. Stuffing and family is great, but I really miss that beer.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
With a pint of Guinness in hand, I listened to an old, Irish man play his guitar and sing folk songs about Ireland’s beautiful country side, fight for independence and love of drinking while the entire bar sang along. It is rare – and strange – that prior perception and reality are aligned when traveling, but this scene was exactly how I had pictured Ireland in my mind.
A week from now is All Hallows Eve “vigil of All saints” or commonly known in North America as Halloween. The holiday’s roots are of pagan Celtic origin; but it seems to be spreading around the world in modern fashion. When I was young, it meant dressing up in a costume and walking around my small town neighborhood, knocking on doors and gathering more candy than I’d ever eat. On October 31st my three year-old-niece will dress up as a frog fairy princess (her creative idea) and I’ll take her to go trick-or-treating.
But today’s celebration barely resembles the original festival known as Samhain. It was the eve before the official start of winter for the Celtics. It was a huge transition; cattle and sheep were brought in to closer pastures, crops were harvested and stored. Pagans also believed the cloak between this world and the other was thin on that night. Therefore ghosts of the dead could walk freely among the living and all the souls who died that year would pass into the otherworld.
Reminisce of this holidays roots linger today. But what about the belief that ghosts walk among the living…
Are you in a county that observes Halloween?
Have you ever encountered ghosts during your travels?
Please share your stories…