Four years in the region and I never got to see it without some amount of construction obscuring the view!
Four years in the region and I never got to see it without some amount of construction obscuring the view!
Red Vespa – Ghent, Belgium
Social distancing has me going back through the archives to dig up images that have stuck in my memory. They aren’t necessarily what everyone (anyone?) else likes, or would have bought, but I like them enough that I remember them every once in awhile. This is one from a day I found myself wandering around downtown Brussels, alone, chasing light and shadows.
No extended time living in Europe is complete for most Americans without the requisite pilgrimage to the beaches in Normandy and an homage to the day the tide turned in the Allies’ favor during WWII. There is almost a biological need to honor the lives that were lost in pursuit of that goal.
The ride up from Giverny to our overnight stop was rainy and bleak (but not without some amazing sights – I am determined to find those castle ruins that rose up out of the cloudy mists in front of us and disappeared as quickly as my children’s interest and attention in such things, lol). We arrived in Arromanches-les-Bains shortly before dusk; just enough time to take a quick walk down to the beach to get our bearings.
This small, picturesque town was the site of an artificial harbor created by the British in the aftermath of the storming of the beaches as the deeper harbors were still under German control. Giant, floating, concrete blocks were towed just offshore to created a pier for off-loading all the gear and equipment needed to continue the fight against the Nazis. You can still see a great deal of the blocks floating in the bay and a few that are beached on shore.
The next morning, after making the mistake of not eating breakfast at the hotel (always take the hotel breakfast in small town France as there are few if any breakfast options on the local economy), we took a quick stroll through the town. The weather was equally as dismal as the day before, which given the theme of the day’s visits, seemed quite fitting.
First we headed to the German batteries at Longues-sur-Mer. Europe is riddled with old bunkers and reminders of various kinds of World Wars I & II. It is a constant reminder of what happened and what was almost lost. These concrete bunkers are still in amazing shape, showing just what our soldiers were up against in those days and the gravity of the situation comes through while exploring the area.
While taking in this particular site, you can’t help but contrast it with the beauty of the coast and the lush farmland, enveloping what was once hell bent on destroying the peaceful nature of this place.
What American hasn’t heard about the American Cemetery in Normandy? It’s an absolute must see while in the area. While we didn’t walk through the museum (one kid was sick, waiting in the car, and the hubby forgot he had a pocket knife on him), but just walking through the cemetery and seeing row upon row of graves, all from one conflict, weighs heavily upon the heart.
After our quick visit to the cemetery, we drove over to Omaha Beach. There on the sand is the Les Braves sculpture, commemorating the Allies that landed there. To me, it resembles a collection of odd swords pointed in different directions, maybe as a way to represent the danger and death that those poor soldiers were plowing into. These days the beach has reverted back to its beautiful nature, the scars from that conflict all but erased from view – at least the visible ones.
Photographically, this day taught me that I still have a lot to learn about photographing on dark, cloudy, and misty days. I can’t say that I captured any mind blowing shots, but I also can’t say I regret our stops on that day. Each one hammered home the intensity of that time and taught a new generation of my family more about the darker side of humanity that we hope never surfaces again.
One interesting thing about having a high school student in Europe is getting to know her friends and realizing that the reminders and memories of the great wars are still very much in the forefront of the minds of these kids. Every conflict engenders a bit of anxiety and there is an awareness about how fragile peace and alliance can be. I just hope that while the world hasn’t forgotten the sacrifice of the soldiers, that they are exploring and remembering just what is was that led to the horrors of World War II with an even greater zeal. I’m not so sure any of us are.
P.S. There are tons of museums in the area and I’m sure that WWII and military buffs would have a great deal of fun wandering through them. But, as I’m sure you have guessed by this point, we aren’t really a museum family (that’s something I do when I don’t have to drag an entourage around with me). One museum we DID visit on a different visit however was La Coupole in Wizernes, France. Wow! It’s an eye opener on just how close we were to losing the war. The storming of the beaches of Normandy couldn’t have come at a more fortuitous time, prompting the Germans to shut down the rocket factory that would have changed history forever.
One of the biggest impediments to my photography practice has always been my emotions. I’m not talking about the self doubt – though that has stopped many a creative process throughout my life. I often find myself taken by intense emotions when witnessing the beauty, majesty, and soul of a place. And then when I snap that picture, the images seem to fall short of what I experience in that moment. Often I don’t see it until I get home and download the images. Wait, what? No, that does not do that moment justice! And then there are the times that I (being a chronic overshooter) am so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of images I took that I just can’t choose which images best match the experiences I want to share or the emotions that those experiences engender! The process is exhausting and I find it may take me days, weeks, months, and even years before I’m ready to finally wade through the folders and to share the beauty of what I have encountered.
My family trip through Normandy (with a sidestep into Brittany) in May of 2016 was one such emotional ride for me. Finally getting to share that part of the world with my husband and my girls, while also discovering new gems I never dreamed would tickle my fancy was just magical. The sheer amount of photos and the attached emotional responses were overwhelming and while life was taking it’s customary chaotic turns for this gypsy Foreign Service Family, I never got the chance to just sit, edit, process the emotions, and share what it was about those places that touched my soul.
So here I am – 3 years later – finally ready to devote the time and confront the emotions that come with remembering, editing and sharing. My girls are now grown and that brings up new emotions while I edit, knowing that those times of us all together are going to be fewer going forward, making the process all that much more bittersweet.
My kids are used to me dragging them to places they are underwhelmed by – shopping malls, ancient gothic churches, caves, museums, national parks – you know, pretty much anything when it comes to teenagers traveling with their parents. So I planned our trip to northern France knowing that I would probably be more excited about it than they would be.
When my oldest daughter arrived home from college I told her about the trip and asked if there was anything in Normandy besides Omaha Beach that she wanted to see. I was shocked when she came back to me and said, “Monet’s gardens look cool. Let’s go there.” Giverny is technically in Normandy. It’s just way south of the route we were planning to take from Brussels on the edge of the province! But given that this was a one of those few times she actually showed any interest in something even remotely related to French artists, I jumped at the opportunity and rearranged our itinerary.
Now, even I was not on the bandwagon for this particular destination before this. I mean, how many times have you visited the home of some historical figure and been completely underwhelmed? And while I love Monet’s paintings, I just couldn’t see how visiting his home was going to add any more to that appreciation, especially given the crowds, the weather, the possibility that we missed peak blooming season, etc. I could not have been more wrong!
Since I tucked this stop into our first day of travel, we arrived at a less than ideal time – well past opening. It had been raining on and off all day. We did find the group entrance ( I read on Trip Advisor that they would supposedly honor pre-purchased tickets and help you skip the line at the main gate) and were let in without a fuss – right in front of a huge school age group. Oh boy. This could get unruly…
But coming into this part of the garden first, going to the right and experiencing the water lily pond was just what was needed to start this little adventure off on the right foot. The gardens were gorgeous even though we were a little past peak bloom for many of the spring flowers. The paths are set up so that even with lots of people, you still get a good feel for the beauty of the pond, and can see for yourself the inspiration that Monet must have experienced himself. Sure there are some people in my shots; but I found that they often added a certain “je ne sais quoi.” And everyone was so well behaved. No pushing. No lingering too terribly long at each vantage point (I may have been the offender here). And I never felt too hurried, even by my own family!
The thing about the gardens is what do you focus on? The overall picture? The particular design of each garden? Individual flowers? The reflections in the lily pond? Oh I could spend hours playing with light, textures, and points of view! I get especially lost in the reflections and capturing that classic Monet feel.
Mindful that my daughters’ attention spans could only endure so much of my photographic fervor, I limited myself and we moved on to the house and gardens. They also did not disappoint! So many flowers! So many opportunities for the romantically nostalgic to get lost in dreams!
The house, however charming, is, well, a house. You’ve seen many a house preserved as it was (or might have been) from the historical time period it came from. But there are aspects about it that do have you imaging Monet and his family living there. For me those moments came when looking out of windows and doors into the gardens. And then there was his collection of Japanese engravings. It’s always interesting to see what another artist collects in terms of art and those items they choose to put on their walls that they did not create.
At the end of the visit, we all agreed that the experience was well worth the stop. Even my youngest, an artist herself with little interest in French impressionists (imagine my horror when she admitted that to me!), came away from the experience with more appreciation for Monet’s work. And so, a little bit soggy, we all happily piled into the car and headed to our next destination on my (almost) ultimate French road trip.
Getting ready to start my snowy commute like –
It’s been months since I left Belgium, and even though I resolved to devote my future blog posts to those adventures had outside of its borders (I have such a backlog of wonderful memories!) and to my new life in the western hemisphere, I just cannot help myself.
Spring brings such treasures to those lucky enough to be in Brussels this time of year! A number of events with limited timeframes cause me to want to shout from the rooftops that if one has not experienced them, they must do so this year without fail.
First there is Floralia at Groot-Bijgaarden running from April 6th to May 6th. It’s like a mini Keukenhoff for those unable to make the trip up to The Netherlands, or for those who want to avoid the crowds of tourists. Sure there are a lot of visitors to Floralia, but I never felt the press of people that you get in Keukenhoff. For a sneak peak, be sure to read the blog post from one of my visits on my personal blog, Observations of an Okie – Groot Bijgaarden.
Secondly there are the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, open to the public from April 21st to May 11th. The greenhouses were the brain-child of King Leopold the II and took 30 years for architect Alphonse Balut to complete. Located on the castle grounds of the official residence of the King of Belgium and the royal family, the greenhouses are only open to the public once a year and generate quite a draw for locals and foreign tourists alike. My advice is to get there early around opening and to avoid lunch time, as you may get caught in the press of school children that I found myself in the first time I visited!
I suggest a night visit as well. Go during the day to get a good look at the grounds around the greenhouses and for photographing the flowers inside. But go back again at night for a completely different feel and a chance at some truly unique shots of the complex. I didn’t go every year as I had planned. With everything that is going on at this time of year, the Royal Greenhouses were easy to miss. So now you are forewarned! Put it in your diary, on your calendar, and see it before you miss it!
And last, but far from least, there are the bluebells in the Hallerbos (located just off the Ring Road at exit 22 Tubize- turn left at the light and go under the overpass – or go into Halle and enter the forest from that side). This magical wood carpeted by a haze of purple/blue is truly something to behold. I didn’t even know what to expect the first time I went and just happened upon a Facebook post saying the bluebells were in bloom. I threw the dog in the car, not even sure where I was going, and I was struck almost immediately by the purple glow that seemed too emanate from the forest floor. You can bet from that point on, I visited every single year – even when I said I wouldn’t as I’d inevitably run into some friend or acquaintance who’d never been. Each year I would keep close watch on the official Hallerbos website and raise the alarm when the time came to friends and colleagues. For a preview of the bluebell game, check out my blog posts – Purple Haze and Get Thee To the Hallerbos!
This year winter has not wanted to leave the northern hemisphere alone, and Belgium has been no exception. As of April 6th, spring has just begun to visit, with wild daffodils blooming and the white wood anemones blanketing the forest floor in anticipation of their more colorful brethren. I do recommend a walk through the Hallerbos at this time as well and you can clearly see why by visiting Happenings in the Hallerbos. Actually, I recommend a stroll through these well maintained forests at any time of the year as the beauty and peace you find there can ease any troubled mind and set your world back in balance!
As for best times to visit the forest when the bluebells arrive: I suggest going early morning during the week if you are able as there are fewer people. There will be quite a few of us photographer types out then! I prefer early morning or overcast and foggy days to those with brighter sunlight, but of course what you find all depends on what mother nature has in store!
Happy Spring Everyone!
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