A River Runs Through It: The Heartbeat of the Cities of Old World Europe

October 23rd, 2013 by Smithsonian Journeys

Hugh Agnew has been fascinated by Czech history and the Czech lands since first arriving in Prague as a graduate student in 1977. Now Professor of History and International Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., he has taught courses and published books and numerous articles about the Habsburg Empire, the Czech national identity, and Czech heritage and history. His insightful talks on past Smithsonian journeys through the Bohemian countryside, on the Elbe and Danube Rivers, and in Prague at Christmastime have made him a favorite with Smithsonian travelers.

***

This year I was trying to decide what makes the “Old World Europe” journey so special. To be sure, the rich history, cultural and artistic treasures, and vibrant modern life of the cities on the itinerary—Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava and Prague—definitely help make the journey so attractive and memorable. But each one of these destination cities also shares one important thing—to quote the title of Norman Maclean’s novel, “A River Runs through It. A river (sometimes the same river) is an inseparable part of the cityscape, history, culture, and present day life of each of these cities. Yet each city, in its own way, enjoys a unique relationship with its river, and the place of the river in the city’s life (and our experience of the city as visitors) differs in interesting ways from destination to destination. I set out to explore the relationship between these cities and their rivers.

The river Vistula (Wisła) flows through both Warsaw and Krakow, yet its personality in each place (like that of each city) is quite distinct. Warsaw’s Old Town and the major areas visited on the Old World Europe journey lie on the western side of the river. Here the Vistula, flowing through the broad Mazovian plain, has broadened out significantly, with wide riverbank areas and sand beaches that Warsovians enjoy on a sunny afternoon in Indian Summer. On the afternoon of our arrival in Warsaw I used my free time to take advantage of the reasonably fine-weather and walk across the bridge named for Prince Józef Poniatówski  to Warsaw’s suburb of Praga, in particular to the district known as the Saxon Meadow (Saska Kępa). Spared much of the wartime destruction that left 85% of Warsaw in ruins, this part of the city now has pleasant tree-lined streets with bistros, restaurants and shops. Warsaw’s relationship with its river is celebrated in the city’s coat of arms, featuring a mermaid armed with a sword and shield. The story goes that the mermaid (syrenka, or “little siren” in Polish) led the Polish prince Bolesław of Mazovia to the site of a fishing village on the river and ordered him to found a city there. From that beginning, sometime at the end of the thirteenth century, the city developed further. When Poland joined with Lithuania to form a Commonwealth of both nations, Warsaw’s location midway between the two capitals of Krakow and Vilnius led the Kings to make the city their new capital, a change that became permanent in 1596.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Krakow, the ancient capital of the Polish kingdom, also lies on the Vistula, but much closer to its sources in the Silesian Beskids near the border with the Czech Republic. As we looked down from the Wawel Castle, we could see that the river is narrower here than in Warsaw, and seems more intimately connected to the old city. Yet while the river is central to the current modern city of Krakow, the old part of town lies only on the northern, left bank of the river, and the associated district of Kazimierz seems in some ways closer to the water. Indeed it should, since Kazimierz was once an island in the Vistula, as recalled by the name of the street that marks one of its boundaries, Starowisłna (Old Vistula) street. City development gradually filled in the former branches of the river, leaving only memories behind. A modest walk along Starowisłna from Krakow Old Town led a group of us to the Kazimierz district for a pleasant evening meal in one of its many restaurants.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

In contrast to the two Polish capitals, Budapest is both divided and joined right through its center by the river Danube—a situation that is commemorated in the coat of arms adopted by the united city in 1873. The river is an intimate part of the cityscape, and the Margaret Island in the river one of its favorite playgrounds. Yet it is still a broad and formidable power, bridged permanently only in 1848 by the suspension bridge designed by Adam Clark and financed by the patriotic Count István Széchenyi.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge remains one of the landmarks the visitor will use for orientation purposes, and an impressive engineering feat. So many of the city’s significant buildings are along the riverbanks that a tourist river cruise after dark is a wonderful way to enjoy the sights.  But the best place to appreciate the position of the Danube in the life of Budapest is from the summit of Gellert Hill, where we stood on a sunny morning after the previous day’s cold rain, and looked along both the Buda and Pest sides. We could see such landmarks as the Royal Castle and the spire of Matthias Church, the Houses of Parliament, St. Stephen’s Basilica and other buildings of Pest, and the Chain Bridge providing a connection between them. Walking or riding across the Chain Bridge was part of our enjoyment of the life of Budapest.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Bratislava, too, was once the capital of Hungary—at least that part controlled by the Habsburgs while the Ottoman Turks ruled over most of the rest of the kingdom. Now it is the capital of Slovakia, which joined the ranks of independent states at the beginning of 1993. Here, too, the Danube, navigable for its entire length from Bavaria to the Black Sea, is an important part of the city.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Gazing down to the three countries corner from the castle hill, we could see that the Danube is a thoroughfare for goods and visitors on the way between Vienna and Budapest, constantly busy with the ebb and flow of working and pleasure craft. Yet although the Petržalka district of Bratislava (joined to the new state of Czechoslovakia in 1919 after the First World War) lies on the southern, right bank of the river, the old town and Bratislava Castle lie only on the northern, left bank. Several bridges join the two sides of the river at Bratislava, the most striking being the assymetrical suspension bridge, the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising (also simply called the “new bridge”). Built between 1968 and 1972 to connect Petržalka with the Old Town, the bridge destroyed most of the old Jewish quarter of Bratislava, including a moorish style Neolog synagogue (the Orthdox synagogue had been destroyed already in 1961). The bridge juxtaposes the old represented by the castle and the palaces of Austro-Hungarian nobility on the left bank with the new of a densely settled residential district, dominated by the concrete panel apartment blocs built beginning in the 1970s by the Czechoslovak regime.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

The Danube is inseparably linked with another Old World Europe destination, Vienna, thanks to the immortal music of Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz.” But (as the Viennese like to say) not only is the Danube seldom blue, depending on the weather, but it is not as central to the cityscape of the old part of Vienna as it is in Budapest. True, a canal drawn down from the main course of the river provided the Habsburgs with a moat around their residence city and castle in Vienna, but the river is essential really to the modern, Danube City section of Vienna with its soaring skyscrapers housing the headquarters of international organizations. There too are the river islands with their sandy beaches, where the Viennese can join the Warsovians in some late-summer sunbathing, but the fact remains that the river is more part of the picture frame of Vienna than it is the heart of the picture.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

But for the final city of the Old World Europe journey, the river is the central heart of the experience. Flowing into Prague from the south, the Vltava (or Moldau, to use the German name more familiar still to most foreigners) makes a large S-curve as it flows through Prague before it continues north towards the Elbe and eventually the North Sea. Immortalized in Bedřich Smetana’s tone-poem “Má Vlast” (My Homeland), it is impossible to remove it from my experience of and feelings about Prague. The Vltava and its bridges knit together the towns of Prague into the great metropolis that is the Czech Republic’s capital. The oldest, and the one most familiar to foreign visitors, is the Charles Bridge, built in the fourteenth century to replace an earlier structure destroyed by floods.  Now the second oldest bridge in Central Europe—after the one across the Danube at Regensburg—the Charles Bridge is a link (or perhaps, as we jostled for space with other visitors crowding along its length during the height of the season, rather an obstacle course!) between the historic Old and New Towns of Prague and the Castle, Castle Town, and Lesser Quarter.

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

Photograph by Hugh Agnew

If Budapest and Vienna, the two ambitious former capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, impress us as visitors with their almost imperial scale—and with impressive riverscapes in keeping with that scale—the impact Prague makes is somehow different. Though a proud royal capital in its own right, to me Prague’s scale is smaller, more intimate, even (dare one say it?) provincial. Yet every city of the Old World Europe journey has its intimate and small-scale moments for us to enjoy, along with the grandiose relics of the past and the bustling present-day life of a modern European metropolis. And a unique part of all those experiences, making these cities what they are, are the rivers that run through them.

***

To learn more about our Old World Europe tour, click here.

Auf den Flűgeln der Musik – On the Wings of Music

October 22nd, 2013 by Smithsonian Journeys

35_thumbnailUrsula Rehn Wolfman is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Born in Steinfeld, Austria, Ursula was educated in Germany, England, France, and the United States. As an independent scholar who formerly worked with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, her particular field of interest is the relationship between the arts, literature, painting/sculpture, architecture, and music. She has lectured extensively in the U.S. and abroad on French literature and its relationship with the arts. She received the Diplome Superieur from the Sorbonne in Paris and completed her graduate studies in the United States at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with a doctorate in French literature and philosophy and a minor in art history. Ursula has led tours for the Smithsonian throughout Europe.

***

The just-concluded Smithsonian Journeys Tour ‘Symphony on the Danube’ of September 2013, started in Krakow, Poland, traversed the Czech Republic to Prague and continued along the Danube from Passau to Melk, to Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest — its regions and cities showcases some of the greatest European architecture, art and music. Our journey had a musical emphasis, as its title suggests, and musical performances were scheduled throughout the tour, from Chopin’s music in Krakow, to Dvořák’s and Smetana’s in Prague, to recitals on the great organs in Passau and Melk, to Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Strauss compositions in Vienna, and Hungarian gypsy music in Budapest. For me, though, it is always magical Prague, the city of a thousand spires, which leaves the most memorable musical impressions.

Even in Mozart’s time, Bohemia and its capital, Prague, were considered the ‘conservatory of music’ with its exceptionally well-trained musicians, and also with a population profoundly appreciative of Mozart’s genius — very different from Vienna, where Mozart’s genius was not always understood. Mozart’s ‘beloved Prague citizens’ adored his Magic Flute and his Marriage of Figaro. His ‘Don Giovanni’ premiered in Prague’s Estate Theatre, and after his death in 1791, Mozart’s Requiem saw its first performance in St. Nicholas Church in the Mala Strana district (Lesser Town) below the Hrádčany Castle.

Architecturally, with its many Baroque churches, Prague provides an exceptional visual and acoustic background for many of the greatest compositions of the Baroque and Classical periods. These churches, built as basilicas with a central rotunda and soaring, painted heavens with figures of saints dramatically reaching into space, have perfect acoustics, which differ from those experienced in particular by American audiences, who are more familiar with acoustics in their Gothic-style churches or modern concert halls. Baroque-style churches do not exist in America. On my European tours, I always encourage our Smithsonian travelers to experience music of the period performed in buildings of the period.

In Prague, as in Eastern Europe in general, Baroque organs, many still in their original, unaltered state after these many centuries, are tuned to the principals of Baroque music, i.e., almost one octave lower than modern organs. This requires accompanying instruments also to be tuned to the same pitch, resulting in a warm, breathy sound – quite different from what we usually hear elsewhere. The concert we attended in St. Nicholas Church featured Jan Kalfus on the Baroque organ and mezzosoprano Yvona Škvárová, soloist of the National Theatre. The program started with two compositions of the Baroque era, J. S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-Minor, followed by Händel’s Arias from Xerxes, and Semele — with organ and voice soaring in this perfect architectural space –reminding us of the importance of the human voice which found new expressions in Bach’s and Händel’s oratorios. A selection of biblical songs by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Antonin Dvořák concluded this extraordinary concert, which left us all transported “on the wings of music”.

Another amazing musical experience took place in Prague’s Lobkowicz Palace, where we first visited the extraordinary collection of the Princes Lobkowicz, which was restored to the current Prince Lobkowicz family after the fall of communism.   The Beethoven Room, one of the most interesting parts of the collection, has period instruments on view, as well as the original scores of Beethoven’s Third Symphony — initially dedicated to Napoleon, but changed in honor of an ancestor of the current Prince Lobkowicz, after Napoleon’s advance and subjugation of Eastern Europe — and Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies and Mozart’s re-orchestration of Händel’s Messiah in Mozart’s own hand.

Prince Lobkowicz personally greeted us before the ensuing concert in one of the Baroque Halls of his Palace. A superb quartet played classical and contemporary music. One of the most moving pieces was Antonin Dvořák’s Largo from his New World Symphony, musically connecting Old Europe and the New World represented by our Smithsonian travelers. For all of us it was one of the highlights of our travels — on the Danube and “on the wings of music”.

Antonin Dvořák’s Largo. Video courtesy of Howard Whittle.

***

To learn more about our Symphony on the Blue Danube: A Classical Music Cruise click here!

A Parallel Ireland

August 28th, 2013 by Smithsonian Journeys

Kate Chadbourne holds a Ph.D. in Celtic Languages and Literatures from Harvard University where she currently teaches courses in Irish language and folklore. As a visiting scholar she has spent a year each at the University of Ulster, University College Swansea, and University College Cork. Dr. Chadbourne’s research and writing focuses on Irish and Celtic life, including essays about the Celtic Otherworld, the Irish harp, the history of Irish storytelling, the fairy tradition of Donegal, and various themes in the medieval literature of Ireland and Wales.  Like Cenn Faelad, a figure in early Irish literature, Kate lives at the crossroads of scholarship and art.  She performs regularly as a singer, musician and storyteller, and has published two poetry chapbooks:  The Harp-Boat, a collection about her father, a Maine lobsterman, and in 2011, Brigit’s Woven World & other poems of Ireland.

***

Come to Ireland and you’ll see images you’ve dreamed of for years:  thatched cottages, castles on hill-tops, colorful Georgian doors in Dublin. You will wander through the stately homes of the Anglo-Irish, and you will clamber over the stones of 6th century monastic foundations, still as complex and fascinating today as they must have been in their heyday. We come to Ireland to stand on the ground where great things happened, where heroic or ingenious men and women lived, worked, and made history. Happily, we find all of that and it delights, intrigues, and even changes us.  But we find something else sharing the same earth with the history and culture:  a parallel kingdom that is just as vital, enticing, and essential. That is, the Ireland of animals!

We rolled past fields salted with sheep, and we peered over hedges into pastures where calves leaned into their mothers’ warm sides. There were sparrows and egrets, ponies and wolfhounds, European robins and a billion magpies. There were pairs of Connemara donkeys sheltering by stone walls as rain spit sideways but they – undaunted – seemed too deep in conversation to notice the weather. Leigheas gach brón an comhrá, as they say. The cure for every sorrow is conversation.

Off the bus, though, we found ourselves occasionally at eye-level with Ireland’s creatures. On our first full day in Dublin, we “met” the swans on St. Stephen’s Green and got close enough to admire the cygnets in their furry plumage. Like a group of bored teenagers, they flopped down on the walkway to demonstrate their lack of interest. Not so their parents who hissed and swiveled serpentine necks toward the bare legs of a fellow traveler. The rest of us deemed it wise to take a different path.  039-515

I suppose we weren’t surprised to see swans as they figure rather prominently in Irish stories of transformation. The most famous of these is “The Children of Lir,” in which a king’s unlucky progeny were transformed into swans by their jealous stepmother and forced to spend 900 years in swan-shape. What makes this somehow more unearthly is that they retained the power of human speech. Thinking of that tale, I half expected these city swans to pipe up in their best Dublin accent, “Stop yer gawking! Clear off the path, ya miserable articles!”

Some of our encounters with animals were quiet – so quiet you could nearly overlook them. Over a lunch of fresh fish at Tí Joe Watty’s on Inismór, the largest of the Aran Islands, I noticed this polite creature sitting in the doorway. She had the run of the beer garden, but her welcome stopped at the door. She gazed at us steadily, invoking the proverb, Tá cead ag an chat amharc ar an rí, “The cat has permission to look at the king.” In this case, however, it isn’t we who were royal. That honor, I’m sure, belonged to the fish on our plates!

191515

Animals seem to live much closer to human beings and houses in Ireland. Down the road from Tí Joe Watty’s, we spied this character sauntering round the doorstep, a born diplomat if ever there were one:

206-515

And there across the road was his neighbor who took some time off gazing at his ruined church to allow us to rub his cheek and coo at him until he nearly smiled:

196-515

He seemed to embody another proverb, one that offers us hope if we can just hang on.  Mair, a chapaill, agus gheobhaidh tú féar. Live, horse, and you will get grass. Perhaps he was a retired jaunting car horse and distant cousin to Robert (yes, that’s his real name), the good-natured fellow who pulled our car through beautiful Killarney National Park and all the way to Lough Leane?

358-515

But truly, of all the creatures we encountered, the most remarkable were certainly the sheepdogs we saw on the Ring of Kerry in the employ of shepherd Brendan Ferris. Trained to respond to different whistle pitches and even to the softest verbal command, these dogs displayed an enviable eagerness for their work along and great cleverness! For the dog lovers among us, this was one of the highlights of the trip. Here we got a peek into the mysterious and wonderful intersection between human and animal worlds – a shared world of mutual affection, productivity, and delight.

These meetings with animals rounded out the tour and brought us back to earth after the splendors of Trinity, Muckross House, and Kilkenny Castle. Here we saw Ireland on a creaturely scale, and the country is warmer and richer for that. Long may they bray, squawk, peck, neigh, and bark.   Beannachtaí orthu go léir: Blessings on all of them!

***

To learn more about our Emerald Isle trip click here.

Costa Rica’s Natural Heritage

June 19th, 2013 by Smithsonian Journeys

James Karr, Smithsonian Study LeaderSmithsonian Study Leader Jim Karr is professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Washington, Seattle, specializing in tropical ecology, ornithology, water resources, and environmental policy. He also served as deputy director of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for four years in the 1980s. On his most recent trip with Smithsonian Journeys, he guided a group to some of his favorite locations in Costa Rica. Below is the second of two posts about the trip. Smithsonian Study Leader Jim Karr is professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Washington, Seattle, specializing in tropical ecology, ornithology, water resources, and environmental policy. He also served as deputy director of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for four years in the 1980s. On his most recent trip with Smithsonian Journeys, he guided a group to some of his favorite locations in Costa Rica. Below is the second of two posts about the trip.

***

A Smithsonian Journeys expedition to Costa Rica is like a birthday party: you know you’ll get gifts, but you don’t know what. You can guess some gifts from the itinerary, but the best ones are the surprises—the unexpected encounters, the memorable experiences.

People. The camaraderie of our groups is always a gift: It’s a pleasure to meet travelers, who, no matter what their backgrounds and reasons for choosing a Smithsonian trip, inevitably form a cohesive and communal group. The enthusiasm of fellow travelers is contagious and enriches all of us. But nothing matches the welcoming smiles and friendliness of the Costa Ricans themselves.

Visits to a local school are a highlight of our travels in Costa Rica.

Visits to a local school are a highlight of our travels in Costa Rica.

Places. Two volcanoes have star billing on our Costa Rican itinerary, yet both can be hard to see as clouds swirl up their slopes and around their peaks. But in February 2013, we had clear skies from horizon to horizon and got a spectacular view inside the caldera of Poas Volcano.  This was the first time in eight trips that I saw Poas in full splendor. Wow! What a gift!

Fog characteristic of cloud forests often partially or, as in this case, completed obscures the volcanic caldera of Poas Volcano only a few hundred feet away. March 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Fog characteristic of cloud forests often partially or, as in this case, completed obscures the volcanic caldera of Poas Volcano only a few hundred feet away. March 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Poas Volcano caldera unobscured by clouds and fog. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Poas Volcano caldera unobscured by clouds and fog. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

As we travel, we crisscross the Continental Divide, the ridgeline splitting rainfall flowing to the Caribbean from rain flowing to the Pacific. The scenery is magnificent, with forests—often protected in national parks and reserves—giving way to cattle ranches and farms growing bananas, plantain, pineapple, coffee, sugar cane, mangos, and more. The last days of our trip, we walk a sheltered Pacific Coast beach, feeling relaxed, meditative.

A special dinner on the beach during our last night at the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. March 232, 2013. Photo by Edward Getley.

A special dinner on the beach during our last night at the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. March 232, 2013. Photo by Edward Getley.

Plants and Animals. The multicolored splendor of flowering trees in the tropics is rarely matched in any temperate forest. And when the fruits ripen, we find many mammals and birds lured to the fruiting tree. White-faced and howler monkey troops travel along treetop highways, seeking food, defending territories, and watching over their young.

A curious white-faced monkey encountered during a boat trip on the Tempisque River. March 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

A curious white-faced monkey encountered during a boat trip on the Tempisque River. March 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Our daily bird walks usually produce a group list of 140 to 160 species. The resplendent quetzal, a species considered one of the world’s most beautiful birds, is a must-see for many traveling with us, and we are often lucky enough to find one. Sometimes, we’ll also spot the tiny six-inch ferruginous pygmy owl, which hunts insects at dawn and dusk, and hummingbirds feeding their young in the nest.

A ferruginous pygmy owl forages in the trees on the grounds of the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. February 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr

A ferruginous pygmy owl forages in the trees on the grounds of the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. February 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr

We rarely see snakes, but the five-to-six-inch orange-kneed tarantula sometimes startles us.

An orange-kneed tarantula observed on a night walk at Monteverde. March 21, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

An orange-kneed tarantula observed on a night walk at Monteverde. March 21, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

 

Experiences. Some of our most memorable events are serendipitous. Once, a restaurant lunch stop led to an invitation to visit a server’s relative, who was harvesting a local palm wine, and  we were treated to an impromptu wine tasting.

A Costa Rican farmer and his son filter and bottle palm wine collected from the trunks of palm trees. March 31, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

A Costa Rican farmer and his son filter and bottle palm wine collected from the trunks of palm trees. March 31, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Another time, our tour director invited us to his family home, where the garden overflowed with 800 species of orchids. We met his family,  including his grandfather, who, at more than 100 years of age, tends the orchids every day.

Orchid expert and tour director Randall Obsney (right) with his parents and grandfather at the family home and orchid garden. February 15, 2013, Photo by Jim Karr.

Orchid expert and tour director Randall Obsney (right) with his parents and grandfather at the family home and orchid garden. February 15, 2013, Photo by Jim Karr.

Then, pausing in a shelter to avoid an afternoon downpour, we found a gift of artwork: motorbike tires crafted into toucans!

Toucan art crafted from a motorbike tire. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Toucan art crafted from a motorbike tire. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

 

Each trip gives new gifts to everyone, not least of which is the chance to share them with fellow Smithsonian Journeys travelers.

***

To learn more about out our Costa Rica’s Natural Treasures tour click here.

From Sarlat to Saumur

June 15th, 2013 by Smithsonian Journeys

johnsweetsJohn Sweets is Professor Emeritus of History, specializing in the Vichy France era, the French Resistance, and occupied France. He has taught 19th and 20th century European history at the University of Kansas, University College, Dublin (Ireland), The School of International Studies (Fort Bragg, NC), and at the Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon (France).

John led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a journey of France Through the Ages.

***

Following three days of a fascinating visit in the French Perigord, the Smithsonian travelers enjoyed a final tasty breakfast buffet in the beautiful yellow-limestone city of Sarlat, before boarding the bus for a day-long trip through south-central France to the Loire Valley, where their destination would be Saumur, formerly a Protestant stronghold in the 17th century until Louis XIV’s revocation of Henri IV’s Edict of Nantes.  Along the way, in addition to viewing the beautiful scenery as the countryside changed from mountains to rolling hills to the vineyards and levees along the Loire, the trip was broken by one dramatic and moving visit, a surprising lunch break, and several history-laden photo stops.

The yellow limestone of Sarlat's Old Town. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

The yellow limestone of Sarlat’s Old Town. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

The Chateau of Saumur overlooks the Loire River. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.
The Chateau of Saumur overlooks the Loire River. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

The first stop was at the martyred town of Oradour-sur-Glane, where four days after the start of the D-Day Landings in Normandy, the German SS Division Das Reich sent elements of the Der Fuhrer regiment to destroy the little town of Oradour and murder 642 of its residents, approximately one-half of the pre-World War II population. Following the war, the residents of the town decided to keep the town just as it had been left by the Nazis as a memorial to commemorate the cost of the war and occupation to the country. The travelers were given a sense of what a French village of the late 1930s looked like, as tracks from the tramway to Limoges were preserved and the remains of houses were marked with the professions of their former owners, including some professions, such as sabotier (or wooden clog maker), that disappeared in the years following the war. The remains of the village church and the cemetery provided the most emotional memories of our visit. Family members of those killed on June 10, 1944 have left photographic images of their loved ones on top of family grave stones and below the memorial wall in the cemetery. The travelers left the martyred village after an emotional visit with a sensation of having walked on “sacred” ground.

Memorial plaque in tribute to four school girls massacred at Oradour-sur-Glane. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Memorial plaque in tribute to four school girls massacred at Oradour-sur-Glane. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Burned out car, left by Germans at Oradour-sur-Glane. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Burned out car, left by Germans at Oradour-sur-Glane. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Our next stop provided a much lighter moment and a very surprising discovery in the heart of France. Lunch was at La Petite Fountain, a buffet style salad bar, located in a former medieval structure for grain storage. The building has been converted into a restaurant by a charming young couple from Scotland, whose restaurant also serves as a cultural center for the fairly substantial British community who live in the area and come into town on weekends to hear Irish and Scottish music at the bar and restaurant. After lunch we continued to the north with a detour to drive through the 17th-century planned community of Richelieu, named for the famous Cardinal Richelieu, chief councilor to Louis XIII. Our bus driver, Laurent, miraculously steered the bus safely between the walls of the narrow, arched entry and exit to the town and received well-deserved applause from the travelers, who by that time had grown accustomed to his virtuosity behind the steering wheel.

Smithsonian travelers arrive at La Petite Fontaine in Le Dorat. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Smithsonian travelers arrive at La Petite Fontaine in Le Dorat. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Central square in Richelieu. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Central square in Richelieu. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

Before reaching our destination at Saumur, we made one final photo stop at Chinon on the Vienne River, where Joan of Arc had her first meeting with the Dauphin, soon to become Charles VII, King of France, after she led the French Army that escorted him to Reims in July 1429 for his coronation. The travelers had a beautiful view of the restored castle from the banks of the Vienne. From there we made our way to the banks of the Loire, crossing the river on a bridge with a beautiful view of the Chateau of Saumur, which to our surprise we discovered rising above the city just behind the hotel Anne d’Anjou, which was to be our base of operations for the next few days.

The Chateau of Chinon overlooks the Vienne River. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

The Chateau of Chinon overlooks the Vienne River. Photo courtesy of John Sweets.

***

Read more about upcoming departures of our France Through the Ages tour here.