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Following the advice of our friend Yianna Xenakis, we prepared for our Normandy visit by watching “The Longest Day”, the 1962 D-Day classic, with an all-star cast:  John Wayne, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Paul Anka (yes), Sean Connery, Fabian (yes), Henry Fonda, Roddy McDowall, Robert Mitchum, Rod Steiger, Robert Wagner, and the list goes on…

Just a few days shy of the 70th anniversary of June 6, 1944, we travelled to Normandy on May 29, 2014.  Landing at Paris Orly Airport, we made our way to the Avis counter.  Unfortunately, one needs a driver’s license to rent a car, and ours were in Barcelona.  Luckily, our friend Christian (a Barcelona native who has a “concierge” business helping foreigners secure apartments, set up bank accounts, etc.) quickly came to our apartment and then drove to the local BCN Avis agency with my license.  So, we were now on our way (I, with mental anguish, as I truly dislike showing a lack of responsibility to the youth), about 3 hours or 330 kilometers from our destination, Sainte-Mère-Église.

While everyone was happy to ride in a larger than expected rental car, we all agreed that our Renault Kangoo was the ugliest car on the road.  Here we are upon arrival at Sainte-Mère-Église on May 29, just shy of 70 years after the Allies landed here.


Sainte-Mère-Église was taken over by the Germans in 1940 and eventually occupied by Austrians and Germans until 1944.  On the night of June 5th/morning of June 6th, there were Allied air raids and paratroopers began landing in town, with significant casualties.  The Longest Day movie properly portrays one man, John Steele, catching his chute on the town’s church, apparently after losing control when hit with flak (anti-aircraft fire).  He faked death for more than two hours while hanging and was captured by the Germans, only to escape three days later.

Note the paratrooper on the church…


One of the stained glass windows in the church beautifully portrays the Virgin Mary as well as paratroopers.


Not a great dinner in Sainte-Mère-Église at La Pomme d’Or, although the restaurant was run by a nice family, and I can’t fault them for trying to make a few extra bucks by selling copies of the D-Day pictures behind us on the wall.  We did enjoy the town, including a conversation with some U.S. military who were in Normandy to prepare for the 70th anniversary event.  Then we drove 30 minutes to Bayeux for the night.


On Friday morning, we were met at our fancy Ibis Budget Hotel in Bayeux; for those looking for a discount of about 75% off of the average Normandy hotel, and satisfied with a clean, albeit small room, I strongly recommend our lodging experience.  Of course, what we saved, we spent on our guide, the extremely knowledgeable and interesting Gary Weight.  Gary could not have been more informative, but he was almost too detailed at times, unable to maintain the focus of the girls, not that any all-day tour can hold the interest of this age group.

Pointe du Hoc was our first stop, perched high on cliffs (about 25-30 meters above the sea), where the Germans were positioned on June 6, between Omaha and Utah Beaches.  Gary spent time explaining this site, and the necessity of the Allies to capture it, due to the strategic locale.  Lt. Colonel James Rudder commanded a force of 225 Army Rangers that eventually captured Pointe du Hoc, although not without tremendous sacrifice.  Because of a delayed landing on the coast early on June 6, the 500-man backup forces were not given Rudder’s predetermined signal, and they landed instead at Omaha Beach.  At Pointe du Hoc, soon after landing and during the scaling of the cliffs on ropes and ladders, Rudder lost 90 of his 225 men.  And, after 2 days, only 90 of his Rangers were able to fight.  Still the backup forces did arrive on June 8, and the Germans fled.

Entering a German bunker at Pointe du Hoc…


Here is Gary offering detail about the very large 155mm “coastal artillery guns”; one was expected to be in this spot on June 6, 1944, and there were five in total at Pointe du Hoc.  Allied intelligence knew of the guns and it was an important objective to make them inoperable.  Rudder’s Army Rangers were surprised to find that the guns were not in these encasements, but instead long wooden shafts were in place of the guns, fooling the Allied aircraft photoreconnaissance.  Still, the guns were eventually found nearby by Rudder’s men and taken out of commission…


Inside a strong German bunker at Pointe du Hoc…


Max running through the craters created by the Allied bombs…


At the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial above Omaha Beach, observing the graves of 9,387 of our military, most of whom died in the D-Day landings and during the following operations.


A map of Military Operations in Western Europe, at the Normandy Memorial.



On Omaha Beach, Gary gave us further detail of Operation Overlord.  Such a beautiful beach, it is difficult to envision the massive Allied invasion…but the course of history may have changed in this spot.




Columbus Tower

At the end of La Rambla, in front of the Sea, stands the 60-meter high monument to Christopher Columbus (1452-1506).  During a short visit to Barcelona, most tourists will at least catch a glimpse of the tower.

DSC_0023_01 DSC_0373_03DSC_0718Built for the Exposición Universal de Barcelona of 1888, it is formally called the Mirador de Colón in Spanish and the Monument a Colom in Catalan.  It pays tribute to the explorer, as it was here in Barcelona where Christopher Columbus returned to Spain after his first voyage to the Americas.  Some of the guidebooks state that Isabella and Ferdinand were here to greet him upon his return (in Plaza del Rey); others note that this may not be accurate, as they may have been at their summer residence at the time.  Let’s go with the story that the King and Queen welcomed him here with open arms.















According to one Barcelona tourism site, “the statue was sculpted by Rafael Atché and is said to depict Columbus pointing towards the New World with his right hand, while holding a scroll in the left. As it was sited, instead of pointing to the west towards the New World, the statue points east towards Columbus’s supposed home city of Genoa. The statue is atop a socle, on which the word “Tierra” (land) is inscribed.”

We didn’t realize until well into our stay that one could actually rise to the top of the monument.  It is a tight squeeze—the elevator holds just three, plus the attendant.  The entrance is hidden on the Mediterranean side; look for the steps dropping below grade.  We enjoyed the spectacular views.

Looking west, up La Rambla, Gothic Quarter on the right, El Raval on the left, with the Collserola Tower (communications tower built for the 1992 Olympics) atop the hills in the distance…


Looking East at the Mediterranean and the W Hotel, (on the right) along the Barcenoleta beachfront…


Never miss the chance to climb, at the base of the tower…

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I amsterdam

We boarded a midday train in Brugge and about 4 hours or 250 kilometers later, we arrived in Amsterdam, and were promptly ripped off (I think) by a cab driver who charged us 35 Euros to transport us the 3 kilometers to the Hotel Notting Hill.

Still, we were in Amsterdam, and excited about the visit, and our short vacation with the Prendergasts.  We quickly savored one of our best red meat meals in Europe, at Café Loetje, recommended by our hotel, and leading to ongoing trust in our concierge after delicious steaks.

Saturday morning kicked off with a bike tour, in a city mad about bikes.


Our guide explained the tall and slim houses, which lean toward the street.  Historically, with narrow staircases, furniture and goods needed to be lifted from the outside through the use of a large hook protruding from the top floor; the higher up that items were stored or used, the less of a chance of related flood damage when the low lying canals overflowed.  In order to prevent items from banging into the building on the way up, the houses were built with a slight forward lean.





















During the ride, we spent some time in Vondelpark; it opened in 1865, originally as Nieuwe Park, but was renamed in 1867 when a statue of Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel was placed in the park.  It is 45 hectares, or about 111 acres.  While initially on the edge of Amsterdam, Vondelpark is now very central.

In the park, on the I amsterdam letters…


You need to see the tulips if you go to Holland in early May, right?  We drove about 2 hours to Keukenhof, simply to look at flowers 🙁  In defense of the planners, the tulips in the fields had just been cut, requiring the less appealing park viewing instead.


Motor homes “clogged” the parking lots, similar to at a Nascar event, and the park was packed with tourists…these girls have big shoes to fill, don’t they?  Maybe?

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Vic, Daniel and Dan Prendergast, not to mention Maggie.


We embarked on a “pizza cruise”, about a 90-minute canal ride while dining on actually very good pizza; guests placed orders when boarding and the boat then stopped for pickup.  Wine and beer were served, and Ben & Jerry’s before going ashore.

The Anne Frank House was our first stop on Sunday morning.  As expected, it was incredibly moving, yet I would call it “accessible”, even for someone Maggie’s age.  We first heard a short presentation, very worthwhile for those planning a trip; in particular it gave us a good overview of the inhabitants of the secret annex as well as those who helped the Frank family while in hiding.

Next was the Rijks Museum.  We had been preparing for a one picture visit.  When I was younger, I remember being in Paris and my parents discussing the 6 minute Louvre, the record time for a visitor stopping only in front of the Mona Lisa, Venus De Milo, and Winged Victory.  We could do better at the Rijks Museum, with plans only to see Rembrandt’s (1606-1669) Night Watch, completed in 1642.  Evelyn and I had prepared, reading a small (just a few pages) book detailing the picture and its 34 characters.  We did actually stop to see a Vermeer or two on the way out but spent only about 30 minutes in total inside…


The audio tour at the Van Gogh Museum is advisable and the perfect length for young and old.  As is well known, and a shame, during his relatively short life (1853-1890), Van Gogh only sold one of his more than 900 paintings, through his dealer-brother, Theo.

Rijks Museum in the background…


Street performers are always worth a look.  Find Max…


After exploring the Albert Cuyp Street Market near our hotel and testing the crepes, we said goodbye to Amsterdam.



May 1 is Labour Day in Spain, and it fell on a Thursday, meaning a 4-day weekend and thus an opportunity for us to explore.  Vueling Airlines pointed us to Belgium, and we landed Wednesday afternoon and immediately boarded a train for the one hour, approximately 100 kilometer ride to Brugge.

Our lodging was the Crowne Plaza, just off of Burg Square, where this photo was taken, showing the Town Hall.


Brugge is a walking city, with picturesque canals.


We arrived in the late afternoon, and during the walk to dinner, the reflections were perfect.





















Our hotel recommended the Hobbit Grill, for ribs, which were good, not great, a bit dry and lacking flavor.


We kicked off May (Thursday, 5/1) with a bike tour, courtesy of Quasimundo, and led by our well versed guide, Dany.  Our first stop was at a Godshuizen, literally translated as “Houses of God”, but really meaning houses for the poor and needy.  As far back as the 14th century, these houses were built by rich families and corporations (donor often identified on the building) for poor and needy widows and widowers.  There was typically a courtyard, where food for residents could be grown, and a chapel as part of the complex.


We also stopped at a Begijnhof (Béguinage in French), a group of small houses surrounding a courtyard, used by Beguines, which were sisterhoods of the Catholic Church; Beguines were nuns, observing the vows of obedience and chastity, but not poverty.  In addition, at any time, the Beguines could break their vows and leave the community.  The Begijnhof of Brugge, pictured, was founded in 1245 and the Beguines lived here during the last seven centuries.


You need to see a windmill if you visit this part of the world.  Sint-Janshuis Mill, built in 1770, apparently still grinds grain.


The Belfry, a medieval bell tower, was first constructed in the 13th century, but more than one fire as well as lightning, mean that the current structure, 83 meters in height, was completed in different phases over several centuries.


We endeavor to climb every tower we see,  and this one included 366 stairs, leaving us with a nice view of course.


Despite the high praise from more than one critic, no need to try Chez Vincent and its “Real Belgian Fries”; rude service and average food at best.


But just outside Chez Vincent, you can try to hop from stone to stone.


Visiting the Chocolate Museum, Choco-Story, is a must for all ages, with interesting story boards on the history of chocolate, how to make it, and a film.  For one, we learned the proportions of ingredients, notably cocoa and cocoa butter, of dark chocolate versus milk chocolate versus white chocolate.  In the gift shop you have the challenge of deciding which wafers to purchase; we settled on the 67% cocoa.  I say “we” but I guess this was my choice.  Max, Ella, and I enjoy fairly dark, with Evelyn and Maggie having a preference for closer to milk chocolate.

Travelling can be a bit of a “grind”.


We went 0 for 3, two dinners and one lunch, in terms of successful meals in Brugge, after expensive and moderately appetizing food and weak service at Cambrinus, a beer hall also well known for good food.

In the Church of Our Lady sits the only Michelangelo sculpture (a Madonna with Child) to leave Italy during his lifetime, completed during the first few years of the 16th century.


Stephan Dumon (Chocolatier) can thank us.


The Markt of Brugge (Market Square)

DSC_0111_01She felt at home…





Color Run

We are trying to absorb as much of Barcelona as possible during our last few months here.  And what better way to experience the city and its people than participating in a “fun run”?  Imagine being a tourist visiting San Francisco and running the Bay to Breakers.

The Color Run, in existence since 2011, calls itself the “Happiest 5k on the Planet”.  According to the website, there were more than 170 events in 30+ countries in 2013.  The Barcelona Color Run was held on Sunday, May 18 (coincidentally the same day as the Bay to Breakers), starting just below the Magic Fountain (La Fuente Mágica) and ending a few steps away on Avenida Maria Cristina near Plaça Espanya.

Our friends, the Headricks, took the high speed train to BCN from Madrid to see the final La Liga futbol game on Saturday evening, and their team, Atlético Madrid, defeated Barça, sadly.

At the Color Run, here are Evelyn and Laure in Plaça Espanya.  Full disclosure/excuse:  all photos taken with phones, due to risk of damage.

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Lauder and Maggie…Mariner and Ella


Right before the start, Plaça Espanya in the background.


I wonder who sponsored this event?


J.P. Nelson and daughter Lexi up high; note the Montjuïc Communications Tower, also known as Torre Calatrava and Torre Telefónica, completed for the Olympics in 1992.  The tower represents an athlete holding the Olympic flame.


Participants show up in all-white and finish the event almost unrecognizable, after powdered colors are tossed at runners throughout the run.

With the Headrick girls and Ella Nelson…

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Max and Gannen, before and after…

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Tim Kunihiro and son Patrick at the post-race fiesta…




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