France

Oradour-sur-Glane: Remember

The town center of Oradour-sur-Glane.

The town center of Oradour-sur-Glane.

A news article this past week caught my attention about the little town of Oradour sur Glane in south central France, near the city of Limoges. For most of us, the name of this town would not hold any meaning and yet it’s the sight of one of the greatest tragedies in WW II, the brutal murder of 642 men, women and children.

Oradour-sur-Glane is 23 km northwest of Limoges, France.

Oradour-sur-Glane is 23 km northwest of Limoges, France.

My wife and I, my brother and parents-in-law had the privilege of visiting this village memorial a few years ago.

My brother on a main street of Oradour-sur-Glane.

My brother on a main street of Oradour-sur-Glane.

Here’s a short version of what happened:

On 10 June 1944, four days after the Allied invasion of Normandy, approximately 150 Waffen-SS soldiers entered the tranquil village of Oradour-sur-Glane. Under the pretense of an identity check and then a search for weapons, the soldiers divided the inhabitants, the women and children were marched over to the church and the men were divided into six groups and led to different barns in the town.

The SS used machine guns and hand grenades to disable and kill the women and children. The church was then set on fire, even though many of the women and children were still alive.

A plaque on the church in memory of the women and children who died here.

A plaque on the church in memory of the women and children who died here.

A view of the church where the women and children were shot and burned.

A view of the church where the women and children were shot and burned.

The men’s fate in the barns was similar, they were shot in the barns and badly wounded, but while some were yet alive the soldiers piled wood and straw on the bodies and set the barns on fire.  One woman and 5 men somehow escaped.

A plaque on one of the buildings where men were shot and burned.

A plaque on one of the buildings where men were shot and burned.

After killing all the townspeople that they could find, the soldiers set the whole town on fire and early the next day, taking stolen goods from the houses, they left. Many of the soldiers then worked their way up to Normandy where a number of them were killed fighting the Allies in the early days of the Normandy invasion.

On the orders of General Charles de Gaulle, the town was not rebuilt and the whole village now stands as a memorial to this terrible tragedy.

A treadle sewing machine in someone's home.

A treadle sewing machine in someone’s home.

Remains of autos in a garage.

Remains of autos in a garage.

Remnants of another home with what looks like an oven and bed (lower right corner).

Remnants of another home with what looks like an oven and bed (lower right corner).

A powerful quote by Claude Roy (1949) in the Visitor's Center.

A powerful quote by Claude Roy (1949) in the Visitor’s Center.

You park at a visitors center and a walking tunnel takes you under the road and over to the village where plaques mark the spots and in most cases denote the numbers of those who died that terrible day.  This ghost town, left untouched for almost 70 years, greets every visitor who enters with only one English word:  Remember.

References: Materials at the Visitor’s Center, Oradour sur Glane.

Dordogne, France Part 4 (of 4): Sarlat, La Roque Gageac and Domme

 Sarlat-la-Caneda (commonly called Sarlat) is a great base for exploring the Dordogne Region.  The town is large enough to provide a variety of accommodation and restaurant options.

Sarlat

Sarlat and the Dordogne Region of France.

Sarlat France

Architecture of Sarlat.

There are several inexpensive hotel chains on the south side of Sarlat, on Rue de Cahors, which are within walking distance of the town center. While Sarlat does not have many “must see” sights, the whole town itself is quaint, and worth a walking tour to enjoy the unique architecture, narrow streets and atmosphere. It was a loyal French village in the Hundred Years’ War, and therefore was protected and did well economically, hence why many buildings are well-preserved.

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Manoir de la Malatrie, at entrance to La Roque Gageac.

The village of La Roque Gageac, only 14 km from Sarlat, occupies a narrow strip of land between the Dordogne River and a towering cliff on the north bank, epitomizes the Dordogne. It is considered by many to be one of the prettiest villages in France, and it is not difficult to see why.  As one drives from Beynac east along the D703 road, the Manoir de la Malatrie (now a hotel) is the first grand building we see. The style fits the Dordogne perfectly, even though it’s a 20th century reconstruction of the 15thcentury original manor house. The village comes into view right afterwards.

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La Roque Gageac.

Every little street is picturesque. Homes are built right into the cliff, using the beige stone so common in the area. Take the time to explore the village and enjoy the enchanting setting along the peaceful Dordogne River.

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A gated entrance to Domme.

Domme is one of the many ‘Bastide’ towns established in the Dordogne during the Hundred Years’ War to provide strategic fortified population centers for strengthening the claims and position of both the French and English defenses. The Bastide towns are on higher elevations, which provided protection and early warnings of pending attacks and now provide great views of the valley. Domme is located just southeast of La Roque Gageac, along the D703.

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Village of Domme.

Beneath the main town square there is a cave system that can be toured. Some tour books say that the caves were used during the Hundred Years’ War for hiding, but on our tour of the cave we learned that is was not discovered until the early 1900’s. If you have been to many caves, it may not be worth your time, but if not, it provides another interesting thing to do. There is also a little train that takes you on a short tour of the town. On the north side of the town, next to the church, a plaza provides a good view of the Dordogne Valley.

Dordogne, France Part 3: Commarque Castle (Chateâu de Commarque)

Commarque Castle Map

Commarque Castle is 15 km NW of Sarlat.

Commarque Castle is slightly off the beaten path , near Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil.  I wouldn’t have even known about it had I not received a large picture book of France as a gift, which had a picture of the castle at sunset. It is not listed in the guidebooks I have on France, probably because it isn’t accessible without a car.  We drove to the Castle from Sarlat, which is only 15 kilometers away.  From the parking lot it’s another 600 meter walk to the castle on a trail through the forest.

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Commarque Castle and Beune Valley.

Commarque Castle France

Village ruins, Commarque Castle.

As the view of the Valley of the Beune opens up, it’s a beautiful sight.  On the left hillside sits the castle and the village ruins, on the right side of the valley are niches carved in the rock wall, probably used as storage or possibly dwellings 700 years ago?  In the distance, nearly straight ahead, is another small castle, privately owned by an English person.  The Dordogne is a favorite spot of the English, and many have bought residences in the area.

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Commarque church ruins and private castle in background.

The castle’s early history is a bit uncertain.  It’s believed to have been founded in the 12th century, and to have been rebuilt in stone in the 14th century, with later additions continuing until the 18th century, when the castle and village appear to have been totally abandoned.  The English captured it during the Hundred Years’ War (1350’s – 1450’s) for several years.  This location was strategic—near the crossing of two main roads in medieval France and the site of a spring—essential for the village and castle life. Check out the castle’s website, http://www.commarque.com/htmfr/infos.php for more information.

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Cave dwellings underneath Commarque Castle.

Commarque Castle is interesting for a several reasons.  First, it’s a quiet and peaceful setting in a secluded valley—we were there early in the morning, and had the castle to ourselves.  The sun was out, and the dew was just drying off the grass, with birds chirping and the sounds of a babbling brook nearby.  Second, there are several other buildings which made up the 13thcentury village that have been excavated fairly recently (1980’s), and add to the wonder of the site. Third, in the cliff directly underneath the castle there are living quarters carved out of the rock which can be visited.  Some of these dwellings are prehistoric, part of many which dot the Dordogne region. Fourth, it is possible to climb to the top of the castle keep (or donjon in French) for a great view of the village, and the private castle across the valley.

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View of Commarque Castle donjon (tower keep).

If you love castles and sites that are less visited, take the drive out to Commarque, you won’t be disappointed.

Visiting France – An Overview

France

France-the largest country in Western Europe.

France is the birthplace of medieval Gothic architecture. Soaring cathedrals with priceless intricate stained glass windows (such as Chartres Cathedral) dot the country and take you back in time. The island fortress of Mont-St-Michel, exudes an incredible medieval feeling as one winds up the narrow alley through the village to the entrance to the monastery and moss-covered stone walls from centuries of damp sea air. In the beautiful Loire Valley, one finds the grand chateaux of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which became a symbol of the excesses of the royal families, and led to the French Revolution in the late 1700’s. The Dordogne Valley offers the melding of the natural landscape and ancient architecture, such as the holy pilgrimage site of Rocamadour and other villages built right into the rock cliffs. Some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in Western Europe are not in Italy, but rather France (such as the Pont Du Gard aqueduct). It has some of the best prehistoric paintings (Lascaux Caves), and, if these sights weren’t enough, there’s also beauty in the natural landscapes— widely varied from green, fertile lowlands of Brittany in the northwest to the rocky “Massif Central” in the south center and soaring peaks of the French Alps in the southeast.

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The Gothic flying buttresses of Cathédrale St.Julien, Le Mans.

Shown here are a few pictures of some less-visited sites (and one very overcrowded site!)

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Blois Chateau, in the heart of the city of Blois.

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A view of the town from the Lot River.

When asked, many people might say, “oh yes, I’ve visited France” but in reality they’ve seen a few of the sights in Paris and that is about it. It’s like someone visiting New York City, and saying they’ve seen the U.S. France is a special part of Europe to me. I can’t say enough about the incredible array of sights that France has to offer tourists.

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Eiffel Tower near Seine River, Paris.

 Traveling by Car in France

We love to rent a car when we are in France, which allows us to meander on quiet country roads and visit pristine medieval villages where very few tourists venture.

Keep in mind that many of the main highways in France are “peage” or toll roads. Make sure you have a couple different credit cards that work in Europe, since I have found that some tolls booths accept one card (like a Visa) and another booth may accept another card (like American Express). Cash is also accepted at staffed toll booths. Even with the tolls, renting a car when traveling with 2-4 people is very economical. Get a diesel fuel car if you can, since the mileage tends to be much better. Cars with automatic transmissions are less common, more expensive to rent, and are less fuel efficient. Via Michelin is a great website for calculating distance (in kilometers), as well as cost for fuel and tolls between different cities in Europe.

Take some time to familiarize yourself with the European road signs prior to driving, and when on major highways, do not linger in the left lane, it is for passing only. When coming into a town, usually the key sights are in the center of town, so follow the signs to “Centre” and then look for the big blue “P” signs which indicate parking garages or lots.

Accommodations in France

For the traveler who wants an economical European trip, France can be a great place to go, especially if visiting off-season, and if you are ok with modular, generic and basic hotel rooms. France is the home of many inexpensive roadside hotel chains such as Formule 1 (typically shared bathroom), Etap (private bath), and Ibis (all part of the Accor Group). B&B Hotels are similar to Etap, and offer very basic rooms (a double bed usually with a 3rd single bed).  Another option is Hôtel Première Classe, which is even more basic (no carpet), with a tiny bathroom (smaller than most cruise ships!) and double bed with a 3rd single bed. All of these hotels are popular with Europeans on road trips. Many of these rooms are 30-40 Euros per night for 1-3 persons, and they are ubiquitous, usually just outside the towns on an intersection (roundabout) located near roadside restaurants or light industrial buildings. These are not quaint accommodations, but they are functional, cheap and plentiful. They have 24 hour automated check-in, and usually a very limited breakfast service for an additional fee. Most have wireless internet service too. Some of these hotels (such as Ibis and Etap) are also near train stations.

Restaurants in France

In the off season, trying to find restaurants open at convenient times is sometimes a challenge. We found that restaurants often close early (before 5 pm) during the winter or do not open until later (after 8 pm), if at all. Europeans generally eat later than we do in the U.S., but choices seem to be more limited in October-March. A good idea is to eat your main meal before 2 pm, or whenever you find a place open.

Language Considerations

As with any country, but especially in France, learning a few words is very helpful.  The French are not particularly fond of speaking English. Knowing a few words helps tremendously in navigating by car, asking a price, ordering off a menu, and seeking directions. I find French pronunciation somewhat challenging, but the effort will be appreciated. My family and I played a game as we traveled in France, thinking of all the English words that are French in origin—it was fun to see how many words we kept thinking of! The history of France and England are so closely interwoven it’s not surprising that so much of our vocabulary comes from France.

In future posts on France, we will explore various regions of this magnificent country.

Dordogne, France Part 1: Rocamadour

Rocamadour

Rocamadour is in south-central France

The Dordogne region and in particular the village of Rocamadour should be on everyone’s must-visit list in France. We have been to Rocamadour twice, and both times I was impressed how stunning the setting is—an almost vertical village nestled into a rock face on the side of the gorge of Alzou. The Dordogne region is full of many river gorges and rock cliffs with homes and villages built into the rock. In many cases, the cliffs provide a natural rear wall for the buildings.

Rocamadour France

Rocamadour (the Château is at top of cliff, the Basilica is the large building below the Château)

The village gets its name from St. Amadour, his body was said to have been found in an ancient niche (located in the Church square described below) in an undecayed state, and many miracles, mainly healings (at least 126) followed. Rocamadour became a very popular pilgrimage site in the 1100’s based on these miracles. During the Middle Ages, pilgrimage sites existed throughout Europe. These sites were typically associated with Christian relics and miracles. The rich and the poor would travel long distances to these sites to worship, be healed and forgiven. Kings and Lords of both England and France have travelled to Rocamadour. The village was occupied by the English in 1369 during the Hundred Years war.

The only convenient way to visit the Rocamadour is with a car.  There is a tourist information office at the top of the cliff, on the main road just across from the Château and also in the town itself.

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Main Street of Rocamadour

Rocamadour is a one (pedestrian) street town, with gates at either end, and parking is found either outside the Port du Figuier (east gate-very small parking lot), or below the village at the bottom of the gorge. Be prepared for lots of steps up to the town, and then up many more to visit the many chapels and Basilica of St. Sauveur (11th-13th centuries).

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Church Square nestled against the rock cliff face.

The seven chapels are built around the church square (which used to be a burial site), nestled underneath the rock cliff, at the top of the Grand Stairway. The Grand Stairway (Grand Escalier-216 steps), leads from the pedestrian street up to the center of the various chapels, including the Basilica.  Pilgrims for hundreds of years, and even today, climb the Grand Stairway on their knees in penance, sometimes carrying chains symbolizing their sins. Several of the chapels have been rebuilt.  It is worth spending a little time just enjoying the church square at the top of the Stairway. The medieval chapels on different levels in this compact area and the rock overhang give this place a very unique feeling, one is transported back in time, thinking about this area being filled with pilgrims.

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St. Michel’s Chapel and Church Square

The three chapels which are mostly original and the most interesting to visit are:  The Basilica (including the crypt), The Notre Dame chapel, and St. Michel’s chapel. All three of these buildings are built right into the cliff, with the sides of the chapels being cemented into the cliff, and the rock face forming the back wall and part of the ceiling in each chapel.  The niche where St. Amadour’s body was found is between the Notre Dame and St. Michel’s chapels.  Also, look carefully for the faded fresco near the door of the Notre Dame chapel.

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Frescoes high on St. Michel’s Chapel.

St. Michel’s Chapel, has remained almost completely intact since the 12th century.  It contains some excellent 12th century frescoes on the outside above the door (near the rock cliff) and inside the chapel as well. When we visited in November of 2003, this chapel was closed. When we visited in March of 2009, the chapel was open.   Rather than walking back down the Grand Stairway, take the narrow passage way through the Basilica and walk down the trail past the carved out rooms with the Stations of the Cross, which is interesting also.

Above the village at the top of the cliff, is Château de Rocamadour.  The interior is off limits to tourists, but we did buy tickets that allowed us to walk on its ramparts right above the village overlooking the gorge.

On our first visit to Rocamadour, we stayed in the village of Gramat, just a few kilometers from away, since in November there were no accommodations open in the town.

Dordogne, France Part 2: Beynac Castle (Château de Beynac)

I recall the tingling sensation I got when I saw Beynac Castle, as I looked up from the Dordogne River Valley high on the cliff above the river. To be in the Dordogne region, center of the Hundred Year’s war between France and England was for me surreal.

Location of Beynac, France

Beynac is in south-central France

A short drive from the river takes one up to Beynac Village, which seems frozen in time. There is a small parking lot 50 yards from the village. Beynac Castle (13th century) is well preserved and commands a far-ranging view east and west along the Dordogne River.

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View of Beynac Castle from Dordogne River Valley

In the distance to the south, the former English stronghold of Castlenaud (Château de Castlenaud) can be seen.  We had the fortune of excellent weather in March 2009, giving us great views of the valley and also straight down to the Dordogne River from the Castle ramparts (don’t fall over!). The castle has been restored beautifully–the Great Hall contains some very large tapestries, and near the entrance is a restored workers kitchen, with many tools and cutlery of the day displayed.

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Beynac Castle-East Side

The setting, size and beauty of Beynac Castle makes it one of my favorite in Europe. I’m surprised that most tour and guide books barely mention it, if at all.

The drive from Périgueux via Sarlat to Beynac is enchanting. As one drives south, small villages nestled against the cliffs, right off the sides of the road appear in greater frequency.

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Cazelle Grottos

On our way to Sarlat, we stopped at a bit of a tourist trap, Les Grottes du Roc de Cazelle, where we took a walk through the woods and cliffs to take a trip through time, learning about the prehistoric people who lived in this region (who gave us the great artwork of Lascaux caves), farm life in medieval times in this region and more recently in the 1800’s. We learned how people used the caves and cliff overhangs as shelter.  While some of the displays are tacky, the explanation of how villages were supported hanging off the cliffs (by holes being drilled into the cliffs for beams) was quite interesting.

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Settler’s Residence in cliffs