A Personal Tour of the Louvre

You can tell whether anyone posing in front of I.M. Pei’s infamous pyramid entrance to this museum actually intends on visiting based on one thing. Footwear. To try and pack in as much as possible of this museum you need your most comfortable shoes so forget Parisian chic and all that rubbish – just wear trainers for the endurance sport that visiting the Louvre actually is. DSC02737

I’d planned to get to the Louvre as early as possible knowing there’d be a long queue for the entrance, however by the time my brother had spent an age arranging his hair in the bathroom and we’d dropped our bags off at the train station – the queue was already around two hours long. Whilst the museum is undoubtedly worth a wait this long, the Louvre was enveloped in an icy mist that gave the palatial complex a rather gothic feel and coupled with the sub-zero temperatures, the queue did feel an age.

Once inside however we immeadiately picked up a map and sat down to draw our route incorporating the highlights for my brother and some more obscure galleries for me. We were there for a whole day and only saw a small portion of the galleries despite neccessary military style planning.

For our first stop I took my brother to see the Venus de Milo. Crowds and crowds of people surrounded it and this is my problem with the idea of ‘highlights’ – often people just stare, including my brother and I, just because we’re told an object is important. Although apparently famed for its beauty, since this is definitely subjective, to me this statue seemed often less interesting than those tucked into the surrounding alcoves.

Quickly exhausted by the sheer mass of crowds we headed from classical civilisation to the empty galleries of the Levant and Mesopotamia. From one armless statue to another and this time without the surrounding selfie sticks yet personally this statue from ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan is far more interesting. Yes, it may look like a crude figurine but this figure from the 8th century BC is one of the earliest examples of ritual figurative art. Whilst seemingly crude they originally wore elaborate costumes and wigs and had a complicated internal structure to support the weight of the dried plaster. I could go on… maybe because I once managed to write 2,500 words on them for a university essay. DSC02452

Continuing through these galleries you encounter more amazing exhibits – the Palace Gates of Sargon II rivalling displays in Berlin’s Pergamon; Hamurrabi’s law code (the oldest deciphered law code in the world) and bizarre votive figurines, all completely free from crowds. DSC02464

We then travelled forward a few thousand years in time, although only having traversed a few galleries to early French sculpture. Napoleon sitting up in bed crowned with laurels and crushing an eagle to a Neapolitan fisherboy strangling turtles. No subject is seeming too great or small. My personal favourite is the tomb of Philippe Pot, a Burgundian nobleman, notable for the ghostly life-like mourners, faces all completely shrouded. Although it’s closely followed by St George and a dragon nibbling his lance like a breadstick! DSC02549DSC02548DSC02559

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Postcards from Paris – Part 1

Bonjour mon petit pois!! Just after Christmas my brother and I headed away on a joint Christmas/birthday treat together to Paris. My brother had never been and I only visited once aged 9 but some memories are still incredibly vivid and others came flooding back during our three day trip. We essentially wandered around Paris for two days taking advantage of the EU members under 26 free entrance and spent another compulsory day in the Louvre.

Other than our occasional family holidays to Germany/Austria, my brother had never been abroad and also had no experience of long-distance coach journeys. His introduction to my second home – the departures area of London’s Victoria coach station – was not auspicious. We had chosen to travel on the busiest day of the year – the evening of the last Christmas holiday when sardines would have complained about the conditions, people spilling outside into the coach bays to not be suffocated by the sheer mass of travellers. After eight hours of bus and ferry travel later we arrived with a Parisian morning still enveloped in darkness.

The Marais 

Deciding to start exploring in this characterful area of Paris we headed towards the only purveyor of breakfast open at 8 in the morning. Having picked some relatively cheap but unusual pastries and ordering some necessary caffeine, I nearly had to be scraped off the floor, learning the lesson that whilst the patisserie may be cheap, apparently it is standard in Paris to charge €5 for a small mediocre coffee! But the pastries were just the sugar kick we needed before heading to our next destination..

Pere Lachaise Cemetery

Seeing as it was so early, Paris hadn’t come alive yet we decided to visit the dead. It would have been perfectly possible to wonder around this cemetery for hours with each corner having unusual tombs stones and the rising sun added to the atmosphere. Unfortunately though we were still encumbered by our joint suitcase and as Pere Lachaise is rather hilly, we eventually decided to cut our aimless wondering short to drop it off in a station locker before heading for the islands.

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Notre Dame

Walking alone the Seine toward the Ile de la Cite in the crisp winter morning air was pretty scenic and arriving at the myriad of statues and buttresses and all-round Gothic architectural beauty was undoubtedly a highlight of the trip even if the exterior has been etched in my mind for over a decade. We both really wanted to visit the gargoyles but with a two hour queue and so much of Paris to visit we headed off to possibly the greatest piece of architecture on earth.

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Sainte-Chapelle

Waiting in the hour long entrance queue that is the norm for any attraction in Paris and eating a balanced lunch of crisps and macaroons cobbled together from the bottom of our rucksacks, my brother asked whether the queue was really worth it .Little did he know. 20 minutes later and we were inside a place that (cliché warning) photos cannot possible do justice to. Saint-King Louis IX’s reliquary chapel for the “Crown of Thorns” is a place where I would happily just lie on the floor and stare at the windows and their amazing overall effect for hours. In fact one day when I care less about social propriety I probably will!dsc02018dsc02040dsc02037dsc02023

Sorbonne Quarter and the Pantheon Continue reading

Israel Photo Diary – Dead Sea and Desert

My time in Jerusalem was undoubtedly the highlight of my trip – walking through the Old City mixing with Ethiopian monks, Hasidic Jews and Palestinian shoppers all in such a small space. The city itself is a microcosm of the cultural make-up of the rest of urban Israel, however I wasn’t to find that out for a few days since my next destinations were distinctly lacking in people especially when compared to navigating the crammed streets and souks of the region’s  historical capital.

Masada

To get the bus to Masada (and anywhere in Israel) a knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet is essential otherwise you will have no idea of the bus’s direction even if you know the number. All the bus stations (and some supermarkets) in Israel also have a high level of security with baggage scanners which while at first can seem ominous or a hassle actually make the country remarkably safe to travel through and these constant checks eventually become a routine part of daily life.

Masada, the rock plateau and fortification, besieged for months by the Romans, a siege that resulted in the mass “suicide” of the roughly 900 people trapped on the plateau to avoid a life of slavery. Since Jewish law forbids suicide, the killers where chosen by lots so that only one individual had to kill himself. This harrowing story combined with the amazing geography of the fortress make it one of the most visited sites in this country.28945542193_510603e112_o

I wanted to hike up to the top of Masada to see sunrise (and also therefore avoid the insane morning/midday/afternoon heat) and since I can’t drive I had to stay at the very overpriced hostel at its base. Dinner there cost more than my budget would allow me to spend and since Masada is in the middle of nowhere I unfortunately woke up at the ridiculous time of 4am to start my climb on a very empty stomach. The walk up the snake trail began in the dark alongside a surprising number of fellow slightly unhinged individuals. After around half an hour of climbing, it began to get steeper and as I drained my first water bottle and started deliriously fantasising about breakfast foods, calling the ascent to the plateau enjoyable would be as far from the truth as possible. There was after all a reason the Romans spent a ridiculous amount of time and manpower building a ramp up the other site of the plateau.29459413152_f48325d4b0_o

However all these grumbles are completely irrelevant. The seemingly never-ending steps did in fact come to an end and the view is breath-taking, unforgettable, string of other cliché words etc. Slowly watching the sun rise over Jordan and the Dead Sea whilst sitting knackered on the edge of a fortified plateau (health and safety completely forgotten) associated with one of the most tragic sieges in history was worth every drop of sweat.28943580234_6c5702881d_o29459421662_d172555f64_o

After exploring the ruins of the palace complexes, ritual baths and caves on the plateau and admiring the view over the multiple playing-card shaped Roman military camps and the surprisingly mediocre ramp that surrounded Masada, the siren call of food back at the hostel proved to great and I hoofed it back down the path. Having both not eaten for close to 24 hours and having just completed a pretty strenuous climbs I may have eaten two trays of breakfast food in a state of hunger that meant I was beyond caring whether the chocolate mousse touched the herring! Continue reading

Israel Photo Diary – Jerusalem Part 3

My third day in Jerusalem began rather dramatically – the drain in my basement hallway had exploded with a river of excrement, due to a problem with the Jerusalem sewers and not my lovely hostel. So running away from the pungent smell of my room I ended up in the “City of David,” a complex of archaeological remains, many actually pre-dating the biblical king and even featuring a Canaanite toilet seat!

One of the main highlights is wading through Hezekiah’s Tunnel – a 500m long tunnel channelling water from a natural Gihon spring and hiding it from invaders, preventing the water system being poisoned etc. 500m doesn’t sound particularly long but when the water is waist-deep the journey does take a while – and also the novelty begins to wear off. You can however see from the different heights of the tunnel roofs where the two tunnelling teams met, 3000 years before a similar event with the more waterproof Eurotunnel! There was also a wet floor sign by the exit – a bit of an understatement! There are also the remains of a stepped road leading up to the temple used until Jerusalem’s destruction in 70CE, which is now underground, showing how quickly street levels can change.

Walking back through the streets of the old city, I ended up at a much more contemporary sight and whilst it is easy to be lured in by the might of history and religions surrounding you, the current political situation should not be forgotten. The Museum on the Seam visibly shows the signs of a conflict that despite current peace, has not in fact been solved and effects the everyday lives of thousands of people.

One instance I personally experienced when getting the bus between Palestine and Israel was due to the merits of my British passport I was allowed to remain seated on the bus as opposed to Palestinians who where shepherded through rigorous security checks. I do not personally have a problem with the checks themselves but feel that all bus passengers should be treated equally. Anyway this museum hosts changing contemporary art exhibitions with a socio-political slant and whether or not the art is to everybody’s taste, it is art that can honestly and not pretentiously be called thought-provoking.dsc08402

To end my day I ended up where nearly every Jewish Jerusalemite was before the Shabbat shut-down – the Mahane Yehuda food market. The atmosphere was amazing; towers of spices, heaps of dried fruit, wheels of halva (a sesame-paste confection looking worryingly like paté) and vats of olives with half a city crammed into it’s covered tunnels, buying their whole family’s food for the weekend.

As someone who loves cooking I spent around three hours (possibly a bit excessive) attempting to narrow down my food purchases for the week-end resulting eventually in a rather bizarre combination of onion bread, a punnet of pomegranate seeds, a kilo of dried kiwis (yup my Hebrew definitely needs some work) and some mini pastries. It made a change from the houmous wraps I’ve been living on ever since – food in Israel being prodigiously expensive. You can get a train from one end of the country to another for the same cost as two packets of biscuits. I wish the same was true back home and you could get to Edinburgh for the price of some McVities Hobnobs though! I ended the day as mentioned in more detail here, joining the Franciscans on their weekly Friday procession along the Via Dolorosa.

My next morning began thankfully with the smell of cleaning products in the corridors but again took a slightly bizarre turn when I ended up wandering around a girl’s school in East Jerusalem. I’d been told the Rockerfeller Archaeology Museum was in a castle-like structure just outside my nearest city-gate although it seems the city is home to several castle-like structures. The school receptionist seemed quite amazed as to how I’d bypassed security to get inside and bemusedly directed me to a near identical building just down the road. Continue reading

Israel Photo Diary – Jerusalem Part 2

I began my second day in Jerusalem slightly nervous as I’d read of the dangers of walking on the Mount of Olives if alone and female – harassment, pickpocketing etc… However I took the precaution of visiting on the day the churches on the Mount were actually open and at a time when I rightly predicted most tour groups would visit and ended up spending a relaxing day slowing ambling down this not in fact very steep hill.

I began my day having got a bus to the top, not only of the Mount itself but also the high tower of the German Evangelical church of the Ascension with its Byzantine-style mosaicked interior. Continuing down the hill I ended up on the run… from nuns. Very scary Russian Orthodox nuns, whose convent I accidentally wondered into and considering they seemed to be aged around 70, they moved worryingly fast.

Luckily I soon found safer territory in the Mosque of the Ascension, a squat grey bulbous building marking the spot from where Jesus is believed to have ascended into heaven. Inside is an indentation that is apparently Jesus’ right footprint. The left was taken to the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount and eventually evolved into the footprint of Mohammed.DSC08198

After this I ended up at my joint favourite church I visited on the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Pater Noster where tiled panels show the Lord’s Prayer in 160 languages including Bisiac, Samaritan, Helgolandese and Wallisian alongside more commonly spoken languages such as English, Thai, Hungarian etc. A church was first built here by Queen Helena in the 4th century on top of a cave (still visible) thought to be where Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples. The view of the Old City of Jerusalem is also phenomenal, enabling you to see the design of the Al-Aqsa mosque much better than I was able (due unfortunately to being born without one of those pesky Y chromosomes) on the Temple Mount/Al-Haram ash-Sharif itself.

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Carrying on downhill, I reached the supposed tomb of biblical prophets Haggai, Zachariah and Malachi. Even if the prophets lived several centuries before this tomb complex was built, seeing this circular complex of rock-cut tombs by torchlight is still undeniably eerie. Soon I reached more modern Jewish tombs on the Mount, in never-ending rows as according to the bible the resurrection will begin here meaning it is a much sought after place of burial. Unfortunately many of the graves are now riddled with litter due to Hasidic Jews often being attacked if they come to pay respect to their relatives; the Mount of Olives being in predominantly Arab Eastern Jerusalem. Continue reading