Monday, January 15

three days in paris

Well three days in total - we actually had two half days and two full days. It's amazing what you can pack in if you ignore the blisters!

Arriving in Charles de Gaulle airport at lunchtime on Tuesday, it took us two and half hours to make it to our hotel via the underground train RER, with time spent just getting out of the airport to the train station. It was a bit of a trek with all our bags and we were happy to reach Hotel Langlois in Saint Lazare north of the River Seine. It was a gem, with a real Parisian atmosphere and our suite had a bathroom the size of Glynn's flat.

Tuesday afternoon and evening - Sacre Coeur, Montmarte, Ile de la Cite, Notre Dame

My friend Jason and several others recommended the walk up to the Sacre Coeur and down through Montmarte, and as it wasn't far from our hotel we thought that would be a great place to start. We wandered up through St Lazare, past the famous Moulin Rouge and made the gradual ascent up to the Basilica.

The Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) is perched on the top of a hill surrounded by the village of Montmarte. In the 19th century Montmarte lay outside the city limits. Consequently, it became a cultural centre and with the local nuns making wine it became a popular drinking area, so it wasn't surprising to see an irish pub as we wondered up to the church gates. It's free to enter the basilica and with the fading daylight its darkening interior was lit by the red glow of thousands of candles. Glynn and I made a donation and lit one too - it was just magic.

The architecture in Paris is beautiful, and the views are stunning from the steps of the Sacre Coeur, the highest lookout point in the city. You can understand why the french government in World War Two declared Paris to be an open city, protecting it from bombardment. Although the armistice with Germany was controversial at the time, and led to the formation of the French Resistance, the declaration helped to preserve the city. The sun was going down as we got to the top and we were rewarded with perfect snaps of the Eiffel Tower at sunset.

The whole scene was quite romantic, and even though the metro service extended to Montmarte you couldn't help but want to walk everywhere and just soak it all up. Artists and performers set up each day outside the Sacre Coeur and around Montmarte, and there was a real wintery carnival feel as we descended back down through the village and back into the central city. It was a great way to start our tour of Paris.

We still had time left on the clock and decided to head in to see Notre Dame and find a french restaurant on the Ile de la Cite, the original roman settlement situated on a small island in the middle of the River Seine. Unfortunately, and most unromantically, I got a migraine and we had to excuse ourselves from the restaurant we had painstakingly chosen, so I could throw up in rubbish bins all the way home.

Wednesday - Musee du Louvre, La Defense, Arc de Triomphe, and Musee D'Orsay

The Paris Museum Pass was a great discovery - at 30 euro for two days it was well worth it. It lets you in to over 60 museums and monuments, and allowed us to avoid all the queues. At most places we visited on Wednesday the lines were over an hour long, and it would have seriously affected our enjoyment of the day and limited our time.

The Louvre is the largest museum in the world and is massive, and lucky for us is open late on Wednesdays. It gets 5 million visitors a year (over 7 million the year the Da Vinci Code was published), and I just couldn't help but feel everyone had decided to come on the same day as us, as we fought our way to see the Mona Lisa. Once a fortress, and home to various leaders, including Napolean the Third, it has four main wings and you could spend days in each.

The Louvre is a masterpiece in itself, and I found myself stopping constantly to look at door and window frames, and the multitude of statues that stand on the outside ledges of the building.

Highlights for me were the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, Michelangelo's Dying Slave and the apartments of Napoleon III.

We took a break from the Louvre in the middle of the day to meet a work colleague of Glynn's at La Defense, the commercial district of Paris, about 15mins from the Louvre on the metro. Completely modern in style the area is a total contrast to the older parts of the city. It is home to La Grande Arche a massive rectangular structure, and from its steps you can see right down the avenues to the Arc de Triomphe.

After our traditional french lunchtime meal of duck and red wine, we headed back towards the Louvre on the metro stopping briefly at the Arc de Triomphe. The Arc de Triomphe is a focus for patriotic events and the eternal flame dedicated to the memory of the unknown soldier is located at its base. It is also the central hub of a vehicular round-a-bout called Place Charles de Gaulle. Cars cannot be insured for the small ring road that surrounds the famous landmark, upon which 12 avenues converge, including the famous Avenue des Champs Elysees.

There is no pedestrian crossing so access to the monument is by a tunnel under the road. Courtesy of our museum pass we again avoided the lines and climbed straight to the top of the monument, which also houses a museum beneath the viewing platform. The views from the top are well worth the climb, and you can see the avenues fanning out like the spokes of a wheel.

See below photos I took from the monument, one of the Eiffel Tower and one looking back up at the Sacre Coeur on Montmarte Hill.

Since the Louvre was open till 9.45pm we headed to the Musee D'Orsay, which closed at 6pm. It was my first taste of more recent works and the impressionists' paintings blew us away. We saw original paintings by Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir, Manet, Millet, Degas, Monet and Cezanne to name a few. You are allowed to take photos without a flash, which surprised me.

Back to the Louvre for a quick bite to eat and a tour of the italian marble statues, french painters, the Mesopotamia treasures, and another peak at the Mona Lisa without the midday crowds. We spent quite a bit of time gazing at her until we reached the point we felt we'd seen her, and then headed to Napoleon's apartments which were spectacular, and part of the old Tuileries Palace connected to the Louvre.

We'd both reached saturation point by the end of the day, and I was literally hobbling, but I still came away completely inspired. I have started an acrylic on canvas for Glynn here at home, and what I would give to be able to continually access these paintings and galleries regularly. I hope Parisians realise how lucky they are to have all that on their doorstep.

Thursday - Saint Chapelle, Le Musee Picasso, Centre Pompidou, Catacombs, Eiffel Tower

It's amazing what a hot bath can do to fool your legs and feet into thinking they are okay to walk. Ready for the next day and fuelled with breakfast at the hotel of boiled egg, pastries and coffee we headed off for our second full day in Paris.

We had heard from Tim and Bob that Sainte Chapelle was worth a visit and so we headed back towards Ile de la Cite. Built in the gothic tradition, it was consecrated in 1248 and translates as The Holy Chapel. The stain-glass windows on all sides of the chapel depict scenes from the bible. There are better photos of the chapel on this wikipedia link . Pick a sunny day if you plan to go, because the stained glass effect will be at its best.

We spent the next part of the morning at the Picasso Museum. I especially enjoyed wandering through the back streets of Paris to get to it, and we stopped for coffee and a pastry on the way.

After exiting the museum we stopped briefly to buy some cheese and bread for lunch and then on to the nearby modern art collection at Centre Pompidou, a controversial building well known for its exterior. Its utility pipes are on the outside of the structure, and are colour coded. It was interesting but many of the works seemed trivial and light, and I really struggled with the room with pink flowing material and the giant red shoe. It only seemed to make it worse when I read the intentions of many of the artists. Maybe I'm yet to attain enlightenment, but I think I just prefer more traditional forms of art and I'm okay with that.

The catacombs were next on the list and something completely different from the constant stream of beauty since arriving in the city. Paris is riddled with over 300 km of catacombs under the surface of the city. Originally they were limestone quarries until the tunnels were converted into mass burial sites in the 18th century. Its very cold down there, but I found it quite a peaceful place. All the remains are stacked in decorated piles and there are several altars where services have been held to commemorate those buried there. If you aren't afraid of the dark, or enclosed spaces and don't get squeemish I would definitely recommend a visit.

We emerged from the tunnels about one kilometre along from the entrance to the catacombs and headed to Les Invalides, Napoleon Bonaparte's resting place. A quick stop for a pint and coffee on the way there to warm up meant we arrived in time to see the doorman closing up early for some reason at 5.30pm, so we headed to the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower was one of the last things on our list of places to visit. It's open until 11pm each night, which is good because it took 30mins in line just to get our tickets to the top. We paid slightly less (11 euro) to walk up the stairs to the second level rather than catch the lift.

It was bigger than I thought with two restaurants, a maze, shops and a cafe on the first level. We nievely wandered into a restaurant to ask if there was a table for two, but seemingly tables are reserved weeks in advance. Walking up the tower was great, not that we needed the exercise by that stage of the day, but every stair landing had interesting fact displays about historic events that had occurred on the tower and famous visitors. We had dinner at the a cafe and then stood in line on the second floor for 45mins to get the lifts up to the very top.

I can see why Paris is known as the city of lights - what a view. The Eiffel Tower itself contributes its own fair share by being lit up with thousands of twinkly lights all over on the hour. It also has a radiating beam of light that shines out from the top so its easily located at night from most areas in Paris. The direction and distance to both Wellington and Auckland are recorded at the top and although it can sway in the wind it felt safe out on the observation deck, but really cold.

A wonderful evening was complete with dinner at a restaurant near our hotel called La Brabant. Glynn enjoyed oysters and salad and I just went straight from soup to dessert - yum. I was absolutely shattered by the end of dinner, but you can't complain after a perfect day like that...and a lovely bottle of french pinot noir.

Friday - St Lazare

We only had a short time in the morning before needing to head to the airport, so we checked out of the hotel leaving our bags at the desk, and wandered around St Lazare. There had been no time for shopping during our stay, so we popped into Le Printemps, the largest department store in Paris, and about 5 mins walk from Hotel Langlois. We admired the pastries while we drank our coffee.

Sadly it was time to leave. We caught the airport bus this time rather than the train, which leaves from the National Opera House, another stunning landmark.

There were so many places we didn't get to visit, so I'm already looking forward to returning to the beautiful city of lights.

dublin city

While Glynn was at work for a couple of days I headed into Dublin on the DART (train) from Wicklow to explore the city. It takes about an hour on the train, including the stops, and offers great coastal views.

I bought a ticket for the Dublin City Tour Bus which is a hop on, hop off ride taking in over 20 historic sites. Dublin was much bigger than I thought. The River Liffey, which divides the city, was my point of reference and I was armed with a basic knowledge of landmarks on the 'nort' side and the 'sout' side, as Dubliners would say. At one time the Ha'penny Bridge was the only river crossing, but it is now the oldest of at least 14 bridges that connect both sides of the central city.

O'Connell Street is the main street of Dublin on the 'nort' side and a spire built in 2003 is its newest and most controversial feature, otherwise known as the 'stiletto in the ghetto' and various other names I wont mention.

The street's most famous landmark is certainly the General Post Office which was seized during the 1916 Easter Rising, by the Irish Citizens Army and the Irish Volunteers opposing the British occupation. Padraig Pearse one of the rebel leaders read out a Proclamation on the front steps of the building declaring Ireland an independent republic. In response English forces bombed the building to a shell and eventually the young republicans surrendered. You can still see bullet holes in the columns of the GPO today.

Other stops on the bus tour included Collins Barracks and Kilmainham Jail, both providing interesting overviews of the political and social history of Ireland.

The Jail particularly has a great museum, guided tour and a history presentation given in the prison chapel. Those who took part in the Easter Rising were held at Kilmainham Jail and many were executed there. James Connelly, one of the main instigators of the uprising, was too injured to stand - so was seated before the firing squad. To ease the minds of members of the firing squad a blank bullet was always mixed in with the ammunition provided so that every man in the squad could believe with a clear conscience that perhaps they weren't responsible for the death of the person before them.

The presentation explained how those seeking a republic and freedom from British rule in 1916, did not initially enjoy the support of the majority of irish people at the time. Public animosity was understandable because of the violence associated with the rebellions, and the number of civilians caught in the cross fire. Many sons of Ireland were also fighting alongside the British in the Great War at the time. However, following the execution of the 1916 leaders and the inhumane nature of Connelly's death, new support for the republican cause was generated within Ireland.

As portrayed in the famous movie, these events also led to the rise of two important figures in irish politics - Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera.

Michael Collins, a young republican corporal during the 1916 Easter Rising, rose to become a nationalist leader following the Irish War for Independence, and had the thankless task of making the journey to London to negotiate the Treaty with England in 1922. Many irish folk have great respect for Collins. His speech to the people of Ireland to support the peace agreement he had negotiated (despite the fact Northern Ireland would remain in British hands as part of the deal) is very reasoned. He must have had courage to stand up in such an environment and argue for peace with Britain, especially when he knew the sort of price he could pay for doing so.

"When you have sweated, toiled, had mad dreams, hopeless nightmares, you find yourself in London's streets, cold and dank in the night air. Think - what have I got for Ireland? Something which she has wanted these past seven hundred years. Will anyone be satisfied at the bargain? Will anyone? I tell you this; early this morning I signed my death warrant. I thought at the time how odd, how ridiculous — a bullet may just as well have done the job five years ago"

Quote from Michael Collins the day the treaty was signed

His one time republican friend and campaigner, Eamon de Valera, refused to support the Treaty despite the majority of Irish people voting in favour of it and an end to violence. De Valera continued to campaign for a full republic and led further rebellions against the new Irish Free State Army now led by Collins from the Barracks at Arbour Hill. Churchill threatened to re-occupy Ireland if Collins was unable to silence the remaining rebels supported by de Valera. Under pressure Collins was forced to attack some of his former republican collegues, several of whom were executed at Kilmainham by the Irish Free State Army. That same year Michael Collins' convoy was ambushed and Collins was the only one in the party killed. The difficult task of trying to build an independent Irish state was left to de Valera and others. De Valera continued to play a lead role in Irish politics and was President for many years. At eighty five years of age, he was quoted as saying:

"It's my considered opinion that in the fullness of time, history will record the greatness of Collins and it will be recorded at my expense".

Out of all the places I visited, the presentation at the Jail, gave the best description of the complex social scene and competing political views at the time. The famous irish poet W B Yeats also captured the complex mood of the people after the executions in his famous poem Easter, 1916

An excerpt from Easter, 1916

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse --
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

-- William Butler Yeats

On the 'sout' side of the River Liffey Trinity College dominates the landscape and that university feel spreads to the Temple Bar area which is filled with pubs and restaurants and is a well known haunt of students. The university was founded by Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1592 and holds the Book of Kells one of the oldest and most beautiful books in the world. Caroline and I visited the famous medieval book, which is written in Latin and divided into four books, one for each gospel.

Trinity was also where Glynn studied and so I got a guided tour through the campus, to see the maths department, the dining hall, and the notorious campenile which stands in the main square - a student folk tale has it that if you stand underneath when its bell tolls you fail your exams.

A trip to the Guinness Factory was saved till last when Glynn was free from work. Well over the worst of the glandular fever, Foster was keen to claim his free Guinness at the top of the Gravity Bar.

As you enter the tourist attraction you get a souvenir paperweight with a detachable ring on it. On the self guided tour you can have a small sample of the brew and see how its made. You can watch old black and white film footage of the barrel makers putting a barrel together, and every 80mins someone from the tour gets to launch an actual brew that carries their name for the two week production process. Finally at the top of factory is the Gravity Bar where you use your paperweight and ring to claim a free pint of guinness. It's also a chance to see Dublin from one of the highest vantage points in the city.

I have now discovered from meeting the Foster family, Guinness has played an important role in the lives of many of Glynn's relatives. His great grandfather was responsible for making sure the barrels of guinness came down the Liffey on barges from the factory and were loaded onto the ships for export. His great uncles drove the custom-built train around the factory, his uncle has just retired from being a brewer there, and his father played rugby for the guinness rugby team. Glynn continues in the footsteps of other family members by mainly just drinking the stuff. But what a great brew it is!