Monday, May 3, 2010

Benvenuto, Roma

That morning Bob left Frankfurt Int'l for DFW and I flew to Rome. I took the Leonardo Express train into the city from the airport and got checked into my hostel, which was conveniently just outside the Roma Termini station. My first and only thing on my agenda was to head to the Vatican to pick up tickets for the papal appearance that Wednesday. Tickets are free, but since seating is limited Monday - and occasionally Tuesday - are the only times you can get tickets before they're all gone. I met a Canadian girl in the hostel who was interested in going with me, so we left our hostel and headed toward St. Peter's, a good hour and fifteen minutes walk away. We passed Santa Maria Maggiore - the cathedral closest to us - and walked down Via Panispara down to the Vittorio Emmanuelle monument. This colossal structure was built in 1850s to commemorate the first king of united Italy. Now, it's the most neoclassical piece of Roman architecture the city has. The plaza featured an amazing view of the Colesseum just down the street; in the 1930s Benito Mussolini ordered that a massive street (Via del Fori Imperiori) be built to link the Colesseum to the Vittorio Emmanuelle monument. Along the way, a whole string of Roman ruins were uncovered and excavations continued until WW2 took the focus away. Anyway, after taking quite a few pictures here, I headed north on Via del Corso, one of the main north-south axes of the city. Before too long, we'd reached the Tiber and headed west toward the dome of St. Peter's. We crossed over the Tiber at Pont Saint Angelo, this iconic old bridge lined with sculptures leading up to Castel Saint'Angelo, the prison/fortress of Vatican City, and then headed up toward St. Peter's Square.

St. Peter's Square was simply brilliant. It supposedly holds 2 million people when it's packed and is flanked by two semi-circular colonnades designed by Bernini and topped with statues of something like 180 saints and canonized popes. We walked around for awhile taking pictures and trying to figure out the "great bronze door" where the tickets to the papal audience were given out. We asked a security guard and he pointed us up to this massive door guarded by Swiss guard with long halberd axes. No one was even going close to this place, so it didn't really feel right, but I went up there anyway. The one with the axe lowers it in front of you, while a second one with a machine gun appears in the doorway and asks you your business. I told him I wanted tickets to the papal audience, he asked how many, and I said five; he then vanished, reappeared, handed me the tickets, and saluted me as I scampered down the stairs. We then spent some time walking through St. Peter's basilica, which was by far the most awe-inspiring and beautiful building I'd ever seen in my life, but I'll save the description and pictures for the Vatican Day post.

We headed back to the hostel and I got a shower and changed for dinner. I used my trusty Frommer's Guide to Italy that made our trip to Florence such a success and found a good relatively inexpensive dinner place in the heart of the city near the Pantheon. I had myself a fantastic mussels scampi dish and a chianti with some chocolate mousse for dessert. After dinner, I walked around the Pantheon area, made my way to Trevi fountain, and then headed back to the hostel so that I could get up early the next morning and be productive before my friends arrived from Florence.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

WW2 Tour Pt. 4: Maginot Line

We woke up in Luxembourg for our last day of our WW2 tour. Our first stop was the American Cemetery in Luxembourg, where General Patton is buried. Luxembourg was the headquarters for him and the U.S. 3rd army he commanded. The cemetery was very similar to the one in Normandy with the white marble Latin crosses and Stars of David, but this one was dug into the middle of the Ardennes forest; a fitting setting for the Battle of the Bulge casualties. Patton actually made it through the war but died in a jeep accident in December of 1945. We walked around the grounds for awhile, looked at the maps of the Battle of the Bulge, and then packed up to head back into France to take a look at the Maginot Line.

The Maginot Line was a string of forts and other defenses on the French/German border dug into the side of hills facing Germany. However, the French didn't think to reinforce the French/Belgian border in the same fashion, so the Germans just went around the Maginot Line through Belgium, came around from the rear, and then captured the French fortresses from the undefended French side. The good news for tourists is that, after seeing such miraculously little action during the war, the defenses are all in relatively good condition. We first went to the village of Cattenom, where there are five of these forts all within walking distance. We drove around a little bit in there, but because some of the dirt roads were muddy and we were in a little VW, coupled with the fact that all the forts were closed and you couldn't get inside them, we didn't spend much time there. Instead, we drove farther East to the village of Veckering, where the largest fort of the entire Maginot Line, the Hackenberg, is located. We knew from our internet research a few days before that the Hackenberg was open for tours on Sundays, so we knew we would be able to get inside as opposed to just looking at the entrance.

We got inside and were amazed at how intense the interior of the fort is. The Hackenberg comprised 10 kilometers worth of underground tunnels with a munitions entrance and personnel entrance on the French side of the hill and two combat blocks, with 6 combat stations each, on the German side. We toured the non-combat zones on the French side like the munitions bay, barracks, and kitchen, before moving (via train car, it was so long) to the combat blocks on the other side of the mountain. At that point, we were about 180 meters underground and had to climb a narrow stairway all the way from the complex floor to the gun systems above. But, when we got to the top, it was totally worth it; we were standing inside one of the three-story gun turrets that was still 100% operational. The tour guide turned it on, raised the turret, spun the guns around, and repeated so we could see how the gun worked from the inside. Then we went outside and took a look at the gun emplacements facing Germany and was able to see the same gun we'd just seen but operated from the outside. We then walked from combat block 8 over a bluff to combat block 9, where there were some longer-range guns placed to complement the short-range mortar cannons that we'd just been inside. It was funny that the only damage to the forts was done by the Americans when the retreating Nazis used the Hackenberg as a fallback position.

After we left the Hackenberg, we headed out of France for the second time in three days and made for Germany. As soon as we got into Germany, we found our way to the autobahn and blasted toward Frankfurt. We got checked into our fourth hotel room in just as many days and then found a little German/Greek restaurant for dinner and a German pub afterwards for a beer. Germany is so good about giving you the beer glass that actually belongs with the beer - and so many of them were really cool - that we asked the bartender if we could buy a few of his glasses. He responded in broken English that "no, but, if you leave...I don't look." So, after we finished our beer we walked out with some Schoffenhauser glasses in our jackets and left the guy a 300% or so tip. We went back, I rearranged the stuff in the various suitcases Bob was taking home the next day, and we got ready for an early trip to the Frankfurt airport the next morning. For Bob, it would mean a trip home, but for me, it would mean my last adventure: this time, to Rome.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

WW2 Tour Pt. 3: Belgium

We woke up in Brussels and plowed out of town to tour Battle of the Bulge battlegrounds. We made first for La Gleize, which was the northernmost point the German army made it into Belgium during their surprise counterattack during Christmas of 1944. We were navigating the relatively tiny country roads on either side of interstate E25 all day - without GPS, mind you - and so we took our time and got a little lost en route to La Gleize, but saw a whole lot of Belgian countryside in the meantime. We had lunch in the village of Stoumont, La Gleize's neighbor, because it had a tourism bureau where we were finally able to get real directions to our destination. When we made it to La Gleize, we found the Koenigstiger Tiger II tank that the German commander Piper had left behind in his hasty retreat as the Allies started to repel the German counterattack. We decided that the museum there wasn't really worth it, so we decided to wait for a museum until we got to the bigger and better one in La Roche en Ardennes, our next stop.

La Roche en Ardennes was a bigger town in the Ardennes forest that swapped hands numerous times during the liberation of Belgium and the Battle of the Bulge later in 1944. It was a quiet resort town that had a beautiful river running through it and a medieval castle on the hillside (that was conveniently placed for German snipers to use during the two times the Allies had to push through the town). We went to the Battle of the Bulge 1944 Museum there, which was actually pretty good, and then stopped by the castle on the way out for some pictures.

The capstone destination for our Battle of the Bulge tour was Bastogne, the town that the Germans completely encircled and was held only by the determination and grit of the 101st Airborne Division and, specifically, Easy Company (the one featured in Band of Brothers). We went first to the Woods of Peace, which is a monument located northeast of the town, right where Easy Company was encircled. The woods were dedicated just five or six years ago, when all Battle of the Bulge veterans were invited back to Belgium. Anyone in attendance had a tree dedicated to them. We spent a little while walking through the forest there before we headed back toward Bastogne to stop at the Mardasson monument, which is the overarching Battle of the Bulge monument built in the 1950s to commemorate all the Americans that died liberating Belgium.

After Bastogne, we drove the hour or so into the nation of Luxembourg and checked into a hotel in the capital city there. We walked across the town to have dinner in an outdoor piazza and then retired for the night to get ready for our last day of our tour: into Eastern France and then into Frankfurt for the night.