Day 20: In Flanders Fields

Today was another war day, focusing on WWI and the involvement of Canadians in the Ypres-Salient.

Our first stop of the day was Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetery. Tyne Cot is the largest commonwealth cemetery in the world and is the final resting place for 11,965 Brits, Scots, Irishmen, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians and more. Of the almost 12,000 graves, 8,369 are unnamed, and just bear the phrase “A Soldier of the Great War”. Along with the graves there is a wall that stretches the width of the cemetery and on it is written the 34,959 names of the men who are unaccounted for.

After braving the elements and finding a possible relative of Ma’s on the wall, we headed to the next site, the Canadian Passchendaele Memorial. At the front of the Memorial is an iron gate, and there is an identical one in Halifax, Nova Scotia that was the last steps soldiers would take in Canada before being shipped off to war.

The main part of the Memorial is a concrete slab on a mound, honouring those who fought and those who died in the second battle of Passchendaele.

The next stop was a monument that was the runner-up for the Vimy Ridge design, called the Brooding Soldier. This monument was erected at what was once known as Vancouver Corner, but is now Sint-Julien Memorial, and it is where when the Germans released the first gas attack, the Canadians held the line.

Finally, we drove the short 15 minutes into the downtown of Ypres. We parked the car in the market square, had a long leisurely lunch, and went to the In Flanders Fields Museum, a very thorough look at WWI in the the city’s cloth hall.

The museum was enormous, comprehensive and interactive. We didn’t realize quite how long we’d been there for, as pretty soon we heard on the loud speaker they would closing in 20 minutes. We finished what we could and headed out to take in old Ypres.

We walked down the main street to the Menin Gate. The Gate was built in 1927 to commemorate those British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres-Salient in WWI and who had no known grave. They initially though the gate would be large enough to hold the number of the missing (54,896 inscribed on the Gate) but they ran out of room, which is why there is the memorial wall at Tyne Cot.

There is a ceremony that takes place at Menin Gate at 2000hrs every night which we wanted to see, but we had a few hours to kill, so we tucked into a pub, had a few beers and chatted with the locals before finding a spot at the Gate.

The Last Post has been performed at Menin Gate at 2000hrs every night since July 2 1928 (except during WWII when Ypres was occupied) and our ceremony featured the buglers, then 7 or 8 families laying memorial wreaths of poppies.

After about 15 minutes the ceremony was over, and we headed back to the car and drove back to the farm as the sun set on West Flanders.

Day 19: Back in Black

Today we were up, breakfasted and out the door at a decent time to head back into France (technically, Canadian soil) for a couple more things to see – Vimy Ridge and Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial.

The Vimy Ridge Memorial is an hour out of Poelkapelle, and as you drive through the nearby town of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, you can see the two white columns poking from behind the the trees on the hill.

We parked in the memorial’s lot and walked up to the limestone monument.

The monument itself was designed by Walter Seymour Allward and built out of white limestone from the Adriatic. There are 2 tall pillars sculpted with 20 human figures which personify things like “Peace” and “Justice”. The focal point is a woman draped in a cloak, looking mournfully down at a tomb. This is “Canada Bereft” or “Mother Canada”, mourning the generation lost.

Also inscribed around the whole monument are the names of 11,169 Canadian soldiers who fought in France and have no know grave. I found some last names of people I know (no one from our family, as we probably weren’t even Canadian citizens yet).

Although the Battle of Vimy wasn’t a huge battle, it carried some strategic significance (as we saw standing on the hill, you and see everything around you for miles), but it was very significant for Canadian identity and presence on the world stage. Vimy was the first time that all 4 divisions of the Canadian Corps worked and coordinated together and was completely planned by Canadians. They also successfully demonstrated new tactics and techniques that helped them win the hill. By the end of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 3,598 Canadians did not make it out.

After paying our respects at the monument, we walked over to the interpretive centre and trenches and tunnels. You can still walk around the trenches, and there are Canadian student volunteers around who will answer any questions.

After finishing up in the trenches, we walked back to the car, ate our picnic lunch and headed to another French site that I wanted to see – Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. The site is 45 minutes south west of Vimy, and along the poppy-lined country roads were many many war cemeteries, mostly British.

The reason I wanted to go to Beaumont-Hamel is because my sister had gone a few years ago and told me the story and I remember having a very visceral reaction – on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, along with other battalions the Royal Newfoundland Regiment went over the top of the trenches after heavy bombardment against the Germans, expecting very little return fire from what they thought would be a decimated German line. What they didn’t know was the the Germans had dug deep into the hill side and were almost totally unaffected by the bombardment, so when the Allies went over, it was an absolute massacre. Most Newfoundlander casualties occurred within the first 15 minutes of the fighting. Of the 780 Royal Newfoundlanders who went over, only 68 were there for roll call the next morning.

To honour the brave Regiment, a bronze caribou was erected on the battlefield, along with plants and flowers native to Newfoundland and a plaque commemorating the dead.

The caribou is the insignia for the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and this one is pointing in the direction of where the chlorine gas came from.

We admired the Caribou for a while then decided it was a pretty heavy day and time to head back to Poelkapelle, saying goodbye to France for the last time.

Day 15: They Walk With You

Today we got up pretty early, as it was going to be a busy and emotional day. We were starting out the day by visiting Juno Beach.

For those of you unawares, there were 5 beaches stormed on June 6th, 1944 marking the start of the Battle of Normandy in WWII – the American forces stormed Omaha and Utah, the British stormed Gold and Sword, and Canada stormed Juno. Canada recently built an interpretive centre at Juno Beach, with Canadian employees running the exhibits.

It was a 1 hour and 45 minute drive west for us, and Ma and I peppered Pa, our resident historian with questions about the war and Canada’s role.

Juno Beach fronts a beautiful fishing town, Benières-Sur-Mer. We got into town and to the Centre and wandered the grounds.

After wandering, we decided to head down to the beach itself.

I was honestly very apprehensive about how to feel. I knew that Juno is a very sacred place to Canadians and a very emotional spot, and my brain recognizes that, but I was afraid I wouldn’t feel anything, standing in the spot where 359 brave Canadian souls fought and died on that day in 1944.

The beach itself is beautiful – sandy and warm with blue water and shells dotting the tide lines – but it was eerily quiet. There were some fisherman down the way casting their lines, but other than that it was me, Ma and Pa. All you could hear is the lapping of the waves on the shore. It was as if every living and kinetic being knew what had happened there and was paying their respects – the birds, the ocean, the grass. It was tangible.

We walked along the beach silently And watched the high tide, and went into the Juno Beach Centre and looked at the exhibits – posters, literature, radio broadcasts, donated relics, uniforms and medals from the period. The walls filled with facts and stories, and boards with the stories of Victoria Cross recipients all along the way. The exhibit ends with a video of footage of D-Day and voice over of Canadian letters written home. The ending, showing soldiers disappearing from photos and ending with the words “They walk with you/dans leur pas” is when my emotions got the better of me and I just let the tears stream freely down my face. I would like to think that I feel emotional about it because I work so closely with people who have served in the Canadian Forces and I care about them, but I think it’s more because I cannot process the heroism of very young men who volunteered in a time of need and were lost, and their families and friends who had to continue on without them. Maybe it’s both.

After we finished up at Juno Beach, we headed 10 minutes down the road to the outskirts of a town called Bény-Sur-Mer. Here is where the French government donated a square of land to Canada and is the final resting place for 2,048 Canadians who we lost at the beginning of the Battle of Normandy.

As we were pulling in, another car was leaving so we were alone with the white grave markers and maple trees. We signed the visitors book and silently walked the graves.

Each white marker features a maple leaf, a name and a date. They also featured either crosses, a Star of David or nothing, and many had words from their families inscribed at the bottom. The rows of markers are dotted with flowering plants.

What really struck me about the cemetery is that it’s not your typical spooky, sinister and grim graveyard, although it is still haunting. The cemetery was teeming with life – trees, flowers, buzzing bees, butterflies and chirping birds. There was serene life to the grounds, as if imploring us to celebrate the peace that the cemetery’s residents fought and died for us to have. For any proud Canadian, it is a must-visit.

Our next destination was a gorgeous seaside escape called Arromanches-les-Bains. We were headed there to see the mulberry harbour and caissons still visible in the ocean. This is where the British constructed an enormous portable and floating harbour in order to send fuel and supplies to the troops fighting in the Battle of Normandy.

Driving towards Arromanches-les-Bains we noticed French, British, American and Canadian flags flying in the distance, so we drove towards them to see what was there. Turns out a large panoramic viewing platform had been built and part of the harbour was on display.

We soon realized it was way past lunchtime, so we headed into the town for some food. In the town proper there are several large firearms, including a German 88, which Pa totally nerded out on.

Our next stop and the westernmost part of the day was outside a town called Longues-sur-Mer. Longues-sur-Mer is about 15 minutes west of Arromanches-les-Bains, still very close to the ocean and is the site of a German fun battery, 3 1/2 of which are still intact and the guns are still in place.

One thing that I noticed at the sites we visited, including Juno Beach, is from what I could hear most of the other visitors were French. I expected some Americans and maybe a couple Canadians, but mostly Parisian French as far as I could discern from my sleuthing abilities.

Our final stop was one of the key operations in the Allies succeeding in the Battle of Normandy and that was at Pegasus Bridge. Pegasus Bridge was originally known as Bénouville Bridge crosses the Caen Canal and was controlled by the Germans. In the wee early morning hours of just barely June 6th, 1944, 3 Horsa Gliders of the 6th Battalion commanded by Major John Howard and packed with a total of 90 armed soldiers and engineers silently landed with almost pinpoint precision and within yards of each other and took the Bridge from the Germans in a matter of 10 minutes. Major Howard and company successfully held the bridge and kept it intact until reinforcements arrived at 0300hrs the next day.

The bridge was rename Pegasus Bridge, as the flying horse was the insignia of the 6th Battalion. The cafe on the bank is considered the first French house liberated. The reason for why the capture of the bridge played such a crucial role, is that it limited German counter attack with the landing and advancing of the Allied forces from the beaches.

And with that, the sun was setting on us, so we headed back to Fécamp to indulge in beer, frites and crêpes and then bed.

By the end of the Battle of Normandy, over 5,000 Canadian heroes laid down their lives. Thank you for your service.

Germany, Day 20: I Hear a Symphony

Today we woke up to a grey and dreary Berlin.  We had breakfast and decided that we weren’t really in the mood to get soaking wet and we still had a bunch of sights we wanted to see, so we read up on hop-on/hop-off buses and bought tickets – that way we could see most of the sights and get off when we wanted to.  We hopped on a few blocks down from our hotel, on the busy shopping street called Kurfurstendamm, known by locals as Ku-Damm.  We got seats on the top deck of the bus and off we went.  As it turned out, our commentator had an extremely dry sense of humour and we really liked him, so we decided to do one full loop on his bus, then when the loops started again we would get off at the sights we were interested in.

We all wanted to see a part of the Berlin Wall that is still intact and adjacent to an open-air museum called the Topography of Terror.  The museum was great – interesting and comprehensive.  I learned a lot about the Wall and the horrible division between East and West Berlin.  I was young when the Wall came down, too young to really know how much people suffered.


The rain let up so we walked towards “Checkpoint Charlie”, a reproduction of the American/Soviet checkpoint at the wall.  First, it was time for a snack so we tucked into a coffee chain we noticed here, Kaffee Einstein.  We warmed up with hot chocolates, apple strudel and cookies and followed the kitsch towards Checkpoint Charlie.


I’m not going to dwell on this for too long, but I have to say this is one of the cheesiest tourist traps dedicated to poor taste that I’ve seen.  They’ve erected a giant banner, one with an American soldier facing one direction and a Soviet soldier facing the other.  Two (what I presume) actors in American uniform stand there saluting with American flags and an array of Soviet hats that you can put on and have your photo taken with.  Incredibly, they also have “passport stamps” that people have actually had their passports stamped with, rendering them invalid.  Kitschy, tasteless, tacky, and nope.


We hopped back on the bus and headed back to our hotel so we could make a decision as to where we wanted to go for dinner, as we needed to make ourselves look as presentable as 3 road-weary travellers could for our engagement with the symphony.

We picked out a pub translated into English called the Fat Innkeeper.  The food was good and the decor was entertaining.  We hustled back to the hotel, got gussied up, hailed a cab and headed towards Herbert-Von-Karajan-Strasse, where the Berliner Philharmonie stands, home of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Going to see the Berlin Philharmonic was a big deal for me.  When we decided we were going to Germany, I started looking into tickets right away and marked in my planner when the 2016/2017 calendar would become available and when I could order tickets.  In April the calendar was released and in May I could order tickets, so I ordered 3 tickets for Saturday, October 1st, 1900hrs, Section Recht C, Row 10, Seats 1, 2 and 3.  We would be seeing Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck conduct Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, Honeck’s specialty.  Finally, that day had come and I was buzzing with excitement.  The building itself is a work of modern asymmetrical art – seemingly randomly protruding balconies and M.C. Escher-like staircases.  Our seats were far back, but central and we had a full view of the orchestra.


The auditorium quickly filled up and the concert started almost right on time.  The first half was a Fantasie from Dvorak’s opera Rusalka and then a few Schubert and Strauss lieder sung by a baritone with a rich voice.  The Fantasie was like magic, electricity through my body.  The Philharmonic was like nothing I had heard before – dynamics, phrasing, punctuation, emotion, warmth, depth – artistry.  I got goosebumps from my toes to the top of my head.  At one point, a single tear rolled down my cheek.

At intermission I checked out the gift shop and picked up some postcards while all the finely dressed concertgoers milled about, drinking their aperitifs and eating their pretzels.

The second half of the concert was Dvorak Symphony no. 8, one that I’m not terribly familiar with, but a fun one, and again, pure magic from the musicians.  It was the most exhilarating classical music experience of my life and I grinned the whole cab ride back and as I tucked myself into bed.


War and Peace


The Story: So my dad is a big time history buff including everything from Genghis Khan to Alexander the Great, the American Civil War to Napoleon and so on.  When we decided we were going to Sarajevo, we all decided that it was a priority that we visit the Latin Bridge: the historical span on which Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in 1914 by Serbian anarchist Gavrilo Princip, sparking a chain of events that led to the start of World War 1.  We got to the bridge in mid afternoon and the weather had held up.  I was surprised at how shallow the Milijacka River was and how pretty the bridge itself is.  There used to be a plaque with Princip’s footsteps embedded on one side of the bridge, but it was removed at some point when the Siege of Sarajevo start in 1992.

Why I Love It: I can’t believe this was once a scene of great chaos not once (WWI) but twice (Siege of Sarajevo), because this photo shows this scene to be not only peaceful, but beautiful!  I love the way the 16th century bridge takes the centre stage among the Viennese Hapsburg-Style buildings, and shows how truly stunning the historic city actually is (you should all visit.).


The Story: We paid a cab driver $20 to take us up Trebevic Mountain and hang out for a half an hour so that I could get some shots of the long abandoned, overgrown and graffiti-riddled bobsled and luge track from the 1984 Winter Olympics, that Sarajevo hosted.  There was no one else up there so we had the entire length to ourselves.  It was covered in moss and graffiti top to bottom and was eerily quiet – difficult imagine the roar of the crowds 30 years previous.  During the Siege of Sarajevo Serb snipers would bore holes in the track for their rifles and then abandoned after the war until people (like me) started discovering how cool and interesting the whole structure is.  Like modern art.

Why I Love It:  I love the colours in this one.  I love how vibrant the moss is in the foreground and the red and blue graffiti is in the background.  It was a sunny day but the forest was dense enough to block out the direct sun.  I like the story this one tells with the moss, fungus and graffiti overtaking the cement structure.  It’s like a complete transformation.