mutteringhousewife

What does the last of the housewives do?

Month: January, 2014

Two Versions of Versailles

Our last day of touristing. We were finally going to have to get on a train. I’d foolishly been researching how to get to Versailles and been a bit taken aback by how complicated it seemed to be. That plus the fact that I panic when confronted with the spoken French language. I can make it out when written down, but when spoken they may as well just be gargling honey at me. But we popped into St Michel Notre Dame, asked for some return tickets to the Chateau, was sold same and directed to the adjacent platform in perfect English and told to wait nine minutes. Easy as tarte tatin.

We arrived in the weak sunshine, ignored the enticements of the travel guides and followed the tourists. You turn a corner, and it rather stands out. The golden gates were only restored in 2008, but they give a taste of the sheer quantities of gilding you find within.

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Once again the children were free, and I shelled out the extra three euros to take a look at Marie Antoinette’s digs at the other end of the gardens. We wanted to do this first as I’d noted that the weather was set to get a little unpleasant in the afternoon, and look at all that garden. The gardens are open to the public and despite the chill there were quite a few locals in there going for a jog in their all weather gear or riding a bike. And wouldn’t you, if you lived nearby? All the statues were hibernating for the winter.

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Once again we were amazed at how much the French love a formal garden. The Moose was trying to estimate how many Groundskeeper Willies would be needed for the sheer amount of topiary going on. We came up with a round thousand.

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We got a bit Harry Potter in the maze in an enormously long line of disciplined trees.

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Petrificus totalus! It felt like a really long walk to the Trianon group of buildings at the other end of the gardens, but it must have been less than an hour. Louis the Fourteenth built them for his mistresses, the first of which was Madame de Pompadour. Marie Antoinette ended up living here for a bit, finding the excess of gilt and all the straight lines in the garden a bit wearing up at the main palace.

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The kids noted that there were a lot of pictures of Marie Antoinette in the Petit Trianon, but none of her husband. We couldn’t visit the top floor, the King’s Apartments, there may have been some of him up there. Anyway, it has all been restored, so who knows how it was originally decorated. It was a rather cosy little house, we could well imagine Marie Antoinette and her mates hanging out here, drinking cups of tea and buzzing about the English garden she created. That’s what we visited next, she made a whole little fantasy area complete with ideal farmhouses and a tiny little farm, as a bit of an antidote to the enormously pompous geometrical hedges and lines of rectangular trees and sweeps of statues and wide gravel walks up at the main house. I wonder if Walt Disney ever came here?

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It was outrageously cute and just a bit artificial. I kept expecting Mickey Mouse to pop his head out of a rustic window under a mossy thatched roof. There were even chocolate box animals.

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And, wondrously, we had the place completely to ourselves! It mustn’t be on the one hour tour.

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The donkey looked like the one in Shrek, the sheep had twisted horns, the rabbits looked like the Velveteen Rabbit and the goats put on a head butting display. Just for us. That wasn’t in the brochure. We then wound our way back to the main waterway via some Marie Antoinette grottoes and artificial rock formations. The woman should have been designing theme parks instead of irritating the locals.

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So that was the first half. We grabbed some baguettes just as the cold cold rain started, then sprinted up the gravel walkways to the palace. This was the real deal, a palace dedicated to showing the peasantry exactly who was boss and how many artworks and gold leaf you could actually cram into a building. Early on we got the Hercules Room. It had a most magnificent fireplace, in which it would be a pleasure to travel by Floo Powder.

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Facing this was a massive painting by Veronese of The Meal at the House of Simon. You may remember me mentioning him in our visit to the Louvre, he was responsible for the biggest painting there, the one nicked by Napoleon, the Marriage at Cana. Veronese must have charged by the square metre, but at least this one was given by the Venetians as a sweetener to a deal for support against the Turks.

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There was room after stateroom, chock full of paintings and marble and so much gilt. I do like the idea of wallpapering a room in green velvet damask. Where can I get some?

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The Muffet wasn’t terribly impressed with the Hall of Mirrors, she thought with that kind of description it would be 360 degrees of mirrors, not just “a hall with some mirrors in it.”

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Well I thought it was very impressive. It wasn’t until later that I realised the audio guide hadn’t mentioned that this was the room in which the momentous Treaty of Versailles was signed. You’d think there would be a bit of a song and dance about that in there, but no.

Nothing was private for the monarchs, even their bedrooms had a public area, with a gilded fence in front of the actual bed. My photo just can’t convey the overwhelming amount of scarlet and gold the Sun King managed to cram into his sleeping quarters.

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They even ate their dinner with the adoring aristocracy looking on. The original dinner service was swept away by the French Revolution, but luckily the English King at the time had had a copy made and here it is. I really hope that’s also how their serviettes were folded. Amazing.

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Napoleon Bonaparte moved into the Trianon buildings while he was being Emperor and tidied the place up a bit after its sufferings in the Revolution. He had commissioned a painting of his coronation at Notre Dame from the French painter Jacques-Louis David, the original of which we’d seen at the Louvre. It was here before being moved to the Louvre, but what is here now is a replica of that piece, also painted by David. I dunno, does that make it a replica? Or the same piece, painted twice?

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A few more staterooms later and we were gilded out, the kids too tired and cold on the way home to even want to find some exciting afternoon tea. An early dinner at home and I haven’t heard a peep from them for a couple of hours. I’m sure we can find some kind of sugar coated pastry for them in the morning, they’ve earned it.

Skip to the Louvre, My Darling

It was great weather for ducks today.

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So we went inside, as I had cleverly planned, having kept a careful eye on the weather forecast. The Louvre is almost as close to our apartment as Notre Dame, so it is almost possible to skip there. Our plan was to see five famous things, then wander aimlessly about. It is a plan that has served us well in the past.

First up was the Venus de Milo. Here is what the poor woman has to put up with every day.

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If she had any arms she’d be all like…

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A least she doesn’t have Chinese tourists taking photos of each other fondling her willy, as a statue earlier in the hall was suffering.

And here’s a painting we saw in another gallery, on the ceiling actually, of her discovery. I wish we could still fly. Perhaps you have to be naked.

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Further along we saw busts of, reading right to left, Socrates, Aristotle and Plato. I don’t know who the one on the left is.

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I like the busts, they look like portraits, not like most of the Greek and Roman statuary about the place that’s all about their gods. It’s like you can say hello to these ancient thinkers.

We then followed the tourist hordes to see the Mona Lisa and I was once again underwhelmed. At least, being winter, we could see her up close, I have memories of her being about postage stamp sized. I think because so many of the paintings around her have been restored and are bright and vibrant and also by masters of the art that she suffers a bit. Opposite her is the Marriage at Cana, of which I have also not taken a photo and seriously that thing is enormous. You pretty much have to lean up against La Gioconda to take it all in. It was pinched by Napoleon from Venice, and he had to cut it in half to transport it, then have it sewn back together. I liked it a lot.

We rambled through some biblical stuff pretty quickly, we’d had a lot of Giotto on Italy. This one intrigued the Moose and I, the saint appears to be flying an angel like a kite.

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We were always pleased to see St Sebastian, always looking fairly resigned to a little peeved to find himself full of arrows. We got in to the Delacroix area fairly quickly, and the Moose made me take a photo of his famous pick.

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Delacroix witnessed the Paris uprising in 1830 and was moved to paint it as an allegory of Liberty leading the people, but apparently now it’s an internet meme. C’est las vie.

I do always love the small stuff we see along the way, like this mini mosaic around a fireplace in the hall housing the Crown Jewels.

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Here’s one of the royal teapots, carved from semiprecious stone. No wonder the citoyens were annoyed.

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We moved into a Middle Ages statue area, where there seemed to be a bit of an obsession with death. Perhaps because so much art was commissioned on the occasion of people’s deaths.

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Muffet was annoyed when the Moose started intoning “Pié Jesu Dominé. Dona eis requiem”. I don’t know how he could help it, actually, I nearly did the same myself. So we went to find her pick, chosen from the Louvre website.

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He’s an Egyptian scribe, and looks fresh as a daisy, ready to take down your every word as he has been for the last four thousand five hundred years. Almost as old was my pick, the stele upon which is inscribed the Code of Hammurabi, one of the oldest lengthy pieces of decoded writing in the world. It was a code of law written in the Akkadian language, and such stones were set in major towns so that all should know what the law of Hammurabi was. On the back of the stone is a depiction of the sun god handing the laws to Hammurabi. You can’t be thought to be making these things up by yourself.

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We saw a copy of this in the Pergamon museum and it did look very similar to the original. But I like to know I’m getting the real deal.

It was a big day, but the last of the museums and what a one to finish on. It was fairly cold and sleety outside, so I knew what they really wanted was a long walk to what everyone tells me is the best icecream in Paris.

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No lines here, but a very difficult decision re flavours. I got figue, a rich pink seedy scoop of divinity, very pleased I didn’t stick with my usual raspberry. Glad I don’t live here, I’d be broke and fat very quickly. Although, what with being a flaneur and all, possibly just broke.

The Catacombs of Paris

We went underground today. Underground tunnels full of human bones, what could be more kid friendly than that?

We had wanted to see some original catacombs in Rome, but ran out of time. So Paris is our last bone sighting chance. We managed to get out the door before ten am this morning, only to encounter a line. A line! We had to wait a whole forty five minutes. Apparently in the summer it would be more like four hours, we’re never going to be able to come back in the summer, unless it’s to eat pastries and icecream.

We hired the English audio guide, being travel wise now, it’s always worth it. What a story it told. Paris, millions of years ago, was under the sea which means that if you’re a Roman looking for some decent stone to build your temples and baths out of in Paris, you just had to dig down ten or twenty metres to find as much excellent limestone as you want. Not only Romans, but everyone who came after them enlarged the underground quarries and helped themselves. This explained to us why the seven hundred year old gargoyles adorning the cathedral of Notre Dame have little seashells exposed in the weathered bits. Nobody really cared about managing the quarries, they’d just pop underground and carve out as much as they wanted. The inevitable happened in the late 1700s, a large chunk of street and houses in Montparnasse suddenly crashed into the abyss. This started happening fairly regularly, with one section of pavement dropping twenty five metres. You can imagine that at that time Louis XVI had a lot on his mind, but this was so urgent that he set up a Quarries Inspectorate to start stabilising the site. They’re still in operation today. One of the workmen on this site spent his lunch hours carving out little models of a castle in which he’d been once imprisoned.

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The work proved so popular that he started carving out some steps so that visitors could access them. He didn’t finish the steps because the roof caved in and killed him.

About ten years after the stabilisation works had begun, Paris had another problem. Its cemeteries were overflowing. They tried digging up some old bodies that nobody cared about and stacking them in charnel houses. This was a temporary solution that rather annoyed the householders around the charnel houses, with reports that fresh milk or soup would go off in a couple of hours and my dear, the smell!. And then the Cemetery of the Innocents started overflowing into peoples’ cellars, and that can’t have been pleasant. So there was a problem of a whole lot of dead bodies that nobody really cared about any more, and nearby there was a massive set of limestone tunnels deep underground. In 1786 parts of the quarries were blessed and the transfer of all of the bones in the Cemetery of the Innocents started, travelling by hearse preceded by priests in the dead of night. And here they are.

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It’s estimated that there are the bones of six million Parisians down here. More cemeteries were emptied into here, the transfer didn’t stop until 1859. Almost none are marked or noted, but they are arranged very neatly.

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The bones of such luminaries as Rabelais and Pascal and Charles Perraut (author of Cinderella and Puss in Boots) are certainly in here somewhere. The effect is at first shocking, then a bit overwhelming, then it’s kind of nice that everyone’s in here all together. Very Socialist. There’s a little corner arrangement for a whole lot of bodies dumped on a street during the French Revolution.

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There are quite a few plaques around the place with deathly poetry in French and Latin. There’s a monument to a poet with one of his teen angst poems on it, about how life was futile and nobody loved him. He died suddenly in his twenties after being thrown from his horse, so never got the chance to burn that kind of thing. His bones aren’t behind the monument, they’re in with everyone else.

Eventually we wend our way out of the bones and into some caverns with information signs about the rock formation and fossils that nobody reads. There is an example of the kind of rock formation that leads to cave ins, this one has been coated in concrete to stop it reaching up to street level.

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That’s the kind of thing for which the Quarry Inspectors are always on the lookout. Constant vigilance.

It made a nice change from churches and museums. But I did pop into Notre Dame to get my book.

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We only had to wait in line for a couple of minutes, during which time I chatted to an Asian man who, after learning that I was from Australia, complimented me on my English. Tourists.

More Stairs, this time French

I should start by mentioning that our Paris apartment is up a flight of one hundred stairs. I haven’t personally counted them, but a friend who stayed here a couple of years ago did. No lift.

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It does mean that once we’re out of the house, we’re reluctant to go back until dark. So it was about morning tea time by the time we wandered over to the Cathedral of Notre Dame for another crack at the stairs. There was a much smaller queue, they only let a few people up at a time, and we amused ourselves by watching French driving. I’ll put a picture I took a little later in the day, of a bus trying to turn into a very narrow street and being blocked by a girl on a bike who rolled her eyes and moved forwards a few inches every time he rather politely beeped at her.

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Notre Dame is way down the list for number of stairs, but more than our flat, of course. I’ll have to make a table. There’s a bit of a tease where you buy your tickets a flight of stairs up from where they first let you in. There’s a gift shop there with a book of biblical calligraphy that I simply must have, but one was only in there a few minutes before they ushered you up the real stairs. I have to go back. I shall go back. Anyway, gargoyles. This one was my favourite, he was eating a creature that was simultaneously biting him on the leg.

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We could have looked at them for ages, every single one is different. But they do shuffle you through.
I would rather have liked a look at Saint Chapelle on the same island, we could see it from the top of Notre Dame. But you had to pay to get in, the entrance was underground and the kids said they couldn’t do two in a row. And then it started raining and they were hungry. So we wedged ourselves into a real Paris bistro.

It’s a little bit of a torture to me that my children are not terribly adventurous eaters. I’ve looked at lot of restaurant menus, and there just isn’t anything in French restaurants that they’re going to eat. So our first dinner I made the Horror cry with joy by taking them to a sushi restaurant. It was really good, very authentic looking, unlike the one we saw in Munich that also served chop suey and tomato soup. And since then I’ve been cooking at home. Lunch is slightly easier. At this bistro the Horror had a croque Monsieur with no ham, Muffet had one with ham, and the Moose had a plate of chips. In his defence, the chips in Italy were horrendous, so he hasn’t had any for a while. I had a ham and cheese sandwich on a delicious baguette. The Horror turned his inside out so he could pretend he was eating a toasted cheese sandwich.

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Thus fortified, we walked to the Eiffel Tower along the river bank. It’s not a particularly exciting walk, the river is mostly lined by blocks of the city approved Paris apartments. So I had to put up with a fair amount of scuffling and squealing and general high jinks, which has led to me accompanying my dinner tonight with a generous helping of Medoc plonk. It was really only my problem, there were very few pedestrians out on this drizzly Monday. We did pass a building covered with plants.

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And then we were there.

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Trips to the top in the elevator were booked out, but we were happy to take the stairs. They were only opened to the second level due to the drizzle, but that was well and truly high enough for us.

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Look, there’s the pool they jumped into at the end of Rush Hour 3. It looked a lot closer in the movie.

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When we descended we crossed the river to take a closer look at the pool and blow me down if there wasn’t a genuine double story French carousel with horses with real horse hair tails and accordion music playing with no one on it. How could we resist?

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Home again home again jiggety jig, but all the time looking out for what the kids are hoping to turn into a Paris ritual – the macaron tasting. The first night we bought a box of sixteen from Maison Larnicol around the corner. We took them home and solemnly placed them in the middle of the table, put out plates for all of us and poured ourselves a glass of water – to clear the palate between tasting. We would then choose one each and try to guess which flavour it was. Tonight’s were from de Neuville, more expensive so we only got twelve, but we preferred them. The tastes were stronger and the texture a bit chewier and the flavours less exotic.

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At least they’ll end up being connoisseurs of something.

We’re in Paris

The last piece of the intricate puzzle that is our European Odyssey that we started putting together about six months ago is settling into place. We’re down to four, the main man having gone home to fill the depleted coffers for a bit. I thought we’d have a relaxing day today, look about us a bit. I popped out with Moose this morning to see the place in the daylight and blow me down if we didn’t come across some guerrilla art.

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A couple of chaps were careful placing numbered origami cranes around the statues while another chap photographed the whole thing. It was just delightful. When I’d finally dug the rest of the family out of bed a couple of hours later it had gone. That’s exactly the kind of thing I was expecting from Paris.

The kids wanted to see Notre Dame, just around the corner from our place, so we went there first. We’re only a block away from the river, so they spotted it straight away. “Can we climb it?” asked the Muffet. I don’t know what’s got into that girl. We had a walk through first, and that was very successful as it was everyone’s favourite style of church (Gothic, though I have a soft spot for the madder Baroque), and there was a sung Mass going on.

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We decided not to climb it today as there was a queue, we’ve been spoilt by being winter tourists and not having to queue for anything. Except the Pergamon in Berlin, just before New Year. That hurt. We’ll go back again, the kids want to see a gargoyle close up and it’s only five minutes walk.

I thought to get a feel for Paris we’d walk along the Rive Gauche for a bit, then stroll down the Champs Élysées. We arrived in the Tuileries about lunchtime, so got some French hotdogs and rather more French crepes for lunch and sat in the thoughtfully provided chairs by the pond to consume them.

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There was some argument as to who spotted the Eiffel Tower first. It certainly wasn’t me.

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The kids are tour fit now, so a stroll of that length was no problem at all for them. You can see the Arc de Triomphe very clearly from the Place de la Concorde. “Oh, it looks like the arch of Constantine” remarked my well travelled children. It was very pleasant to stroll with the happy Sunday afternoon crowds, occasionally popping into a shop, spotting the odd six foot tall lacquered praying mantis women on the arms of creepy old men, and watching the children’s surprise as the Arc got bigger and bigger and bigger. “Of course we can climb it”, I assured them. When we finally got there we spent a few minutes watching even seasoned locals battling to leave the dreaded roundabout someone foolishly put around the thing. I guess there’s really no other solution to getting around it, there was a lot less traffic in Napoleon’s day.

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It was an easy climb after St Peter’s Basilica, though the kids argue that the Campagnile in Florence was the hardest of all. The view is terrific, particularly as you can see how beautiful a bit of thoughtful town planning can be. Of course it helps if you have an emperor willing and able to knock down the medieval heart of the city to implement it.

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Inside the top of the arch is a little display with a map of Europe with all of the arches of note on it. You clicked on it and a picture and description came up. We had actually seen a few of them, but we were particularly pleased to click on Iran to see a reproduction of the Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon. We saw the original in the Pergamon Museum just a few weeks ago, though it feels like an age.
After a stroll back we rather felt that we deserved some macarons.

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We had four each (they were rather tiny) and ate them very formally. We would each choose one, bite it, and try to guess what it’s flavour was. We didn’t get all of them, almond is a flavour that can overwhelm anything else, and I was pleased to swap my run of the mill flavours for one each of lemon peel, rose and bergamot, not popular with the younger set. We think we like them, but aren’t quite sure yet. Well, I am, of course. We might try a different shop tomorrow, or maybe go for some glaces. You just never know.

Visiting the Vatican

Another one of those overwhelming sites, we took our guide Sonya Tavoletta along to the Vatican. You really have to either take a guide or do a ton of research before visiting the Vatican museum. Sonya tells us that her least favourite tours are with people who want to tick off seeing the Sistine Chapel and have little interest in the fabulous wealth of art the rest of the place holds. We began with a painted statue of Augustus at the entrance, of whom I forgot to take a picture. Suffice to say he looked very gaudy. Sonya told us that a group of German artists studied many antique statues and used the most modern analysis to discover the tiny pigment fragments on them. They then recreated the statues and painted them as they would have been originally. Apparently everyone hated it.

We saw the Apollo of Belvedere, used in the Renaissance as the highest example of an artistic male figure.

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I preferred the nearby Laocoön. Much more dramatic.

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I also found this giant pine cone very dramatic. It was a decoration in Nero’s megalomaniac palace, situated nearby.

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You want a learned discussion of the museum, you have the interwebs. Even though we’ve seen many many museums by now, this was jaw dropping. Not just for the displayed art. Have a ceiling.

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Have an unremarked table, just parked in a corner.

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I feel a velvet patchwork coming on. This ceiling made my brain attempt to twist its way out of my ear.

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Imagine standing underneath that and trying not to fall over. Again, fairly unremarked because everyone is rushing to get to the Raphael room. Which is pretty fantastic. What I thought was interesting is that he painted the whole room, with a Christian scene on one side and an ancient philosophers scene on the other. I can see why the School of Athens is the one everyone knows about. I was so impressed with it I bought the shopping bag.

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See, everyone is chatting, walking, drawing diagrams for each other, arguing. There’s a lot going on. Whereas in the far less remarked Christian scene everyone is just worshipping God, which, if you read the New Testament, is pretty much most of what you have to do to be a Christian. But it doesn’t make for a very exciting painting.

The next thing everyone rushes to after Raphael is the Sistine Chapel. Which means that they hurry through the many rooms of the modern artists. Not just anyone, there was a whole room of ignored Matisse. A couple of Francis Bacons. Look at the crowds in front of these three Salvador Dalis.

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Admittedly the Sistine Chapel is incredible. I’ve been there once before, twenty five years ago. It was in the height of summer and also during the restoration works, so we could see some very dark bits of ceiling, a whole lot of scaffolding, some tiny bright bits that had been restored and we were pretty much shoved through like cattle. This time was different. Before we went in Sonya sat us down with a giant book she pulled from her small bag to take us through the individual paintings we would see when we went in. Do you associate Botticelli with the Sistine Chapel? Neither did I, but he did a whole lot of Old Testament scenes around the walls way before Michelangelo got in there. And very nice they are too. We were able to stay in there as long as we wanted, listening to the guards shouting “silencio!” and “no photo!”. It was pretty fantastically amazing, much better because we had been prepped. I did find that whole wall of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement a tad fleshy, even with the sad brown underwear added later, his male statues are fairly lithe but I find his painted nudes a bit on the meaty side. Sonya told us that he’d just been asked to paint the twelve apostles, but he liked painting nude males, and you just can’t paint the apostles nude. The apostles are there all right, but definitely not front and centre.

Sonya left us then, so we jammed in with the Japanese tourists for a spot of lunch, then zipped through our favourite bits again before heading straight for a climb up the dome of the Basilica of St Peter. I do recommend this as a first look at this amazing church. It’s really the only way to see a big chunk of it at once.
Here’s the Throne of St Peter.

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You can climb right to the top, inside the dome.

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You get a doozy of a view from the top.

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You can also walk around on the roof, peeking down at the lost umbrellas nestling on the minor domes and getting right up close to the giant statues on top.

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It was my husband’s last church, he’s on his way home now to earn some money. He was very glad this one was at the end, not at the beginning of the tour. Which began a heated discussion amongst the kids on which church has been their favourite and why. Ah, the indoctrination is working.

Colossal Rome

The easy thing about Pompeii was that even though people had been living on the site for possibly thousands of years, since the Etruscans, there was really only one story there. Bam, moment frozen in time. In Rome, after all the famous bits of emperors and triumphs and glory and acres of marble, people continued to live there. In droves. Even in Roman times you had a building standing for a couple of hundred years then it was swept away by flood or fire, then something else was built on the foundations, or incorporating the ruins. The mind bending effect is of all history all at once. You keep seeing things like this.

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Just a bit of two thousand year old wall sticking out of a building a few hundred years old, adorned with Vespas.
We extracted a very prolonged squeak from the Horror by taking him on a little walk, then turning a corner to see this.

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Once again we’ve used a tour guide recommended by Monika Iris, her name is Sonya Tavoletta and she’s been a very knowledgeable guide, and not just for the Roman stuff. This morning she took us through the Colosseum, even telling the boys things about it that they didn’t know, and we were especially amazed by the pulley mechanisms they had going so they could pop such things as whole trees out of the floor to run a wild animal hunt.

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She took us on a walk past the Palatine Hill, giving us a whole lot of good information about Augustus, the Republic, later Emperors and pointed out some medieval farm buildings that had made use of the site after it had been abandoned and before the archaeologists started getting interested in the place in the nineteenth century. A lot of sites had been preserved when they were turned into churches, and there is not a more impressive example than the Pantheon.

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Gave me the shivers the first time I saw it twenty five years ago, and gives me the shivers now. The magnificence inside is what the whole Palatine Hill and all the other relics jutting out about the place would have looked like in the days when labour was almost free. The Moose is working up debating points for why slavery should be reintroduced, but I think it’s just because he wants to live in a marble palace. The Horror and the Muffet were more interested in gelato than the glory inside the Pantheon.

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The smaller kids prefer their ruins ruined, but I highly recommend the blueberry gelato. The Horror is just surprised to find how much like mandarin his mandarin gelato tasted. He liked it in the end. Muffet like her ruins also infested by cats, something that’s guaranteed when you operate a cat shelter in the Theatre of Pompey.

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The Muffet visited the shelter and it reminded me of what my house would smell like in the eventuality that I do become a crazy cat lady. This particular cat was sitting metres from the spot upon which Julius Caesar was stabbed repeatedly by his business associates. Here is the spot even closer.

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Just a fenced off area surrounded by busy streets which we’re finally learning to cross. You find a small gap then march across confidently, heads held high, not making eye contact with drivers. Last time I was here I’d find a nun to cross with, but we’re not staying that close to the Vatican this time.
Back to the Forum in the afternoon, past the shop that sells ecclesiastical duds to the Pope.

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I guess you have to get your cardinal’s gear somewhere. There were a few shops nearby also selling stuff with which to fit out your church. Or personal altar.

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I did love the Forum, you could spend all day there. It’s another site that could greatly benefit from the German touch. Sonya had given us enough information to be going on with, and there were the odd information signs. I do love the foundations of identifiable buildings, but I also love the random bits of marble lying around.

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In a personal example of how Roman design still influences us today, I think that if you visit my new bathroom you’ll find this very design on the decorative border tiles around the room.

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You could spend days mooning about the Forum, but they boot you out in a multilingual fashion at four, so we meandered back to our slightly run down hotel past the Colosseum to drink it in a little more. It’s an amazing thing to have hanging about the place.

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Sonya’s son attends school about ten metres from the thing, which immediately had the Horror petitioning to be left here in her care. It’s hard to compete with. We have seen many school excursions popping in to ancient churches and museums, a very far cry indeed from a visit to Homebush.

If other parts of Italy, the Renaissance has been then strongest historical echo, but here it is overwhelmingly the classical Roman past. I wonder if that is how it seems to the residents? I’ll have to ask Sonya tomorrow, when she guides us through that other looming presence in Italy, the Catholic Church. More specifically, its physical centre, just a couple of Metro stops away. Always something new to look forward to.

Walking with Ghosts – Pompeii

Vesuvius blew its top on the 24th August 79AD, burying the nearby town of Pompeii in nearly three metres of ash and pumice stone over the course of three days. Six feet of ash arrived on the first day, landing in the streets, getting pushed into the houses, burning hot. Some people ran for it after the first explosion, but some hid in their houses, covering their faces to avoid suffocation.

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Pliny the Younger was an eyewitness, and wrote to his friend Tacitus that the plume erupting from Vesuvius looking like an umbrella pine. And here’s a picture of such a tree.

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We had such a great experience with Monika Iris that we booked her friend Nicola to take us on a tour of Pompeii. He doesn’t appear to have a website, get in touch with me if you’d like a really well informed guide to the ruins who is good with kids. Because Pompeii is big and not terribly well signposted. You can stumble around with a guidebook, but it was so much better to have all of the details pointed out to us. Like the oldest of the stone, from the time of the Etruscans. And when the streets were put down they slope a little to one side and ran down the hill to carry away the city’s waste in the rain (before the Romans arrived and put in a sewage system). Having the waste in the streets meant that you’d get your sandals rather soiled if you crossed the street, so they put in pedestrian crossings.

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There were grooves in the cobbled streets to accommodate the carts. The Romans were big fans of standardisation, cart wheels were about one hundred and thirty centimetres apart, as are these grooves.

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And that, boys and girls, is the width eventually used for the first railway gauges, but possibly for the more mundane reason that most cart wheels were this far apart all over the world to accommodate a draught horse. Nicola also pointed out what looked like random stones to the side of streets which were actually used to mount your horse in case you weren’t one of those athletic types that ran out of your domus and leapt upon the beast’s back.

The husband and the Horror loved the theatres, the forum and the amphitheatres, the big open public spaces. The bathhouse was particularly impressive, having a stone roof it was well preserved when the ash came, filling up the space and supporting the roof rather than burning it away in the case of the wooden roofs. The Muffet loved the stray dogs.

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What particularly touched me, and the Moose as it turns out, was a rich man’s villa. There was the huge entrance hall, with the mosaic floor and the frescoed walls. There were the marble legs of a table further back in the hall.

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The table legs had the name of the original owner on them. He was one of the chaps that had a turn at stabbing Julius Caesar, he was subsequently exiled and all of his possessions put up for sale in Rome. It is assumed that this wealthy Pompeii merchant bought the table in that sale. His house was beautiful, with private quarters that included a garden, which has been recreated from the marks in the ground preserved by the ash, and his own set of hot and cold baths. There was a view from the back of his property across his own vineyard.

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It’s a bit misty, but if you look hard you can see that he had a view of his own personal Mount Doom. As it turned out, he wasn’t burned and suffocated by the ash. He was killed when the weight of the ash broke his roof upon him. Here he still lies.

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The history is right there, it’s all around you in a way that a museum can never convey. There were a whole lot of takeaway shops, with the kind of marble counter I’d rather like in my kitchen. I bet you didn’t have to be careful with this tabletop.

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Most counters had holes in them in which were mounted terracotta vessels full of food and drink. We could even see a marble cash register, underneath this set of holes was a vessel containing small change.

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Not all of the site has been excavated, Italy’s architects and conservators are flat out keeping up with what they’ve uncovered already. Most of the valuable stuff has been taken to the archaelogical museum in Napoli, and fair enough, there’s very little security at the site, you could even touch the frescoes if you were very crass. Here’s an edge of the excavation, the hillside is the actual ash from the eruption.

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There was an earthquake in the region seventeen years before the eruption and you could see meticulous repairs to the cracks this produced in the walls.

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Some people can’t take a hint.

So thanks, Nicola, for guiding us at this amazing site and for explaining to the Moose what laurel was used for.

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Personally, I’d put it in the chicken soup. But that will have to wait until I get home.

The Dizzy Heights of Firenze

I’m getting a crick in my neck. In Italy, if you don’t look up, you’re missing out. Most of the palazzos and museums we’ve been in to have ceilings that look like this.

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We went to the Uffizi today, and you can’t take photos, but there was even modern art going on in the ceiling of the place you left your backpacks.

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I should mention our accommodation in Firenze. You know how they have a ton of left over castles and palaces which they fill with their leftover art and armour collections? Well they also have left over more minor buildings that they rent out to travellers on a budget. I’m sitting on the stairs of a working convent which still has enough nuns to bust me sitting on the stairs typing a blog. Why can’t I sit on a chair? Well, next time one goes past I shall have assembled a sentence to advise them that I like sitting on the stairs and I already have piles. They don’t have enough nuns to fill up the place, so here we are. We’ve cracked the record for the biggest room keys so far.

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And check out our ceiling! Our actual bedroom ceiling.

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I don’t give a hoot that the bathroom is down the corridor and you can’t stand up in it for a handheld shower because it’s under the stairs. It’s too awesome for words. I want a history of this place!

In Firenze we’re hitting the heights. There were three sets of stairs we wanted to conquer, and we’ve done them all. Yesterday we went up the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio.

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From there you can see the two other vantage points we wanted, the Duomo and the bell tower of the Duomo. We did the more challenging Duomo first. That was amazing. Here’s the dome from the ground.

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On the long climb up you first pop up inside the dome, where you can get a close up view of heaven and hell painted on the huge dome.

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I think you’ll agree that it’s a pretty terrifying prospect to spend eternity being beaten with a club by a half man half dolphin. What’s even more terrifying is getting out on to the top of the dome itself. I’ll show you how it looks from the adjacent bell tower.

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See the top of the dome? See those tiny ant like figures? See that entirely inadequate sketch of a guardrail? That was us up there. I wonder how many tourists they lose over the side every week? Here’s a shot of the ground, taken with an outstretched arm, I couldn’t go near the edge.

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I felt like the smooth slippery marble floor sloped down towards the edge. I spent my time up there pressed up against the wall, and I wasn’t the only one. And you wouldn’t be getting any of your economy sized American tourists up those tiny spiralling stairs either, for a start they’d have a heart attack, then after that they’d get wedged in and you’d need a vat of olive oil to get them out again. Might explain why I didn’t see any.

After that the bell tower was a doddle, with a lovely strong cage over the viewing area. However, my knees feel like loosely attached castanets, making strange clunking sounds as I wearily ascend the forty stairs that will take me to the first floor of the convent. They loved a bit of scale in the olden days. Oh well, not much walking planned for tomorrow. Planned being the operative word here. Don’t worry, we saw David.

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So we’ve ticked off the important things, anything we do tomorrow will be jam. That is, if my knees can get me down to breakfast.

You Had to Be There – Venice

There are some places, the Grand Canyon, the Opera House, Disneyland, most of the really big churches in Europe, that you just have to be there. Venice is one of those places. You can see as many photos, read as much as you like. Nothing prepares you for the reality of this crumbling, swaying maze of four storey buildings perched over the swamp. How could you live here?

I think a lot more people visit than actually live here. I’ve heard Chinese, Japanese, French, German, Russian, so much Russian, so many furry hats. Some yobbo Australians, how embarrassment. And this is the off season. I can’t imagine how insane it is in the summer. Firstly, it’s not all water, there are some streets, some opening into squares, some disappearing into nothing. This is not just a tourist photo, the whole island looks like this.

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The shops are amazing. Yes the four kilometre shopping strip in Milan did terrible things to the Muffet’s funds, but it was, you know, shops. This place hasn’t room for shops like that. You can’t change any of the shops in Venice from how they were five hundred years ago or so, so they’re all tiny and tend to the artisanal. The boys are in heaven.

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I bought a belt, and got the story of how the stamp for the leather was made (copied from the decoration for an old Venetian book) the care put into the dyes, the shape of the cow, how they’re cut, each belt has the holes punched into it after you buy it to suit you. Now this is the kind of shopping I love.

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We went on the behind the scenes tour of the Palace of the Doges, and it was just incredible.

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We got the tour of the jail cells, in use for five hundred years until the 1920s!, the rooms of the secret service, the history of the very sophisticated government bureaucracy that dates back to the 1300s. Also the history of the celebrated Casanova’s imprisonment and escape from these very cells. The structure of the place was amazing, it was burnt in the 1500s, then very quickly rebuilt by an army of shipwrights so there’s a very nautical feel to the place. The halls of government are huge, without obvious supports or columns, we got into the roof above them and it’s like an upside down ships keel. The floors in the upper rooms bounce unnervingly, the structure is wood, and stone floors just shouldn’t move like that. The doors open upward like in ships to accommodate the moving floors.

We weren’t able to take photos, but Google it. I felt sorry for the artists commissioned to decorate the place (I had actually heard of Tintoretto, don’t think much of his clouds) they were obviously given a room or ceiling, a general theme, then told to cover every square inch with allegory, wood carvings, ancient heroes, religious themes and acres of gilt. It must have taken ages. Lavish doesn’t even begin to describe it. At least they got to do their paintings on canvas, then have them affixed to the ceilings, rather than having to lie on scaffolding for years like poor old Michelangelo. When I get home, I’m covering my walls with material and having a wood carver work for us full time. I want ornate.

Speaking of which, our hotel, the Hotel Lux, has material covered walls, tiny rooms, ornate fittings, very firm beds and god knows how difficult it must have been here when all the tourists started demanding bathrooms. We reckon we’ve identified the bathroom block in our hotel, our theory is that there was a gap between the buildings that has been filled up by a vertical column of bathrooms. See? In the middle. With the water pipe going down.

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I’m fascinated by the logistics of this place. In the morning everyone puts their rubbish neatly in the streets, and a man with a trolley picks it up. There are no vehicles here at all, not even Segways.

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The cost of living here must be huge, there’s plaster falling off the walls all over the place, bulging walls, and one shopkeeper told me you’re not allowed to touch anything, the whole structure must be preserved. It must be terribly frustrating, but it makes the place gorgeous and unique. It also means that I’m never going to be able to find that sock shop I saw on the first day. We went on a little wander, and rushed passed a tiny window with what looked like feet lingerie, the most exquisite lace socks and things to wear with your ballet flats. I’m sure it was less than five minutes walk from the hotel, but alas, it too shall pass into memory, because I’ll never remember if it was a right and a right and a bridge then a sharp left and an archway and the second left in the little square. Never.