Visiting Rochefort and La Rochelle

For the tourists interested in visiting Rochefort and La Rochelle I thought to share my impressions after my stay there in February. Overall they look very different. While La Rochelle was founded over one thousand years ago, Rochefort was built in the late XVII century by the French government at the time. La Rochelle has old medieval buildings, many towers, narrow and winding streets. Rochefort instead has large perpendicular streets and buildings from more recent time.

Hermione is a major attraction in Rochefort. It is a ship, a reproduction of the frigate which under command of Lafayette was sent in 1780 to help the United States revolution against England. This new ship took 15 years to build and was completed in 2012. However, being made out of wood it requires a lot of maintenance work compared with the modern ships. The frigate Hermione navigated to the United States in 2015 in a symbolic voyage.

In the vicinity of Hermione, there is the National Maritime Museum. Here the visitors can see small replicas of historical French ships. There is, for example, the replica of the submarine that inspired Jules Verne to imagine Nautilus.

This is the court of the museum. I confess that I had no idea what was this item until I read the description
It was the Raft of the Meduse well known from Gericault’s painting

The frigate Meduse left from Rochefort in June 1816 with the destination Senegal. It never reached there as it shipwrecked in July at 50 km from the shores of Mauritania.

One year before, in July 1815, the same frigate Meduse was part of a less known episode of French history. Defeated at Waterloo, the French Emperor Napoleon abdicated and wanted to emigrate to the United States. For this purpose, he went to Rochefort and ordered to have two frigates prepared for the trip. Meduse was one of the two frigates that were supposed to bring the former Emperor over the ocean. He delayed his departure waiting for French passports until the English fleet completely blockaded Rochefort and made his departure impossible. The argument that Napoleon waited for passports in Rochefort is not very convincing to me. Why did he need passports? He had great support in the United States as he sold them Louisiana in 1803. In the end, he surrendered to the English fleet near Rochefort on July 15, 1815, and was imprisoned until his death on Saint Helene island.

A plaque on the military base where Napoleon stayed before surrendering to English forces

In Rochefort, I also recommend a visit to Commerces d’Autrefois museum. Here you can see fragments of life from previous centuries. An interesting return to the day to day life in the past.

In the nineteenth century, people did not afford to buy many clothes. Instead, they dyed their old clothes using machines like this one
A chair used for tonsil surgery in the nineteenth century with a very encouraging message

I was in La Rochelle only for one day, so I had less time to visit the town than Rochefort. Coming from the railway station the first thing that caught my attention was the old port with many restaurants and the famous towers.

I visited two of the three towers. One was used by the local garrison and the other one was a prison.

The towers of La Rochelle made me think of the siege of the city in 1627-1628. At the time, La Rochelle remained the only Protestant city in France. The Catholics wanted to capture the city as in those times there was a religious war over entire Europe. Despite their fight, the Protestants were defeated. Alexandre Dumas wrote about this siege in The Three Musketeers, where the musketeers, who are positive figures, working for the king killed some Protestants. With this in mind, I was curious to see if the main cathedral in La Rochelle was Protestant or Catholic. It was Catholic because I guess vae victis.

Catholic cathedral of La Rochelle

Returning to more modern times, the market in La Rochelle is located in a nice building from the nineteenth century.

La Rochelle market place

During the second world war, La Rochelle was the base of German U-boat submarines in Atlantic. The Germans built a bunker here to shelter in case of an allied bombardment. After the Germans were defeated the bunker remained hidden until it was discovered in the 1980s. Today you can visit the bunker and find out interesting things about the German fleet and the French resistance in the area.

The bunker in La Rochelle
The black cat was the emblem of the German U-boat fleet. The picture is from the bunker.

I’ve seen and learned many interesting things on my trip and I highly recommend visiting Rochefort and La Rochelle.

Kafka

At the time of my registration for the Prague Chess Festival there was no option of accommodation at Hotel Don Giovanni, the playing venue. I made a reservation at Hotel Villa, 700 meters walk from Hotel Don Giovanni. Looking on Google Maps I noticed that my itinerary from the chess tournament place to the hotel where I would stay passed by Franz Kafka’s grave in the nearby Jewish cemetery. I started to read about Kafka and discovered that when he died of tuberculosis in 1924, he had the exact age I have now, 40 years and 11 months. This was a coincidence that further increased my curiosity on his life and work.

The cemetery had a fence but near Kafka’s grave there was a gate. This picture is taken from the street and is the image I ‘ve seen every day and night when I passed by his grave

The chess tournament playing venue seen from Kafka’s grave

If I count the times I went by Franz Kafka’s grave, in the 10 days I stayed in Prague, including two 12km runs around the graveyards, I am sure that I’ve never seen someone’s grave for so many times in my life. I guess it sounds quite Kafkaesque: in Prague, for ten nights a chess player passed by Kafka’s grave after each chess game. The only funny event was that one night a hare showed up in front of me at the cemetery corner then quickly disappeared on an alley. I’ve tried without success to find out if it’s common to meet hares in Prague other than on restaurants menu’s.

Kafka was born in a mid-class Jewish family in Prague in 1883. His father was authoritative and had a negative influence on his son who was shy and introvert. The writer’s drama came from the fact that he was never able to separate emotionally from his parents. However, he moved alone for the first time when he was 31 years old.

During the World War I, Kafka stayed for a while in this small house on Golden Line street behind the Prague Castle. You can buy a ticket to visit this street with a very interesting history

His entire creation and life were influenced by the relation he had with his father. When the father expressed his opposition to his son’s marriage in 1919, Kafka wrote a 45 page letter to his father expressing his frustrations and the emotional abuse he suffered as a child. It seems that the letter did not reach to his father. Unfortunately for him, Franz Kafka was not able to break free from this relation. His sister Ottla, for example, did marry a year later despite her father’s opposition.

A moving head of Kafka created by David Cerny. It might symbolize the metamorphoses of the author and the haunting thoughts that were running through his head.

For those interested, I recommend the visit to Kafka’s museum in Prague. It is a museum created in the spirit of his work. There I was moved when I saw his last letter addressed to his parents one day before he died. He was very weakened and did not have the energy to end that letter which was completed by his girlfriend Dora Diamant.

In my opinion, a very important idea from Kafka’s writings is that we create our own inner universe and it is up to us with what emotions we fill that world. Seneca said it better: “a man is as miserable as he thinks he is”.

Anthropoid

Visiting the Heydrich Terror Memorial in Prague had a deep impact on me. “Anthropoid” was the code name for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich the Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia in May 1942 by soldiers of the Czechoslovak army in exile. I knew the details of the operation before I came to Prague, but being in the crypt where the last showdown took place was a profound experience.

In the morning of May 27th, 1942, Heydrich was heading by car towards Prague Castle, his office. He had no personal guards and was alone with his driver. When the car slowed down in a street hairpin turn, Jozef Gabčík went in front of it and tried to shoot the Nazi leader with his machine gun but the weapon jammed. Heydrich asked the driver to stop the car and chase Gabčík. This gave time for Jan Kubiš to throw the modified hand grenade at the open roof car. Although the grenade exploded outside the car, shrapnel went through the door into Heydrich’s body wounding him. The attackers managed to run from the scene without being caught. Heydrich died from the infected wounds in a hospital eight days later.

German’s reprisals were very violent. It is estimated that 5000 Czechs were killed to revenge this assassinate. Thousands of people were arrested. Gestapo falsely thought that Lidice was the hiding place of the attackers so the Germans did a massacre in that village. A bounty of 1 million Reichsmarks was announced for information leading to the capture of the soldiers who killed Heydrich. No matter how many threats and how many people were shot for three weeks nobody revealed anything to the Germans. But on June 16th a Czech paratrooper who was separated from the main group came to the Gestapo office and gave them all the information he had on the Anthropoid operation and the families helping the soldiers. Once their mission was done, the Czech soldiers hid in the “Saints Cyril and Methodius” Orthodox church in Prague together with five other paratroopers who were sent from England with different missions in Czechoslovakia. In the morning of June 18th, 750 SS soldiers surrounded the church and did everything they could to capture the Czechs alive. The battle took six hours. The men inside the church fought to the last bullet which they used to commit suicide. Three of them died in the church chorus and the other four in the crypt below the altar. The traitor was judged by the Czechoslovak authorities after the war in 1947 and he was hanged.

What impressed me was the fact that the soldiers fought in the church until the end, even if they knew there was no other chance of survival than surrender. While three of them were fighting in the chorus the other four were digging for a way out of the crypt.
By their choice to fight until the end and exit from life only when there was nothing left they sent a very strong message. It was a message of courage and determination that still inspires people after all this time.

There was one more thing that had a deep impact on me. In the museum, there are many pictures of people who helped the paratroopers hid during their six months stay in Prague. All of them knew that when the Germans will find out about their collaboration with the exile army they will be shot together with their families. It was not a question if this will happen but when. They knew this meant their death and the death of loved ones and yet they helped the soldiers. However, once the killing attempt happened in May, for three weeks nobody said anything to Gestapo, despite threats and executions. Once the traitor talked, the Germans took care to torture and execute all the civilians involved as well as their families. Most of them were shot in October of the same year. By their sacrifice, they sent a message to posterity that humans should fight for what they think is right even when this means to pay the highest price.

The facts are that Heydrich was killed and around 5000 Czechoslovaks were executed as reprisals. Was this worth it?

Heydrich was a main architect of the Holocaust. He was in command of the units that committed killings behind the front lines and he was a very effective leader. He wanted to Germanize the Czechs while acting as Reich Protector in Bohemia and Moravia. If he would have lived longer I am sure that his units would have killed much more people than they did after his death. The Anthropoid operation was an important milestone in the Czechoslovak fight for liberation and showed that they weren’t willing to accept Germanization.

For those who want to read more about Anthropoid I recommend an interesting article which clarified many of the questions I had.

Prague Spring

It was a cold weather during the 10 days I spent in Prague at the beginning of March. Such a major difference to the sunny Rochefort that I visited in February. For the tourists interested in city attractions there are many articles on what to visit in the Czech capital so I won’t talk about that. I will cover only the out of the box things. I appreciate the sense of humor of the Czech people although it’s quite different from the Romanian’s sense of humor.

Let’s start with the history first. In the Wenceslas square there is an imposing statue of the former Duke of Bohemia from the tenth century – Wenceslaus I. A few hundred meters from this place, in the Lucerne passage, there is another representation of the same ruler only that this time is riding on a dead horse. This statue is the creation of the sculptor David Černý.

The next stop is the Prague castle, the biggest castle in Europe. There is a famous window the scene of the Defenestration of Prague in 1618. This led to the Thirty Years’ War in our continent. It was a tragic event, but it was somewhat funny to see next to that window a note that asked the visitors not to open the window. Last time that window was opened a war that lasted for thirty years ravaged Europe. We should better keep that window closed. As a side note, although the distance from that window to the ground is 21 meters all the three people thrown out of the window in 1618 survived the impact. This was considered a miracle at the time.

Let’s return to more modern times. Below are two similar sculptures. While I don’t know where the man with an umbrella in the first picture was heading to, the second man is the creation of David Černý mentioned above. It is a statue of Sigmund Freud attached with one hand to a flagpole. It is an inner struggle for Freud whether he should let it go or not.

In recent times, in 1996, they built a dancing house in Prague nicknamed “Ginger and Fred”, which can be seen as a modern symbol of an old city. Near the house, I saw the text in the second picture at a traffic light pole and I … did push the button.

These were a few things that caught my eye, amused me and made me think during my visit to Prague. I invite you to search for other out of the box cultural elements in Prague. This way you will understand more of the Czech spirit and way of thinking.

Les demoiselles de Rochefort

In February I was in Rochefort for a week playing in a chess tournament. When I was a kid, “Les demoiselles de Rochefort” was my favourite musical. It was written and directed by Jacques Demy following his success with “Les parapluies de Cherbourg” two years before. I enjoyed very much the soundtrack composed by Michel Legrand and the way it talked about love. The movie it’s about three men coming to Rochefort where each of them meets the love of his life. It was filmed in Rochefort for three months in the summer of 1966. Since that summer this little town has been changed forever.

Visiting Rochefort 53 years later for playing chess, I wanted to see the places where various scenes from the movie were shot and I discovered that not much of the original décor has changed.

The movie begins on a Friday morning with the arrival of showmen for a festival that was set to take place during a weekend in Rochefort. You can see that not much has changed in the town center over the years:

Rochefort town center in 1966
and in 2019

The gallery of Lancien is a “Natur House” in 2019:

The school of Boubou where Gene Kelly has a very nice dance scene:


The music store of Simon Dame became a local market. That’s the most dramatic transformation.

The market was closed that day

The tavern owned by the mother of the twins was modernized.

Michel Legrand passed away in Paris in January 2019. He was my favourite composer of movie soundtracks. Among other recognitions he was awarded with three Oscars during his career.
The town hall of Rochefort is adorned with a poster that says “Michel Legrand – Rochefort vous dit merci”

In the same town hall building Catherine Deneuve and her real life sister Francoise Dorleac sang the song of twin sisters in the movie:

The memories of this musical live strong in Rochefort as well as in my mind.

The movie ends with the showmen departure from the town next Monday morning once the festival finished. They came for just a few days then left Rochefort and… so did the chess players.

The movie will remain actual as long love is a topic of interest for human beings.
I enjoyed every day of my stay in Rochefort whether I was winning or losing a game. It feels great when you follow your dreams.