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Janis and I had the pleasure of spending a week in Paris in 2011 to mark our thirtieth anniversary and we loved it. One of the truly fabulous cities in the world. I’ve written about a number of our experiences there but never got around to writing about Notre Dame. We visited that grand piece of history on our fourth day.
Construction on the cathedral started in 1160 and was completed one hundred years later. Although many of its religious icons were destroyed by the anti-clerical French Revolution, the interest sparked by Hugo’s great novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, led to a major restoration project in 1844. It has undergone various renovations ever since and was undergoing one when it caught fire on April 15th, 2019.
The front facade shows its two bell towers, perhaps its most iconic feature which featured significantly in Victor Hugo’s novel. But before ascending the towers, we took a look inside with its vaulted ceilings and magnificent stained glass windows. Regrettably, I had a piece of crap camera back in the day which doesn’t really do it justice.
The stained glass features were made possible through the use of flying buttresses. These graceful arches on the outside of the building support the outward pressure of the walls, permitting the walls to be thinner and higher because of the reduction in mass.
But the pièce de resistance for us was the bell towers. There was a bit of a line-up as they can only be accessed by a long narrow staircase. But it was worth the wait. Only one tower, the South one, was open to the public at the time. A narrow walkway surrounds the tower.
The towers are sixty-nine meters high (226 feet) and were the tallest structures in Paris until the construction of the Eiffel Tower. The view is panoramic. The photo below shows the Pantheon to the South.
One of the interesting features of Notre Dame are its gargoyles, chimeras and Strixes. Gargoyles are the many rain spouts sticking out from the walls at intervals. Chimeras are statues of mythical creatures with the body of a lion and the head of a goat. And Strixes are flesh-eating creatures resembling an owl or bat.
We entered the bell tower and checked out the massive bells. The largest bell, known as the bourdon, survived the French Revolution intact. Many of the other bells were melted down by the revolutionaries. All the bells have names.
Looking up towards the skylight at the top, you can see that much of the superstructure is made of wood. Wooden construction makes it vulnerable to fire like the one that destroyed the Eastern part of the cathedral.
After visiting the bells we took a stroll around the outer walkway which gives you some excellent vantage pints for seeing the rest of the cathedral. The picture below is a composite of two mismatched photos which I fixed up a bit with Photoshop, but the bottom left and upper right were created by autofill and are a bit distorted. But it captures mot of the back end of the church which was destroyed in the fire.
Below is a view of some of the flying buttresses as seen from the tower.
Walking around the parapet we enjoyed spectacular views of the entire city. We also could see the North Bell Tower. Each tower also has a small turret off to the side and is covered by a skylight.
The plaza below the front facade of the church is a popular spot for Parisians to have lunch or just sit and enjoy the sunshine. The photo below shows a riverboat going by as well as many visitors to the plaza.
We leave our tour with a view of the spire or flèche which collapsed in the fire. After the picture you’ll find a link to an additional photo gallery.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Notre Dame and are much saddened by the fire that destroyed so much of it. It was an important piece of history and a fabulous work of art. We are grateful that we had an opportunity to visit it eight years ago. Below is a link to a photo gallery.
My last post covered our visit to le Château de Versailles. That grand old palace, built by Louis XIV, and now a museum is certainly amazing. But equally extraordinary are the surrounding grounds and gardens. The entire estate covers over 800 hectares or almost 2000 acres.
That’s about twice the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park or Perth’s King’s Park. It’s also larger than San Diego’s Balboa Park (1200 acres) or New York’s Central Park (843 acres).
Louis the XIV commissioned the brilliant landscape architect André Le Nôtre to design the gardens and work began simultaneously with the Château. It took forty years to complete. The picture at the top of this article is an aerial view taken from a drone flown by ToucanWings and available through the Creative Commons. Below is an earth view Wikipedia map of the site so you can navigate around it.
The gardens are in the classic French design – sculptured and symmetrical with many paths and flower beds. There are also a great many fountains as well as Greco-Roman sculptures.
This tremendous undertaking is described at the Versailles website: “Creating the gardens was a monumental task. Large amounts of soil had to be shifted to level the ground, create parterres, build the Orangery and dig out the fountains and Canal in places previously occupied solely by meadows and marshes. Trees were brought in from different regions of France. Thousands of men, sometimes even entire regiments, took part in this immense project.”
We caught our first glimpse of the gardens as we were exploring the north wing of the Château.
The photo doesn’t do it justice. We saw more of the gardens as we continued our tour of the Château and from the fabulous Hall of Mirrors, we could see the whole landscape laid out before us.
After completing the Château tour we exited near the North Parterre and started to explore. Behind the Château are two large pools on a plaza and directly behind that is the Latone Fountain, one of many to be seen here.
While the gardens cover a large area, an even larger parkland lies beyond, transected by the Grand Canal, a large man-made waterway in the shape of a crucifix.
We’ll come back to the gardens flanking the Château and plaza, the parterres, later. But first let’s wander through the gardens below and see some of the sights.
Flowers abound, set in symmetrical beds surrounded by paths and manicured lawns. A blaze of color.
We strolled leisurely down the Allée Royale, two wide paths with a lawn between them and flanked by groves on either side, to the large lake and fountain that separates the chateau’s gardens from the Grand Canal and its surrounding woodlands. This fountain is truly spectacular. It shows Apollo driving a chariot pulled by mighty horses emerging from the water. Circumnavigating the fountain we get a spectacular view looking back at the Château.
Below is a video of the fountain in action.
After grabbing lunch at one of the two restaurants at this end of the Grand Canal, we strolled back up the Allée Royale and over to the Collonade Grove. It features a circle of thirty-two marble pillars surrounding a statue at its center. The circle of columns has a diameter of forty feet. Built in 1685 by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, it replaced the original Spring Grove built by Le Nôtre.
The marble statue was created in 1696 by master sculptor François Girardon. It depicts famous scene from Roman mythology, The Abduction of Proserpine by Pluto.
The story of Proserpine explains the changing of the seasons in Greek and Roman mythology. Her mother was Ceres (Demeter in Greek), the goddess of agriculture. Cupid’s arrow inspired Pluto to come out of Mt. Etna with four black horses to abduct Proserpine and take her to Hades to be his bride. Jupiter, Pluto’s brother, sent Mercury as an envoy to order him to release Proserpine. Pluto complied, but not before he had fed her some pomegranate seeds. These compelled her to stay six months of the year in Hades. So she apent the summer months with her mother who made the world fruitful. Then she returned to Hades for six months and her mother withheld her bounty from the earth.
The paths through the various groves are almost maze-like with high hedges enclosing various spaces. We were wandering through the groves to the South of the Allée Royale when we came across the Bacchus Fountain. There are four such fountains representing the four seasons, Bacchus represents Autumn. They’re located at crossroads within the groves.
As we walked along we noticed a crowd had gathered to watch some dancing waters. The place was the Bassin du Miroir or Mirror Fountain, actually a good size lake. We got closer and watched as the waters danced in time to the music coming from nearby speakers.
We made our way back to the Latone Fountain and the flower beds nearby. Then we wended our way to the South Parterre.
The South Parterre sits above a large building called the Orangery or Orangerie. I’d never seen or heard of the idea until our trip to Europe where Orangeries sprang up in the 17th to 19th Centuries. They are large conservatories where ornamental shrubs, trees and plants imported from warmer climates could be housed during the winter. We saw an Orangery beside the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.
Wandering to the edge of the South Parterre we come to an overlook and some magnificent gardens below. These gardens are the Orangery Parterre. The lake beyond is the Lake of the Swiss Guards.
From there we went back across the plaza of the Water Parterre to the North Parterre. Our schedule showed that the daily display at the Neptune Fountain was soon to begin. The Neptune Fountain is a large fountain found at the end of a broad path down the center of the Parterre.
Te Neptune Fountain is huge. Like all the major fountains, the water show is set to music.
Although we spent most of the day at Versailles, we only saw a small fraction of the sights to be seen, both in the Château and on the grounds. We did not venture far up the Grand Canal and we did not see the Grand Trianon, which lies part way up the canal. It is a large estate that includes the Petit Trianon, a smaller residence that was used by Marie Antoinette as an escape from courtly life – a private sanctuary.
The Château and grounds are also illuminated at night. So when we return to Paris, hopefully in the next year or two, we will definitely see Versailles again. It is truly one of the wonders of the modern world.
If you’re on the main page of this blog, scroll on through for an additional photo gallery. Otherwise click on the link below.
Most of central Paris is within walking distance. And on the afternoon we arrived, we did just that, walked around the old city – from the Eiffel Tower to the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs Elysées to the Louvre, and back along the Seine to the Eiffel Tower again. Many other attractions are within easy reach.
But the next day, our first full day, we ventured out of the city center to see the fabulous Château de Versailles. This palace and its surrounding gardens are about twenty kilometres from the city center and easily reached by train.
Leaving the train station we walked a block and turned the corner and there it was.
What started out as a hunting lodge built by Louis XIII in 1624 was greatly expanded by the Sun King, Louis XIV from 1661 to 1678. It was expanded again from 1678 to 1715 when two large wings were added to flank the Royal Courtyard. This phase also saw the replacement of the west facing terrace with what is now the Hall of Mirrors, the most famous and most popular room in the palace.
Versailles became the seat of power in pre-revolutionary France when Louis XIV moved the royal court there in 1682. It wasn’t until the French Revolution of 1789 that the seat of government was moved back to Paris.
Louis XIV liked to do things big and Versailles is probably his crowning achievement. The palace has 2300 rooms. The cost to build it was staggering. Wikipedia gives this description:
“One of the most costly elements in the furnishing of the grands appartements during the early years of the personal reign of Louis XIV was the silver furniture, which can be taken as a standard – with other criteria – for determining a plausible cost for Versailles. The Comptes meticulously list the expenditures on the silver furniture – disbursements to artists, final payments, delivery – as well as descriptions and weight of items purchased. Entries for 1681 and 1682 concerning the silver balustrade used in the salon de Mercure serve as an example:
II. 5 In anticipation: For the silver balustrade for the king’s bedroom: 90,000 livres
II. 7 18 November to Sieur du Metz, 43,475 livres 5 sols for delivery to Sr. Lois and to Sr. de Villers for payment of 142,196 livres for the silver balustrade that they are making for the king’s bedroom and 404 livres for tax: 48,861 livres 5 sol.
II. 15 16 June 1681 – 23 January 1682 to Sr. Lois and Sr. de Villers silversmiths on account for the silver balustrade that they are making for the king’s use (four payments): 88,457 livres 5 sols.
II. 111 25 March – 18 April to Sr. Lois and Sr. de Villers silversmiths who are working on a silver balustrade for the king, for continued work (two payments): 40,000 livres”
Additional figures are given for 1682. There was over a ton of silver in the balustrade alone notes Wikipedia, a “cost in excess of 560,000 livres”. And that was just the silver. All told, one estimate has the expenditures during Louis’s reign at over US $2 billion! So crippling was this expense that in 1689, Louis had all the silver in the palace sent to the mint to be melted down.
Today the palace is a museum, a grand edifice filled with art and historical artifacts.
We started our tour at the southern end of the North Wing. Walking along a vast corridor we quickly we came across a chapel complete with marble columns, a large pipe organ and a magnificently painted ceiling mural.
Continuing along the corridor, we came across numerous works of art including a statue of Joan of Arc. At the end of the wing, we ascended a staircase to the second floor and walked back again. One of the more interesting pieces of statuary was a monkey riding a goat.
The long corridor was flanked by various paintings and sculptures on the left and tall windows on the right. It was through these windows that we caught our first glimpse of the magnificent gardens behind the palace. The garden we saw, the North Parterre, is just a small fraction of the overall gardens.
At the end of the passage we came to large room, a corner room that marks the transition into the original Château. The room is called the Salon d’Hercule or Salon of Hercules. It is the first of a series of such Salons that we encounter on our way to the Hall of Mirrors. The size of the room is immense – huge vaulted ceilings all covered in elaborate and colorful murals. The pillars are solid marble. And at one end hangs a huge painting. The video below captures the sheer size and majesty of the room.
From the Hercules Salon we head west, passing through the Abundance Salon, Venus Salon, Diana Salon, Mars Salon, Mercury Salon and Apollo Salon before arriving at the Salon of War which bookends the Hall of Mirrors. These rooms are referred to as the King’s State Apartments and were antechambers to the royal residence where gatherings, parties and amusements were held. Each of these rooms is filled with art and very elaborate decorative work. And each has giant ceiling frescoes as well.
The Hall of Mirrors is one of the main attractions at Versailles. When it was built, mirrors were an expensive commodity and Venice had the monopoly on production. Louis’s Finance Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert lured a number of Venetian workers to Paris to work in the Royal Glass and Mirror Works. The Venetian government retaliated by sending assassins to kill these workers to protect Venice’s trade secrets.
Nevertheless, the Hall was built. The great corridor runs 239.5 feet from one end to the other and is flanked by the Salon of War and the Salon of Peace. Its width is 34.4 feet and the vaulted ceiling soars 40.4 feet above the floor.
The space occupied by the hall used to be a terrace overlooking the magnificent gardens stretching behind the château. Today large windows overlook the gardens. On the interior wall are seventeen mirror-clad arches.
Many fine pieces of sculpture line the hall and it is flanked on both sides by giant candleabras.
From the Salon of Peace we made our way to the royal bed chambers. The king himself had a large canopy bed and had a separate room from the queen. Her bedroom had a larger bed than the king.
Near the King’s Room were several antechambers where the King and his aides could meet to discuss affairs of state. Central to them all is the Bull’s Eye Room or as it is called in French, the Salon l’Oeil de Bouef. This room had exits to the King’s bedroom, the Queen’s Apartments and the Hall of Mirrors. It also had a staircase leading to the Dauphin’s apartments below.
After passing through various other rooms including the Guard’s Room, we descended to the ground floor where staff and guests stayed, as well as the Dauphin. These guest rooms themselves were very lavish. Paintings and sculptures abound as well as a grand piano and an organ.
The Palace at Versailles is magnificent. It cost an unbelievable amount of money to build and included many pieces of furniture made of solid silver. Many later had to be melted down to pay some of the royal bills. But the grandeur and elegance of the period remains evident today. In my opinion, this is one of the wonders of the modern world, a must-see if you are ever in Paris.
But if you think the Palace is magnificent, prepare to be blown away by our next installment – Les Jardins de Versailles. The entire estate covers over 800 hectares or close to 2000 acres. This includes the Palace, the Gardens, the Park (which is a free public park), and the Trianon Estate (Marie Antoinette’s private estate). The gardens are a work of art – carefully landscaped and tended and abounding with sculptures and fountains, it is as much an attraction as the Palace itself.
Here are some additional photos of our visit to the Palace at Versailles. These were taken with an older camera and if we should be fortunate enough to visit Paris again, I’ll replace them with better pictures taken with my newer camera.
The Colosseum is the largest amphitheatre ever built and a must-see highlight of any visit to Rome. We spent a day there before taking a Mediterranean cruise in 2011. After the cruise we spent another day in the city.
That first day had us take a hop on/hop off bus around the city and one of our hop off points was the Colosseum. We grabbed a light lunch and then walked around the perimeter.
It is an ancient building and in remarkably good repair considering it is almost 2000 years old. Construction started under Emperor Vespasian in 72 AD. He died in 79 AD and did not see the building completed the following year under his heir Titus. Financed by the spoils of the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, it was built with the slave labour of 100,000 Jews captured and spirited off to Rome.
Made of concrete and sand, it was large enough to accommodate 50-80,000 spectators, averaging around 65,000. Like modern stadiums, it was a venue for mass entertainment which included battling gladiators, wild animal hunts, re-enactments of famous battles, mock sea battles, dramas based on Classical mythology and public executions. Yes, Christians were fed to lions here. In fact, the Pope marks every Good Friday by a Way of the Cross procession that starts at the Colosseum to honour Christian martyrs.
Interestingly enough, twenty years after its construction, the poet Juvenal published his Satire X which includes the following lines:
“Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
Juvenal is lamenting the practice of gaining political office by bribing the voters with free wheat and mass spectacles. It marked the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire. Walking around the perimeter we were impressed by the vastness of the Colosseum and its great beauty. The two millennia since its creation have left it weathered and eroded. It underwent extensive renovations from 1993 to 2000 at a cost of 40 billion Italian lire (US$19.3 million).
There were originally two walls, an outer wall and an inner wall. The inner wall remains largely intact but only a small portion of the outer wall remains. It is shored up at both ends by sloped concrete supports. But even with all the renovation, you can see cracks in the facade at various places, not to mention large stones at the base which have fallen from the structure.
We saw some men in gladiator garb posing with tourists on our walk as well as a wedding party. It is a popular locale for wedding photos.
After our cruise we visited the Colosseum once again, this time paying to go inside. Well worth the money. The inside is as spectacular as the outside and well worth the visit.
As we entered we passed a recently recovered partial statue. There is continuous archeological work going on around Rome. This partial statue was probably of a horse and rider, but we were amused by it because all that remains is, how shall we put it, a horse’s ass.
Inside you get a terrific view of the hypogeum, a series of underground passages and rooms, and a partially reconstructed stage at one end. The staging, made of wood, covered the entire subterranean level during the Colosseum’s heyday. Many spectacles were staged that involved lifts and hoists moving animals, actors and stage props from below to the arena floor.
The hypogeum was a later addition to the Colosseum and in its early years, at least two mock sea battles or naumachiae were staged there. This involved filling the basin with water and bringing in ships. One was staged by Titus when the Colosseum opened in 80 AD and another by Domitian in 85 AD.
It must have been quite the spectacle. Some experts figure that water supplied by aqueducts and a series of pipes and channels could fill the basin to a depth of five feet in just 35 to 76 minutes. These battles were considerably bloodier than the gladiatorial battles often staged in the arena. They involved many more people, 3000 in the event staged by Titus. Condemned prisoners were used and they fought to the death.
Shortly after the last naumachia, the hypogeum was built which precluded staging more of these spectacles.
Up to 80,000 people filled the stadium in its prime but little seating remains. There are many sloped angular buttresses which held the seating at one time, but now stand alone. There is a little bit of seating extant above the renovated stage area. I’m not sure if this is original or recreated for tourists.
One of the things we noticed in the Colosseum was the large number of feral cats. We noticed them outside on our earlier visit and now again inside. Not sure what it is with ancient ruins and wild felines, but we first encountered them in the walled city of Cadiz in Spain and we later came across more of them at the ruins in Ephesus.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Colosseum and can only imagine how it must have been in its heyday, the scene of great and bloody spectacles. The fact that these extravaganzas were staged with real people fighting to the death or even put to death in contests with ferocious beasts gives one chills. But even today gore fests remain popular in movies and television shows, though these are non-lethal make-believe. In less civilized parts of the world, live beheadings and stonings of the condemned remain popular with the masses.
I’ve included an additional photo gallery as well as links to a couple of articles on naumachiae.
To celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary we spent a week in Paris followed by a Mediterranean cruise. The first port of call was Sicily. The ship passed through the narrow strait between the island and the toe of Italy’s boot and then into the harbor of Messina, the island’s third largest city. A golden statue known as the Madonna of the Letter greets you as you enter the sheltered bay. The latin quote at its base says “Vos at ipsam civitatem benedicimus”. It means “We bless you and your city” and is a taken from a letter sent by the Virgin Mary to the people of Messina in 42 AD.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and is rich in history with Greek, Roman, Phoenician and Byzantine influences. There are many ancient ruins as well as cathedrals to visit, but we opted for a trip up Mount Etna. The only volcano I had seen up close before was Mount Saint Helens in Washington state.
A bus took us along the shore road that included a number of short tunnels as we wended our way south. We stopped at the town of Giardini Naxos where we saw a copy of the Winged Nike, Goddess of Victory. The original is in the Louvre in Paris. The metal statue was created by Italian sculptor Carmelo Mendola in 1965. It stands on Cape Schiso looking out to sea. It marks the spot where Greeks landed to found a colony in 734 BC.
From there we went up the coast to the small town of Giarre where we visited the artisan jewelry factory of Gival. It is located in a grand old mansion, a beautiful building which features gilt ceilings in its spacious lobby.
In the basement we saw a number of artisans at work. Later we were treated to complimentary drinks and snacks. The banquet room had a display of seven swords in a fan shape on the wall.
After we left the jewelry place, we took a long and winding road up Mount Etna, passing a number of vineyards along the way. The road took us to the Sylvestri Crater, the highest point you can reach by car or bus (1900 metres). Etna erupted at this point in 1892 but it has been dormant since then. The Google Earth map below shows the crater.
As you can see, there is a restaurant nearby as well as a large parking lot. The entire complex straddles a lava flow from higher up. The landscape is stark and almost barren. A few grasses have managed to emerge in places.
A roadway between the restaurant and the parking area runs right over the lava flow. This flow, a guide told us, is less than twenty years old. Etna is still a very active volcano. Unfortunately, some people don’t know how to take pride in this piece of heritage and litter could be seen on the lava.
Nearby was a gondola ride to a higher elevation. It was a bit foggy on the day we were there so we did not go higher. But what we saw was spectacular. I’d love to be there when Etna is actually erupting. That would be one heck of a sight!
After some time on Mount Etna, we took the bus back to our ship. I’ve got more pictures in the accompanying Photo Gallery. And a few additional links.