Saturday, October 31, 2009

A month around London

Crikey, it's four weeks since I returned from Paris - so a little update is due I suppose. The days have got shorter, summer time has finished, there are lots of crunchy leaves to walk through & over, the weather is cooler (it got horribly cold for a day or two, but that turned out to be an aberration - October has been quite pleasant) & I have spent a lot of time tripping around London, walking tours, a weekend near & in Oxford (with a MTB ride thrown in), visiting friends & family, reading, watching the DVDs that turned up of The Big Bang Theory Season 2, sorting out insurance & slowly preparing for next week's trip to Kenya. After that brief summary, here are a few more details. of the highlights.

About the time I was getting over my cold, Trish, a friend of hers & I went for a day trip in to Kent to visit Hever Castle. It was a particularly bleak day, thankfully the rain was quite light. Due to the weather we spent quite a bit of time in the castle, which was a good thing as it was really well presented as a museum. As it was the childhood home of Anne Boelyn, there was a lot of Henry VIII history there & I was able to brush up my knowledge of that period. More recently, the castle was owned by branch of the Astor family (as in Wardolf Astoria) that returned to England over a century ago. It's always neat walking on a drawbridge over a full moat. The garden, which we went around in quick fashion, was also very impressive - one of the Astors had brought a lot of Roman & Italian sculptures back (they were huge & it must have cost a bundle) - & the numerous roses were still out.
The first Friday I was back in town, I went out to Earls Court for the cycle show. Basically it was an excuse to go & stare at bikes - & there was plenty of it. Of course everyone was exhibiting their 2010 wares & there was a lot to drool over - mountain-bikes, single speeds, uber cool fixies, road & track bikes, city bikes, regressive bicycles, touring bikes & a lot of retro styled cruisers (not the beach-type cruisers that were everywhere in San Diego. Thankfully I kept my wallet in my pocket, as I could have been significantly down on pounds; it was also great to see a couple of NZ companies exhibiting - Ground Effect & Two-Stage. The highlights of the day were the couch interviews with various cycling personalities - of note Alberto Contador & the Atherton siblings (Lee, Dan & Rachel), the world triathlon champ Alistair Brownlee & an Olympic gold medallist from Britain's 2008 track team. There was also some diverting BMX dislplays.
Most weeks have two or three trips in to London (it's most economical to buy a travelcard for the day, so I try to combine a few things at once). Amongst a lot of walking around I've managed to catch up for a meal or a drink NZ cousins, Palmy friends, a couple of schoolmates, family friends, a steel mill mate & some English riding mates. It's surprising just how many people are around. Trish had a previously-unused book of London walking tours kicking around; so whenever the weather is agreeable & I'm in town I've trundled off finding out more of small areas of this most fascinating city. The first I did was from Westminster through all the central parks & in to Kensington - this was quite a long walk, but a gorgeous day (the squirrels were out in force - squirreling away stores, funnily up) & as I wandered past Wellington Arch, I couldn't help taking a photo as Trish & I had just finished watching the Sharpe series (like Hornblower, but in the army during the Napoleonic Wars). The most amusing fact of the day was an elephant kept by James I in St James's Park used to drink a gallon of wine daily. There were plenty of birds & such like around the lakes & ponds (including one that thought I would like a little present). As the walk ended in Kensington, I did the Kensington loop - this of course had a lot more houses in it (& quite nice one they were too); of note was John Stuart Mill's (of his own free will, on half a pint of shandy was particularly ill). On the Chelsea walk, it was another gorgeous day & I spent a bit of time around the Royal Hospital & saw a few Chelsea Pensioners. Due to a big marquee going up (on the site where they have the Chelsea flower show) I had a to do a big loop around, through a park & then found I couldn't get out. So a lot of back tracking later I was back beside the Thames & walking past the former houses of Wilde, Whistler (whose mother I had seen not two weeks before, & this is where she sat for the painting), Sargent, Lloyd George, Gaskell (Cranford). Curious fact for that walk was the main street of Chelsea used to be Old Church Street, as King's Road only became open to the public in 1830 - previously it was for royal use only on their way to various country retreats). Beer with Tori & Greg near Victoria after that & then a wonderful ("amazing", if you'll allow it) Moroccan dinner with Amy (flatted next door in Union St) in South Kensington.

On the day I was to meet my Pheasant cousins in the city, I did a couple of city walks (makes sense really). The first was around Fleet Street & St Paul's; before I got to the Old Bailey I stumbled upon an exhibition of Royal Mail artists - there were a lot of landscapes & with all the pheasants in some of the pieces, it was delightful. Here is the best photo I could get of Old Bailey - without too much effort that is. Other highlights include the Black Friar & learning a bit of its history (there used to be a monastery there until it was dissolved); Stationer's Hall - pretty much the home of printing & publishing in Britain; Dr Johnson's house (couldn't get Robbie Coltrane out of my mind) & hangouts (close to Hind Court). Great to catch up with & here travels stories from Chris, Sasha & Blair.

Somewhere in all this I took myself & my bike off to Wallingford for a couple of nights to visit & ride with a couple of English guys I had met in NZ a couple of years prior & then seen again in Somerset last year. I was great to be around real bikes & real MTB mad mates. The Saturday morning ride started late after a big cooked breakfast, but it was still quite cool when we headed out. Off on to bridleways and I quickly found how much bike-fitness (& probably altogether-fitness) I had lost since California in June as we were up a few rather gentle hills. Magically it didn't rain for the whole ride & we got over thirty miles in with some pleasing downhills, with out too much more hard work. On the Sunday Richard took me the twenty minutes up to Oxford & dropped me off at Rob's flat - Rob is a mate from NZ Steel, who started at the other end of the process a year after me. While his girlfriend was off studying at the library (Cat is doing her Masters - the reason for their stay in Oxford), Rob & I strolled around Oxford looking at old buildings, colleges, rowers on the Thames, the inside of too many pubs that didn't have tables available for lunch & so on. Back on the train to Paddington, & home late Sunday night.
Last Wednesday Trish & I were well too cultured for our own good & hopped on the train & had dinner on South Embankment before heading off to the Royal Festival Hall to hear the London Symphony Orchestra. There was short piece from Bizet (The Black Gondola) to start & then Beethoven's third piano concerto & Mendelssohn's third (Scottish) symphony. They were not particularly well known (at least that's what Trish said, so what chance did I stand?), but it was an amazing performance (I have never seen such long & sustained applause) & even though I'm not all that musical, it was enthralling. We had seats above & slightly in front of the orchestra & they provided a good view of the instruments, the facial expressions & fingering of the players, & the conductor (I think if the orchestra was not there & the conductor performed in an identical way with as much intensity, I would have been quite amused for two hours). On the way back to Waterloo, our large dinners had gone down a bit, so we stopped for hot drinks (I'm still resisting coffee, but after a horrible hot chocolate that may become harder) & dessert - the restaurant was in the arches under the railway, so from the symphony we were now listening to trains rumbling overhead - not an unpleasant sound actually.
Thursday dawned very nicely, so I was off in to town & did a great walk from Warwick Avenue to Little Venice, down Regent's Canal, a slight detour past Lord's, through Camden Lock, past St Pancras & into Islington. Plenty of interesting canal boats cruising up & down the canal & even more permanently moored; with all the leaves turning various shades of red & gold, it was a beautiful walk. Walking through Regent's Park I passed the London Zoo aviary & the hyenas were on the other side of the canal; after the brilliant San Diego zoo, it would take quite a bit for me to go to London Zoo as apparently it's not as good. The history of these industrial highways between the factories of Birmingham & the dock of London was fascinating & in many places you could see where the iron work of bridges & so forth had been worn by the tow ropes over many years ("Oh, the tension!"). In a couple of places the canal disappeared in to a tunnel & the horses would have been unhitched & walked over the top while the bargemen lay on their back atop the barges & "walked" on the roof of the tunnel to propel the vessels through it. In other places main railway lines & tube line passed overhead & unseen rivers were deep below the canal. Near some of the overbridges, there were little ramps in to the canal where startled horses were rescued from the canal when they jumped in in fright of new-fangled steam engines passing overhead. Useless fact of the day was the concourse of St Pancras station is six metres above the ground so that it is level with the railway after it has passed over the canal.

I met Louis & Emma (they came down for the weekend from Ipswich) at the London Eye last Saturday & we slowly wandered out to Waterloo to get the train to Twickenham. The full train emptied of Kiwis & Aussies at Twickenham & they started marching off towards the Stoop (the smaller ground & home of Harlequins). We were off to my first live league in a few years & the second game of the Four Nations series; it was easy to see why this game was down in London - rather than the league heartland of the North - there was gold & green and black shirts everywhere. Just before the game & I bumped in to a school mate, Josh, & was able to find him & Kelly again at half time. Louis managed to get us pretty good seats, they were on the north goal-line looking across to the only big-screen in the ground. It was great game with plenty of massive hits, some good tries & we were unlucky to draw in the last two minutes. A win was so close & that would have been quite an achievement after the bruising defence the Kiwis pulled of for the first quarter & the ridiculously high penalty count.
I ventured in to new territory on Tuesday near The Oval and came away with three holes in my arms, nine malaria pills & £150 poorer. Still, better than getting sick with some horrible disease. After my packed lunch (I was organised for once) & a stroll in Kennington Park (I did well to resist running through the massive piles of leaves the council workers had make), I was heading out to Kew Gardens when I got a message from Kelly so I diverted to Acton Town for a second lunch & a big catch up; I especially enjoyed tales of their recent van tour of Europe in "Munter" - a horribly purple, but inconspicuous, Leyland DAF van. Once I was in Acton, I realised it was really pretty close to Kew; so on leaving Kelly & Josh I strolled down to the Thames & took a little look around Kew before it got dark. The Public Record Office is also in Kew so I popped in as it was late night Tuesday & Mum occasionally asks me to do a little family history research; the place is huge & full of people beavering away finding ancestors & there was a cool little museum all about record keeping & I was pleased to see the two Domesday Books.

Two days ago I made it to St Pancras just in time to see most of a Eurostar empty before (even when I rode it, I had no idea there were so many passengers on it) easily recognising Megan - despite it having been ten years (we think) since we last saw each other. The fact that she & Alex both had fully loaded touring bikes was also a bit of a give away. Megan is the daughter of a good friend of my mother's, & most times we visited Mum's family in Sydney we would make the very long drive down to rice-country in south NSW & visit the Dunns. Megan & Alex have just done five months & over ten-thousand kilometres of cycle touring in Japan, Britain & Europe. I was somewhat jealous, but I don't think I would ever be able to handle that much ride roading, slick tyres, fully rigid & loaded bikes. They were in London for two & one days respectively before flying out to Australia & Canada. In another of the series of coincidences Megan is going on to NZ with her mother in a couple of weeks to visit my family & do a bit of hiking before returning to Canada where she & Alex live very close to where Adele & I are going in January. After negotiating the tube & trains back to Sidcup, we made use of what daylight remained cleaning, dismantling & packing the bikes in to Tardis's (the same bike bag I use for my travels, but they were in much better condition & the adjustable shoulder strap of the new version looked quite good) . It was great to hear various touring stories & have bikes to tinker with & scratch knuckles undoing tight bolts, get covered in grease & brake dust (just another thing not to miss of vee &, would you believe, cantilever brakes). Trish cooked up a storm & heroically volunteered for the drive to Gatwick at half-past four the next morning. After being the geeks we are & having a Trivial Pursuit quiz, there wasn't much time for sleep before we were all up again & off to the airport - I was very surprised that a Tardis fitted in the boot of the Micra.

Friday started again at about ten o'clock for the rest of us (Alex was in the air by then) & Megan & I continued to cleaning & packing of her bike - it got called off the previous night when I dropped a bolt on the pavers & couldn't find it - trying to shed as many parts as possible due to QANTAS's stingy baggage allowance for bikes (we managed to discard most of the drivetrain as it was showing the signs of a very long trip - the chain was almost as bendy crossways). We also worked out that Megan's grandparents knew Trish's parents from the cycling club they used to belong to - my grandfather was also part of the same club & I assume that is how Mum & Gill met; somewhere along here Trish was showing me photos & documents relating to my great-great uncle Stanley who was killed at Passchendale & we came across many Christmas letters that my Mum had sent from just before I was born & spanned over twenty years - they were fascinating & quite amusing in parts & brought back a lot of memories of growing up on the orchard in Papamoa & then later in Te Puke. My attempts at learning to swim & participation (a euphemism) in sports through school were recurring subjects! We are just back from dropping Megan at Heathrow at the more respectable hour of nine-thirty & after two nights of a full house (Trish's sister Jan also stayed last night), it's a little quieter now - which is useful as the last five paragraphs of this discourse had been left unwritten for a few days.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A week in Paris

So I'm back from seven days in Paris, all the washing is done, I've spoken to the family back home, my hair is cut (much needed) & I'm almost over a twenty-four hour cold - time to sit down & try & remember all the wonderful things I saw & did in over the last week. It's a bit hard to tell, as they are quite different, but Paris may just have knocked New York City off the top of my favourite city list. NYC is a lot more intense & has a lot more energy, on the contrary Paris is generally pretty relaxed & the whole place is just beautiful & there is so much history & culture (chockas!).

Anywho, a nice simple & quick trip to Paris Gare du Nord on Eurostar - sort of odd to think that one is underneath the English Channel for twenty-odd minutes. The change from English to French countryside after the stretch of darkness was immediately noticeable. The hostel I stayed at for the week was easy to find about four Metro stops north-east of the train station & right on a canal. I was still unpacking my gear when I strangely familiar face walked in to the room - the Te Puke connection strikes again! Alastair was two years behind me through primary school at Fairhaven (in Adele's year) & I went through school with his older sister - needless to say I was quite surprised to see him in the same hostel room as me in Paris. He had just arrived from NZ & was off to play centre for a French rugby club somewhere out of Paris. After that excitement & a quick meal, it was off to see that most famous of Paris icons - the Eiffel Tower. Quite beautiful lit up at night it was & good to get a view of the city from the top - I was surprised at just how flat the place is. For some reason, I thought that the tower was grey & steel coloured; I was intrigued to find it is painted bronze. Quite an achievement for the late nineteenth century - especially when it was only three years from conception to completion.
Friday morning it was off to Invalides to check out Musee de l' Armee (the Army Museum). This started off by visiting Napoleon's tomb inside the impressive Dome Church. It's quite a massive tomb in the basement directly under an impressive dome. There were also the tombs of one of Napoleon's brothers & some other notables. The bits of the musuem I could understand were quite interesting (thankfully the English translation was through most of the displays) - especially the display going from France's defeat by Germany in 1871 through to the invasion of France at the end of World War II. It was nice to get a different take on the events of the first half of the twentieth century & also to learn a bit about of Free France Forces. My history got a good brush-up with the exhibit detailing of the military events around France's first days as a republic until the monarchy came back after Napoleon's exile. Being in Paris, the museum was housed in an impressive & large building - I'm not sure what was going on, but there was some event in the courtyard with a lot of parading military types & a military band playing. Upstairs in the attic of one wing of the building was an extensive collection of scale relief models of different towns & forts of France from 1668 to 1875 in the Musee des Plans-relief. It was a curious collection founded by Louis XIV to get an idea of what his troops were up to & where they were stationed - impressive in it vastness & detail.

After all that history I wanted to explore a little of the current city, so walked & Metro'd around a bit until I got to Montparnasse Tower - one of the few skyscrapers in Paris outside of La Defense business district (which is a fair way from the centre of the city & in Zone 3 of the Metro). The viewing platforms at 56 & 59 stories gave great views of the city on what was another typical (of the week) brilliantly sunny & warm autumn day. Unlike last night's Eiffel Tower visit, I got a good appreciation of the city layout & just where such landmarks such as Notre Dame, the Pantheon, Arc de Triomphe, & the Louvre really were. Somewhere in here I popped in to the Postal Museum, but that wasn't too interesting as it was all in French & I had no idea what it was all about. Went down to the Louvre to check out the building & park close by, was there at sunset:
After a bit of an early morning stroll around the local area went to check out the Pantheon. Built by Louis XV in memory of Saint Genevieve in the later half of the eighteenth century it has spent alternate periods of its life as a house of Christian worship & secular use. It has been in secular use since the funeral of Victor Hugo in 1885 & holds the tombs of some of France's most famous - Hugo, Dumas, Voltaire, Braille, the Curies (Marie being the first women entombed here). It's another grand building & interestingly from its dome hangs Foucault's pendulum. The pendulum was first installed in 1851 to prove the earth's rotation. A deceptively long walk down a slight hill & over half of the Seine & I was at Notre Dame - had a brief visit underneath the square in front of the cathedral to the crypt. It shows rooms & foundations of the city from the Medieval & Classical Ages. Due to the huge lines waiting to go in to & up the cathedral, I skipped Notre Dame & went to the other end of the small island to check out the Conciergerie & Sainte-Chapelle.
The Conciergerie started out as a palace many centuries ago, became a palace & a prison and when the royal family left it became more of a prison than a palace until it was eventually just a prison. It was used by the Revolutionary Tribunal & many dissidents were held & guillotined there - some of the more famous 'residents' include Marie-Antoinette & Robespierre. Almost next door is Sainte-Chapelle built in the 1240s for the eventual Saint Louis to house the relics of the Passion. It's a very grand Gothic chapel & I was intrigued by its relatively small footprint, in relation to its very tall walls. The walls, especially on the top of the two stories are filled with massive stained-glass windows - some of which have been recently restored.
Leaving the centre of the city I was off to the Musee des Arts et Metiers, which is a large museum of innovations & invention. I spent quite a bit of time in the exhibits at the start of the museum that concerned measuring the world & the industrialisation of process. Particularly neat were Lavosier's laboratory (he worked out the chemical composition of water & is considered by many to be the father of modern chemistry) & the ironmaking, steelmaking & rolling mill models & very good history of the these processes. The blast furnace model was very good & it was good to learn that tuyere is a French word - it always seemed an unusual word to me, but it makes a bit more sense now that I think about it. A quick whizz around the rest of the museum as it was close to closing time - more good exhibits & models of construction techniques through the ages, communication, energy, mechanics (I think my grandfather would have particularly enjoyed all the gears & machines in here) & transport. They even had the original ball from Focault's Pendulum (the one swinging in the Pantheon is a replica). The Musee national d'art Modern'e was open late, so I took a look around. It is housed in a suitably modern building, & although it had some good pieces in it - I once again showed my general disinterest & lack of appreciation of modern 'art'. Wonderful onion soup for dinner (big hunk of cheesy bread floating on the top) & a nicely tender & tasty stew as well.
I managed to get to Notre Dame before opening on Sunday morning & be in the second group up to the towers. It's a bit of a dizzying climb up spiral staircases to sixty-nine metres - but the view is worth it. The towers and carving are pretty neat as well - as is the mammoth "Emmanuel" bell which has a mass of over 13000 kilograms! The panorama of Paris was spectacular - is funny how you don't have to get very high in Paris to get a great view of all the old buildings & the monuments. Down from the towers, I popped in to the cathedral with hordes of tourist while Sunday morning mass was taking place - the congregation seated in the centre of the cathedral & the tourists wandering around the periphery. The air was heavy with overpowering frankincense - this is only really of interest to me & Trish as we recently finished watching the BBC series on the frankincense trail.
From here I made my way to the Musee d'Orsay - housed in a big old, but renovated, railway station; the station had been built for the 1900 Exhibition so is a work of art itself. This gallery quickly became my favourite so far & still remains one of the best that I visited during my stay. It displays work from mid nineteenth century to the eve of the Great War & holds a lot of Impressionist, pre- & post-Impressionist, Naturalist and Academism works - not that I can really pretend to know much of the difference. Monet's works were, as expected very good; I also enjoyed works by Signac & Detaille, and saw Whistler's famous old woman sitting on a chair. This polar bear is for Uncle Geoff:
In a departure from all the galleries & fabulous buildings, my next port of call was Musee des Egouts de Paris - a museum of the Paris sewer system. It was of course the engineer in my prompting me to visit these dark & slightly whiffy tunnels under the city - only a slight unpleasant odour, much better than those unforgettable field-trips. Paris seems quite proud of their sewer system & I begun to see why. The 2100 km of tunnels not only transport wastewater (storm water & sewage seems to be mixed), but the tunnels are so large & go to so much of the city they also carry the potable & non-potable water supplies, phone cables, fibre optics & compressed air; the only don't carry electricity & gas because of the fire risk. Geek that I am, I was of course fascinated by the small glimpse at this large network that has been around for over a century. There were all sorts of ingenious mechanical means that they had invented for clearing the bottom of the channels of silt & sand - this is a giant iron ball (slightly smaller than the cross section of the tunnel) that moves slowly down the sewer, of course backing up the flow behind it & the extra pressure displaces the sediment.
It was a pleasant walk along the Seine to the Maritime Museum past the Eiffel Tower again - these were the best looking bikes I saw all week. Admittedly, not all that practical; but compared to all the commuter bikes that are around - these were the closest to mountain-bikes I had seen for some time. The Maritime Museum was not all that great - probably because it was mostly in French, unlike a lot of other museums which are tri-lingual at least, & also it had to compete with the British Maritime Museum which is excellent & I had been to only a week prior. There was this Imperial barge:
Off on the Metro to La Defense, I took the #1 Line to the end - these must be the newest trains on the Metro - they were noticeably faster, you didn't have to release the doors manually (after the driver had unlocked them - you can't just open the door on a moving carriage) & you could see right down the train from one end to the other - it's really just one big carriage. While on the subject of the Metro - it was great. The trains were regular, quick, comfortable, there were no delays, the map & signage was easily understood (even though it was in French), you didn't have to scan your ticket/card to get out & there were stations everywhere - Parisians are rightfully proud of it. At La Defense I went up the Grande Arche, which is twenty years old & sits at the end of the "Historic Axis of Paris" - a straight line from the Louvre, through the Pyramide de Pei, the Arc du Carrousel, the Jardin des Tuileries, the Place de la Concorde, Champs Elysees, & the Arc de Triomphe up to Grande Arche. Really it is a hollow 110m cube, with the two side full of offices & the top floor a viewing deck & exhibition space. Yet another different, but good, view was to be had of Paris and pleasingly & surprisingly there was a computer museum at the top. It had some wonderful artefacts (it's funny calling things only ten to twenty years old such, but that's the speed of development) - right from punch card makers & readers, through one of those wonderful computers from the '60s that fill an entire room, the vast range of PCs that started to proliferate through the '80s & things that even I recognise from school in the '90s (still didn't see Carmen San Diego though). In a side room, there was also an exhibition of Macs from the last three decades - fascinating. I may be a nerd, but am not all that much of computer-geek - but it was still a very different museum to most I have seen & was excellent.
With it being so obvious from the top of the Grande Arche, the Arc de Triomphe was the next obvious place to visit. It may not have been as tall as some of the other towers, but it was all stairs to the top & the spiral sure went for a long way with interruption. Managed to arrive at the right time to see the lighting of the flame for the Unknown Soldier of World War I - the small exhibit upstairs (I wasn't expecting there to be so much room inside the structure) proved a little bit of a distraction before heading up the last few stairs to the roof & once again there was another vista of Paris before my eyes. Looking straight down the Champs Elysees, it was easy to work out where I was going to wander next - all the way down to the Concorde (a gift from Egypt once upon a time). Just as well it was all gradually downhill - it was a long way; I was surprised that most of the Champs Elysees was so built up, I was expecting it to be more open. Eventually it opened up to a small park near the bottom.

On Monday, I was keen to get away from the centre of the city, so went out to the end of 13 line (north of the city) to visit the Basilica Cathedral of Saint Denis ("there's some lovely filth down here"), who was apparently martyred on this site around 250 AD. Parts of the current cathedral have been around since the fifth century & most of the kings & queens of France have been buried there since the sixth century. There are plenty of recumbent statues & all sorts of crypts - the remains of Louis XVI & Marie-Antoinette are here, moved there by Louis XVIII - the last king to be buried there in 1824. Changing Metro lines a bit, I found myself climbing what must be the only hill in Paris. At the top was quite a touristy with a lot of outdoor cafes crowded around a small square & it was one of the only places I saw artists trying to convince people to sit for portraits & caricatures. I was up there to go the Salvador Dali Museum; it was quite small & I was surprised at how much I liked it. There were a lot of interesting paintings, sketches & sculptures, especially the melted clocks. There is of course a big church (Sacre Coeur) on the top of the hill & on the steps in front there were plenty of street performers & spectators - & even a bride & groom (not an uncommon sight in various public places around the city). From the bottom of this great park (with its own spectacular view of Paris) it was a bit of a walk back to the Metro & I walked to one more stop to see the Moulin Rouge - passing through a rather seedy looking stretch of road on the way. Took the obligatory photo & went back to the Concorde for, surprise, another museum. This one, the Musee de l'Orangerie is quite a lot smaller that some of the more famous museums & was chosen & arranged by Monet. The top floor is dedicated to two large rooms displaying Monet's spectacular "Water-lillies". Downstairs in the basement there are many more pieces; my particular favourites were Renoir & Derain. More Metro-riding & I was at the Musee du Cinema - quite a small museum, but with a good audio-commentary explaining the development of the technology & art of cinema; the most notable thing on display (to me) was Norman Bates' mother's head, which was a gift from Hitchcock to the museum. By now I was quite weary & headed back home for another good meal & rest.

By now I was getting a bit exhausted from all the walking & excitement, so Tuesday started off with just a ride to a Metro stop one station away to one of the best science museums in the world - Cite des Science & de L'industrie. It is housed in a large, new building near the same canal that runs adjacent to the hostel, with a rather strange looking reflective sphere sitting in a vast lawn next a beached submarine. The museum started off well with a very good exhibit about innovation & taking ideas to market, & there was also a very informative section on epidemics - which I strongly suspect was put together before swine flu raised its head & snorted rather loudly. But apart from that, the rest of the place was quite disappointing, partly due to the exhibits being rather old & tired & the English translation rather poor (for the record, the best translation at a museum was at Musee des Arts et Metiers - it was clear & without strange turns of phrase that took time to decipher). I was however pleased to have a poke around a submarine from the '50s. It was, by today's standards quite small, diesel powered, carried a crew of forty & an arsenal of eight torpedoes. A pleasant stroll in the sun along the canal for a short break at the hostel before heading off to the Picasso museum - which, it turned out, is closed for a couple of years for refurbishment. I did stumble across the Musee Carnavalet - I never worked out exactly what the theme of the museum was as there was little translation, but it did have a big section on the Revolution & was a maze of a place & over all quite large considering it was on what I thought was quite a small block. It was quite close to the Bastille, which I was quite keen to see, but there doesn't seem to be much left of the famous prison. Due to my weary feet I spent an hour sitting down on a boat on a cruise up the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.
My last full day in Paris, Wednesday, I had planned a tour of the Opera House, some wine-tasting & then on to the Louvre. But in the end I couldn't bring myself to leave Paris without visiting the famous palace at Versailles. So I was out with many others walking from the train station up towards the palace shortly before eleven. It was great to finally visit such a place with such an interesting history (Fifth-form History was of course where I first heard of Versailles - curiously, I did not see a single mention of the treaty that set such a disturbing & tragic ball rolling). The whole place was just exquisite & as happens in the occasional place, I walked around conscious that my mouth was half-open in amazement. No matter how many photos I put up here, I still don't think I'd be able to convey the grandeur of the place; so I'll stick to one of the chapel & one of the Hall of Mirrors. Overall, there were huge paintings, sumptuous decorations & furnishings, marble columns; in some ways it was easy to get an inkling of perhaps why the monarchy was overthrown - just so opulent & completely over the top, quite incredible. After all the exhibits indoors to go around, it was time for a stroll around the gardens. If the palace was big, the gardens are just massive; actually, looking back at the palace from the gardens, the palace didn't look as big & as impressive as I always thought it was from various photos - perhaps I was just not in the right place to get the best perspective. The beauty of the large gardens was that it was very easy to escape the crowds & find a little peace & quiet. Still, there was a lot of walking to be done to get down to the comparatively small, but still very big, houses - Grand Trianon & Petit Tianon. The Grand Trianon was built for Louis XIV to be able to escape to the far end of the park at Versailles; it also had a wonderfully fragrant garden. It was all slightly uphill to get back the town to grab a late lunch & the train back to the Louvre.

Thankfully, Wednesday is one of the late nights at the Louvre so I had plenty of time to get around most of it. Once again, I was aware of walking around with my mouth open at times. It was hard to know whether to be more impressed by the building or the collections; with both being vast (to say the least), the shear size of the collection was staggering & is what the Louvre is most famous for, despite being a very large former palace. (As for the pyramid, it has great function - but looks out of place in the courtyard & I didn't really like it.) The sculptures & vast collections of Etruscan, Mesopotamian, Iranian, Egyptian & Greek artefacts was incredible (how does one collect so many items?). And then there were the paintings; I'm a bit lost for words about them. After hearing occasionally that the Mona Lisa is a lot smaller than one expects, I was surprised to find she was a lot larger than I thought she would be. It was also pretty easy to get close to her (although I was surprised at how many Indians came up to me elsewhere in the museum asking for directions to the most famous of paintings); actually, there were masses of people around, but the place is so big it wasn't a problem anywhere - I'm just glad I came to Paris at the end of September & not the height of the summer holidays. After two incredible palaces in one day, my feet were aching a bit too much so I was happy to hop on the Metro again & head back out to the hostel & then out to grab a bite to eat (first time I remember being the only diner in a restaurant - it's a little odd; I'm used to not having conversation when I'm dining, but to have no conversation around the whole restaurant is a little strange).

I was hoping for a nice sleep in on my last day as check-out was at ten & my train didn't leave until mid-afternoon; but that was not to be - however, it was nice to have a chat to someone with a Kiwi accent over dinner & share travel stories. With a few hours to kill, I left my luggage at the hostel & headed in to town to check out a couple of buildings I had seen from a distance. Here is the Assemble Nationale, outside which a young woman tried to pull the "I just found this wedding band on the pavement, is it yours?" in broken English on me. As I was walking away from my photograph taking, she picked a massive wedding band off the pavement, asked me if it was mine, then tried to give it to me as it didn't fit her (not surprising - it was huge) & then asked me for some money. That was strange enough, but as I was crossing the road & still thinking about what had just happened another guy came up & tried to pull the same trick - I just had to laugh & tell him there was another ring on the other side of the road if he wanted that too. A bit more walking around, stumbled across a lot more fancy-pants shops than I had seen, got back to the opera house & then had had enough & took off back to the hostel.

After another quick & uneventful trip back on the Eurostar (I did manage to read most of a very interesting book on Captain Bligh of the Bounty), I was back in London & on the Tube listening to the PA apologising for the delays going in to Aldgate - typical.