SCINTILLATING CINQUE TERRE ON THE LIGURIAN COAST

posted in: Italy | 0

I had fallen in love with Cinque Terre the moment I saw pictures of the colorful villages cascading down craggy mountainsides onto the azure Ligurian Sea and had always wanted to visit it ever since. That chance came when we went on a Mediterranean cruise and the ship docked in Livorno where we signed up for the day trip to explore this beautiful slice of Italy.

 

 

Leaving the Norwegian Lines’ Epic docked in the port of Livorno which is a short 45-minute drive to Cinque Terre.

 

The bus left the port early in the morning and we headed for La Spezia where we picked up our tour guide before disembarking in Riomaggiore, the first of the five villages. Here we walked down thru winding steps of the town to the harbor’s rocky and pebbly beach where we boarded the boat to the next stop: Manarola.

La Spezia is the second largest city in Liguria next to Genoa. It has a sprawling naval base which is the largest in Italy and makes for a good base to visit the five villages by train that runs through them. The view from the top of the winding road is postcard pretty and gives a preview of what is to come.

 

The road passes right above Riomaggiore with its mostly yellow pastel houses that lead all the way down to the narrow harbor where you’ll find multi-colored boats bobbing up and down on the azure waters.

 

The view of the rocky mountainsides here is the stuff that ‘s featured in postcards with the pastel-colored houses dangerously teetering above the edge of the stony waterfront promenade lined with fishing boats. At sunset, with the deep blue waters contrasting against the orange-red sky hovering above the twinkling lights of the town, the stunning sight is other-worldy.

Just look at the colored houses perched on the rocky slopes of Manarola and you surely will fall in love with the place!

 

The terraced vineyards produce the famous local wine Sciacchetra which is quite sweet. This contraption is actually a railway of sorts where wooden boxes take down the harvested grapes from the top of the mountain all the way down to the town where they have the wineries.

 

We bypassed Corniglia and thankfully so because it would take an arduous climb to reach the top from the small quay 100 meters down below.

 

Corniglia sits atop a hundred-meter high rocky promontory and you need to walk across a mountain trail to reach it because there is no direct sea access. So we skipped it as the boat made its way to Vernazza. Here, the small crowded harbor was packed with tourists and you sort of have to fight your way to the main plaza which is lined with shops and restaurants that wind all the way to the center of town where you have, well,  more of the same! In mid-summer, the cool  interiors of the church of Sta. Margherital right by the calm waters of the bay was a welcome refuge from the heat outside and after some time we couldn’t resist the call of the ubiquitous gellato shops which were cheek-by-jowl everywhere.

Shooting the breeze on the boat that left Manarola on its way to Vernazza. We were about forty in the group and everyone was having fun based on the loud chatter and the raucous laughter that accompanied us all throughout the trip.

 

The quiet inlet beside the plaza drew visitors into town with the 13th-century Sta. Margherita church with its domed belfry that also doubled as a clock tower on the left and shops of all kinds on the right.

 

Aside from people-watching, we sat under the shade of these trees having our gellato icecream. It was so addictive that we had two in every stop trying to compare all the innumerable flavors and we were hard put deciding which was the best.

 

Scarves and colorful wristbands were pretty good bargains.

 

Everything that we ordered in this old-style trattoria where we had lunch was so yummy!

 

After about an hour of tramping around, we all boarded the boat for the last leg which was Monterosso. Of the five villages, this is the only one with a proper beach which stretched quite a bit running through the length of the town. We visited the beautiful old church of St. John the Baptist, sampled some of the local wine for free at one of the wine shops and sat down for a late lunch of delicious seafood pasta with plates of thick local bread at a trattoria whose stone wall interiors made it look like an impregnable fortress. Then we sat down eating gellato (what else?) on one of the park benches watching the locals go about their business. Before we knew it, time was over and we had to take the short train ride to the waiting bus that ferried us back to Livorno.

 

The narrow streets were filled with people jostling each other but it was fun meandering around through its nooks and crannies although it was tiring since most of the way was up!

 

The wife waiting for her gellato didn’t know that I had a good helping already of her share! 😉

 

Monterosso is flatter than the other four villages and the beach is a big draw for the locals and tourists alike. It is divided into the old part of the the town and the new one by a tunnel that connects both of them. We had to pass thru this to get to the train station where we took the ride back to where we came from.

 

The only beachfront in Cinque Terre is pretty popular with tourists.

 

An old local sits on one of the numerous benches scattered around town watching the world go by.

 

The old walkway leading to Monterosso and the interiors of the town’s main church.

 

We took this train to the outskirts of town where the buses were waiting to bring us back to the ship.

 

The zigzagging highway out of the mountains.

 

Our guide Matteo told  us that there were several hiking trails between the villages which used to be the only link between them – aside from the sea – ages ago and that they were a photographer’s paradise. But since our brief stay of six hours only sampled the sights, I vowed that one day we would return for a longer stay. There is something in the Cinque Terre that I can’t put my finger on but the place sure beckons you to come back and it becomes an itch that has to be scratched. Again.

ONE NIGHT IN PARIS

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Ah, Paris!  The bright lights everywhere beckoned as they illuminated the streets, monuments and buildings which make the city live up to its vaunted reputation as “The City of Lights”. It was an opportunity not to be missed so I took out the camera and with tripod in hand, I decided to shoot night scenes as far as my wandering feet could take me. It wasn’t really a stroll in the park being both cold and windy in late December, plus the fact that leather shoes and cobblestone pavement don’t actually make for a pleasant walk. But then I decided I had to make a go for it.

Starting from the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank to Notre Dame Cathedral skirting the Seine, I made my way through Ile de la Cite to the Marais and the Louvre, crossed the Pont Alexander down to Esplanade des Invalides before turning right to the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadero. Then straight to the Arc de Triomphe, past the 2 km. long Champs Elysees with its brightly-lit Christmas Market stalls, onward to Tuileries Garden and Place Vendome before ending at the L’Opera where, thankfully, the hotel I was staying was close by. Yes, it was tiring. I almost slipped several times on the wet embankment due to a sudden heavy drizzle, the Nikon fell down from the unbalanced tripod (luckily I caught it!), and my feet were pretty sore the next day but, by golly, I had a great time!

Here then are the photos that justified it all…..

 

Soaring high into the blue hour sky, the Eiffel Tower never ceases to awe you no matter how many times you’ve seen it. I think it’s the seemingly fragile, lace-like steel girders that makes one wonder how such an unbearable lightness of being could stand upright defying the pull of gravity. It comes into its own at night when it lights up and its twin beacons, seen for miles around, start scanning the dark sky like a lighthouse guiding tourists to come to its four pylons standing over a wide esplanade.

 

Standing right in front of the Trocadero with synthetic Christmas trees laden with fake snow in the background and waiting for passengers, the carousel remained still for some time with no riders. I was having some crepes with hot chocolate to ward off the winter cold and decided to have a go at it. But first I told the operator to start it up so I could take nice pictures of its prancing horses in all their brightly-lit glory. He willingly obliged and I got this whirling shot.

 

Arguably the best bridge spanning the Seine, this bridge links Les Invalides with the Champs Elysees. Built in the late 1800s and named after Russian Tsar Alexandre III to commemorate the Franco-Russian alliance, it is an exuberant representation of Art Noveau with its nymphs and cherubs standing watch at the center overlooking the boats that pass underneath.

 

Considered the world’s most beautiful avenue, the whole 2.4km. length of the Champs Elysees is spectacularly lit up during Christmastime. With 450 trees sparkling on both sides, it truly is a sight to behold! Plus you have the annual Christmas market with its clusters of stalls offering decorations side-by-side with holiday treats like wines, sausages, cakes and all sorts of delectable desserts; you won’t think of any better place to be in Paris!

 

By the busy roundabout where 12 of the city’s major streets radiate from, the Arc de Triomphe stands alone and well-lit at night surrounded by the never-ending traffic that moves around it nonstop. Standing 50 meters high, it is a symbol of France’s military victories in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars with the names of the generals engraved on the outer surface along with the various friezes that decorate the monument.

 

The Our Lady of Paris Cathedral is on the Ile de la Cite, a small island in the middle of the Seine. Famous for its gargoyles and chimeras on the roof, it was one of the first churches that used flying buttresses to support its massive walls when it was built in the 12th century. It is one of the main focal points that tourists have to tick off their bucket list while visiting Paris.

 

This military school was founded by Louis XV to train young cadets who came from poor families for the royal army and Napoleon was one of its more illustrious graduates. He made it his headquarters when he became Emperor of the Republic.

 

Les Invalides is a huge complex of buildings composed of several museums and this cathedral built in French Baroque style whose dome is modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Below this elegant dome lies the tomb of Napoleon.

 

This is the world’s most visited museum and one of the largest with  over 350,000 objects to exhibit from prehistoric art to classical sculptures to Renaissance paintings. It was formerly a fortress in the 12th century then turned into a museum to display the nation’s collection of masterpieces. The latest renovation of the Louvre was done in the 1980s where glass pyramids with reflecting pools were built in the courtyard to serve as entrances to the lower level. Though controversial at first, they have become a big hit and are obviously great for night photography.

 

Thousands of prisoners during the French Revolution were incarcerated here before their execution with the most illustrious one being Marie Antoinette, the wife of King Louis XVI.  The Conciergerie used to be a royal palace before Charles V moved to the Louvre leaving it to serve as a Palace of Justice and part of it a prison. It still serves the same purpose today as courts of law (minus the prison) and there is a beautiful Gothic church in the courtyard, the Sainte-Chapelle, with stunning stained glass windows.

 

 

 

 

THREE GREAT MUGHAL EMPERORS

posted in: India | 0

Four years after Magellan’s ill-fated voyage to Cebu, the Mughals (Mongols) burst through the northern frontier of India, sweeping through the plains of Rajasthan and conquered almost the whole country in1526. Led by their leader Babur (a descendant of that fierce warrior Ghengis Khan), they established one of the greatest dynasties in history which was the Mughal (or Moghul) Empire.

 

The view of the Taj from the banks of the Yamuna River.

 

The entrance gate crowded with tourists. Foreigners pay more (1000 Rupees) than the locals (40 Rupees).

 

Humayun, Babur’s son, took over the reins of power and consolidated the gains made by his father. However, in doing so, he was too busy fighting battles to suppress local rebellions that he didn’t have much time to build significant structures although it was during his time that red sandstone was introduced as a building material.

It was left to his own son, Akbar the Great, who took over the throne at a very young age in 1556, to start the building spree that culminated in the great edifices that until now, 450 years later, still stand to be marveled at by tourists from around the world. Never, I suppose, in his wildest dreams did he think it would come to this – his palaces, forts and cities becoming tourist spots.

 

These are the remains of the foundations for the black Taj by Shah Jahan that was later abandoned.

 

Akbar built the towering Red Fort in Agra – right on the banks of the Yamuna River – whose total meandering perimeter is almost 2 ½ kilometers long. Its 8-meter high red sandstone ramparts were ringed by a 10-meter deep moat filled with crocodiles that would have discouraged would-be enemies from even contemplating an attack on the fort. He was an open-minded, secular ruler (quite rare in those times) who tried to assimilate the people he conquered into his empire by marrying three of several wives from the three great faiths: one Muslim, the other Christian and the third Hindu. Smart move. Though, of course, he maintained a well-stocked harem of nubile women numbering in the thousands coming from all the compass points of his vast empire.

None of his wives, however, bore him an heir. So what did he do? Hearing about a holy man, the Islamic Sufi mystic Salim Chisti, who lived in an isolated cave in Sikri, he went to visit him for his blessing. The saint foretold that he would soon be having a son plus two more later on. Soon enough, the prophecy came true and, in jubilation, the Emperor named him Salim also. Not only that, he resolved to build a city on the natural ridge of that place in honor of the saint. Thus was born the magnificent city of Fatehpur Sikri, 40 kms. from Agra which was the capital of the Mughal empire for some time.

 

The view of the Taj from one of the openings on the thick walls of the Red Fort.

 

This son, who later took on the name Jehangir, succeeded his father and continued the building of great edifices. But this time he concentrated more on the beauty of the lines and delicacy of design as shown in the intricate patterns and floral designs that softened the architecture of Akbar’s more manly and robust structures.

When Shah Jahan, Jehangir’s first born ascended to the throne, there was a sea-change in the way things were done. He preferred white marble and a more sensuous approach was followed in the decorative arts. The emperor replaced some of the structures built by his grandfather inside the Red Fort with white marble and that included his own living quarters as well as those of his two favorite daughters.

 

The sprawling Red Fort.

 

This great architecture reached its zenith in the most sublime of edifices, the Taj Mahal, which he built in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child. Apparently, not only was Shah Jahan an energetic builder, he was also a prolific child-maker. In his despair and great depression, he vowed to build her a resting place that nothing in the world could rival.

 

The highway to Fatehpur Sikri.

 

He had plans to build another Taj for himself opposite the one for his wife although this time it would be clad in black marble. A bridge linking the two mausoleums together would have secured their bond even in death. Work had started on this and an elevated platform was in fact already built (which until now can still be seen) when he fell ill and, alas! disaster struck.

His third son, Aurangzeb, had other plans in mind. After getting rid of his elder brothers, he deposed his father, imprisoning him in his own quarters at the Fort to live out his last years there. The guides at the place tell visitors that the old emperor spent his days of imprisonment longingly gazing at the Taj Mahal 2 kilometers away by the bend of the river. And when he died, his gaze was turned toward the edifice that symbolized his love for his wife. How romantic! Historians, however, have a different take on the subject. According to them, Shah Jahan died in a drug-induced stupor while boozing and fornicating at the harem which his son still allowed him to have. Talk about killjoys ruining a perfect love story’s ending!

 

The huge Buland Gate or Gate of Magnificence made of red sandstone that leads to the main courtyard of the Fatehpur Sikri complex.

 

Beautiful filigree carved out of white marble inside the mausoleum of Saint Salim keeps the glare of the sun out.

 

Exterior walls of the complex show you how massive the Fort is.

 

Remnants of the Fort tumble down into the wide open plain of the arid countryside.

 

Aurangzeb ruled for 49 years and engaged in various military campaigns that conquered more territories but emptied the treasury. Towards the end of his life, the empire, just like others that preceded it, began its slow decline leaving it weakened and open for invasion by the Persians and, later on, by the new rulers of India – the British. Thus ended the Mughal dynasty with its great emperors.

 

Rich decorations fusing Persian design and Indian embellishments are the main feature of Mughal architecture.

 

Remember this trio though: Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jahan – grandfather, father and son. A succession of like-minded rulers who, not only presided over a mighty empire, but were also imbued with a keen desire to find meaning and expression in their lives that they dedicated a large measure of their time, skill and treasure to the arts. Rarely does this happen in history.

 

VILLA D’ESTE: AN ITALIAN MASTERPIECE OF A HOTEL

posted in: Italy | 0

Sometimes, you make a wrong turn on the road and you find yourself somewhere where you least expect it. It may be good or it may not depending on where you end up. Well, I got lost driving past the town of Cernobbio under a heavy downpour on my way to Bellagio in Lake Como and ended up in this magnificent property of a hotel called Villa D’Este. I thought I’d stop and have some snack since it was late in the afternoon and I hadn’t eaten yet after landing in Milan’s Malpensa Airport and immediately picking up the rental car.

After surveying the scene while having my first espresso, I decided to get back to the car and get my camera to shoot the place. It was so beautiful and since the rain had just stopped, the outdoor gardens were shimmering under the diffused light of the afternoon sun hidden by the clouds which acted like a filter. The colors were so fresh and vibrant with no harsh shadows so I thought the time spent taking pictures would be worth it.

The Villa used to be the summer residence of an Italian Cardinal, built in 1568 with over 25 acres of landscaped gardens. It soon gained its reputation as the playground of royalty and the aristocracy before being transformed into a luxury hotel in 1873. Presently, it comprises 152 rooms each with different decor and there are also four beautiful private villas.

With Lake Como just behind it, the place is surrounded by lush gardens done in the Renaissance period. Aside from the numerous well-trimmed hedges and bushes, the surroundings bloom with camellias, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, azaleas, jasmine and roses. All around are old chestnut trees sprinkled with magnolias, cypresses, wisterias and palms. It is a gardener’s paradise and perfect for any wedding of which am sure many have been held in this setting over the years.

No wonder, with the opulent atmosphere coupled with its excellent services, the Villa has been hailed as one of the best hotels in the world by Travel & Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler and Forbes Traveler. At prices ranging from 1,000 Euros a night for a double room to 3,500 Euros for a suite, its reputation is well-deserved. Since I couldn’t afford it, i just contented myself with their tasty coffee and excellent cakes for a brief snack. But hey, in exchange for that, I was able to shoot some really lovely pictures without being restricted from doing so. And had the rain not threatened to pour once more, I would’ve tarried longer to enjoy the view,

 

 

 

The entrance to the main villa.

 

 

 

 

Outdoor dining.

 

This would make a perfect backdrop for any wedding with Lake Como just behind.

 

 

 

 

Nice walkway beside the lake.

 

The walls of this Nymphaeum or grotto are decorated with intricate mosaics.

 

 

 

 

 

The parking outside the Villa’s walls where I ended up after making a wrong turn on my way to Bellagio.

 

One last shot of myself before leaving and before the rain started pouring once again….

 

 

SOME LESSONS WHILE SHOOTING ON THE RUN

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As a traveler who takes a lot of photographs (it’s an abiding passion!), I try to keep my gear as light as possible. Usually, along with my Nikon DSLR, I bring a 24-200mm zoom which takes care of most situations and a 20mm ultra wide lens for those occasional glorious landscapes bathed in golden hour sunsets. And a small tripod that fits my backpack. Still, there is a wide gulf between an amateur like me and a professional photographer who’s on assignment. Aside from the equipment, there’s also the factor of time. This was illustrated to me when we went on safari.

 

Wish I had a better zoom than the D80’s 135mm

 

At the Skukuza rest camp in Kruger National Park (South Africa) while we were getting ready for our drive down the the dusty veldt, a mud-caked Land Rover parked next to us. Three unshaven guys got down lugging their camera equipment: heavy tripods, compact battery-powered lamps, reflectors, humongous zooms, the whole works. The fourth member of the motley group cradled a Nikon D3 with a super telephoto 800mm prime lens still mounted to its own dedicated tripod. On his shoulders were two other backup cameras and I espied a Mamiya medium format in a separate case.

 

Great model, great view, great weather – you won’t always get a picture-perfect setting like this in your travels.

 

My interest piqued, I timidly approached them looking a bit awkward with my Nikon D80 (with its puny 18-135mm) which, at that moment, looked like a throw-away point-and-shoot. I found out that they were Belgian photographers and were on assignment shooting wildlife for a stock photography company. So how long have you guys been here, I asked. Three weeks – with two more to go, came the reply. They went out everyday with their own guide and tracker who set up their gear in areas where the animals were anticipated to be then hid in improvised hideouts. The cameras were attached with motion sensors that automatically fired when triggered by sudden movement. Or sometimes they used long release cables. Most of the time, they said, was spent waiting, waiting and waiting. Patience was a virtue, great-looking shots were the reward.

 

Up in Pike’s Peak. View? What view?

 

They showed me a couple of the previous day’s shoot and they were all stunning! One particular frame caught a fisheagle feeding its young inside a nest at the top of an acacia tree. I could clearly see the thin feathers that had sprouted out of the young bird’s head illuminated by the faint rays of the sun that filtered through the tree canopy. It couldn’t have been staged better. How they did it? One of them built a temporary house (hide) covered with grass on the branches of the adjacent tree and waited for days just to get that shot. Wow!

 

I had to shoot quickly since clouds started moving across the face of the Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland. A few minutes after I changed location for a different perspective, it was already covered.

 

Well, when traveling, you are forced to shoot whatever the situation is at hand. Lucky for you if the weather is always good with the sun shining brightly to give you a better-than-average lighting. But this isn’t always the case. What if it was overcast or, worse, raining or snowing? I remember once driving up Colorado’s beautiful Pike’s Peak with a gloriously blue sky when we started. Suddenly, the weather changed so when we got to the top, a dense blanket of fog covered the place. Couldn’t see a damn thing! Not even the car 5 meters in front of me, what more of the highly-fancied view of the mountains.

 

Sure, the sunset was absolutely beautiful but clouds covered the alps below.

Then years ago, in Jungfraujoch up in the Bernese Alps, we arrived at the top of the highest train station in Europe only to find clouds covering the whole spread below. Soon, it started snowing. What to do now?  You may have the best gear and intentions but what about the time? Can you afford to wait for the weather to change for the better? Most likely not. So you take whatever’s available. Or you will later rue the fact that you didn’t try.

 

Sometimes, adverse weather conditions could work in your favor like this ethereal shot of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria right in the midst of pouring rain.

 

Over the years, you pick up bits and pieces of what’s important and what’s not. Would you like your shot to be blurry but get the essence of the scene or pin sharp but missing the moment thus making it quite boring? I’d choose the former than the latter. Though there are things that have their set of basic rules that you have to abide by. Like night photography. Your image should at least be passably sharp in order to make it come alive for after all who wants to look at photos with streaking lights ruining the scene or too dark that you lose the detail. That’s when carrying a tripod around comes into its own. I know it’s a hassle but not really a must. To have a steady support, all you need is a level surface where you can put down your camera and set the timer. Many times, I’ve made use of what’s around me – a fence, a stump of a tree or a hood of a car. Once, in Paris, the cops asked me what I was doing dragging the wheeled garbage bin around to use as a support to shoot the Tour Eiffel! I usually take the airline’s blanket before deplaning because it comes in handy to use as a prop on top of my backpack to lessen camera shake. Try it!

 

I shot this 15 second exposure of the IMAX Theater in the City of Arts & Sciences in Valencia, Spain by gripping the camera on top of my backpack and holding my breath till I almost turned blue!

 

I’ve had so many shots ruined by less fortuitous circumstances and so many of them just remain in my memory – they were the ones that got away. So when you see a lovely  postcard, don’t always think you can have the same exact results with your own pictures. Remember that these were done by pros who painstakingly reconnoitered the place and staked all the angles in preparation for the best optimal weather conditions.

The consolation though that you get as an amateur photographer is that you can say, I was there and this is what I saw. It’s a slice of time spent at a certain place and it becomes quite a personal testament. And, of course, nothing beats the joyous feeling when you see your photographs telling a story. Really.

HONEYMOONING DOWN BY THE SEINE

posted in: France | 0

Okay, so we weren’t really on a honeymoon but that line from the Beatles’ “Ballad of John and Yoko” (Finally made the plane into Paris, Honeymooning down by the Seine…) suddenly came to mind when we arrived in the City of Lights. So one glorious, sunny, Parisian afternoon, after spending the morning checking out the Louvre and the Tuileries Garden, off we went to cruise down the Seine.

This river that defines Paris, meanders seductively through the heart of the city. It is an essential point of reference and divides the capital into two separate areas: the Right Bank on the north side and the Left Bank on the south. Almost every building of note is found right along its banks or very close to it. The quays are lined with fine apartments, magnificent monuments and world-class museums. And who can forget the beautiful bridges that crisscross its length. To sail down its waters is to savor joie de vivre at its fullest.

 

Waiting for the boat to set sail.

 

All-glass scenic boat.

There are many cruises offered by different companies like Batobus, Bateaux Vedettes and Bateaux Mouches. The boats come in various sizes; some are single- deck enclosed in glass walls but most are double-deck. They depart from fixed points and return after an hour or so to where they started although some, like the Batobus, offers a hop-on, hop-off ticket that allows you to explore the areas along its eight stops at major sites. For those who want a more romantic atmosphere, there are also dinner cruises at night (they cost a fortune so woe upon the guy whose girlfriend/wife hankers for it!).

 

The beautiful Pont Alexander.

Since we were quite close to Pont de l’Alma (the bridge near where Princess Diana ‘s tragic accident happened), we boarded the Bateaux Mouches cruiser, paying 7 Euros each. It was just half-full when it pulled out its moorings and headed upstream. We stayed on the upper deck with its unobstructed view even though the afternoon sun was a bit hot. A recorded running commentary in four languages gave timely information about the sights we were drifting past.

First bridge we passed was the Ponte Alexander III, arguably the most beautiful bridge that spans the river, with its flamboyant, gold-painted sculptural decorations of marine deities, cherubs and garlands of flowers. It was built in 1896 to celebrate the alliance of France and Russia and named after the Czar. Next on the right was the Assemblee Nationale which is the home of the French Parliament’s Lower House. Right after that was the Musee d’Orsay which houses outstanding Impressionists paintings. Formerly a train station with a superb turn-of-the-century design, it complements the Louvre with its collection of Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin and Degas – to name a few of the early 20th century artists.

The twin towers of Notre Dame.

 

Throwback to centuries-old stone construction at Pont Neuf.

Between Pont Royal and Passarelle des Arts (Paris’s first cast-iron bridge) was the Louvre where Mona Lisa resides and the remains of Mary Magdalene lie, according to Dan Browne’s Da Vinci Code. The Louvre used to be a fortress and later a palace before becoming a museum.

The Seine split into two at Pont Neuf. Strange that its name “New Bridge” doesn’t fit its description since it is the oldest bridge in the city built in 1578. One part of the river narrowed down considerably with both banks paved with a pedestrian walkway covered with trees. I remembered the first time we went to Paris with our two boys, we sat at this very same spot having lunch. While we were busy watching the boats pass by, James got busy as well feeding the pigeons with his salami sandwich! These same birds now still hung around and flew to our boat looking for something to eat.

 

Two views of Notre Dame Cathedral with its striking flying buttresses located in the rear.

The island in the middle of the Seine is called Ile de la Cite. It is actually the original Paris when Celtic tribes settled in it three centuries BC. One particular tribe, the Parisii, lent its name to the city which they found easy to defend.

The main draw here is the cathedral of Notre-Dame which towered over the riverbank like a fortress. Accentuated by its numerous flying buttresses, it truly is a magnificent piece of architecture, as well as having a storied history. Started in 1163, it was finished about 200 years later and witnessed great events in French history such as the coronation of Henry VI and Napoleon Bonaparte. Almost demolished then desecrated and rechristened the “Temple of Reason” during the Revolution, it was extensively renovated in the 19th century when the gargoyles of “Hunchback of Notre Dame” fame were added.

 

The top deck is always popular with tourists for it gives an unrestricted view of Paris from a river perspective.

Across the Cite was another island, the smaller Ile St. Louis with quiet riverside quays. The boat made a U-turn here, passing underneath Pont de Sully to make its way back. The imposing structure on the left was the Conciergerie. This sinister-looking building with its twin black turrets used to be a prison for 500-plus years. Over 4,000 prisoners were held here during the French Revolution and its most famous inmate was Marie-Antoinette (Louis the XVI’s frivolous queen) who was imprisoned here before she was guillotined in 1793. Now this building complex is part of the Palais de Justice. Just behind it is the beautiful Sainte-Chapelle, an architectural masterpiece built in 1248 to house what was then considered as Christ’s Crown of Thorns bought from Venice by Louis IX. The structure actually consists of two chapels one on top of the other with the sombre lower level reserved for servants and commoners. The soaring 15 meter-high upper level, though, houses 15 magnificent stained glass windows portraying more than 1,000 biblical scenes in a riot of multicolors that could leave one quite breathless.

 

The brooding Conciergerie.

We sailed underneath three more bridges in close succession: Pont d’Arcole, Pont Notre Dame and Pont au Change. The last one was a stone bridge with a sculpted wreath and the letter “N” on one of its pillars denoting Napoleon’s crest. Back to Pont Neuf, the boat continued downriver gliding by the Petit Palais and Grand Palais (major exhibitions and a science museum are based here) which were both undergoing major renovations. Passing through our point of departure, we continued further down where there was a slight bend in the river. This was where the wide Pont d’lena was located as well as Paris’s piece de resistance: the Eiffel Tower.

The Seine narrows down at this point in Ile de la Cite.

Soaring 324 meter up into the bright blue sky, this majestic steel structure painted in brown lords it over the whole city skyline. It has viewing decks located at three different levels and we could see the elevators working overtime to ferry the hundreds of tourists who wanted to go up and experience the best panoramic view of the city. Having climbed it twice already, this time we contented ourselves by just looking at it from the river. Opposite the Eiffel was the Trocadero Gardens with its long rectangular pool and spectacular fountains flanked by elevated lawns that are great for lolling around. At its end was the Palais de Chaillot, a curved colonnaded building in a vast pavilion. Designed in Neo-Classical style and built in 1937 for the Paris Exhibition, it houses two museums, a theater and a cinema. Its elevated terrace is the best place to have your “Been to Paris” photo shoot.

 

Tour Eiffel and the Statue of Liberty.

The cruise headed on down to the far end of the narrow island called Allee des Cygnes (“Alley of the Swans”) and made a U-turn at Pont de Grenelle where a 35-foot tall Statue of Liberty stands. This was a gift from America in 1889 to mark the centennial of the French Revolution. Most of the passengers wanted to have their pictures taken with this in the background and the Eiffel looming behind it: two iconic landmarks in one shot. I was too distracted watching them that I almost forgot to shoot it myself.

We got down from the boat thinking that we should have done this more often every time we were in town ‘cause it was a lot of fun and the sights were all world-class. Well, we had a night cruise still pending which came with our ticket to the Moulin Rouge show but that would be a different blog story.

CHEESY ALKMAAR

posted in: Netherlands | 0

 

 

Early Friday morning found us on the road from Delft passing thru the flat, postcard-pretty Dutch countryside. Cows were grazing in the fields where windmills turned in the light breeze. It was a nice day with the sun shining and traffic was light. We were headed north for Alkmaar, about 95 kilometers away.

 

It is a city known for its open-air cheese market held only during Fridays from 10:00AM. The reason why we left early was to be there before the action started. Well, we arrived with time to spare and, after parking the car, bought sweaters in the market stall nearby since the morning was quite chilly. We walked down the pedestrian-only main street, Langestraat which started from the yard of the Sint Laurenskerk, Alkmaar’s main church. Halfway down the way, which was lined with boutiques and small shops, we passed by the Stadhuis or Town Hall built in a combination of Gothic and Baroque styles in 1509. It’s quite a striking structure.

 

The crowd waiting for the auction to begin.

 

 

Quick action goes on like a well-choreographed play.

 

The cheese market is located right in the waagplein or main square of the pretty town center with the historic weigh house on one side. In the old days, all the weighing was done here but now it houses a restaurant and the Cheese Museum. On the other side was a canal lined with stalls selling not only different kinds of cheeses but Dutch souvenir items as well.

 

The square was fenced off and right in the middle of this was row upon row of cheeses piled on top of each other waiting for the auction. The market is now a great attraction for tourists where a ritualized version of the old haggling goes on. We found a spot by the railing and waited for the show to begin. There was a camera crew filming the whole thing as the bell rang and an announcer started describing the process of buying and selling the cheese. The PA system wasn’t good so we hardly heard what was being said except that there was a guest celebrity in the person of a young Dutch cyclist from the Tour de France (I forgot the name) who was quite good-looking and was a hit with the ladies who clapped enthusiastically every time he waved at the crowd.

You could have your fill of cheese here from the numerous varieties on sale.

 

The milkmaid and her cow.

 

There was a group of men made up of the inspectors and traders looking over the cheeses. Later, two of them standing at the center started slapping each other’s hands in a sideways motion. It seemed that they stopped only when the deal was consummated. A two-man team started loading the cheeses on what looked like sleds which they carried by long straps on their shoulders and brought them to the weigh house to be weighed. They moved quickly and rhythmically like skaters with the heavy load on their shoulders lightly swaying as they delivered it to the buyer’s truck parked nearby.

 

These were the porters who are members of the cheese carriers’ guild which is responsible for moving and weighing the cheeses. The guild consists of four groups of seven men each. They have their own colors – red, yellow, green and blue – to distinguish them from each other and they wear their traditional costumes consisting of a white suit with suspenders and straw hat with a ribbon in the color of their guild.

Boats wait in the canal for tourists who want to go cruising after the auction.

 

The cheese was made up of two kinds: Gouda and Edam, both deriving their respective names from the towns where they were made. About sixty percent of the entire Dutch cheese production is from Gouda and they are distinguished by their wheel-shaped form. It has a mild and creamy flavor but as it matures, its character changes and acquires a more robust flavor and firmer texture. Edam, on the other hand, originally came from the town in North Holland although nowadays, the cheese comes from all over the Netherlands. It is round and usually has a distinctive red color obtained by dipping or spraying it with wax which gives the cheese its protective coating. It has a milder flavor and smoother texture compared to Gouda.

 

Some serious bargaining going on.

 

Iconic Dutch clogs on sale by the sidewalk.

 

The Cheese Museum

 

We watched the spectacle for about an hour as the crowd grew thicker and more tourist buses started arriving. On our way back to the main street, we bought 4 kilos of cheese (6 Euros per kilo) after tasting different varieties on the stalls where the women sellers wore traditional Dutch costumes. It looked like a country fair with humongous cows brought by some farmers, adding real “countryside ambiance” to the scene. We sure had a lot of fun. And, yes, those cheeses sure came in handy as snacks in the days ahead when we drove onwards to Copenhagen and Berlin .

LET ME TAKE YOU DOWN ‘CAUSE I’M GOING TO…..

posted in: England | 0

 

It all began in Abbey Road.  When we visited London for the first time, I just had to check out the zebra crossing in front of that iconic scene on the cover of the Beatles’ last recorded album. So we left our hotel early in the morning on the far side of London Town which was in Canary Wharf, took the Tube all the way to St. John’s Wood station and walked 500 meters along Grove End Road then turned right and bam! – there was Abbey Road with the studio and the zebra stripes right smack on the corner.

 

Trying our Abbey Road Walk – couldn’t shoot from the middle ’cause there was always traffic.

 

I can just imagine them bounding up this staircase to record in the studio inside.

 

Surprisingly, no people were around yet and so we had the whole place to ourselves and we walked back and forth taking shots of each other. There was traffic every now and then with the ubiquitous double-decker buses almost sideswiping us on the narrow street! It was quite amazing to be right there in the very place where your idols were and it took a while to imagine the spectacle of John, Paul, George and Ringo walking across the lane a couple of times as their photographer took several shots with a Hasselblad perched on a stepladder while a policemen held up the traffic. The fifth take was what Paul selected for the album cover showing the four of them walking in time and made Abbey Road world-famous from thereon.

 

In front of the Beatles Story Museum

 

The Albert Dockyard.

 

Entrance to the Museum.

 

Then it was off to Liverpool which we drove for  about four hours on the M6. There, we visited the “Beatles Story” museum in the redeveloped Albert Dock which now has a big mall. Inside were exhibits showing their days in Hamburg, Germany as a struggling house band that played clubs every night. This was back in early 1960. On display were Pete Best’s (before Ringo joined) drumsticks and their collarless shirts as well as several of their guitars. There were also faithful replicas of the Cavern Club (where they found fame) and the Abbey Road Studios (where they recorded their hit songs). It was a good primer about the band’s early days before they hit the bigtime.

 

Gate of the Strawberry Field orphanage.

We took the “Magical Mystery Tour” bus (with guide) that brought us around Liverpool sites that mattered to the band for after all, this was the place where they grew up. So it was off to Paul’s house, then John’s, Ringo’s and George’s. They all fairly lived in quiet neighborhoods contrary to some stories that they lived in impoverished places.

Not far away was St. Peter’s Parish Church where John with his band The Quarrymen met Paul for the first time and a songwriting partnership blossomed.  Close to John’s house was the Salvation Army orphanage Strawberry Field that was his inspiration for the song Strawberry Fields. Why it became plural, no one knows. You have to ask John that, I guess. There was a lot of graffiti on the gate and most of them were inspirational messages written in different languages. It struck me that the Beatles really had universal appeal judging from its millions of fans around the globe. In our tour alone were several Japanese, some Americans, a Russian couple, a group of Brazilians and others. I think the lyrics of their songs resonated all throughout and that was what made them unique and great at the same time.

 

 

 

“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes….”

 

We passed by Penny Lane, Paul’s visually stimulating song. Well, there was a bank – Lloyds TSB Bank – there alright (“the banker never wears a mac in the pouring rain, very strange”) and a hairstylist shop which I think was that line about “In Penny Lane the barber shaves another customer”.  Well, go ahead, sing the song now!

 

The Magical Mystery Tour bus painted like the one in their Album. Outside the Cavern Club.

 

The 2-hour tour ended in the Cavern Club, the place where the Beatles played from 1961-1963. It’s no longer the original one because many changes were done but it still functions as a real honest-to-goodness pub with a house band playing every night in the subterranean basement. It was here where they met Brian Epstein, their future manager who became the genius behind their act. There is a plaque honoring the Beatles at the entrance and we could hear “Twist and Shout” playing. This was here where it all began before the Fab Four exploded and conquered the world! The rest, as they say, is history.

 

ONE NIGHT IN FLORENCE

posted in: Italy | 2

Spending two whole days at the Milan Furniture Fair made me tired not only physically but also mentally after dragging myself from one exhibit to another looking at different kinds of office furniture that ranged from the practical to the sublime. I said enough of this – am going to get myself a dose of some real art and culture!

 

And that’s when I decided to drive all the way to the Vatican and Rome, 575 kms. away, quite late at night. The Italian Autostrada is a great motorway that helps get you from Point A to Point B pretty quickly and efficiently with no fuss. It’s also a place where you get startled by Lamborghinis and Ferraris whizzing down the concrete ribbon like nobody’s business. So when a yellow Lambo overtook me, I stepped on the gas and tried to keep pace to see how fast it was, only to see it receding quicker into the distance ahead of me. I looked at my puny Nissan Micra’s speedometer and it read almost 200KPH! Well, I also realized that I had made an unintended wrong turn and was now headed for Florence. Should I backtrack or just head there as well? I decided on the latter, curious as I was to see it at night compared to the last time when I visited it in broad daylight.

 

The Duomo and its humongous dome.

 

Ponte Vecchio minus the tourists.

 

I arrived before the clock struck 12:00 and though it was pretty late, the main square around the Duomo was still bustling with activity so I was still able to grab a plate of spaghetti bolognese at a nearby cafe topped with orange gelato for dessert.

 

The history of Florence, capital of Tuscany, has been linked with the powerful Medici family who made it the center of Renaissance art and architecture. Nowhere is this more palpable than in the Uffizi Gallery where a whole day of wandering wasn’t enough for me to see everything that I wanted to see on an earlier visit. There was Botticelli’s Venus de Milo, Da Vinci’s The Annunciation, Caravaggio’s Bacchus…the list is endless! Outside the Museum stands a staggering array of sculptures at Loggia dela Signoria close to Palazzo Vecchio where tourists mill around trying to assimilate the beauty of the arts around them.

People still were out past midnight on the cathedral’s square enjoying the sights and patronizing the numerous cafes.

 

Look at all that detail on the Cathedral’s facade!

 

The side of the Cathedral under renovation.

 

The other attraction is the Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore) whose huge dome by Brunelleschi was studied by Michelangelo when he designed St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The ceiling frescoes by Giotto and the exterior walls as well as the Baptistry are so intricately designed that you could spend hours just looking at the details. That is, if you don’t suffer from Stendhal’s syndrome first – a disorder causing dizzy spells when exposed to an overwhelming amount of beautiful art.

 

One of the arched entrances.

 

The Baptistry

 

The detail continues all throughout the rear facade.

 

Seems like a painting.

 

Up in the nearby hill overlooking  Florence, you will find David’s statue in Michelangelo Square and admire the city including the iconic Ponte Vecchio that spans the Arno River and the surrounding Florentine mountains.

 

Where would Firenze be without its ubiquitous gelato?

 

Two views of David in Michelangelo Piazza.

One last shot before continuing on to Roma.

 

Of course, I saw them all at night and they looked startlingly different under the floodlights and without the horde of tourists that normally descend upon this city. It was peaceful and calm and revealed a better version of itself. I spent a couple of hours appreciating it much more before leaving in the dead of the night before the break of dawn….

THE COLOSSI IN ABU SIMBEL

posted in: Egypt | 0

 

The huge colossi guarding the entrance to the chamber.

 

There is no better example of the phenomenon called “mass tourism” than the trip to Abu Simbel (“Father of the Ear of the Corn” in Arabic). You all travel in a convoy to that place, have a look around, take all the photos that you can, then leave and come back all at the same time. All these in half a day’s time.

Some regulations in Egypt are pretty strange and one of them governs the visit to the Sun Temple in Abu Simbel, a town 280kms. south of Aswan, close to the Sudanese border. The main draw in this location are the gigantic statues of Rameses II carved on a rock face and, to a lesser scale, those of his wife Nefertari. Due to security concerns since the  infamous 1997 massacre of 58 tourists in Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple in Luxor by Islamic militants, authorities have clamped down on the movement of visitors the better to guard them. With nothing but a long ribbon of asphalt linking Aswan and Abu Simbel, they thought it would be safer to monitor all vehicular traffic both ways if they put all vehicles in a convoy that leaves in the morning. You can still take the regular buses that ply the route but that’s only allowed if there aren’t more than four foreign tourists onboard. That’s what makes it a bit weird – perhaps to cut down on casualties just in case….

 

Martian-like landscape along the way through the empty desert.

 

We booked with a tourist office a day before, paying LE100 (Egyptian Pounds) each – about $14/- for the return journey aboard a luxury coach. They picked us up in our hotel, the Old Nile Cataract, at 3:30AM for the convoy that was leaving at 4:00. We thought that they would be transferring us to a bigger and more comfortable bus (they promised we could sleep on the way in total comfort) but found out too late that that was it – 30 Europeans and Americans with us 3 Pinoys onboard the Toyota Coaster filled to the rafters including the middle aisle folding seats. Nobody raised a voice of protest for we were all too drowsy to argue, I guess.

Our bus took its position in the middle of the line of vehicles that snaked several kilometers through the road on the outskirts of the city. Buses of all sizes and cars of all shapes were parked, engines running, waiting for inspection by the police patrol manning the checkpoint. It seemed to me as if we were embarking on a slightly different version of “Wacky Races” and I wondered if Dastardly Muttly was seating ahead of the column.

 

These two mounds were built to house the two sets of statues for Rameses (left) and his wife Nefertari (right).

 

The view from the entrance.

 

We left under the cover of darkness at 4:30AM. Most of our fellow passengers were already fast asleep including two Britons whose necks were wedged between their knees which reminded me of ostrich heads stuck in the sand. Dawn found us 50kms. into the 300-kilometer, 3-hour journey. The first rays of the sun illuminated a stark landscape of red sand that stretched as far as the horizon. If someone told me that we had arrived in Mars, I wouldn’t have doubted it at all. After shooting a couple of frames with the Nikon, I fell asleep, lulled by rhythmic hum of the Coaster’s engine and warmed by the wife’s pashmina shawl which she wrapped around her shoulders before drifting off to dreamland herself.

Resting at the restaurant lawn before boarding the Coaster back to Aswan.

 

By 7:30, we arrived at a large, sandy parking lot in front of the entrance to the site. Right across was the beautiful, shimmering turquoise waters of Lake Nasser. There must have been 120 buses parked side by side disgorging about 3-4,000 passengers. What did I tell you about mass tourism! Everyone rushed to the nearby row of toilets which were surprisingly clean and well-maintained (Lesson: don’t drink any liquid while on the way). The ticket counter outside the gate was 100 meters away and there was a stone-clad souvenir arcade as well as a restaurant where we ate our packed lunch since they didn’t allow food to be brought inside. The entrance fee cost LE60/-.

As you enter, there is a brown hill right beside the paved walkway that dips down toward the lake. This is the backside of the temple and it is man-made. Back in 1963, after the authorities realized that the waters of the dam would submerge the site, a plan was hatched in cooperation with the U.N., to move the temples to a higher location. Sixty-four meters up to be exact. A reinforced concrete dome was built and the two temples were cut up into blocks, each weighing about 30 tons. Then they were moved like a gigantic 3-dimensional jigsaw puzzle to this newly-built modern shelter that was later covered with filling material. Sand and dust did the rest and the place looks almost natural.

 

Our one and only groufie.

 

A Nile cruise ship gets ready to dock.

 

When you come around the bend at the side of the artificial hill, the colossi and façade come into focus and it is quite a startling sight. Rising 21 meters (that’s about 7 stories), the four enthroned statues of Egypt’s greatest pharaoh-god who was described as “a powerful lion with claws extended and a terrible roar”, sat in silence, gazing into eternity while facing the sun that rose in the east. Even though I have seen these in countless pictures and films, nothing quite matches the sensation of seeing them up-close, face-to-face. My son – who had become jaded after gazing at dozens and dozens of Egyptian monoliths in Luxor earlier in our trip – was mightily impressed.

I think this was Rameses’ primary purpose in building this magnificent colossi featuring his likeness: to instill awe and fear in the hearts of his enemies, the Nubians, who were living at the farthest southern periphery of his empire. Centuries of neglect, however, allowed the desert to move in and slowly bury the site. This was a fortuitous event because it preserved the rock face from the elements. That is why they are so startlingly sharp in detail and look as though they were just recently carved. It wasn’t until the early 1800s when the site was accidentally discovered by a Swiss explorer who saw the upper parts of four giant heads emerge almost as if by magic from the sand. Another explorer, the Italian Belzoni, excavated the place and found the entrance that went into the interior sanctuary.

Tha chamber with fresh reliefs.

 

A large door leads visitors into the hypostyle hall which is flanked by four pillars fronted by ten-meter high statues of Rameses once again (the guy’s a megalomaniac!) with arms crossed in the Osiris position, holding a crook and a flail beneath a ceiling that is decorated with flying vultures. The walls on four sides are filled with bass reliefs of scenes from his campaigns in Syria and Nubia. There he was fighting his arch-enemies, the Hittites, in one panel while in another, he was shown decapitating captives single-handedly. The “Battle of Qadesh” (1300BC) is depicted in eye-popping detail: his army storming a Syrian fortress, lancing hapless Libyans and marching against fleeing enemies. Everywhere, it showed how victorious he was. The lighting from below made the reliefs stand out starkly, adding a touch of drama to the whole scene. If you close your eyes, you could just about hear the echo of horses’ hooves galloping across the expansive battlefield.

 

We are dwarfed by these huge statues!

 

At the end of the temple was the Sanctuary, a small room with four figures (now mutilated) of the deified Rameses and the gods Amon Ra, Harmakhis and Ptah. In front of them stood a stone block where once rested the sacred barque (the vessel that transports the dead to the afterlife). Twice a year, the rays of the sun reach into this deep chamber at dawn: first on May 22 during his birthday and second on October 22 during his coronation. You can just imagine the awe of his subjects when these gold-encased figures gave off a fiery glitter not unlike that of a laser show. Well, nowadays, the sun still illuminates this recess but does so a day later since the angle of inclination had changed after the relocation.

A little further from the Sun Temple stood a smaller hill where Rameses built another temple to honor his wife, Queen Nefertari. Here, six colossal 9-meter tall statues of both of them standing seem to emerge from the rock. They are accompanied by their children who stand knee-high in the shadows.

Mirage in the desert landscape.

 

On the way home….

 

Although the chambers inside are smaller, they are, nevertheless, also filled with intricate reliefs depicting husband and wife mingling with deities, making offerings and participating in various rituals. Quite a compelling and intimate scene of a couple showing a very human trait – that of being in love with each other. In some areas, a little paint still remained, a reminder how dazzlingly colorful the walls must have been.

Back outside, in front of the two hills fronting the lake was a wide esplanade where a “Sound and Light Show” spectacle is mounted nightly for the benefit of those who stay overnight. I was told that there are a couple of available lodgings in the periphery of the town. But mostly, the ones who attend are those who come in a luxury cruise ship that docks by the lakeside quay.

Humans look puny beneath these statues.

 

For us day trippers, the 3 hours spent at the site was a bit short. By 10:30, the convoy was about ready to head back to Aswan. But I think there was some logic to this mad schedule for by that time, the heat of the noonday sun began to be quite scorching. It would get worse later in the day and with no shade available outside, one could get fried to a crisp toast!

Posing by Nefertari’s likeness.

 

As we retraced our route, mirages appeared on the road as well as on the desert beyond the low sand dunes. What appeared to be like a shimmering body of water stretched out on the horizon, tantalizingly close but never quite reachable. Might not be the colossi in Abu Simbel be a mirage as well,? I wondered. I checked the camera. Well, I still got the pictures to prove that they were for real. Indeed.

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