Posts Tagged With: history

The Neon Museum in Las Vegas

The Neon Museum in Las Vegas

Las Vegas is not for everyone, but I have to admit that I have a secret love for this city (well, not so secret now). We have been  a few times over the years and there is always something new to see and do.

On our last trip I thought it would be fun to visit the Neon Museum in the Downtown area. I am so glad we visited, as it was one of our highlights this time around.

Firstly, you cannot just walk around on your own here, you have to book a guided tour, which lasts 1 hour. It is best to book in advance online, and also note that the evening tours are slightly higher in cost than the daytime tours. We actually arrived early for our booked tour and we were able to join an earlier tour, so if you cannot book in advance you should still be able to get onto a tour if you just arrive at the museum.

Secondly, not all the neon signs are working, in fact, out of the over 200 sign 11 are working. This is due to the fact that restoration of these old signs takes a lot of money, time and dedication. However, all the signs are lit up with spot lights, so don’t fret!

The original La Concha Motel Lobby now houses the museum’s entrance, visitor center, and gift shop

The museum’s entrance, visitor center and gift shop are located inside the historic La Concha Motel lobby. The shell-shaped building was designed by architect Paul Revere Williams and is a striking example of Mid-Century modern design characterized by Atomic-and Space Age shapes and motifs. The motel lobby was originally constructed in 1961 on Las Vegas Boulevard South (next to the Riviera Hotel). In 2005 it was saved from demolition and in 2006 moved to its current location.

The building, as well as the Stardust sign in the yard, did immediately remind me of the cartoon series “The Jetsons”, which is from the same era.

The famous Stardust sign

The guided tour was very entertaining and informative. Our guide was just fantastic, she had previously worked at the Mob Museum down the road, so knows Las Vegas and its history very well. She was also very accommodating to people with cameras, recognizing that we wanted to get photos of the signs without people in it, so she said “as long as I can still see you, you’re okay”. Be aware that there are not many benches in the yard, so be prepared for standing and high heels are a no-no as the paths are gravelled.

All in all I can highly recommend visiting the Neon Museum as it really brings to live some of the history of the hotels, most of which have long gone.

The Liberace sign

The “H” sign

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Inside the Tower of London

Last week’s post concentrated on the outside of the Tower of London; this week I will share some of the photos from the inside of the Tower.

The White Tower is home to the Royal Armouries collection, which includes the 350-year-old exhibition “Line of Kings”. In the collection you will find armour of Henry VIII, Charles I and James II. There are also interactive displays, one of which lets you shoot a longbow and arrow (virtual arrow that is).

Inside the Royal Armouries

Detail of the engraving on Henry VIII’s armour

The wall of breast plates in the background is quite something!

This is a recreation of the King’s private hall and gives a real feel for what this may have looked like in the reign of King Edward I (1272-1307). The bed is apparently constructed to be easily taken apart for when the King and his household would move to another castle.

Replica of King Edward I private hall

These modern sculptures can be found in the White Tower.

This throne, a replica copied from the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey, stands in the upper chamber of the Wakefield Tower. This room was originally built to be a private chamber or bedchamber for Henry III (1216-1272). Under Edward I the room lost its original function and became an ante-room to the new chambers in St Thomas’s Tower. After Edward’s death the Wakefield Tower was abandoned as a residence.

Inside the Tower of London you come across a lot of narrow doors, hall ways, and stairs; some of them are unfortunately not accessible to the public. Our daughter actually commented on this and wished we could explore all those places that were cordoned off to us!

The portcullis of the Bloody Tower is apparently still working (so our Beefeater tour guide told us). They think it is originally medieval and was probably restored in the 16th century.

The portcullis of the Bloody Tower

And here is the bottom of the Bloody Tower portcullis.

 

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Impressions of the Tower of London

Whenever I get asked what my favourite part or attraction in London is, I don’t have to think about my answer; it has to be the Tower of London. Those that know me know that I am a history buff and my head is full of useful (some would say useless) historical info and facts (and not just about London). The history that is on show at the Tower has me spellbound every time, and each time I visit I discover something new.

In this post I want to share some photos I took back in May this year of some scenes of the Tower of London, all of which are outside (I will have to do a separate post for some of the inside impressions).

This first photo is one of my favourites. My daughter actually urged me to take this at the time. My husband served in the British Army for 24 years, so seeing a soldier always brings back memories of those years I spent being an Army wife.

A British soldier making his way through the Tower of London grounds

If you have ever visited the Tower you will have heard the story of the ravens. If you haven’t, here is a quick summary:

Legend has it that the kingdom and the Tower will fall if the six resident ravens ever leave the fortress. Apparently it was King Charles II who first insisted that the Tower’s ravens be protected. To ensure no ravens ever leave one of their wings is painlessly clipped. However, despite this some ravens do go absent without leave and others have even been given the sack. Raven George was dismissed for eating TV aerials and Raven Grog was last seen outside a pub in London’s East End. Today there are seven ravens at the Tower, one spare, just to be on the safe side. They can be seen all over the grounds of the Tower, but their lodgings are next to the Wakefield Tower.

One of the famous Tower ravens

This next photo is of the famous Traitors’ Gate, so named for the supposed traitors that have passed through here. The most famous of those that made their final journey through this gate were Queen Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas Moore.

Traitors’ Gate at the Tower of London

Continuing with the theme of beheaded Queens, this is a memorial on the site where some famous prisoners were executed, among them Henry VIII’s second and fifth wives (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard), and Lady Jane Grey (also known as the Nine Day Queen).

A memorial to those executed at this site in the Tower grounds

This is my favourite part of the Tower, the White Tower. It is the oldest medieval building at the Tower, having been built in around 1078 by William the Conqueror. It was built to awe, subdue and terrify Londoners, and to deter foreign invaders. Inside are a number of exhibitions showing what life was like in this building throughout the years. It has undergone many renovations through the ages, as well as some additions, for instance, the ornate turrets date from the 16th century. The White Tower’s first prisoner was Ranulf Flabard in 1100 (on the order of King Henry I) and the last prisoners held here were the notorious Kray twins; they spent a few days here in 1952, imprisoned for failing to report for national service. Rudolf Hess is most commonly known to be the last prisoner held here in May 1941, but while he was the last state prisoner, he was not the very last prisoner.

The White Tower, almost 1,000 years of history

 

The Cradle Tower, seen here from the outside of the Tower walls. It was built in 1348 by King Edward III as a new watergate to his lodgings. This tower was later used as prison lodgings. In 1599 Father John Gerard and John Arden, both prisoners here, swung to freedom on a rope that stretched from the tower across the Moat, where friends were waiting in a boat.

The Cradle Tower

This view of London’s Tower Bridge is always worth a pause. In the foreground is Traitors’ Gate with the Tudor timber framing above it (although this building was restored in the 19th century).

Tower Bridge with Traitors’s Gate in the foreground.

There are so many more great views and stories to share and there are plenty of great books and websites out there, but for a somewhat shorter history please visit my previous post  from 2014.

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On Guard at the Tower of London

A sentry at the Jewel House at the Tower of London

The Tower of London is famous for its Beefeaters (also called Yeomen Warders) and their fabulous free tours of the Tower of London, however, a detachment of the regiment on guard at Buckingham Palace and St James’ Palace is also guarding parts of the Tower of London.

The Tower guard is made up of one officer, 6 NCO’s (Non-Commissioned Officers) and 15 soldiers. They have sentries posted outside the Jewel House and the Queen’s House.

Sentries are changed every two hours and you can see them being posted and receiving their orders. The Jewel House is your best option, as you get fairly close to the sentries.

On their way to the Queen’s House

The change over is accompanied by the usual stamping of feet and shouting of orders, however, not so at the Queen’s House. So as not to disturb the occupants (which is the Resident Governor of the Tower of London and his family) the sentry does not stamp his feet, and when an officer makes a tour of inspection the sentry will whisper his response “All’s Well”.

Sentry at the Queen’s House

The detachment is also involved in some other daily duties.

Each morning at 09:00hrs the Duty Yeoman Warder and a military escort ceremoniously open the Middle and Byward Towers. After this opening the public is allowed to enter the Tower of London.

This soldier has clearly been in position for some time!

At 15:00hrs the Officer of The Guard and his escort march to the Byward Tower to collect the Word. The Word is the password, which gets changed daily, for after-hours entry to the Tower of London. The Word is used by Tower staff, residents, and the soldiers on duty.

 

And the last duty is in conjunction with the Chief Yeoman Warder. Every night at 21:00hrs they take part in the Ceremony of the Keys, which is the locking of the Tower of London for the night. This ceremony has been performed every night for more than 900 years.

You can get free tickets to this event through the Tower of London website, but be warned, they sell out a year in advance. If you are lucky to get any tickets, please note that there is a small administration fee. No cameras are allowed at this event, you will need your ticket, and ID and there is a limit on the number of tickets you can book (depending on season). We did try to get tickets, but were not lucky enough; so another reason to go back to London!

A Yeoman Warder

 

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London Pub Signs – What’s in a name?

The White Lion, named after King Edward IV (reigned 1442-1483)

British pubs are famous the world over for their beer, their quirky looks and traditions (think last orders), their history and funny names, their atmosphere, their food, and the fact that most of them are still very family friendly.

When you ask for directions in the UK it will invariably include something like: “turn left at the Slug & Lettuce, continue on that road and then take a right at the Rose & Crown”. Pubs are an intrinsic part of the UK and its culture and people.

Each pub has its own history and every one is different, however, the names are not always unique. The most popular top 4 pub names in the UK are the Red Lion, Crown, Royal Oak, and White Hart; and there is a good reason for this, but first, why are there pub signs in the first place in the UK?

The Keys pub in the grounds of the Tower of London for the use of Yeoman Warders only

This all goes back to, yes, you guessed it, the Romans! Roman wine sellers used to hang vine leaves outside to show that they sold wine. When they came to Britain, that was no longer an option thanks to the British climate, so they used small evergreen bushes instead. Those who also sold beer would hang an ale stake out as well.

In the 12th century naming of inns and pubs became common, and as the majority of the population could neither read nor write, pub/inn signs were used instead. King Richard II passed an act in 1393 making it compulsory for pubs and inns to have a sign in order to identify them to the official Ale Tester, who would inspect the alcohol being sold at the establishment (apparently Ale Testers were paid in beer).

The Wellington, named after the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo in 1815

Since then pubs and inns have been named after monarchs, battles, prominent figures or some other local obscurity.

Red Lion pubs are said to be named after the badge used by John of Gaunt, who in the 14th century was the Duke of Lancaster and the 4th son of King Edward III and was, for a time, the most influential and powerful man in the country. However, there is another story that says Red Lion pubs are so-called because James VI of Scotland, on becoming James I of England, ordered that the heraldic red lion of Scotland be displayed on all buildings of importance, including pubs, so that his English subjects could be reminded that the Scots now held power in the South. One could also say that Red Lion pubs could be named after their local nobel family, as the red lion was part of many an English noble family’s coats of arms.

The Crown pubs are simply named thus to show their support of the monarchy, whichever that might be at any given time.

The Royal Oak pub name is derived from a true tale of a king on the run. Prince Charles was defeated in 1651 at the Battle of Worcester in the English Civil War and fled the scene with Cromwell’s troops hot on his heels. He reached Bishops Wood in Staffordshire, and climbed, what is now dubbed the Boscobel Oak, to hide in the tree for a day until his pursuers moved on. Charles then escaped to France and later returned as Charles II on the Restoration in 1660.

The White Hart is a rare pale/white red deer and was the heraldic badge of King Richard II (reigned 1377-1399) and is usually depicted with a chain and a golden collar or a crown around its neck.

Most pubs these days are tied to a brewery or pub company, which will dictate which beers can be sold in its pubs. Those without any ties are called Free Houses and can decide which brew they want to offer their clientele.

While I was in London earlier this year I came across a lot of these pub signs, some of which were less common than others.

This pub is funnily enough nowhere near the Bank of England. It sits on Fleet Street, next to the Royal Courts of Justice.

The Old Bell Tavern, also on Fleet Street, has a long history, having been a licensed tavern for more than 300 years. Built by Sir Christopher Wren, it housed his masons who were rebuilding St Bride’s Church after the Great Fire. Originally the tavern could only be reached via an alleyway from Fleet Street, known originally for being the street housing printing services and later the home of the UK press (although most of them have now moved). One of the first printing presses operated here around 1500.

Another Fleet Street pub which was rebuilt shortly after the Great Fire of London in 1666. We actually stopped here for a drink and I can confirm that the interior is very dark, old looking and tiny. The pub is associated with literary figures Oliver Goldsmith, Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, P. G. Wodehouse and Dr. Johnson, who are all said to have been ‘regulars’.

The tavern was opened in 1869 to celebrate the opening of the Holborn Viaduct. Opposite used to stand the notorious Newgate Prison, today the Old Bailey (the UK’s Central Criminal Court) stands in its place. It is said that the tavern’s cellar used to house 5 prison cells used by Newgate Prison.

On Ludgate Hill near St Paul’s Cathedral is this 18th century pub. It stands on the site of an old London Coffee House where all the leading people of the time would meet to debate all the new scientific and philosophical theories of the day, including Joseph Priestley and Benjamin Franklin.

This name is likely a pun and could mean a horse or a nagging woman.

On Villiers Street, near Charing Cross, this pub remembers the Queen that never was. The Princess of Wales was King George IV’s secret first wife. When still Prince Regent, he secretly married Catholic widow Maria Fitzherbert in 1785. The marriage was declared illegal at his father’s behest, because George would have been ineligible to reign with a Catholic wife.

The Walrus and The Carpenter takes its name from a poem by Lewis Carroll. The verse is recited by Tweedledee and Tweedledum in ‘Through The Looking Glass’. The pub stands in the shadow of history, in view of The Monument to commemorate the Great Fire of London.

 

 

 

 

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Horse Guards Parade

This parade ground is most famous for the celebration of the Queen’s offical birthday in June; Trooping the Colour (oh and for having hosted the beach volleyball event in the London 2012 Olympic Games!).

Horse Guards Parade at St James’s Park

This year this spectacle will be celebrated this Saturday, 17 June.

Horse Guards Parade is the ceremonial parade ground in St James’s Park and dates from the 18th century. Horse Guards is the building with a clock tower over an archway and to this day remains the offical entrance to St James’s and Buckingham Palace; it was designed by William Kent, the then Chief Architect to King Georg II.

The central windows you can see are opened for members of the Royal Family during the event, so that they can watch the Queen as she reviews her troops.

One side of the parade ground

The entry to the parade ground is guarded by 2 mounted cavalry troopers from The Queen’s Life Guard. They are posted there every day from 10:00hrs to 16:00hrs and their change over takes place at 11:00hrs daily, except Sundays, when the change takes place at 10:00hrs.

The Queen’s Life Guard on guard at the entrance to Horse Guards Parade

The “Colour” is the battalion flag which is “Trooped” (carried) slowly down the ranks of the assembled soldiers (if it is very hot you may see one or two of the soldiers actually passing out, as has happened in the past). This is a tradition that was originally done so that each soldier was familiar with his battalion’s flag, which was used as a rallying point during battle. The Queen personally carries out the inspection of her troops. Once the main ceremony is over, the Queen leads her troops down the Mall to Buckingham Palace where she makes a salute at the Palace (when she was younger she would physically lead them down riding on one of her horses, these days she takes one of royal carriages). As with all such traditions, at the end of all this the Queen appears on the famous balcony of Buckingham Palace.

You cannot buy tickets to this event, you have to enter a ballot in January/February and hope that in March your name is drawn.

The trees on the right hand side is also where the back of No. 10 Downing Street lies (the official residence of the British Prime Minister)

 

 

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Follow the Red Thread – a tour through Hannover, Germany – Part III

The town hall as seen from the Maschpark

The town hall as seen from the Maschpark

Welcome to Part III of our walk through my hometown of Hannover in Germany’s north. It is amazing how much of my own hometown I didn’t know! Just goes to show that we all should play tourists in the places we call home.

Stop 13 – The City’s Coat of Arms

So, this is the one stop I walked straight past, as the red thread had disappeared from the pavement. I spotted it on the other side of a small side street, so assumed it must have continued straight on. It wasn’t until we sat down for a coffee that we realised that we had missed this stop. Unfortunately by that time we were already near the end of our tour. So, no photos of this one – sorry.

Anyway, the city’s coat of arms sits on a portico as part of the façade of the Public Works Department (I mean, that is easy to miss, right?). Originally built in 1736 as a gateway to mule stables on the Königsworther Platz, it was later converted to house the Garde du Corps regiment. The portico survived the air raids of WWII and was re-erected in 1955 in its current location.

Before you leave this location you should take a look at the Maschpark, which is located behind the town hall. It is one of our favourite parks as it contains lots of art installations and gives some fab views of the town hall.

Stop 14 – The Laveshouse

This is the former residence of architect Georg Ludwig Laves, who is responsible for a number of buildings in Hannover. Remarkably, the residence escaped WWII without any damage. Today it houses the State Architectural Society.

The Wangenheim Palace

The Wangenheim Palace

Stop 15 – The Wangenheim Palace

Only 50 meters down the road is one of Laves’ creations, the Wangenheim Palace.

The building is named after Count Georg von Wangenheim, who commissioned the building as a residence for himself and his family. On his death in October 1851 the house was sold for 100,000 Reichstaler to the Kingdom of Hannover, to be used by the crown prince, who became King George V the following month. After 10 years of use the house was sold to the town of Hannover and served as the town hall until the New Rathaus was built just over the road in 1913. Today it houses the Ministry of Economics, Technology and Transport for Lower Saxony.

Is it a boat? No! Is it a plane? No! It's a bus stop!

Is it a boat? No! Is it a plane? No! It’s a bus stop!

Just across the road is one of my favourite bus stops ever. It is in the shape of a boat’s hull and was designed by the Italian designer Massimo Iosa Ghini and is one of many new arty bus stops.

Stop 16 – Waterloo Column

I admit, I don’t understand why the red thread doesn’t actually go right past this column. Instead it swerves off to the other side of the road, where, when you turn, you can spot the column.

As the name suggests, this is in commemoration of the Battle of Waterloo, where the British, together with Prussian and Hannoverian Armies, defeated Napoleon on 18 June 1815. The fact that these three armies actually fought together on the same side was a miracle in itself, never mind that they defeated Napoleon!

Count Carl von Alten

Count Carl von Alten

Over the road, where the red thread actually leads you, is the sandstone building of French architect Remy de la Fosse. It was built between 1712 and 1720 and houses the State Archives. The statue in front of the building is 100 years younger and shows Count Carl von Alten, who served as a general under Wellington in Waterloo.

The Leine Palace

The Leine Palace

Stop 17 – Leineschloss

This is the Leineschloss (Leine Palace) and is so named as it stands on the river Leine, which flows through Hannover. Built in 1637 it spent its first 230 years not really knowing what it was for; it was a home, a cloister, a library, an opera house, as well as a garrison for 3,000 soldiers.

During the reign of King Georg I this became the place for the nobility to meet and be seen. Composer Georg Friedrich Händel played here a few times. Unfortunately, in 1803 French troops invaded the area and the palace was raided, plundered and became abandoned. It was then given by the French to the town of Hannover on the condition that it was turned into a garrison. Once Napoleon was defeated the garrison was no more.

It is now the seat of Lower Saxony’s State parliament and is once more undergoing renovations and changes.

The view from the Leine bridge

The view from the Leine bridge

Stop 18 – The Palace Bridge

Yes, a bridge is one of the scenic stops. It isn’t the famous bridge of sighs in Venice, but nonetheless, it makes for some great views towards the town hall and along the palace. It was built by an Italian and connected directly to an entrance into the palace, which strangely enough, anyone could walk right through.

So this brings us to the end of Part III of the walking tour. Join me next week where we meet the Nanas, visit the old town, and discover an area I had never known existed!

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St. Peter’s Basilica – The seat of the Holy See

St. Peter's Basilica as seen from the River Tiber

St. Peter’s Basilica as seen from the River Tiber

When I recently went through some of my older travel photos I came across my Rome pictures. I went to Rome with a colleague of mine back in November 2004, so the photos were taken with a small Canon PowerShot pocket camera. I thought I would use the next few weeks to share some of my favourite shots and places from that trip – starting this week with the most recognizable Basilica in the world, St. Peter’s in Vatican City.

St. Peter’s Basilica is the heart of the world’s smallest independent state and is the epicenter of a religion with an estimated 1.2 billion followers worldwide. It is where religion, history, culture and politics have a great significance and has been the seat of the Holy See since the 5th Century (although one could argue that it has been the seat of the popes since St. Peter arrived in Rome).

The Basilica stands partially where the Roman Emperor Nero and some of his predecessors had built a circus. According to the Vatican’s website (www.vaticanstate.va) this is where some Christian martyrs were buried; among them St. Peter, who had travelled from Palestine and was crucified in 64 A.D (or 67 A. D, depending on your research sources).

Emperor Constantine, after having converted to Christianity, started to have a church built in 324 on this spot in order to protect St. Peter’s tomb, placing it at the center of the apse. Nero’s circus during this time was falling into ruin, as much of the building stone for the new church came from the circus. The new church was consecrated in 329.

In 1305 the papal court moved to Avignon and did not return to Rome for over a century, during which time the Basilica, which was already 1,000 years old, started to fall into disrepair. As an aside, contrary to popular believe, Avignon did not belong to France at that time, the city belonged to the Kingdom of Naples and was therefore not French territory.

Eventually the old Basilica needed to be rebuilt, which started under Pope Julius II in 1506. In 1547 Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to propose a new design. Michelangelo decided to keep the original plan, but improving it by thickening the pilasters and external walls, and creating niches and ledges by chiseling out the walls. He also designed the cupola, but never saw it finished; Michelangelo died at the age of 89 in 1564, at which point the build had reached the drum of the copula. The dome in time became a model for many other domes in the western world. St. Paul’s in London (1675), the Invalides in Paris (1680-91) and the Capital in Washington (1794-1817).

Invalides in Paris

Invalides in Paris

St. Paul's Cathedral in London

St. Paul’s Cathedral in London

The famous piazza, St. Peter’s Square, in front of the Basilica was designed by Bernini to connect the place of prayer with the rest of the city. The portico has 284 columns, each 15m high and along its balustrade are 140 statues of saints, each over 3m high, which were executed by followers of Bernini. At the center of the piazza stands an obelisk which functions as a sun-dial and used to stand in Nero’s circus. The fountain on the right was built by Maderno in 1614 and the one on left by Bernini in 1675.

One of the colonnaded arms surrounding the Piazza S. Pietro

One of the colonnaded arms surrounding the Piazza S. Pietro

The staircase in front of the Basilica was built rather late, between 1662 and 1666. It only measures 60m, but the progressive narrowing of the width and a reduced distance between the columns towards the top make it look much longer.

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter’s Square

The inside of the Basilica is breath-taking. I remember walking through the doors into the dark interior, my eyes taking a little time to adjust from the bright sun light I had just left behind, looking around to get my bearings and being speechless for once in my life. The vastness of the Basilica just floored me, not to mention the ornateness of it all. To give you a sense of its size, the Basilica can hold up to 60,000 people – yes, 60,000!!

The Basilica contains a large number of statues, but my favourite (as for most people who visit St. Peter’s) has to be Michelangelo’s Pieta, which is in the first chapel on the right and is shielded by thick glass. Michelangelo was only 24 years old when he created this masterpiece in 1499. Apart from the obvious beautiful work of the Madonna’s drapery and her delicate features, this piece stands out from all the other pieces Michelangelo created, as it is the only piece of work he ever signed. According to one book I read this work was signed by the young Michelangelo because he had overheard a couple of travelers one day discussing the statue and attributing the work to a third-rate artist from Lombardy. So incensed was Michelangelo that he went one night into the Basilica and carved the following into the diagonal band crossing the Madonna’s torso: MICHAEL. ANGELUS. BONAROTUS. FLORENT. FACIEBAT. Which translates as Michaelangelo Buonarotti. Florentine. Made This. He apparently later regretted having done this and vowed never again to sign his own work. This statue, more than any other works, launched his career. Almost instantly after this sculpture was finished it became famous.

Michelangelo's Pieta

Michelangelo’s Pieta

My other favourite statue in St. Peter’s is St. Peter Enthroned, which has been attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio. If you look at his feet you will notice that they are very shiny and worn down. Faithful pilgrims and those seeking good fortunes line up at this statue to kiss and/or touch St. Peter’s feet. Given that St. Peter’s Basilica has had pilgrims visiting since the 14th century, that’s a lot of kissing and touching of feet, it’s a miracle that there is anything left of his feet to be honest.

St. Peter Enthroned

St. Peter Enthroned

There are so many more important items I could mention, the Papal Altar, the Chair of St. Peter for instance, but the above are my favourites.

However, one more needs to be mentioned, that did not exist when I visited in 2004. The tomb of Pope John Paul II, which is in the Nave of the Epistle in the Chapel of St. Sebastian, the second chapel on the right from the entrance of St. Peter’s. This has been the resting place of the enigmatic pope since May 2011. It is now the most popular place visited in the Basilica and is unofficially known as the “John Paul II Chapel”. John Paul II shares this chapel with Queen Matilda of Tuscany, Christina Queen of Sweden, Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII.

Underneath the Basilica are the Vatican Grottos. These contain chapels dedicated to various saints and tombs of kings, queens and popes, dating as far back as the 10th century. This is also where you will find the holiest place in the Basilica, St. Peter’s tomb, which contains a 4th century shrine built by the Emperor Constantine on what was thought to be the apostles’ tomb.

St. Peter outside the Basilica

St. Peter outside the Basilica

There is a lot to see and take in in this Basilica, so much so that I ended up visiting it twice whilst I was there. Back then it was busy with tourists and pilgrims, but no doubt if I went back now (which I hope to do in the next 5 years) I would find it even more crowded than in 2004.

Unbelievably, admission to St. Peter’s is free (which might explain the crowds to some extent), however, the cupola and treasury do charge an entry fee. There is always a line of people to get into the Basilica, but it moves faster than the line at the Vatican Museum. The Basilica is open daily between 07:00-19:00 from April to September and 07:00-18:00 from October to March.  Please note that there is a dress code: no bare shoulders, shorts or short skirts/dresses. Longer shorts may be allowed during the heat of the summer, but that is really up the guard on duty at the time, so my advice, dress appropriately to avoid being turned away (which could happen even if you have passed security).

Approaching the Basilica from Castle S. Angelo

Approaching the Basilica from Castle S. Angelo

Getting to St. Peter’s is easy enough; the hop on hop off buses stop near Castle S. Angelo and if you arrive by Metro it only takes a 5 minute walk  until you come into St. Peter’s Square directly from the North. Join the queue which will take you through the airport style scanners and security. Once you have cleared security there is a visitor center (with a cloakroom and toilets) and it is also where you can hire an audio guide (which is only 5 Euros, and well worth the money). Please note that strollers are not allowed inside the Basilica and so must be handed in at the cloakroom.

Photography is allowed almost everywhere, exceptions are areas where Mass is being held, and the Vatican Grottos are also off-limits. Make sure you adhere to the “No Photography” signs when you encounter them as the guards are swift and fluent in at least a dozen languages to tell you “no camera”.

A few queue busting tips: if you absolutely have to visit in the morning, get there really early and try to avoid Wednesdays and Sundays. The Pope holds his general audience on Wednesdays and on Sundays gives the Angelus prayer where he will appear at the window of the Papal Apartments, at the end of which he bestows a general blessing on those in St. Peter’s Square. So, once you have picked your day of the week it is time to think about timing. The tourist busses get to the piazza around 09:00, so whatever you do, either arrive before that time or in the early afternoon, around 14:30.

Another thing to remember when visiting Rome is that August is the hottest month of the year and that most Romans who do not own a business relying on tourists, escape the hot city during that month and head for cooler climes. If you are able to visit outside of the main holiday season I would recommend March, April, May, September, October or even November. We were lucky with the weather in November, it was warm enough to walk around in a t-shirt and sit outside for coffee or lunch.

One of the mosaics inside the copula

One of the mosaics inside the copula

If you want to see Rome from atop the cupola you can do so by following the signs at the steps of St. Peter’s. The dome opens at 08:00 and you have two options, take the stairs, all 551 of them, for 5 Euros or take the lift for 7 Euros, which will take you up most of the way but still requires you to climb 320 stairs to get to the top. My advice, spent the extra 2 Euros for the lift, there is nothing to see on the stairs on the way up and you save your energy. Be warned though, the stairs to the very top get very narrow and steep and the sides of the building come in, so that the very tall will end up climbing these stairs in a rather odd-looking fashion! The view however, is worth all of this.

The view from the copula

The view from the copula

Next week I will be looking at the Vatican museum, its history, its treasures and some practical tips on surviving this tourist magnet.

Categories: Europe Trip 2014, European History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Arc de Triomphe – Honouring the Brave

Arc de Triomphe, as seen from the

Arc de Triomphe, as seen from the

This arch stands at the top of the famous Champs-Elysées and is the center of the very busy round-about (traffic circle) Place Charles de Gaulle . The easiest way to get there is via Metro, get off at Charles de Gaulle-Etoile and follow Sortie #1. Alternatively, if you travel from the Rue Cler or Montparnasse area, bus #92 is a great option, plus you get to see some more of Paris! If you arrive by any other means than the Metro, please use the pedestrian underpass, as the round-about does not have any pedestrian crossings and you would be playing with death if you tried to cross in the traffic. With 12 roads converging into one round-about, it’s no wonder that this is one busy place!

12 roads converge at the arch

12 roads converge at the arch

Did you know that Paris has two Arc de Triomphe’s? The one you see here is the famous one everyone knows, but there is a smaller one, called Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, located just west of the Louvre and almost looks like it’s smaller cousin.

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The outside and the base of the arch are free, but if you want to climb the 284 steps to the top you will have to pay. If you have the Museum Pass (let’s face it, why wouldn’t you) then you are good to go, otherwise it is Euro 9.50 per adult to get in. As with most places in Paris, those under the age of 18 have free access, and between October and March entry is free every first Sunday of the month. For information on the Museum Pass, please visit my earlier post, which will explain why this pass is a must in Paris. For up-to-date entry fees and opening times please visit the Arc de Triomphe website.

The Top

The Top

Without the Museum Pass be prepared for long ticket lines. A lot of guide books tell you that if you have kids you will still need to que to get their free ticket, even if the adults have the Museum Pass. We did not have to do so; we got to the line for Museum Pass holders, showed them the passes, asked about our daughter and they just waved us through. The line to get up to the top is something you cannot skip however. Note that the lift is only for those with disabilities and only goes as far as the museum level, from there it is another 40 steps to the top. Line ups seem to disappear in the evening, and as the Arc de Triomphe is open until 23:00hrs during the summer (and 22:30hrs during the off-season) try to go for sunset, thereby avoiding the lines. We went during the day and did not fancy waiting in line, so did not actually end up on top of the arch (again, another one for the next visit).

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The Arc de Triomphe is 165ft/50.2m high; its construction began in 1809 to celebrate Napoleon I’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz. Construction was briefly interrupted in 1814 by the abdication of Napoleon and once more in 1826. Napoleon never saw the arch finished, as he died in 1821 and it was not finished until 1836. However, that did not stop his dead body from being paraded underneath the arch. In 1840 his funeral procession passed under the arch, 19 years after his actual death, carrying his remains from exile in St. Helena to Paris.

Some of the battles fought in the 19th Century

Some of the battles fought in the 19th Century

The construction project cost the French people 9.3 million French Francs, which was an astronomical amount of money at that time.

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On the arch you will see the names of the major battles since the French Revolution, 19th Century battles are on the arch itself, whereas those from the 20th Century are engraved into the pavement. The pillars carry the names of the 558 generals that fought in those battles and those with a line under their names died in battle. Strangely enough though, the battles that took place during the time Napoleon departed Elba and his final defeat at Waterloo, are not included here.

And some more battles

And some more battles

One thing not to miss at the base is the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, whose flame is rekindled every night at 1830hrs ever since World War I and new flowers are laid daily at this time. I always find it quite moving, standing at the tombs, remembering that these young soldiers gave their lives for the freedoms we now enjoy and take for granted.

The tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The Arc de Triomphe has seen many a parade, in triumph for French forces, as well as for its enemies during World War II. During the Nazi occupation in 1940 to 1944 a large swastika flew from the top of the arch. In August 1944, under the lead of Charles de Gaulles, Paris and the whole of France celebrated its liberation from the German occupying forces. Today, all national parades start and end here, with one minute of silence in remembrance.

Today, the arch is dedicated to the glory of all French armies.

The beautifully decorated interior of the Arc de Triomphe

The beautifully decorated interior of the Arc de Triomphe

Categories: Europe Trip 2014, European History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Chateau de Versailles – the epitomy of opulence

Chateau de Versailles (and yes, the gold is real!)

Chateau de Versailles (and yes, the gold is real!)

The Palace of Versailles is the third most visited attraction in France.

Versailles is one of these places you want to see but dare not, as the horror stories of crowds and touts put you off. Well, fear not, it is nowhere near as bad as you may have heard!

This ceiling, which reminded me a little of something I saw at the Vatican many years ago, is in the Hall of Battles, which is filled with propaganda paintings.

This ceiling, which reminded me a little of something I saw at the Vatican many years ago, is in the Hall of Battles, which is filled with propaganda paintings.

The trick to beating the crowds is to pick the right day and time to visit. We only had half a day, so chose to go in the morning and arrived before 09:00 hrs. Avoid Sundays and Tuesdays if you can, as these are the busiest days of the week during the summer (the Louvre is closed Tuesdays, hence this being a very popular day of the week at Versailles).

One of the many chandeliers. This one hangs in the Apollo Drawing Room. This room was used for formal audiences of the king.

One of the many chandeliers. This one hangs in the Apollo Drawing Room. This room was used for formal audiences of the king.

Versailles is easily reached from Paris via RER Train, of which there are stops all over the city. It takes no more than 35 minutes by train to get to Versailles and a round-trip ticket is usually under 10Euro per adult. If you need to get the Metro to get to your closest RER station, you will be able to purchase a combined Metro/RER tickets at almost all Metro stations (although there are exceptions, so plan ahead). Once you get to your RER station, take any train listed as “Versailles Chateau R.G.” or “Versailles Chateau Rive Gauche”. Chateau Rive Gauche is the Versailles station closest to the Chateau, there are two others in Versailles. Once on the train, ride it to the last stop. To return to Paris take any train, as they all serve downtown Paris.

Marble fireplace detail

Marble fireplace detail

We took a train to the Rive Gauche station and on our arrival followed the crowds. If there are no crowds, because you managed to arrive early, turn right out of the station, then turn left at the first boulevard and within 10 minutes you will be at the palace. Ignore any hawkers trying to sell you guided Versailles tours and tickets, as they are not worth it. You will   likely see that there is already a que of eager visitors. The trick is to get to Versailles before the tour buses arrive around 09:30hrs. Join the que and make friends with those in front and behind you. When we visited we had a great family from Australia behind us with adult kids. We ended up playing the game “Spot the que jumper”, which proved to be highly entertaining. Seriously though, there will always be people who try to jump the que with all sorts of excuses. Stand your ground and point them to the end of the line-up. In fact, on a couple of occasions we witnessed the security guards that work there intervene. Talking about these guards, they do like an orderly snake line. The line some way behind us was getting a little disorderly and wasn’t snaking the way it should, so the guards came along, shouting loudly and realigning people – quite a spectacle!

The long que snaking its way to the entrance

The long que snaking its way to the entrance

As always, assume that pick-pockets operate in crowds, so be vigilant and keep an eye on your possessions.

All in all it took us about 45 minutes to get into the palace, given the amount of people who were in front of us, we didn’t think that was too bad.

One of the many windows facing into the courtyard.

One of the many windows facing into the courtyard.

If you are visiting other attractions in Paris, please ensure you have bought a Museum Pass before getting to Versailles. I wrote some tips on this in an earlier post here. There is also a Versailles Le Passeport Pass, which is a one day pass. This one is available to buy online and will still save you money and time. Without a pass you will have to que to buy your tickets. Most people visiting Versailles have purchased a pass prior to arrival, but ticket lines can still be very long. Note that everyone has to go through the security check, except if you take a guided tour. You can book these ahead of your visit through palace’s website or when you get to the palace, there is a guided tours office in the courtyard. Your admission includes a free audio guide, which you pick up just inside the palace.

The royal gates were restored in 2008 and contain 100,000 gold leaves

The royal gates were restored in 2008 and contain 100,000 gold leaves

If like us you packed a picnic in a backpack you will be asked to check this in ahead of the security check point. Baby Strollers are also not allowed in the palace and need to be checked in. Just make sure you remember to pick your belongings up after you exit the palace.

Some detail of one of the many staircases

Some detail of one of the many staircases

The palace is huge and not all areas are open to the public, but there is plenty to see and I could have easily spent a whole day just in the palace itself. If, like us, you have only half a day, make sure you see the parts that are on your “must-see list” and if you have time left over explore some other areas. Unfortunately we did not have time to wander the famous gardens and the weather wasn’t that great, it was actually quite windy. So we ended up just sitting on the top, looking down whilst having our picnic. There are golf buggies for rent, but the waiting time was over an hour when we got there, so we gave that a miss and just enjoyed the view. So this post will be about the palace only and hopefully I will be able to visit the gardens on our next visit in a few years.

A look out over the famous gardens with its many water features.

A look out over the famous gardens with its many water features.

Versailles is known for being King Louis XIV’s play ground, but it actually started out as a small hunting lodge under his father, King Louis XIII. Under Louis XIV (1638-1715) Versailles was radically transformed into the palace we see today. The “Sun-King” believed in centralized government, with himself at the center. He moved his official seat from Paris to Versailles in 1682 thereby making Versailles the capital of the kingdom, which lasted until 1789. The king thereby ensured he had full control of everything and everybody away from the citizens in crowded Paris. It was no secret that Louis did not like Paris, he never felt well in his palaces there and the fact that he had to flee the city in 1649 to escape the Fronde rebellion did not endear it to him. Versailles at the time was a small village, which was razed to the ground in order to build the palace and a modern town with straight, wide and airy streets, which was in stark contrast to Paris’s cramped, dirty, smelly, and disease ridden streets. At the height of the building project, over 36,000 workmen were busy on site. The grounds cover a total of 830 hectares, 20km of roads, 20km of closing walls, 350,000 trees, as many flowers planted, 35km of water pipes, 13 hectares of roof, 2, 143 windows, 67 staircases and 700 rooms make up today’s Versailles palace.

Every ceiling in every room is different. This is one in a staircase.

Every ceiling in every room is different. This is one in a staircase.

Versailles in its heyday was a very busy place; as many as 5,000 nobles, plus their entourage, were here at any one time. Bizarrely, even back then the palace was open to the public and as long as you got through security and donned the right clothes you could gawk at the nobility.

Detail of the Royal Chapel, which has two storeys and is dedicated to Saint Louis, ancestor and patron saint of the royal family.

Detail of the Royal Chapel, which has two storeys and is dedicated to Saint Louis, ancestor and patron saint of the royal family.

Louis XIV considered himself to be a god and therefore everyone else around him was there to serve their god the Sun-King. His day was regulated like clockwork, as was the whole of the royal court. Every day, every hour, year in, year out. Every morning a hundred courtiers would be in his bedroom to wake him, wash him, and clothe him. This was a courtier’s lot if they wanted to gain the monarch’s favour. You had to be seen in, constantly, in order to be the recipient of royal pensions, financial gratifications, living quarters at Versailles and regular invitations to feasts, balls, and ceremonies. All this followed a strict hierarchy, which determined who was allowed to approach whom, and where and when. Even the use of different chairs (armchair, simple chair or stool) and the right to sit down was regulated by this.

A corner in the War Drawing Room.

A corner in the War Drawing Room.

Versailles opulence was its downfall when the French Revolution emptied the palace of its furnishings, but thankfully sparing the building itself. All the paintings left for the Louvre and the furniture, with a few exceptions, was sold. After years of neglect the building was restored by Napoleon I, then by King Louis XVIII and Charles X, who are both brothers of Louis XIV. However, Versailles was never again to be the seat of power; that privilege remained with Paris. Despite the restorations, nobody knew what to do with this vast building and for a while demolition was considered. In 1833 King Louis-Philippe, “King of the French”, made the decision to turn it into a museum; it opened in 1837.

The famous Hall of Mirrors showing the many chandeliers and the beautifully painted ceiling.

The famous Hall of Mirrors showing the many chandeliers and the beautifully painted ceiling.

The most famous room in the palace is the Hall of Mirrors. This hall actually functioned as the passageway to the King’s Apartment. Courtiers gathered here in the hope to see the monarch on his way to the Chapel. It also served as a reception room when the King received foreign monarchs. Lavish masked-balls and full-dress balls would be held here. The painted ceiling is all composed around one theme: the King. At the time mirrors were luxury objects, highly expensive and up until recently Venice had the monopoly on mirror production. France took that monopoly by producing 357 mirrors to be installed in this gallery on the wall opposite the windows. The effect, when the new gallery was first revealed, must have been breathtaking. The chandeliers we see today are not the originals, they are 1770 replacements, based on the originals. This is the most visited room in the palace, so be prepared for crowds and photos with lots of strangers in them! The mirrors, despite their age, still look so fabulous and the light that comes in from the windows, even on a cloudy day, bathes the whole gallery in this wonderful glow, with the chandeliers sparkling brightly.

As an aside, the Hall of Mirrors was where in 1871 the Proclamation of the German Empire was held, and in 1919 the Treaty of Versailles was signed here, ending World War I.

The Queen's Bedchamber, showing the embroidered headboard.

The Queen’s Bedchamber, showing the embroidered headboard.

One other room that I really liked was the Queen’s Bedchamber. Unlike some of the other stately rooms this one felt light and bright. It did occur to me that the beds in those days were very short indeed, a testament that people were just shorter back then. Unbelievably, the Queen gave birth in this room to an audience. The moment the accoucheur announced “The Queen is about to give birth”, the crowds of spectators rushed forward to get a better view. The crowds were so disorderly that her attendants feared the Queen would perish.

Part of the ceiling in the Venus Drawing Room. The room was used for serving lights meals on apartment evenings.

Part of the ceiling in the Venus Drawing Room. The room was used for serving lights meals on apartment evenings.

I could go on and on about all the other lavish rooms, the grand staircases, the paintings displayed everywhere, the statues, the painted ceilings, but it would be overdoing it I fear. So hopefully you will enjoy the photos of some of the details.

One of the side wings of the palace.

One of the side wings of the palace.

The arched windows are the King's private bedroom and face the rising sun.

The arched windows are the King’s private bedroom and face the rising sun.

A bust of King Louis XIV in the Gallery of the Chateau's History on the ground floor.

A bust of King Louis XIV in the Gallery of the Chateau’s History on the ground floor.

Intricate decorations on a  door

Intricate decorations on a door

Categories: Europe Trip 2014, European History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

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