Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Photo of the Week: Peculiar

I saw this nice little town on the way from Kansas City to Branson for a family reunion. I'm actually just assuming it's a nice little town, since the interesting name of the town wasn't enough to warrant pulling off the highway, but with a name like Peculiar, how could it be anything else?

I did not get pictures of the signs to two other oddly named towns - Business and Humansville.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Roman Forum

I wasn't sure what to expect when I went to the Roman Forum. I hadn't really read up on it, and all I knew was that it was composed of a bunch of old ruins by the Coliseum.

Talk about impressive. Seriously.

The first thing that struck me about the Roman Forum was that it was huge. I walked through a victory arch and down some stairs to the main level of the forum. As I stood at the base of several columns - all that remains from a once-grand building - it struck me that I was literally walking in the footsteps of the Caesars.

Suddenly, all the marble busts of Roman leaders from 2,000 years ago meant a whole lot more to me. Scenes from the movie Gladiator flashed through my mind, and I walked over to the foundation of another building where a bunch of tourists were sitting and joined them, just looking around and taking it all in.

The forum was the center of all activity in ancient Rome, encompassing religion, commercial, legal and political centers. It was the very seat of go
vernment of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. When I'd thought of Rome, I pictured gladiators, a Caesar or two, the Coliseum and legionnaires. I imagined everyone clad in togas or armor. To stand at the epicenter of that empire's power was something special.

The forum today is only a suggestion of the vast complex it once was. In order to get a feel for what it was like at its apogee, I bought a book called, "Rome: Past and Present," by R.A. Staccioli at a nearby souvenir shop. The book gives a good overview of the history of the city, but the best part is the artist's renderings of what the city once looked like, presented as overlays to photos of the sites as they appear in modern times.

By using that book, I was able to see that the the group of columns I had seen were once part of the Temple of Saturn. Vast expanses of broken buildings that now look like unimpressive red rubble with an occasional trio of marble columns were once the temples of Divus Julius and Castor and Pollux. I wasn't sure who all those people and gods were, but reading the book gave me a good idea of why they were important.

The thing that struck me, more than anything else, about visiting the Roman Forum was simply the feeling of walking on the same stones that the feet of millions of people going back to ancient times have traversed. Nothing in the United States can compare to the wealth of history and culture that is just an everyday sight in the Italian capital. While we have Native American ruins and artifacts that are just as old, they don't share the same fame and glamor on the world stage that the Roman ruins do.

Walking out of the ruins, I rejoined modern Rome. The buzz of an army of Vespas swept past me as the sound of honking horns added to the cacophony of the traffic that is ever-present wherever cars are allowed in Rome. Crossing the street, I looked down on the other side and saw a pair of enormous bronze heads. Even lying on their sides, they were taller than any person. I thought it was a perfect metaphor for Rome. It's well past its prime, but still unmistakably impressive.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Photo of the Week: Austrian Movie Appearance

This is the back side of the house used in the movie "The Sound of Music." The front side was a different building entirely, but both are relatively close together in Salzburg, Austria, where "The Sound of Music" tours abound. The lake in the foreground is manmade.

If you enlarge the photo by clicking on it, you can just see the walls of Schloss Hohensalzburg (Salzburg's castle) above and to the left of the house.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Paris as the seat of the EU Presidency

The European Union has a rotating presidency that changes every six months. Most travelers to Europe probably couldn't care less, but being in Paris while France held the presidency (from July-December, 2008), there were a couple noticeable changes to the city's landmarks.

Far and away the most obvious was the Eiffel Tower. Normally a brownish iron framework lit up at night in standard, yellow-hued lights, the French had decided to use their most famous landmark to advertise their leadership of the EU - by lighting it in blue and affixing a circle of stars to it to represent the EU flag.

I really didn't care for the new look, and I'm happy to say that it is now back to its old self. Had this been my first time to Paris, I wouldn't have felt the same sense of awe upon seeing Gustav Eiffel's masterpiece. To me, the blue Eiffel looked out of place, but I still thought the concept was kind of cool. The French Tricolor would have looked better, but that wouldn't have conveyed the right political message, and it was definitely interesting.

Far more interesting, for me, was what the French did to th
e Assemblée Nationale. Essentially the French equivalent of Britain's Parliament building or the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., the National Assembly houses the legislative branch of France's government in a columned building across the Seine from the Place de la Concorde.

What was interesting about the National Assembly was that the French had decided to use it as the canvas to show off Europe's greatest strengths and the work being done to solve some of the world's problems. This was accomplished by two film projectors on pillars on the Pont de la Concorde that faced the building. Blinders set in front of the projectors ensured that one shone on only the columns while the other shone only on the wall behind the columns.

At times, the columns would show different pictures from the back wall, with wheat grass rising on the columns as video of windmills - touting clean air and eco-friendly farming techniques - played to convey the message. At one point, the French Tricolor showed on the columns while the backdrop was blue.At other times, the images were combined to show something as a whole, like Delacroix's famous painting, Liberty Leading the People. A scene from the Revolution of 1830, the painting is considered by many to be the first modern political painting. It celebrates the people rising to fight for their liberty. I'm guessing it was put on the video program to remind people of the turbulent past that is largely behind Europe as it forges into the future.

Oddly enough, Delacroix's painting included Lady Liberty holding a gun, and just about everyone else is armed. Here, however, the French seem to have sanitized the image. Perhaps they aren't all that eager to remember the turmoil of the past.
Even though I didn't care for the Eiffel Tower's new look, it was nice to be in France and see what the French did to celebrate their leadership of the European Union.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Photo of the Week: Parliament and Big Ben

This London icon holds the legislative body of the United Kingdom on the banks of the Thames River. The famous Big Ben is on the right side.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Travel Tips: The Metro/Subway/Tube/Underground

I was lucky. My first experience with subterranean trains was in England, where everyone speaks my language, and the polite automated voice kindly reminds everyone to "Mind the gap" when entering or exiting the cars.

Living in suburban California, where we haven't exactly embraced public transit, I would have been at a serious disadvantage had I needed to navigate a city's metro syst
em in, say, India.

For those of you who haven't had experiences with how to use metro systems, I will use the Paris Metro as an example. Everywhere I have been that has had a metro has operated it in the same basic way. It's kind of like math in that it's the same everywhere you go, but unlike math in that I can understand it.

The first step to using a metro is to know where you want to go. Maps invariably hanging in the stations will let you know where you are on the net of train lines and stops in the city. All you have to do, if the spot is not marked with a tourist-friendly red X, is look at one of
the signs sure to be around the station, then find it on the map. The photo below is one such map at the Bir-Hakeim stop in Paris (if you look at the little picture of the Eiffel Tower and then look down and to the left, the white dot on the map is labeled "Bir-Hakeim" - enlarge the photo so you can see it).

Once you have determined where you want to go, you need to find the best way to get there. That will often involve changing stations. In this case, I wanted to go to Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur church. (At the top portion of the above map near the number 4). The closest stop is Anvers, on the blue line. Bir-Hakeim is on the medium green line.

To get to where I needed to go, I had to find where the two lines intersected. Following the medium green line upwards, I saw that it crossed the blue line at the Charles de Gaulle - Etoile stop, essentially the stop for the Arc du Triomphe.

To make sure I went the right way, I noted that Etoile was the last stop in that direction on the medium green line. The opposite line was Nation. Think of the metro line as a two-way street. One side goes the way you need to go, and the other side doesn't. Once you are on the platform, you don't want to run across the tracks when you realize you are on the wrong side (it's also probably illegal).

To help you, signs above, on or in front of the walkways will let you know which direction the train is heading. In the photo below, Bir-Hakeim (Tour Eiffel) is at the top, blocked in blue so you know it is that station you are at. The arrow points down, toward Nation - the terminus of the line. This is not the way I wanted to go, so I chose the opposite staircase. Note that all the stops in between are listed on this sign. That is not always the case. It is best to look at the larger map and remember not only the stop you want, but where the line terminates.

I took the next photo on the platform. The sign simply says "Etoile," indicating that this train is headed in that direction. It also tells me that the next train is one minute away, and the one after that will arrive in six minutes.

It can be helpful to know how many stops are between you and where you need to be, in case the car is crowded. You really don't want to be comfortably ensconced in a chair, surrounded by your luggage, and miss your stop because you waited too long to get up.

Smaller maps in the cars are often present to let you know the order of the stops. The white dots indicate that that stop is an intersection of two or more lines, and you can change trains without purchasing another ticket.

Etoile, my destination for this leg of the trip, has a white dot because several lines intersect there. You will always know which station you are at by the big, impossible-to-miss signs on the station walls, as in the photo below.

Once at Etoile, I followed the signs to the blue line. Anvers is not at a terminus (you can refer to the map at the top of this post to see that). From Etoile, I need to go in the direction of Nation, as Anvers lies on the blue line between Etoile and Nation.

Incidentally, the medium green line had also ended at Nation (the way I didn't want to go). It is the same stop, but you can see from the map why I went the way I did.

Once on the Nation line, it was just a matter of waiting for the Anvers stop, getting off, and walking to Sacre Coeur
Using the metro is almost always better than using a taxi, as long as it gets you where you need to go. Tickets are very cheap, and it really is the most efficient way to move (providing the workers aren't on strike). If you have a ton of luggage, as in more than you can carry up and down stairs, then maybe the metro isn't the best for you until after you drop it off.

Do make note of the time the metro closes. I had an unfortunate experience in Rome one time where the metro and city bus lines shut down at 9 p.m. and I had to walk a considerable distance back to my hotel.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Photo of the Week: Headstones in Prague's Jewish Cemetery

Prague's Jewish Cemetery holds about 14,000 graves. Used primarily in the Middle Ages, the headstones are very old. Many of them have smaller stones on top of them, an homage to desert burials, where rocks are laid atop the graves to keep the sand from being blown away and exhuming the bodies.

As the ground settled over time, the once-upright headstones began to lean, eventually ending up in their current state.