D-Day and Saint-Mère-Église.

A visit to the Cotentin Peninsula and the D-Day celebrations as my tour of Europe is drawing close to an end.

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D-Day and the Normandy landings are commemorated every year on 6th June.

From Le Mont-Saint-Michel I rode my Suzuki V-Strom 1000 Adventure up the Cotentin Pennisula to Saint-Mère-Église. Saint-Mère-Église was one of the first villages in Normandy to be liberated from the German forces, by the U.S. Army 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, on the 6th June 1944, as a result of the Normany landings. I got there in the late afternoon and met friends from home who go to Normandy, specifically Saint-Mère-Église, every year for what proved to be one of the biggest pageants I have ever witnessed, the D-Day Commemorations. I unloaded the tent from Suzie and started to get it set up as quickly as possible in a stiff breeze. I had experienced some showers on the road North from Le Mont and it was clear that rain and stormy conditions were not too far away. I got it up quickly with some help, and sure enough the rain and strong wind arrived right on cue, as I and my friends walked towards the Place du 6 Jun, in the centre of Saint-Mère-Église. You can see from this image, that I took moments after getting the tent set, that the wind was starting to whip up. The bushes are sideways and the tent is under pressure already.

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Saint-Mère-Église is well known because of an incident that occurred during the airborne attack, involving a paratrooper known as John Steele. The paratroopers from the 82nd Division had been dropped over the village while the local population were tackling fires caused by incendiaries dropped before the attack. The Germans were present, supervising the bucket brigade, trying to put out the fires.

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The descending paratroopers were clearly visibly, and easily picked off by the Germans. John Steele’s parachute got caught on one of the church pinnacles and he was a sitting target. I’m told that a burst of machine gun fire was directed at him. He was hit in the foot and feigned death. The wound in his foot caused him to bleed heavily and this convinced the Germans below that he was dead. He survived and was captured but later escaped from captivity and rejoined the fighting. He regularly visited the village after the war until his death in 1969, and was made an honorary citizen of Saint-Mère-Église. An effigy of John Steele hangs from the pinnacle of the church in his memory.

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The Normandy landings and the men that liberated Normandy is the theme of the commemorations and it is just extraordinary how many exceptionally well preserved, genuinely original vehicles turn up here in immaculate condition, exactly as they would have been in 1944.

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The whole peninsula is the stomping ground for a massive variety of military vehicles and the roads and narrow streets of the small villages nearby are chock-a-block with the usual holiday traffic as well as these military vehicles.

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Enthusiasts in precisely accurate battledress uniforms come every year in every type of vehicle you could think of from the era, to commemorate and celebrate the beginning of the liberation of Europe from the Nazi regime. That beginning was the landings at beaches such as Utah and Omaha that are just a few kilometres away and well worth visiting.

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There are museums in Saint-Mère-Église and Utah Beach, and many more that are worth visiting in the greater area of the invasion. I visited the ones in Saint-Mère-Église and Utah but because it was so stormy and wet, I didn’t much feel like going further from base. The museums I did visit were very well worth it.

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The exhibits included original aircraft, realistic battlefield scenes and examples of trench defences.

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There are also a huge number of memorials to the people that lost their lives in the landings and the ensuing battles.

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And as you travel around the immediate area, within 10 or 15 kilometres of Saint-Mère-Église, little villages like Carenten, a village that the Americans hoped to, but failed to take that first day, you meet more vintage and military vehicles.

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When the rain became heavy, it’s not hard to understand why some stopped and sheltered until the latest burst of rain eased off.

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Others braved it even during the heavy downpours whether they were on vintage Harleys or open-top troop carriers.

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One of my favourite bikes on tour in the area was this 1943 Harley that the owner drove around on, and I managed to catch up with him in Saint-Mère-Église. He was kind enough to take a picture of me with his bike. That picture, which he took with my phone, is the featured image. I took an image of him driving through the square in Saint-Mère-Église.

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I wasn’t the only biker that was impressed with this Harley because every time he parked the bike, a crowd of admirers began to gather.

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As well as the pageantry and fun that this annual event creates, there is a serious side to the proceedings. The brave warriors involved in the landings are honoured and remembered by the French civil and military authorities.

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Wreathes are placed at the memorials to those who lost their lives in the endeavour to bring liberty in 1944. While the speeches were in French, it was obvious they were delivered with passion and admiration for fallen heroes.

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The crowds watching were a mixture of locals and interested spectators like my friends and I, as well as many that were dressed up in very realistic WWII uniforms. It also appeared to me that many that attended were currently serving military personnel, intent on paying their respects to their veteran predecessors.

All too quickly my couple of days in Saint-Mère-Église came to an end. It was time to head to Cherbourg for a return ferry trip to Ireland.

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I really enjoyed my trip around Europe and there are too many highlights to pick a favourite. Visiting friends in Austria and experiencing their party atmosphere again was really great. The beautiful Italian Alps and Lake Bled in Slovenia, Gmunden in Austria and Namur in Belgium. Too many great experiences to crown any as number 1.

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An overnight trip on the ferry and before I knew it, Suzie and I were preparing to disembark in Rosslare. A short spin home and time to reflect on a great adventure and of course, time to think about what’s next!

 

Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic.

The city of Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic is a great treat and definitely worth a visit.

Cesky Krumlov is a fairy tale in the Czech Republic.

Suzie, my Suzuki V-Strom Adventure 1000cc and I, had crossed from Ireland to Continental Europe in mid May and headed South through the Black Forest and the Alps, East to Slovenia and Austria, and after a quick dip into Hungary, endIMG_0470 (2)ed up in the beautiful city of Gmunden in the North of  Austria. Now it was time to move on to the Czech Republic. To the city of Český Krumlov. Český Krumlov is a small bohemian city in the South of the country set in beautiful surrounding countryside, on the Vltava river. As you take the little winding tree lined road north towards Český Krumlov, you see the river that flows towards the city on your left. Along the banks are rafting and canoeing centres where you can take aDSC06707 ride and enjoy the beautiful views from the river. There are many of these centres as well as camping facilities in the beautiful countryside that is South Bohemia. Cesky Krumlov is most famous for it’s massive castle but is ranked alongside Prague in terms of being a UNESCO world heritage site for it’s old city sector. It is amazing. On the day I arrived there was a music festival on I believe, and there was classical music in the streets, which was a treat. As well as the spectacular little squares and medieval buildings, the city has a vibrant air about it and unfortunately it has really been discovered by international tourism. When  we visited last, almost twenty years ago, it had been by train from Prague. We had enquired there about some interesting places to visit in the Czech Republic and someone had suggested Český Krumlov. I had been on a break from work in Bosnia at the time and was relying on public transport.

We took a train from Prague to České Budějovice and then a narrow gauge train travelling at about 25mph brought us to Krumlov. IMG_0474The return journey cost us the equivalent of two Irish pounds and we practically had the place to ourselves. We were delighted because even back then it was hard to get elbow room in Prague, on Charles Bridge for instance. That is no longer true in Český Krumlov. Now it is packed to the rafters with people wielding selfie sticks and queues in the restaurants are almost a definite. Back then the local food and beer was so cheap and yet of such great quality. I was amazed at the number of people that still chose to shell out three or four pounds for an internationally famous Dutch beer when the Czech beer was gorgeous and a large bottle of the tasty brew was about 50 pence or cents.

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The castle is so massive it’s almost impossible to take an image of it that gives you the sense of it’s size. All of what you see above is part of it. Here is another view that might help to give you  an idea of just how big it really is.

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In the first photo the section above is just the left hand portion of what you see. You can walk right up into the castle and through the maze of passageways and squares that made this a formidable fortress as well as a Palace in the days before it became a museum.

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Enjoy the beautiful town squares and I hope when you visit there are as many bands and musicians for you to listen to. Expect the food to be excellent here in the Czech Republic and local beer is vDSC06811ery good even though it is difficult to find a bar in the traditional sense. I found a restaurant called Papa’s and I was lucky to get what appeared to be the last remaining table on the veranda over-looking the river. The food and wine were fantastic. The dish I had was turkey wrapped in pastry and sitting on a bed of spinach. I highly recommend you give Papa’s a go if you’re ever looking for some place to eat in Český Krumlov. I found a little bar later that served local beer and it was as good as I remembered it to be from the previous visit.

This area is extremely popular with motorcyclists and they were everywhere. I saw a most unusual BMW bike parked near a pension / hotel and I wondered what the motivation for the livery was.  The reason for the popularity withDSC06822 motorcyclists is the challenging roads and the beautiful views as well as good food and beer. I stayed in a great little pension / hotel called The Vlatavin and the couple that own it definitely went above and beyond to make Suzie and I feel secure there. Suzie had her own  covered mesh compound for the night and the accommodation was first class for me too.

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So, having enjoyed Český Krumlov, it’s time for a good sleep because tomorrow is going to be a long day. I intend to cross Germany in one day and it’s a wide country. The weather is holding well with good temperatures so it should be a nice spin.

 

 

Hungary and Gmunden.

A quick dip into Hungary and then on to the beautiful Austrian city of Gmunden by the lake.

I left the beautiful Austrian Region of Burgenland heading towards a small city in Hungary called Sopron on my Suzuki V-Strom 1000. My “sat nav” hadn’t heard of Slovenia but surely Hungary is part of Europe. It seemed pretty hopeful when I could find Sopron in the system and I set off East through a couple of small Austrian villages. After about 10 kilomtres it took me down a narrow track and suddenly just stopped navigating and said: now go off road. Thanks Garmin. It had to be a border crossing though because there was a young Austrian soldier standing there looking bemused at me turning up. He obviously doesn’t do much business there. I pointed up the track that was in front of me and said “Hungary”. He hestitated a moment and tentatively nodded yes. I throttled into what looked like a narrow farm lane with trees overhanging on both sides and soon found myself negiotiating deep pools of water and sections of hard rutted mud and stone. I don’t think a car could get through here. To say I was less than certain how this was going to turn out is true and things got worse about a half kilometre later when the track split in two. No signpost or mark to indicate which way. I chose right and wasn’t sure if I was going back towards Austria or towards Sopron. About another kilometre further and the trees opened up and I found myself on a wide gravel road.

 It must have once been a proper road because there were sections along the left side where there were signs of old cobblestones. If you look closely at the top right side of the photo you can see the cobblestones. Another kilometre and I found myself at a main road. Still no signpost but turning right worked the last time, so why not. Yes, a few minutes later I was in Sopron. 

Sopron was a Roman city and the ruins can be seen in places. The Hungarians strenghtened the city walls and defences and held it until the Turks took it over by force and it was destroyed by fire in 1676. Anyway enough with the history lesson. The point is that the influence of Roman, Hungarian, German, Austrian and Italians has made it an interesting city to visit. After having something to eat in a big square I decided to keep going and I travelled back through Austria, on the main road this time, and headed North, to an elegant city called Gmunden, on the banks of a beautiful lake called Traunsee.

The scenery and the lake make this a favourite for Austrians. It gets a lot of tourists from outside Austria too. 

It’s castle on the lake, schloss Ort is probably it best know landmark. But it has lots of historic buildings and lake side promenades. So that will bring my visit to Austria to a close. Next stop will be Czech Republic.