Archive for April, 2011

The Arc de Triomphe

I may not have made it to the Eiffel tower when I was in Paris, but I did get to the Arc De Triomphe. I must say, it is probably more awesome anyways. Towering huge over the buildings around it, the Arc stands proudly in the middle of Place Charles de Gaulle, a traffic circle of sorts. Built by Napoleon for his conquering troops to parade underneath, the Arc has served this heroic detail for the French military ever since. It was even utilized for American troops during World War II as they strutted underneath this grand structure and down Champs-Elysees in August 1944.

Although I did not get to march underneath the Arc as a conquering war hero, I did get to climb on top of it. From atop the structure you can see all over the city, even at night thanks to the city’s prominence in the field of illumination. Multiple roads lead straight to the circle in which the archstands which gives a peculiar feeling, as though you are standing in the middle of the city. All lit up and bustling with cars, these boulevards seemed quite picturesque from on top of the Arc. The Eiffel tower too looks quite nice from atop the Arc as it rises jaggedly from the buildings below it and boasts a very impressive light display. One of the more interesting parts of standing on top of the Arc is the buildings around it. At the end of all of the avenues which lead to Arc, there is the exact same building. This must be due to some sort of construction ordinance, but there they are; those peculiar shaped buildings that crown the

One of the Buildings crowning the circle around the Arc

heads of the streets closest to the Arc De Triomphe. I thought it was pretty neat how the Parisian government had managed to make sure that there was this level of continuity in the structures surrounding the monument. You hardly ever see anything that well organized in the States.

Even if you can’t make it on top of the Arc for whatever reason, the ground level is pretty neat as well. The commemorative structure is so tall that you almost break your neck by trying to look up at it. It is worth the possible medical injury though, since the building is adorned with all sorts of inscriptions about Napoleonic and French conquests, as well as a plethora of eye catching low relief sculptures. While the four most notable sculptures adorn the outside corners of the Arc, the inside is riddled with well-done floral figurines all over the roof.

It was a very impressive structure to say the least. In fact, if I had not known anything about French military prowess since Napoleon I may have believed it to be very triumphant indeed.

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Rue de Rivoli and the Art of Dining

Despite all the grandeur of the places we visited during our time in Paris, I think it is safe to say that everyone in the group enjoyed our leisure time the most. These hours were just as rewarding even though I would never have imagined so prior to my time there.

Every evening we perused the famous streets of Rue de Rivoli, which parallels the Seine River, and nonchalantly window shopped. I even

The Family in front of the Arc de Triomphe

purchased a nice black derby cap from one of the small shops across from the Louvre. On a side note, this hat faired me well in France as I was confused for a Frenchman on multiple occasions. Between my slightly tilted derby, gray and maroon scarf, rumpled corduroy pants, and very worn Clark’s shoes, I apparently looked like a proper Frenchman.

While my family never did shed their plainly American garb and actions, they at least shared in the European art form of dining. In Europe, one does not simply eat a meal, one experiences a meal. Somehow, we managed to overcome our culture shock, as we thoroughly rejoiced in our food every night as we dined at “Le Café Imperiale,”within sight of the Eiffel tower. No luxury, or calorie, was spared as we all made sure to indulge in all the famously French food. Rich wine and warm baguette was the beginning to every meal, followed by the main course, and ended with sinfully delicious deserts. During my three dinners in France, I tried steak tartare, some other kind of steak, Beef bourguignon accompanied with, of course, real French fries as main courses. My deserts consisted of some sort of chocolate cake, crème brulee , and crepes with ice cream and melted chocolate.

I think it is plain to see why leisure time was the best part of France. The palaces and museums are awesome, yes. But how often does one get to aimlessly wander Rue de Rivoli or revel in authentic French cuisine? I feel like the promenades and banqueting are when I really got to experience France. To me, sightseeing belongs in a completely different category since one doesn’t experience a place when touring attractions; you see the sights. While I will always love to think back on visiting the Louvre and waltzing Versailles’ grounds, I know I will always cherish those relaxed Parisian evenings just as much. Both categories are too unique to compare or compete, at least in my mind.

Notre Dame

In my Art History and Appreciation courses that I have taken at Grove City College, one of my favorite things to study has always been Gothic architecture; particularly cathedrals. I have always found it fascinating how light and airy the architects were able to make stone structures seem. I have also been intrigued by the theological ideas that went into the construction of these churches. Not only in the cross shaped floor plans, but by also striving to make pilgrims to the churches first look towards the altar and then up to God.

The theory of how to do this is relatively simple. Architects designed the buildings with long, thin naves and high and vaulted ceilings. The way in which this worked is that someone entering the church should be immediately struck by the length of the nave and follow it to the end, called the apse, where the altar stood. Once there the sudden stop of the back of the apse would next make the viewer look up and gawke at the tremendously large ceiling suspended over their heads. Of course, a philosophy so simple could work on its own but is far more effective when enhanced with features. So, Gothic cathedrals are always riddled with lofty columns, mighty piers, pointed arches, ribbed ceilings and, of course, towering stained glass windows. All of these touches obviously enhance the upward looking trend due to their arrow like composition and staggering height and length. However, less obvious to the untrained eye, they also are placed strategically to create rhythms that draw the eyes forward to the altar as well.

Knowing the theory is one thing, but experiencing it first hand is a whole thing all together. Though I clearly have a grasp of the philosophy, no classroom can really prepare you for encountering the real deal. I was literally flabbergasted as I stepped into the cathedral. I was aware of my moth hanging open, but I was fully incapable of shutting it!

First of all, the scale of Notre Dame was stupefying. The building looms over you in a vast expanse, though it does not smother you due to its loftiness and fragile qualities. I was also immediately hit by the desired effect of the designers, my eyes were immediately snapped forward and then upwards as I stood looking down the nave. Once I reveled in this aspect of the cathedral fully, I began making the rounds. I can honestly say that I have stopped and gazed intently into every side chapel of the Notre Dame Cathedral. I found them all interesting, and some almost gaudy as their décor rivaled that of a Barnum & Bailey’s tent. I also took time to observe the multiple carved panels and paintings that adorn the stone walls of the church.

And of course there is the stained glass windows which periodically speckle the grey walls of the monumental structure. I found these to be just as awesome as the church itself, with the rose windows being the best. Rose window is definitely an apt description too, as they look as though they would wither, crumble, and disintegrate like a rose peddle if one were to reach out and touch them despite their enormity. Created with vibrant colors and engaging patterns or shapes, stained glass must be one of the cooler things I have ever seen. When the light hits them just right they become enchanting to look at. Then, to think that these windows have been around for thousands of years, its almost too much to take in.

After I observed every inch of the beautiful building I took time to sit in the pews and whisper a quick thank you up to God. I’m sure the ancient architects who designed Notre Dame for this purpose, to bring its visitors before God in awe, smiled as they eavesdropped on my prayers in Heaven.

Paris, a Synopsis

Arriving at midnight with an empty stomach and having to switch trains at the border of Italy and France was never part of the plan, but who cares? I was in Paris, finally.

There I was standing in the Gare de Lyon train station, almost twelve hours after I was supposed to arrive. Now I just needed to get myself to the hotel somewhere in the heart of the city of lights. I had come to Paris for my spring break, and to meet my mother, sister, and some extended family for a nice vacation. The problem was that the train station in which I stood was nowhere near the hotel we would be staying in.

The nice thing about having come to Italy with no idea how to speak Italian is that I am now fully capable of operating in strange places where I can’t speak the language. I have never in my life taken a French lesson, or tried to learn any diction on my own. Yet, I was able to figure the metro system out in a few minutes and meet my mother on the corner of Rue Chevalier De St. George, where our hotel was located, a mere half hour after my arrival. She was relieved to see me since I had to cut through a, shall we say, “questionable” neighborhood in route to the hotel. She gave me a big hug and we went back to the inn where I had a late night snack of pasta and then collapsed into slumber.

The next day, Saturday, we went to the Palace of Versailles, where we paraded around the grounds in the same fashion as all the King Louis did before the revolution. In our time in Paris we managed to visit three of the famous palaces in and around the city. However, we visited the other two on different days, so Saturday afternoon found us gasping at the lofty heights of the Cathedral at Notre Dame.

Sunday, we visited the more “humble” hunting-lodge-palace where Napoleon took up his residence, Fountainebleu. I’m not sure I would assign the adjective humble to this place as I found it to be just as decadent as Versailles despite its rustic demeanor. In fact, I found the royal chapel there to be one of the more stunning places I have seen in Europe. It clearly did not belong in any residence one could deem humble. That night we hit the terrific Arc de Triomphe, which may be one of the coolest things I have ever seen. From its lofty heights you can see all over the city of lights and, if you go at night, can truly understand how Paris attained this grandiose title.

Somehow I managed to drag my exhausted frame out of bed on Monday

My best Napoleon Impersonation

morning and make it out to the favored residence of Napoleon’s wife Josephine, Malmasion. Again, this place is not awarded the same importance as Versailles, but is still stunning in and of itself. Though I must say that out of all three palaces I visited in Paris I found it to be the most livable since it wasn’t as huge or decadent as the previous two. I then got my wish and made my artist’s pilgrimage to the Louvre where I wish I could have spent my entire time in Paris. Simply put, the Louvre is numbingly beautiful. You go in and become so overwhelmed that you are immediately catapulted into a dreamy state of wonder. As a result, I am probably the only American to visit Paris and not visit the Eiffel tower. Perhaps this makes me a bad person, but I couldn’t be torn away from the Louvre. I was mesmerized by its splendor.

Worry not dear readers, I will expound upon my visits to these places in the following posts. This entry is merely a summary and short explanation of my time in Paris.

Death by Fruit

Drum beats stirred the air as I finished the last bite of my mystery meat panino and started heading to the battlefield with my comrades. It felt like we had stepped back into the Medieval era and were preparing for battle as formations of men and women dressed in traditional garb and beating large drums passed us by.

We were in the small village of Ivrea for their traditional Orange Throwing Festival. Most people have heard of the Spanish tomato fight called Tomatina, but not many have heard of Ivrea’s Carnevale. Essentially, both battles use fruit as weaponry. Though the Spaniards are wimps and use tomatoes instead of oranges.

So how did this tremendous spectacle get started? Well, it has its roots in the medieval age. During this time the Feudal lords of the area which is now Ivrea, out of the goodness of their humanitarian hearts, would give the peasant families a pot of beans twice a year. However, the commonersMe going face up decided that this gift was more disrespectful than helpful and began throwing the beans into the street. These beans later became the missile of choice for throwing at unsuspecting adversaries at festivals. Then, in the 1830s girls began lobbing oranges into passing carnival carriages to get the attention of the young men they thought were cute. Well, the boys decided, out of the immense depths of their maturity, that they should begin throwing the oranges back at the lasses. Eventually this gesture became less and less flirtatious until it evolved into the full on brawl of today. It also took up new meaning during this transformation as the event became a symbol of the Italian battle for liberty, where the cads in the carts represent the tyrannical guards and the people on foot symbolize the rebellious commoners.

The rules of this brawl are relatively simple. Basically, you join one of nine teams and go to that conglomerate’s territory (which is usually a piazza). Once there, you do your best to use oranges to destroy the horse drawn carriages filled with produce chucking, villainous Knights. But don’t attack the parades of the miller’s daughter that periodically pass through, they’re the good guys.

How you choose to engage in battle is up to you. Some people prefer to stand at a distance and snipe the foes while others, such as myself, prefer to go “face up” and get as close to the cart as possible; like real men. Most of the time this means you get caught in the crowd and wind up with your chest pressed against the carriage looking straight up (hence the term “face up”) in quasi hand-to-hand combat. While more dangerous, I found this method much more effective.

So, once we got to our team’s chosen territory, we honestly were not sure what to do. We had been told before arriving that we would not be allowed to partake since we had not paid the one hundred euro entry fee. So we stood there, excitedly waiting to watch the spectacle but not clenching any fruit. However, the Italians had other ideas and one gentleman came over to us, handed us some oranges, and said “Have a good time!” We needed no further enticing as we stripped off our valuable clothing items and joined the ranks of anxious hordes.

Soon, the first carriage rounded the bend and entered our combat zone. Everything went absolutely berserk! All the warriors began yelling and chanting and either hurled oranges or sprinted to the cart to go face up. The first wagon or two my comrades and I held back since we weren’t sure how welcome to join in we were. But after some encouragement by the Italians we had met, all bets were off and we began joining the surge to go face up when the oversized chariots arrived.

I’ve never been involved in anything like this before. I honestly felt like William Wallace attacking the armored knights in nothing but my t-shirt and jeans. In fact, after a few rounds of the fight, people began calling me names like “Thor,” “Rambo,” and “Braveheart” since the orange pulp and mud smeared all over my face, combined with my long hair, apparently made me look like a crazed barbarian.

This brutal skirmish lasts for three hours, with the action coming in about forty-five minute waves as cart after cart rolls into your combat zone. When there isn’t a carriage everyone heads to the tents to enjoy some vin brule’, which was almost as cool as the festival itself. Essentially, vin’ brule is red wine that is kept simmering over a fire with fresh fruit and spices stirred into it. All the warriors grab a cup between boughts and sing Italian drinking songs with their comrades in arms, though no one is actually drunk because then they couldn’t fight honorably. And honorably everyone did fight, you could tell this just by looking around. All the contestants had some sort of black eye, swollen nose, fat lip, or other injury by the end of the day. I myself wound up breaking my nose, though not terribly badly. My friends were all impressed that I managed to reset it perfectly straight myself, and did not even have to miss the next cart full of rapscallions.

By then end of the day, orange pulp and mud was so thick on the ground that you basically slid from place to place, or got stuck in slop half way up your shins. Everyone was exhausted but still going strong as we painfully slung oranges at our oppressors. My team, the Tuchini, won the day and we were all ecstatic about that. Everyone was in good cheer as we compared battle wounds and waited for our train. I took second in the best-battle-wounds category with my broken nose and black eye. I’ll take the lumps though, that festival was THE best carnival I have ever attended in my life. County fairs will never seem the same again when I return to the States. I’m going to end this blog now though, since my forearm and throwing arm are still incredibly sore three days later.