The delightful suburb of Suresnes and the Bois de Boulogne

13 12 2010

Paris is a city that never ceases to delight me ever since I first set eyes on it in the summer of 1989 enroute to Padua. Besides being where some of my favourite monuments in the form of the Eiffel Tour, La Sainte-Chapelle, and the Notre Dame are; as well as where my favourite museum, the Musée d’Orsay is (which incidentally also contains my favourite work of art, Renoir’s “Bal au moulin de la Galette, Montmartre“), Paris is also where one of the most delightful suburbs I have visited, Suresnes, is located.

Looking down the Seine to the business district of La Défense from Suresnes.

It was in Suresnes that I found myself putting up in one Bastille Day and it was from there that I could quite easily catch a bus into Paris and take a Metro to the areas where the action was. I guess that is the wonderful thing about Suresnes with its location on the western fringe of the Bois de Boulogne, where it is situated close enough to Paris (being some 10 km or so out of Central Paris). What makes it wonderful is also that it is also just far away enough to offer a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, being just across the Seine from a huge wooded park, the Bois de Boulogne, which covers an area of some 8.5 square km. The Bois de Boulonge traces its history back to the ancient oak forest of Rouvray and became a park in 1852 by Napoleon III, being transformed into what it is today by the architect of modern Paris, Baron Haussmann, with London’s Hyde Park serving as the inspiration for it.

Houseboats on the Seine. The Seine separates the Bois de Boulogne from the suburb of Suresnes.

The Bois de Boulogne is a huge park on the outskirts of Paris which has an area of 8.459 square km (2.5 times that of New York's Central Park) and offers a peaceful escape from the city.

Having about an hours to spare before having to make my way to the airport on the morning after to catch a flight to Copenhagen, I took the opportunity to have a quick stroll in the park. The Bois de Boulogne is certainly a great place to have a stroll in, with a delightful mix of landscaped gardens, wooded areas and ponds and waterfalls. The park is also where the Hippodrome de Longchamp, the famous horse racing circuit is located and also where several huge châteaus can be found, one of which houses the offices of WWF-France. Having too little a time to explore the bulk of the park, my stroll was confined to the area close to Suresnes, but having a feel of what the Bois de Boulogne offers – it is certainly a place that will be on my itinerary on my next visit to Paris.

Landscaped gardens are a feature in the Bois de Boulogne.

Waterbodies and waterfalls add to the wonderful surroundings in the Bois de Boulogne.

The Bois de Boulogne had a wonderful mix of wooded areas, gardens, and waterbodies.

The Hippodrome de Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne.

The château that houses the offices of WWF-France in the Bois de Boulogne.

More of the Bois de Boulogne.

In the Bois de Boulogne.

Among the species of trees that Baron Haussmann introduced to the woods of the Bois de Boulogne were the chestnut trees.

Suresnes as seen from the Bois de Boulogne.


Life in the “fast-lane”: adventures on a vehicle deck of a RORO Ship

10 12 2010

One of the wonderful things that shipping has given us is the Roll-On Roll-Off or RORO ship. The RORO ship is probably an adaption of the landing ships of the Second World War, built with a bow ramp and to beach thus allowing military vehicles and logistics on wheels to be carried over large distances and quickly discharged ashore. In its simplest form the RORO ship takes the form of a double ended ferry with ramps at both ends and a deck to carry vehicles on – there were many of these operating in Malaysia – many of the larger rivers in the more remote places had to be crossed in this manner as bridges had not been built. The Penang ferry is another example of a simple RORO vessel and it is this form that perhaps the first commercial RORO Ships took shape in 1953 (the same year the first commercial jet-liner, the De Havilland Comet, was introduced), allowing a “drive-on” service to be introduced from Dover to Calais. This eliminated the need to load vehicles by lifting gear which was a time consuming and delicate affair, thus allowing a ten-fold increase in the throughput of cars on the crossing. The idea was extended first to the carriage of freight in trucks and trailers – allowing door-to-door delivery of goods, particularly refrigerated goods without having the need to unload and reload them into road freight vehicles. In the 1970s, as demand for passenger cars increased tremendously – particularly from Japan, dedicated Pure-Car Carriers (PCC) were introduced to transport brand new cars across the globe.

The RoRo Decks of a RoRo Vessel can be one of the more dangerous places to hang out in.

A feature of the modern RORO ship is the huge garage contained within the steel structure of the ship, often with several decks accessible through ramps and sometimes lifts. The garages are also equipped with huge ventilation fans, meant to extract exhaust and fuel fumes to keep the decks safe. “Safe” I guess in this case a relative term, as the vehicle decks of a RORO ship would probably count as one of the more dangerous places to be hanging out in – not that this is usually permitted. Standing in the middle of one gives the impression of being in a huge car-park, which a RORO deck effectively is, only that it is built of steel instead of concrete, and of course that vehicles are packed very tightly with barely any space left in between, as the “car-park” fills-up. It is a place where life is literally lived on the fast lane, with trailers, and sometimes trucks and cars zipping up and down and in a loading or discharging frenzy that is very much motivated by by the rush to load or discharge vehicles in the shortest possible time.

A car being driven off a RORO ship.

The vehicle deck of a RORO ship resembles that of a huge car-park, except that vehicles are packed with hardly any space between them.

Trailers parked on a vehicle deck of a RORO ship.

A trailer being driven up the ramp of a RORO ship.

The prime mover coming down the ramp after unloading the trailer on the upper deck - just 3 minutes later.

On the larger RORO ships, ramps are a common feature – most modern ROROs with multiple vehicle decks are fitted with hoistable ramps which can be hoisted up to the deck, allowing the space on the ramp – as well as below it to be utilised – maximising the use of deck space. This is opposed to fixed ramps, which are cheaper to build but result in valuable deck space being sacrificed. On some other RORO ships, movable decks can be lowered in place, allowing intermediate decks to be quickly created allowing two or more decks of vehicles requiring a lower headroom (such as passenger cars) to be utilised in a space that can also be used to carry on deck of cargo requiring a larger headroom.

A hoistable ramp being lowered with vehicles loaded on it.

A fixed ramp to a lower vehicle deck.

Closing the ramp cover for the fixed ramp to maintain watertight integrity of the lower deck.

A movable deck onboard a ship made to carry larger cargo, the Ville de Bordeaux which is designed to transport the fuselage and wings of the Airbus 380 manufactured in various plants over western Europe to France for assembly, allowing the ship to also be used for other RORO cargo.

Non standard RORO cargo can also be transported.

Tying down or securing of the cargo through chains, straps and turnbuckles to elephant foot fittings on deck is important.

Tie downs ...

Getting up close an personal ...

Close-up of a hoistable ramp.

Safety from a ship stability viewpoint has been of prime concern on RORO ships with its large decks which if flooded with water not only reduces buoyancy but also results in a large free-surface, since the well documented and published capsizing of the MS Estonia. Besides maintaining watertight integrity of the decks through which vehicles are brought on the ship generally through a stern or bow ramp, calculations are now required to demonstrate that these ships are safe even with the decks flooded with water.

The stern of a RORO ship is often where vehicles are loaded and discharged from over a ship fitted ramp.

Loaded and almost ready to go ...

Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!

19 11 2010

Every third Thursday of November (which was yesterday), the whole of France and much of the world celebrates the wonderful arrival of the much anticipated Beaujolais Nouveau which is released only on the day. Beaujolais Nouveau is a a quick-fermenting wine which is produced in the Beaujolais region of France made from the Gamay grape and has a very light and fruity flavour, and is best served chilled. The wine was traditionally made to celebrate the end of the harvest and originally sold after December 15 in the year of harvest, with the release date being changed to 15 November before being set as the 3rd Thursday of November, now referred to as “Beaujolais Day”.

Beaujolais Day in Singapore, 2010.

Sur le pont d’Avignon: Exiled Popes and a broken bridge

28 12 2009

The popular children’s song Sur le pont d’Avignon comes to mind each time one thinks of Avignon. The lyrics of the song describes people dancing on the bridge in a circle … conjuring up images of jovial folk dressed in their medieval finery dancing in celebration on what must have been a magnificent Pont Saint-Bénezet, stradled over the Rhône.

Sur le pont d'Avignon: On the Bridge of Avignon

The Chorus of Sur le pont d’Avignon,

Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse
Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse tous en rond

translates into:

On the bridge of Avignon
We all dance there, we all dance there
On the bridge of Avignon
We all dance there in a ring

Le Pont d'Avignon: Pont Saint-Bénezet (The Saint-Bénezet Bridge)

What is left of the bridge these days, are four remaning arches, where there had been twenty-two arches supporting the length of the beautifully constructed bridge. A large part of what had been a 900 metre long bridge was swept away by a flood in the late 17th century. A first glimpse of the bridge on the approach from the cool shadows of the tree lined ramparts of the city walls, against the drone of the gentle chorus of cicadas, who one might suggest, were attempting to mimic the tune of the children’s song, provides a foretaste of the impressive divine inspired work. The solid looking bridge, inspired by the vision of a shepherd boy, Bénezet, after whom it is named, who, in a vision, was commanded by angels to build a bridge across the river, was constructed in the late 12th century. For sometime the bridge served strategically as the only built river crossing between Lyon and the Mediterranean. Standing on what is left of the bridge, one feels a sense of awe and can’t help but marvel at what is truly an impressive feat of medieval engineering.

Sur le pont d'Avignon: The Palace of the Popes as seen from the Saint-Bénezet Bridge

The bridge offers a wonderful perspective of the walled city of Avignon and the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) where the day had actually begun. The Palace of the Popes, built in the 14th century, served as the seat of the Papacy during a tumultuous period of time when the Papacy took leave of absence from its seat in Rome – the only period of time since the establishment of the Papacy when it had been based outside of Rome. The Palace with its 15000 square metres of floor area is an impressive piece of medieval architecture and is in fact the largest Gothic palace in Europe. It was built from 1335 to 1364, after a French dominated Papacy had moved from the strife and hostility it faced in Rome in 1309, serving as the seat of the Catholic Church until 1377, when the Papacy moved back to Rome. It continued serving as the seat of two rebel popes installed by factions opposed to Rome during the Papal Schism that followed the departure of the Papacy, until 1403.

Palais des Papes - The Palace of the Popes

View from the Ramparts of the Palace of the Popes

Roof at the Palace of the Popes

The Palace of the Popes

Cathédrale Notre Dame-des-Doms and the Palace of the Popes

Across from the Palace of the Popes, stands the delightful Petit Palais, which houses the Musée du Petit Palais and its collection of mainly Italian and French primitive and early renaissance art, including Bottlcelli’s The Virgin and Child. On display is what perhaps a glimpse of the art from a period of time during which the awakening of art and culture had started, from a time when art, architecture and much of life, was dedicated to the glory of God.

Botticelli's The Virgin and Child (1465)

Giovanni Baronzio's Madonna and Child (c. 1343)

Outside the palaces, the streets, that had on the walk into the walled city that morning, been filled with the dissonance of a student protest, one that maybe one expects to come across on the cobble stones of a city as French as the dissension of its citizens is, seemed quiet in the heat of the Provencal summer afternoon. Wandering around somehow seemed a lot less interesting after the morning’s journey into the city’s colourful past.

The quiet streets of Avignon

A Medieval Tower in the centre of Avignon

A captivating feast of colour and light: La Sainte-Chapelle

26 12 2009

The Sainte-Chapelle or Holy Chapel in located on the Ile de la Cité, in what is the heart of Paris, offers a visual feast of colour and light with its 15 magnificent windows of stained glass erected in a famework of stone, which depicts some 1113 scenes from the Bible. The Gothic chapel, which actually comprises two chapels, the Upper Chapel built for use by the nobles, and the Lower Chapel built for servants, was built in the 13th Century by Louis IX to house Christ’s Crown of Thorns and other relics in the possession of  the King.

Being one that has a fascination of Stained Glass, the Sainte-Chapelle and its Stained Glass, which is considered some of the best works in the world, was something that I had always dreamt of seeing, although never taking the time to do so in the numerous trips I had made to Paris. It wasn’t until 2003, that I took the time to stand in queue under the hot mid-day sun of the Parisian summer.

The Sainte-Chapelle is located in the heart of Paris ... the Ile de la Cité

A rose window in the Upper Chapel

The Upper Chapel offers a visual feast with its 15 stained glass windows depicting scenes from the Bible

The 600 square metres of stained glass, 2/3 of which are original, date back to the 13th Century

Stained glass detail

Stained glass detail

The stained glass panels in the Upper Chapel are 15.4 metres high

1113 scenes from the Old Testament and the Passion of Christ are depicted on the stained glass panels

Sculpture in the Upper Chapel

View of the Upper Chapel

View through a door of the Upper Chapel

Doorway to the Upper Chapel

Bas-relief on door frame depicting a scene from the Old Testament (Noah's Ark)

Bas-relief on door frame depicting a scene from the Old Testament (Noah's Ark)

The serene Lower Chapel

Bulls in a Roman Amphitheatre and a Landscape under the Stars

18 12 2009

An afternoon ride in a furnace that was a regional train sans climatisation, fuelled by the warmth of the Mediterranean midsummer, through the picturesque Rhône valley bathed in the gold and violet of sunflowers and lavender, much like the Provençal landscapes of Cézanne, wasn’t an ideal prelude to a much anticipated visit to the city that was for a while, home to the post impressionist artist, who in the words of Don McLean, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as. The sweaty half an hour’s ride to Arles, from Avignon, was soon consigned to memory as soon as the short walk that took us from the train station provided us with the sight of the magnificent and well preserved Roman amphitheatre, the Arènes d’Arles.

The Arènes d'Arles

Structure of the Arena

Arles, a charming city in the French region of Provence, was established in the 6th Century BC by the Greeks, is a city that is well known for a famous inhabitant, Vincent van Gogh, who while as residing there in 1888, infamously cut part of his left ear off, in an incident involving another well-known short-term resident, a fellow post-impressionist and good friend, Paul Gaugain.

Images of Arles and Provence as captured by van Gogh, together with the words of the beautiful song “Vincent”, revolving around van Gogh’s life in Provence, had always filled my imagination. The swirling sky over Saint-Rémy depicted in the painting “The Starry Night”, the subject matter for Don McLean’s first and most well known line of the song written in tribute to van Gogh, and another painting “Starry Night over the Rhône” , as well as several paintings he completed when in Arles, including one of his chair and his bedroom in Arles, and the night scene of a cafe in The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night had for a long time driven my desire to visit Arles, and finally, here I was, standing on the very streets that van Gogh had walked on…

The Starry Night, Van Gogh (Saint-Rémy, 1889)

Starry Night Over the Rhone, Van Gogh (Arles, 1888)

Bedroom in Arles, Van Gogh (Arles, 1888)

Arriving at the bottom of the steps leading up to the Arena, we discovered why there seemed to be a scurry of fellow tourists towards the Arena, which was built in the 1st Century A.D. On offer at the arena was the summer’s regular midweek fare of bulls and Raseteurs. In the Camargue, unlike neighbouring Spain, bulls are not killed, and the objective is for the bullfighter or Raseteur, to snatch three attributes from the head of a young bull, relying on his agility to avoid being gored by the bull.

Course Camarguaise Poster at the Arena

The Entry Ticket for the afternoon's Course Camarguaise

Entering the magnificent Arena, the running of the bulls and Raseteurs was a wonderful spectacle of charging and jumping magnificent black Camargue Bulls in their prime, and agile Raseteurs dressed in white, in a sandy ring bounded by a red fence. Its hard to imagine being in a structure built some 2000 years ago, sitting right where as much as 20,000 people would gather, to be entertained by Gladiators and wild animals in combat, as well as perhaps the public executions that were known to be held in Roman amphitheatres.

Inside the Arena

A Raseteur in action

A Camargue Bull

Over the fence!

A pleasant two hour stroll in the evening after leaving the Arena took us through the narrow streets of Arles. It was not difficult to imagine why van Gogh would had taken to the city, which he had described as being exotic and filthy.  Soon it was time to go … at least by then, the coolness of the evening made the ride back to Avignon a nice way to soak in the landscapes that inspired van Gogh, along the way.

View of Arles from the Arena

Narrow Streets


More Narrow Streets

Quiet Residential Street

On top of the world …

19 10 2009

Mountains bring a sense of peace to many of us. With transport links and the technology that the 20th century gave us, mountains have become a lot more accessible and we do not need to be mountaineers to enjoy the experience and exhilaration of being on top of the world.

My first encounters with mountains were somewhat confined to those that were accessible by road from Singapore. The mountain top resorts of Cameron Highlands and Fraser’s Hill, provided the colonial masters of Malaya with respite from the heat and humidity of the tropics, and since, they have become popular as a destination for many from Singapore and Malaysia. It was much later in life that I first had my experience of the wonderous feeling of being amongst the peaks and the breathtaking views on offer. The Alps in Europe are particularly spectacular. There is no better feeling I get than that that comes from staring out at the peaks of mountains, sometimes over the clouds, sometimes capped with snow, and sometimes just bare rock faces. The most spectacular views I have seen of the Alps are from a cable car, the Gondola Panoramic Mont-Blanc,  that runs across the Glacier du Géant from Aiguille de Midi to Ponte Helbronner … the views on offer are simply grogeous!

The Panoramic Mont-Blanc Gondola across the Glacier du Géant

The Panoramic Mont-Blanc Gondola across the Glacier du Géant

The Vallée Blanch (White Valley) as seen from the Gondola Panoramic Mont Blanc

The Vallée Blanch (White Valley) as seen from the Gondola Panoramic Mont Blanc

All across the Alps, the views are as spectacular… the Dolomites in Alta Badia in Italy for one have provided me with some breathtaking views as well.

Corvara and Monte Sassongher in the Alta Badia Region of Italy

Corvara and Monte Sassongher in the Alta Badia Region of Italy

Monte Lagazuoi near Corvara in Alta Badia

Monte Lagazuoi near Corvara in Alta Badia

The view down Lagazuoi ...

The view down Lagazuoi ...

Having spent time in the West of Scotlands, I am no stranger to the Western Highlands, which provide a serene getaway for many, as well as a fair bit of folklore and mystery. It is hard to imagine kilted men running around in the hostile climes of the Western Highlands, doing battle first with rival clans, and then the invaders from the south. It is of course the stuff that legends are made of.

Glen Coe in the Western Highlands of Scotland

Glen Coe in the Western Highlands of Scotland

Loch Ness in the Western Highlands of Scotland

Loch Ness in the Western Highlands of Scotland

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Bal au moulin de la Galette, Montmartre

6 07 2009

The work by Pierre Auguste Renoir which is displayed in one of my favourite museums, the Musée d’Orsay, housed in a former railway station on the left bank of the Seine, is one of my favourite works by an Impressionist artist. Depicting the scene at a dance garden in Montmarte, Paris, Renoir has captured the mood and fluidity of the scene so well that just staring into the painting, you’d feel that you are caught up in the movement of the dance and the joy and excitement of the moment.

Bal au moulin de la Galette, Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1876. Musée d'Orsay.

Bal au moulin de la Galette, Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1876. Musée d'Orsay.

The Painting as displayed in the Musée d'Orsay

The Painting as displayed in the Musée d'Orsay

The inside of the Musée d'Orsay

The inside of the Musée d'Orsay