A day at the Louvre

We thought the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was big, but then we visited the Louvre in Paris! In addition to paintings and sculptures, the Louvre also displays historical objects and archeological finds. It contains more than 380 000 objects and 35 000 works of art. Assuming that I’ve done my math correctly, if a person spent one minute looking at each item on display, it would take 24 hours a day for more than nine months to see everything! We were there for five hours. Clearly it was necessary to plan ahead and choose the things we most wanted to see.

Of course, we had to see the Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the world, but so did everyone else in the Louvre that day! We literally had to fight our way through the crowd of selfie takers to get a glimpse. It was impossible to get a good photo, but you probably already know what it looks like. Like many others, I really wonder what all the fuss is about. There were certainly paintings that I liked better.

Of all the paintings that we saw, the one that impressed me the most didn’t appear on any of the “must see” in the Louvre lists that I saw.

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At first glance, I saw an old man snoozing while a rooster crowed in the background, but then I read the description. I was looking at The Penitent Saint Peter, or The Tears of Saint Peter, painted in the 1620s by Flemish artist, Gerard Seghers, and based on the scriptural account of Peter denying Christ three times before the rooster crowed. I like the simplicity of it, but also the detail. Look at the way Seghers captured the softness of an old man’s hair. And then there are those hands!

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The Venus de Milo is considered one of history’s most significant sculptures. Again, I’m not really sure why.

My favourite sculpture was the highly acclaimed Winged Victory of Samothrace which was created in ancient Greece in about the second century BC. The flowing drapery conveys a sense of motion as the goddess, Nike, descends onto the prow of a ship in honour of a sea battle won.

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I also liked the Sleeping Faun carved by Edme Bouchardon in the 1700s.

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This is just a tiny sampling of what we saw in the Louvre on Monday, but it must also be said that the building itself, a former royal palace, is a work of art.

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My neck is getting stiff from craning to see all the amazing ceilings in the various churches, galleries, and museums we’ve been visiting!

After ensuring that we’d seen everything on my “must see” list, we strolled the length of the Avenue de l’Opera from the Louvre to the Palais Garnier stopping along the way to sip a glass of wine at a sidewalk cafe.

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Oh yes, we are definitely enjoying Paris!

Second day in Paris

Located on the Île de la Cité, just a stone’s throw from Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, the Conciergerie served as a royal residence in medieval times and later a prison. That’s where we started our day yesterday.

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I was enthralled by the vast Salle des Gens d”Armes (Hall of the Soldiers). Constructed in 1302, it’s a great example of Gothic architecture.

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During the French Revolution of the late 1700s and the Reign of Terror that followed, part of the old royal palace held prisoners including Marie Antoinette whose prison cell was later converted into a small chapel in her memory.

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This painting shows the queen ascending the steps from the Conciergerie to the courtyard where she would be transferred to an open cart pulled by horses that would take her to the guillotine located in the Place de la Revolution, now Place de la Concorde.

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Looking serene today, this was the women’s courtyard. Surrounded by two floors of cramped cells, it was used by the female prisoners to take daytime walks.

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Our visit included Sainte Chapelle, the church built within the palace walls. I thought by now we might be getting tired of churches, but not so. I continue to be amazed by each one that we step into.

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Absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the sight that greeted me when I reached to top of the narrow winding staircase to the upper chapel.

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If you read my post about our afternoon in Milan, you’ll know that I love stained glass windows. Never in my life could I ever have imagined something like this though! Photos simply can’t capture the magnitude of what surrounded us.

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Later in the day, after eating crepes from a street vendor and treats at a nearby bakery then taking an elevator to the observation deck of the 56 storey Montparnasse Tower for panoramic views of the city, we made our way to Place de la Concorde.

 

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It was here that the guillotine stood; here that Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI, and many others lost their heads. From there, we strolled 2.3 km up the Champs Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe enjoying the Sunday afternoon crowds.

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Afternoon in Milan

It wasn’t originally part of my plan for us to visit Milan while we were in Italy. I had hoped to book a day of train travel all the way from Florence to Paris, but since that wasn’t possible, we had to overnight somewhere along the way. We didn’t want to take an overnight train as our main reason for choosing to travel by train instead of flying was to see a bit of the countryside.

We arrived in Milan early in the afternoon the day before yesterday and had the rest of the day to experience a bit of the city. Milan is a financial hub as well as a global capital of fashion and design. At first glance, it looks much like any other modern city, but it has a historical side as well.

As soon as we were settled into our guest house near the train station, we jumped on the metro and headed for the Duomo, the Milan Cathedral. Dedicated to the Nativity of St Mary, it is the seat of the Archbishop of Milan. We’ve seen a lot of amazing churches on this trip, but emerging from the metro right in front of the Duomo was definitely another breathtaking moment!

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The sheer immensity of the cavernous interior was amazing. Look at the size of that pillar!

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It was the stained glass windows that most astounded me though. There was no way to truly capture them in photographs. This shows just two of the three enormous panels at the front of the building and there were many more narrower ones along its sides.

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Each section depicts a scene from the Old or New Testament. The ones toward the top are so high up that we couldn’t even see the details in them.

After visiting the interior of the church, we took an elevator to the rooftop which was without question the highlight of our short stay in Milan. We could have saved the price of a ticket and climbed the approximately 250 stairs, but our old knees have had a major workout on this trip and the elevator was worth every cent. It also saved us time which we didn’t have a lot of.

After leaving the Duomo, we walked through the gorgeous and glitzy Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a very high end shopping mall. With it’s glass ceiling, the whole place has a light, airy feel.

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The entire floor of the gallery is mosaic and near the centre is the image of a bull. Tradition has it that good luck will come to anyone who places their heel on the bull’s testicles and spins in a circle three times. Of course, I had to place my heel in the indentation that has been worn into the floor in that spot and spin myself around!

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Our final stop in Milan was Castello Sforzesco, a medieval castle in the middle of a mostly modern city. Built first as a fortress in 1368 and later transformed into a magnificent palace, it now houses many museums. We didn’t have time to enter any of those, but we enjoyed a quick exploration of the grounds.

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The next morning, we were back on the train on our way to Paris but very glad that we’d had to stop in Milan!

 

Fabulous Florence

When I started planning this trip, I was undecided about whether or not to include Florence on the itinerary, but I’m very glad I did! We arrived by high speed train from Rome at about noon on Tuesday after sharing our coach with a group of 27 fifth and sixth graders embarking on a four day field trip with two of their teachers. As retired grade school teachers, we felt right at home, but also very glad that we weren’t responsible for all those excited children!

Our guest house in Florence was a short walk from the train station and just off the corner of Piazza del Duomo in the very heart of Florence. Absolutely everything we wanted to see and do was within walking distance, so we were able to pack plenty into our day and a half there.

As soon as we checked in and dropped off our luggage, we headed out to see the Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The complex is so enormous that it was impossible to squeeze it all into a photo and so ornate that you really need to look at various parts of it close up.

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Surprisingly, the interior, though beautiful wasn’t as ornate as some of the other churches we’ve visited.

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From the Duomo, we walked a very short distance to Piazza del Signoria in front of the grand Palazzo Vecchio, headquarters of the city government as well as a museum. The highlight here was the replica of Michelangelo’s David standing in the exact spot where the original stood for over 400 years until it was moved into the Accademia Gallery.

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Perhaps the most famous sight of all in Florence is the nearby Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s oldest bridge, that has spanned the Arno River since the 12th century! Little jewelry shops line both sides of the interior of the bridge.

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The riverside is lined with fascinating architecture.

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Neither of us are art connoisseurs, but the next day we spent a very enjoyable morning at the Uffizi Gallery, one of the world’s top art museums, taking in its enormous collection of Renaissance masterpieces. After we’d made our way through about one quarter of it, we decided we’d have to pick up the pace or we could easily be there all day! The sculptures were the greatest attraction for me, especially the busts of historical figures. It was amazing to gaze into the faces of long gone heroes of the past like Agrippa on the left and Trajan on the right.

This sculpture representing the martyrdom of St. Lawrence especially intrigued me due to the fact that the artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, was only 15 years old when he carved it in the early 1600s! What amazing talent!

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A vast number of the pieces in the Uffizi are of a religious nature, many of them stunning altar pieces like this one.

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Images of the Madonna abound. I was particularly attracted to this one by Botticelli. If you look closely, you can see that the angels on either side of Mary and the Christ child are holding a crown of thorns and crucifixion nails.

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A huge print of this painting by Caravaggio was hanging at the head of our bed in the guest house!

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After leaving the gallery we crossed the river and made the steep climb up to Piazza Michelangelo where the views of the city were absolutely stunning!

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I could easily spend endless hours wandering the tiny streets of Florence, but a day and a half was enough to capture the highlights.

First day in Rome

If you can’t handle crowds, especially crowds of tourists, Rome is not the place for you! Our first two days here were intensive; jam packed with must-do, must-see places that we’d only heard of and dreamed of until now. Yes, there were crowds, but everyone was happy to be there and for the most part, we managed to avoid the incredibly long line ups by arranging “skip the line” passes in advance.

Early on our first morning, we headed to the Vatican City, in reality a separate country inside Rome! We took a tour of the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel which was perhaps a bit more hurried than we would have liked, but we learned a lot more and navigated the crowds much more easily than if we had tried to do it on our own. From late April until October, more than 20 000 people pass through the museum every day, six days a week!

Here’s an early morning look at St. Peter’s Square with the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the centre and a 4000+ year old Egyptian obelisk that was brought to Rome by Caligula in 37 AD on the left.

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The Vatican Museum houses a massive number of paintings, sculptures, tapestries and other works of art collected by popes throughout the centuries. The sheer size of the collection is really quite overwhelming. Sculpture is probably my favourite art form, so that’s mostly what my camera captured.

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The floors and especially the ceilings throughout the enormous museum building are works of art in their own right. Imagine the work that went into a ceiling like this one when this is only a tiny portion of it!

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Unfortunately, taking photographs isn’t allowed inside the Sistine Chapel where we gazed in amazement at Michelangelo’s ceiling, his Last Judgement, and the frescos lining the walls.

After our tour, we made our way into St. Peter’s Basilica, the world’s largest church and what is regarded as one of the Roman Catholic Church’s holiest shrines. My photos don’t really do it justice, but here’s one to give you an idea of the immense size and ornateness of the interior.

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After leaving the Vatican, we took a Hop On, Hop Off bus around it’s route to get a better idea of the layout of the city. We had 72 hour passes that allowed us to ride it as often as we wanted which was handy. While we did use the metro and city buses as well, we sometimes found the Hop On, Hop Off to be the best way to get where we wanted to go. Since arriving in Europe, I’ve been extremely grateful for our year in Japan as it really prepared these Alberta prairie hicks for things like big city metro systems!

Our first day in Rome also included a visit to the Basilica of St John Lateran, the oldest and largest cathedral in Rome and the official seat of the Bishop of Rome, the pope. Less visited by tourists, it was was a more peaceful and relaxing place to visit, especially the 13th century cloister.

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The nave of the basilica is lined with statues of saints, so in honour of our oldest son and our oldest and youngest grandsons who all have saint names, here from left to right, are Matthew, Andrew, and Simon.

Next on our busy first day agenda was the famous Trevi Fountain, the world’s largest Baroque fountain. According to legend, if you toss a coin into the fountain, you’ll return to Rome someday, so of course we had to do that! The vast sum of money that is collected goes to charity. We also enjoyed our first Italian gelato at the fountain.

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A short walk took us from the Trevi Fountain to the Pantheon. Once a temple to the gods of ancient Rome, it was later turned into a church.

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Continuing on, we ended our day of exploration at Piazza Navona. One the prettiest and most popular of Rome’s many plazas, it boasts three ornate fountains and is always a happening place.

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Just in case we hadn’t visited enough churches that day, we also peeked into the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone on the edge of the piazza! While our first day in Rome focused mainly on churches, the next was all about ancient Rome. That will have to wait for another blog post on another day though!

 

Historic Mexico City

On Wednesday morning we took a taxi into Xalapa and then a bus back to Mexico City. Arriving at our hotel in the historic centre of the city a few minutes after 3 o’clock, we checked in, dropped our baggage in our room, and headed out to explore our surroundings. We had about four hours before dark to see as much as we possibly could!

About six blocks north of our hotel, we came across the expansive Plaza de la Constitución. There was a protest of some sort happening just off the south side of the square, but it was the amazing Metropolitan Cathedral (or to give its full name, the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven) on the north side of the plaza that completely captured our attention.

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Latin America’s largest and oldest cathedral, the imposing structure is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico and one of the country’s most treasured architectural masterpieces. Built on the site of Templo Mayor, an ancient temple in what was the centre of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, it includes much of the stone from that original structure. Construction of the cathedral, which incorporates several different architectural styles, spanned three centuries from 1573 to 1813! The bell towers house a total of 25 bells, the largest one weighing 13 000 kilograms!

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After a quick peek inside the Cathedral, we moved on. The Palacio Nacional, home to the offices of the president of Mexico as well as the federal treasury, is located on the east side of the Plaza de la Constitución. The palace’s main courtyard is surrounded by a three level arcade and has at its centre an enormous fountain topped by an elegant bronze statue of Pegasus, the winged stallion of Greek mythology.

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It was the Diego Rivera murals, painted between 1929 and 1951 and depicting the history of Mexico from the Aztec era to the early 20th century that drew us to the Palacio Nacional. The enormous staircase murals, located between the first and second floors, are sometimes compared to an epic poem including the legendary pre-Hispanic past, the Spanish conquest, and the more recent past. Tucked into the mural over the left staircase is an portrait of Rivera’s wife and fellow artist, Frida Kahlo (wearing a green dress and a star necklace).

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Nine more murals chronicling indigenous life before the Spanish conquest of Mexico cover the north and east walls of the second level. This series of panels was intended to go all the way around the second storey, but the project was incomplete when Rivera died in 1957.

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After leaving the Palacio Nacional, we wandered the nearby streets enjoying the sights and sounds of this small part of one of the world’s largest cities.

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To the north and east of the central plaza, we discovered the remains of a portion of the Templo Mayor that was excavated between 1978 and 1982.

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Continuing our walk, we eventually came across a long pedestrian street lined with shops and restaurants that included a number of American chains such as Old Navy, Starbucks, H&M, and Forever 21. Though it was a midweek day at suppertime, the street was full of people. Photos hardly do it justice as without sound they fail to fully capture the festive atmosphere. On one block a young boy played an accordion, on another a trio of men in traditional costume played lively music on stringed instruments, on yet another a boy played guitar and sang. In each case, of course, they had a hat or container out to catch the coins of passersby.

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We stopped for a quick bite to eat in a tiny Mexican restaurant and dessert from Santa Clara, a Mexican ice cream shop chain. Then as the sun slipped below the tall buildings surrounding us, we headed back toward our hotel. We had to be up very early the following morning to catch our flight home.

And that’s a wrap folks! After a fantastic visit with our friends in Mexico, we’re back home on the frozen Canadian prairie revelling in the memories of another wonderful trip completed.

Churches of Coatepec

Everywhere we go in Coatepec and the surrounding area, the colour and architecture of the churches practically insist that I stop to take photos! Over 90% of the population of the area adheres to the Roman Catholic faith, so Catholic churches are everywhere.

In the nearby city of Xalapa, the Catedral Metropolitana de la Immaculada Concepción, or the Xalapa Cathedral as it is more commonly called, is one of the oldest buildings in the city.

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Every small town has churches that are equally spectacular. Santa Maria Magdalena is the patron saint of Xico and the church that bears her name is absolutely stunning.

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A little further away, this beautiful church overlooks the central square in the smaller town of Teocelo.

Here in Coatepec, the stately church of San Jéronimo is located in the central core across the street from the Parque de Miguel Hidalgo which is always a happening place.

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I don’t know the names of the other churches that I’ve stopped to photograph, but there are many!

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We specifically walked up a steep hill to take a closer look at this one this morning.

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But this is my favourite of all the ones we’ve seen in Coatepec. Not only is the architecture exquisite, but I love the Calvary motif high above the entrance.

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By contrast, less than 10% of the population is evangelical Christian and they meet in much more modest buildings. The Pescadores de Hombres Compañerismo Christiano (Fishers of Men Christian Fellowship) congregation meets in this building a few blocks away from where we’ve been staying.

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A church on Sunday morning and Wednesday evening, it’s a cochina economica (cheap kitchen) the rest of the week where you can buy tacos for 10 pesos (69 cents CAD) apiece.