From The Top Of The Pomp

The Dome church and the Eiffel Tower from the top of the Pompidou Center

Today Richard and I walked over to the Pompidou Center, which is located a few blocks in from the right bank of the Seine.

Notre Dame and the Pantheon

The Pompidou Center is famous as the “inside-out” building, where all of the piping and wiring for the building is on the outside and is color-coded, with separate, bright colors for the pipes that deliver water, electricity, and so forth.  The effect is quite striking, and makes the exterior of the Pompidou Center one of the most interesting buildings in Paris.  The Pompidou Center also is home to an extensive collection of modern art, as well as a library, cinemas, and other areas dedicated to the visual arts.

Whether you appreciate the modern art or not — and I’m going to have to go with Russell one of these days, so that he can explain the ideas behind some of the pieces — you have to love the view from the top of the escalator on the outside of the building.  It may be the best panoramic vantage point in Paris.

Sacre Coeur

The escalator, like the piping and wiring, also is inside out.  It runs up one side of the building overlooking a square.  And when you reach the top, you get a commanding view of three of Paris’ most famous landmarks:  Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and the Sacre Coeur.  The view alone is worth the price of admission.

The view also makes you realize that the older part of Paris really is like Washington, D.C. — lots of buildings of pretty much uniform height, and then some special landmarks that really dominate the skyline.  It is probably one of the few famous cities in the world where church steeples and spires remain some of the highest points in the urban landscape.

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VRBO Changes The World (Paris Edition)

The kitchen at chez Josette

So, I’m in Paris, meeting up with Richard to spend a week with him as he moves slowly through Europe and soaks up what the continent has to offer.  Rather than spend a ridiculous sum on a hotel, and be squirreled away in some sterile tourist area of the City of Lights, Kish and I decide to try VRBO.  We end up renting an apartment in the Latin Quarter.

When I arrived today, I had some trepidation about what I would find.  Things can look good on the web, but sometimes the reality falls short.  That did not happen today, fortunately.  (Bon!)

The TV room at our apartment

Here is what I found:

*  A surprisingly spacious apartment with two well-sized bedrooms, a TV room with cable TV and a collection of hundreds of DVDs, a full kitchen with every utensil and cooking appliance known to man, a full shower and bathroom, a separate toilet room,  a washer and a dryer, a desktop computer as well as apartment-wide, free wireless, and a dining room with a table that seats six.  And, the apartment is decorated with style and stocked with fresh baguettes and chocolate rolls.

*  An incredibly helpful and accommodating hostess (merci, Josette!) who explained every appliance, computer, TV remote, and key, provided suggestions on restaurants and bistros to frequent, gave us her apartment number and cell number, and encouraged us to call if we had any problems or questions.

A look down the Rue Val de Grace

*  Windows with iron railings that open out to an iconic Paris street with a view like this.

*  A central location on Rue Val de Grace near the Luxembourg Gardens and the Pantheon, located in the heart of a student housing district in the Latin Quarter (District Five), within easy walking distance of the Ile de la Cite, the Louvre, and other sites in central Paris and (perhaps most importantly) directly across the street from a wine shop with an excellent selection and very moderate prices.

All of this, for a price that probably is about half of what we would pay for a decent hotel.  This is why VRBO is changing the world.

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 2

I had a conversation with a guy at my hostel about people who ponder for a long time at historical sights. He thought these people are “full of shit.” Although he enjoys going to historical sights and recognizes the significance of them, he sees no reason to spend a long time thinking about them, and he thinks that people who do so are being pretentious.

I used to believe that, but now I think that it requires a lot of mental effort to take in historical sights the right way. When looking at a centuries-old structure, our instinct – or mine, at least – is to think “that’s cool” or “that’s pretty.” We admire the craftmanship, then we get bored and want to move on. It takes more thought to realize that what we’re looking at once meant a lot to people, and to figure out how.

When I went inside the Coliseum six years ago, I admired the magnificence of it for a few minutes before I got bored and wanted to leave. When I visited it last Wednesday, I forced myself to consider that it was the site of millions of human experiences over centuries – experiences that ranged from that of a Roman senator and his family enjoying good food and entertainment in reserved seats in the front row, to that of a criminal whose last moments of life were spent being attacked by an exotic animal in front of a bloodthirsty crowd of forty thousand people. I wondered what people were thinking when they walked into such a beautiful, perfectly-proportioned building to watch people and animals die.

The inside of the Coliseum.

Wednesday was my “ancient Rome” day. After going to the Coliseum, I went to the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. Unfortunately, so little remains of the buildings that it’s hard to imagine what they originally looked like. I just got a sense of an area that was neglected and pilfered for a thousand years. I would like to think that the fact that the forum area was not built over, at least, means that medieval Romans showed it some respect, but it seems more likely that it was too difficult to remove the ruins so that new buildings could be put there.

One building in the forum is still intact, however – the Roman senate building, which was converted to a church after the empire fell.

The forum, with the Roman senate building in the center.

The only other ancient building in Rome that is still in use – the Pantheon – also survived because it was converted into a church. It makes you wish there had been a greater need for churches in the dark ages so that more of the Roman buildings could be saved. Of all the ancient Roman buildings I’ve seen, the Pantheon is the best reminder of the brilliance of Roman engineering. It still holds the record for the largest unreinforced concrete dome, although its almost two thousand years old. The dome is so large that it was visible in Rome’s skyline from every viewpoint I visited – an honor shared by only a few other churches and the reviled Monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II (popularly called the “wedding cake building”) that you can see jostling its way into the picture above. I sat down inside for a while to watch the sunshine from the oculus at the top of the dome make its progress across the ceiling.

The inside of the Pantheon.

After consulting the Wikitravel article on Rome, I decided to visit all of the four basilicas that pilgrims to Rome were expected to visit – St. Peter’s (which I had already visited), San Giovanni, Santa Maria Maggiore, and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. They were all as spectacular as you would expect major churches in Rome to be. My favorite of them was St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, which was originally founded by the emperor Constantine over the burial place of St. Paul. It has a beautiful facade with a colorful mosaic, surrounded by a courtyard. It’s on the outskirts of Rome, so there aren’t as many tourists inside.

St. Paul's Outside the Walls

On Friday I took a train to Ostia Antica, which was once the port of Ancient Rome, but is now over a mile from the shore due to silt  from the Tiber building up over the centuries. Ostia is astonishingly well-preserved for an ancient city that wasn’t buried in ashes. Some of the buildings have exteriors that are fully preserved, making it easier to imagine what the town was once like. I spent an hour reading at the town’s theater, where high schoolers from various countries were goofing around.

An ancient apartment building in Ostia.

An ancient restaurant with a visual menu.

The ancient theater in Ostia.

By the time I left Ostia, I was tired of wandering around ancient ruins and imagining what they originally looked like. I was also tired of visiting churches. I thought I was giving myself a big treat when I booked ten nights at a hostel in Rome, but by the seventh or eighth day there I wished I could move on. The density of historical sites in Rome makes it one of the greatest cities in the world, but also makes it crowded and touristy. I missed the feeling I got in Istanbul, Athens, and Palermo, of being a guest in the city, instead of being just one of a horde of tourists, as I felt in Rome.

I also didn’t like my hostel much. It was obnoxiously crowded and loud, especially on weekends, and you had to leave from 11-5 every day so they could clean. These characteristics made it hard for me to make close friends like I did in other hostels. It also seemed to attract a different crowd from the other hostels I’ve stayed in. The guests weren’t the backpacker type; more the American college student studying abroad taking a quick trip around Europe and partying it up type.

I spent my last day in Rome reading in the Villa Borghese park. The day I left, I got up really early to go to St. Peter’s before it got crowded. Then, I went to the train station and boarded a train for Florence.

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome Pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey to Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul