Nomad by Trade

A travel blog for the kid at heart.

Tag: History

Salt sculptures in the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow, Poland

Exploring the Wieliczka Salt Mine

The Wieliczka Salt Mine is located just outside of one of my favorite cities in the world – Krakow, Poland. It was a working salt mine for over 700 years, and now is one of the top tourist attractions in the area. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site if you’re into that kind of thing. I loved the tour because over the years, miners carved incredible statues out of the rock salt, and other artists have contributed works as well. The tour is much more than just walking through old mine shafts, and I highly recommend visiting the Wieliczka Salt Mine when in Krakow.

Touring the Wieliczka Salt Mine

The regular tours at Wieliczka last a couple of hours and involve a lot of walking and some stairs (though it’s possible to book accessible tours in advance). You only visit a fraction of the chambers in the mine – it would take days to explore the whole thing – but it includes the history of the work that was done there as well as info about the tools and machinery used. Foreign language tours are available, and it’s recommended to book them in advance on their website. With the current exchange rate, they cost about $25.

Carvings in the Wieliczka Salt Mine

Our tour started off with a long climb down a series of stairs (at least we weren’t going up!) to enter the first part of the mine. We learned the legend about how the mine came to be there, and about the different methods that were used there.

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Making the Most of a Brief Stop in Hot Springs, Arkansas

One of my recent work trips took me to Hot Springs, Arkansas. I’d been to Arkansas before, but only for about 20 minutes. We were close by on a family vacation years ago and took a short detour just long enough to take some pictures and grab drinks at a gas station just to cross the state off of our list. It took me almost another fifteen years to come back.

Hot Springs National Park

I’m a huge fan of National Parks and would love to have the time and money to visit them all someday. For this trip, I was actually going to be working inside of a National Park, and I was super excited.

Hot Springs NP is headquartered in one of the old bath houses that made Hot Springs famous back in the day. Only a couple of them are in operation these days, and (at least in November) there were no evening appointments available, so I had to rule out actually visiting one of the baths. Plus, I’m not entirely sure that it would be my kind of thing.

The park visitor center also closed at 5pm, which presented a challenge because I wanted to run in and grab a brochure and passport stamp at some point. A solution presented itself one day during lunch with my coworkers. We happened to pick a place directly across the street from it, so after ordering food, I ran over and toured as much of the building as I could in the ten minutes I’d allotted myself.

 Hot Springs National Park

I power walked through all three floors and managed to at least peek into all of the rooms that are accessible to visitors. I wouldn’t recommend it as a strategy for someone who actually wants to learn something, but when you only have ten minutes to see something, you do what you can.

I especially liked the stained glass ceiling in the men’s bath area (the women’s baths had nothing in the way of décor) and the upper level lounge area. I’m not sure that I would’ve been into the whole bath thing, but it was an interesting part of the local culture that has kind of faded over time.

 Hot Springs National Park

Outside the building, I found a fountain where hot spring water straight from the mountain was steaming in the chilly November air and somehow managed to get it all over my coat while reaching in to get a feel for the temperature. I don’t regret it. The water comes out at a perfect bathwater temp. Over the next couple of days, I noticed a few other fountains like this scattered through the downtown area.

A natural fountain in Hot Springs National Park

There wasn’t much daylight left after work, so one day, my co-worker and I plotted to get a taste of the mountains during lunch. We grabbed sandwiches and chips from the Subway in town and then drove up one of the mountain loops to eat at a picnic area. We had a decent view overlooking the town, but there were still a lot of trees in our way. Once we finished eating, we continued on the one-way loop and less than a quarter mile later, we found a gazebo with a gorgeous panoramic view over the area. Oops. There’s also an observation tower on top of one of the mountains, but we didn’t have time to visit it during lunch.

 Hot Springs National Park

Other Things to See and Do

Some of the locals recommended a place called the Ohio Club for dinner. It has a huge carved wood bar that’s over 100 years old and was a speakeasy during Prohibition. I loved reading about the history of the place on the back of the menu. It was evidently founded by the gangster who is speculated to have been the inspiration for Jay Gatsby in F. Scot Fitzgerald’s novel. I don’t order burgers very often, but theirs sounded good so I went for it. I was not disappointed.

 The Ohio Club in Hot Springs, Arkansas

On our last night in town, I tried to visit a quirky-looking Star Wars museum called The Galaxy Connection that displays the owner’s extensive collection of memorabilia. As a big Star Wars nerd and lover of all things kitschy, I was pretty excited even though I knew I wouldn’t get a lot of time to visit. The website and door both said that it was open until six, but when I showed up at 5:10, the doors were locked and there was an employee attempting to hide behind the counter so I couldn’t see her. She did not do a great job of it.

I was a little annoyed, but salvaged the evening by taking a walk through the Christmas lights set up in a couple of parks along Bathhouse Row. There were some nice light displays, including a tree that “danced” to music. I liked the cute little downtown area, and it seems like it would have a fun atmosphere during busier tourist times.

 Christmas lights in Hot Springs, Arkansas

I’d seen people filling up water jugs at public water dispensers throughout the week and I decided that I couldn’t leave Hot Springs without sampling some of the famous water. I retrieved my trusty travel water bottle from the car and filled it up with the fresh, hot water. I was pretty sure it was safe to drink immediately, but since I had Google in my pocket, I figured I’d double check before chugging it. The NPS site encourages drinking the water, so I went for it. It’s not great hot, but after tossing it in the hotel fridge overnight, it was much better. I was expecting hints of sulfur, but it really didn’t taste all that different from the tap water in most places. This is definitely something you need to try if you’re in town. How many places can you drink groundwater like that from public taps? I was sorry that I hadn’t tried it earlier in the week because then I could’ve made multiple trips.

A brief stop in Hot Springs, Arkansas

Highlights of American Normandy

Visiting Omaha Beach had long been on my travel bucket list. As a major history buff, especially about WWII, as soon as I booked a flight to Paris, I knew I’d have to make a road trip up to Normandy. We only ended up with about a day and a half to explore, but you could easily spend three or four days seeing all of the sights, especially if you were to throw in a trip to Mont Saint-Michel while you’re in the area.

Renting a car is by far the best way to visit the D-Day historical sites on the Normandy coast. Unlike other parts of Europe that I’ve visited, there isn’t any great public transportation around there, so a car is essential unless you plan on doing one of the big bus tours that we crossed paths with. I’m not typically a huge organized tour fan because I like having the freedom to explore at my own pace and spend more or less time at a certain location depending on how much it interests me. This was my third Europe trip in the last three years, all of which have involved driving, so renting cars over there doesn’t really phase me.

American Cemetery at Omaha Beach

Our next stop was the American cemetery near Omaha Beach. We were somewhat surprised to find metal detectors and baggage screening at the entrance to the main building, but we got through quickly since it wasn’t crowded when we were there.

We didn’t spend much time in the museum area because it was our third D-Day-focused museum in the last 18 hours. We did take the time to watch a fantastic short movie in a theater on the lower level that followed the stories of a few of the people who were killed in the Normandy campaign. I’m not usually much of a softie, but I was a little choked up at the end.

American Cemetery at Omaha Beach Memorial

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Sunrise over Gold Beach in Arromanches-les-Bains

Why Any History Buff Needs to Visit Arromanches-les-Bains

I absolutely fell in love with the little town called Arromanches-les-Bains, near what was code named Gold Beach. It’s an incredible combination of natural beauty and history. You can walk on the same beach that Allied troops stormed on D-Day and marvel at the remnants of the war that still line the shore more than 70 years later.

Dawn on the beach

The next morning was when the excitement really kicked in. I got to watch the sky light up over the beach with the remnants of the mulberry harbor while the rest of the family got ready. It was fascinating thinking about the fact that men were storming the beaches at dawn in almost this exact spot on the morning of D-Day. Our room was located directly in front of one of the largest remaining pieces and it was very cool to get to see the breakwaters further out appear along the horizon as day broke.

Sunrise over Gold Beach in Arromanches-les-Bains

Daybreak from our hotel room

We wanted to hit the ruins at low tide so we could really explore them, so we headed straight out to the beach without eating breakfast. I was very glad we did because within a few hours, a lot of the ruins were submerged and the rest had enough water around them that we wouldn’t have been able to see them up close had we waited.

Even though I was in AP History and have read extensively about WWII, I had somehow never heard of the Mulberries until I began planning this trip. Now I’m thoroughly fascinated with the ingenuity that sparked them. The D-Day landing sites were chosen for surprise – the Allies wanted locations that the Germans wouldn’t expect them. Since ports and harbors were the most valuable, the Germans had those heavily fortified with mines and men.

The Allied leaders knew that they would have to find a way to supply the troops that landed on the beaches until they could capture one of the harbors on the French coast. In order to do this, they devised the ingenious mulberry harbors – artificial ports that could be used to offload reinforcements and supplies. Giant concrete breakwaters were towed across the English Channel and sunk along with some decommissioned ships to protect the harbor, and floating docks and bridges that were designed to rise and fall with the tide were installed and used to offload thousands of men and supplies for the growing Allied landing force. They were supposed to be built at Omaha and Gold beaches, but a bad storm blew through before they could be finished, and the one at Omaha was so thoroughly destroyed that the Allies abandoned it only the Gold Beach mulberry was used. The idea of “hey, we need a harbor here, so let’s just build one and tow it across the Channel” is mind-blowing to me.

Gold Beach in Arromanches-les-Bains, France

Looking east toward Gold Beach

We think these were pieces of one of the floating bridges that were used to offload cargo and people. They’ve been sort of stacked on top of each other like fallen dominoes over the last 72 years. As we wandered around them, some half-buried in sand, I was struck by the idea that visitors another 72 years from now might not even see any traces left behind.
Mulberry harbor pieces on Gold Beach in Arromanches-les-Bains
A little further west on the beach was the enormous piece that we had seen from our hotel window. We think this was a piece of one of the floating docks. The sand nearby was dotted with seashells and I am in love with this picture of nature’s beauty contrasted with the hulking remains of a war that destroyed so much. 72 years earlier, artillery shells were exploding over this beach and here we were picking up seashells on a cold, wintery morning.
 
Mulberry harbor pieces on Gold Beach in Arromanches-les-Bains

From artillery shells to sea shells

We strolled back along the sea wall, enjoying the view and posing for pictures. We were pretty cold by that point thanks to the wind and were in need of some hot beverages and a breakfast that ideally involved a lot of pastries.

Seawall in Arromanches-les-Bains, France
After grabbing breakfast at a nearby hotel’s restaurant, we checked out and visited the Musee du Debarquement, which is almost entirely devoted to the mulberry harbor here. Looking at dioramas really gave a sense of the scale of the operation. My favorite part was the moving model that showed how the bridges and piers were designed to move up and down with the waves and tide. The museum was fairly small, but very crowded even though it was early morning in the off-season. Several busloads of people arrived close together and swarmed the whole place making it hard to walk through the exhibits.

Musee du Debarquement

Around the back of the museum, we found a piece of one of the mulberry bridges that had been moved to replace a damaged bridge over a nearby river for over 50 years. After that bridge was decommissioned in 2004, the span was returned to Arromanches-les-Bains to be displayed.

Mulberry harbor bridge segment in Arromanches-les-Bains, France

After a few minutes of souvenir shopping and some more sea wall pictures, we hit the road to continue our tour of Normandy.

Mulberry harbor pieces at Gold Beach

By the time we left, the ruins were almost submerged.

Where to stay

We had some trouble finding our hotel – Hotel de la Marine – because it turned out to be off of a pedestrian only zone which greatly confused our GPS. We ended up dropping my brother off nearby and he went in search of the hotel. Their website says they don’t offer parking, but they actually have a few hidden spots that you have to drive through the pedestrian zone and along the sea wall to get to. We were lucky that it was an off-season, and I wouldn’t count on getting one during the busier summers. The parking area was tiny and pulling in and out of the spaces required quite a few back and forth passes. Getting to drive along the sea wall was kind of neat though, even if it was only for a couple hundred feet.

We were absolutely thrilled with the location of the hotel. It would be the perfect spot for a summer visit with its location right along the sea wall. We almost didn’t find it because we were doing all of our bookings through Expedia and it’s not listed on there. It wasn’t until I tried a search on Booking.com that I located it. I would strongly recommend doing searches on multiple websites to make sure you find everything available because no search engine is comprehensive. We had to have two separate rooms because they could only accommodate two people in each room, but the staff made sure we were right next to each other. We even lucked out with a killer view of the beach.

The hotel had a nice restaurant that we chose for dinner, largely because there didn’t appear to be much else open in town. It seemed expensive, but that was because we hadn’t had any other meals in France yet. (I’m not counting lunch at McDonald’s.) In hindsight, it was pretty much on par with the prices we paid elsewhere in France, and I’ve come to the conclusion that food just costs a fortune there. I ordered a creamy pasta dish that I didn’t particularly care for, but everyone else seemed quite pleased with their food. We split a bottle of wine and toasted to the start of another grand adventure.

Hotel de la Marine in Arromanches-les-Bains

Cheers!

The rooms themselves were decent – tiny by American standards, but on par with most places I’ve stayed at in Europe. There was some trouble with the glass around the shower in the room I stayed in that resulted in water leaking all over the bathroom floor, but my brother and sister in the room next door reported no issues with theirs. My only real complaint was the fact that the long curtains covered the radiator so we had to choose between having the room warm, having it dark, or having it both warm and dark until the curtains caught fire. We chose warmth sans fire.

Read more about Normandy:

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One Afternoon in Caen and Bayeux, France

We landed in Paris early in the morning – I am a huge fan of overnight flights when heading east – and grabbed a rental car and hit the road to drive up to Normandy. I’m a big history buff and I’m particularly interested in World War II because my grandpa fought in the European Theater. We sort of inadvertently ended up following in some of his footsteps on this trip, which made it even more interesting than it would’ve been otherwise.

Our first stop was, embarrassingly, a McDonald’s we found along the highway. I’m normally very opposed to eating at places like that when overseas, but we were starving and needed something fast if we were going to get to do anything in Normandy that afternoon. We did enjoy the novelty of getting to order a “McBeer” with our combo meals though. American readers will be happy to know that Mickey D’s chicken nuggets taste the same in France as they do back home.

Caen

We once again hit the road and made it to Caen, a city whose pronunciation we debated until finally looking it up on Youtube. None of us had been right. Though our stated purpose for visiting Normandy was to see WWII attractions, our first stop on vacation was a step much, much further back in history. We were going to see the Abbey where William the Conqueror’s tomb is located.

Admission to the abbey was free, and there was also a small art exhibition going on in one of the wings. We wandered through the cloister for a few minutes before setting out to actually enter the main building. In order to get inside, we had to walk back out the front entrance we had come in through and go all the way around the outside of the church until we found a tiny, unmarked door. We would’ve missed it if another group of people hadn’t exited as we were walking by.

The cloister at l'Abbaye des Hommes in Caen, France

The cloister

The abbey was founded in 1063 and was luckily spared from the heavy fighting around Caen during WWII. I found it to be appropriately gloomy inside, but the scale of the architecture was truly astounding. I’m consistently blown away when I see such old buildings that were constructed without modern machinery with such high vaulted ceilings and intricate details.
William the Conqueror's Tomb in Caen, France

William the Conqueror’s Tomb

William the Conqueror’s tomb was right in the center of the altar, though I found out later that his body isn’t actually there anymore. It was evidently removed during religious wars in the 1500s and all but one thigh bone was lost.

After we finished wandering inside the abbey, we walked over to another church we had spotted on the way in. It was called Eglise Saint Etienne-le-vieux and had been heavily damaged by bombs during WWII and you could see the striking remains from quite a distance away. The main tower still stands, but much of the rest of the building lies in ruins. The proximity to the main abbey that survived the war really drove home the randomness of the destruction that the war brought as the opposing armies battled across the continent.

Saint Etienne-le-Vieux in Caen, France

Saint Etienne-le-Vieux

Bayeux

A little further down the road, we stopped at the Musee Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie in Bayeux. It was starting to get late, so we only had about an hour and a half to see everything. The museum had a lot of army vehicles and uniforms that were used in the battle, but I wouldn’t consider it a must-do. One of the cooler things was an old mobile radio truck that could be used to monitor communications from anywhere on the battlefield. I also liked seeing a tank crew uniform because my grandpa was part of a tank crew and I’ve seen pictures of him dressed the same way.

American tank crew uniform at the Musee Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie

An American tank crew uniform

We stayed until close and then once again hopped in the rental car to continue our journey to our hotel for the night.

Read more about our trip to France, Belgium, and Luxembourg:

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