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Tag Archives: WWII

Postcard from Normandy: D-Day, camembert, and more

8 May

8 May 2019.

The famous Invasion in June of 1944 changed Normandy forever and the (mostly) English-speaking hoards have continued to invade for the past 75 years. Luckily the locals are still celebrating the arrival of the Allies and welcoming Americans, Canadians, Brits, and Australians by millions. We ran into a lot of Dutch as well.

Bayeux is about as close as you can get to the D-Day beaches and not be on them. It was our base for a week. Crowds aren’t bad, but the town and surrounding hamlets, cemeteries, beaches, and museums are gearing up for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. Windows are painted in greeting, museum exhibits are being reworked, and hoteliers are preparing to clean up.

Window painting, Bayeux, honoring the 75th anniversary.

Window painting in Bayeux, honoring the Invasion 75 years ago.

A tour of the D-Day sites alone could take a week or more. Every village that secured a relic tank or WWII airplane has a museum, and every village has a tank or period airplane, not to mention oodles of ammunition, rusted helmets, German and Allied weapons, medic kits, and uniforms. Our tour guide told us there were 60+ museums in Normandy dedicated to the Invasion. We did not visit them all.

German battery, Pont du Hoc, now a tourist lookout.

This little Dutch boy was having a blast playing in an overgrown bomb crater, Pont du Hoc.

If you have seen “The Longest Day” you know the scene where the parachutist gets caught on the clock tower of the church at Sainte-Mère-Église. True story, kitchily depicted today.

After visiting a couple of (good) museums and spending 9 hours touring sites like Sainte-Mère-Église, Utah and Omaha Beaches, and the German and American cemeteries, we were pretty much on Overlord overload. Still, every time we ventured to another location, a bit more about D-Day was revealed. We realized our grasp of that day — of the entire Invasion — was not equal to the event. Sure we’ve seen movies, read books, maybe even paid attention in high school history class, but being there is sobering and overwhelming. The statistics (numbers of parachutists, numbers of planes, numbers of ships) are mind-boggling.

The logistics make what FedEx does every day look like a children’s party.

We had lunch at the cafe on Utah Beach, built in a building (the only building) that remains from that day. All WWII veterans are invited to sign the bar or any other surface in the cafe.

Utah Beach is now for walks with dogs and building sand castles. Like Oregon, it is too cold to go in the water. Except that is, of course, what thousands of men did on D-Day.

Perhaps the most eye-opening experience for us was seeing Port Winston at Arromanches. This was a Mulberry Harbor, a temporary portable harbor established to support the Invasion until the Allies could secure the ports held by the Germans. Neither of us had read much about this except in our Rick Steves guidebook.

The various components were fabricated in England and sunk in the Thames River to hide them from German surveillance. Shortly after D-Day, they were towed across the Channel and the harbor constructed. Seeing the remains of the caissons and floating piers along with displays and dioramas in the excellent museum brought to life the enormity of the operation.

View from above Arromanches. You can still see some caissons offshore.

WWII photo of the actual temporary harbor.

A piece ot the floating roadbed called a “whale” used in Port Winston. Ric for scale.

We had the luxury of a week in Normandy. Plenty of time to absorb the WWII history and ample time to devote to the countryside, medieval history (William the Conqueror was from Caen), and food. I swear my pores are oozing Camembert. We tried to drink enough red wine to whisk those nasty artery blocking fats out as fast as we consumed them. We’d make a nice healthy salad in our apartment in the evening with great local produce, lean chicken, a whisper of olive oil and balsamico, but we’d add Camembert. We did not, however, have butter on our baguettes. The cider, too, is a wonderful thing and quite perfect with the local food. Goes great with mussels freshly harvested and served ala Normande with (God help me!) cream!

Fresh scallops, anyone? No question that there were not frozen.

Fresh chicken too. Maybe she’s just for laying?

On the Aure River in Bayeux, two waterwheels are still spinning.

We hiked up La Côte de Grâce above Honfleur for the view of the Pont du Normandy.

In Barfleur, the Fête du Printemps was underway with curious street decoration.

Cute Barfleur, filled this sunny Sunday with French people out for a drive and lunch, which is what we were doing.

One can cover a lot of miles in Normandy without seeing all of it. We confined ourselves to the area from Honfleur in the north to Barfleur near Cherbourg and Caen. We realized part way through the week that this area of France requires additional time if one is to include Mont Saint Michel as well as points north like Etretat.

I guess a return trip is in order. Save me some Camembert.

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Escape to Emilia-Romagna

8 Jun
The heat built fast in Roma. Ten days prior we were putting on our fleece jackets in the morning because it was cold in the apartment, but by the time my brother and sister-in-law arrived June 1, that was no longer a problem: it was getting warm. Luckily for us – if not for our cat sitters – we were leaving Roma. We also left behind the tourist hoards.
Lunch on the veranda at Corte d'Aibo is a family affair.

Lunch on the veranda at Corte d’Aibo is a family affair.

Heading to Emilia-Romagna on June 2 (the Festival of the Republic which celebrates the election in 1946 when the monarchy was rejected in favor of a republic), we left behind the Roma tourists only to find throngs of Italians. At least they were at lunch when we arrived at Agriturismo Corte d’AiboBut that was the holiday and the last day of the Italian four-day weekend. Continuing on to our mountain destination of Montese, we found ourselves the only tourists at the very pleasant Hotel Belvedere .
This is not your average balsamico. This is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, another thing entirely.

This is not your average balsamico. This is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, another thing entirely.

I found Hotel Belvedere and Corte d’Aibo thanks to Riccardo of Trekking Emilia-Romagna. Somehow my SIL Jane and I hit on going to E-R and hiking, and I was fortunate to stumble upon Riccardo’s company. He put together a great itinerary for us including a tasting and tour at an acetaio called Ca’ dal Non,  lunch at the agriturismo, and a guided hike through the mountains, which saw significant action in World War II. The arrangements also included our hotel, breakfasts and dinners. All we had to do was show up and sweat a little on the hike.
Stefano, foreground, explains a fountain in the mountains to Jane, Rick and Ric. Multiple basins allowed people to use one for drnking water, the next for washing, and a final one for watering livestock.

Stefano, foreground, explains a fountain in the mountains to Jane, Rick and Ric. Multiple basins allowed people to use one for drinking water, the next for washing, and a final one for watering livestock.

During our hike, we learned about the flora, fauna and history of the area. The Gothic Line was here, a place where Germany was making a last stance in the north of Italy as the Allied Armies, having fought their way north through the boot, bombed the heck out of them, and unfortunately, also bombed the Italian villages.
We met an older man – he said he was 80 – who upon learning we were Americans said, “The Germans went away, the Americans left, and now there are no porcini.” He was jesting, but memories are long: although we “liberated” the area, the old growth forest was destroyed by both the German occupiers and the liberating armies, so the treasured porcini no longer grow there. We chatted in Italian for a while and when we commented on his good health and energy (after all he was taking the same long hike that was wearing out us 60-somethings) he said “They gave me an organ donor card and I told them ‘take anything you want; none of it works anyway!’”
Ric in our woodsy picnic spot, an area frequented by families on Sundays. This one surrounded a church that commemorated the civilians killed in the area.

Ric in our woodsy picnic spot, an area frequented by families on Sundays. This one surrounded a church that commemorated the civilians killed in the area.

Stefano, our guide, was a font of information and knew the area well, having grown up nearby in the famous cherry town of Vignola. He speaks excellent English having lived in the U.S. (He loves Seattle!) We lugged along Parmegiano-Reggiano, salume, bread, and fruit for a picnic, along with local Lambrusco and a homemade crostata, all supplied by the hotel. At the end of the trek, my pedometer wrongly said the hike was about 8 km, Stefano said 11, my brother estimated 12. It felt like 18.
We were then treated to a tour of a caseificio or cheese factory at Dal Contadino.  This was a multi-generational farm operation producing the famous parmigiano-reggiano as well as ricotta, marmalade, and more. It was fun to visit a typical small family operation and see the incredible labor that goes into making this cheese. The artigianale beers they served with the cheese really hit the spot after hiking. If you ever get a chance to drink White Dog Beer, do it.
At the top of Mount Belvedere there is a monument honoring the 10th Mountain Division.

At the top of Mount Belvedere there is a monument honoring the 10th Mountain Division.

I have to say that, whatever the length, the trek barely dented the calories we were consuming. The kind owners of Hotel Belvedere looked after us well. Clean, comfortable rooms with good showers, incredible food from classic pastas for primi to roasted rabbit, pork and steak for secondi. They were also experts in recommending local wines to complement their food and served some of the best grappa around. Compare this with an American town of 3400 people where your choice of wine with dinner might be beer.
Montese has a castle dating back to the 13th century.

Montese has a castle dating back to the 13th century.

This was not high tourist season. In fact, it seems only August gets pretty busy. Otherwise Montese is off the radar of folks headed to more famous destinations. Nearby one can visit the Ferrari Museum in Maranello, the town of Modena, and even Parma is within reach.
After three nights we somewhat reluctantly said good-bye to Montese and the lovely folks at the hotel, as this was part one of a three-part trip. On to Lago di Garda!
Piazza in Montese, in front of the Hotel Belvedere.

Piazza in Montese, in front of the Hotel Belvedere.

We took one day away from Montese to journey to Maranello and the Ferrari Museum. Quite a collection!

We took one day away from Montese to journey to Maranello and the Ferrari Museum. Quite a collection!

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