Back from Europe – Part the Fifth!

remembrance_day___poppy_day_by_daliscarWelcome back to the latest edition on the Williams’ Family Eurotrip 2014! Today, in what I hope will be the second-last post in this segment, I will be covering some of my favorite aspects of the trip. These included our visit to the Caen Memorial Museum, our overnight in Chartres, and our arrival in Paris which was accompanied by some very interesting times in the Latin Quarter. Here’s how it all well down…

Friday, April 18th – Sunday, April 20th – Caen and Chartres and Paris:
The day started with us packing up and saying goodbye to the Lion D’Or, which for the past few days had been our home away from home, complete with feline company! Then, we hit the road on our way to Chartres; and unlike previous days, we only made one stop along the way. However, it was an important stop, since it was the last stop on our tour of World War II sites and memorials. Initially, we had talked about visiting the Ardennes Abbey, where 20 Canadian POWs had been murdered by SS troops on July 8th, 1944.

The Abbey has since been converted into a museum that pays homage to these individuals and commemorates the sacrifices made by countless people during the Battle of Normandy. However, my father had visited it twice now and cautioned that it was quite depressing. So instead, we decided to detour through the northern part of Caen to visit the Mémorial de Caen, a museum and memorial which was by far the largest and most detailed museum we had seen on the trip.

Mémorial de Caen, map out front of all the events around Caen during the Battle of Normandy 1944
Mémorial de Caen, map out front of all the events around Caen during the Battle of Normandy 1944

Outside the museum, we found a lovely map where I concluded explaining the events surrounding the Battle of Caen – one of the most intensive battles to take place during Operation Overlord and the liberation of France. This proved to be a good time to share what I knew, since the museum was immensely more detailed on the subject and would have made my little talk pointless! And picking up where we had left off during our visit to Juno Beach and the Normandy countryside, I began sharing with my wife and olks exactly how hard it had been in 1944 to take the city.

Initially a D-Day objective, it would take the British, Canadian and Allied forces a total of 45 days to secure the city of Caen. Its strategic position in the Eastern Sector of Normandy, as well being a major crossing point over the Orne river, made capturing it an absolute necessity. To the Allies, taking the city was a matter of securing a solid beachhead and preventing a German counter-attack. To the Germans, holding it was a matter of ensuring that the Allied forces would be denied the ability to venture father south.

Battle-for-CaenIn June, the Canadian 3rd Division managed to secure the high ground to the west and south-west of the city, including the towns of Carpiquet, Authrie and Rots. To the north, the British I Corps had also seized all land outside of the city, but still faced tough resistance from the German 12th SS Panzers, the 21st Panzer Division, and the 716th Infantry Division. Since their attempt to take the city by a direct assault on D-Day had failed, General Montgomery now looked to take the city with a pincer movement.

Thus began Operation Perch, which commenced on the 7th of June (D-Day+1) and aimed at achieving a breakout west around Bayeux. As the I Corps attacked the town of Cagny some 5 km south-east of Caen, the British XXX Corps (located 20 km to the west) would push south of Bayeux and cross the Odon river, in an attempt to outflank the Germans south of the city. Almost immediately, the attack ran into problems, which would force further delays in liberating Caen.

panzer_lehrIn the west, the XXX Corps was delayed after reaching the town of Tilly-sur-Seulles, where they became bogged down by hedgerows and stiff resistance from the 12th SS Panzers and the Panzer-Lehr Division – an elite unit with many of Germany’s most advanced tanks (such as the Panzer V “Panther” tank, pictured above). In the east, the I Corps’ advance was stalled thanks to tough resistance from the battle-hardened 21st Panzer Division. By the 13th of June, the offensive was called off.

However, on the following day, the German line broke to the west of the XXX Corps, thanks to the efforts of the American 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One). After withdrawing south, the Germans opened a 12 km gap in their lines, which the British 7th Armored Division sought to exploit by pushing south. In an attempt to outflank the Panzer-Lehr Division, the 7th Armored aimed to capture the town of Villers-Bocage some 15 kms south of Bayeux.

operation_perchHowever, the British once again experienced severe resistance and after two days of intense fighting, they fell back on June 14th. It was hoped that with some reinforcements, they would resume the attack  on the 19th and push through. However, a terrible storm fell on the English Channel, which caused severe disruption to beach supply operations and damaged the artificial harbor at Arromanches (see “Part the Fourth”, specifically the stuff dealing with Mulberry Harbor).

Because of this, offensive operations were postponed until July, at which point, General Montgomery would once again plan to seize Caen by a direct assault. The first phase of this assault was known as Operation Windsor, and called for the Canadian and British forces west of Caen to retake the town of Carpiquet from the 12th SS and then secure the Carpiquet Airfield to the south. The second phase, known as Operation Charnwood, would see the I Corps clearing the north end of Caen and seizing the bridgeheads into the southern part of the city.

operation_windsorOn July 4th, the attack commenced, with Canadian and British forces braving mines, anti-tank guns, and machine gun nests to take Carpiquet. By the following day, the town had been secured and several German counterattacks had been repulsed. By July 8th, acting on intelligence provided by the French Resistance, the Canadian and British forces marched on the airfield and found it abandoned. Operation Windsor was a success.

Operation Charnwood, by contrast, met with limited success, and caused significant damage to the city of Caen. On July 7th, the began with a massive aerial bombardment where the first wave of bombers dropped over 1,800 tons of munitions on the city. The Allies hoped to minimize civilian deaths by dropping leaflets prior to the bombing. However, the drop took place just a day prior, and due to complications caused by the weather, only a few thousands leaflets reached their destination and only a few hundred townspeople left.

operation_charnwoodOn the following morning, the I Corps mobilized and reached the outskirts of town by nightfall. The Germans immediately began evacuating across the Orne river, leaving elements of their forces behind to fight a rearguard action in the rubble-filled streets. Despite fierce resistance, the English and Canadian forces secured the northern half of Caen by the 9th of July and decimated the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division. However, the bridges across the Odon were not secured, and were either blocked by rubble or heavily defended from the south bank.

Because of this, the Operation was called off by the 9th of July since no further gains were possible. Though it had been delcared a success, Caen was not yet fully liberated and the city had suffered extensive damage. It’s civilian population which had been roughly 60,000 before the battle – had now dropped to 17,000, which caused widespread resentment towards the liberators. Nevertheless, the townspeople in the northern half of the city still came out in force to celebrate the defeat of the Germans.

Royal_Engineers_in_CaenLater than month, Monty once again planned to take the rest of the city with a pincer movement. Known as Operation Atlantic, this assault involved the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division advancing to the east of Caen to secure the suburb of Colombelles while the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division drove south to seize the high ground of Verrieres Ridge. Once again, these assaults would coincide with a British offensive farther east. On the 18th and 19th of July, the Canadian 3rd Division managed to secure the town of Colombelles from the 21st Panzers and drove them over the Orne river, effectively liberating all of Caen.

Unfortunately, the 2nd Division was stalled while trying to take Verrieres Ridge, thanks in part to heavy rains that turned the ground to mud – which bogged down their armor support and grounded the RAF – and because the Germans were well fortified and had artillery support. After several days of fighting, the 2nd Division fell back and were reinforced by elements of the 3rd Divisions; and together, they were able to halt the counter-attacks launched by the 12th SS Panzers.

operation_goodwoodMeanwhile, the I and VIII British Corps initiated Operation Goodwood on July 18th, which sought to capture the town of Bourguébus and the high ground south of the city. Once again, the operation was preceded by extensive bombing, which harried the German forces that had fallen back from Caen. However, the advance stalled due to numerous factors and the British lost the element of surprise. For starters, the British only had six bridges over the Orne river, which slowed the crossing of the 1000+ vehicles taking part in the offensive considerably.

Once they reached the other side, they were forced to contend with minefields that had been lain by the 51st Highland Division to defend their positions just a few days prior. But since the element of surprise was already lost, British command decided to order the mines cleared. Two days later, the attack resumed. However, the Germans had recovered from the bombing by then, and the British were forced to clear several well-defended towns that were connected by underground tunnels.

operation_goodwood1In addition, the German artillery on Bourguébus ridge had not been destroyed by the Allied bombing. And thanks to their numerous observation posts stationed throughout the villages in the region, they were able to observe the British advance and call in artillery support on their armor. Between the 18th and the 20th, they also mounted numerous counter-attacks, and by the end of the day, Montgomery brought the operation to a close, citing bad weather.

All told, Goodwood did not go as planned and was a failure in terms of achieving a breakout. Some 4000-5000 Allied troops and 250-350 tanks were also lost in the assault. The German losses are unknown, but some 2500 men were captured (mostly by the British since the Canadians were no longer taking SS prisoners) and between 75 and 100 tanks were destroyed. However, these two operations did manage to secure important strategic ground, liberated the rest of Caen, and effectively bled the Germans dry in the region.

Saint_Lo_BreakthroughBut most importantly of all, the sustained British, Canadian and Allied efforts in and around Caen managed to tie down four German Corps, which included important armored divisions, while the Americans were planning their own breakout to the west. On July 25th, just one day after the Canadians and British were told to dig in, the 1st US Army launched Operation Cobra, which effectively achieved a breakout around the town of Saint-Lô.

This breakout would allow the American forces to drive south and east, effectively outflanking what was left of the German forces, while the British 2nd Army – with the Canadian 4th and 1st Polish Armored Divisions leading the way – closed in on them from the north. This encirclement maneuver, which would come to be known as the Battle Falaise Pocket, effectively decimated what was left of the German army and signaled the liberation of France. Thereafter, the Allies would advance onto Paris and by the 30th of August, they were marching down the Champs d’Elysee. A massive crowd of jubilant Parisians turned out to welcome their arrival, and the liberation of France was declared.

Mémorial de Caen, out front afterwards
Mémorial de Caen, out front afterwards

All of this and more was covered in beautiful detail inside the museum, which began with a movie called “”. We then proceeded through a series of rooms with pictures, artifacts, infographics and write-ups that explained every aspect of the war – ranging from the prelude and the build-up  to every event that took place between 1939 and 1945. And of course, considerable space and resources were committed to the aftermath, which included the Cold War, Peacekeeping, and war in peace in the modern world.

The entire experience then closed with a movie entitled “Hope”, which gave an audio-visual rundown of the conflicts and major historical events that have taken place since 1945. And though the tone of the movie didn’t seem particularly hopeful, it seem to contain some hints that lessons had been learned and the state of the world had improved somewhat since. At least, that was the impression I chose to take away, others in our party disagreed.

The Cathedral of Chartres in the distance
The Cathedral of Chartres in the distance

And then, it was on to Chartres, lock, stock and barrel! Compared to the town where we spent the previous week and a half, this city was significantly bigger.  As such, it took some time to navigate through the morass of major streets and burbs before we finally came to the old town, which is instantly identifiable by the ancient stone wall and mote that surround it, not to mention the fact that it sits on the high-ground. And in the distance, we could see the spires of the looming at the crest of the hill.

Once inside the walls, the streets instantly narrowed, and getting to our hotel – which was awesomely located next to the Cathedral – involved going along some winding back-streets that proceeded ever uphill. Betty (our GPS) had some issues, mainly because the tight streets and high walls made it hard for her to get a signal. And yet, we somehow found our way to the top and street with our hotel on it. And once we had unpacked and entered, the nice lady who ran the place took on another climbing adventure.

The moat that surrounds the old city
The moat that surrounds the old city

Basically, this hotel (which overlooks the Cathedral) is a narrow, stacked house. On the ground floor, there’s the restaurant and bar, with the rooms stacked vertically above and below it. My folks were in the room one floor up, while Carla and I got the appropriately-named “Ange” room (Angel) that was at the very top, and had the best view of the Cathedral. It also had something we hadn’t seen in days and were looking forward to using – a tub with jets!

The room was also very traditional looking – with wallpaper that looked like plaster coating and old wooden beams in the ceiling that woke us up with their creaking! My folks room was a little different. In addition to a strange 80’s deco scheme, it had a circular bed, a stand-up shower and no tub, and a wall-mounted fire place that took some time to figure out. In fact, it wasn’t even immediately apparent that it WAS a fireplace.

The Cathedral entrance
The Cathedral entrance

After unpacking and uncorking the cider and Calvados in our room (an experience that left us a little shaken), the four of us proceeded to take a walk around the Cathedral before having dinner. In many ways, the Chartres Cathedral was similar to what we had seen in Ypres and Bayeux – in that their designs were a combination of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. This is owing to their immense longevity and the fact that they’ve been renovated and had additions put on over the centuries.

However, Chartres was bigger by comparison, and had what my father noted were true examples of flying buttresses. Did I mention he’s an architect? That kind of seems like something worth mentioning. In any case, these are basically load-bearing arches that are attached to the outside of the building, a common feature in Gothic cathedrals. And this baby had plenty of them! And of course, the stain-glass windows – which according to information provided inside contain the first blue glass ever made – were breathtakingly impressive.

The stained-glass windows located at the nave
The stained-glass windows located at the Nave

After noting the labyrinth pattern on the stone floor – and some strange symbols in the center of it that we joked were evidence of  the da Vinci Code – we walked around to the Nave (my father pointed out all the architectural features and names) and noticed the stone wall that was covered with intricate carvings. We also noted the renovations that were taking place, where the columns and stonework were all getting a “facelift”. This amounted to stripping the top layers off to remove the 1000+ years worth of soot that had built up them.

To save time, I should also note that we came back the next day and scale the steps of the bell tower. This is something you have to pay for, but we seriously wanted to mount those 350 steps to take in the view. And so we could say we did it! Now let me tell you, scaling a Gothic Cathedral’s 350-step winding staircase is no picnic! The going was cramped, the air moldy, and the steps a little slippery. Still, we couldn’t help but feel we were breathing in centuries of history, even if it did cause some coughing afterward.

Carla at the top of the bell tower
Carla at the top of the bell tower

At the top, we got a bird’s eye view of the old section of town, not to mention the new town and the countryside beyond. Once again, there were plenty of golden canola fields to be seen between grassy fields. And of course, we got a pretty good close-up of the flying buttresses, gargoyles and other Gothic external features. And then, we descended, which proved to be almost but not quite as difficult as going up. We also watched the Cathedral fill with people as the locals prepared for the Easter Sunday service.

Getting back to the night before, we then had dinner at the restaurant, which had an interesting feature of the menu. My mother spotted “Filet de Loup”, which roughly translates to “filet of wolf”, or so we thought. Naturally, we were a little concerned and suspected we might have wandered into a cultural difference. But our server resolved this when she explained that this is actually the name for a whitefish filet, and found our misunderstanding to be quite perplexing. Seriously, she looked at us like we were on drugs!

The light show on the Cathedral facade that took place that night
The light show on the Cathedral facade that took place that night

My wife and mother had the lasagna, which they didn’t really like, while my father enjoyed the filet de loup, and I enjoyed a filet of monkfish with chorizo. This was all washed down with glasses of Affligem, which were necessary after the Caldavos incident. And then, we popped back outside because we noticed an interesting light show happening on the front of the cathedral. At first, we thought someone was throwing rolls of TP down the front. But upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a dazzling visual display that was being projected onto the facade.

We snapped some photos of the show, but as you can see, they didn’t turn out to well owing to the need for low light to capture all the vivid colors. Then it was back to our rooms, a nice hot bath, and a sound sleep. Well, mostly sound, since the popping noise in the ceiling did wake us up and one point and make us wonder if the old building was about to fall down around our ears. Lucky for us, it didn’t, and the popping noises abated long enough for us to get back to sleep.

l'Academie de la Biere
l’Academie de la Biere

In the morning, we packed up (mournfully), did our second tour of the Cathedral (complete with the stair climb), and then said good-bye to the hotel. While we waited for my father to secure the car from a lot down the road, I spotted a building that bore the name “l’Academie de la Biere”, which I suspected was a bar with some serious taps and bottles. I ventured down to snap some photos of it. Too bad we hadn’t noticed it the night before!

And then, with the car packed and the bill paid, we set off for Paris! Our first stop was the Charles de Gaulle Airport where we needed to return the car. Our time in Paris would be spent car-free, as we knew that public transit there is quite extensive, and to drive there is to take one’s life in one’s hands! Predictably, getting into the airport was about as hard as getting out, and it took a few roundabouts on the highway to get to the rental lot on the bottom level.

Us on the train from CDG Airport to Paris
Us on the train from CDG Airport to Paris

From the airport, we hopped the train into the city, where he began subway surfing from train to train. It was here that we came to understand exactly what is meant by “mass transit”, which in Paris equates to the crush of humanity trying to make its way through congested platforms, trains and tunnels. And we had all our bags with us, to boot, which were quite heavy. Wanting to be the good son, I carried a few heavy bags, and was offered help repeatedly.

Eventually, to end the flurry of concern and proferred aid, I said: “The next person who offers me help will be mentioned, by name, in the suicide note.” That’s not an original quote, fyi, and it didn’t quite get the laughs I was hoping for. And after much hauling and walking, we eventually found our exit and ascended into the Paris city streets. From there, we walked the few blocks that would take us to our hotel in the Latin Quarter – la Hôtel des Grandes Ecoles.

Hotel Grandes Ecoles Courtyard
Hotel Grandes Ecoles Courtyard

I’ll be honest, our rooms were a bit tight, but the hotel did have a lovely courtyard paved with cobblestones. And not far away, there was a lovely roundabout with plenty of restaurants, all of which had extensive patios that faced the fountain in the middle. We took a look at all this and selected one based on my wife’s craving for nachos. It was called la Petit , a place that specialized in gourmet burgers and did make a good nacho plate. Instead of sour cream and cheddar, they used crème fraîche and melted Emmental.

Much like in Bayeux, we would dine here twice. Some places just make a lasting impression I guess! Oh, and the beer of choice around the Latin Quarter was yet another Abbey Blonde ale known as Grimbergen, though Kronenbourg certainly got top billing at the local bars as well. With our bellies full and our feet and backs tired of walking and carrying bags, we once again retired for the night and planned for a full day of adventure on the morrow.

La Seine, with the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral in the distance
La Seine, with the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral in the distance

This consisted of us taking a walk down to the Seine to take in all the sights and sounds of Paris. We arrived on Quai St. Bernard, with the Cathedral of Notre Dame to the west by a few leagues. We headed their immediately, and found some serious crowds assembled out front. Since it was Easter Weekend, there was quite a lineup to get in, and we decided we’d have to wait until another day to see the place from the inside. So instead, we decided to catch a bus to see all of the major sights in one afternoon.

As a sidenote, people looking to book a Paris bus tour have the option of doing a single 2 hour roundabout trip, or a day-long trip that where people can jump on and off the bus at any of the major sights. We opted for the former, and rode around on a double-decker and listened to a audio guide through uncomfortable earbuds tell us about what we were seeing. These included the Musee d’Orsay, the Place de Concorde, the Tour Eiffel, the Champs d’Elysee, the Arc de Troimphe, the Hotel des Invalides, the Louvre, the Pont d’Alexandre III, the Galerie Lafayette, the Opera Nationale, the Écoles Militaires, the Field of Mars, and the Hotel des Invalides, amongst others…

Streets of the Latin Quarter
Streets of the Latin Quarter

I shall NOT be giving historical background on all of these. Suffice it to say, this blog aint long enough and you people know how to use Google. But I will say, the roundabout tour was fun, scenic, and really drives home the fact that Paris is packed to the gills with heritage and living examples of its long and turbulent history. Seriously, one cannot drive or walk down the street without spotting a plaque, monument or statue that tells the story of something immensely significant that happened there.

Afterwards, we returned to our hotel and met a lovely man named Jaeger. This attorney, who hailed from Australia, was in Paris on business, and after being chatted up by my father, invited us to dinner. The place he took us was a few blocks over from the hotel, and was rather famous! Known as the Maison de Verlaine, a restaurant that is famous for having been frequented by countless literary, political and showbiz personalities – like Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy’s, to name a few.

La Maison de Verlaine, where we ate Sunday night
La Maison de Verlaine, where we ate Sunday night

And after a rather sumptious meal and a bottle of red that was both subtle and robust, we dropped Jaeger off at a bar in the roundabout near our hotel and retired to our beds for some sleep. Having toured all the major sights that day, we decided we would visit those we were particularly intrigued by on the following day. Only this time, we’d be going by foot and we planned to beat the lines. We had only a few days to go, and planned to see as much as we possibly could before our departure.

But more on that next time. I sincerely hope it’s the last! 😉

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