Friday, May 31, 2013

The Big Kitty offers us a Card

We saw this marvelous van parked in a small French town....

Translated it means:  deratisation/insect control/destruction of nests of wasps and hornets/disinfection/ treatment of woodwork/defoaming/ The Chatonnerie

Google translate makes a bit of a hash of this, but "deratisation" does exist as a term for ridding a ship of rats.  Defoaming appears to refer to some sort of high pressure treatment of wood to get rid of pests that travel on same.  And "Chatonnerie" seems to be some sort of pun....evidently the exterminator regards himself as "The Big Kitty".

There is always a small risk involved in standing around photographing things.  You look like a tourist.  Or an oddball.  Maybe both.  In fact while admiring this bit of commercial art a fellow came up and asked if we would like his card.  Sure enough, it was The Big Kitty himself.  It turns out that his name is Americo da Fonseca.

He seems like a nice guy.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Thoughts on European Travel - 2013

Prior to embarking on a long trip to England-Holland-Belgium-Germany-France we looked over our travel journal from our visit to the same area 31 years ago.  Reading it we were impressed at how much we walked, carrying backpacks no less, and at how cheap things were.  One hotel we stayed at in England was 5.25 pounds per person.  We had beverages that cost that much this trip.

But this was by intent a less spartan journey.  Carpe Diem, you never know how many more such trips there will be.

A few observations, perhaps they may benefit other travelers.

1. Being Understood.

Modest improvement over last trip.  Our language skills in respectively, French and German have improved a bit.  And as the older generation passes away the percentage of folks with at least basic English is quite high.  The only down side is that in our mid 50s hearing is not quite as sharp as three decades ago.  I for instance found female voices in noisy rooms quite difficult.

2. Getting Around

This was a small town oriented trip, so rail passes were out.  We rented a car.  There was a bit of a mix up on our initial choice, so to make things right they offered us a choice of what they had on hand.  As I looked back and forth at a Ford Focus and an Alfa Romeo my spouse said:  "You won't be able to face your sons back home if you could have had the Alfa and did not take it."  Right as usual.  Sorta fun having the extra horses when they were needed.

Shockingly we wavered a bit on getting GPS.  Let me be clear, do not drive in Europe without it.

We never did get it to stop speaking French, but the map read in English and we had detail and long range views that helped a great deal.  Once, when we were not sure that what we were looking at was actually a chateau we just punched in the GPS coordinates.  Yep,  that's it all right!  Oddly the GPS functions somewhat differently in various countries.  That "turn in 30 meters" in The Netherlands is right on top of you.  In France you see it coming a ways off.

Depending on your day you can set it for fastest route or straightest route.  The latter takes you through some very interesting back roads that are worth the time if you have it to spare.

We heard some harrowing tales of American credit cards being ineffective on French toll roads.  They also do not take currency and the help button only gets you a tinny French voice of about the quality of a McDonalds drive through.  People sat there helpless as gesticulating and muttering Gauls stacked up behind them.  We just avoided these toll roads entirely.  Not actually an issue as most French roads radiate like a spoke and wheel system based on Paris.  We were going "across the grain" where the roads were all dinky in any event.

Of the Autobahn in Germany I will just say that the far left lane is like something out of Star see a little dot appearing in the distance and WHOOSH it goes past you at Warp Speed.

3. Staying in touch.

First ever trip with a Europe capable cell phone.  We did not use it often but it came in handy and was worth the modest expense.

All Bed and Breakfast options had excellent WiFi.  It is btw pronounce "weee-feee" in Europe.  Hotels were a little less good.  One place had a service that kept kicking us off.  As it turns out you need a separate access code for each "device".  My tablet and wife's iPad kept knocking each other off the connection.

For the record my  travel computer did fine.  The battery life was not as long as promised but the recharge time was very fast.  And the European power adapter did not fry it.  (I confess, the first time I plug something into one of those I always wince.)  Alas, some things do not work in some places.  Pandora was pretty much non functional.

Probably the biggest factor in making an ambitious trip smooth and easy was in fact the computer age. We found most of our lodgings by simply laying out a route on Google Maps and then calling up Bed and Breakfast options at various points.  All were good, one was so nice that spouse announced her intentions to just stay there and live.  We did locate and book one lodging through somewhat old school means, a link from a town's tourism site.

It was the chateau.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Verdun. Where 1916 can never end.

If you sometimes wonder how the world got into its current sad state I can point you to the very spot where things went so badly astray.  It is in a series of hills just east of the drab town of Verdun France.

The Great Powers - none of which rank as such any longer - blundered stupidly into the First World War.  Their diplomats had in utmost secrecy created an interlocking web of treaties and understandings that were nothing less than a Doomsday Machine for Western that put armies of millions to the march after an inept but implausibly successful terrorist act.

Brave men, those armies of 1914, "Lions led by Donkeys" as tragically belated wisdom had it.

But there were still rays of hope.  Nations were at war but civility in men remained in places. The Christmas Truce of 1914 where the guns went silent and soldiers from both sides sat down together showed a Europe that might have been and still could be.

But Verdun changed it all.  Having spent so dearly neither side could settle for less than a total victory, or for less than unstable, draconian "peace" terms.

Verdun was where France and Germany met in the longest, most intense, most concentrated battle of World War One, and perhaps in all of history.

The statistics are somehow both dry and appalling.  Both personal and surreal.

Nobody ever accurately tallied the butcher's bill.  But there is general agreement that there were half a million wounded.  And a quarter of a million dead.  Forty million artillery shells were fired into a small area.  I have seen various estimates...could there really have been 150 high explosive shells landing on every square meter of the battleground?  Could there really still be 12 million unexploded rounds sleeping beneath the now forested hills?

At the end of the battle Verdun looked like this:

And frankly many areas looked worse.  I picked an image with a few skeletal trees because other areas more closely resemble images of some other planet, of some of crater-scarred moonscape.

I have had a fascination with the place since reading Alistair Horne's superb The Price of Glory.  So when I had a chance I spent a few solemn hours walking on what Mr. Horne rightly describes as "one of the most haunted places on earth".

At the end of the war there was no effort to reclaim the land.  It was of no value for agriculture - the topsoil had been blasted off entirely.  And to remove the unexploded ordinance?  Impossible.  They are still finding it routinely just doing the most basic of forestry and road maintenance.  So it was left alone.

Walk with me a little while in the silent glades of Verdun, where it will always be 1916. With every step you tread upon the atomized remains of those long martyred Lions. Death is all around you.  Remember this.  Stray not far from the marked and monitored paths....

A turret in one of the great forts

Note the thickness of the armor in this observation cupola.  And that it was not enough.

Here are shell holes...almost a century later.

On the right is a park bench.  It is a place for contemplation.

concrete supports for trench walls.  Still standing in a zig-zag trench system.

It was spring time in Verdun when I was there.  But Alistair Horne was hear no birds singing.  And apart from a few small beautiful flowers you get no sense whatsoever of new life.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

In which I quite nearly violate a Direct Command

I was told that I could not photograph French trailer hitches.

Fine.  It shall not be said that I flaunt direct spousal Edicts.

But, hey, who knew?  They use a similar style in the Netherlands.

And because it is always wise to keep your Hitch protected....

Friday, May 24, 2013

Tree Shaped Tombstones - A Continental Specimen

In a cemetery in small town France,

It is similar to the "Rustic Cross" type seen in the states.

It had some nice flourishes and details.

Sometimes I wonder if these tool details are Masonic symbols.  But in this instance I figure them to be occupational references.  This was probably a wheel wright.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Travels End

Back, but jet lagged.

Lots more to say, but Lord knows what a month overseas will do to my circadian rhythms.

Back to posting when I am coherent.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Two Chateaus of Ancemont

Two trips.  31 years apart.  The last time my wife and I had been to Belgium and northern France we were newlyweds.  We stayed in hostels.  This time I figured we could go a bit upscale.  So one night we booked into a B & B in a chateau.

The website made it look as if it were out in the country but in fact it was right in the little town of Ancemont.  It was a chateau built in 1720, but one which had fallen on hard times.  The last Count it seems had all daughters, there was no heir and things went badly after that.

Eventually it became a huge flop house with a bunch of ne'er do wells living there rent free for a couple of decades.  The lands, including the front and back lawns, had been sold off and built over.  It had become less than grand.

But the current owner has done a good job with the place and we had a good sleep and some very fine meals.  He mentioned that we should go for a walk and see the other chateau in town.

That would be this place.

Hmmm...a closer look at the sign.

Now, this being a rural community I am assuming that this has a bovine orientation.  But honestly, seeing the shuttered windows and the silent grounds behind the place I could imagine some sinister genetic experimentation going on behind the chateau walls.*

*In France and Belgium chateau is a rather flexible term.  It includes farms that have attained a degree of prosperity such that they need to set up some walls and towers to deter cattle thievery.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Weird Times in Dinant Belgium

I was entirely prepared to enjoy Dinant.  It seemed to have all the ingredients for an interesting place.  History, things to see, seldom visited by Americans.  Great beer.

But our visit was a disappointment.  Some things you just can't factor in when planning a trip.  The weather was not good, intermittent squalls of cold rain.  There was a lot of road work.  And while there were no other Americans around....

We first went to a water garden north of town that was pretty interesting.  Rain does not bother you so much when looking at fountains and water falls.

In Dinant we had planned on taking a quick boat tour on the Meuse, but of course it had just departed.

So we ducked out of the latest drenching shower into a cute little bakery that made some sort of gingerbread unique to the city.  And the place was packed with Japanese tourists.  There were no locals, just us and about 20 chattering folks from the Far East.

We had a little time to kill before the next boat tour, an venture we were starting to question anyway.  We stepped into the cathedral.  The Japanese were there too.  I have to say, if I ever visit a Shinto shrine someplace I am going to be a bit more reverential just in case.

To escape this persistent pack we decided to take the cable car up to the Citadel which sits high above the city.  I mean, really high above.

Oh, and for some reason there was an anti-aircraft gun guarding a playground.

The Citadel actually was fairly interesting but I have to admit to being a little more into powder magazines and tunnels than most normal folks.  There was one very strange, slightly disturbing section that recreated a World War One trench and bunker system.  When you took steps down to the lower levels of it you lost all sense of horizon and found yourself leaning dangerously to one side in the dark, spooky passageways.  The sounds and even the vibrations of heavy artillery shells were being played and made the experience even creepier.  Then you turn a corner and see this.

What the hell?

It seems that there was an exhibition on in a section of the fortress.  Disney characters and scenes done in sand art.  See the Wall-E, the Woody and the Buzz Lightyear?  The exit to this exhibit joined up with the lower levels of the trench and bunker recreation!  Cheery calliope music clashed with the Great War sound effects.

Having by this point given up on the boat tour (the ticket guy cancelled one hourly run because we were the only interested parties.....he mentioned a group coming later and we feared it was our friends the Japanese!), we went into a grocery store for a few essentials.

Overseas grocery stores are always interesting.  Cheap, probably government subsidized wine always tempts.  Spouse had something catch her eye....a series of children's books.
These kids went through a lot.  Can you decipher the titles?

On the back was what seems to be the mantra of these tough as nails little Belgic tykes....

Near as I can tell they have an uncle in prison, a relative of some sort who uses drugs, and Zoe has divorcing parents.  And Lili is seeing the psychologist!
C'est la vie!
The complete trials and tribulations of Max and Lili, which run to 102 little volumes (!) are Here!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Tired Continent

"Europe is an old, tired Continent."

This was the observation of one of our B and B hosts recently, a world-wise lady who had lived in many places including the United States.

As recent posts may have indicated we have been wandering about in the odd corners of Belgium and France, with a little of Germany and the Netherlands for perspective.  And where ever I go I ask are things really?

Well, it is an ageing land.  Having on past visits been a bit intimidated by vigorous, fit young Europeans clicking away at a rapid pace on the cobbled streets I can report that much grey hair and a few expansive waistlines have been seen.  And even one or two "mobility scooters".

Of course it is good that Europeans, and Americans, are living longer. But as I go here and there I see few children.  Lots of dogs.  While I am all heartily in favor of both a healthy society should have more of the former.  Pet boutiques appear to outnumber children's clothing stores.

What energy there is in the younger generations seems to come from elsewhere.  England has recently absorbed two million Poles.  France has a significant North African population.   We even encountered some gypsies.  I have no problems with any of these folks (well, a gypsy did put the evil eye on my wife last year).  In fact you have to expect that empty spaces in Europe will fill in with people from elsewhere.  It has always been so.

But beyond the demographic issues there is a deeper fatigue lying on the land.

The infrastructure is ancient.  In places there are still Roman sewers functioning.  You just can't upgrade old stone buildings very easily.

And beyond the physical limits there are the human factors.  Take a look at this:

A phone booth.  You almost never see them in the US, and rarely in England.  In France they are common.  And in a time when almost everyone has a cell phone they are unused by anyone other than grafftists.

I like Europe.  I come here fairly often.  But the wind has gone out of their sails, and they seem content to cheer on their football teams and to enjoy three hour long dinners.  

I would not want to make a New America out of the place.  The quaint narrow streets and half timbered buildings belong here.  If Europe is no longer the Vanguard of Western Civilization she is still the Custodian of much of it.  And that is an important role even if it means that the Old World will not in foreseeable times rival America.  Or China.

They still do some things well despite the decline.  Or perhaps in some instances because of it.  I had some excellent meals during those long, lingering dinners.  And if you ask an amiable barkeep in Belgium if he has something extra special you will be served up a mighty beer that will in short order have you grinning as maniacally as the monk on its label.

You can learn something profound about modern Europe by thinking on the subject of......wheelbarrows.

Excavating at Vindolanda we used French wheelbarrows.  The Vindolanda folks had tried every available English made brand.  They were all flimsy crap that could not take the beating they were dealt.  But the French ones were reliable troupers.  Why?

Well, it seems that by a combination of tradition and union rules French road and construction crews do not use skid steers and similar small dumping/hauling machinery.  They still use guys with shovels and wheelbarrows.  So they have not forgotten how to make a decent one.  Some consolation I guess when you are waiting for a trio of Gallic road guys to finish their smokes and get back to work.

Wheelbarrows, Abbey Ales and pate foie gras.  Yes, it is quite possible to enjoy the decline.  

I just don't think America should join them in it.
Belgian frites (French Fries) come with huge dollops of mayonaisse. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Not actually very far West......

A sign by the road in northern England.

Perhaps something rural and English?  Folk songs, minstrels strumming, maybe some Morris Dancers?

Sorry, no.

My first thought was that this was petty revenge for the British Invasion of the US music market in the 1960s.  But I looked a couple of these bands up.  They all seem legit and all seem to be enjoying themselves.

I mean, you have to like a band called Root'n Toot'n who bill themselves as a Hillbilly trio and whose latest CD is "Another Nail in My Liver"

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Vindolanda Upscale

I have spent a lot of time showing up a series of rather humble barracks blocks.  Of course made more humble by the weathering of time and by the battering of modern attempts to plow the site.  Likely the post Roman Dark Agers were not ideal tenants either.

But even in the barracks blocks you found a few classy touches.  Borrowed of course.  For instance this nicely carved stone was apparently slopped in as a wall repair.  But where did it come from?

Impossible to say for certain, but the likely source was the Commander's House, or Praetorium, which was just across the street.

Built in 213 it was a grand two story mansion with a courtyard.  It provided living quarters for the Prefect and his family, as well as accommodations for honored guests.  And, because it is Good to Be Prefect, you may be assured that they lived well.

Heated floors...the raised stone pillars supported a floor. Hot air was pumped in during the colder months.  Said air coming no doubt from a furnace run all winter long by some poor wood or coal shoveling wretch.

This paved floor was a sort of steam bath, the stones were heated, then water was tossed on them.  The upper classes did not go to the communal bath houses with the sweaty soldiery.

And here is the Executive Washroom.  Note the trenched areas around the periphery?

Essentially this was an outhouse with running water in the underneath ditches.  Eventually it probably ended up in the fort moat as an additional obstacle to enemies.  Pretty good hunting for archaeologists though...anything that fell down there probably stayed there.

Even the Prefect's house had its issues.  The big stone structures on the right hand side were buttresses.  It seems that the entire fort had a tendency to sort of slide off this way, no doubt due to the ubiquitous springs and the remains of several previous forts below.

Well, you could prop up a building for a long time.  But propping up an Empire when it started to slide into the figurative ditch?  Not so easy.  The Praetorium gradually fell into decay.  Even in the late Roman era some parts were kept up and others fell into ruins.  Likely the stone borrowing happened in this time period.

At the very end, or more likely after the Romans marched out or declined to local warlords, a new use for the structure emerged.  This structure appeared in the courtyard.  Note the curved end to the stone outline?

This is a distinctive feature associated with early Christian churches.  Some feel it indicates an occupation of the site in the 5th century by a monastic community of some sort.  Scattered around inside the former Praetorium were a variety of pagan altars, one to Jupiter Best and Greatest, one to the "Genius" or spirit of the Praetorium.  They were tipped over.  Was this simple tossing about of stones seen so widely on the site?  Or was it the Dark Age monks getting a few digs in against their pagan competitors?

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Queen's Cave....a walking and clamoring visit

The year was 1464.  Great Britain was in the final spasms of The War of Roses in which the noble blood of rival factions had been shed profusely.

The Lancastrian troops had just been routed by the Yorkists in the Battle of Hexham, more or less the last armed conflict in a seemingly endless war.

Fleeing the ruin of her army and of her hopes was the Queen of England, a certain Margaret of Anjou.  With her was her son the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne.

Open flight being impossible they fled up a wild ravine now known as West Dipton Burn.

The legend gets a little convoluted at this point, but basically the Queen and her small party were set upon by robbers.  No dainty flower this lady, she hautily informed the bandits that they had been given a great gift...a chance to set right their many misdeeds by aiding her and their future king.

And it worked.  They took her in and sheltered her in their redoubt, a small well hidden cave known to this day as Queen Margaret's Cave.

A fine story, even if scholars are pretty sure Margaret was in France at the time and the whole thing is romantic clap trap.

But that is by no means a reason to defer a mission of exploration, and on a break from excavating at Vindolanda my pal Pete and I set out to find the Queen's Cave.

We talked to a few locals.  Some had heard of it, others had not.  Of the group who had been down looking for it, I could only find one who had actually located the spot.  Armed with sketchy clues and a map that we had been told was inaccurate we set off.

First a bus into Hexham.  Then a tedious uphill trek down first East Gate then Dipton Mill roads.  A welcome site indeed met us when we reached the Dipton Mill Inn.  A classic one room pub with a smoky wood fire and superb ales.  It would be easy to become an armchair explorer at this point, but we were made of sterner stuff.

The West Dipton burn is right next to the pub and a public footpath begins on the north side of the ravine.  A charming stream runs down the middle of things and you will have to frequently ford it on well placed stones as the ravine alternates narrow stretches to the north and south.

It is a very pretty spot.

This may be an excellent time for a bit of practical advice.  You will not have a successful hunt for the cave under anything but favorable conditions.  The trail is faint and in some places entirely debateable.  Fording the stream if it has been raining recently is not possible...those huge 200 foot cliffs just funnel the water through it.  There were tangles of downed trees to negotiate.  And when we went in early May there was not a great deal of underbrush to obscure our views.  Nor were there the midges for which Northumberland is infamous later in the season.

So, pick your day wisely.

At last, after about a mile and a half of pretty but difficult going we looked up on the southern wall of the burn and saw it.

The cave is not large, even short robbers would have been unable to stand.  A regal personage presumably wearing a tall hat would also have a problem.  It seems likely that there is a crumbling of rock and sand off the roof that would have to be cleared from the floor to see the true dimensions.

Looking very closely mid photo there is a tiny bright green object.  A lost royal emerald?  It seems to be the bottom of a soft drink bottle, probably a geo cache.

Here Pete is doing a very creditable robber impression.

After your long trek in there is an easier option for getting out.  Cross back to the north side of the stream.  Go back about 50 yards and look carefully for a path running diagonally up the north slope.  It runs into a nice path along the field wall on the north ridge.  From there you have several options for getting your tired legs back to civilization.

I don't want to make it too easy to find the place - I could for instance give you the GPS coordinates - but the cave is on the south side of the ravine, up a cliff about 30 feet.  It is the second of two such cliffs as you get a little over a mile in.  It is just a bit to the west of the Hexham race track which is up above on the north side of the Burn.