A Travellerspoint blog

Paris, Pompidu and circumstance

Headed into the center of Paris for the first time. My first reaction is - it looks exactly like Paris. It is such a photographed city that it is hard not to come with a preconception of the city and it is hard for it not to be confirmed in the reality. As a result, I'm not tempted to take a bunch of pictures of the city per se (though I'm sure I'll sneak in a few). My second reaction is the city is a wonderful walkable mixed use community and that it achieves this by supporting a remarkably high population density. I have read estimates that the density is something like 200 dwelling units per acre, and given the vast number of 5, 6 and 7 storey apartments lining every street, I can believe. To put this in perspective for my Okemos friends, this is roughly equivalent to putting the entire township of Meridian in a space no larger than the Meridian Mall.

Well, all right, one picture - OK, two; one a quirky shot of the city at night and the other of the Pompidu center, my first museum destination.

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The Pompidu is famous for its aggressively mechanical architecture and as a center for modern art. It is also overwhelming. I spend the whole day there and I could only manage the visiting exhibitions; another whole huge floor of the permanent collection was more than I could handle. I started with an exhibit about Marcel Duchamp, who is most famous two works - Nude Descending A Staircase, one of the most shocking works ever to be exhibited in America in its era, and for painting a mustache on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa.

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The exhibit goes into exhaustive detail on the influences on Duchamp, starting with Dada and moving through Cubism, Fauvism, Impressionism, and more. It is interesting to see an artist work through all these styles, but I, as a layman, was left with the impression of more dilletantism with occasional brilliance. Interestingly, he wasn't a starving artist - he was supported by his wealthy father. Does this come into play in his inclination to move on in art rather than stake a claim and try to make it his, perhaps as other artists who needed the bread (literally) might be forced to do?

In any event, it was a lot to work through and it was nicely, if oddly, complemented by the other special exhibit of the works of Jeffery Koons. He has made no bones about making a living from his art and has become fabulously wealthy producing his unusual and frequently unsettling works. One element of the trajectory of his career can be encapsulated in three photos of objects from the beginning, middle and peak of his career.

The first is one of a set of assemblies of mundane inflatable objects and mirrors. In the second later piece he has retained the inflatable form and developed a reflective surface treatment. In the third and most recent object, he has scaled up and added color (and switched to a balloon dog). It's worth mentioning that an orange version of the inflatable dog sold for the highest price for any work by any living artist, $58.4 million.

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He does other work as well, of course, much of it unsettling and some totally NSFW. He reminds me of Rodin, who was also extremely successful at marketing his works (did you know there are 28 more-or-less original full size statues of The Thinker out there?) and who also was as much an artistic director as a hands-on artist, relying on craftsmen to execute his concepts.

That took most of the day! Time for a late French lunch. There is a fancy restaurant in the Pompidu so I decided to splurge. I had a French green bean and mushroom (yes, the big white discs are mushrooms) salad and a classic French beef carpaccio with a nice glass of Chablis.

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Armed with renewed strength, I tackled a Frank Gehry exhibit, equally deep and large, that took the rest of the day into evening (luckily the Pompidu is open quite late). There were interviews and documentaries and a huge collection of his models. He really kind of does work as shown in the Simpson's parody (where he crumples a letter from Marge asking him to build a building in Springfield and, after throwing it on the ground, decides it looks pretty good and so builds it) pushing and cutting chunks of cardboard and then staring at the result.

I like architecture (Frank Lloyd Wright fanboy) and in addition Robin works in a Gehry-designed building, the Stata Center. There was a model of the Stata center in the exhibition and I decided to out-Gehry Gehry. The model was in a display case and I set my phone for 'panorama' mode which is usually used to look out at a scene and instead I took an 'inside out' panorama, walking around the model. I think the result is pretty cool.

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Well, that was quite a day. My brain hurt. So I wrapped it up with Boeuf Bourginone in a nearby brasserie - with more wine, of course.

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I waddled back to the Metro and put my brain to bed. Nice day.

Posted by tdeits 23:15 Archived in France Tagged art food paris museum gehry koons duchamp pompidu Comments (0)

Paris

I visit a science museum - with robots !!!

overcast 49 °F

Had an early morning flight from Athens to Paris (economy class - oh, the horror!) and then negotiated the train and met with my host in Paris, Jean Jay. Settled into the apartment and did a bit of blogging, shopped for some food for breakfast and got ready for the first day in Paris.

Of course, the first place you go in Paris is the hands-on science museum, right? I Googled it up and when I got into the vicinity I thought to myself - 'interesting- they put the science museum right next to this enormous basketball stadium..'

My bad - the enormous building was the Cite des Sciences et de l' Industries

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And unlike the Tardis, it's just as big inside as outside.

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Fortuitously, there was a special exhibition on Robotic Art

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so I headed there first. It seems that there are two major universal challenges in the world of robotics that everyone is trying to solve and the rest of us can't figure out why. The first is a robot that can bring you a bottle of beer. The second is to make a 'real' Transformer. The exhibit attempted to tackle the second - but really, a mighty robot that transforms into..... a Citroen sedan?

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They were doing a video shoot while I was there so I got to see it transform. It took like 10 minutes; Megatron has nothing to be jealous of.

Here's a display from my favorite robot art exhibit

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The exhibit, complete with mad scientist video, describes some truly amazing thrill rides. Rather than try and shoot video of video, I strongly encourage you to visit the website of the Institute for Centrifugal Reseach, whose motto is "Gravity is our Enemy" or "We are spinning people around for future generations" or "Unpredictable since 1976" or something. Watch out, Cedar Point, you have some real competition!

A couple of other cool displays were a robot painstakingly drawing a 10 foot long mural of the surface of Mars using an image from the Curiosity Rover and a weird installation of 20 robotic hospital beds that slowly and subtly change elevation to ethereal music.

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You may have seen videos of Theo Jansen's 'Strandbeest's as they march down beaches. They had one of his creations on hand and I got to see it in motion

The other exhibits were quite impressive, very well designed and pitched to an older child/adult audience. There was an interesting exhibit on risk assessment that explained some of the techniques and pitfalls due to personal psychology to accurate risk assessment, a large exhibit on molecular biology and evolution and another on transportation. You can see the scale of the exhibits from the picture below of part of the transportation exhibit.

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They also have fablab. It's downstairs from the main exhibit hall and accessible without paying museum admission. It really has no interaction with the rest of the museum, either in space or in programming. I wandered in when it was opened and was basically ignored; I guess they get tired of tourists sticking their noses in, but I hope we can be sure that the outcome of the Innovation 5 project will be a more immediately welcoming place.

There are also separate areas for kids 2-7 and 5 - 12. I wasn't able to visit those on this day but I contacted the staff and they gave me permission to visit later. They normally don't let adults without children into these areas, understandably, but I used my Impression 5 credentials and, as they say, voila! There is even a third area for older teens and adults which I also haven't visited yet.

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Of course, there is a gift shop to exit through, but again, as in Perth essentially no branded merchandise. No doubt there is a career for some marketer to go around and teach museums overseas how to exploit their brands for revenue!

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Of course, given the scale and quality of the Cite, it may just be that they don't feel the need for more money - weird, right?

Posted by tdeits 03:53 Archived in France Tagged paris france museum science robots makerspaces Comments (0)

Aegina and the temple of Aphaia

sunny 71 °F

On the advice of the helpful travel agent at Blue and White Travel in Piraeus, I took off on one of the many ferries and cruise ships crowding Piraeus harbor in the morning.
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As we left the harbor, I spotted this yacht at dock. Googling it up, I discovered that it is the Topaz which is the world's largest mega yacht. Apparently it cost $500 million to construct. Egad. Later we passed a rather better looking boat.

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It took about an hour and a half to get to Aegina harbor which is quite pretty and lined along the shore with tourist restaurants and shops. The harbor is full of charming small fishing boats that are in active use.

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The major attraction on the island is the Temple of Aphaia. It's some distance from the harbor and I decided to use it as an excuse for a stroll. I bought a bag of pistachios (a major product on the island) from a nice guy who gave me directions - turn left at the stadium and just keep going. He thought I was nuts (ha). I also bought some mandarin oranges and with my bottle of water I set out. The first thing to say about the walk was that the weather was unbelievably perfect. A real Mediterranean climate, mildly warm, low humidity, brilliant blue sky and a very light breeze - one of the best weather days I have had anywhere. Here's a look back towards town - quite a bit of climbing on this walk. I also passed this perfect little Mediterranean house with pistachio trees in the front yard.

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It just kept getting prettier as I walked. After a while my first destination came into view, the church of Agios Nektarios.

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The church is quite new, less than 20 years old. It was built to honor Fr. Nektarios who, after what appears to have been a somewhat tumultuous career in the Orthodox church, retired to Aegina and ministered to the locals.

The interior is under renovation (leaky roof; what church doesn't have one?) but did get a nice picture of the altar and the charming mosaic map of the islands on the floor in front of the altar.

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There was also a lovely domed chamber containing the remains of Fr. Nektarios (miracles have been attributed to him, but I don't know if he has been canonized) and another beautiful altar and mural.

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After this break, it was back on the road (it's about a 7 mile trip). More gorgeous scenery and, finally, a glimpse of the temple.

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I reached the bottom of the last climb to the temple and a car pulled over. A very nice lady, Lisa, who is a sport teacher on the island had pulled over and offered me a lift up the hill to the temple. Maybe she was motivated by the fact that by this point I was crawling on my hands and knees and weeping :) . Whatever the reason, she zipped me to the top of the hill and even took me a short way down the other side to get a view of the other side of the island, which looked fabulous.

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The temple itself was remarkable. It has suffered far less damage than other temples owing to its isolation and I was also the only visitor that afternoon. Here are a couple of pictures of the temple, one when I first arrived and one later near sunset.

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Of course, the view from the hilltop was also spectacular.

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Lisa had encouraged me to consider staying overnight on that side of the island and I was tempted. I decided to walk into the town on the other side of the hill and see I could find a place to stay. I arrived after dark and the entire town had apparently closed for the season. I found one open restaurant and one supermarket - as far as I could tell all the other restaurants and all the hotels were closed. Fortunately, I had a number for a taxi service and so I bailed and called a taxi for the ride back to the harbor to make it in time for the last ferry back to Pireaus.

I made it, rested on board and grabbed a sandwich for dinner in Piraeus before going back to my apartment - what a remarkable introduction to the true Mediterranean experience.

Posted by tdeits 02:28 Archived in Greece Tagged landscapes temples view scenery island weather aegina aphaia Comments (0)

Acropolis now

sunny 74 °F

You have to do it, right? The Acropolis looms over Athens, popping up unexpectedly as you round a corner or on souvenir tea towels all over town. My plan was to get there early; very early. So I set off well before dawn from my apartment and headed up. Another thing about Athens - they are not very big on signage; street names, directions to this or that or even buildings (the National Archaeological Museum doesn't have its name on it). Instead I relied on Mr. Google and the notion that the Acropolis was up so up was good.

Well, here we learn the difference between a local and a global maximum. There are actually two hills in the same vicinity. One is the Acropolis, the other is the Hill of Muses, which I ended up on top of. No worries - in retrospect this is actually the clever way to do it. The climb to the top of the Hill of the Muses is over somewhat rough paths (especially if you are improvising) but no big deal. Arriving, though, I had a fabulous view. Hey - I got your rosy fingered dawn right here.....

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There is a small ruin on top of the hill that is also pretty picturesque

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and of course you get a great view of the Acropolis (and, sadly, all the construction equipment)

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After enjoying the sunrise I dropped back down and, armed with actual sunlight, I struck out for the Acropolis - again. I was aided by one sign that said, helpfully, "Acropolis" and had an arrow. Unfortunately, while technically true, it did in fact point in such a way that I had to walk 320 degrees around the hill to actually find the entrance. Still, a nice walk through a pretty neighborhood. Part of it was through a very tony area and then down tiny pathways between tiny houses likely full of people tired of people like me getting lost on their hill. They have supplemented the Acropolis signage by doubling it to two.

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Again, better to be lucky than smart. I arrived at about 7:45 AM. The Acropolis doesn't open until 8, so I got my ticket and was one of the first visitors. This has got to be one of the most photographed places on earth, so I won't show too many of my efforts. This one of the Parthenon is pretty good and illustrates a point - there are only 2 people in the picture! This is the virtue of visiting Greece in the fall, apart from the ludicrously good weather; not many tourists. It turns out that tour buses don't show up until 9, so that first hour is the magic moment to spend some quiet and contemplative time at this amazing place. After 9 - fugeddaboutit.

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The second picture above is of another smaller temple next to the Parthenon, which is also quite beautiful and illustrates another point. The statues you see are fakes. This is not something the Greek authorities are trying to hide; it's right on their signage (yes, there is decent informational signage on the Acropolis). As you can see, there is a whole lot of preservation and restoration work ongoing, in part to prevent further damage from air pollution as well as stabilizing the structure. They have made the decision to replace certain parts with replicas so that the originals can be preserved in museums. Oh, and by the way, they are clearly still super pissed off about the Elgin Marbles.

Once it became clear that the crowds were in control, I headed downhill and found a nice cafe for breakfast. Chicken crepes and coffee. By the way, ordering coffee in Greece is probably trickier than even Australia. I never really got the hang of it but ordering a cappuccino is usually a safe option. The Greeks drink tons of 'frape' - milk and water and instant coffee served over ice. I did learn to order a frape metrio - meaning with just a little sugar but it wasn't my fave beverage.

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Armed with a few calories, I hit the Metro and headed for the Mediterranean coast of Athens, more or less at random. I ended up along a shoreline that had both mega yacht harbors

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and squatters villages of refugees.

The other thing the area held was many Olympic venues. Apart from the main stadium, most of them were completely abandoned and going to ruin. Here's one that doesn't look to bad yet, but is clearly never used - the beach volleyball venue.

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Another sad indication of the state of Greece today were the UAC's in this area - someone had gone along and carefully pulled up each and every one of them in the sidewalk and sold them for scrap.

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Still, after much walking, I came to a yacht harbor

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that had a very nice outdoor restaurant where I had a delicious fish lunch. Which I shared.

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I then took the metro to the next stop, Piraeus, which is the end of the line and Athens' main shipping and tour boat harbor. I decided to see if I could squeeze in a visit to a Greek island, as my friend Audrey had suggested. I got a ticket for the next day and headed back. I noticed something odd that I had been unconsciously aware of on the way from the Olympic site to Pireaus. the subway roadbed from Piraeus to the Olympic site was rough and irregular and used traditional jointed rails. As soon as you hit the Olympic site, the roadway was smooth, level and used modern welded rail. Clearly the Greek government had upgraded the track just far enough to get Olympic visitors to the venues from downtown but had cut corners by leaving the last mile in its original sorry state.

A real day of contrasts in Athens. Again.

Posted by tdeits 23:58 Archived in Greece Tagged temples food athens sunrise acropolis Comments (0)

Athens - downtown

sunny 63 °F

That title has a double meaning that will probably be a thread through most of this part of my blog. My first day in Athens I decided to head downtown and look at the central market and the Athens National Archaeological Museum. Unfortunately, my first immediate perception of Athens is graffiti. They are virtually everywhere - public signs, store fronts, walls, windows, sidewalks, you name it. It makes a horrible mess, but among folks I talked to, the basic attitude is they have other bigger problems to deal with. And they do; I think it's fair to say that Athens (and Greece) is the Detroit of Europe. They have taken a hammering and it shows on the faces of the people and in the state of the country. Like Detroit, there seems to be a sense that maybe the worst is in the past, but progress is difficult to discern.

Oh, let's be tourists again. My first stop was the Central Market which is as colorful and pungent as you might imagine. Every meat and fish stall has a butcher's block out front and some guy (always a guy) with a cleaver ready to hack the customer's request out of a larger piece of whatever they are selling. Here a a couple of photos of the market - an overview and lamb's heads on special (ew!)

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More conventional foodstuffs are also on display, including fruits and vegetables and you can get a good cup of Greek coffee while you wander. Interestingly, Greek coffee is just like Turkish coffee except that Greeks would never call it that - although if you look closely at the grinder in the picture, there is a little label that says "Turkish coffee."

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From here I headed to the museum. Suffice it to say that going to a Greek archaeological museum is absolutely guaranteed to be overwhelming. The National Museum is simply full of objects that fill world history and art textbooks with their images. I took pictures of some, and just gazed at others. Here are a few more or less familiar objects from the vast collection. Here is a head from 3000 BC, from the Cycladic culture and a gold death mask from the Mycenean era, about 1600 BC.

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Now a few youngsters, maybe 2000 years old, from the classic era of Greek art

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However, the high point for me was these relatively unpreposessing brass fragments from a 2000 year old shipwreck. This is the Antikytheria mechanism.

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It has taken decades to analyze this material but now it is clear that it was an extremely sophisticated analog computer, capable of a variety of calendrical functions for different calendars in use at the time as well as being able to predict the phases of the moon, the time of the next Olympiad and even solar eclipses. It is truly an extraordinary example of what was undoubtedly a fairly mature and highly advanced technological culture of which this single artifact and a few references in texts are our only evidence. The museum also includes many replicas built over the years to attempt to duplicate its funtions; here is a glimpse of the workings of one of the more recent models.

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Another cool feature is that it is its own owner's manual; the visible surfaces are covered with inscriptions describing its operation.

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Hey, I'm a techie, so excuse me if I say that I was deeply moved to contemplate this artifact. It represents an amazing Greek technological culture that disappeared from the face of the earth. Its like would not be seen for more than a millennium into the future. I know that technology is no cure-all for what ails human culture, but I just can't help thinking where we might be today technologically and possibly as a people if we had been able to build on this foundation instead of waiting 1000 years to start again.

Sigh.

Posted by tdeits 04:50 Archived in Greece Tagged shopping athens museum graffiti archaeology antikytheria Comments (0)

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