Friday, December 24, 2010

Seasons Greetings to All

Here I am, sitting on a Greek island, about to complete my sixth month of travel and it seems like a good time to pause and reflect. I must say life has been very good to me these past six months and I have little or nothing to complain about. At 62, I am in pretty good health and fit enough to spend the best part of a day wandering the halls and galleries of the world’s major museums and most exciting cities.

I hope I have inspired some of my regular readers to plan for the own travels, whether they take place in six months or six years. I hope too, that my journeys have encouraged you to be a bit more adventurous, open-minded, and prepared to undertake trips that you might once have considered too difficult for whatever reasons.

Wherever you are, and whatever you do, I hope you and yours are well and happy, and making the most of life, love, and good friends.

Thanks for dropping by, and here’s to a great Christmas, and a Healthy, Happy and Peaceful New Year.

Love and Best Wishes to you all,

Jim Lesses
Find joy in everything you do,
Follow love, and let love follow you.
Let go, and remember to forgive,
Give thanks, and love the life you live.
~ Jim Lesses (Love The Life You Live)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Vive La Revolution!

Image: Part of the massive main building that is the Palace of Versailles

If you ever needed to be convinced that revolutions – even violent revolutions – are necessary, just visit the Palace of Versailles, in France. Here amongst the opulence and splendor that marked the reign of King Louis XIV (14th), and successive French rulers, the reason for revolution is writ large. Larger than large, in fact. Here is grandeur, extravagance, wealth, and sumptuousness of the highest order. No wonder then, that on the eve of the French Revolution in 1789, it was at Versailles that the citizens of Paris came to demand that Louis XVI (16th) return to Paris to face the wrath of the people.

The Palace of Versailles is a royal château in Versailles, the Île-de-France region of France. The court of Versailles was the centre of political power in France from 1682, when Louis XIV moved from Paris, until the royal family was forced to return to the capital in October 1789 after the beginning of the French Revolution. Versailles is therefore famous not only as a building, but as a symbol of the system of absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime. [Source: Wikipedia…]

The Palace of Versailles consists of 700 rooms providing around 67,000 square meters of floor space. The Palace’s collections include over 6,000 paintings, 1,500 drawings, and more than 15,000 engravings. Add to these 2,100 sculptures and around 5,200 pieces of furniture and objets d’art, and you get some idea of the size and scope of this amazing historical site.

Image: The massive Hall of Battles at Versailles

In room after room, luxury and indulgence seemed to be trying to outdo each other. Just when you think the fittings and decorations, the massive paintings adorning walls and ceilings couldn’t get bigger or better, they do. When you think nothing could top the massive Hall Of Battles (see photo above) and the 33 huge paintings located there depicting scenes from some of France’s greatest victories, and which also includes 82 busts of various military leaders who died in action in many of the battles depicted in the paintings; just when you think nothing can top that you walk into the equally massive Great Hall of Mirrors.

The Great Hall of Mirrors, Palace of Versailles. Image courtesy of Arnaud 25

Ceiling view of the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles

The French painter Charles Le Brun, is responsible for decorating the ceilings in the Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces), with a series of stunning paintings only equaled by his other works at Versailles in the Halls of War and Peace (Salons de la Guerreand de la Paix), and the Ambassadors' Staircase. It was not for nothing that Louis XIV declared Le Brun "the greatest French artist of all time".

The dimensions of the Hall of Mirrors' are 73.0m × 10.5m × 12.3m (239.5ft × 34.4ft × 40.4ft). The ceiling decoration is dedicated to the political policies and military victories of Louis XIV. The central panel of the ceiling, Le roi governe par lui-même (The king governs alone) alludes to the establishment of the personal reign of Louis XIV in 1661. Other panels represent the military victories of the king beginning with the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659), through to the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678.

Image: Part of just one of the many wonderful ceiling paintings at Versailles

Images of King Louis XIV swanning his way down long passageways and through vast rooms, flash through my head. Look! Here he comes now, closely followed by a retinue of handlers, hangers-on, and assorted family members, while courtiers, foreign visitors and gawkers wait and watch to catch a glimpse of his supreme eminence.

Does he pause to admire the monumental work of Veronese called, The Feast in The House of Simon – a gift of the Viennese court? As he enters the cavernous Chapel to attend Mass (where years later, Marie-Antoinette married Louis XVI), does he stop to chat with one or two of the lesser leaders of the day, who are here to curry favor and bask in his attention – no matter how brief or cursory?

I suspect he barely gives them more than a passing glance. It is enough to know they are there, and that he has created a building large enough to house monumental works of art, as well as draw sycophants and other toady’s to his palatial home far from the Paris mob. A palace big enough to satisfy even his overblown ego. For surely that is the point of Versailles. To show that this one person has the power to call upon the greatest builders of his era to carve stone, bend and shape timber, weave giant tapestries, plant and landscape hundreds of acres of land, and to do this all at his behest with little or no regard to cost in terms of either monetary value or the human cost of this monumental construction project.

Ceiling decorations in the Royal Chapel at Versailles. Image courtesy of Diliff

I am not sure if we will ever see buildings like Versailles being created again. Not because we don’t have the money, but because there are so few people of vision around who could design, let alone build palaces like Versailles. And if there were? Would people allow such wanton excess? Such extravagance and splendor? It’s not just the scale of the building, but the detailed extras that have been incorporated into the design that impress and shock.

Statues and friezes, fountains and gilded furnishings, landscaped gardens, manicured lawns, broad mile-long pathways and secluded alcoves. Was there anything not included in the scope and design of Versailles? I suspect that pretty much every skill in design and artistry extant at the time the Palace was being built, was used in some way in the extensive building process that went on even after Louis XIV was long dead and gone.

Sadly, I can’t think of any modern political leaders who wouldn’t love to be able to bask in the glory and opulence of a Palace of Versailles. How it would feed their egos and pander to their vanities! How they would delight in being surrounded by fawning acolytes and supplicants seeking to curry favour and win even the briefest of passing attention.

It is exactly for this reason that places like that Palace of Versailles need to be maintained and kept open – as a reminder and proof that absolute power, corrupts absolutely. That if the people are not vigilant, if they are satisfied with bread and circuses, the power elite will happily create their own versions of Versailles, and continue to run the game exactly as they wish to.

Having toured through the Palace, you can either leave Versailles and head back to central Paris, or you can go for a walk in the grounds and gardens that surround the main building. It is here that the grandeur of Versailles really overpowers you, and it was while I was walking around the grounds that the full impact of Versailles hit home. But that’s a story for another day.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Eiffel Tower – A Promise Kept

Image: Gustave Eiffel’s gift to the people of France and tourists the world over

On my recent trip to Paris I finally kept a promise I have been holding myself to for over 30 years: namely that the next time I visited Paris I would go to the Eiffel Tower and make the journey to the top. The story behind that promise may be a good example of how the arrogance of youth can change as one gets older and – hopefully – wiser.

Way back in the early 1970s, when I was in my mid-20s I passed through Paris on my way back to London from Greece. I’d met a couple of other travelers on the train ride from Athens, and during our stay in Paris we went to see the Eiffel Tower.

My memory is hazy now about the exact details, but I do remember that I considered myself to be too ‘cool’ to do the standard tourist thing and actually go up the Tower. After all, it seemed such a clichéd thing to do, and even back then I was not interested in following the crowd. Of course, I was happy enough doing that other clichéd tourist activity – posing inanely before Gustave Eiffel’s Tower and getting my, “This is me in front of …” picture (a practice by the way, that I try to steer clear of now).

But then, over the years, somewhere along the way, I began to regret my decision. After all, on that 1970s trip I remember my travel companions and I did visit the Louvre, and we did go and see the Mona Lisa, and wasn’t that as much a cliché as visiting the Eiffel Tower? And just for the record, I did make another visit to Mona during my trip to Paris.

Why do we travel anyway, if not to see and experience as fully as possible the cities and locations we have chosen to visit? Going to the Louvre just to see the Mona Lisa would be a complete waste of time and money, given the effort one has to go through to actually see the painting. There are thousands of other reasons to visit the Louvre (namely the other paintings, sculptures, displays, etc), and personally I think most of them are more interesting and exciting to examine than the Mona Lisa’s whimsical smile.

The same reasoning can be used regarding the Eiffel Tower. If you are visiting just so you can cross it off your highlights list, you are missing some of the real magic of the experience. For me, that magic and wonder involves the groundbreaking feat of engineering that went into building this amazing structure, even more than the view over Paris.

Image: The bird’s-eye view from the top of the Eiffel Tower

Image: The Eiffel Tower would be hard enough to build today, let alone over 100 years ago!

Gustave Eiffel was writing the book when his company designed and built the tower that honours his name, not working out of someone else’s book of instructions.

Eiffel was born in Dijon on December 15, 1832. Graduating as an engineer in 1855, he was soon hired as associate by Charles Neveu, a manufacturer of steam engines and railway equipment. It wasn’t long before Eiffel had started his own company, and for the next 20 years or so he specialized in designing and constructing a range of projects including numerous bridges, viaducts, and other major buildings. From 1881-84 Gustave Eiffel also designed and built the framework of Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty, which now stands at the entrance of New York harbour.

Image: Gustave Eiffel ‘s metallic structure for the Statue of Liberty

Image courtesy of the Official Eiffel Tower website…

In 1884, answering a bid to mark the centenary of the 1889 French Revolution, Gustave Eiffel, together with his associates Emile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin, pitch their idea for the construction of the Tower.

Construction involved over 5,300 drawings, and a team of 120 workers to fit together more than 18,000 parts, weighing over 10,000 tons, using 2.5 million rivets, over a period of two years. Despite the fact that the men were working hundreds of metres above the ground, only one man died during the construction of the Tower, and that accident occurred outside of regular working hours.

As you might imagine, almost immediately after its completion, the 324 metre (1,063 ft) Tower began to attract a motley collection of adventurers and thrill seekers intent on trying to be the first to set a range of records associated with the structure. These include Santos-Dumont who, in 1901, won a prize for flying higher than the Tower in an airship, and the Count de Lambert who flew over Paris in an airplane in 1909, and around the Tower for the first time.

Sadly, in 1912, a tailor nicknamed “the bird man”, died when he jumped from the first floor using a parachute of his own design and construction, and in 1926, Léon Collot, also died when he tried to fly under the Eiffel Tower. Happily, the two paratroopers who jumped from the third floor in 1984 without permission lived to tell the tale, while in 1987, a New-Zealander performed a bungee jump – again without permission – from the second floor.

Image: Some of the intricate steel lacing and support work at the first level

And so it continues. A veritable circus of stair climbers and runners, motocross and mountain bike riders, wheelchair users, and yes, Ripley, believe it or not, even a circus elephant (which climbed the stairs to the first floor) have used the Eiffel Tower to add their names to the record books.

For my money, none of those noted above are a patch on Victor Lustig who in 1925 ‘sold’ the Eiffel Tower to a scrap metal merchant after convincing him that the Tower was going to be demolished. And why not? Originally, the Tower was meant to stand for just 20 years, after which it would be pulled down. The fact that it is still around 120 years later is a testament to the design and construction skills of Gustave Eiffel and his team of workers.

Today, the Eiffel Tower is the most visited fee-paying monument in the world, attracting over 7 million visitors each year. Some twenty replicas large and small can be found around the world in countries as far afield as the Poland, Denmark, Belgium, the United States, China, Japan and Dubai. Even in France itself, a 10 metre high tower weighing 3.2 tons was built for the France in Miniature Park. One can’t help but wonder whether Gustave Eiffel, who died in 1923 at the age of 91, ever in his wildest dreams thought his tower would become such an icon, not just for Paris and France, but also for the rest of the world. One that continues to reach well into the 21st century.

For all these and more reasons, I wanted finally, to visit the Eiffel Tower after more than 30 years. If I had made that journey in the early 1970s, it would have only been for the photo opportunities it would have given me. Now that I am much older, and at least a little bit wiser, I have finally honoured that promise to return, and have done so at a time when I have been able to appreciate the engineering skills that built it – as well as to take the photographs and enjoy the great views.

More information

The Official Eiffel Tower website…

The Eiffel Tower page at Wikipedia…

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