Guggenheim Bilbao: worth my time

Gugghenheim Bilbao

Call me unsophisticated, but I’ve never managed to enjoy a modern art museum. Granted, I’ve been in a grand total of three, maybe four, in my life. But that was completely sufficient. However, the modern/contemporary art of Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao held my interest on Friday, and I would even go back. Perhaps I’ve reformed. Or perhaps the Guggenheim Bilbao was simply an stunningly constructed and well-curated modern art museum. Who knows. Regardless, it was excellent and the first modern art museum I’d wholeheartedly recommend!

Side note: Dad brought to my attention that, coincidentally, NPR did a piece/article on Frank Gehry this pas Thursday. It mentioned something that my audioguide also told me: Gehry is more artist than architect in his natural state, his career as the latter possible in large part due to the blessing of living in an age of computer modeling that can turn his attractive but at first structurally improbable designs into realities. Definitely believable.

My pictures are all at the wrong angle to show it, but the outside of the Guggenheim is shaped like a massive boat covered with steel plates that shimmer like fish scales.

On the entrance side of the museum near the city stands a permanent installation called Puppy, which is an enormous dog shape covered in a patchwork of blooming flowers. Unique and adorable.

The side of the museum facing the estuary is embraced by a shallow pool, which makes the river seem closer. Several pieces have their homes on little islands in the pool, one of which is a shining tree of metal spheres, apparently made by the artist whose work includes the so-called “Bean” in Chicago.


The inside of the museum has more curves and unexpected faces and angles as the outside, especially the atrium area, with its insane mixture of glass, steel, and rock twisting up toward a skylight above.

atrium side

Besides being simply visually stimulating to walk through, the Guggenheim felt intuitive. Curving walkways, sloping ramps, and winding galleries lead me through every single space; I don’t think I ever left a gallery the same way I entered. It was refreshing not to have to wonder if I’d missed something, as I often do in art museums. I just followed the natural flow of the building and saw everything.


It appeared to me that a select few galleries of the Guggenheim hold permanent collections, while the vast majority of the space is dedicated to extensive impermanent exhibitions. The ones there during my visit were Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, and Shahzia Sikander’s Parallax.

I thoroughly enjoyed a number of Jeff Koons’ whimsical painted and polished steel sculptures shaped like massive balloon creatures and blow-up pool toys, as well as his baffling sets of basketballs suspended underneath the water in small aquarium tanks. Parallax was a strange piece of audio-visual art made up of a wide-screen presentation of endlessly-shifting water-color shapes accompanied by loud music that to my ignorant ear sounded “Middle Eastern” and eery. It played for ages, and I never saw a repeated sequence; impressive and somehow simultaneously disturbing and mesmerizing. I sped through the Basquiat art, as its scribbled words and distorted sketches reminded me of poorly done graffiti or the naïve attempts of a five-year-old to scrawl his world on crumpled paper with a crayon.

kids' art Bilbao

Speaking of children, there was a lovely little corner gallery apparently reserved for art from classes of local school children, which even included a project where they corresponded from kids who live near the Guggenheim in New York.

Bilbao Gugghenheim bathroom tile

Bonus: even the bathrooms were beautiful!


Paris – day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet

paris - day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet My final day in Paris essentially consisted of one, long walk. It began at the Pont Neuf, at the end of Rick Steves’ Historic Paris Walk audio tour. There, I crossed the Seine river and momentarily wondered how one would pronounce “Pont Neuf,” before inventing my own way of saying it in my mind. I have the unfortunate habit of contriving my own pronunciations for unfamiliar words I encounter. My pronunciations often include extra consonants, spare vowels, and sometimes a bonus syllable or two. This tendency is by no means a new development; I’ve been doing it ever since I could read. (Just ask my mother.) Indeed, I suspect it may be a carry-over from learning to read – one that most people grow out of, but I never did. And while my mispronunciations often live and die in my own head without every being verbalized – since I’m usually aware of their incorrectness – on occasion, there’s no time to learn the correct pronunciation before I have to call the object or person or place in question by its proper name, aloud. All that to say, to me Caddie Woodlawn‘s first name will always be said Kuh-nay-dee, and the Pont Neuf is still Pon-Noo-ee. Proof can be heard in my video at the bottom of this - day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet Playing the audio tour backwards, I wandered through a perfect, little square planted with young trees surrounded by swept and sandy dirt. As it was just after 9:00am, the few people about were business men in suits, presumably belonging to the supreme court of France, located just beyond the quiet plaza. Down the block and around the corner from the pretty but pointless park, I found the entrance to the Sainte Chapelle, a chapel famed for its stained glass and originally constructed to house what some – to my mind – rather gullible souls believed was Jesus’ crown of thorns. Next door, I noted the words of that (in)famous French phrase, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” inscribed above the pillars of the oddly diminutive front entrance to supreme courthouse; I think it was smaller than Wilmington’s courthouse.

In accordance with my plot to avoid lengthy lines, I joined the 10 or so other people waiting outside the Sainte Chapelle entrance a few minutes before it opened at 9:30, congratulating myself on my punctuality and excellent planning for the umpteenth time. Inside, I strode the length of the dark foyer with its gilded trim and geometric ceiling paint, and then spent a good 10 whole minutes staring up at the impossibly detailed and illogically tiny, soaring stained glass windows depicting major scenes from the entirety of the Bible. And that was enough majestic, colored glass for me. I left for the next church.

The narrow sanctuary of the Sainte Chapelle had been gradually filling with people during the few minutes I spent inside it, but in comparison  the Notre Dame was an absolute zoo. Though I didn’t wait more than three minutes to step inside, I was met by the low roar of too many tourists speaking in unnecessarily loud whispers. School groups and tour groups jostled around the dark, worn columns and paused in inconvenient locations, blocking the essentially one-way path through the cathedral as they snapped photos of whatever their flag-waving guide was pointing out to them via her mic and their headphones. I took an immediate dislike to the Notre Dame, I have to admit. Its gray stone and high windows made for a deep, gloomy atmosphere. Every edge of every stone was darkened with age and hundreds of years of constant use and coupled with the irreverent noise produced by the crowds, this left the church feeling more like a shadowy cavern than the well-tended place of worship I think it’s supposed to - day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet

I made a circuit of the outer aisle, my brow frozen in a half-frown of annoyance, ready to end my visit as quickly as possible. Then, above the muted din of the tourists, the organ began to play, which I thought rather odd but very proper in that lofty, dim church. To my further surprise a youth choir began singing along with the organ. They seemed to be practicing for some future event because they frequently paused to switch tunes or adjust their sound. But their voices blended with the tones of the organ in an ethereal melody that drifted up the stoney toward the windows high above. It was incredibly beautiful. So, I found a seat in the middle of the nave and basked in the splendor of their voices for half an hour or so, as the crowds ebbed and flowed and camera shutters clicked around me. paris - day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet

Back outside I waited in line to climb to the top of the Notre Dame. The view was no better or worse than the one I’d had from the Eiffel Tower, but I was too distracted listening to a group of teenagers code-switching between Spanish and Catalan to pay much attention or to attempt to identify landmarks. But while the aerial view outside of the Notre Dame didn’t impress, the view from the side of the church certainly did. The circular patterns in the stone of the side of the cathedral facing the river and the gorgeous double-blossom cherry trees blooming beside it were captivating.

paris - day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet

On my way to the most important stop of the day, the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, I passed through a park, which was home to the oldest tree in Paris. The poor, twisted thing is covered in ivy to disguise its sad paucity of branches, trunk half-filled with cement, and wooden supports. It’s been bending over that same public space by the Seine since 1602, and it sure looks tired of observing stupid human antics playing out through history.

paris - day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet

Next to a surprisingly busy road along the stone-lined embankment of the Seine River and beyond hedge-like, rather haphazard plantings of shrubs and flowers is a wide section of sidewalk and Shakespeare and Company. When I finally rounded the corner onto the short street it shares with a cafe or two, there was a young woman singing along to the strumming of her guitar under the pale pink blossoms of young cherry trees and amidst the books that spilled out onto the sidewalk from the store. As if that wasn’t picturesque enough, the inside of the English-language bookstore was a dream: a quirky wonderland of narrow wooden staircases, reading rooms with smudged windows and battered but inviting furniture, ancient typewriters and scrap-paper notes on scratched desks, crooked bookshelves loaded down with books, books, so many books! – new books declaring their novelty in their colorful jackets and dusty old books whose deep-toned primary color bindings promised familiarity and trustworthiness. I found an old friend, The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas, and lounged on a cushioned bench in one of the upstairs reading rooms, soaking in the delicious peacefulness of being surrounded by well-loved, English books in the middle of France. Half an hour and a chapter or so later, I reluctantly tore myself away and ventured back out into the sunlight and bustle of the city to continue my exploring for the day. I could have stayed forever.

Instead I crossed back over to the Notre Dame island and moseyed down the broad walkway beside the Seine until I came to its pointy, rocky end. Then I returned to the mainland and started the trek to the Musée de l’Orangerie at the far end of the Tuileries Gardens, about a mile and a half away. The museum was the only on left on my list of potential museums to visit, and, even though my mother and the internet had informed me that it was rather Monet-centric, I figured I should pop in briefly. Plus, I had accomplished everything else.

Alas, after traveling the length of the Louvre and the gardens beyond and waiting a few minutes in a short line outside the Orangerie, I was informed that I would have to pay a €6 entry fee if I wished to tour the museum. Having absolutely no intention of relinquishing six croissants’ worth of Euros to view impressionist paintings for which I had no interest whatsoever, I turned heel and waltzed right back out the glass doors and into the dusty park again.

Having failed to find anything to eat on the hike from the Notre Dame area to the Orangerie, I crossed the river again and headed in the direction of the Orsay, hoping to come across the bakery where I’d purchased the best baguette of my life. Though I didn’t find that same bakery, I did at long last find another, where I bought an éclair au chocolat and what I thought was a roll flavored with sundried tomatoes. The latter, it turned out, was indeed a delightfully chewy roll but was stuffed with a canned tuna and tomato mixture. While not half as disgusting as it sounds, it certainly was unique. Of course, the éclair was splendid: the outer pastry was soft and cream-puff-like and the dense chocolate cream inside was cool and sweet. I feasted on my spoils in a shady, pie-piece of a park right in front of the metro entrance, which I then took advantage of in order to return to – big shock! – the Louvre. I could’ve walked, but my feet were tired, and I had a spare metro ticket to use.

paris - day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet

Back at my favorite museum,  I re-visited the Renaissance art of various countries, wandered through some Egyptian artifacts, and found a gallery of wooden sculptures, which were colorful and different than anything I’d seen elsewhere in the Louvre. By the time I left around closing time, I felt certain that I had seen most of every wing of the museum and had perused at my leisure the art that really fascinated me. I’ve never been more content with my time spent in one museum.

My final adventure in Paris was a baguette and croissant supper in the Luxembourg Gardens. And it was perfect. I chose one of the clusters of pale green chairs scattered throughout the park, propped my feet up, and brushed the croissant flakes off my lap in between travel journaling and tearing bites off of the miniature baguette. After nearly an hour of that and people-watching, I made a circuit of the gardens, observing the massive playgrounds, multiple tennis and basketball courts, acres of shaded grass and tulip beds, and, of course, the requisite fountains. Dusk was beginning to fall as I turned my aching feet towards the metro station, just before the 7:30 closing time, and returned to the apartment for the last time.

Paris treated me well.

Day 1/2
Day 1
Day 2

Paris – day 2: Versailles, Rodin, Arches

Paris, day 2: VersaillesClearly, I failed to be brief with my last post. So, no more impossible promises. This is going to be another long one, guys. I certainly won’t be offended if you just ignore all the text and simply flip through the pictures. But, by golly, I enjoyed writing it, just like the last one. Thanks for being the receiving end of my creative outlet.

On the menu for today: the palace and gardens of Versailles, the Rodin Museum, downtown Paris, and the Arc de Triomphe.3.5 days in Paris: day 2

I started my day with cornflakes.

“Everything will be closed on Sunday,” my host had said. “Nah, the museums are open,” I countered. However, I did believe that all other establishments would indeed be shuttered; Europe takes their days of rest seriously. But they take their ready access to fresh bread even more seriously than that, apparently. As soon as I rounded the corner of the apartment block, I regretted my confidence and the banana and cereal already filling my stomach. The corner bakery was open; I could have eaten a croissant instead.

But there was no time to mourn. Daylight savings time had caught me by surprise, and I was already an hour behind schedule. I could just picture the other Versailles visitors already forming lines around the entire palace as they awaited its opening and I waited for my train to the countryside. A throng of fellow tourists piled onto the train with me, and 40 minutes of travel journaling, while the Polish girl next to me on the bright vinyl bench stared over my shoulder between chatting with her mother across from me, brought me and everyone else to the end of the terminus of the train line and the “Versailles Château” platform. Paris, day 2: Versailles

For the umpteenth time of the short duration of my Paris trip, I was thankful for my naturally brisk gait. I grinned to myself as sped past nearly everyone from the train, but when I rounded the corner of a building onto a tree-lined path leading up to the chateau on the low rise ahead, my steps faltered at the sight of the mass of humanity milling around inside the gates of the palace. Stupid daylight savings time.


But, as usual, I needn’t have been concerned. The mass of humanity inside the golden gates wasn’t half as massive as I had suspected, and the metal detector line moved efficiently. Inside, however, was a different story. It’s a one-way street inside the palace; you just go with the flow from room to room – or in my case, shuffle along in all-too-narrow corridors, being constantly elbowed and jostled by other tourists desperate to keep up with the guides of their groups. Lacking a deep interest in French history, I stayed in the main stream of people and skipped the multiple, first-floor rooms of dioramas and historical information entirely and inched up the stairs to the suits of rooms of both the king and queen. The crowds thinned out just enough for me to whip through the overwhelmingly luxurious and gilded rooms with their painted ceilings and strangely small furniture, listening to another Rick Steves audio guide all the while. I would attempt to provide you with a more complete description of the chateau of Versailles, but it’s all a blur of crown molding, gold, and fleur de lis. I didn’t like it much. Surrounded by such excess, I find it nearly impossible to picture any real person living in quarters so absurdly sumptuous. And I’m just not a fan of battle scenes painted on ceilings. I’m sure I saw only a tiny fraction of the palace, but when Rick Steves directed me to exit to the gardens shortly after I gawked briefly at the smaller-than-I’d-imagined hall of mirrors, I readily followed his instructions.Paris, day 2: Versailles

I stumbled into the sunlight. What a relief! Space! Air! And, holy cow, the gardens. English needs a separate word to describe the arrow-straight lines of trees, perfectly symmetrical plantings, immaculately trimmed shrubs, and flawless organization of a French “garden;” the word doesn’t do it justice. Nature palace? That’s the best I can come up with.Paris, day 2: Versailles

In any case, the gardens spread out before me, straight back from the palace. My audio tour sent me down the wide boulevard – lined with massive marble urns and statues, of course – around several enormous fountain pools, past numerous alleys of trees and shrubs on either side, and up to the top of the broad, man-made canal. Besides the inevitable tourists, the gardens were alive with people who must’ve been locals, walking their dogs, biking with their kids, jogging, chatting on benches, boating, and generally enjoying the sunshine as if they were just in a giant park. Maybe that’s what the palace grounds are considered to be by the people who live nearby. Sounds fantastic to me!Paris, day 2: Versailles

I hurried on, growing ever more concerned that I would return to Paris too late to fully explore the Musée Rodin, which closed particularly early at 4:45. I couldn’t have walked even a quarter of the length of the gardens, but it took me at least 20 minutes to arrive at the Trianon Palace. But what a lovely, “little” country residence! I could much better picture the royalty of France spending their summer days sprawled across the bright-colored, velvet chairs of the airy, white rooms while their servants scurried to and fro over the squeaky, wooden floors, carrying trays of fruit sorbets and cream puffs, or perhaps strolling through the apple orchards and maze-like rose and tulip gardens just beyond the colonnade.

I didn’t venture too much further beyond the Trianon Palace, just far enough to peek into a few smaller buildings and to get a sense for the spring-time beauty that was just starting to emerge around every bend of the meandering dirt and gravel paths of the gardens. Then I turned back and made for the train station with as much haste as possible, without actually breaking into a run. Happily, a train was waiting for me, and  2:30, I was paused outside the Musée Rodin, taking a brief moment to scarf down some buttery crackers, the only thing I could find to purchase at the solitary convenience store open in the area around the museum.Paris - day 2: Rodin

The Rodin was excellent. A reasonably-sized, two-story house hosts the majority of the sculptures – all by Rodin. Outside are – wait for it – beautifully groomed gardens, which are scattered with bronzes of some of the more famous pieces, the only one of which you’re likely to have heard of being “The Thinker.”


Back inside. I love sculptures. During our family trip to Italy in 2012, I discovered my favorite Italian sculptor, Bernini, whose dynamic works captured my fascination in the Borghese Museum in Rome. While both Bernini and Rodin seem to have loved to sculpt freezes of figures right in the midst of movement, Rodin wins: his subjects’ limbs fly in all directions; muscles ripple; hair bounces. It’s so vibrant and alive! And the neatest aspect of the museum was being able to see his sculptures progress from rough, miniature models plasters to detailed terracotta carvings to life-sized bronzes. Pieces from every step of the process are displayed, and on some of them, you can still pick out the marks made by Rodin’s tools as he worked. It was fascinating! A large number of the pieces were featured on the audio guide I rented, but all of the descriptive title placards were translated to English – in glorious contrast with ever other museum or location I visited in Paris – so even without the audio guide’s explanation, you could have an idea of the significance of every carving. Paris - day 2: Rodin

Once I had made two circuits of the museum, I mosey through the gardens and admired the bronzes. The door, depicting scenes from Dante’s Inferno, for which “The Thinker” was originally created, was particularly impressive. Its tormented figures writhed almost in unison, like waves of suffering sweeping across and up the face of the door panels. Though I did make certain that I found and inspected each statue in the garden, I spent the majority of my time sitting on a bench overlooking a circular pool and several bronzes, brushing crumbs out of the pages of my notebook as I travel journaled and munched my way through the rest of my packet of crackers.

Thanks to that unanticipated time change, it wasn’t even close to getting dusky when I left the museum around 4:30, licking my lips parched by cracker salt. So, without even bothering to consult my metro map, I got on the ever-useful yellow line 1 and rode it to its terminus to visit the Arc de Triomphe. The list of stops along the line posted just below the ceiling of the train stated “Grand Arche” in white letters on brown highlighting, which is the way that sightseeing attractions are denoted – same for the Louvre, the Rodin, the Eiffel Tower, et cetera.Paris - day 2: Arches

But when I exited the metro and stepped above ground, I surrounded by skyscrapers. If that wasn’t unexpected enough, one of the glassy, modern buildings was shaped rather like the Arc de Triomphe – only it was huge, and, well, and office building of some kind. Weird. Besides the 20th- or 21st-centuryfied Arc replica, to my left was a giant, bronze thumb sticking up out of the ground and to my right appeared to be a massive indoor shopping mall. I was confused.Paris - day 2: Arches

Over the following two and a half hours, as I explored the Grande Arche de la Défense and its surroundings, my confusion steadily resolved itself. Far in the distance, down a long boulevard of pedestrian-only pavement dotted with little, urban parks between the towering buildings and then down a busy road – the Avenue des Champs-Elysees – was the Arc de Triomphe. The Grande Arche was a reflection of the older monument. Cool.Paris - day 2: Arches

Behind the Grande Arche I discovered a pier-like structure, that stretched out into the city, above an orderly, Secret Garden-like cemetery. People promenaded up and down the wood planks of the walkway, gazing out into the apartment buildings and countryside beyond. After traversing the length of the pier and climbing both sets of white stone steps of the Grande Arche, I returned to the main square out in front of it, which was – for a Sunday, at least – positively bustling with the activity of Parisians enjoying their evening by roller-blading, drifting here and there arm-in-arm, licking ice cream cones, and looking on as a group of people constructed an art installation that appeared to be taking the form of sparkly camping tents.

Paris - day 2: Arches

I ventured inside the mall, which was just as vast and crowded as I had suspected. Sunday must be shopping day in Paris. I found a bakery stand with a lengthy line, and purchased a beignet au chocolat – like a chocolate-filled donut, only better – which I enjoyed as I sat on the edge of a planter in an atrium, taking advantage of the free wifi, since the internet hadn’t been working at the apartment for 36 hours. Then I headed to the real Arc de Triomphe, via a long walk to the end of the pedestrian avenue between the skyscrapers and then via metro.

Since I’d already had my dessert, I felt obligated to stop at another bakery for some real food: a baguette, duh. Alas, this one’s crust was overdone and far too thick and crunchy, so I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the one from the previous day. Nevertheless, I believe I appreciated the bread more than the Arc de Triomphe. That monument is situated in the middle of a traffic circle in a busy intersection. Sure, the ornate reliefs carved on its faces are impressive, but otherwise, I didn’t find it too fascinating. So, I circled one, twice, and left. A brief jaunt down the famed and over-peopled Avenue des Champs-Elysees brought me to a metro stop. And home I went, exceedingly pleased with my accidental visit to the unique, non-touristy, and – shall I say? – authentically Parisian Grande Arche. I felt like I’d discovered the real Paris, where actual Parisians go to relax and escape the tourists. And, accurate or not, that was a happy feeling.


Last post in this series: Paris – day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet, the end.

3.5 days in Paris: day 1/2

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Call me crazy, but I saw Paris in three and a half days. And I mean, I saw Paris. At the end of my brief sojourn in that city of picturesque metro entrances and baguette-toting Frenchmen, I could find no reason to be discontent with what I had seen, no tourist attraction I wished I had made the time to visit. And for my first, official trip completely on my own, I couldn’t have chosen a better city to explore. Well, maybe I could have, but I’ll never know now, will I?

My first day in Paris was a half day. Really, it was a fourth of a day, but let’s not be nit-picky now, shall we? I left the closing ceremony – though “ceremony” is a strong word for the pretzel-eating, champagne-drinking, and group picture-taking that occurred after a smattering of two-minute appreciation speeches – of my language course on Friday, March 28th and headed directly to the train station in Freiburg, from which I caught the first of a series of trains at 12:57. One packed lunch, a few pieces of chocolate, multiple hours of travel journaling, and some beautiful countryside later, I arrived at the Gare de l’Est train station in Paris at 4:35. Yes, the times were really that exact.

I found the entrance to the metro station and proceeded to hold up the rush-hour line while I fiddled with the metro ticket vending machine until it produced the set of 10 tickets that I wanted. Following the directions provided my Airbnb host, I rode the metro about 25 minutes to a stop in the north of Paris and walked the block or so to the apartment where I would be staying. In what I believe must’ve been proper apartment fashion, I rang the bell that corresponded to the apartment number and was buzzed inside the outer door. My host met me in the entryway, showed me the apartment, handed over the keys, and provided me with a faded metro map and directions to the Louvre. By 5:45pm, relieved of my overstuffed backpack, I was was letting myself out of the apartment building and retracing my steps to the metro station to take advantage of the Louvre’s Friday night late hours. But first I stopped at a bakery I’d spied on the corner just up from the apartment. There I gestured, nodded, and smiled my way to acquiring my supper: a pain au chocolat. The pastry’s buttery flakes drifted down onto the rather-too-bold-for-Paris stripes of my purse as I wended my way through the metro station, hoping I didn’t have bits of bread in my scarf or chocolate on my mouth.

The “Palais Royal – Musée du Louvre” stop on the yellow line 1 of the metro connected directly to a small but grand underground shopping and dining complex, the Carrousel du Louvre. A few expensive boutiques, a Starbucks, and other pricy, touristy distractions lined the high-ceilinged breezeway and inner atrium, which, oddly enough, included a diminutive and inverted version of one of the ubiquitous, glass Louvre pyramids hanging from the rooftop. I could have entered the Louvre, directly across from the Apple store, but instead I chose to return the way I’d come to find an exit to street level in order to take some pictures of the more recognizable outside of the museum before the sun disappeared entirely, given that I was unsure if I would come back to the Louvre in the daylight before I left Paris (spoiler: I did, twice).

Above ground I snapped the usual photos and selfies. The Louvre is one of the few places on earth where it is entirely socially acceptable to shamelessly turn the camera on yourself. All the other tourists are doing just that, but I still felt as silly as ever – not that you would suspect that, given the number of selfies I take when I travel. But at least I didn’t have an iPhone extended on stick, something I observed far too often.

The sun had mostly hidden itself behind the trees of the gardens beyond the Louvre as I found my way back indoors and to the central space beneath the bizarre pyramid. I snagged an English map from the buffet of pamphlets in various languages at the information desk and stood in line briefly at one of the ticket counters. I had read online that college-aged residents of the EU received free admission to the Louvre and numerous other cultural and historical sites in Paris. Sure enough, the same information was printed, albeit in minuscule font, on a single sign next to the counter, and I referred to it as I slid my Uni Freiburg student ID and a copy of the main page of my passport towards the lady behind the glass of the ticket booth. Rather than handing me a ticket or smashing my hopes, she simply pointed out one of the entrances and instructed me to show my documents to the ticket collector, thereby establishing my protocol for visits to all the other sites in Paris: skip the ticket lines and go straight to the entrance with passport and ID in hand.

So, I stepped away from the ticket lady and into the center of the open space below the pyramid and retrieved my iPod from my trusty bag. With my own lovely headphones – in contrast with the dubiously ragged ones of a rented museum audio guide – clipped on my freakishly small ears and my maps in hand, I began to listen to Rick Steve’s free Louvre audio tour. It was nearing 7:00, and the museum closed at 9:45, so I had my art-gazing cut out for me. Luckily, I’m quite adept at breezing through museums, so I was confident that time would not be an issue, especially since the audio guide claimed to highlight only the most crucial of sculptures and paintings. With the introduction out of the way, I took the stairs up to one of the entrances – there are three or four wings, each with its own stairway – and after gleefully gaining my free entrance, I dove into the Greek and Roman sculpture galleries. From there Rick Steves lead me from room to room, giving short descriptions of key pieces along the way, and, unfortunately, often leaving me utterly baffled, circling a gallery trying to follow his terrible directions to the next stop on the tour.

The audio guide ended with some stops in the Grand Gallery of Renaissance art, one of which was the Mona Lisa, of course. Despite Rick Steve’s assurance that I would find simply by following the noise of the crowd, the room in which it was housed was no more full of people than the rest of the museum. The picture-taking viewers were three deep at most, and I easily skirted them and found a space at the bar in front of the painting to take my own selfies. I’ve never much liked Da Vinci’s paintings, but, as ever, it was neat to behold something so famous in person.

Finished with the audio guide and still with an hour left before closing time, I let myself wander. I perused the entire length of the Grand Gallery and all its adjoining rooms; I listened to a French university student explain the meaning behind an obscure painting in hesitant but accurate English; I re-discovered the sculpture galleries and contemplated some of the marble statues I had missed in my Rick Steves-induced haste. Somehow I ended up in a practically deserted, bottom floor gallery of unique Muslim and Middle Eastern art and artifacts, where I browsed ancient pottery, glassware, oriental rugs, weapons, and manuscripts. All in all, it was a peaceful and happy last hour of exploring, punctuated by my quick strides between galleries and around large tour groups. I was thankful for my independence.

Just after 9:45 I was back on the metro in the direction of the apartment. At the station where I had to change trains, I ended up walking in several frustrating circles, unable to find my way to the correct side of the tracks. In the end I took an incredibly indirect route home, where I finally arrived around 10:30. My host left, not long after I arrived, to start the weekend with a gathering with friends. And I rolled into bed, after reviewing my schedule for the next day and updating social media, of course. (More on how I planned out my trip in a later post.)

Okay, don’t leave yet. Look below this paragraph. See that Youtube video? That’s not an ad. Nope. That’s actually a compilation of videos I took during that first half day in Paris. I’ve decided that I really like video as a medium for sharing experiences; it provides a much better feel for a place. I think you can get a sense of how alive and real Paris – or anywhere – is with a video, whereas still photographs, as wonderful as they are, present merely a frozen image, which can leave a place looking a bit dry and two-dimensional (literally) at times. Anyway, I’ve been taking a lot of videos. There are also videos at the bottom of my posts about my Schwarzwald outing and my hike outside of Freiburg. So, go back and have another look at those posts if you wish. Videos like this will most likely appear at the bottom of all of my travel posts from now on.


Next in this series: Paris – day 1: Orsay, Catacombs, Louvre, Eiffel Tower, delicious food.

Roman fruit and vegetable market + the end

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Okay, guys, this is the last of our Europe 2012 trip. It sure was fantastic! What better way to spend a week in Rome than to do it celebrating Grandma and Grandpa L’s 50th wedding anniversary! Congratulations, you two!

[Please note: the following accounts are a bit out of chronological order. Deal with it.]

During our last two days in Rome I did some serious clothes shopping. July and February are huge sale months in Rome, apparently. Happily for me, the main street just a block and a piazza away from our apartment overflowed with name-brand shops, most of with which I was unfamiliar, all with “SALDI! SALDI!” plastered across their display windows full of bright summer clothing. Even Gap, the only name I recognized, offered massive sales; they had a racks of clothing for €4 – I’ve never seen prices that low in Gap in the US! Even better than the prices was the clothing itself! While American stores seem to sell clothing tailored to fit inanimate mannequins or shapeless super models, the stores in Rome abounded with clothing that fit! And was comfortable! It was a glorious miracle!

Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad, Aunt Marylu, and I also visited Campo di Fiori, a fresh food market within walking or busing distance from our apartment. Fruit and vegetable markets are one of my favorite parts of international travel. Even though farmers’ markets are slowly popping up here and there at home, nothing beats the well-established tradition of a foreign food market for gorgeous produce flawlessly displayed in beautiful mounds of every imaginable color. I can wander them contentedly  for hours.

Our final museum of the trip wasn’t really a museum at all, at least not in the way that the other ones were with their troves of ancient art treasures. This one displayed some of the hundreds of inventions of Leonardo Da Vinci in working form. Visitors were allowed to touch and manipulate many pieces, most of which were mechanisms for changing one type of motion, say vertical, to another type of motion, perhaps horizontal. Also included were some diving and scuba diving suits. These were all items he never actually made, mind you, so nothing I touched had ever been formed by the hands of Da Vinci himself. Besides the kinesthetic pieces, the museum included a fascinating video display explaining the meaning behind Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man – how its proportions related to the golden ratio and so on. Unlike the short film about Da Vinci’s life, the display was soundless with English subtitles. I didn’t bother with the film’s all-Italian-and-cheesy-acting-and-no-subtitles approach.

The morning of our departure – the morning after a delightful last supper of crispy, thin-crust Italian pizza – our family and the grandparents actually did not have to wake up excessively early, especially compared to everyone else who rose at 3:30am for their 7am flights. Still, at Dad’s insistence we arrived at the airport three hours before our 11:45 flight, and as much as I dislike saying it, particularly when it comes to airport timing, it’s a good thing we did. Dad was right. The line just to enter the ticketing area took forever. Check-in wasn’t too bad, but security was very long. By the time we snagged a speedy breakfast and found our gate, our flight had begun boarding. Perfect timing! And we were only 45 minutes delayed leaving. Excellent end to an excellent trip.

atop St. Peter’s + my favorite sculptor

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Wednesday the 18th of July found us beginning to split up for visits and re-visits to some less necessary, but still very popular, locations in Rome.

Mom, Dad, and I got up and left the apartment around 8 in order to beat the crowds to St. Peter’s to climb to the top of the dome and have another look around. Climbing St. Peter’s has a price, of course: 7€ per person. I think it was worth the price. Several hundred winding stairs brought us first to the inside of the larger, lower dome to inspect the huge mosaics and for areal view of some of the chapels of the ground floor of the basilica, populated by early mass attendees. More steps deposited us on the outside of the smaller, higher dome from which we could see the entire sprawl of Rome. St. Peter’s is the tallest building in Rome; we were atop of the center of the ancient world.

Once we descended the steps, we wandered the inside of St. Peter’s, which was still mercifully free of tour groups. I visited the crypt where most of the popes – and, supposedly, Peter the apostle – are buried. Though most of the crypt was roped off, it was incredible to see the tombs of popes inscribed with dates in the 1200s and 1300s. So long ago! Also, while I was down there, a choir was singing somewhere in or above the crypt, and their a capella voices drifted through the stone corridors to me. It was beautiful.

I headed home for a leisurely lunch and some blog post work while Mom et al walked down to some building that did not interest me. Assuming Mom and Dad would come home and eat before the three of us headed to the Borghese Gallery for our 1:00 entrance time, I did not check my phone until it seemed rather late for them to have time to eat. Whoops. They wanted me to meet them at the metro station. I stuffed the rest of my wonderful sandwich down my throat, – alas, I wished I could have enjoyed it properly – grabbed my bag, and ran to the metro station, arriving just as they appeared from underground. No time to work out a route on our bus map, we power walked through a dry, dusty, and water fountain-less section of the Borghese Gardens and, thanks to Dad’s iPad GPS, straight to the Borghese Villa Gallery and to the back of the line out in the sun.

Mrs. Bowman told us to go to the Borghese. She said it was her favorite Museum in Italy. That’s why we were there. That, and Mom’s guidebook said if we only visited one museum in Rome, it should be the Borghese Gallery. But, we went on Mrs. Bowman’s insistence. And she did not steer us wrong. The museum allows only a certain number of people inside for two hours at a time, so its rooms are not at all crowded. In fact, it is possible to be alone in a room, just you and the art. Oh, and it’s properly air conditioned. That was a first and last for any of the museums we visited on our entire trip.

Despite its manifold attractions, I admit I was unimpressed with the Borghese at first. I felt art-saturated, and the the art in the first few rooms on the second story, though impressive in its own right, I’m sure, was just more of the same. I chortled to myself that the Borghese was probably Mrs. Bowman’s favorite museum because it was air conditioned, uncrowded, and relatively small – the perfect combination for someone who loves art museums as little as Mrs. Bowman – and myself, truth be told. However, after I breezed through the first few rooms of stereotypical paintings and small sculptures, I discovered an incredibly intricate mosaic, then a decorative fireplace, and finally a statue by Bernini, and another, and another, and another! I was impressed,  – I’m sorry I doubted you Mrs. Bowman! – very impressed with Bernini’s statues. Though he lived and sculpted more than a century after Michelangelo, Bernini’s work, in my mind, is as incredible as Michelangelo’s, if not more. I circled and wondered and stared at his David, Pluto and Proserpina, Apollo and Daphne, and unfinished Truth Unveiled by Time for longer than I have ever spent inspecting any art, excepting, perhaps, Michelangelo’s David itself. I even listened to the audio guide for the sculptures! And that never happens. In his sculptures Bernini successfully, convincingly transformed marble into delicate leaves, flowing cloth, rough bark, strong fingers, taut rope, soft flesh, plated armor, and sinewy muscle. His figures are dynamic, frozen mid-stride or mid-swing. I don’t think I used to have a favorite artist/sculptor. I do now, though: Bernini. You really should flip through Google images of his sculptures. Really. Do it.

In the evening the whole family – all 13 of us! – traveled by bus, cab, and foot to the Piazza Navona to wander what I assumed was an ever-present art fair and to eat out as a group for once. On the way we somewhat accidentally came upon the Pantheon, so of course we popped inside for a quick, jaw-dropping look around and some pictures. Once we arrived at Piazza Navona we split up for 20 minutes to explore and allow someone to find a restaurant able to accommodate our numbers and offering an adequate selection of both pizza and pasta. Dinner, once the location was decided upon, was scrumptious. I accomplished my goal of eating real, Italian gnocchi – which I make on occasion – by consuming an obscene amount of the soft, potato pasta drowning in four-cheese sauce; it must have contained enough calories to fuel an olympic athlete. The day ended with – what else? – gelato.

St. Peter’s, the Vatican, and its museum

[click to enlarge the pictures]

Almost all of us, even Grandpa, left the apartment by 9 on the morning of Tuesday the 17th. We wormed our way into the packed metro cars and rode the few stops to the stop just outside the Vatican City, and followed the crowds to the arched entrance through the thick, brick walls of the Vatican into the columns surrounding St. Peter’s Square.

When Grandma and Grandpa were in Rome three years ago, Grandma discovered that a free – totally free; not even tips accepted! – tour of St. Peter’s occurs three mornings a week. An advertisement for the tour is apparently posted on the wall of St. Peter’s information and gift shop, but people must just miss the information, because very few people take the tour, considering the excellent price, that is. The tour meets just outside the the shop to the left of St. Peter’s at 9:45 am.

After we followed her to skirt the large line to enter the basilica, the wonderful English lady, a resident of Rome for 40 years, guided us up and down the length of the church, providing historical facts, art identification, and anecdotes from her own long history with St. Peter’s and the Catholic church. It was an excellent tour.

The main lesson from our tour was that St. Peter’s is one grand optical illusion. As one of the main architects and designers, Michelangelo, mindful of the huge scale of the building, worked to make St. Peter’s feel like a much less overwhelming, much more personal building that it actually is. Statues are larger in size the higher up they are placed, so all the statues seem the same size and appear close. Each of  the letters of the John 21 passage that runs around the cathedral is about six feet tall. The arched ceiling, though obviously lofty, does not seem nearly as high as it is. The illusion is quite impressive, once you know the actual measurements of the various structures within the building. But really, you have to see it to understand. Go see it! It’s worth the trip.

As for the Vatican Museum, I have the popes, who pillaged, plundered, and threatened their way  through the centuries to acquiring a world-class art collection, to thank for my visit. The museum overflows with art on the floors, walls, and ceilings of sprawling rooms and 1/4-mile long hallways. My favorite part of the museum was being able to see Rafael’s The School of Athens in context with the other paintings in the room. There are four, relatively small frescos on the ceiling of the room that depict poetry, philosophy, justice, and theology. On the walls corresponding with their respective sides of the ceiling are painted scenes depicting those four types of knowledge. Besides The School of Athens, clearly portraying philosophy, a picture of Greek and Roman gods reflects poetry, while a vision heaven filled with Christian philosophers, Catholic saints, and the Trinity represents theology. I found the small fresco of justice rather uninteresting. However, on the whole it was fascinating to discover that The School of Athens is not a stand-alone fresco, as I previously imagined, but rather part of a larger cohesive unit of frescos meant to be seen as a whole piece. Who knew!

Of course, seeing the Sistine Chapel again was very nice. But, I did not stay long in the chapel. Besides the discomfort of tilting my neck back at a 45-degree angle to stare at the ceiling, my mouth hanging unceremoniously open in the effort, the room was absolutely packed. There was barely room to stand, let alone be seated on the benches along the wall, which is the only place you are allowed to sit. In addition, the museum guards were incessantly and somewhat ironically yelling, “Silencio!” and “No photo!” at us, the rowdy mass of visitors. The low roar would quiet almost imperceptibly for a split second before returning to its accustomed volume, that of 200 people whispering comments to their neighbors or reading guidebooks aloud to their children. It was quite an experience.

Bottom line of this post: if you go St. Peter’s Basilica, take the free tour.