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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Border Tales and Assorted Wars Part 2

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas JANUARY. 29, 2021

If you haven't read Part 1 yet, here it is.

We start near the French German border but until I get up to speed I'm not sure how many assorted wars there will be in part 2. There should be plenty to choose from. There may be choirboys.

It's only a hop, skip, and a jump across the invisible border from Freiburg in Germany to Colmar in France and as a result the overall look is very similar. They are so close that the German army has been hopping, skipping and jumping across the border on a regular basis in the past.

Here Wikipedia excels itself, this has to be some Wikipedia editor having a bit of fun, see what you think.

Colmar was first mentioned by Charlemagne in his chronicle about Saxon wars. This was the location where the Carolingian Emperor Charles the Fat held a diet in 884.

Isn't that just priceless? First he gets the nickname fat and then he holds a diet (an assembly).

Colmar (French: Colmar; Alsatian: Colmer; German during 1871–1918 and 1940–1945: Kolmar) is a city and commune in the Haut-Rhin department and Grand Est region of north-eastern France. So here we go again and the many names tell you everyone wanted a piece of Colmar over the years.

In 1354 it was in a league of ten free cities. In 1632 the Swedes moved in but only for a couple of years, they were a long way from home and got homesick. In 1673 it was taken by France, some Louis or other, there's an X in it, so he was one of the later ones. In 1679 everyone seems to have met in Nijmegen in the Netherlands and decided the French could keep it. In 1871 it was annexed by the German Empire, so much for the treaties of Nijmegen. In 1919 everyone had a big shindig in Versailles where they all agreed France could have it back. This was extremely irritating for the Colmarians because they had spent the intervening 48 years learning German. It was great for all the old people though because suddenly everyone was speaking French again. In 1940 the Germans decided it was vital that the Colmarians learn to speak German again. In 1945 guess what? You're getting the picture now. Yes, French again, thanks to the Battle of "Colmar Pocket".

Before the war the residents of Colmar in an attempt to increase the tourist trade decided they needed to get into the Guinness Book of Records, but how? Colmar has a traditional industry supplying the garment trade of Paris with a particular design of pocket. The Colmar Pocket. The answer was obvious, make the world's largest pocket. It took three years to assemble the pocket on 82 fields just outside the city and it was here that the Battle of Colmar Pocket took place.

The Colmar Pocket was in the area held in central Alsace, France, by the German Nineteenth Army from November 1944 to February 1945, against the U.S. 6th Army Group (6th AG) during World War II. It was formed when 6th AG liberated southern and northern Alsace and adjacent eastern Lorraine, but could not clear central Alsace. During Operation Nordwind in December 1944, the 19th Army attacked north out of the Pocket in support of other German forces attacking south from the Saar into northern Alsace. In late January and early February 1945, the French First Army (reinforced by the U.S. XXI Corps) cleared the Pocket of German forces.

The giant pocket is now housed in the city's celebrated giant pocket museum. Unfortunately because of the hiatus during the war Colmar never entered the Guinness Book of Records because by the time the pocket had been emptied of the last few lost German stragglers who didn't realise the war was over, various bits of small change and copious amounts of lint, a small town in Bulgaria had assembled a bigger pocket, theirs is inflatable and covers a small corner of the Black Sea, not yet invaded by Russia.

Colmar is so quaint that your average Colmar shop like this one below looks at first glance like an art installation, but I really couldn't miss out this photo because of the word above the door. I didn't even know it was a word until I saw it but it has the prefix biscuit so obviously it was in. The suffix erie is just random French laziness as they shove it on the end of any word if there is a shop selling that item. One of my favourites is quincaillerie which is obviously unpronounceable and is a shop selling quincaills or as sensible people would call it the hardware store. It's why they have mostly gone out of business as nobody born since Louis the something with an X on the end even knows what a quincaill is let alone being able to pronounce it.

My favourite scene in the 1960's musical Oliver is when the little boy (Oliver I think his name was) wakes up and discovers he's rich, it's the part in the film when the sun comes out making the rich look even richer. He goes out onto the balcony without putting sun cream on and let's face it he is very pale after a lifetime in the Poor House and Fagin's attic so he'll regret that later.

He looks up wondering what that bright light in the sky is and one by one all these cheerful, clean, beautiful, sales reps with perfect teeth, from the Victorian hovels of London, dressed in clothes brightly coloured with chemical dyes not yet invented in 1860, start appearing, from every alleyway, one of them very unhygienically swinging pails of uncovered milk around the freshly disinfected streets of London, singing "Will you buy any milk today mistress? Any milk today mistress?", which is a bit pushy repeating it like that. Then a skipping woman appears singing "Who will buy my sweet red roses? Two blooms for a penny". Quite a bargain, unless like all her target market you have a garden full of the things, she hasn't thought this one through.

The strawberry seller then chimes in with "Ripe, strawberries ripe! Ripe, strawberries ripe! " which immediately makes me suspicious about their actual ripeness. I then vaguely remember some butch Givenchy model window cleaners on ladders assaulting some giggling little housemaids on some wrought iron balconies, although I might have misremembered this bit, but don't forget that was normal behaviour back then, I mean the 1960's of course not Victorian London.

They all start dancing and by now there are "faaaasends of em", the police arrive, loads of horses, some schoolboys push some schoolgirls into a pond because they don't have Twitter to occupy them yet, and then they laugh, more toxic masculinity, and at no point ever does anyone wander in singing about buying quincaills. "Fresh quincaills six for a guinea, six for a guinea", although not having a clue what quincaills are that might be expensive for all I know, but enough of this, I never tire of watching that scene, it has to be one of the most complex dance sequences in movie history.

I notice in the window of this Biscuiterie that they are not specialists, they also sell Boulans, Pattisses and Viennoises, not even ordinary ones but Artisanale ones. I have a feeling they celebrate the Viennese as Austria is the only nearby country not to invade yet. I did take a close look at that timber frontage too because in a sort of Hansel and Gretel kind of way it looked suspiciously like it was actually built of biscuit, but sadly at the first bite I could tell it was overdone.

I have absolutely no idea what all this Scrabble signage was about, but it was carefully placed in amongst some beautifully tended flower beds. It may be some higher form of intellectual graffiti or vandalism carried out by local students. I imagine people in Colmar waking up and finding their garden or house front has been Scrabblised in the dead of night. This next bit is best said with your best comedy French accent. "Amelie! The Scrabbler has vandalised the hen house again, that's the third time this month, I wouldn't mind but it only has a score of twelve this time and they never used a double word square".

Many years ago when I was aubergine (that's a hair colour) with plaits, wearing second hand patent leather winkle pickers and mascara, bopping away to Depeche Mode (who weren't French) and Spandau Ballet (who weren't German) beavering away at all hours to get an Arts degree that was really really useful later in life, I used to while away the non-existential hours of my lunch break over the road in the second hand record shop.

Records are large black round discs with a single spiral groove spread out over their surface (some people mistakenly claim they have multiple grooves), which carries a compressed moulded version of music, I know it sounds unlikely, unless you are a twenty something computer geek, living in one room on your own, in which case you are probably still buying them. If you are still buying them you are probably playing them on a unit that costs what a house cost back when I was a student and it probably looks more like something out of Tate Modern than an actual record player.

Back when most of the population were still sane and we had no choice but to buy music on big black discs, I spent many hours rifling through the entire contents of the shop once a week looking not for particular artistes but for cheap price tags, this was how I learned to appreciate music without prejudice. "It's a pound, how bad can it be?"

Record covers were designed to be rifled through, CD's were always a bit less riflable. Too clunky, although you were supposed to be able to spread them with jam and then wash it off and they would still play, according to one news broadcast. Why would you want to spread jam on your music collection anyway? To make sweet sweet music? Thinking about it I'm sure if you had spread jam on an LP it would also have washed off and played without sticking, as long as you got every last bit of strawberry off especially the seeds, never try to play an LP with strawberry seeds on it. Nobody ever raised that jam on an LP point though because by then big black discs had lost the argument and we were all aboard the digital train, who wanted a stylus when you could have your very own laser.

It didn't occur to anyone back then that the digital train was headed for a station where all your music was kept hostage by Techno Terrorists with baby faces in a Cloud who policed your thoughts and who would simply delete it all if you had a Wrongthink. Back then clouds still had silver linings.

This was how I discovered Durufle's Requiem, in a second hand record shop, a piece of something more than music, something sublime. Over the years I wore this record out so maybe the jam was a side issue when erosion was the real issue. Over the years I tried to get a version of this Requiem but it never worked, it never sounded right, the main problem being the attempts to record it with female voices or to perform it at a different speed or bad acoustics. My original copy had been a boys choir in a cathedral somewhere in France and I couldn't remember where and I'm sorry, I don't mean to offend fifty percent of you out, there but I decided in the end that this was definitely one for the boys. That last sentence now qualifies as a Wrongspeak. My music is backed up on five different hard drives so Cloud be damned.

Not long after visiting Colmar on this trip I was trawling the internet again, now able to hear bits of the now digital music one was about to buy. I came across a version by La Maîtrise de Garçons de Colmar, ( you see there was a point to this small novel). One can only hear a brief snippet but it sounded promising so I did the deed and this was it, maybe not that original one but the best I had heard since. To think I had never even heard of Colmar before this trip.

La Maîtrise de Garçons de Colmar or MGC, was founded in 1985 by Arlette Steyer, artistic and educational director and by Eugène Maegey, director of the Departmental Conservatory of Colmar. The Maîtrise de Garçons de Colmar regularly collaborates with the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra , the Mulhouse Symphony Orchestra and the Dominicans of Haute-Alsace.

The Maîtrise de Colmar is made up of around 30 boys from the Maîtrise school and around 20 men. It's repertoire ranges from Gregorian chant to contemporary music, including major works with orchestra ( The Creation of Haydn , Vespers of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart , the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten , the symphony n o 8 of Gustav Mahler , the Passion according to St Matthew by Bach, the Messiah by Handel ). Since its inception, it has performed under the baton of renowned conductors ( Gilbert Amy , Theodor Guschlbauer, Edward Higginbottom, Eliahu Inbal , Jean-Claude Malgoire , Daniel Klajner , John Nelson, Paul Goodwin), both in France and abroad.

The Requiem, Op. 9, is a setting of the Latin Requiem by Maurice Duruflé for a solo voice, mixed choir, and organ, or orchestra with organ. The thematic material is mostly taken from the Mass for the Dead in Gregorian chant. The Requiem was first published in 1948 by Durand in an organ version. There is something magical that happens when you wander around somewhere you don't know and haven't read up about and suddenly stumble on something like this striking sculpture in a small park in Colmar.

It was one of a group of statues that surrounded a fountain, this one was positioned best for the available lighting. The Parc du Champ de Mars originally had a fountain and sculptures designed by Bartholdi but the information I can find is a bit confused. As far as I can make out some of the original statuary was destroyed in the war. Some was saved and restored and some replaced, I think this is one of the later additions by a sculptor called Gérard Choain. There are four statues around the main central figure which represent the four corners of the earth, the expression four corners of the earth harking back to a time when the Earth was thought to be flat.

When Bartholdi wasn't designing fountains in parks he was busy designing an icon of the modern world which all of you would recognise. She is larger than life and holding aloft a flaming torch formed from copper sheet the thickness of two US pennies, at the entrance to New York harbour. It's an amazing thought that the solid indestructible looking mass of The Statue of Liberty is in fact more on a par with the indestructible looking mass of a Christmas Turkey covered in aluminium foil, without the turkey underneath. That thought makes it all the more impressive that it still stands today looking as solid and majestic as it ever did.

There’s barely an ugly building in the centre of Colmar, but things reach peak prettiness in the area near the Quai de Poissoniers nicknamed Petit Venice. Colmar’s Little Venice is where you’ll find that picture-perfect row of half-timbered houses painted in shades of pink, yellow and sky blue. Some of Petit Venice’s buildings date back to the 14th century – surviving the wars unscathed. This was the old merchants’ quarter where tanners, butchers and fishmongers lived. The story goes that different colours were used to display different types of businesses – so if you were a fisherman your house was blue, or a butcher would have a red house. (

Leaving Colmar our next stopover was Toul.

Toul was the seat of the bishops of Toul; the diocese was founded around 365 and existed until 1807.

During the siege of 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, the last time that Toul's defences were used as a classic fortress, 64 guns opened fire at 6:00 a.m. on 23 September, and the fortress surrendered at 3:00 p.m. after 2,433 shells had been fired.

The city was also the primary base of the Air Service, United States Army, during World War I. As such, it was a base for many of the 45 wartime squadrons of the First Army Air Service, including the squadrons of the 1st Pursuit Group, First Army Observation Group and others.

Two large operations were launched from this area: the St. Mihiel Offensive and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, both in September 1918. During World War II, the American 358th Fighter Group used Toul-Croix De Metz Airfield (A-90) during the fall of 1944 and spring of 1945, and Toul-Rosières Air Base (BA 136) was an American NATO air base during the 1950s and 1960s.

The old town's architecture is dominated by past glories in various states of decay, including a major Gothic cathedral, which is in a poor condition and is being slowly restored. Many of the houses were built as canonical residences in the Late Middle Ages and bear vestiges in the form of ornamental stonework. There is no trace of the monastery, however its wine-cellars still exist.

Come on, of course it's wine cellars still exist, this is France. It doesn't matter how many times the neighbours invade the wine cellars are the first thing to be hidden from the enemy. Closely followed by the Citroen, which many farmers took apart and hid in the roofs of their barns before the Nazi's arrived. They still appear today on trendy TV barn renovation programmes like "Les Grande Designes" when the effete presenter arrives from Paris to reconnoitre the project, they take the roof off the old barn to put in skylights and a jacuzzi and they find a dusty but otherwise brand new 1939 model Citroen someone forgot about. Once the wine cellars and cars were sorted they wondered where to hide the women.

The cathedral has significant elements of the late Gothic Flamboyant style of architecture. The towers of the façade measuring 65 meters high, the nave, 100 m long and a vault height of 30 meters and a transept 56 meters wide. Despite construction over more than three centuries, the building's façade has a homogeneity of style. The 13th century saw the construction of the choir, the transept, the last section of the nave and the first row of the gallery of the cloisters.

Three centuries? And we thought the Spaniards were taking their time in Barcelona. That's three hour lunch breaks for you. Travelling around France we soon learned that if you wanted to see a town you needed to arrive before midday or after 16.00 that's 4 o'clock to you and me. If you arrived after midday you might find a lovely Croque Madame but there was no chance you were going to buy a nice cuckoo clock or a sink plug. Croque Madame isn't a euphemism either it's a cheese based meal that translates as Crunchy Madam. Only the French could take a simple English ham and cheese sandwich, warm it up and call it Crunchy Madam.

Speaking of Madams we did once accidentally stay the night in a brothel, with a bidet on wheels, and a one eyed brothel master, but that's another story. I have to save some of the good anecdotes, this pandemic is dragging on a bit and we might need them later.

I love the way Catholics are always up on the latest technology, in Britain the wild and wacky Sputnik like churches are nearly all Catholic. In France the cathedrals all have a small area where you can get a candle, I think it's to light for some sort of offering or prayer, there are always some alight. But as a non believer this is to me the strange bit, you have to pay for them. You're really desperate, you tip up to the largest building in town that only took three hundred years to build and they want a Euro per candle. What if you don't have a Euro? Wouldn't that mean you were the one that really needed the prayer most? I suppose you can blow out someone else's and relight it, not sure if that would work? Or just steal one? But apparently He can tell if you steal so you're really in a dilemma.

At least these were real candles, I have witnessed in other cathedrals, cathedrals where they don't mess around carving bits of rock for three hundred years, they just get on with it and get a roof on in about 120 years at the very least, an automatic coin operated candle dispenser, try stealing a candle then without a hammer. Some have even gone one step further, where you put in a coin and an LED tea light on a massive rack of LED tea lights switches itself on, presumably they are timed, because prayers are now like a phone plan and it depends how many minutes you get in your plan. A tea light can last for a good four hours in a blackout. Maybe they have CCTV and as soon as you leave your tea light goes out. I think these are questions we need answered.

They may already be working on virtual Cloud prayers, all you need is a candle App with a little tea light burning video and all your prayers in text form are stored on the Cloud, quite appropriate really, doesn't He live in a cloud?

Here is a familiar sight to many of us a repurposed theatre here in a new life as a supermarket.

I've just had a major shock, the sculpted figures on the theatre below are Corneille (never heard of him) and Moliere, famous playwright. So I Googled them for a bit of detail and the first thing that comes up is....

"Why Moliere probably did write his plays."

I never even realised that he might not have written his plays. I know Biden is in the habit of reading out other people's speeches but Moliere? Not only this bombshell news, but the other guy we've never heard of Corneille is the one that might have written them. Apparently this controversy all arose in 1919, shows how out of touch I am, before this theatre was built. Is that why they put both of them up there? Were they just hedging their bets? Did the architect think we don't really know how this will end, let's play safe. Never realising that actually it would all end ignominiously with a supermarket that advertises that it accepts Meal Vouchers.

In 1673, during a production of his final play, The Imaginary Invalid, Molière, who suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, was seized by a coughing fit and a haemorrhage while playing the hypochondriac Argan. He finished the performance but collapsed again and died a few hours later.

Now that is irony, right there.

This attractive tiled floor was in the lobby of our hotel. I'm adding it to the mix just because I liked it. It was called the Hotel Europe and what I would call a typical French independent hotel. Probably mostly frequented by travelling salesmen and on the edge of town, where the next morning it had probably the best view of the cathedral in town, in the hazy distance firmly on the horizon. When the hotel was named there was likely no hint of the burgeoning EU super state just over that horizon.

This was an unscheduled stop for the traditional sunflower view. Agricultural subsidies never looked so pretty.

Here we are at our final destination, a Chateau in the Champagne region which doubles as a hotel. Hotel Europe it is not. Kings of France stayed here, when it was a private residence designed to impress visitors, like the King of France. The King of France was in all likelihood off to yet another war, and beautiful Chateaux like these were the Royal Hilton Doubletrees of their day.

A good day trip is a drive along the minor roads that crisscross the Champagne vineyards on the way to Rheims the main city of the area. This is the Moulin de Verzenay below.

Owned by G.H. Mumm and classified as a historic monument, the Moulin de Verzenay was built on the Mont-Bœuf in 1818 by the Tinot-Vincent couple, and was designed for the simultaneous milling of two types of grain.

Bought by the Maison Goulden in 1904, the mill served as an observation post in the 1914-18 war, with galleries dug underground, concrete quarters, etc. Among the many figures on the Allied side who visited in 1917 were Victor-Emmanuel III, Président Poincaré, generals Fayolle, Micheler, Gouraud.

After being acquired by Heidsieck-Monopole in 1923, the mill then returned to its role as an observation post for the American army in 1944. ( So wherever you go, war got there before you.

The Champagne region holds particular significance for French history. It was originally part of the Roman province of Gallia Belgica, which in the 5th Century became the seat of the Merovingian dynasty that ousted the Romans. At its head was the Frankish King Clovis, whose baptism in Rheims established the precedent for royal anointing in Rheims cathedral that ended with the last King of France, Charles X. In World War I it was the bloody battlefield of the Western Front, later coming to symbolise the reconciliation between France and Germany.

Amazingly we have now come full circle because in part one of this tour we discovered that Clovis I King of the Franks was born in Tournai and that Tournai was the first capitol of the Frankish Empire. On 25 December 496 Clovis I, King of the Franks was baptised at Rheims. Before we get to Rheims let's just admire the battlefields, sorry I mean vineyards of Champagne.

Todays quiz question, why do rows of vines nearly always have a rose bush at the end. Many years back on our first of many visits to this part of France I had noticed rose bushes at the side of the road, always tagged on to the end of a row of vines. I asked the question because it intrigued me so I now ask you.

Roses are planted at the end of a row of vines because they are an early warning system for disease. They attract both aphids and fungal infection before those diseases infect the vines, enabling the grower to take special measures when necessary to protect the crop.

So winding our way through the vineyards we arrive at Rheims, which is Reems to the English and Grrronce to the French. The baptism of Clovis I in Rheims established the precedent for royal anointing in Rheims cathedral that ended with the last King of France, Charles X.

Notre-Dame de Reims to give it it's official name is thought to have been founded by the bishop Nicasius in the early 5th century. Clovis was baptized a Christian here by Saint Remigius, the bishop of Reims, about a century later. He was the first Frankish king to receive this sacrament. Construction of the present Reims Cathedral began in the 13th century and concluded in the 15th century. A prominent example of High Gothic architecture, it was built to replace an earlier church destroyed by fire in 1210. Although little damaged during the French Revolution, the present cathedral saw extensive restoration in the 19th century. It was severely damaged during World War I and the church was again restored in the 20th century. (Wikipedia)

For me the stand out feature of the interior is the stained glass windows, a mix of ancient and modern, including a set deigned by Marc Chagall.

So we come to the end mon braves. A war torn part of the world now just an extension of Eurometropolis. And as I have been writing these two parts of a tour this week, a new sort of Euro war is starting. It is a Thoroughly Modern Millie of a war fought by ineptitude, authoritarian arrogance and hypocrisy by unelected aspiring dictators who do not believe in virtue as they virtue signal loudly, who have no morality as they moralise to the world and their citizens, who laud justice and the law even as they stretch and break it asunder, who celebrate democracy as they stamp on it and who design ways of silencing truth as they lie. We are talking about the EU vaccine disaster, a war not using traditional bullets but a war about magic bullets. The Emperor of the EU it seems has no clothes, and the little boy in the crowd has noticed.

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