Penn Alumni Travel: Hugging the Coast

Author: Emilie Kretschmar LaRosa

Before I write about Penn Alumni Travel’s latest voyage along Europe’s Atlantic coast, I am excited to announce that the 2014 tour schedule—which includes trips to 6 Continents, 10 seas, and over 40 countries—has just been released. Click here to check out all 24 Penn Alumni Travel trips in 2014. We are already starting to take reservations for Antarctica, India, and the South Pacific. And, if you’re interested in Cuba, please email me at emiliek@upenn.edu to be added to a priority reservation list. We expect this tour to sell fast!

Every Penn Alumni Travel trip is a fantastic learning experience not only for the sights and historical visits, but also for the people you meet while on the tour—guides, local people, and passengers included. On a recent Penn Alumni Travel cruise along Europe’s Atlantic coast—starting from Lisbon, Portugal and ending in Honfleur, France—alumni connected with each other while exploring some of Europe’s coastal civilizations.

We started in Portugal with a quick visit to Lisbon followed by a tour of the town of Porto, home of the famous and eponymous Port wine. After a quick visit to the Palacio de Bolsa, or Stock Exchange, we spent some free-time in the Ribeira, the former harbor quarter of Porto. Beautiful bridges now span the river, one built by Gustav Eiffel and the one pictured below constructed by his student.

Porto bridge constructed by a student of Eiffel.

Porto bridge constructed by a student of Eiffel.

Portugal was followed by two stops in Spain, one to visit Santiago de Compostela and its magnificent gothic cathedral and one to visit Bilbao and the ultra-modern Guggenheim Museum. Both stops highlighted masterpieces of Western architecture separated by over 900 years of history. Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral was begun in 1075 and is, still to this day, the final destination of the legendary pilgrimage route Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James). The symbol of St. James is a shell and, as we circled around the cathedral, I could identify the many pilgrims finishing their long journey by the shell attached to their pack. The cathedral itself is a great work of architecture and many pilgrimage churches throughout Spain and France copied its design and layout.

Penn alumni with the cathedral.

Penn alumni with the cathedral.

St. James’ shell imbedded in stone pavement.

St. James’ shell imbedded in stone pavement.

To follow Santiago de Compostela and its imposing cathedral with Bilbao and the Guggenheim was a fascinating lesson in architectural history. To compare the old medieval cathedral with the new and shiny Guggenheim is not as impossible as one might think. Both used cutting-edge design and engineering techniques at the time of their construction, both cathedral and museum stand as homages to the creative spirit of man, and both—in my estimation—have an architectural energy that is not found in classical pieces. Santiago de Compostela’s turrets twist and turn with decorative spirals and statues while the Guggenheim’s various wings undulate and twist from a central atrium. Can you see the semblance?

The Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry in Bilbao, Spain.

The Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry in Bilbao, Spain.

The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela.

The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela.

Our next stops were two Atlantic islands: Belle Ile of France and Guernsey of the United Kingdom. For me, Belle Ile was a wonderful return trip as I had spent a long weekend there as an undergraduate abroad over a decade ago. It was still as charming and belle as I had remembered. Our alumni group toured the island on a small bus before stopping in Le Palais where some lucky passengers (including myself) stumbled across a shop selling Coeur de Beurre (salted butter caramel) delicacies. Belle Ile is also known as an inspiration to artists. A number of famous painters made Belle Ile their home, including Claude Monet, John Peter Russel, Georges Clairin, Matisse, and Vasarely.

Jack, ME’56, and Joan Swope pose by the cliffs of Belle Ile. Jack was also a winner in last year’s travel photo contest!

Jack, ME’56, and Joan Swope pose by the cliffs of Belle Ile. Jack was also a winner in last year’s travel photo contest!

Les Niniches, the store where we found wonderful Coeur de Beurre cookies.

Les Niniches, the store where we found wonderful Coeur de Beurre cookies.

The island of Guernsey was our introduction to World War II history. As the only British territory to be occupied by the Germans during WWII, the island inhabitants remember the war quite vividly, even if it is only through the stories of older family members. German fortifications are scattered along the rugged coast, and one Guernsey islander has dedicated his life to amassing a gigantic collection of occupation memorabilia and artifacts. This collection has now become the German Occupation Museum which our group visited during the island tour.

German Occupation Museum

Guernsey newspaper in the German Occupation Museum

The Normandy beaches concluded our exploration of WWII history. It was perhaps the most anticipated, and certainly the most moving, of all our stops. As a student abroad, I had also visited the D-Day beaches with fellow classmates. The trip then was memorable, but not personal. None of us had experienced war or the effects of war, and WWII was, by then, distant history.

This second visit was very different. Many alumni passengers were veterans themselves, serving in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and had a very strong and moving connection to these battle sites and the American cemetery. They had experienced war themselves, and knew firsthand the importance of honoring the fallen and those ideals for which they had given their lives. We began the day with a wonderful introductory tour led by a local French woman who had been giving tours for over fifteen years. She could still recount stories told to her by American and British WWII veterans. She also had many stories from her own family and French neighbors who lived through the occupation and surrender of the Germans.

We visited the Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, and the American Cemetery. At the cemetery, we honored the fallen soldiers with a wreath-laying ceremony and then recognized those veterans among our group. It was a wonderful moment of solidarity and connection between generations: a generation that had already passed, a generation represented by our alumni group, and then my own. Sometimes it is nice to know that history can live on in the small gestures of a wreath-laying ceremony or the time spent learning about the importance of a French beach.

Our tour group listens to our local guide recount the military operation at the Pointe du Hoc.

Our tour group listens to our local guide recount the military operation at the Pointe du Hoc.

Barbed wire is commonplace on the Pointe du Hoc.

Barbed wire is commonplace on the Pointe du Hoc.

A Penn alumnus helps lay the wreath at the base of the memorial statue in the American cemetery. 9,387 American soldiers are buried here, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations.

A Penn alumnus helps lay the wreath at the base of the memorial statue in the American cemetery. 9,387 American soldiers are buried here, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations.

As always, thank you to the wonderful Penn alumni and friends who joined me on this tour. I hope we meet again and that you have many more wonderful journeys. To view all the pictures from this tour, click here.

A note to interested alumni: We are hosting another tour to the Normandy Beaches next year in honor of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Join us on the Celtic Lands tour (May 28-June 7, 2014) with faculty host Rebecca Bushnell and special speaker David Eisenhower. Contact me for more information (emiliek@upenn.edu or 215-746-7442).

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Filed under Emilie, Penn Alumni Travel, Travel

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