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Vimy 2017 Day 8

Day 8 Les Enfants. Even though I am still tired and could have stayed in bed a whole lot longer, I am not a complete zombie and have some vague human semblance. Since we roll out at later time today, maybe that extra hour of sleep helped. Who knows. In any case, I feel better. Maybe it’s because with a better wifi connection, I was able to FaceTime my family last night. As much fun as we’re having gallivanting around Northern Europe, I do miss them.

Okay, we’re on the bus now, making our way to Juno Beach. The whole group was enchanted with the town of Honfleur. What a gorgeous place! It’s almost so picturesque and idyllic that it you can mistake it for fake; Ms. Caza thinks it’s a place you could fall in love in. We walked along the harbourfront to St. Catherine’s Church, which had such an amazing architecture. Except for the foundation, the whole church was made of wood, which is very unusual. It’s shaped like an inverted ship and the inside was breathtaking. I wish we had more time to take it in.

St. Catherine Church, Honfleur, April 2017.

St. Catherine Church, Honfleur, April 2017.

Afterwards we broke up for a little bit and gave the kids a chance to wander around. I did grab some local honey outside the church in the farmers market and then spent most of my time taking pictures. It is certainly a photographers delight. On our way back to the bus, Jason took us through the oldest part of the town and it was amazing. The authentic, narrow cobblestone streets with the gutter running down the middle was something to see. You could tell the buildings were original by their construction and the aging of the wood. I’m glad we went into the town and I would definitely go back some day.

Honfleur, April 2017.

Vimy group, Honfleur, April 2017.

So we are now on the road to the city of Paris…the kids are all excited! Our visit to Normandy was was fantastic, and filled with many new things. The first stop was at the Juno Beach Centre in Courselles-sur-Mer. It’s a neat place, but I’ve seen it twice before, so I went through as quickly as possible. I did spend some time in the gift shop, as I always get the boys a shirt. I was a little challenging trying to find them something, especially Noah, since they really didn’t have any kids sizes. From there it was outside to take a look at the German bunkers and the beach.

The area where the centre is located is at Mike Red Sector, which was assaulted by the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, with the support of tanks from the 1st Hussars. In the past there was one bunker, which you couldn’t see much of due to restricted access. In 2014, they began excavation on another bunker, which is now open to the public. It was really interesting to walk through. The beach was okay, though the tide was up and there was not much to see.

From the Juno Beach Centre we took a short bus ride 5 minutes to the east to Bernieres-sur-Mer. There we had a short walk along the sea wall on what was once Nan White Sector. Assaulted by troops from the Queen’s Own Rifles, this area saw the most intense fighting on June 6, with the QOR taking heavy casualties to capture the beach. The area features a German bunker on the east side of the sector and “Canada House” on the west. Canada House was the first structure captured by Allied troops on D-Day.

Nan White Sector, Bernieres, April 2017.

Canada House, Bernieres, April 2017.

St. Pats group, April 2017.

We jumped on the bus for another short ride east again to St. Aubin-sur-Mer, site of Nan Red Sector. On D-Day, troops from New Brunswick’s North Shore Regiment landed there. Our visit was primarily based on our need to satisfy our gastric desires. We did find some places to eat, but there was also history to see as well. Just like Bernieres, there is a German bunker on the beach, this one featuring a 50mm anti-tank gun. According to the plaque, it knocked out several tanks from the Fort Garry Horse before other tanks silenced it.

We had been to Bernieres on both previous trips, but never to St. Aubin. What a pretty little town! There were many picturesque buildings along the promenade and in the town. Before and after we ate, I spent a lot of time taking pictures and shooting video. The tide was going out, so there was a lot of room on the beach to wander. I would definitely go back in a heartbeat, maybe with more time to look around. That holds true for the whole Juno Beach area.

Nan Red Sector, St. Aubin, April 2017.

It’s almost 2300 and the end of a long day. Sometimes you forget how much of a whirlwind these EF Tours can be. This morning we were in Normandy, and now we’re in Paris. Our hotel is some 50km from downtown Paris, but it’s in a very nice area near Disneyland. After our arrival, we quickly went to our rooms and headed over to a nearby mall to try and grab a bite to eat. While the stores were closed, the restaurants were quite busy and there was a lot of options to chose from. It was a nice way to end the evening.

Anyway, I need to go check on the kids before turning in myself. We have a very busy day tomorrow; the commute, Versailles, dinner and a river cruise. I’m sure there will be a lot to talk about in the next post. Until then…

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Posted by on April 12, 2017 in History, Travel


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Vimy 2017 Day 4

Oy vey. It’s a sleepy morning today kids. I did not have a very good sleep last night. I’m not sure how much sleep I actually got, but it wasn’t much. I really feel like I’m running on fumes. In any case, I’m a big boy, so I’ll have to suck it up and get in my rear in gear. Today we’re leaving our hotel and heading first to Anne Frank House for a short visit. I’ll check in again once we’re back on the bus.

Amsterdam selfies, April 2017.

Amsterdam canal, April 2017.

Okay, so we’re back on the bus. A visit to the Anne Frank House is something one does not easily forget. It certainly puts a real human face on the price of conflict and in particular hatred. All of the kids are familiar with the story of Anne Frank and they were all very quiet as they left. No one should ever forget war, but particularly instances of genocide than have left an indelible mark on history. Fittingly, there’s a beautiful church next to Anne Frank House, the Westerkerk. It would have been nice to go inside and say a little prayer; the incongruity wasn’t lost on me. A Catholic, in a Dutch Reform Church praying for those lost in the Holocaust.

Westerkerk, April 2017.

So we’re on the road now, heading toward Belgium and the Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetery outside of Passchendaele. I guess it has been and will be an emotional day for the kids. First Anne Frank, and now their first cemetery. Tyne Cot is a very large cemetery, larger than most. Many of the Commonwealth cemeteries from WWI were created were the men were initially buried, so there are many small cemeteries scattered around a wide area. This is what makes Tyne Cot and it’s 11,000 burials so unique.

In addition to the graves, there are many names (over 33,000 in fact) recognized on the Tyne Cot Memorial. The Commonwealth Graves Commission, which oversees all of these cemeteries, originally intended the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres to hold the names of all the missing in the area. Unfortunately, when they began to add the names, they realized it would not be able to contain the vast number of names of the missing. They used an arbitrary cut-off date of August 15, 1917; everyone after that date would be remembered at a memorial at the Tyne Cot Cemetery.

After a stop for lunch, we are back on the road. I feel much better now that I have some food in my belly. You won’t believe where some of the kids ate at. We’re currently passing through the Belgian city of Antwerp. I really wish I could see more of Belgium; it looks like such a beautiful country. I love the countryside, with the rolling hills, farms and gorgeous scenery. It will take us another 1.5 hours to reach Tyne Cot, so I think I’ll just sit back and enjoy the view.

McDoanld’s, Belgian-Dutch border, April 2017.

Whew, back on the bus. What a busy last few hours of the day. The visit to Tyne Cot was solemn and everything we expected. I think it made a big impression on the kids, none whom I imagine have ever been to a military cemetery. After a brief prayer service, the students visited the graves of their assigned soldiers. I did not visit a specific grave, but rather followed some of the students as they walked around the cemetery.

Tyne Cot prayer service, April 2017.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, April 2017.

Grave of Private McMillan, 52nd Battalion, April 2017.

From there, we took a short 10 minute ride into Ypres. With all of the groups visiting the area (there are 250+ EF groups expected to be at Vimy alone), we had to park outside of the city centre and walk in through the Menin Gate. I’ve already mentioned that I love the city of Ypres as it such a beautiful place. Even though much of it was destroyed during WWI, and was rebuilt, it is still breathtaking. I think many of the kids actually gasped when they got to the main square, the Grote Market and saw the Cloth Hall.

Everyone had just over an hour to walk around and explore, which unfortunately is nowhere near enough to see the city. I grabbed some frites, the national food of Belgium, just to say that I did. Afterwards, I joined the hordes of Canadians who descended on the chocolate stores to pick up some genuine Belgian product. The Leonidas Store had a “Canadian” special, which I partook in like all the other sheep. Twenty Euro got me a bag full of chocolate and since I’m an adult, a neat bottle of beer (I’m not much of a drinker, but the bottle was certainly a collectable).

After we reconvened, albeit a bit late, we headed to the Menin Gate for the Last Post Ceremony. There were a lot of people, mainly due to all the tourist groups in the city. Since we needed to be on the other side of the gate, we hiked around to the eastern side. We didn’t have the best spot to see the ceremony, but we were all glad that we did. There was an honour guard from the Queen’s Own Rifles, which added a Canadian flare to this solemn event which takes place everyday at 2000. I’ll post some video once I get back home.

Cloth Hall, April 2017.

    Menin Gate, April 2017.

Alright, it’s now 2300 and we’re preparing for bed. It was a late check in after the Menin Gate Ceremony and dinner at the hotel in Lille, France. Tomorrow is the big day and a long day. We need to leave the hotel by 0745 and arrive by 0900. Today was very warm and tomorrow’s supposed to be hotter, upwards of 22C! I think all might melt..thankfully I have a hat to protect my shiny dome and I believe we have enough sunscreen to go around. On that note, I better turn it as I have to be up very early. There will be lots of news from the ceremony. Until then…

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Posted by on April 8, 2017 in History, Travel


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Europe 2014 Day 7

Day 7 is calm and very foggy. Daylight gives us a much better impression of the chateau and its grounds…stunning! I would definitely come back here if given the opportunity. Before breakfast I had a chance to walk around a bit and it was very beautiful with the fog, trees and the small waterfall. I’m interested to see what it is like when the fog lifts. We are really in the heart of Normandy and it is so pretty and idilic here.

So we are about to leave for the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, which is literally five minutes away. We are so close to the beaches it is amazing. This should be a great day of remembering, exploring and discovery.

We’re back on the bus now, making our way past Arromanches toward the American cemetery behind Omaha beach. Beny was probably the most touching yet, mostly because we had a lot of time to look around. The cemetery holds the remains of over of 2000 Canadians who were killed on or in the weeks after D-Day. It also has the unfortunately distinction of having the most number of brothers buried in any Commonwealth cemetery at 9 (but I counted 11).

For the soldier visits, I gave our students all the sets of brothers to research. Jessica, Brenna and I had the 3 Westlake brothers of Toronto, who were killed serving with the Queen’s Own Rifles and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. Thomas and Alfred, who were with the Queen’s Own, are buried side by side in the cemetery.

Rflm A. Westlake, March 2014.

Rflm. A. Westlake, March 2014.

Rflm. T. Westlake, March 2014.

Rflm. T. Westlake, March 2014.

Pte. G. Westlake, March 2014.

Pte. G. Westlake, March 2014.

I spent the rest of the time wandering around, reading the headstones and inscriptions. The morning fog provided a surreal atmosphere in the cemetery. As a Canadian I am filled with with pride and honour at the sacrifice of our young men all those years ago. This visit really hit me hard, and as a parent it ripped my heart out to read the inscriptions from mothers and fathers to their children. I cannot even fathom losing one of my boys.

The American cemetery at Omaha beach was an interesting visit. There are over 9,000 US fallen at this site overlooking the beach and is quite massive. I’d never been to an American cemetery before and it has a totally different atmosphere and feel. Even the headstones are very different, though I think that the inscriptions at Commonwealth cemeteries add more of a personal touch.

Omaha Beach Cemetery, March 2014.

Omaha Beach Cemetery, March 2014.

So we’re heading back east now, on our way to Arromanches. This was where Gold Beach was located, along with the British part of the Mulberry Harbour. There is a big museum there with many static outdoor displays of military equipment. This vistas from the cliffs are quite beautiful!

Well, so much for the vistas in Arromanches! The fog is just beginning to lift, so it was hard to see much on the beach. The tide was much farther out than when we were here in 2012, so I was able to walk right down to the Mulberry pieces lying in the sand. It was very neat to be that close.

Mulberry Harbour remains, March 2014.

Mulberry Harbour remains, March 2014.

Lunch was good, though painfully slow. I had waffles with chocolate, white chocolate and whipped cream, while Jo-Anne had crepes. Too bad it took an hour and a half of the two hours we had in the town. I would have liked a little more time to look around and take pictures. Anyway, we’re back on the bus headed toward the Juno Beach Centre.

The visit to the Juno Beach Centre was great, even though I had been there before. Afterwards, we had a little time to look around the on beach, which is officially know as Mike Red Sector, Juno Beach. We then hopped on the bus for the short ride east to Bernieres-sur-Mer. At this location, Nan White Sector, Toronto’s Queen’s Own Rifles landed on June 6. In a matter of 10 minutes the battalion suffered nearly 50% casualties in the dash across the beach. There is a German bunker preserved there and it really gives the students an idea of how far the soldiers had to run to get off the beach.

German bunker at Nan White Sector, Juno Beach, March 2014.

German bunker at Nan White Sector, Juno Beach, March 2014.

We are now on our way back to the chateau; if it wasn’t for the fog it would have been a fantastic day. It was so warm with very little wind and the tides were very low. Dinner will be at 7, so that will give us a little bit of time to look around the grounds and explore the area. I’m not sure what is on the menu for dinner, but I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Well I’m just about out of energy and I think it’s time for bed. Even though we didn’t do a lot of walking, it was certainly a long day and we saw a lot of things. Dinner at the chateau was great and we got a chance to look around the area and get a real sense of what it is like. Tomorrow we have an early morning; a visit to the nearby village of Creuly and then off to mass before we depart for Paris. We probably won’t be checking into the hotel until very late, so it will be another long day.

Chateau du Baffy, March 2014.

Chateau du Baffy, March 2014.

So the next you’ll hear from me I’ll be in Paris and we’ll be on the final leg of the trip. I have to be up at 6:00, so I’m out for now. Until then…


Posted by on March 12, 2014 in History, Travel, Writing


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