History Lessons

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Europe » France
March 15th 2008
Published: March 22nd 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

When we left Spain and Portugal we headed up the west coast and into the Loire Valley. This region contains more than 300 chateaus and was the center for the french seat of power during the Renaissance period. We went on a day tour to see some of these great chateaus starting with one of the most famous, Chenonceux.
The Chateau de Chenonceux sits over the Cher River and the residence that is on the site today was built in the early 1500's. The residence is interesting in that it sit over the river as if built on top of a bridge. The house was owned by Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of King Henry II, until it was taken away by Henry's widowed wife, Catherine de'Medici. The interior of the chateau is filled with amazing furniture, tapestries, and great fireplaces. The surrounding gardens also make the grounds a great place to enjoy a walk.
Our next stop was the city of Amboise where we toured the Chateau d'Amboise. The chateau sits above the Loire River and was a favorite place among french kings. The interior is furnished with an excellent collection of antique furniture. The manor house of Clos Luce where Leonardo da Vinci lived out his last few years is also found in Amboise.
After a great crepe lunch in Amboise we headed to our next stop, the Chateau de Cheverny. This chateau was built between 1624 and 1630 and is still privately owned and lived in by the owners. The residence is still surrounded by a large grounds and forest where hunting parties are accompanied by the 70 plus hounds used for the hunts. The interior of the house contains a great collection of antique furniture, paintings, and tapestries.
Our last stop of the day was to Chateau de Chambord. At 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces, and 84 staircases this is the largest chateau in the Loire Valley and was made to be used as a hunting lodge by King Francois I. Parts of the interior of the building including the double helix central staircase were supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The building is also unique in that there is access to the roof and is elaborately decorated. It was truly an amazing site and a great way to end our day.
The next day we took the train up to Paris and settled into our hotel in the 10th district. We got settled in and then headed down to the Eiffel Tower. We enjoyed the nice weather and the park underneath the tower but didn't brave the 2 hour lines to go up into the tower.
We started off our next day by heading down to the Ile de la Cite, which sits in the middle of the Seine River, and the Cathedrale de Notre-Dame. We checked out both the exterior and interior of this great cathedral which was started in 1163 and not completed until 1345. We were able to see some of the Sunday service that was being held while we were inside.
From there we headed to the Latin Quarter, so named because it is the home of the Latin-speaking universities of the city, to join up with yet another walking tour. On our walking tour we saw many of the important sights of the city. We started off back on the Ile de la Cite where we saw Notre Dame and then along the river to the Pont Neuf (New Bridge) which is the oldest bridge in the city dating back to 1607. We then headed across the river to the right bank and walked around the Louvre, Theater Comedy, the Opera-Garnier, the Tuileries Gardens, Place du Concord, the Champs-Elysees, the Grand Palais, the Petite Palace, and the Arc de Triomphe. We finished our day with a closer inspection of the Arc de Triomphe and a walk along the Champs-Elysees.
The next day we headed back over to the Eiffel Tower to brave the lines to go to the top. Although the lines were not as bad as on the weekend we still had to wait 45 minutes to go up which was the longest we had waited for any sight so far. But I guess it is understandable since the Eiffel Tower is the most visited paid attraction in the world. The view from the top did not disappoint at all though and we got a great view of the city and all the sights of the city.
In the afternoon we headed over to the Musee du Louvre to check out a small part of the huge collection held there. Art has been housed and displayed, though not to the public, since the early 1500's at the Louvre. It was Aug. 10, 1793 that the Louvre opened to the public to display the works of art gathered from around the world. We knew it would be impossible to see anywhere close to the whole thing so we concentrated on the big hits- the Mona Lisa and other Italian, Dutch, Flemish, German, and French art, Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Venus de Milo, and some of Michelangelo's sculptures. The extent of the collections from Greece, Rome, Egypt, and all over Europe are absolutely mind-boggling to see.
We started off our next day a little closer to home at the top of the Montmartre hill and the Sacre-Coure Basilica. The basilica was built in the Romano-Byzantine style and was completed in 1914. The site of the basilica at the top of Montmartre hill is the highest point in the city so from the top of the building we had an excellent view over the city. After our tour of the basilica we headed to the nearby Place du Tertre which is a famous hang out for local artists. The square is lined with shops and restaurants and has 20 or more artists showing off their great but overpriced work in the square.
In the afternoon we headed back down to the Ile de la Cite and La Sainte-Chapelle. This Gothic chapel was built to house many of the holy relics such as Christ's crown of thorns, the Image of Edessa, and a piece of the true cross. The highlight of the chapel are the amazing stained-glass windows of the upper chapel. This upper chapel was restored by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc who was the same person who restored Carcassonne which we had visited in southern France.
After a quick visit to Notre-Dame we finished up the day by catching the metro out to the La Defence district. This area outside of town is home to the more modern business district of the city and a very interesting looking building called the La Grande Arche. This 20th century version of the Arc de Triomphe sits down at the end of the Avenue de la Grande Armee and marks the end of the row of monuments that runs through the city. A modern touch to this great historic city it was a great way to finish up our tour around Paris.
The next day we traveled to the suburbs of Paris and the Palace of Versailles. From 1682 to 1789 this royal chateau was the house of the royal family and the center of french government. Started also as a hunting lodge, Louis XIV turned it into the largest palace in France. We toured several rooms in the royal apartments where they had a temporary display of silver pieces from around Europe. There were immense silver mirror frames weighing over a ton, a huge silver lion, and silver dishes. The highlights of the tour were the Hall of Mirrors, where the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the royal chapel, and the huge gardens behind the palace. The whole place was an amazing look into the decedent life of the french royalty of the time.
That evening we finished off our time in Paris with a great dinner at a restaurant my uncle had suggested, Le Grand Colbert. We realized when we got there that this was the restaurant used in the Jack Nicholson/ Diane Keaton movie Something's Gotta Give. We had a great meal to celebrate Valentine's Day and then ended our night with a trip to see the Eiffel Tower with all the lights.
We headed out of Paris and to the small town of Bayeux in the Normandy region of France. This small town was one of the first towns to be liberated during the Normandy invasion of WW II and is also the home to the Bayeux Tapestry. We toured the small town checking out the beautiful cathedral in the city and then headed over to see the Bayeux Tapestry.
The Bayeux Tapestry is a 70m (210 ft.) long embroidered tapestry that depicts the events leading up to and including the Norman invasion of England in 1066. The story shows how William the Conqueror claimed his right to the crown of England. The detail in the embroidery gives a great deal of information on what cloths people had back then, how people fought, and what everyday life was like back then so it was a great look back into the lives of the people of the time.
After the tapestry it was time to see one of the other reasons the region is know to the world, the Normandy invasion of World War II. We started this with a visit to the Bayeux WW II museum that afternoon and continued it with a day tour of the regional American WW II sites.
We joined a tour with the excellent company Battlebus, led by our guide Dale. Our fist stop of the day was the town of St. Mere Eglise where US 82nd Airborne troops landed in support of the D-day invasions and spent several days battling with the Germans. The fighting in this town was depicted in the WW II movie The Longest Day and shows the story of how paratrooper John Steel landed on the top of the church and hung from the steeple by his chute. The church has two stained glass windows depicting airborne soldiers and logos and the town also has an Airborne museum where we spent some time looking at the great personal articles and things from the war.
Our next stop was the small village of Angoville-au-Plain which was the crossroads of heavy fighting between American airborne troops and top German troops. The town was the center for heavy fighting and a small field hospital was set up inside the small church. Though the town switched sides over the two days, the US medics worked on men from both sides and wounded locals throughout the battle and saved all but three. To this day blood stains can be seen on the wood pews and bullet holes are seen in the stone outside. This church has two memorials outside of it and two stained glass windows dedicated to the men who helped to liberate France and the medics who save the lives of soldiers and locals.
From here we headed to the beach areas to see the landing zones of the D-day invasion. We started off at Utah Beach and saw some of the huge German battlements that made up the Atlantic Wall. We were also able to see one of the plywood and steel Higgins boats, or landing craft, that was a vitally important part of the war. From there we had a lesson on why the hedgerows of Normandy caused such an issue for American, British, and Canadian forces in Normandy.
Our next stop was the cliff tops above the English Channel at Pointe du Hoc. This was the area where the 2nd Ranger battalion scaled 100 ft. cliffs to take out enemy guns, losing 60% of their forces in the 2 days of fighting. It was only 225 men that were sent in to do this job and they fought a German force much bigger than theirs but they succeeded in taking out the guns that could have caused massive damage to ships and men landing on nearby beaches.
Our last stop was Omaha Beach which was where the bloodiest of the fighting was held during the d-day invasions. Because troops were brought in at low tide at the start of the invasion, troops had to make it past constant fire across 200-300 yards of beach before getting anywhere close to cover and then after that they had to rush across more open beach and then climb 100-200 ft bluffs covered with German soldiers and artillery. Being there in person looking up the beach to the bluffs gives you a small understanding of how absolutely crazy it was to attempt, yet these men still did it.
We completed our tour at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial that sits on the bluffs above Omaha. We walked through the new museum that had a great display of personal stories of some of the men and women who fought and died in WW II. From there we walked to the memorial which holds the names of 12,557 Americans who lost their lives in the war but are still unaccounted for. From there we wandered among the 9,387 west facing (towards America) graves. An amazingly peaceful and somber place, the cemetery is truly an incredible site to see.
With our time in France finished we took a nice train ride through the beautiful fields and small towns of Normandy back to Paris. From there we got another train to the north and our next destination, Amsterdam.

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Not far from home now.Not far from home now.
Not far from home now.

At the top of the Eiffel Tower.

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