Sunday, February 26, 2012

Paris - Pantheon

My flight left at 9, so I set my alarm for 6.10, aiming to be on my way by 7 at the latest. I actually did better than that and was at the train station at 7, but I must have just missed a train because I had to wait until 7.30 for the (clean, comfortable, complete contrast to Paris's RER) Renfe train to the airport. Naturally, since I like being early for flights and not feeling rushed/stressed, I began feeling rushed/stressed. When I arrived at the airport at 8, I had to quasi-run to what I think was the furthest possible part of the airport, getting there 15 minutes before the gate closed at 8.30, and going straight through security and into boarding. It was a little bit of a harried experience for my tastes, but at least there was no waiting about! As they had on the flight over, they checked in my small hand luggage suitcase in the boarding queue, because there was no room on board. This was a bit annoying, since I had wanted to get out of the airport quickly if I was to go to St. Denis, and because I only saw two other people who had to drop their suitcases off at the plane steps, so I felt a bit singled out.

Anyway, I decided that if I was ready to get on the RER out of the airport at 11, I would go to St Denis, otherwise not, since I didn't feel like more rushing about stressing in my day - going to St Denis would have meant taking the RER in to Gare du Nord, getting rid of my suitcase, taking another RER to near the basilica, walking, seeing the church, going back to Gare du Nord for my suitcase, and then on to Montparnasse for my train. A lot of fussing about, in other words. So when I was only ready for the RER by 11.30, it was an easy decision to take it all the way through to Denfert-Rochereau, leave my suitcase at the nearby Montparnasse, and then go to Plan B, visiting the Pantheon.

The other night, while drunk, I was talking about some of my Paris plans with a French friend, and she gave me what I thought was a map of Paris. I said I didn't need it, since I have at least one map lying about my apartment somewhere, but she insisted, and since it was to hand, I threw it in my suitcase when packing. Turns out it was a transport map, not a city map. I can read a map okay, but have zero sense of direction, so armed only with this map (which showed some main roads for the bus routes but no proper detail) and the information boards at Montparnasse (which only showed the immediate area), it took me quite a while to orient myself out of the station. Once I had finally figured out which way I was facing, it was actually really easy to walk to the Pantheon. (Sorry, I realise I have spent this entire post talking about transport logistics and timing, I'm finished now.)

I got to the Pantheon around 2, and was pleased to see that there was a free tour in French at 2.30. After taking a few pictures, I joined the tour, which definitely enhanced the experience of what is an interesting, but in my opinion, not spectacular site (even though the guy talked *really* fast, so I didn't get 100% of it). He started by pointing out the irony that this shrine to the Republican values of France (of which "laicite", or secularity, is a biggie) is located in a former church, a theme he would return to as he pointed out various clashing features of the decor. (PS the following is based on my probably imperfect understanding and memory, so sorry if I get any details wrong. I should probably put this on all my posts - someone from the Ukraine found my blog recently and pointed out everything I got wrong about the things I saw there, including I think some times when I was joking.)

He first explained that it was originally built when Louis XV (I think) was deathly ill with "love disease" - I guess syphilis or something - and he promised St Genevieve, the patron saint and protector of Paris, that he would build her a fancy church if he got better. Lo and behold, he did, and eventually followed through with his vow, commissioning the architect Soufflot, who was rather young and inexperienced, but who was working in a new style, the neo-classical, to make a new building that would be distinctly "Louis XV", set apart from the Rococo style of his predecessor Louis XIV. The neo-classical design combines the exterior appearance of a Greek temple with the floor plan of a medieval church. The inside is very spacious, capped with a dome that is twice the weight of the Eiffel Tower - quite the engineering marvel!

The Revolution happened not long after the church was actually finished, so the new republicans faced a bit of a dilemma. Knocking it down immediately seemed like a waste of the money that had just been wrung out of the population for its completion, but of course they were not on board with a big giant church. So they contented themselves with knocking the heads off the statues of saints and turning it into a Republican temple. The first person interred there was Mirabeau, whom I'm ashamed to say I don't know much about. I now know, though, that he was also the first person kicked out of the Pantheon, I think when Napoleon took over. I was also fascinated to learn that the walls, which are now covered with large paintings (not frescos - they are actually more like wallpaper, I learned) were originally made up of windows of the same size. Even more interesting was the fact that the Republicans bricked up the windows on the principle that light is a symbol of God (Jesus being the "light of the world") and so a Republican Temple should have as little light coming in to it as possible! I'm definitely no fan of religious extremism, but that seems a case of crazy anti-religious extremism to me.

The paintings on the wall weren't added until the 19th century, I think during a Republican period but under the presidency of someone who really wanted the monarchy back (but I forget exactly). Maybe under Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who was President of the Republic before becoming Napoleon III. This explains their pro-monarchist, religious nature (the Pantheon went back and forth over the past 200 or so years between Republican temple and Christian church). They depict the legend of St Genevieve, who saved Paris from starving under a siege by Atilla the Hun; Clovis, first King of the united Frankish tribes; Charlemagne, St. Louis and Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc was included as a solution to the problem that they had included a representative of all the royal families of France, but the Bourbons were still a bit problematic at this point. So instead of making the Bourbons the focus, they made Joan of Arc, who restored the Bourbon Dauphin to the throne (Charles X?) the centre of the story.

The Pantheon is also home to Foucault's pendulum, which was set up to prove that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice-versa. Of course, this had already been astronomically/mathematically demonstrated by people such as Gallileo and Copernicus, but this was a practical demonstration. I found this part a bit hard to follow, but the pendulum is set up over what looks like a sundial, and I think the idea is, since the pendulum only goes back and forth in a straight line, if it is moving over a different part of the sundial than it was x hours before, then it must have been the earth that moved and not the pendulum. Being a Bear of Little Brain, I kept thinking "but it's attached to the dome, and the dome is moving too, so shouldn't it be moving the same way as the sundial?", but I'm willing to take it on trust. The original was taken out of the Pantheon when it was turned back into a Christian church (the Church being historically a bit sniffy about these things, as I'm sure you know) and given to the Museum of Arts and Metiers. It was brought back to the Pantheon when that museum was under restoration, but the original is now back there, with the current version in the Pantheon only a copy.

The guide also explained the process of "Pantheonisation" or being admitted to the Pantheon, which is dedicated to (I forget the exact wording) "the great men of the nation". The first rule is you must be French, although that includes both "francais de souche" (native French - bit of a controversial term, I may add) and naturalised French such as Marie Curie. Then, your body or part thereof (including ashes) has to be available for burial in the Pantheon. In many cases, the rest of the body is elsewhere, but the heart is in the Pantheon. I can't remember the exact story, but I think when they wanted to put Louis Braille in the Pantheon, which only happened this century, his native town didn't want to let him go, so when they dug him up they cut off his hands and left them behind. This rule means that certain people, such as aviator and author Saint-Exupery, have a memorial plaque in the Pantheon, but are not officially "Pantheonised" because their bodies are not there. Other famous figures in the Pantheon include writers such as Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola, philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau, politicians like Gambetta and Jaures, scientists like the Curies, army and resistance fighters. The guide pointed out the political nature of the Pantheon today, both in terms of French politicians visiting certain graves, and in the decisions made over who gets to be there. For example, after the divisive election between Jacques Chirac and the racist, nationalist Le Pen, Chirac had Alexandre Dumas, who I never knew was mixed race, but was the grandson of a Haitian slave and a French nobleman, reburied in the Pantheon. Time they had more women as well, I think, despite the dedication to "great men"! I think there are two women in there, one who was buried with her husband, and Marie Curie, also buried with her husband, but who is in there in her own right.

Anyway, that's all I remember learning about the Pantheon, but it was a very interesting visit! All in all, a successful trip, but I'm glad to be home!

Flying back over the Pyrennees

The Pantheon

Inside the Pantheon - those pesky Republicans didn't manage to block out all the light

The dome

The walls, former windows

The central statue to the Republican Convention Nationale, with the politicians, army and justice around a figure of Marianne, which stands where the altar would otherwise be, contrasts with the fresco of Jesus above

Foucault's pendulum

The guide relaunches the pendulum, pointing out, to the disappointment of all, that it's a pendulum, not a perpetual-motion machine

The statue of Voltaire in front of his tomb

Friday, February 24, 2012

Barcelona - Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya and Parc Guell

My last proper day in Barcelona, I woke up a bit later than the last couple of days (8.30, felt like a lie-in) and headed out to the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. I started out a bit over-zealously, lingering by every piece and listening to all the descriptions on the audioguide, even the bits where it told you to "press green for more information". The end result was that I was there for 3 1/2 hours, and by the end I was so exhausted I was just zipping through the modern bits barely stopping to glance at many of the works.

Never mind though, at least I spent the most time in some of the periods I like best. It started out with purportedly one of the best collections of frescoes taken from the inside of churches in Europe. It was interesting to see (on a video) how they managed to peel them off the walls of the churches and reconstruct them inside the museums. I'm not too sure whether most of the damage was done during this process or beforehand. I suppose beforehand, or they wouldn't have kept doing it presumably. I really love polychrome church decorations, so it was great seeing all of this, and nice that they made an effort to set the pieces up in a mock of how they would have looked in the churches (even though of course it's not quite the same).

From this section (Romanesque) it progressed through Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and modern. There weren't that many "big name" pieces, but there were definitely works I liked. At the end, there was a nice display of Modernista decorative arts as well. The audioguide is probably worth getting, since there is very little information available in English otherwise. In some sections, there doesn't seem to be very many audioguide entries available, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Most of the segments were quite short as well, which is good. Nothing worse than when it goes on for 5 minutes and you've long lost interest in whatever it is you're meant to be looking at.

View from the museum steps

Finally, a gorgeous man, as promised. Pity he's made of stone

Me on the museum steps (in my new 10 euro dress I got in the sales)

Piece of Coptic cloth from the 6th-7th century AD - amazing

Romanesque church fresco

Romanesque church fresco

Romanesque altar cover

Romanesque altar cover

Renaissance Virgin Mary

Detail from a medieval battle scene

John the Baptist's head being served up to Herod

I liked all these cows looking around going "hey, what's the haps?"

Weird burial scene with some sort of animal hopping in the grave

Detail of an El Greco painting of Christ


Would you believe this is by Joan Miro?

After the museum, I tossed up between exploring the Gothic Quarter and the Cathedral or heading out of the centre to Parc Guell, a UNESCO world heritage site on a hill above the city, designed by the ubiquitous Gaudi. I decided that I had spent enough time inside for the day, so the bright sunshine of the park won out over the narrow shadowy streets of the old town, and I hopped on the metro to the park. It is located up a VERY steep hill, luckily helped out by outdoor escalators for part of the ascent. The climb is worth it, since there are fabulous views from the top (definitely wouldn't have bothered with the Sagrada Familia tower if I'd already been here) and some great architectural flourishes.

The very steep street up to Parc Guell

Steps on the other side of the park

A lizard covered with the "trencadis" mosaic tiling

Tons of people out and about on the famous 'Serpentine Bench' in Parc Guell

The underside of the part with the serpentine bench

One of the weird little houses or whatever they are in Parc Guell

And another one

Gaudi's own house in Parc Guell - not as flashy as his creations

Me in front of the Barcelona skyline in Parc Guell

Video of the view from the park

I left the park and got back into the city around 5, when I decided to go into the old town anyway. While trying to find the cathedral, I saw a chic little bar with cheap sangria and decided that would take priority. It was a good call, as after an hour or so sipping sangria, I found the cathedral and it was still open, so I was able to call in for a quick visit. Most of it was roped off for Mass, but I still got an idea (not that spectacular, by the way).

The cathedral

Cathedral interior

A monument in the Gothic Quarter. I couldn't see any information as to what it was, but if I were a betting woman, I'd say it was to victims of the Inquisition who got burnt at the stake

The cool cafe where I had some sangria - the art on the walls reminded me of the art on blogger friend MademoisElla's blog

Dead (?) Mary in a church in the Gothic Quarter

A sign for an old umbrella shop on La Rambla

After some more wandering around the bustling streets of the old town, I stopped for dinner. My goals for Barcelona were to have sangria, patatas bravas and churros and I achieved them all today. I was actually disappointed with the patatas bravas. Me and Mum have been many times to Auckland's own Mezze Bar, which serves a delicious dish topped with a sort of tomato salsa/relish which it calls patatas bravas and which I love (everything at the Mezze Bar is great, hit it up if you're ever in Auckland). I don't know whether it's inauthentic or what, but either way, it was miles better than the patatas bravas I had tonight, which were covered with a creamy, lightly-spiced mayonnaise-looking dressing. I mean, they were alright, but not a patch on the Auckland version! The churros, on the other hand, were lovely. Churros are a sort of fairly crispy, extruded donut. These were served with a cup of thick custardy hot chocolate, which you dipped the buttery churros in to. Yum!

Inferior patatas bravas

Tomorrow it's up early for my flight back to Paris, where I'm hoping to have time to check out the St Denis Basilica before my evening train back to Tours. It has been a lovely trip, but it is always nice to get home (and say sorry to Bob for abandoning him again). (I do have a friend coming over to feed him, in case that sounds like I literally abandoned him.) There are a couple of things I would have liked to see if I had had more time - like the Miro museum and the inside of one or two of Gaudi's houses - but all in all I think the trip was a good balance between different experiences (medieval art and F1 cars, for example) and "doing stuff" and just chilling out.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Barcelona - Formula One testing

Today I fulfilled my raison d'etre in Barcelona - going to watch the F1 testing. I woke up early again, but stopped at a cafe for breakfast, so wasn't on my way all that early. I had to go to Barcelona Sants station and buy a return ticket on the local train network to Montmelo, near the Circuit de Catalunya where the testing (and F1 race) is held. Once I found the right ticket window, this was all very straightforward, and it was an easy half-hour train ride to the circuit. I had read online that there is a shuttle bus to the circuit for the race, but not for testing. The website said although the walk to the track was only half an hour, it was "difficult" and said it was best to catch a taxi. I was worried about getting lost, since I had no idea what direction the track was in, so decided to take that advice and quickly found other F1 fans to share a cab with. Problem was, there was apparently only 2 taxis in the whole town, and it took 45 minutes before we were able to catch one! One good thing though - a Spanish guy who was going to a hotel next to the track hopped in with us and offered to pay when we got there. Of course, everyone said "no, no" and tried to give him money (it was actually only 8 euros between 5 people anyway) but he said his company would be paying anyway, so sweet, free cab ride.

By the time I finally got to the track, it was about 11. I bought a ticket on the gate - 15 euros. To compare, on race day the tickets (not counting hospitality suites and things like that) range from 100 pounds for General Admission (no seat) to 400 pounds for the best grandstands. Most are in the 200-300 pound range. Of course, the atmosphere on race day is really great - and the teams are actually racing! - but in terms of getting a good look at the cars, this is pretty good value for money. I even got to see Schumacher overtake a slow car (I think the Marussia) and the Red Bull team doing practice pit stops.

I started off in the pit lane, before making my way to the North stands, where I stayed until about 2 pm, stupidly leaving just as the lunch break ended, and then walked all the way around clockwise (same way as the cars) until I ended up back at the pits. The circuit itself is 4.6 km - obviously it twists and turns a lot, so I don't know how much the perimeter is, but it definitely felt like I did a lot of walking! It took 3 hours (obviously with lots of stops to go in the different stands and watch the cars) before I made it back, and I went home shortly after that. After the debacle getting the taxi there, I had no faith in finding a taxi to go back, and decided to walk. Luckily (unlike what the information online said) it was an easy walk on a footpath along the highway, pretty much straight all the way, so although I was pretty tired it was otherwise fine.

It was a long day, but I enjoyed myself (and it was nice just sitting in the sunshine reading my book when there were few or no cars on track to watch). Just walking up to the track and hearing the noise of the engines for the first time was exciting! I also got to see Schumacher out on track - I'm not a fan, but he is obviously a legend and he wasn't racing when I went to the Italian GP, so it's nice to know I've seen him driving, even if only in testing.

One of my friends asked on Facebook who I'm picking to win this year. I impressed her with my legendary skills by telling her in 2009 that Jenson Button (my boyfriend) would win the championship before the season even started. Sadly, since then my track record's been bad - I picked Alonso to win the last two years, and although I think he definitely should have in 2010, he really had no chance last year. So I'm hoping that if I say Vettel will win this year, I'll be wrong again and one of the McLarens will take it!

Please note that you will probably think all the photos and videos herein are terrible quality and boring, so don't come complaining to me if you look at them! Times like this I wish I had a proper camera with a zoom lens that doesn't take a second to react after you press the button (a second in F1 is a very long time!) Cars go very fast and it can be very difficult snapping them at the right moment. I must say, though, it is definitely easier in testing, where you can move around the track and there aren't thousands of other people in the way.

Kamui Kobayashi, Sauber, in the pit lane (one time when they're going slowly enough to take a proper picture!)

I can't actually tell the Red Bulls and Toro Rossos apart. I know they're sister teams, but they should sort that out. Anyway, here's one of them with Jenson Button in the McLaren following behind

Me at the circuit, rocking the ear defenders

Schumacher in the Mercedes

McLaren and the Red Bull/Toro Rosso again

Jenson Button driving like the champion he is

Jenson in the McLaren again

The McLaren in the pit lane

Timo Glock in the Marussia (what was the Virgin last year). My favourite (slash only) story about Timo Glock, who is German and whose first name is pronounced Teemo, is that apparently when he was racing for Irishman Eddie Jordan's team, he went by the name "Tim O'Glock" ha ha

Paul di Resta in the Force India and Felipe Massa in the Ferrari - whose seat, wild rumour has it, di Resta is lining up in his sights

Paul di Resta heads out of the garage

Massa in the Ferrari (boo, you suck, enjoy your last year in the team!)

The Ferrari again. Quite a few cars were running with the weird fin/antenna thing sticking up, but Ferrari's was the most out-there of all. I wonder what it was? They had taken it off by the second session.

Videos - be warned, they are quite loud. Also, seriously, they're a bit better on my computer. The uploading process has not been kind.

Can't quite tell who this is - possibly Pastor Maldonado in the Williams followed by the McLaren?

Button in the McLaren, Di Resta in the Force India and Massa in the Ferrari

I think we have Jenson in the McLaren, followed by either the Red Bull or Toro Rosso, then the Williams, then the Force India, then the Ferrari and the other one out of the Bull or Toro bringing up the rear

McLaren and RB/TR, Force India, Ferrari

Mark Webber's Red Bull comes in to the pits for a practice pitstop. Red Bull are quite the masters at the ultra-speedy stop.

Two cars cross in opposite directions

Massa navigates a chicane.