Panther Soup

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-04-07
  • Publisher: Vintage
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Beautifully blending contemporary travel writing and military history, John Gimlette travels across Europe in the footsteps of one of the greatest armies ever assembled: the United States forces of 1944-45. In 2004, John Gimlette set off across Europe with his guide Putnam Flint, an eighty-six-year-old Bostonian who had landed in Marseille in the midst of World War II with his tank destroyer battalion, nicknamed The Panthers. With Flint's help, Gimlette traveled from Marseille north to Dijon and Alsace, Paris and Lorraine, across the Rhine into Germany, and eventually south through the Alps into Austria. Gimlette provides a vivid portrait of the route as it is today, from spectacular landscapes to cities that have risen from cinders and as it was during one of the most tumultuous moments in world history.

Author Biography

John Gimlette is a practicing attorney in London, where he lives with his wife. He is a regular contributor of travel articles and photographs to Condé Nast Traveller, as well as other journals and newspapers in England.


Chapter 1

This is how the world looked in the beginning, or perhaps how it will look in the end.

The air crackles with heat, and the sky is the colour of salt. It’s an inert, waterless place, a series of eruptions blasted from the elements. My eyes sting with sea-smoke and ash. As I pick through the fissures and craters, I feel as if I’m scrambling through a petrified storm, great clouds of violet and magenta abruptly turned into rock. Nothing grows up here but sprigs of sea aster and sisal and fountains of dust. Way below, a volcanic sea cracks and sucks like blue glass burning. It is the ancient Mediterranean, in an adolescent mood.

This is the island of Pomègues, at the brittle end of the Frioul archipelago. From the cliffs, I can make out the knobbly, desiccated mountains of the Côte d’Azur, and, amongst them, the city of Marseille. Through all the smoke and vapours, it looks like Gomorrah, which is how most Frenchmen think of it. Forget it, said my friends in Paris, it’s just a filthy port, full of whores.

Frioul has seldom seen hope welling up in the hearts of Frenchmen. Perhaps it’s because – from a distance – the islands glow like bones, and turn the sea around them into liquid midnight. Or perhaps it’s for all the hopes and promises that have foundered there. For centuries, it was a place of exile for criminals, revolutionaries, the mad and the diseased. Remarkably, I discover that the last hospital was only abandoned in the 1950s. Ossification has taken over so quickly that it now looks Pompeian. Rattoneau Island is covered in such ruins. Next-door Pomègues doesn’t even have that.

The Marseillais still punish – or honour – their islands with isolation. I have Pomègues almost to myself. I clamber across the island and see no one except a group of Arab women swimming in a cove, and a very fat man. The women are fully clothed and hardly seem to notice the water around them. The fat man too seems very conscious of his clothes and walks as if he’s wearing ermine and velvet. The oddest thing about it is that he’s completely naked. Even the most sparing of places, it seems, can ease the harshness of reality.

After an hour, the island rises into a promontory and I’m attacked byles gabians.These foul, preternatural seabirds are the only creatures malicious enough to live up here, on this great, lifeless buttress. I begin to climb, under the snip and click of beaks and talons. The gabians have sown the aster with bones and shells, like a mortuary in the sky. Their vile pterodactyl chicks rasp at me from the ledges, and I can hear the bony scissors again, snipping at my ears.

Then I’m at the top, alone on an empty battlefield. It’s like a landscape inside out, a great belly of eviscerated earth and rock. All around is the wreckage of an Armageddon, a vast fungal fortress system of shattered domes and concrete mushrooms, pillboxes, foxholes, giant gun emplacements, crumbling redans, rangefinders, embrasures and trenches ten feet deep. I find tiny, cement cells in the earth, like weird earth-borne fruits that have ripened and burst and turned to stone. Nothing has been spared the cataclysm. It’s now a world of components and pieces; lumps of roadblock, bedsprings, a glittering carpet of glass, and fuel cans scattered like chaff. Obstinate chimneys nose their way up through the rubble and, in the cement, I see a date scratched with a stick:1944.

So, this bone-dry war village –die Batterie von Pomègues– flourished only momentarily before the bombs began to fall. It has flourished little since. These days the only colours erupting in the rubble are poppy reds and gassy clumps of lavatera. Few people come out here any more, to this rock so violently shunned.Vive la Sodom, say the graffiti.

Perhaps the au

Excerpted from Panther Soup: Travels Through Europe in War and Peace by John Gimlette
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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