Monday, August 1, 2011

The Village of the Martyrs

The atrocities the Nazis committed are legendary, but most of the attention falls on the Holocaust, and rightly so.

One of the atrocities committed by the SS in World War II is almost never spoken of in the United States, but it is something that is still taught in French schools, and it is but one example of many where the Third Reich took out its anger on civilians.

In 1944, near the town of Limoges in Limousin, French Resistance fighters killed an SS officer and captured another. As the D-Day landings in Normandy had just taken place, it was a time of hope for the French and panic for the Germans.

Over the following days, the Germans planned their retaliation for the killing of their officer. That retaliation was played out June 10 in the town of Oradour-sur-Glane.

SS soldiers - including some from Alsace, which had been disputed by France and Germany for nearly a century - rounded up almost 700 civilians and murdered them.

The men were shot at various points in the small town, and the women and children were herded into the church where they were machine-gunned and then burned.

The entire town was razed, with every building looted and burned.

When General Charles de Gaulle saw the city and heard of the atrocity committed there, he ordered the city be left as a reminder of what happened. To this day, visitors can walk the dead streets, passing what used to be houses and businesses, many with signs telling the barest details of the former inhabitants.
The streets today have been cleared of rubble, much of that having been done when the dead were removed a few days after the attack.

One of the few survivors wrote in his memoirs that when the Germans rounded them up, everyone thought it was an identity paper check. They were herded to different locations before a grenade going off signaled the Germans to simultaneously open fire.

The whole town is a moving experience. It reminded me somewhat of Pompeii, but even though Pompeii was ruined and its inhabitants died in their masses, there is one key difference - Oradour-sur-Glane was wiped out by people, not a devastating volcanic eruption.

Walking into the church where hundreds lost their lives, it was hard to imagine what kind of 'soldier' could set up a machine gun and mow down women and children.
Bullet holes still scar the inside of the walls, and at one spot there is a memorial to those whom the village had lost in the First World War. In place by World War II, it too is perforated by machine gun bullets as the same enemy visited its hatred on the town.The town's cemetery has a memorial to those killed, with gravestones throughout the cemetery bearing images of "our dear martyrs." At the memorial, two coffers hold the last remnants of some of those who were never identified - charred pieces of bone.

Even though I know the history of many of the atrocities committed in World War II, seeing such a stark reminder of what those numbers in history books actually mean was a moving experience.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fort Sumter – 150 years later

Charleston, South Carolina, might be home to more Revolutionary War sites than Civil War sites, but 150 years ago, the first shots of the Civil War were fired in the harbor, at a place called Fort Sumter.

The fort was one of the must-see stops on my trip to Charleston in December. As a kid, I had always been interested in the Civil War, and while some of my friends could tell you how many home runs Babe Ruth hit in his career, I could tell you a trained soldier was expected to fire three shots per minute out of a muzzleloading musket, and other minutiae and historical trivia.

Riding a ferry to the fort takes the better part of 30 minutes, and my first sight of it was just a low dark spot on the horizon, splitting sea and sky on a nice day.

The walls used to be much taller, mounting guns that protected the harbor from seaborne attack.

But it wouldn’t be seaborne attack on April 12, 1861, that would eventually lead to the fort’s downfall.

Confederate gunners opened fire from other nearby fortifications after a signal shot that exploded over Fort Sumter. When I stood in the fort’s courtyard, surrounded by ruined walls and the evidence of the shelling and fire that ensued, I tried to imagine what the fort must have been like back then.

Once the fort had been shelled for 34 hours, a fire broke out, and Maj. Robert Anderson, the fort’s commander, surrendered his garrison rather than let it be slaughtered.

Today, visitors can walk around the fort, climb atop the remains and visit the museum inside, which contains numerous artifacts from the era as well as putting the site into the greater context of the conflict.

Since the fort is a national park, it is well-kept, and guides give free talks and answer questions.

Old forts aren’t at the top of everyone’s travel list, and Charleston has much to offer outside of historical sites (though it has plenty of those). However, Fort Sumter was the first battle in a long war that ended up killing more Americans than any other war in history. If you're at all interested in American history, the site is a must-see.

For up-to-date directions on how to get to the fort, click the link at the top of the article, which will take you to the official site.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Walking with the Dead

Below the streets, I walked alone through darkened chambers lined with the bones of the dead. Hollow eye sockets gazed out at me as I passed by skulls that were artfully arranged.

I was deep in the Paris catacombs, having passed the iconic sign letting me know I was entering the realm of the dead.

The experience was at once spooky, fascinating and fun. I was surrounded by thousands of dead Parisians. We’d all walked the same part of the world, but what a different world it must have looked to them.

I looked at a couple of skulls, wondering who they might have belonged to. There’s no way to tell – the catacombs contain the remains of noble and pauper alike, and no one’s bones are marked.

What was the Louvre to these people? To me, it’s the world’s best art museum. To them, it might have been during its time as a royal palace. Were they with the revolutionaries who burned a wing of it? Or were they older? It’s possible they saw the Louvre further back, as a fortress on the Seine to prevent waterborne attack.

They probably walked on the same lawns of the Champs de Mars where I spent so much time, but they were never there to see the Eiffel Tower – built long after they died.

The catacombs themselves were made when workers needed stone to build some of Paris’ magnificent buildings. Not the Haussmann buildings you see today, but the older buildings.

In the late 1700s, the French had a problem: cemeteries in Paris were full to bursting – literally. Occasionally, an overloaded cemetery would, say, burst through a wall, filling a cellar next door with decaying bodies.

It was a public health nightmare.

So the French decided to reinter the remains in the existing catacombs. The process took several decades, and it has left us with one of the world’s macabre tourist attractions.

When I lived in Paris in 2009, the catacombs were closed due to vandalism. They’ve since reopened, but with added security measures.

When I walked out of the catacombs, my camera bag was searched to make sure I hadn’t stolen any bones.

To think someone would steal the bones doesn’t exactly surprise me, but it is disappointing. Walking among the dead, it’s clear that the bones were placed in their current location with some degree of reverence, and priests were on-hand during the relocation as well.

Many of France’s elites may be buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery, but so many others rest in the catacombs. Rumors of ghosts stalking the corridors are popular, and it’s easy to see why.

To reach the catacombs, take the Metro to the Denfert-Rochereau stop and exit to the street level, where you will see the entrance.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Yosemite in the Snow

California’s Yosemite National Park is fantastic any time of year, but to see it covered in snow with a clear sky is something I’ve only been fortunate enough to experience once.

In Yosemite, the term, “winter wonderland” comes to life. With several feet of snow blanketing the ground, shining a brilliant white in the sun, even the more mundane sights, like a river seen from a bridge, become spectacular.

Of course, Yosemite is best-known for the towering Half Dome, which was sliced in half by a glacier long ago. Climbing Half Dome is on my list, but not when covered in snow.

Mirror Lake was still nice, but it seems smaller than when I last saw it six years ago. It is, of course, slowly turning into a meadow, and likely the snow and ice make it seem smaller, but it still has a unique beauty.

Also out to enjoy the good weather when I was there over Thanksgiving were the local deer. The one pictured below was just one of many out to feed on the valley floor.

The waterfalls also provide a unique view in the winter. With the temperatures dropping well below freezing, the mist from the falls freezes to the rocks in forbidding sheets of ice. Pictured below is Bridal Veil Falls.

As the sun’s inexorable path casts the valley in shadow late in the day, the low-lying portions turned foggy.

When my uncle first mentioned spending Thanksgiving camping in Yosemite six years ago, I thought he’d lost it. After doing it a couple of times, however, I’ve come to realize what a great idea it really was.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving in France and Switzerland

My Thanksgiving dinner last year was a burnt panini in some crappy truck stop in the middle of nowhere in eastern France.

But I’m not complaining. But really, how hard is it to mess up a panini, much less burn them for 20-odd people?

The reason I was in the middle of nowhere in France was because I was on an hours-long bus ride to Switzerland – where I had one of the best “Thanksgiving” dinners of my life.

I’d never been to Switzerland before, and I would like to say my arrival involved snow-capped mountains, friendly border police and clanging cowbells, but it was a nondescript little town where we made our crossing at 2:30 in the morning.

We checked into Balmer’s Hostel, one of the classic student haunts and backpackers’ hangouts in Interlaken. I was able to comprehend that the curtains reminded me of tablecloths at an Italian restaurant before I passed out on my bed in a room with five of my friends.

The next morning – the day after Thanksgiving – I awoke to one of those fabled perfect Alpine days.

I looked up to the three towering mountains above Interlaken: the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau (Europe’s tallest mountain).

My roommate from Paris and a few of my friends took a bike ride to Thunsee, one of the two “Laken” (lakes) we were “Inter” (between). Along the way we passed glacier water and more majestic scenery.

We later jumped off a cliff without parachutes or bungee cords and were back in Interlaken in time to eat a feast at Balmer’s.

I’ll explain how I hurled myself off an Alpine cliff without dying at some later date.

Walking back into Balmer’s fresh off the adrenaline rush of a four-second freefall arrested by a single rope, my friends and I joined the rest of the students with whome we were studying in Paris and got table assignments.

It’s a tradition at Balmer’s that a Thanksgiving meal is served every year, and as much as I love other cultures’ foods, after two months in France, I was ready for some traditional American food.

And did Balmer’s ever deliver.

We were served heaping portions of turkey with mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables and even stuffing rolled into a pair of golfball-sized portions.

All of that was capped off with seemingly unlimited bottles of wine (but maybe that was just because some of the female students were shamelessly flirting with our male server so he’d keep them coming.

A few of us guys might have been egging them on...

Once we’d fully stuffed ourselves, drank our wine and eaten our desserts, we headed downstairs to the night club/bar that is under Balmer’s and is one of the few night spots in the town.

Beers were two for $5, and we drank our fill, then we hit the dance floor.

Several hours later, when the club closed and the tryptophan overcame the effects of drink and the endorphins from dancing, we all made our way to our beds.

They’d given us little beer mugs with graphics reading “I had a great time at Balmer’s.” When first handed mine, I thought it was a bit cheesy. Just before the lights went out, however, I glanced at the cup and smiled. Cheesy? Maybe. Dead-on? Yes.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Meeting Rick Steves

I have always used Rick Steves' travel guides when vacationing in Europe, so when I heard he was coming to Sacramento, I managed to convince my editor to kick the story my way.

I called his spokeswoman and set up an interview. You can read the story from that interview here.
And that's how it usually goes with celebrities when you're a reporter writing a preview of their appearances. He was two states away when I talked to him, and that would have been the end of it.

So I was elated when the local public access reporter shot me an e-mail inviting me to meet Steves at a pledge drive in which his show on Andalusia was being aired after the talk detailed in the story linked above.

With my mom being such a fan of his shows and books as well, I brought her along to the station, where we just had time for a few words and a photo op before the live show.

Having never been to a TV studio before, I was equally interested in the whole process, which is best-described as controlled chaos, with three cameras filming while a stage director bounced between them giving hand signals.

Steves was on it, ad-libbing his entire segments, having asked the staff to turn off the teleprompter. He's a pro, and it showed as he was told he had to fill 30 seconds – and made his remarks last exactly that long without having to change how fast he was speaking.

I was impressed by the TV staff and Steves. Despite the frantic nature of the business, technical problems knocking out the host's teleprompter and filling his earpiece with audio feedback, the whole show went well, and the phones in the background were ringing regularly as pledges kept coming in.

I didn't get the chance to talk travel with Steves over beers or anything, but it was definitely cool to meet him. Maybe I'll run into him one of these days in Europe.

Monday, September 13, 2010

An Unplanned Arrival

When I was living in Paris, I had a 10-day period in which I had absolutely no responsibilities, so I naturally decided to travel somewhere.

But where?

A lot can be seen in 10 days, and there is still a massive chunk of Europe I’ve yet to explore, so I was surprised at how long it took me to choose a place to visit.

It seemed like everything I pondered was something I could include in another, longer trip.

Spain and Portugal? I already had a trip planned there with my sister when she graduated college, so that was out.

Norway? Aside from being expensive, I envision seeing Sweden and Finland at the same time, and I had nowhere near enough cash.

In the end, I decided to pull out a map and find a place that I wanted to see, but for which I wouldn’t really plan a trip from the States.

And it was such an obvious choice: Budapest, capital of Hungary.

A few hours later, I was in the WHSmith bookstore on Rue de Rivoli buying a guidebook with an inflated price. I booked an EasyJet flight and looked forward to my leaving in four days.

It turned out that I would be arriving on Oct. 23, 2009 – a date that held no significance to me, but means a whole lot to Hungarians.

It was on Oct. 23, 1956 that the infamous uprising started, which ended with Soviet tanks crushing an ill-conceived rebellion and about 2,500 Hungarian deaths.

But Oct. 23, 1989 was a day of celebration for Hungarians, as the country reverted to Hungarian rule for the first time since World War II.

My flight was delayed, so I arrived at my hotel on the Buda side of the Danube rather late, and I immediately ignored the hotelier’s advice and made for Pest, where any demonstrations or celebrations would be going on.

The site had seen some riots in 2008, but if you tell that to me, that just means it’s the first place I’ll stop. It’s a characteristic that helps somewhat with journalism and gives my mother headaches.

The first thing I noticed, as I made my way from the Fisherman’s Bastion to the river, was that the Hungarian Parliament was lit up in red, white and green, the national colors.

This was only my second time behind what was once the Iron Curtain, and I was not expecting to see such a stately building so well-done (and with the front recently cleaned).

I took the metro under the Danube, riding down ridiculously fast escalators to board trains straight out of the communist era, complete with a triumphant horn sound before the doors slammed shut (yes, slammed. I was used to the Paris Metro’s half-shut, bounce back, then fully shut system, and I was glad my arm wasn’t in the way).

I rode the train with other passengers who were a motley mix of stereotypical grizzled Eastern Bloc workmen, older ladies who had seen it all – from the Nazi occupation in WWII to Soviet oppression and finally freedom – along with younger Hungarian guys enjoying the holiday and an unnaturally high percentage of stunningly beautiful women.

When I arrived at the Parliament, I was disappointed to see that there were no big celebrations or demonstrations. I honestly would have been as happy with a cheering crowd celebrating 20 years of freedom as a borderline riotous march in which Hungarians exercised that freedom.

What I found was much more somber.

I walked through a park, past a statue of victorious soldiers to a flagpole. The Hungarian flag flew proudly, but with a gaping hole in the center that made it look like it had been hit by a cannonball from a Napoleonic ship of the line.

I remembered then that during 1956, the rebels had cut the holes in the center of their flags to remove the communist emblems from them, and the flag I looked at 55 years later had the same hole in it to commemorate them. The flag in the photo below is the same thing, but the photo is from several days later in the nearby town of Szentendre.

I stood in silence while a few older Hungarians lit candles at the base of a monument in honor of the fallen.

Nearby, an eternal flame burned in a marble pillar, and the entrance to the Parliament was draped with Hungarian and European Union flags.

I spent some time wandering around and reflecting on how lucky I am to have, through some accident, been born in the United States, where our great civil rights struggles can generally be won in peace at the ballot box, our press isn’t controlled by the government and we can leave if we wish. When I later went to the House of Terror and saw what Hungarians went through, it brought that feeling home.

Over the next eight days I spent in Hungary, I got a good feel for the country, but I don’t think it would have been nearly the same if I had started it any differently.