Posts Tagged With: glass

Last Day in Paris

This will be a brief post since it is late and we still have to pack for our departure to Prague tomorrow.

One of our favorite venues in Paris is Sainte-Chappele, a spectacular Gothic chapel literally around the corner from Notre Dame. A lot of visitors overlook it on their first visit to Paris, which is a mistake, since its stained glass alone is practically worth the trip to France. The lower chapel is modest enough, dominated by a small gift shop and some statuary like this one.

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But upstairs is the main event, 750 square meters (8000 square feet) of stained glass in exquisite detail. This panorama along one wall does not come close to doing it justice (in part because of the terrible fish-eye distortion…trust me, the walls do not bulge). The real thing is eye-popping because the windows are 50 feet (15 m) high (!) and cover all four walls of the room.

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The chapel was completed in 1248 and 700 years later amazingly survived World War II without a scratch. But three quarters of a millennium takes its toll even on workmanship like this, and so in 2008 an enormous restoration effort got underway, costing some US $12M and lasting seven years. Every single segment of glass was removed, cleaned, given a protective glass veneer (with an air gap), reassembled if cracked, re-leaded around its perimeter, and reinserted. The results are spectacular, and when you make it to Paris you should not fail to visit.

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By the way — you’ll thank me for this if you come — you should buy tickets for Sainte-Chapelle online. They do not cost any extra than “real time” walk-up tickets and though they commit you to a particular day, they do not tie you to a particular time of day. But the important thing is that they give you priority admission, i.e. they allow you to skip the (sometimes very long) line. It’s an absolute no-brainer. (The same paradigm applies to the Picasso Museum and the Musée d’Orsay as well. Buy online and save yourself a lot of line-waiting at a cost of zero dollars. You’re welcome.)

Speaking of Musée d’Orsay, that was our next stop. Originally built as a Beaux-Arts-style railway station between 1898 and 1900, it fell into disuse after three or four decades, and after yet a few more decades of everyone wondering what to do with it, was finally re-purposed as an art museum. It opened in 1986 and now houses the largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world (even greater than the Louvre) and includes collections of Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. In other words, the A-Team.

Alice is a lot more into Impressionism than I am (though I love Van Gogh), but even aside from the art we both love the space itself, whose central atrium still has the look of a modernized version of its Beaux-Arts railway origin.

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And here was an unexpected display: a very detailed and seriously cool cross-sectional model of L’Opera, which of course we had just visited yesterday! (They really ought to hide a little model Phantom in there somewhere.)

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We spent an hour or two in the museum, then had lunch at a nearby brasserie and walked a mile and a half along the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. Distressingly, the security paranoia of the past several years has taken hold; unlike all of our other visits here, it is now no longer possible to stroll among the tower’s four gigantic pylons and look straight up at it from underneath. The area is now cordoned off with a security fence, and only ticket holders for the elevator are allowed through.

But the surrounding grounds are unchanged, and it is still a genial place to lie in the shade and gaze up at the tower, watching the elevators glide up and down its spidery height. We lazed for a while, then headed home to have dinner and pack and talk about when our next visit should be.

Categories: Europe, France | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Reykjavik: In Search of Icelanders

We arrived in Reykjavik at about 6 AM local time this morning, some 14 hours ago. Since we have attacked the city with our usual touristic compulsion, accompanied by our equally immoderate traveling companions Janet and Tim, I am more or less exhausted and so will for the most part let some photos do the talking. So let’s start with a panorama of Reykjavik Harbor, taken from the tallest point in the city: the spire of Hallsgrimkirkja (which I will explain in a moment):

The city looks more or less to the north across the harbor, and a couple of things stand out as you view it from either street level or from above: (1) the city has a very clean, orderly feel; and (2) the predominant architectural style is Primary Colored Boxes, a very Scandinavian look that might have resulted from the Norse gods having purchased the city in its entirety from Ikea. (It would have had some typical Ikea name like Whølecitii and the assembly instructions would have been 163,000 pages long.) It has a very walkable and compact downtown area; most of the major landmarks and attractions fall within an area about a mile on a side. The dramatic clouds that you see in the photo are pretty typical.

The Hallsgrimkirkja is probably the single most publicized and photographed building in Iceland, a 75 m (244 ft) church named after  Hallgrímur Pétursson, a 17th century Icelandic poet and clergyman. It shows up in every tourist ad and every postcard. You have very likely seen a photo of it at some point. Here it is:

The statue in the front is Leif Erickson, presented to Iceland as a gift from the United States in 1930 to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament. Dating from AD 930, the Althing is the oldest parliamentary body in the world, originally presided over by Strom Thurmond. (That last phrase is actually a pretty good joke that only Americans over the age of about 55 will understand. Everyone else, just move on.)

As I mentioned, you have probably seen this picture before…. except that when you saw it, the building looked very white. For some reason, the Icelandic tourism authorities feel compelled to present this church as being heavenly white in color, and that is how it appears in most “official” photos after suitable lighting adjustments and resorting to Photoshop. But it isn’t white: it’s gray, just as you see here. Maybe on a sunny day it would like more iconic.

The interior of the Hallsgrimkirkja is every bit as striking and stark as the exterior. Here is the main sanctuary:

It is white, or nearly so, and very imposing, albeit in a spartan Mormon-Temple-Also-Bought-From-Ikea sort of way. At the back of the hall is a glorious and impressive 5700-pipe organ.

Before moving on I would first like to confirm two of the predictions that I made in my pre-trip blog post about a week ago. First, Reykjavik appears not to contain any actual Icelanders outside of store and restaurant employees. (And not even all of them: the rental agent who gave us our car was Lithuanian.) Pretty much everyone on the street is a tourist, Americans seemingly the most numerous.

Second, the locals love hot dogs, in case you thought I was kidding last time. We counted 5 hot dog stands in a two block stretch downtown. The most famous of all — supposedly the lines can be an hour long in the summer — is an unprepossessing kiosk dating from 1937, called Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. (No, I do not know what the translation is.) And by “unprepossessing”, here is what I mean:

That’s it. Happily there was almost no line. The menu consists of exactly two items: hot dogs, and Coca Cola. There are five possible things you can get on your hot dog: mayo, mustard, ketchup, raw onion, or fried onions. Oh, and the Coke can be diet. That’s it. So we did our touristy duty and each had a hot dog and a Coke because really, what else was there to do. Here are Janet and Tim, snapping under the pressure.

In all fairness, I will grant that they were pretty good hot dogs. They were reasonably priced, and a lot less exotic (or at least thought-provoking) then some of the other local restaurant fare. We were looking for places for dinner later in the day and came across a well-reviewed steak restaurant near our flat. It seemed pretty straightforward: the name of the place was “The Steak Restaurant”. Reading the menu in the front window, an entree called “Surf and Turf” caught my eye. Reading one line further down revealed that the “surf” was minke whale and the “turf” was horse. We went elsewhere and got fish and chips for dinner. The fish was cod. All the fish here is cod, except for the halibut and Arctic char. (And whale, which isn’t a fish.)

Anyway, having fueled up on hot dogs to counteract our jet lag, we were ready to tackle some of the major city attractions. Besides the Hallsgrimkirkja, the next most prominent structure in the city is the much more contemporary performing arts house, the Harpa, which is essential the local equivalent of the Sydney Opera House. It is an exceptionally striking edifice, all prismatic glass that creates stunning interior and exterior views, e.g.:

(The bottom image is on the inside, looking upwards and outwards from the atrium.)

The Harpa sits right at the water’s edge, which prompted Janet to relate an anecdote that she had read in a book about how Icelanders view tourism. The complaint from at least one of the locals was, “Why do tourists keep building stupid piles of rocks?” we weren’t sure what that mean until we noticed the beach next to the Harpa, which looks like this:

Apparently these were erected by tourists rather than trolls. (Icelanders love trolls. You see stuffed trolls, troll toys, and books about trolls in pretty much every store. These are apparently not the kind that live under bridges and eat billy goats. Nor do they build pointless piles of rocks.)

A few hundred meters up the road from the Harpa is another of Reykjavik’s signature landmarks: the Sun Voyager sculpture:

It dates from 1990, created by the Icelandic sculptor Jón Gunnar Árnason. It is 18 m (60′) long and about half that in height. If you are like every human being on Earth other than Jón Gunnar Árnason (who is now dead and thus not on Earth in the usual sense) you take one look at this thing and say “Viking ship.” I mean, it’s pretty obviously a Viking ship, right? But apparently not. According to Wikipedia:

“It is a common misunderstanding that Sun Voyager is a Viking ship. It is quite understandable that many tourists think like this when travelling in Iceland, the land of the sagas. Jón Gunnar was himself very ill with leukaemia at the time that the full-scale Sun Voyager came to be constructed, and he died in April 1989, a year before it was placed in its present location. Some people have thus suggested that Jón Gunnar conceived the work during this period, at a time when he might have been preoccupied with death, and argued that Sun Voyager should be seen as a vessel that transports souls to the realm of death. Sun Voyager was essentially envisaged as being a dreamboat, an ode to the sun symbolizing light and hope.”

You will note from a careful reading, however, this is all third-party interpretation: it appears that no one ever thought to ask Jón Gunnar whether it was a Viking ship and get “no” for an answer. So I’m sticking with Viking ship.

So jet lag and fatigue withstanding, that was our first day in Iceland. Tomorrow we are driving to Gulffoss Falls and doing our insanely cold snorkeling trip in the Silfra volcanic fissure.




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Vaporetto to the Ghetto, and Moving on from Venice

Venice-etal-1We had grand plans for Sunday the 19th involving Venice’s Jewish Ghetto, but we overslept and, though we ended up walking arund the ghetto and visiting the Jewish Museum, we had some time constraints that prevented us from taking the tour of the ghetto’s five synagogues. (Photo taken in the staircase inside the museum.)

Venice’s Jewish ghetto has the dubious distinction of being the original Jewish Ghetto. The Jewish population was isolated in 1516 by order of the Doge (it was either that or leave the city altogether), and they were moved to an undesirable area near the edge of the city at the site of a foundry. The Italian word for “foundry” is geto, pronounced like “jetto”, but later German immigrants pronounced it with a hard G since the German language has no soft G. And so the modern word was born.  It’s a remarkably small space, basically a single square with two narrow streets radiating off it. Two of the synagogues are located on the square and the other three on the side streets.

Although World War II-era Pope Pius XII has come in for considerable criticism for what many see as a laissez faire attitude towards the Nazis, Italy did better than most occupied countries when it came to protecting their Jews. They managed to ship off almost none at all until 1943, when Germany invaded and occupied northern Italy after Mussolini figured out who was actually going to win the war and switched sides. It was in late 1943 that the deportations started: 8000 Jews were shipped off to concentration camps, and eight came back. Even so, 80% of Italy’s Jewish population survived the war.

Today, despite the presence of several kosher restaurants, the ghetto is home to approximately zero Jews and — but for the synagogues themselves — is more tourist destination than religious enclave. We toured the museum, and as we were about to leave the square I passed a young (about 30 years old) Hasid — beard, flat hat, black coat, the whole deal — who bade me “shalom“. So I “shalomed” back, and we fell into conversation. He said, “Are you Jewish?” I replied, “Yes, and I’m guessing that you are too.” He was Australian, visiting Italy for a month including the recent Passover holiday. So I said, “chag samayach” (“happy holiday” in Hebrew, to my Gentile readers), at which moment I became a marked man. He spent the next several minutes trying to inveigle me into accompanying him to the synagogue to don the tefillin, which are the leather phylacteries worn by orthodox Jews, and it’s all very complicated so just click the damn link on the word “tefillin” to get the full explanation. Suffice it to say that I had not done this since I was 13 years old and was not about to do it now, because (a) I had absolutely no memory of the required prayers; and (b) also had no memory of the appropriate details for winding the leather straps and would in all likelihood have ended up strangling myself. It would not have been a salutary experience for either of us, so I begged off.

Our traveling companions Jim and Elaine arrived from Trieste that afternoon (hence our time constraint); we had flown over with them but they started their sojourn in that city and we were now meeting up again to spend the next 2 1/2 weeks together. Our first joint stop was the Peggy Guggenheim museum. The heiress was quite the force in the art world in the 1940’s — a major patron and collector — and amassed a large collection of contemporary art here in Venice. Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollack, all the biggies form that era. Her grave is on the grounds of the museum, rather oddly surrounded by the graves of her 14 “babies”. One is shocked that she had so many children — all of whom died — until a closer reading of the headstone reveals that (a) they all died between the ages of 5 and 14, and (b) they all had names like “Sir Herbert” and “King Kong”, “Peacock”, and “Cappucino”. Dogs. Lhasa apsos, to be exact. Sheesh.

The weather had improved considerably over the chilly rain we had had the previous two days; the day was sunny though the night was still brisk. It seemed like a good opportunity to take the vaporetto around to St. Mark’s Square to watch the crowd and get some night shots, e.g.:

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One of the curiosities of St. Mark’s is the “dueling orchestras”. Several of the restaurants around the square have rather formal looking outdoor quartets playing both classical music and classical-sounding versions of popular tunes from various eras, e.g., Sinatra’s “My Way”. It is a pleasantly anachronistic sight. Here’s one of them:


We spent yesterday (Monday April 20) on a boat outing to Venice’s two most popular nearby islands: Murano and Burano. Murano is famous for its glass factories and galleries, but to our eyes seems to be largely coasting on its reputation. Virtually every store along its canals is a glass gallery, and they seem to fall into two broad categories: crap made in China, and genuinely beautiful incredibly expensive locally-made pieces.  Many of the latter have signs in front of the store that say “No China” so you ostensibly know that you’re getting the real deal. But since our choice seemed to come down to lousy stuff or stuff we couldn’t afford, we didn’t buy anything.


It should be called “Floating French Fries”, but it isn’t.

A few of the stores have resident artisans whom you can watch making glass items on the spot. This was fun to watch. What was not so much fun was when I tried to take a picture of said artisan and got yelled at. “No photos!”  Jeez.  Bunch of glass-holes.

There is an interesting  museum on Murano that displays glass items from the full history of glass, from the earliest Mesopotamian pieces of about 1000 BC to hypermodern art installations like the one I photographed here. The museum was certainly the high point of Murano, but in truth it was no better and in some ways less interesting the Corning Glass Museum in upstate New York. In short, if you’re pressed for time in Venice, you can pretty safely leave Murano off your list.

Our next boat stop was the neighboring island of Burano, very small and known primarily — and for very good reason — for its colorful streets and for its lace industry. We didn’t buy any lace but the houses are insanely photogenic. Here are a few photos from various streets and alleys; the last one is the main canal and shops.

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Burano also has its own leaning tower, a bell tower at tilts at about a 5 degree angle, roughly the same as its more famous cousin in Pisa. But it’s hard to get a good close vantage point that allows the tilt to show up in photos; you see it best from far away, aboard the boat.

This was our last day in Venice, and hence our last opportunity for a gondola ride. Yes, it’s touristy, and yes, it may be overpriced, but c’mon, how jaded do you have to be to go to Venice for the first time and not ride in a gondola? We are experienced travelers, not jaded ones, and so after appropriate due diligence (i.e., reading some web sites to see how much it ought ot cost, how long a typical ride is, etc., we took the plunge (not literally). In case you were wondering, a “standard” ride costs 80 euros and lasts for roughly a half hour. More if you want to go longer, or if you go at night, or if you want the guy — and they are all guys, every one — to sing. The basic package was entirely adequate for our purposes. (And by the way, if you do want to the guy to sing, do not ask for “O Sole Mio”. That’s a Neapolitan song: wrong part of the country.)

Fun facts, courtesy of our gondolier Antonio: there are 500 gondoliers in Venice, all men, and many having come to the career through the family line (Antonio himself claimed to be 5th generation). They all know each other; we saw that in action since we encountered several other gondolas in some of the side canals, and the guys all chatted continuously among themselves. You have to go to Gondolier’s School to get certified. (And you damn well better study; the clearance on some of the tighter turns in the side canals was about an inch.) A gondola is 35′ long, weighs about 1200 lbs, and has six coats of paint. The Rialto Bridge restoration will take two more years. Et cetera. It was quite a lot of fun, and of course very romantic. We were satisfied, as the second of the next two pictures shows.

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And that was the end of our stay in Venice. This morning we picked up our rental car (a brand spanking new Peugeot 5008 that fits us and our luggage perfectly) and set off for Aquileia, about 60 miles to the north, a formerly-great port city during the waning days of the Roman Empire. There is little there now except for a smattering of Roman ruins and, much more impressively, a basilica whose floor is a very old Roman mosaic. Here’s a detail:


We walked around for a while then struck out for tonight’s lodging, a B&B in the northern foothills, a gorgeous wine region whose hillsides look like, well, exactly what you think they should. I’ll try and get some photos tomorrow. We are staying at a 4-unit lodge built from what appears to be a converted farmhouse overlooking a vineyard. It’s a beautiful place in a rustic hilltop village. In fact, the only thing exciting our cynical instincts is the name of the village, which is San Pietro del Fellete, which we of course call St. Peter of Fellatio. No jokes about “thy rod and they staff”, please.

OK, if I’m writing stuff like that it must be late and I must be exhausted. So I will stop now.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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