Monthly Archives: January 2014

Herzeele and Gueudecourt

If, like me, you love the nostalgic sound of mechanical pipe organs read on.  Not all that long ago I had discussed my projected itinerary through Belgium to a Parisian friend and wondered what I might  look for on my way back through Northern France, a part of the country not too often mentioned in tourism brochures.  ‘La Flandre française’, as I recalled from geography lessons as a boy was known for coal mining along with industrial development and ‘grey’ seemed the colour best associated with it.  To my knowledge there was nothing scenic worthy of note to be seen.  Still one has to drive through on the way back and I thought the fastest way south via the Autoroute du Nord the preferable choice. Knowing my propensity for nostalgia, he suggested a side trip promising it would be well worth the detour.  Go see ‘The café des Orgues’.  Where? Herzeele.  What? Never heard of that place. Just across the border and not to worry he assures me it’s one of those marvellous places that’s under the radar and better for that fact.  Now I’m curious and he tells me about it, rather smug with the knowledge he had a real winner to pass on.  As it turned out he was quite correct in the assumption I’d enjoy the sights and sounds to be found in the remote Café des Orgues.  In fact , let me be perfectly candid,  I was delighted, no, I was tickled pink, loved every moment.  

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

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The café is frequented by a faitful local clientele, friends and neighbours from several nearby farming communities gather Sunday afternoons for a drink, a fine choice of beers in particular and to indulge a love of dancing.  The ambiance harkened back to when dancing was a popular pastime and let me tell you each and every one of these friendly people were excellent dancers.  Crackling with energy and good feelings the large room at the back holds up to three hundred avid dancers with a range of ages spanning 6 decades or more.  It brought me back to an era in my own life when I showed off nimble feet on the dance floor, an ability I learned soon was appreciated by the fair sex.  I owed this not small edge in the noble pursuit of skirt-chasing to my mother’s insistence that I should learn how to dance properly; she was Polish and of course showing off a good waltz and Polka was de rigueur and subsequently all the old standards, the fox-trot, rumba, tango, followed by my own discovery  of the fun of the cha-cha, jive and even the twist.  Unfortunately in present days ballroom dancing is basically moribund with the exception of a few die-hards found here and there as in Herzeele. 

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So what are you going to find in Herzeele, or more to the point at the Café des Orgues?  Théophile Mortier was an organ manufacturer who until 1944 created  dance organs along with required orchestrations.  Owned and amiably run by     the family Ameloot it’s an amazing fact that in a modest town of some 1200 inhabitants you’ll find three magnificent, perfectly preserved and functional mechanical organs, rare curiosities and in my opinion splendid mementos of past glories.  I’m a sucker for sentimentality of almost any shade or hue and this ranks right up with any of my favourite golden oldies. 

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These magnificent musical machines were manufactured by the TH Mortier Anvers company in Belgium; intricate mechanism hidden behind ornately decorated exteriors  replicate the sounds of a 25 musical instrument orchestra.  All three are fully functional and powered by air bellows crank out a great sound.  The oldest dates to 1912 followed by 1926 both in rococo style and the 1939 baby with a more muted Art deco facade.  Let me share a good idea, go to your YouTube application and type in Herzeele Pipe Organs and presto, you’ll discover the sound and feel of the place.

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P1070690To the left of the photo, without a partner, unperturbed she dances with her shadow.  Always gallant (I hope), I awaited for her to come by my table so I could partner her but the music ended just a beat too soon and off she went to rejoin her friends.  

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That lovely lady asked me to dance – how nice. Later I realized the locals made sure those they realized were new to the place would initiate the invitation to dance.  I was happy to oblige since it was a lively fox-trot and I remembered how – dancing I guess is like riding a bike, the feet never forget.  

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Then she showed me the back room and the fellow in charge of changing the music explained how cleverly it all worked.  There are only about 200 such organs still existing and here there were not one as elsewhere but three!  Indeed, I should have discovered more of how this happy happenstance came about but the owner was absent just then and time was growing short.  I’ll have to return to find out, and I plan on doing so for sure.  

P1040564He was proud to inform there were over five hundred dance pieces dating to back when, a priceless collection no doubt.   These cardboard accordions perforated with holes are fed through a mechanism that determines the notes to be played – come to think of it an early form of computer. 

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Before leaving Herzeele, although initially not  on my radar scope another fortuitous discovery when I came across a vaguely familiar name on my Michelin map – Vimy Ridge site of a famed Canadian victory during WWI.   In the distance the iconic memorial to the bravery of Canadian soldiers who won a pivotal battle at a bitter cost in blood.

P1040572Any Canadian student of my generation will recall memorizing the heartbreaking poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by Lt. Col. John A. Macrae  and sure enough a field of poppies in full bloom made this day ever more evocative and frankly tugged a touch at my heartstrings.   I’ll risk breaking copyrights if such still apply and include the poem for you to appreciate its poignancy.  McCrae himself a few months after penning the powerful sentiments would give up his life and is buried in a not too distant Canadian military cemetery.  

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‘In Flanders Fields’
adfaldkjfalsdkjfadf
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarcely heard amid the guns below.
asdlkjfa;lkdjfa;ldkjfadf
We are the dead.  Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunsets glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
in Flanders fields.
asdfal;djfasdfadf
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands, we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.  
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
in Flanders fields. 

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And then, driving along a regional road heading south I spot a modest plaque with an arrow indicating a memorial to the memory of the brave Newfoundlanders who shed blood and guts in a bold attack on a well-entranched German position.  I’d never heard of it but out of a vague sense of duty I turned off and went looking.

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Not more than a couple of kilometres along a rural road through peaceful farmland  there it was, just a small copse, a tiny bit of hallowed battlefield land and under a canopy of pine trees the wind whistled through the branches just enough to be heard, making a singular impression on my imagination.  Was I hearing voices?  I glanced up and there it was, a fine bronze caribou stag erected by the Newfoundland Government stands in a small battlefield park on a low rise. It marks the spot where, in October 1916, the Newfoundlanders (not yet part of Canada) played a decisive role in the capture of a German strong-point named Rainbow Trench.   

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Beyond the lush green field the church spire of the farming village of Gueudecourt.  I drove there and spotted an older gent in a farm courtyard.  I asked what he knew about the memorial.  He looked up at me, “Vous êtes Canadien? My father spoke of how brave your soldiers were, unforgetable.  Our farm, right here was burned down but we’ve rebuilt and just like before it will last another hundred years or maybe two.”  I wished a long life to both.  

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I’ve often remarked the best part of travel is of course the scenery and discovery of culture and sites of historic importance.  However, what I remember best are the numerous really fine people with whom I exchanged perhaps not more than a few minutes of conversation.  Around the world I’ve had that experience and that what makes travel really satisfying, the discovery that indeed notwithstanding the constant bombardment of news depicting more examples of mankind’s folly and murderous rampages, for the most part given an opportunity to be kind that’s who you’ll meet from Japan to Portugal to Germany, by way of Singapore, Holland, Croatia and back through France.  

Here’s a case in point in the form of a thank you note to the comely, smiling Gendarme in the van below.  

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I was on my way to a hotel to spend my last night in France.  It was not unknown, in fact a well-known middle of the road chain (3*) apparently just about 20 minutes from Charles de Gaulle airport.   I was driving in from the north and in spite of checking the map time and again after I drove aimelessly for more than an hour then found myself back at the starting point off the main highway; I was more than just a little frazzled.   I pride myself on being good at finding my way, no matter where, and if I have a map too, well how can I miss?  But I kept wandering around in this area of hotels, warehouses  and semi-suburban area north of the airport.  Finally, I spotted a local Gendarmerie office and checking my pride in my hip pocket  I walked in and asked the policeman at the desk if he could direct me to my hotel.  There was a detailed wall map right there and he said, sure no problem, here let me point the way.   Oddly he soon lost his positive assurance, hmmm… well, now… hmmm…. here’s where your hotel is but how to get there? At that moment a young woman in uniform walks in.  He poses the question to her – do you know the hotel? Sure, it’s … blah blah … how do you get there from here?  Well, you go this way … no, wait… you should …  hmmm… come to think of it I’m not totally sure.  

I’m listening to this and wondering what the hey? But on the other hand somewhat relieved my pride isn’t all that much out of whack, if local cops can’t figure it out, why should I feel insecure about my inner directional radar?  After about five minutes of thinking it over she pipes up, “I know.  I don’t know how to explain but follow me and I’ll find it for you. It will be much simpler.”  Off we went and I was rather surprised it took at least 20 minutes to get there and sure enough the twists and turns we took would have made my finding it on my own a matter of luck and not due to good map reading.  And that’s how I found my hotel following my charming Gendarme.  

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I only wish I’d have been clever enough to get her name so I could send a note of appreciation once back in Canada, however, just in case, “Un grand et sincère merci du Canada.”  

And here’s to you until we meet in Belgium where the beer is really fine and (sacrilège) the french fries are more tasty than in France.   A bientôt!

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Bastogne and Waterloo

Some years ago I was heading for Amsterdam, that was the supposed plan but in my travels nothing is ever set in concrete – my journey started at scenic Aix-les-Bains, in the French Alps.  I’d been late getting started, exchanging long goodbyes with Danielle, my ‘cousine’, who while packing a gourmet lunch kept reminding me of this anecdote or that family event.  She’d been my childhood playmate and admittedly there was always something that would crop up, “Hey, Jeannôt do you remember … ???” It was pleasant reminiscing and yet I’m not much on farewells (they tend to depress me) so that I was trying to make my get-away without being overtly brusque.  Finally, some two hours late I was free to go and happily looking forward to the drive through unfamiliar territory.  The night before I’d looked over a good Michelin map (the very best in my opinion) of Western Europe and although a little over 1000 kliks I wasn’t daunted as in the past I’ve done that and even more in one day’s driving.  As well, I had decided, more or less, on a route that would take me through the rugged Ardennes Forest, a first for me, hence to Luxembourg.  Amsterdam was obviously now  out of the question.

Driving in Europe is a joy; the landscape at the very least scenic, often spectacular and its hard to avoid yet another historic site, a famous castle, a pivotal battlefield and such was the case when I pulled over to one of the convenient rest areas frequent along European roads (take note Canada!). Munching on a tasty ‘terrine de canard‘ sandwich, the roadmap spread out on the picnic table somewhere in the Ardennes Forest my eyes widened as I noticed Bastogne located not far ahead along my way.

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

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Any history buff, especially of WWII, will recognize Bastogne as the scene of a surprise attack when Hitler ordered one final and desperate advance with a powerful mechanized force to slice through the advancing Allied army, cut it in two and recapture the strategic port city of  Antwerp in Belgium.  The 1944 winter siege of Bastogne produced the celebrated response, “Nuts!” from General McCaullife when handed an offer to surrender.  Looking over the written answer the German commandant not understanding the colloquialism asked for a clarification: the emissary who delivered the note deemed it more apt to translate ‘nuts’ as “Go to hell!”  That aside proves yet again there’s always somebody who think they are more eloquent whereas in my opinion ‘nuts’ was crackling terse and to the point. Without further ado off I went to Bastogne and discovered much more than expected; an interesting museum, impressive monument to American casualties and a neat small town very much aware of its past importance.  

Below, the author of the celebrated quote, General McCaullife; incidentally he was in command only because the Commanding Office, General Middleton for that area happened to be elsewhere at a conference.  Such happenstance often leads to unexpected results, in this case fortuitous for the Allies.  

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Baptized by Winston Churchill as the Battle of the Bulge, it turned out to be the most costly in lives of any single battle fought by American troops during the entire war.  The fierce fighting took place during the week of Christmas, starting on the 20th and ending on the 27th with the collapse of the German offensive when their Panzer units ran out of fuel.  The outcome was disastrous to the Wehrmacht who not only lost men in their thousands, killed, wounded or taken prisoner, but a massive loss of vital equipment.  The victory certainly contributed to shorten the war as henceforth the Allied troops encountered a much weaker opposition than otherwise would have been the case.  So much for Hitler’s military genius, he’d have been better off heeding the advice of his professional army planning staff.  The man in charge of crafting the battle plans Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt never believed in its chances of success and stayed well clear behind the lines.  Clever? Or a chicken shit? 

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The impressive and I must say inspired star-shaped design of the huge monument is yet today yearly visited by thousands of American veterans who often bring family members along.   The pride evidenced is well-justified as it was a crucial victory achieved at a bloody cost of limb and life. 

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I spent a considerable time wandering around taking it all in and imagining how it was back then, the snow blowing, explosions, screams, soldiers on either side scared to hell but relentlessly attacking or desperately defending. 

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I’m confident one could make a case for studying the effect on a soldier’s state of mind depending on the uniform he wears.  No doubt if I didn’t know which side was on the right side of history I would have opted without a second thought for the cool almost theatrical German uniforms.  Come to think of it Hitler understood the value of propaganda, of massive show pieces such as the Nuremberg rallies, pump and circumstances, multitudes of flags, precision marching and smart uniforms.   If one is curious check out ‘Triumph of the Will’  (on YouTube) the impressive recording of the 1934 rally filmed by Leni Riefenstahl.  To this day she’s considered by many critics as the finest ever woman film director; notwithstanding the subject matter, high praise indeed. 

The museum was well designed with an interesting display of scenes replicating battle photos taken on the spot during the devastating event.  Lending depth-of-field, the background scenes were painted in, whereas the immediate foreground was recreated with authentic equipment, guns, military gear and life-like mannequins closely resembling the photos.  Well-lit the overall effect was realistic and informative.

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In contrast American Gi Joe garb was less than awe-inspiring.  Below a five star general, Dwight Eisenhower who payed a visit after the battle was won.  The displays were rather imaginatively set-up. 

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In the meantime the terrified populace huddled in their basements and prayed for an end to the mayhem.  War is hell!  I can’t think of three words that are more appropriate to describe any situation other than ‘I love you’. Now lolling about in the shade of one of the tanks that saved their present home, I wonder how much these young people knew about the town’s historic past.

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French fries are certainly well known but they don’t compare to Belgian ‘patates frites et merguez’.  If I say so, believe me, I’ve sampled them in every corner of France but in Belgium, straight from the frier, drenched in mayonnaise along with spicy merguez sausages it’s a treat.  As I was trying to avoid dribbling all over my  map to see where to next, another name jumped out – Waterloo! Certainly I couldn’t resist having a look at that battlefield, a pivotal result that surely changed European history for ever.  Imagine had Napoleon won? Well,  let me try. Today most of Western Europe would have been unified for two centuries instead of now slowly integrating into the European Union and the rest of the world would have been altered beyond imagination.  For one there surely not have been two world wars, at least not with the same participants on either side.  However, the Little Emperor lost and that was that, still it’s interesting to speculate, right?

73.  Napoleon at Battle of Waterloo 6-21-09

So off I went to see what there was to see and again so much more than I had expected.  The field of battle was much larger than I had imagined but on thinking back at what I’d learned in history class, the opposing armies were massive, even by modern standards.   I have throughout Western Europe stood on ancient battle fields, from Hannibal’s encounter with Roman legions, through several major wars, and yet I am always struck by how peaceful the countryside becomes after farmers reclaim their land and lovingly bring it back to its rightful purpose of growing life-giving food.  

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A fine museum displayed on a clever electronic board the day’s momentous ebbs and flows of battle and the resulting carnage.  I took the time and made the arduous climb up the man-made hill (there’s an oxymoron as every square inch of the huge mound was built by women carrying the earth on hods strapped to their backs,) to where the imposing lion roars a challenge towards France as a reminder of who won.  As I took each of the 229 steps up I  imagined the backbreaking labour but when were women not abused physically and economically?  The hill and monument were ordered by the King of the Netherlands to honour his son for bravery and sustaining a wound.  Sheesh, it wasn’t even fatal, imagine if he’s actually died on the field of battle? A hill twice as big and an entire pride of lions? 

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P1090508The battle as I was taught in a Canadian high school text-book was a brilliant victory by Wellington.  Years later I learned that in actual fact he was conceding defeat and surrounded by his personal guard was preparing to leave the field when the German Army under Gen. Blucher showed up at the crucial moment and swung the tide of battle against Napoleon, who was waiting for his own reserve army under Marshall Grouchy.  French history books make much of the fact Grouchy was a Royalist and who betrayed his people by refusing to join the battle.  Napoleon is famously quoted as repeating over and over, “Ou est Grouchy?”  I’ve a suspicion there must have been a few choice epithets included.  As I’ve been fortunate enough to read history books in both languages as adjudged from the perspective of winner and loser, I can safely say that almost always ‘revisionism’ rules the day.  Historians tend to have their own national bias, they are almost always subsidized and research grants accepted from by interested parties, inevitably, even in good faith, they wind up shading the unappetizing truth when such appears.  The probable best chance to get near the actual truth is to read accounts from a third and neutral party and still it would only be an approximate guess at how it really was on the ground at the time, there and then.

The modest monument to the German army is hidden in a copse, miles away and if you didn’t know what and where to look, it would be invisible.  See what I mean? 

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So there you have it.  I apologize for the poor quality of some, well if I’m going to be candid, most of the pics, but they were all taken with my digital camera from printed pics taken with my long serving Nikon.  Next time, I’ll provide much better visuals of Bruges and Ghent, I promise.  
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