Posts Tagged With: restoration

All the Way to Hué

The dynast Nguyen Anh – he after whom nearly 50 million Nguyens are currently named — unified Vietnam in 1802, as I mentioned earlier, and the question arose as to whether he would keep the capital in Hanoi. One of the first foreign emissaries to present his credentials to Nguyen was the Mexican ambassador, Jose Valdes Bolano, who posed that very question. Nguyen famously replied, “No, Hué, Jose.”

(OK, I invented that conversation just to go for the cheap pun. If you don’t like it, go write your own damn blog.)

(Does it help if I tell you that the current Mexican ambassador to Vietnam is a woman named Sara Valdes Bolano? I didn’t think so.)

Nguyen did in fact make Hué the capital in 1802, and it remained such until the French showed up and started knocking over the furniture in 1945. It’s our first stop in what used to be South Vietnam, i.e. the part of the country south of the 17th parallel that defined the infamous DMZ. The contrast with Hanoi is striking, a legacy of the  contrasting paths of economic development that the North and the South took prior to the unification in 1975 when Saigon finally fell to the Communists. Hué has a population of less than 400,000, about one-twentieth the size of Hanoi, and yet has the feel of a fully developed Western city: a glitzy downtown with lots of neon and a thumping bar scene; lots of English language signage and stores that would be at home in any American mall; and (slightly) less random traffic. It’s an attractive town, threaded by the placid and scenic Huong (“Perfume”) River.

The historical centerpiece of Hué is the Imperial City, a.k.a. the Citadel, whose planning was begun by Nguyen around the time he took over. It sits near the river, facing southeast for both feng shui and political reasons, which is to say that it faces away from Beijing. In its heyday it was an enormous thriving complex, dominated by a fort with cannons but, very much like the Forbidden City in Beijing, containing over 150 buildings containing the residences of the royal family and their retinue, attendants, and hangers-on. It’s surrounded by a moat — formerly populated by crocodiles, per our tour lead Phil — nearly 10 km long.

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The Citadel started to fall on hard times when the Viet Minh (the forerunners of the Viet Cong) occupied it in 1947, and was pretty much devastated during the Tet Offensive in 1968 when both sides variously occupied or bombed the living hell out of it. There are only about 10 buildings left today. Fifty years later, the destruction is still a source of hard feelings among the families and descendants of the antagonists. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the subject of a fair amount of restoration. Much of what’s there is beautiful but it still contains a lot of overgrown fields.

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In keeping with a very Buddhist yin-yang, war-piece paradigm, we traded the Citadel for a nunnery, in this case a nearby small Buddhist nunnery housing ten nuns ranging in age from 16 to 73. Our guide was a 24 year old nun who had been there since the age of 16; she spoke no English (Phil interpreted) but served us a typically wonderful lunch — vegetarian this time — and answered our questions. You are well aware that male Buddhist monks shave their heads but it may never have occurred to you that the nuns do as well, though this is frequently hidden by their headpieces. It makes some of them surprisingly androgynous.  Our guide spends long days running errands, chanting, and going to college in town. She comes from a poor family — not uncommon among nuns and monks — and traveled a few hundred miles to be here.

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Religion, of course, is kind of a no-no in Communist countries, but the authorities here have lightened up a lot and about 20% of the population is observant of one or another religion, the most common (about 11% of the total population) being Buddhism as you would suppose. But there are others, perhaps the most oddball being Cao Dai (sometimes written Caodaism), which is a Bahai-like amalgam of all sorts of sorta-monotheistic stuff. It was founded right here in Vietnam in 1926 and claims something between 2 and 6 million adherents, almost all of them here. (If the higher number is accurate, there are as many Cao Dai followers in Vietnam as Jews in the US. No reports on whether they can find a decent corned beef sandwich.) Caodaists believe that the word of God has been revealed repeatedly through the writings of Earthbound prophets, whose numbers include Sun Yat Sen and — go figure this one — Victor Hugo. I mean, I know that Les Miz was a big hit, but c’mon.

I mention all this because we visited a Cao Dai temple, which I am happy to report was as loonball colorfully crazy as you would expect from a religion that encourages you to communicate with two of the their other revered figures — Joan of Arc and Vladimir Lenin — via seance. (If they ever adopt Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, I’m converting.)

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Our next religious experience was a somber one. Overseas Adventure Travel is part of the Grand Circle Foundation, a nonprofit that supports about 100 various social projects (schools, orphanages, etc.) in some 59 countries. They’ve given out something like $200 million, and a small part of each OAT trip cost is sent to them. Each such trip — and this is our sixth with OAT — includes a visit to a Grand Circle project, which yesterday was the Duc Son orphanage. Grand Circle has a provided computers, lockers, beds, sewing machines, and other stuff; we brought along gifts of school supplies. (Click on the thumbnails for the full size images.)

The orphanage houses 135 children, which is not exactly the right word since some stay into adulthood. The youngest are infants, and most have been abandoned. The place is run, heroically (there is no other word) by only 12 nuns. There used to be 18, but burnout is a real problem because the work is literally non-stop. The older kids help take care of the younger, which is the only way that such a place is even remotely workable. We were very, very impressed: the staff is nothing short of superhuman, and it shows in the kids’ behavior, which was raucous, cheerful, well-organized, and… normal. The kids receive Buddhist religious instruction, but not very extensively; although the staff are all strict vegetarians, they prepare and serve the kids non-vegetarian food in order to avoid any nutritional or developmental risks. That’s a big leap out the staff’s spiritual comfort zone and is one of the many measures of their extreme commitment. (The kids do get two “vegetarian days” per month, however.)

Of the 135 charges, 16 are handicapped in some way (we saw one Downs infant, being played with by a rambunctious non-handicapped boy of about 3). The orphanage receives gratis twice-weekly visit from a nearby doctor, another critical lifeline that makes the institution manageable, but only just. We left the place awed at the nuns.

Our final outing of the day (yes, this all happened yesterday) was a musical interlude. The Perfume River is home to a large number of touristy “dragon boats”, basically raft-like dual-hull houseboats decorated with dragon heads on the front.

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In this case Phil had chartered the boat and the owner family had brought aboard an ensemble Vietnamese folk musicians, who played some traditional stringed instruments, one of which appeared to be a Japanese 16-stringed koto. The other three were variously banjo- or violin-like, though each had only one or two strings. Here they are in action:

Note the gal who’s using teacups as castanets! They played and sang for about a half hour whilst we lay at anchor in the middle of the Perfume River. And when they finished they lit some candles in paper containers folded into lotus shapes, and one by one we set them adrift in the river…..

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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

Venice Day 3: Water from the Sky as Well as in the Canals

As you can tell by the title, today was not a good weather today: cold and rainy, and thus ideal for museum visits. My only requirement: no crucifixions.

It occurs to me that I have been slightly remiss in not showing a photo of the famous Rialto Bridge, right down the street from our flat. This was in part because you really need to be in the middle of the Grand Canal to get a good view of it, a problem that I solved today by positioning myself appropriately on the vaporetto. The other reason is that it happens to be half-covered in scaffolding due to some restoration work. So here is how it looked a few hours ago:

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Alice and I have a long history of visiting world-famous structures that are covered with scaffolding. These include the Parthenon, the Doge Palace, and now the Rialto Bridge. Everyone should be grateful to us for our contributions to preserving our world heritage: as soon as we pick a travel destination, the local authorities somehow get wind of it and say, “Quick! Rich and Alice are coming to visit! Time to start the restoration work!”

Anyway, today’s weather was not at all conducive to walking anywhere, so we bought a 3-day vaporetto pass and picked a few likely indoor attractions that we could easily reach on the water. The first of these was the Palazzo Mocenigo, known for its collection of fabrics, period costumes, and history of perfume-making. It had what were for us the additional virtues of being free (we bought city museum passes yesterday), and having no paintings of saints being hideously martyred.  The presentation was unusual and intriguing, the costumes being displayed on mannequins in slightly surrealistic 18th century settings, e.g.:

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Venice3-6Turns out that until the city started its long decline in the 18th century, Venice was the go-to place for perfumes. A lot of what we might call “perfume technology” was developed there, and it dominated the industry until the city’s cultural and economic influence began to wane and the French pretty much took over. Here’s a 17th century perfume laboratory, as well as a 21st century Alice sampling one of a couple dozen elemental fragrances (jasmine, oak moss, orange blossom, etc.) that they have out for sampling.

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Eye of newt, toe of frog…does that smell good? No? Try adding some lavender.

Our next stop was an unexpected treat, a temporary Leonardo da Vinci exhibit whose existence we were not even aware of until serendipitously seeing an ad for it (in a church, of course) yesterday. The floor space of the church was basically filled with constructions of some of Leonardo’s inventions, reconstructed from the various codices, plus explanations of some of the artistic techniques that he developed and worked with.

Venice3-9Da Vinci was quite the anatomist, as you may realize from his famous sketches of the Vitruvian Man. (The gift shop included a teeshirt of Vitruvian Homer Simpson.) He came by his knowledge via the most direct hands-on experience: dissecting corpses. In fact, among his countless achievements was comparing the hearts of a newly-deceased centenarian with that of a child and both discovering and inferring the significance of the plaque in the coronary arteries. Yep, Leonardo da Vinci discovered arteriosclerosis. The guy was beyond genius; you could make a pretty good case that he was the smartest human being ever to walk the planet.

Our final stop was the Ca’ Rezzonico, the museum of 18th century life in Venice. Or more accurately, the museum of 18th century life of very rich people in Venice. Merchants, tradesmen, the 99%…not so much. This modest abode boasts a 5,000 square foot ballroom, Murano glass chandeliers, and a ceiling fresco commemorating the marriage of one of the Rezzonico boys commissioned for the wedding. Kinda puts to shame the old baby-pictures-of-the-happy-couple-stapled-to-posterboard-on-an-easel, doesn’t it? Anyway, the Rezzonicos were sort of the Mitt Romneys of their day and the house is basically the documentation of their lavish lifestyle. The chandeliers alone (detail in photo below) pretty much set the tone of the place.

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They’ve got lots of these.

There is, however, a fair bit of interesting art including some creepily lifelike miniature Asian statuary, like this guy, about 16″ tall:

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That pretty much sums up the day….relatively modest for us. But before I close I’d like to make what we might call a “meta-blog entry”. Since I’ve started blogging our travels instead of simply emailing my daily journal to friends and family I have made contact with a number of other travel bloggers who have some excellent insights of their own and whose own blogs have provided some interesting sources of information for me. I learned about yesterday’s “17 is bad luck” factoid from http://dreamdiscoveritalia.com/, which is a very nice blog about Italian tourism. And I have become “virtual friends” with the author of the “Are We There Yet?” travel blog: https://awtytravels.wordpress.com/. Fabrizio is an Italian expat living in London who travels extensively and writes lyrical, insightful prose about his various destinations, and includes his very good photos as well. Definitely worth reading.

Off to brave the weather for dinner. We will hope for better weather tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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