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May 31 2008

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European Wander ’08

Part 14

Jaca to Caen – Spain to France – 1373 miles

14th Map

4 August

Jaca to Les Sables d’Olonne, 431 miles

It started out as a nice, sunny morning as we left Jaca and Spain…

Spain

A last look at sunny Spain

…but it wasn’t to last. We travelled through the Somport Tunnel (about 5.5 miles), which was very cold, and when we got to the other side, in France, the beautiful weather had transformed into a misty grey day. Never has changing country produced such a dramatic change!

France

and hello to misty France

Unfortunately the weather didn’t get any better and we both ended up putting on our waterproofs, always a pleasure! We then rode the most direct route to our hotel in Les Sables which was along major roads rather than anything interesting. The last 40 miles were along very busy local roads. It’s now the main holiday season in France and everyone and his wife are on the roads.

We have to say that French drivers can’t be beaten for their willingness to pull over and let the bike pass but they have a peculiar roundabout technique. Most of them will drive all the way round on the outside lane regardless of which exit they are going to take which is a bit disconcerting when trying to exit from the inside lane.

Anyway, we turned up at our hotel and by then the weather had improved – the sun had come out again – and we took advantage of arriving early to get our washing done. Yes, we know how to have a good time!!

We’d come to this area to visit Deanne (my sister) and her family who are having their annual beach holiday just down the road.

5 August

St-Nazaire 190 miles (round trip)

We had decided that rather than let our grand tour fizzle out in a dash through France we would visit some of the War sites and today’s visit was to the U Boat Pens in St-Nazaire.

France

The approach to St-Nazaire is via an impressive bridge

Surprisingly, the dockyard is a fairly low-key tourist destination so the attractions were not too busy. We started with a tour round the French submarine Espadon, which was put into service in 1960 (and refitted 8 years later).

France

The photo-free Espadon

When decommissioned it was converted into a ‘museum’ which visitors can walk round. Its position, sitting in one of the pens used for submarine maintenance during the war, put the size of the docks and the submarine into perspective. We weren’t allowed to take pictures onboard so we can’t show the maze of pipes and wires that adorn the inside. It’s hard to believe this was built less than 50 years ago, it looks more like a relic from the 2nd world war and in fact its design was inspired by the old U-boats.

It was an interesting visit, imagining what it must have been like underwater for weeks on end with only the short trips to the surface to allow the generators to recharge the batteries. It smelled quite bad in there (similar to some dive boats we’ve been on in the UK!) and this was while it was open to the air – it must have been really nasty down there when it was closed for sea.

After that we went over to the other side of the dockyard where the famous raid on the dry dock had taken place in 1942 (Operation Chariot). The space put aside for the submarines there is huge, it’s hard to imagine the size of the operation during the war. The pens are made from concrete (tons and tons of the stuff) and a lot of the structure is beginning to look tired – but I guess that’s what 60 plus years does.

France

The U boat pens still dominate the surrounding area

France

The irony of posing next to the Operation Chariot memorial on a German bike was not missed

After a quick visit to the Memorial we went round a museum exhibit which took advantage of its special location in the docks. This was a mock-up of the inside of a fictional liner (the Escal Atlantic). We weren’t sure about it before we went in but it was very well executed and really gave a feel for the scale and opulence of the liners in the 20’s and 30’s.

On the way back we got caught in a huge queue of traffic. Eventually, after making slow progress to the front of the queue, we saw what the problem was – a ‘convoi exceptional’ of a catamaran hull on a lorry. It was so wide that it took up the whole of the road’s width. When we first saw it Kevin thought it was about to fall off the trailer but then we realised that it was on a trailer that raised up to clear larger vehicles. If it was a particularly large vehicle that was being passed it had to tip and it was this tipping that made it look like it was about to fall off. We couldn’t just overtake as it was being lead by two Gendarmes on bikes but we eventually we got past it as they all pulled into a lay-by.

6 August

La Rochelle 125 miles (round trip)

We went to La Rochelle to visit the aquarium. We were hoping that as the weather was good it would not be too crowded; it was packed. However, Deanne told us that it wasn’t as crowded as it would have been if it had been raining – last time they had queued for 2 hours to get in! Note to self: don’t go to France again during the peak season! It was a nice aquarium with lots of different tanks from the various seas around the world. Afterwards we wandered round La Rochelle for an hour or so then returned to Deanne’s for a barbeque. Kevin’s knee has started giving him grief again which we suspect is due to sitting on the bike for hours while wandering round the Picos and Pyrenees.

We think this part of France must have modelled itself on Milton Keynes as it seemed we were never more than a couple of miles from a roundabout. Riding round here wasn’t particularly enjoyable except when on back roads.

France

Sisters…

France

Kevin chilling out at the harbour

7 August

Les Sables d’Olonne to Avranches 200 miles

We decided we’d just take the most direct route so that we could chill out a bit at the hotel but, after overtaking a Gendarme at a speed a bit over the limit who then overtook traffic so he could sit right behind us, Kevin took evasive action and left the dual carriageway at the earliest opportunity. Not seeing the Gendarme before overtaking him was symptomatic of being bored stupid on major roads. We stopped at a cafe and worked out a route that was only a few miles longer than the direct route but through much more interesting countryside and smaller roads; there was not much traffic around either so it made the second half of our journey much better. There were quite a few large black clouds above us and we seemed to spend a lot of time dodging the rain but, in the end, only got lightly splashed a few times. Not long after we arrived at our hotel a torrential thunderstorm started and it rained for most of the evening – good timing!

8 August

Avranches – Le Mont-St-Michel 26 miles (round trip)

Curious as to how similar this was to St Michael’s mount in Cornwall, we set off after breakfast to visit the local namesake. We weren’t disappointed – suddenly on the horizon was this large lump of rock sticking up with a large building on it.

As we neared it the traffic got worse and it became clear that we wouldn’t have the mount to ourselves. There was plenty of space to park with designated Moto areas. The streets on the mount are medieval, narrow and very crowded. We climbed up and eventually came to the monastery where a clear view across the bay was the reward.

France

A lot of water management goes into this landscape…and still the sea comes over parts of the car park sometimes. If you look really closely you can see our bike!

The monastery started back in the 700’s and has had its ups and downs as have many other religious institutions. The latest monks to take over the abbey date back to only 2001 and the order has both men and women. We experienced part of one of their services as we wandered through the church; it was very moving, there was a lot of singing, both as a choir and soloists, and the acoustics were fantastic.

The building is in good condition but most of the old decoration has disappeared. There is a tiny piece in one of the rooms – very spooky with a skeletal figure.

France

The only piece of original plasterwork on view

One of the rooms we went in was the refectory where the monks used to eat. It was a very large room and showed how many people would have been using the building at one time. The monks’ order was a silent one and they had to use gestures to get what they wanted. Having spent the last 2 months doing just that I’m amazed that they managed to get anything proper to eat at all! Only one of the monks was allowed to talk and he was up on steps reading sacred texts. I wonder when he was allowed to eat?

Over the years a town grew up round the monastery and this became fortified, the mount becoming a citadel. We walked up behind the main street and looked over the rooftops and walked along some of the walls. It was good to see a place that had essentially the same footprint that it has had for centuries – and no vehicles allowed!

France

The crowded, narrow, streets of Mont St Michel

Just as we were leaving a nice English chap offered to take our picture so we finally have a picture from this trip of both of us on the bike!

France

Kevin and Lyn’s mount at St Michael’s Mount

9 August

Avranches to Caen 164 miles

We took the scenic route to Cherbourg where we planned to visit La Cite de la Mer – another sea-based attraction which is advertised as having the largest aquarium in Europe and it also has other underwater attractions including another submarine, the La Redoutable.

First impression of La Redoutable was that it was similar to the Espadon but a closer look showed that it was bigger…much bigger.

France

Kevin in front of La Redoutable

In fact, once we were inside it was obvious there really wasn’t any comparison between the sizes of the two submarines at all. Instead of having a small, central, corridor there were large walkways, the doors were much larger and we learned that each sailor had his own bed; the poor souls on the Espadon had to hot bunk as there were only 2 bunks for every 3 men on board.

Even though it was only 7 years newer than the Espadon, submarine technology had obviously improved a lot in that short time. Instead of having diesel engines to charge the batteries La Redoutable was nuclear powered. They have cleared out the reactor (which was only about 1m in diameter) and replaced the section to keep the integrity of the ship; it is a useful space to show just how big the interior of the submarine is without all the equipment getting in the way. The primary weapon was 16 nuclear missiles which we heard would have all been fired at once in the event of them being required – quite a scary thought. There were also traditional torpedoes and this section looked very similar to the Espadon.

It wasn’t all high-tech, though. It doesn’t seem so long ago that it was decommissioned (1991), but there were some surprisingly low-tech items on board…

France

No, this isn’t part of the orchestra, it’s a speaking tube! (the circular door is for one of the nuclear missiles)

The sailors benefitted from an unlimited supply of fresh water which was converted from sea water and the showers looked like regular showers instead of the tiny ‘ship’ ones; the toilets also looked normal, even though they were red!

The officers had a very plush sitting/dining area, complete with leather armchairs – more Ritz than Wimpy!

France

No claustrophobia here!

After looking round the submarine we took part in a new activity – on a marche sous la mer – where we were pleased to say our diving experience helped as we were being intrepid explorers to the least explored area of the world – the deep ocean. Luckily we all came out of it alive and had a laugh as well.

Our final visit was to the aquarium section where, as advertised, they have a fantastic 10m tall tank filled with tropical marine fish. To date this is the most realistic reef recreation we have seen although it has to be said there is no substitute for the real thing.

Around the site there are various other deep sea machines (e.g. Nautile) and a lot of information about diving and deep sea exploration. If you’re at all interested in diving, submarines or fish this place is definitely worth a visit.

France

This unassuming vessel (which to me looked more like a tug than anything else) has been to 9500m

We then rode onto Caen where we will be spending a few nights to give us a chance to visit some of the Normandy coast D-Day exhibitions.

10 August

D-Day Tour part 1, 137 miles

We’ve been on a couple of D-Day wreck diving expeditions but this was our first opportunity to have a good look along the land part of the coast. We started off at a small place called Dead Man’s Corner Museum (named for after a tank officer who unfortunately spent several days hanging out of his tank after coming under fatal fire from the Germans). This was a fascinating little museum in which several rooms had been set up as they might have looked during the war, a couple were German and a couple were American (this being ‘one of the most famous historical sites of the 101st Airborne’ – the division made famous in the series Band of Brothers).

There was a video with an American soldier showing his helmet which had a nasty-looking cigar-shaped hole in it where he was hit by a sniper’s round and a large dent on the other side where he was hit with shrapnel. He made a comment that he wasn’t so bright, hiding in a hole where two people had already been killed, but at least he survived to tell the tale.

France

Similar engine configuration to the BM but this one is a Zundapp

We then went to a small town called Sainte Mere Eglise where a lucky American called John Steele made an unfortunate landing on the church. He spent all day hanging there. He was shot in the foot once but decided to play dead – a ploy that clearly worked as the Germans left him alone. It must have been pretty horrifying hanging there and seeing many of his comrades killed or captured. They now have a dummy parachutist permanently hanging from the church as a reminder of that day.

France

Just hanging around

We had a nice meal then went into the local museum next door which focuses on the airborne activities. One of my favourite bits was a glider which was used for dropping parachutists. It was so flimsy, appearing to be made out of nothing much stronger than hardboard and tape.

Our final museum of the day was the one at Utah beach and then we moved on to Pointe du Hoc where American Rangers fought their way up vertical cliffs to take out some big guns only to find the Germans had moved them a couple of kilometers inland (they did find and disable them). The site at the top of the cliffs is cratered with some very large holes, showing how important it was to the Allies to disable them. There are remnants of the gun emplacements – lots of very old concrete – some still in situ, some which looks like it’s been tossed aside.

France

Who’s that in my sights?

There is a large bronze information board as part of the memorial, showing the D-Day beaches and the Point du Hoc area. You can see the strategic importance of the site as it’s above Utah and Omaha beaches which can be seen clearly from the top.

France

The D-Day Beaches

11 August

D-Day Tour Part 2, 100 miles

Our first stop was the Bayeux museum which I liked very much as it was very informative. I have to admit that I know very little about this period of our history so it’s all pretty much new to me and it can be very confusing (I ought to read some of the many books on the subject that Kevin has).

France

No Kevin, we’ve got enough toys!

After all the museums we saw yesterday I was pleased to see a more balanced view of things. If you didn’t know better you could easily come away from some of the museums thinking that the entire operation was carried out by Americans (sorry Brenda and Paul!) but I learned that on the first day 73,000 British and 59,000 Americans landed. This museum has the chronological history set out very clearly and also has a series of ‘side’ exhibitions, e.g. about the Mulberry harbours, the medical corps and the Germans’ side too. There’s a short film that whizzes through the operation and this helps to solidify things in one’s mind.

Next door to the museum is a the largest British Cemetery of the 2nd World War in France, which has over 4,500 Allied and German soldiers buried there. I was surprised (but pleased) to see a German section side by side with their former enemies.

France

Bayeaux British Cemetery

Next stop was the German Cemetery at La Cambe which was very different to the British one. For a start, all the stones were brown/black rather than the white that we’re used to seeing. The cemetery started off as an American one but, as the Americans were sent home or consolidated to the American Cemetery at Colleville sur Mer (families apparently had a choice), it was given to Germany for their casualties. There isn’t so much room here so all the plaques have two names on them. There were quite a few people walking round, including half-a-dozen or so nuns. I had a quick look at the nationalities of the cars in the car park and there was a mixture: British, French, Italian, German and Dutch.

France

The German Cemetery

We stopped for lunch at the Omaha Museum and had a quick look round this little museum. It’s much smaller than most of the others, but has some interesting items, including quite a few smashed up bomber engines and an Enigma machine. We could have spent a lot longer there as everywhere we looked there was something new to see.

It also has a couple of motorbikes, including a ‘mini-moto’ that was in a box for the British parachutists to use.

France

Yes, this is a motorbike!

Our next stop was the American Cemetery. The American policy on war graves is that all Americans left on foreign soil are consolidated into a single massive site which is quite different to the British policy of burying soldiers close to where they fell. This is why there is one large American cemetery and lots of smaller British ones scattered throughout Normandy.

Most of the Americans were repatriated after the war, but there are still nearly 10,000 in this cemetery. This one has white crosses (as anyone who has seen Saving Private Ryan will remember) and is set in a large park which overlooks Omaha beach. The cemetery was very busy with bus-loads of tourists, hundreds of cars and about 20 bikes in the car park (the motorcycle parking is nearest to the entrance we were pleased to discover). We weren’t quite sure what to make of the American tour guide who dished out small posies to all the tourists in her party – “Only one per couple” – with instructions to put them on one of the graves. It seemed very contrived and cheapened the whole experience.

France

The statue is called ‘The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves’

We quickly moved on and found the British Cemetery at Ryes. What a contrast this was. We were the only people there for most of the time and we wandered round and noted that, once again, there was a large contingent of German graves. This was the most peaceful cemetery we visited.

France

Ryes British Cemetery

Our last stop was the British Cemetery at Hermonville which is the smallest one we saw, with ‘only’ 1003 graves, 103 of them being unidentified. Again we had the place to ourselves although there had been visitors just prior to us arriving. It is right in the middle of the countryside and is also a very peaceful place.

France

Hermonville British Cemetery

We stopped at the Pegasus memorial but as it was by now nearly 7pm it was closed. It’s only down the road so we’ll try again in the morning on our way out.

I can’t say I enjoy visiting the cemeteries. It always makes me very sad to see all those names, especially as most of them were so young, but we feel we should go to pay our respects and I’m glad we did.

I now have a much wider knowledge about D-Day and later on to final victory, so the visits to the museums were very worth while.

We only just scratched the surface of places to visit in this area but all bar the Pegasus Memorial are for next time. It’s time to go home.

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