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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
So I thought its about time I got round to finishing up writing about my highlights of Naples from this summer before it stops being summer! These are personal highlights and to some they might appear a little bit on the morbid side however the Neapolitans themselves make my interest in cemeteries and catacombs look tame. Naples was after all home to a now banned cult of the poor souls where skulls from the early Roman cemeteries where adopted, decorated and prayed for, although this tradition still continues unofficially. And unfortunately in a city where death notices are plastered on street walls, often showing individuals who died tragically young due to the city’s high crime rate, it is easy to see why death is constantly on the mind of Neapolitans. However it was weddings that were most evident in my first highlight:
5. Basilica di Santa Chiara
I finally got inside this gothic basilica on my third visit, as on every previous occasion the church had been home to a wedding (the director of my excavation had even recently got married there). The church itself is comparatively plain especially compared to the baroque creations in the city and also due to suffering from bombings during WWII. However whilst the church itself is not visually stunning, it is home to the bodies of major Neapolitan saints alongside tombs of 14th century nobility. Tragically however the church is covered in graffiti. The attached monastic complex is however much better maintained with majolica collonade and cloisters painted with early frescoes including one of St Jerome being “harassed” by the devil in the form of a floppy eared armadillo creature. Not the most scary depiction.
4. Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco
Whilst the upper church here is nothing out of the ordinary, descend some steps and you reach Naples’ home of its cult of poor souls (anime pezzentelle); corridors riddled with niches of beautified skulls, peeling walls and a thick layer of dust. The most famous skull is that of Lucia – complete with a white veil and tiara, supposedly belonging to a teenage bride and the most popular to adopt.
Still a bit bleary eyed from my night out at the Tivoli, the next morning I headed with my family to Copenhagen’s National Museum. I’m not going to write about that here simply because this museum and Aarhus’ archaeology museum in Moesgaard deserve their own post so I can go into overdrive getting bizarrely excited about Danish Prehistoric and Viking artefacts.
Anyway having spent the whole morning in this museum and even then we only managed to see one and a half of the galleries, after lunch we crossed the road to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, an art gallery funded by the family of cheap beer fame.
The gallery mainly consists of 19th century classical sculptures as well as examples of the Roman and Greek styles that influenced them. Whilst many of the sculptures were nothing much to write home about in my opinion, unless you’re a fan of naked heroes with random bits of fabric draped over their shoulders, the surroundings of the gallery itself make it an enjoyable place to visit. The central courtyard of the gallery is a picturesque palm house – until you spot the statue I “fondly” call “Babymageddon.” No words in my opinion fully encapsulate the awfulness.
After this we set sail the high seas canals of Copenhagen for a boat tour which essentially shows you the whole of Copenhagen with the exception of the Rosenberg castle. You even get to see the Little Mermaid statue, which is incredibly underwhelming, little being the operative word. Personally it was more interesting seeing the military barracks surrounding a large Danish flag where cannons are fired every morning to honour the national flag. The guide in the boat also described Christianshavn, the area where we stayed as modelled on Amsterdam, however you feel the architects hadn’t actually seen the Dutch capital.
We spent most of the next day out of town but in the evening, my brother and I visited the aquarium, walking in on piranha feeding time. According to the fishkeeper (what do you call someone who works in an aquarium?) these creatures are incredibly misunderstood and only scavengers. Although having seen them scavenge I still won’t being going for a swim in piranha infested waters anytime soon. I’m also still confused about why the shop sold fishing rods – I thought aquariums liked their fish alive.
Undoubtedly when thinking of classical sites in Italy, the wonders of Rome as well as the miraculously preserved windows into Roman life that are Pompeii and Herculaneum are what immediately spring to mind. I visited these two blockbuster sites whilst excavating near Naples and before visiting I couldn’t really picture what the sites looked like in my head. They were both amazing with my archaeology friends and I having heated arguments over which site we preferred.
Herculaneum has better preservation, is less touristy and more of the houses were open to the public however for me Pompeii was definitely my personal favourite. The size of it was exhausting, especially if you forget it’s essentially a preserved town with no public transport where you can go inside nearly every building, even if some were sadly closed for renovation. To me even the crowds of tourists in the forum gave a great idea of the bustle of the original Roman town. But then you are talking to someone whose favourite place is London.
However whilst Pompeii and Herculaneum receive the most attention, the Naples area is filled with other amazing classical sites that I really feel deserve a mention. Starting with…
Villa Poppaea, Oplontis
One metro stop away from Pompeii in the rather soulless town of Torre Annunziata is this sprawling villa, said to have belonged to Nero’s wife Poppaea (who he kicked to death whilst pregnant. Lovely). To understand the scale, the second picture below shows the corridor where clients waited to perform the morning ritual of salutatio for their wealthy patrons; a jumbo doctor’s waiting room if you will. The wall-paintings are some of the most colourful and best preserved of any site in the area, with even the typical Roman columns being preserved in their original state a.k.a plastered and painted with intricate patterns not the bare white columns we tend to think of.
The Complesso Monumentale San Lorenzo Maggiore:
Several feet underground, beneath a rather bare gothic church lies the original street level of Graeco-Roman Naples. Here lie remnants of Neapolis’ original paving stones and the amenities of a covered market including a bakery, communal laundry and dyeworks, complete with original shop counters and slots for the iron shutters. There is also another Roman site bang in the centre of Naples– a bathhouse under the amazing Santa Chiara, however the site is so covered in scaffolding it’s hard to visualise and relatively underwhelming. Continue reading →