Thursday, January 29, 2009

Top Ten Hidden Travel Wonders of Paris - Part 3

This is the final installment of a three part series featuring some of Paris's hidden wonders - those not necessarily found in guide books but certainly worth a visit. Part One is the start of the story.

Museum of Industrial Works (Musée des Arts et Métiers) (3rd arr)

This extraordinary collection is housed in an old priory and showcases French inventions and industrial works throughout the centuries. Broken into a number of topic areas including scientific instruments, materials, construction, communication, energy, mechanical items and transportation, the collection includes an early aeroplane (first photo) from 1897 which is claimed to have flown before the Wright brothers efforts, a quarter-sized model of the Statue of Liberty and a Foucault’s Pendulum used to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation. The museum holds a staggering array of exhibits including inventions and old versions of bicycles, cars, trains, industrial machines, engines, cameras, batteries, televisions and numerous historic and developing versions of everyday items. It is a remarkable treasure-trove of French ingenuity (and pride) throughout the last few hundred years.

Géode and Parc de la Villette

Out past the locks and small bridges of the Canal Saint Martin (a great walk, incidently) and near the expressive Parc de la Villette with its strange furnishings, sits a huge mirrored ball called the Géode, which looks like it's fallen from the ceiling of a giant’s disco. Once finished with taking reflection photos off the shiny surface, wander inside to watch an IMAX-like film projected onto a matching spherical screen (headphones which offer an English soundtrack are included in the price). The Géode is part of Europe’s largest science museum which also includes a planetarium, a submarine, a hydraulic cinema called Cinaxe (where your seat moves with the movie to showcase shows like riding a bobsleigh or being on a small plane through a gorge) and all kinds of hands-on displays.

Branly Museum (6th arr)

Within the confines of the university called the Catholic Institute of Paris (about 500 metres north of the glassy Montparnasse Tower) is the original laboratory, office, instruments, experimental apparatus and related collection of a key pioneer in the invention and development of wireless telegraphy and the radio. It is like time has been frozen. Professor Éduoard Branly is credited with inventing the first radio receiver. The museum gives a wonderful insight into science and the early efforts in developing such a life changing device as the radio. The copper room, a special room with ceiling, floor and walls covered with copper sheet, with port-hole communication to the other rooms is striking, providing an insulated space for experiments. To visit, you must call ahead and seek an appointment (phone number is 01-49-54-52-40). Entry is free, the arrangement is straightforward and it is well worth the effort to visit this hidden Parisian gem.

Bird and Flower Market

Tucked in behind Notre Dame is the well-known flower markets that have been operating for over 200 years. Little known is that on Sunday, this area is transformed into a bird market where traders and breeders showcase birds, both local and exotic for the enthusiastic pet lovers of Paris. It makes for an interesting hour to watch the colour of the birds and the liveliness of the markets as the locals attend to the key business of acquiring new birds.

This completes my list of hidden treasures in Paris. Whatever yours may be, Paris is an extraordinary and uplifting city for wandering and unearthing wonderful sights in the most unexpected locations - small museums, wonderful cafes, local patisseries, small parks, fascinating people and more. Make sure you visit Paris at least once in your life.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Top Ten Hidden Travel Wonders of Paris - Part 2

This is part two of a three part series featuring some of Paris's treasures which are not necessarily as well known. Part One reveals the first three hidden travel wonders.

Jean-sans-Peur Tower (2nd arr)

Built in 1409, this fortified tower provided protection for John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy after ordering the assassination of the king’s brother. The climb of 140 medieval winding stone stairs wanders past an old kitchen, the Duke’s living quarters, some interesting sculptures and the oldest toilets in Paris. While on Paris’s oldest buildings, it is only a short distance to the oldest house (only the façade remains), owned by alchemist, Nicolas Flamel (lead photo). Now a restaurant, this place has had a resurgence of interest as Flamel is featured in the first Harry Potter book as an alchemist’s assistant.

Dog Cemetery

In the north-west Parisian suburb of Clichy is what is believed to be the first pet cemetery in the world, built over 100 years ago. The Paris population’s renowned love for their canine friends is highlighted with ornate and detailed epitaphs of various pets including the famous Rin Tin Tin. Despite its name, the cemetery also includes other beloved pets including cats, goldfish and even a lion. It makes for an unusual couple of hours with the inscriptions revealing that some of these passed pampered pooches truly were man’s best friend.

Musée Marmottan

If not yet suffering from over-exposure to impressionist art, this museum in the west of Paris near the forested parklands of Bois de Boulogne has the world’s largest collection of Monet along with a handful of Renoirs, Degas and others. Primarily resulting from the donation of numerous paintings by Monet’s son in 1966, the most significant painting is that of Impression, Sunrise which gave the whole movement its name. Also included are several examples of Monet’s famous series including waterlilies, Rouen Cathedrals, Japanese Bridges and London scenes - many painted in his famous garden at Giverny.

See the final installment of Paris' top ten hidden travel wonders.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Photo of the Week - Stave Church (Borgund, Norway)

As Christianity spread throughout the Scandinavian countries from the tenth century, numerous churches were built - many from wood (called stave churches) as it was the most readily available building material. Only around 30 of these superb stave churches survive including the one pictured above built around 1150 in the small village of Borgund surrounded by verdant pastures at the end of Norway's largest fjord, Sognefjord. Remarkably, the exterior of this church remains virtually unchanged for the last 850 years - a monument to the architectural and construction skills of these medieval people.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Top Ten Hidden Travel Wonders of Paris - Part 1

Lara Dunston of Cool Travel Guide and professional travel writer recently commented “I would love to see a list of your favorite off-the-beaten-track Paris places”. So fearing a Gallic overdose, here is a list of favourite Paris places that I’ve been that may not be on the main itinerary of most visitors.

The best way to experience Paris (as for many European cities) is to walk and to walk some more. The Metro is excellent for longer journeys and numerous cafes make for a great break but many of the places listed below were discovered simply by walking and aren’t listed in many of the guide books. Paris is full of hidden surprises – parks are spread throughout Paris and interesting and eclectic museums hide behind many corners. Art museums abound as do architectural treasures left untocuhed over the centuries.

That is not to say that I’d miss the iconic sights such as those listed in my top ten travel wonders of Paris on my first visit.

Here is a list of some hidden Parisian jewels in no particular order.

Sewer Museum (Musée des Égouts) (6th arrondissement)

Built in some disused sewerage tunnels, the galleries of this museum stand in stark contrast to the magnificence of most Parisian galleries. Only a few hundred metres from the Eiffel Tower along the Seine, displays include old flushing machines, various cleaning equipment and a detailed history of how the French have dealt with their waste since the 1300s. In some of the galleries, you can stand (at a safe distance) above the fast-flowing effluent and waste water with the usual sad trail of litter including a huge amount of Metro tickets. While a mild stench permeates some of the tunnels, the history of cities battling their waste provides for a fascinating few hours. The last room is a gift shop best left for your imagination!

Outdoor Sculpture Park (Musée de Sculpture en Plein Air) (5th arr.)

If not suffering from sculpture fatigue from the Louvre and Rodin Museum, Paris offers a wonderful (and free) short walk along the Seine for around half a kilometre passing some 50 sculptures, ranging from the superb and remarkable to the mystifying and weird. Running from the Paris Botanic Gardens (which includes an excellent alpine garden), people meander through this relaxed park, overseen by the colourful houseboats which are moored along the river.

Musée Carnavalet (3rd arr.)

Surprisingly free from people, this museum details Paris’ history. Only a couple of blocks from Place des Vosges in the fashion-conscious Marais district and richly displayed throughout two connected historic stately homes, the extensive history covers from the earliest prehistoric tribes of the area, through ancient maps and document, a detailed treatment of the French Revolution and more recent history of the world wars up to modern times. Some of the multitude of rooms are recreated for certain periods including a Louis XIV room and a superb French-style manicured garden. This museum should be visited early in a Paris visit as it provides context for many other things that you’ll see in Paris.

More hidden gems in Paris follow.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Symphony of Lights – The World’s Largest Light Show (Hong Kong)

By 8:00pm every evening, darkness has enveloped the Hong Kong sky and the bright lights and advertising of the skyscrapers reflect red, blue and golden stripes onto the waterway. The Star Ferry along with various pleasure boats cruise Victoria Harbour between the “canyon walls” set by the crammed skyline of towering buildings and The Peak.

Right on cue at 8:00pm, the manic shopping and business dealings seem to take a back-seat as Hong Kong launches a dazzling multi-media spectacular of modern music, building lights, searchlights and lasers using the skyline as their stage. Over forty modern buildings along Hong Kong Island and Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon dance with shifting lights and shooting beams choreographed to the electric rhythms of a blend of Chinese and western music. Commentary reveals the quarter-hour show in five themes entitled Awakening, Energy, Heritage, Partnership and Celebration, showcasing the Chinese state of Hong Kong.

Though busy, the best vantage point is Kowloon’s promenade of the Avenue of the Stars, which celebrates over 100 Hong Kong film celebrities in a manner similar to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Embedded speakers along this walkway ensure that the sound part of the show is clearly enjoyed with the light show (named by the Guinness Book of Records as the “world’s largest permanent light show”).

Don’t miss this mesmerising travel wonder as a kaleidoscope of colours dazzle the sky and reflect through Victoria Harbour to the enchanting composition of Chinese and modern music.

Other Asian Posts
Happy Birthday, Peak Train (Hong Kong)
It’s All in the Stars (Jaipur, India)
A Royal Facade (Jaipur, India)
A Monument to Love (Taj Mahal, India)
From Dead Duck to Bird Heaven (Bharatpur, India)

Discover more from the show’s designer, LaserVision.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Photo of the Week - Tawny Frogmouth (Australia)

The tawny frogmouth is a uniquely Australian bird, found superbly camouflaged in trees. They are often described as an owl though this is not technically true. Typically, someone needs to point them out for you to be aware they are there but once discovered they rarely move far from their favourite branch or tree. The bird in the photos lives not far from my home in Sydney. Their ability to stay still for hours and appear like a branch allows them to hunt by simply waiting for rats, mice, frogs and insects to wander past and seize them in their beak. Impressively, they mate for life and truly share the rearing of chicks both sharing sitting on the eggs and the feeding duties.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Top Ten Travel Wonders of Paris - Part 3 (Rank 1-3)

Celebrated all over the world (including a cheesy reproduction in Las Vegas), Paris is one of the world's greatest cities. The top three travel wonders from among the Gallic treasures appear below. Start with Part One to get the entire story of Paris.

3. Notre Dame Cathedral

Immortalised in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the cathedral is considered one of the finest Gothic buildings in the world. Providing a stunning vista of Paris from its twin towers, it is a masterpiece of balance and symmetry. Perched on an island in the Seine in the very centre of Paris (and the origins of Paris), its interior boasts three stunning stained-glass rose windows while an army of ghoulish gargoyles look down from above. A square in front of Notre Dame represents the “zero point” for road distances in France.

2. Eiffel Tower

One of the world’s most recognisable buildings and the icon of Paris, the Eiffel Tower provides a great view of Paris from its top floor. For some time, the tallest building in the world (displacing the largest of Egypt’s pyramids), it stands tall among the flat, consistent architecture of the Parisian centre (buildings are limited to 20 metres in height). It is set in a beautiful park area and is complemented by the statues and fountains of the Trocadéro Gardens.

1. Louvre

A staggering collection of 35,000 art works, from Egyptian and Roman antiquities to the 1800s, is impossible to see or comprehend in one visit in this stunning building which moved from being the world's largest palace to the world's largest art museum. Running along the Seine for half a mile, a small brochure highlights the "must-see" items from among the multitude of rooms, including arguably the world's most famous painting in the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) and the world's most famous sculpture in the Venus de Milo. The entrance is covered by a striking glass pyramid.

Also worth checking are Napoleon's over-the-top tomb in the Hotel des Invalides, the rococo wonder of the Opera Garnier (check the ceiling out), the magnificent Rodin Museum (including The Thinker), the eerie Catacombs and the ornate tombs of the famous at Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Whatever your favorite Parisian travel wonder, this is a city with something for everyone. Stellar food and drink in the character-filled cafes, a rich cultural history, identifiable monuments from many ages, fiercely proud people, chaotic traffic and this overwhelming feeling that you are wandering in a dream, Paris is a city you'll always want to return to. This top ten only touches on the many pleasures and travel wonders that Paris offers.

Other Top Ten Travel Wonder Posts
Hidden Wonders of Paris
South America

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Top Ten Travel Wonders of Paris - Part 2 (Rank 4-7)

Part One of this post discussed the first three travel wonders of the city of Paris. Here are the next four treasures in this eternal mesmerising city.

7. Georges Pompidou Centre (Beaubourg)

This startling building appears to be built inside-out with all its plumbing (green), electrical (yellow), air-conditioning (blue), ventilation (white) and lift system (red) all highly visible and illustrated in differing colours. It includes an excellent Museum of Modern Art along with space for all kinds of temporary exhibitions, shows and theatre. Outside, an array of street entertainers including mime artists tend to attract lunch-time crowds.

6. Arc de Triomphe and Champs Élysées

Commissioned by Napoleon to pay homage to his victories in battle, this triumphal arch is the home of France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Eternal Flame. The arch is adorned with sculptured reliefs depicting scenes from epic battles. From the observation deck, you can view down the grand Parisian boulevard of the Champs Élysées and also witness the antics of French driving around the world’s most chaotic roundabout as the traffic from twelve radiating avenues congregate and circulate in a zone of vehicular madness.

5. Sacré Coeur and Montmartre (18th arrondissement)

Montmartre has a bohemian character attracting artists, painters and writers to this northern area of Paris. The centre of the public artist area is Place du Tertre with lively cafés and offers to draw you every few minutes. The famous sexy night shows of Moulin Rouge adorned with its famous red windmill take place every evening, while lively folk music can still be heard at Paris’ oldest cabaret bar, Le Lapin Agile. In contrast, the glorious white-washed basilica and glorious central dome of Sacré Coeur perches on the highpoint of Montmartre, offering a spectacular vista across all of Paris. Inside is a huge mosaic of Christ with outstretched arms.

4. Musée D’Orsay

Preserving the layout of its past as a railway station, this museum of art covering 1848 to 1914 is only twenty years old. Using numerous skylights, the museum bathes in natural diffused daylight. Boasting one of the finest collections of impressionist art and many works familiar to even the staunchest of non art-lovers of impressionist art, it contains works by artists including Monet, Manet, Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Matisse, Renoir, Pissarro and Van Gogh. Paris can be viewed through the old railway clock from within the museum and makes for many arty photographs.

Finally, discover the top three travel wonders of Paris.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Top Ten Travel Wonders of Paris - Part 1 (Rank 8-10)

Paris probably boasts more familiar sights to the visitor than any city in the world. Travellers flood its magnificent churches, museums, art galleries, its grandest boulevard (Champs Élysées) and iconic Eiffel Tower. But my favourite city is much much more. The heart of Paris is built in its culture – lively parks, elegant cafés, superb cuisine, fascinating variety of neighbourhoods (arrondissements), eclectic backstreets, grand buildings, romantic Seine, the Metro and the proud fashionable Parisians (who are much friendlier in my experience than folklore would have you believe). Take time to people-watch in one of its parks or meander the streets and soak up this most enchanting city – the City of Light.

Paris has something for everyone but my top ten sights are as follows.

10. Sainte Chapelle

A staggering achievement for its time of 750 years ago with more stained glass than wall, the interior of this chapel is naturally lit in a dazzling array of colours, especially on bright sunny days. It is like walking into a kaleidoscope though security can be a bit exciting as the entrance is from the same courtyard as the French law courts (Palais de Justice).

9. Marais District (3rd/4th arrondissement)

The Marais district was built on marshland becoming the aristocratic district of Paris in the Middle Ages. Boasting the grandest square of all in the rose-pink Place des Vosges, many of its grand buildings now house superb and unusual collections and museums, including the excellent Picasso Museum (paintings and sculptures paid to the government as death taxes). Trendy cafés and expensive gift shops also line the main boulevards of these central Parisian suburbs.

8. Latin Quarter (5th arrondissement)

Home of Paris’s most famous university, the Sorbonne (one of the world’s oldest universities started around 750 years ago), this area was named because the educated conversation in past times all took place in Latin. Today, it is home to cafés, superb bookshops (including the extraordinary Shakespeare and Company with its wall to wall books and where you can stay for the night) and interesting eateries. Get off the main streets of Rue Mouffetard and Boulevarde St Michel and enjoy the quieter, more atmospheric back streets. The Panthéon, loosely modelled on its Roman namesake, hosts the tombs of the Curies, authors Voltaire, Dumas and Hugo, and Louis Braille (who died in his early 40s) among other French luminaries. The Jardin du Luxembourg is a favourite park to walk, relax and sunbake while the Cluny Museum holds a celebrated collection of medieval artworks and tapestries.

Part Two highlights the next four travel wonders of Paris.

Other Top Ten Travel Wonder Posts
South America

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