Notre Dame de Chartres

Being a blog centered primarily around travel, it seems I’m lacking a post on churches and/or religious architecture. Wherever you travel, particularly around Europe and South America (composed primarily Catholic or Christian nations), there is a church around every corner and travellers are often urged to visit their monuments to religion. I clearly remember my travels around Europe in both 2004 and 2007, where I actually got to the point of saying, ‘OMG, not another church!’ Every town, city and village has at least one church, which is usually clearly highlighted in your average travel guides as an site of interested. And I, being the good little traveler, began visiting these churches, one by one, until they all turned into one mental melange of stained glass windows, vault, flying buttresses, spires, pews, alters, etc. If you asked me to describe a particular one, it would be somewhat difficult to distinguish one from the other. However, the cathedral at Chartres is one which stands out in my memory. Perhaps it was its grand size, its detailed and beautifully crafted sculpture work, or maybe even its magnificent stained glass windows. Whatever it was, it remember it being worth the visit. So if you’re staying in Paris for an extended period of time, or if you’re a history, architecture or art buff (I put my hand up here), I recommended taking a day out of the city and heading to this beautiful little town known as Chartres.

Being an art history student studying French in Paris, and having a love of architecture of any shape and form (ok, maybe not every shape and form, but I can appreciate most styles of architecture, from late antiquity to the present) I could not miss the opportunity of living so close to Notre Dame de Chartres and not visit one of the most amazing high Gothic cathedrals in the world. So one Saturday morning I jumped onto the train and headed towards the small town of Chartres.

The town of Chartres is located south-west of Paris – the easiest way to get there is to take a SNCF train from Le Gare de Montparnasse to Chartres station – the train trip is approximately one hour. Once you leave the smog of Paris and its bonlieu (the grey ‘working class’ outer suburbs of Paris) the surrounding countryside is a welcoming sight. Thick forests, cultivated farmland and quaint little villages flicker past the train window. Once you arrive in Chartres, breath in the fresh air and make your way to the cathedral. Being a small town, it’s difficult to get lost between the train station and the cathedral – just look up at the skyline and once you spot those tall Gothic spires framed against the sky, it’s rather difficult not to find the Cathedral.

Aside from visiting the cathedral, which is the town’s claim to fame, the town of Chartres is a rather pleasant place to spend the day. After the chaos of Paris, the small quiet streets and laid-back atmosphere of Chartres is rather welcoming. The town is very quaint – being set on the banks of the Eure River, parts of the town are connected by little bridges. It definitely is a ‘typical’ French rural town – with interesting little side streets, cobbled stone footpaths, beautifully designed and ‘cute’ picture-book houses and the twitter of birds flying by. For those gourmets out there, Chartres also has a great shopping precinct with an array of shops, cafes and fresh produce markets (if you want to purchase fresh produce, be sure to arrive at the markets before midday)!

And finally, the cathedral. Notre Dame de Chartres is absolutely breathtaking – the grand proportions of its stone columns and archways, the intricate and colourful stained glass windows, the impressive and tactile sculptural work… Just walking down the nave, one is awestruck by the shear size and magnitude of the structure – the space is just enormous. I once wrote an essay on Gothic and Romanesque religious architecture at university, arguing that one of the original purposes of these buildings was to subdue the populous by highlighting the power and might of the church. An being within the building, you surely get a feeling of the power and influence that the church once had over society.

To think that work on the present cathedral began in 1020 and after a number of additions and setbacks, it was finally consecrated in 1260. How amazing it is that such buildings were designed and constructed over 800 years ago! We think of the middle ages as being a period of simplicity, but we can see from buildings such as Chartres Cathedral, that they were quite technically advanced in some aspects. The building even impresses present day visitors. It is truly spectacular.

Copacabana & Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Some of my travels remain in my memory because of the places I visited. And others because of the people I met along the way. Copacabana and Isla del Sol remain in my memory for both of these reasons. During these few short days, I experienced some amazing landscapes, markedly the indescribable sunsets and sunrises, as well as meeting some of the loveliest and friendliest people I have met on my travels so far.

We arrived in Copacabana, which is only a few kilometers from the Peruvian boarder, on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, just in time to witness this amazing sunset pictured below (No photoshop tricks or filters here – this is what the sunset actually looked like. Amazing, huh!). Almost the entire bus load of people scrambled out to the water’s edge to take some amazing shots of what, in life looked to be an oil painting transposed onto the sky. It was truly magnificent, and like all great things, it lasted only a few short minutes, but we were fortunate enough to see it.

One of the nicest hostels we stayed in during our trip around South America was in Copacabana. We stayed in Hotel La Cupula, (we were originally hoping to stay in the neighbouring Hostal Las Olas, but they were unfortunately booked out) and for about AU$30 for a double room, it was a steal! (This was expensive for Bolivian standards, but paying that extra $10 won’t break the budget, and you’ll get a beautifully decorated, clean room, hot showers, comfortable beds, etc). Oh, and their restaurant serves up a delicious breakfast!

We immediately fell in love with Copacabana – the easy, laid back almost bohemian atmosphere of the town, the great shopping, the fantastic restaurants, not to mention our accommodation with its view out onto Lake Titicaca. Bliss! After an evening and a morning meandering through its streets, spending too much money on jewellery, and gorging ourselves on quinoa soup, we hoped onto a boat and headed to Isla de Sol.

It was on this boat ride which we met a bunch of people with whom we’d spend the rest of our stay on the island. I remember it was Rodrigo and Marc (two university friends, one was Peruvian, the other Spanish) who broke the ice with everyone, offering around some Pisco (the national spirit of Peru, although some Chileans claim it as theirs). All the guidebooks say that when in Peru, you must drink Pisco Sours. I agree, if you want to spend your holiday nursing a hangover, as the drink is lethal. So anyway, we all managed to warm ourselves up on that icy afternoon as we made our way to Isla del Sol, with the consequence of a few of us dizzily stumbling out of the boat once we reached the shore.

Isla del Sol (The Island of the Sun) is located on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, about 1 – 2 hours motor boat ride from Copacabana. There are no cars, nor paved roads on the islands, and the inhabitants of the island’s several villages living a simple life making a living from farming, fishing and now tourism. Isla del Sol is an extremely sacred place for the Incas. They believe that their creation myth, and their civilisation, began on Isla del Sol. Accordingly, they believe that the sun god was born on Isla del Sol and it is from this place that the Inca civilisation began. Some archeologist believe that the island was inhabited since the 3rd millennium BCE. There is an ancient temple, one of many archealogical ruins which are scattered around the island, which is dedicated to the sun god. We were lucky enough to have a local guide show us to this sacred site, as well as taking us to his family home, allowing us a glimpse into how the native people live on Isla del Sol.

Sunset on Isla del Sol is absolutely spectacular, in want of a better word. Many people visit the island solely to witness the sunsets and sunrises from it’s peaks. A group of about 10 of us from the hostel sat back, enjoyed a few glasses of Bolivian wine (which was the best red wine I have tasted to date! And unfortunately I’ve forgotten what it was called. We cleared out the island’s entire stock of it that night, it was that good!), and watched the sky dazzle colour for a few fleeting minutes. We continued with our wine drinking after the sun bid us good night, and managed to end up in a tiny little restaurant, ten of us all squash around a table, ordering massive giant-sized pizzas from this lovely little Aymaran man. It was such a great evening, full of chit chat, laughter, good food, good wine and great new-found friends. A few of us organised to meet at 5am the following morning, yet another early start, our trip was full of them, to watch the sunrise. And I’m so glad we got up again at the crack of dawn. You can see by the images below (which is only a few of the many, many photos I took that morning) that it was well worth the lack of sleep.

We sadly said good-bye to Isla del Sol that afternoon, to continue on our gringo trail, towards the Atacama dessert.

Notice the snow-capped Andes in the background. Magic!

The amazing landscape on the way to La Paz.

The Uros Islands, Peru

Water is in my veins. I literary grew up in the water – as a toddler we always had a blow-up pool in the backyard, as I grew older my parents bought me a slip ‘n’ slide, or two, and once we went through a few of those, placing the sprinkler under the trampoline on a hot summer’s day was better than heaven; I was forever doing squad swimming, both mornings and afternoons during my school days, I’d spend my entire summer holidays at the beach, or on my Dad’s boat… Even these days, when work and other commitments unfortunately take priority, I still make that bit of spare time to go for a jog along the beach, or around the bay, just to get a glimpse of the ocean, of the water. I’ve been very fortunate to have lived the majority of my life on Sydney’s northern beaches to be able to indulge in my love of water and the ocean. It must be in my blood. Both my parents come from the seaside towns on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. For generations we have lived by the sea, with the sea. So I always feel so refreshed and alive when being on the water. And this is exactly how I felt spending a beautiful sunny day floating on Lake Titicaca, on the Uros Islands, known as the floating islands, located on the Peruvian side of the lake, only a short boat’s trip from the town of Puno.

Just a little bit of information about the Uros Islands and the people who inhabit them:

The Uros Islands are inhabited by a race of people who pre-date the Inca civilisation. During their time, the Incas failed to take much notice of the ‘uncultured’ people of the floating islands, whom they believed to be simple and inferior, living on floating reed constructions, rather than in ‘grand cities’. Although the Uros people today have inter-married with local Aymara people, their civilisation and their customs still live on, outlasting that of the Incas. Although the Uros people do continue to live according to their traditional lifestyle, they have not completely rejected modern life – some people have motorised boats and solar panels to run electrical appliances, and most children attend school on one of the larger islands on the lake or in Puno.

There are approximately 40 floating islands that make up the Uros islands. These islands are constructed from totora, a native rush reed which grows on the banks of the lake. The dense roots of this reed create the foundation of the floating islands, which is about a metre in thickness. As the totora rots, more and more layers need to be added, meaning that the islands are in a constant state of repair and construction. Many of the islands change shape and size over time, accommodating the needs of the family which inhabits the island. The totora is also used in the construction of their houses and boats, and is also eaten and used for medicinal purposes by the native people.

It was quite a strange, yet relaxing sensation being on these islands. The ground constantly undulates with the flow of the tide and current, feeling almost as though you were on some enormous waterbed. I still remember the feeling – I could have laid in the sun for hours, breathing in the refreshing lake air and the smell of the totora reed. The people of the islands were happy to show us how they lived – it was rather amazing to think that these people actually lived on these islands – it all seemed a little surreal, as though I was in some sort of bizarre theme park. Although the Uros people do rely heavily on tourism today, I still felt that in visiting the Uros islands, I was gaining a true snapshot into the lives of this extraordinary civilisation.

A day trip to the Uros Islands is most definitely on the ‘gringo trail’ to do list. There are many boats leaving Puno at numerous times of the day at you can complete the round trip within about 3 hours. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time, but some trips offer an overnight stay on the islands with one of the local families, as well as visiting some of the other nearby islands on the lake, which I’m sure would be well worthwhile.

Words & Photography by Jade Spadina

Le Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

When people talk about art galleries in Paris, Le Louvre is always mentioned, usually closely followed by Le Musee d’Orsay. These two galleries attract millions of international tourists each year, wanting to see Mona Lisa’s smile, Gauguin’s Tahitian Women, works by van Gogh, Degas, Caravaggio, Delacroix, Ingres, Renoir, Monet, Vermeer, just to name a few. However, where do you go to see celebrated modern art (usually classified as art of the 20th century, post WWI art) in Paris? Where can you see the works of Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, etc.? Hidden amongst the Haussman-styled apartment buildings in the 4th arrondissement of Paris – well known for it’s cafes, shops and expensive real estate – is Le Centre Georges Pompidou, the hub for modern art in Paris. On weekends, the forecourt of the centre is usually filled with street performers of every shape and size, who seek the attention of visitors and passers by alike.

Note: For those who don’t know, Paris is broken up into 20 administrative districts know as arrondissements, each with their own mayor and council, as well as their own individual character and atmosphere. When Parisians talk about where they live, they always mention their arrondissement. Your arrondissement places you, socially speaking, into a box. It tells others of your social and economic standing, your interests and even your political persuasions. For example, the 16th arrondissement is know to be very upmarket, chic and conservative. In contrast, the 18th arrondissement is known to be very liberal, artsy, with a large population of North African immigrants and descendants.

The exterior of the Centre Georges Pompidou appears to be somewhat of an eye-sore when set in contrast to the surrounding neighbourhood. In a very ‘un-Parisian’ manner, the original buildings on the site were demolished in the 1960s to make way for this ‘hideous’ structure (Paris usually has a great reputation for retaining and transforming existing structures, which as allowed to city to retain its old-world charm – the Louvre Museum was originally a royal palace and the Musee d’Orsay is a converted railway station. On my first visit to Paris, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Parisian government created a new suburb on the outskirts of Paris, known as Le Defense, to accommodate a growing need to establish a business district in Paris, rather than demolishing the existing buildings and neighbourhoods). So, steering away from tradition, is Le Centre Georges Pompidou. The steel frame, the glass facades, the coloured pipes and the tres moderne look of the site ensure that no passerby fails to miss it. The design and construction of the centre has since become and has remained a topic of heated criticisms amongst many Parisians.

As you can see from the photos above, the view from the top floors of Le Centre Georges Pompidou is unquestionable Parisian. Seeing the unmistakeable rooftops of Paris and the Parisian skyline dominated by the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame from this perspective was a unique experience. The colours, the textures, the design of the structures, just thinking about all those hundreds of thousands of people who inhabit this unique city. All those individuals who glance through those little windows to see life in Paris unfolding day by day.

Ok, so the main reason people go to the Centre Georges Pompidou isn’t to criticised the bad town planning/architectural decisions of the then French President Georges Pompidou, nor to be bewildered by the beauty of the panoramic views, but rather to appreciate the amazing art which is on display in the light-filled, warehouse inspired, gallery spaces. The Centre hosts many temporary exhibitions throughout the year, but it’s their permanent collect of Fauvist, Cubist, Expressionist, Surrealist (to name a few) works which I found absolutely amazing, especially in comparison to the ‘poorly’ collections of many of the large, state-run galleries in Sydney. Le Musee d’Arte Moderne in the 16 arrodissement – just up the road from where I was living and which I frequented regularly – also has a great collection of modern art, it is no where near as impressive, in quality and quantity, as the exhibits at the Pompidou Centre. All the big names of 20th century art are there – everywhere you turn you see art works you’ve read about and the closest you came to seeing them was on the pages of a poorly printed high school textbook (or a better printed and much more pricey university textbook). Picasso, Kandinsky, Braque, Matisse, Dali, Miro, Wahol, Pollock….the list goes on and on and on.

As you gather, if you’re an art-buff, an admirer of modern art, or a art history student seeking cultural gratification in such a culturally rich city as Paris (I put my hand up here), then Le Centre Georges Pompidou is a must on your next visit to Paris.

– The Centre is located on the opposite side of Les Halles to Le Louvre, and take one of the many metro lines which intersect at Les Halles/Chatelet and exit here.

Photographs from my personal collection

Le Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise

I know this most probably sounds macabre, but one of my favourite places in the whole of Paris is Pere-Lachaise Cemetery. I find that the place has a unique and unconventional beauty. The old moss covered headstones and tombs, the uneven cobbled stone paths which have been eroded from the footsteps of thousand of visitors, the realistic stone-carved sculptures, the eerie quietness on a chilly winter’s afternoon, give the cemetery a bit of an other-worldly, even magical atmosphere. No visit to Paris is complete without spending a few hours meandering the streets of Pere Lachaise Cemetery. For those keen for a treasure hunt, purchase a map of the cemetery and while away the hours trying to locate the tombs of the many rich and famous people interred beneath the damp, Parisian soil.

Le cimetière du Père-Lachaise is the resting place of a large number of French and world famous actors, politicians, artists, writers, musicians, including Balzac (one of the best loved French novelists and playwrights), Eugene Delacroix (world-renown French romantic painter, I’d say his most well-known work would be La Liberté guidant le peuple), Georges Haussmann (the architect and town planner responsible for the ‘modernisation’ of Paris, making Paris the Paris we all know and love today), Yves Montard (the famous French actor, I especially loved him in the role of Papet in the film Jean de Florette), Jim Morrison (one of the main reasons why many visit this cemetery, to see the grave of this famous rock star and lead singer of The Doors), Nadar (one of the most talented French portrait photographers of the mid to late 19th century – many probably do not know him, but after writing an essay on French photography of the 19th century, I was eager to go and see his grave), Edith Piaf (just think La Vie en Rose), Camille Pissaro (a well-know Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painter and advocate for the avant-garde pointillism method of representing colour), Marcel Proust (writer of the magnificent work A la recherche de temps perdu), and Oscar Wilde (author and playwright, know for the following famous works The Picture of Dorian GrayThe Importance of Being EarnestLady Windermere’s Fan, etc). Just to name a few.

Located in the 20th arrondissement, on one of the seven mounds/hills of Paris known as Champ-l’Eveque, which overlooks Paris towards the south-west (there are spectacular views of the roof-tops of Paris from the cemetery). It is located near three metro stations. Depending on where you would like to enter the cemetery – it’s very large covering almost 120 acres – select your metro line and station accordingly – you can take line 2 and exit at Philippe Auguste or line 3 and exit at Pere Lachaise or at Gambetta. There is no entry fee to enter the cemetery, however if you would like a map, which is very helpful as it highlights the grave sites of about 100 famous people, you’ll have to pay a few euros (even with a map it can be difficult to find certain graves as many graves almost topple over each other and although part of the cemetery is laid out in a grid formation, the remainder is a collection of interwoven paths and lanes).

The cemetery is named after Pere Francois de la Chaise, who was the confessor of King Louis XIV and who lived in the Jesuit house on the site of the cemetery chapel. The cemetery, and another two in what was then greater Paris, but now central Paris, were established by Napoleon in order to relieve the smaller cemeteries in the centre of the city. It was officially opened in 1804. Originally people considered the cemetery to be too far from the centre of Paris and thus inconvenient for funerals. In response, the state organised a marketing plan and with great pomp and ceremony transferred the remains of Moliere and La Fontaine to the cemetery, which was followed by that of other famous personalities. Since then, the people of Paris have wanted to be buried in the cemetery of Pere-Lachaise – if they were unable to be close to their idols in life, they were able to in death – and to date over 300,000 bodies have been buried on the grounds.

Words & Photography by Jade Spadina

On the road from Cusco to Puno…

We bade a sad farewell to the beautiful city of Cusco and made our way along the Andes towards the shores of Lake Titicaca. In the few days which we spent in Cusco, we fell in love with the atmosphere of the city. Looking back, it was the one city in South America I felt most at home in. It had a sort of beautiful ambiance, a special and unique character, which I did not find elsewhere on my travels of that amazing continent.

Rather than taking the direct bus to Puno, we decided to make a few stops along the way. Our first stop was at Andahuaylillas, to visit the ornate colonial church in the town, known as the ‘Sistine Chapel of South America’, due to it’s decorative interior and wealth of Peruvian colonial art. Next stop was Raqchi, to marvel at the ruins of the Temple of Wiracocha. The ruins are of a once impressive and important temple in the region, and the adjoining living quarters. The complex is extremely beautiful and encased by the majestic hills which surround the town. Outside of the complex is a bustling marketplace, where local women endeavour to sell their handicrafts to the day tripping tourist who only stop by for an hour or two at the most.

As we neared Puno, we crossed Raya Pass. At over 4000m above sea level, it is a perfect site to inhale to crisp Andean air and take in the spectacular mountain views. As we crossed this pass, we slowly left the Peru of the Quechua people and entered the region of the Aymara people. Before reaching Puno, we made a quick stop in Pukara, to visit the museum there which is dedicated to the history of the Aymara people, particularly focusing on the archeological finds in the area dated back to 200BC – 200AD.

We finally reached Puno in the late hours of the afternoon, giving us enough time to have a Pisco Sour, before we bade goodbye to Peru the following day.

Breakfast in Calca

We were woken up at 4am by the buzzing of our alarms, after an extremely restless night’s sleep. A word of advice, if you wish to have a good night’s sleep during your stay in Cusco, avoid Loki Hostel. However, I must add that in all other respects the hostel was more than satisfactory – the staff were friendly, the rooms immaculately clean, they had a great bar which served fantastic food and drinks, and not to forget, the piping hot showers, which we discovered can be a rarity in this part of the world. On this particular night we wanted to get a good 6-7 hours of sleep, however, there was a party in the bar, which was directly across the courtyard from our room. I think everyone who was staying in the hostel that night was there, except for us of course, and the music was blaring until 3am! By about 2am we’d had enough. We went to the reception and asked if there was another room we could have. From this new room, the noise level from the bar was significantly diminished, but the room faced out towards the street. So rather than music and people yelling at the top of their lung, we listened to the incessantly noise of cars beeping down the street (There is a strange phenomena in Peru and Bolivia, where drivers continuously beep their car horns whilst they’re driving. We were told that because cars are somewhat ‘new’ in the region, people still don’t look when they cross the road, so in order to prevent accidents, drivers beep their horns to warn pedestrians).

Daniel, our Quechua (the native people of the Andean region of Peru) guide met us in the lobby of the hostel at the bright and early time of 4:30am! He looked disturbingly alert for such an early hour, especially in comparison to the two of us, who were still weary-eyed and drowsy from our disruptive night. We walked down the ghostly dark streets and piled in a bus with a bunch of men, women and sleeping children (apparently 4:30am isn’t considered to be particularly early for the Quechua people), who were carrying cages of chickens, sacks of corn, bags of cabbage and all sorts of other paraphernalia. After a two hour bumpy ride through the cobbled streets of Cusco and the unsealed roads of the surrounding countryside, we reach our first stop, Calca, for breakfast.

I was expecting breakfast to be a visit to a local bakery or something, maybe some pastries, or fruit, or I’m not quite sure what. Anyway, Daniel led us through the fresh produce markets of Calca to what seemed to be some sort of cafeteria, with all the stalls selling different types of soups and casseroles, with of course, large urns of coca tea (Coca tea is widely drunken in Andean regions, as it is believed to relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness). We sat down in front of a stall and, with hungry eyes, watched our breakfast being prepared. Two bowls of simple chicken, vegetable and noodle soup were placed in front of us. Despite the wallowing steam, we ate eagerly. I have to say it was one of the best chicken noodle soups I have ever eaten. The spaghetti like noodles were so soft and tasty, and the broth so flavoursome I can still taste it now, months later.

 After our breakfast, we bought a few supplies for the first day of trekking, some fruit, quinoa museli bar and not forgetting our trusty walking sticks which served us well trekking up and down the mountain passes of the Lares Valley. Our final stop before we embarked on the three day trek were the aguas calientes (natural hot sulpha springs) of Lares, where we spent the remainder of the morning relaxing in the therapeutic pools.

Words & Photography by Jade Spadina