29 Feb 2012

The Beautiful Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

On a recent trip to Paris I visited the Père Lachaise cemetery for a second time. It's a very peaceful place, and well worth a visit - especially on a sunny weekday in Paris (Mondays are good, as most museums are shut).

Most people visit to pay their respects (or just tick off the list) Jim Morrison of the Doors' grave. It's hidden behind a few others, and always crowded with tourists. One of my favourite graves is a very plain one - that of Amedeo Modigliani, the Italian artist who lived and died in France at the tragic age of 35.

Another famous inhabitant is Oscar Wilde, whose grave was recently cleaned and protected with a perspex screen (after years of women putting lipstick kisses on the grave, which was slowly eroding it). People now just kiss the perspex, which casts some interesting shadows.

Another artist remembered here is Jacques-Louis David, who painted my favourite painting -  "The Farewell of Telemachus & Eucharis" (owned by the Getty Collection in Los Angeles). Although he has a memorial here, his body is buried in Brussels - only his heart lies here.

There are hundreds of old tombs and graves, with elaborate decoration and much rust, which can be seen just wandering around, whichever route you take around the massive cemetery.

I have only visited in winter, when the lanes are lined with leaf-less trees. I would love to return in spring, when the place is filled with blossom, but in winter it is so picturesque, with long shadows cast by the low sun.

On the western side of the cemetery is a wonderful and poignant collection of memorials to the Holocaust, with incredible sculptures. No-one could fail to be moved looking at these.

N'oublions jamais - let us never forget...

It is an active cemetery, with new people buried there, as well as being cremated in the imposing crematorium in the north-west corner. Many small tombs along the walls of the crematorium are marked "inconnu incinéré" which means "unknown cremated". Most of these date back to WWII in 1943 and 1944. In the central courtyard lies a small area filled with flower arrangements for those whose cremations are taking place that day, some of the flowers already withering away.

More photos of this fascinating place can be found on my website.

28 Feb 2012

The Strange Phenomenon of Internet Friendships

It struck me as rather strange the other day that I have a bunch of "friends" who I exchange banter with online, who I've never met, and am never likely to meet.

It comes from using a couple of travel and photography-related websites (specifically Wanderlust and Flickr), as well as Facebook. I put up photos or questions and comments on others' posts and they do the same. With some of them we exchange mails. Quite a few of them, it turns out, have blue roan cocker spaniels. It's all very strange.

At least with Wanderlust I've actually met some of them, as the site exists on the back of the travel magazine of the same name, and they often host travel-related events, or just arrange get-togethers at travel shows. I've even met a couple of them separately now, and consider them to be "real" friends.

I just wonder how many other people around the world are connected in such a strange and new way, that would've been fairly unimaginable ten or fifteen years ago. At the very least we would have been scared of becoming friends with complete strangers. A whole new generation will grow up not knowing anything different, being friends with strangers (not to mention being able to use a phone or the internet anywhere) and thinking that this is always the way it's been.

16 Feb 2012

Take your time - Chamonix's more than just a ski resort

As the Montenvers train chugged slowly up the hill towards the Mer de Glace I realised that I had totally misjudged the timing of the day. No wonder the woman in the ticket office looked at me strangely when I demanded a Mont Blanc Unlimited one-day ski-pass; it was already midday, with barely time for one activity, let alone two. It might have been the thing I really wanted to do, but I hadn't planned it very well. My heart sank as I read that the trip to Aigiulle du Midi took 3-4 hours on busy days. We only had 4 hours until our transfer out of Chamonix departed and it was a Sunday, so surely a busy day. Feeling rather despondent, I resigned myself to the fact that the Aiguille du Midi would have to wait for another trip. I'd admired it from Chamonix for a few days, and now I'd have to admire it even longer.

After nearly half an hour of pleasant scenery barely seen through ice-covered windows the train pulled into the station above the Mer de Glace, a large glacier that pours down the mountain from Mont Blanc. In winter you cannot see all the crevasses - it is just a smooth harmless-looking white slope, dotted with the odd off-piste skier.

It is only the posters of a young skier who went missing the previous week that remind you of how dangerous it can be. I imagine Christophe's body will be found in the summer when the snows melt, or in years to come as the glacier recedes further. It makes you realise that it's a mighty beast down there, inspite of its serene appearance.

Wanting to make the best of the fact that this might be our only activity of the day (and an expensive one at that), we headed down to the Grotte de Glace (Ice Cave) to explore. There was a cable car to take one down most of the way, and then a long stepped walkway down to the cave's entrance. The journey was made under the shadow of Aiguille du Dru, and unfeasibly pointy peak directly above the glacier.

We reached the entrance to the cave, which they dig out anew each year, as the glacier shifts during the seasons inbetween.

The cave was a lot shorter than I'd expected, only about thirty or forty metres long from start to finish, but the walls of the ice were smooth with intricate patterns of bubbles beneath and beautiful crystals hanging from the ceiling, like tiny stalactites.

The walls were adorned with information about the history of the glacier and the railway, which we'd read in the blurb on the train. Feeling slightly disappointed we climbed up the stairs back to the gondola to take us back to the train down to Chamonix. Along the walkway I noticed a small dip beneath some rocks attached to which were exquisite ice crystals. The lighting was poor, but I just managed to capture one of them with my macro lens (still working in spite of the cold) with its delicate layers of tiny symmetrical ice particles.

As we reached the top the train was about to leave (they only depart once an hour), so our chances of visiting Aiguille du Midi were marginally improved; our visit to the ice cave had been efficient! On the train we perfected scraping the ice from the windows with our ski passes and were able to enjoy the view of fir trees in the foreground, mist in the distance, Chamonix nestled down below and more beautiful mountains across the valley.

I looked at my watch incessantly. Murray assured me that it wasn't peak season and that the return lift trip would only take 2 hours; just enough time. When the train stopped we rushed out and headed along a busy main road to the bottom of the Aiguille du Midi station. A cable car took off a few minutes before we arrived and another one descended towards us. As we reached the entrance we realised that we were definitely not there in peak season, as there were two skiers in the queue already; our visit was going to happen after all. We had twenty minutes to wait, time to grab a ham and cheese baguette at the adjoining café before rejoining the queue. I calculated that we would just have enough to make it up to the top, have half an hour or so up there to take a few photos and enjoy the view (and the -25°C temperatures with a 25mph wind to boot), before heading back down, racing back through town to pick up our bags and our ride to the airport.

By 2.30pm the doors were opened and we crowded into the first cable car - the first stop is just under half of the way up at Plan de l'Aiguille. Seven or eight minutes later we were bundled out, shuffled along to the next cable car which would take us all the way up to an altitude-sickness-inducing 3,770m above sea level. Another eight minutes or so, with little to see given the condensation and frost on the windows, and we were at the top, where we had plenty of time to explore. We left the cable car and headed towards the elevator that takes you up to the highest viewing platform at 3,842m. In order to get there we had to cross a bridge, as the mountain station is arranged over a number of rocky outcrops, joined by this bridge. As we walked across there was a strong gust of unbelievably cold wind, making standing around to take photos fairly unpleasant! I was very glad to be wearing my mum's Michelin-man down jacket (and about 6 layers underneath). We rushed across to the tunnels opposite and headed out to some viewing platforms, as there was a queue for the lift.

Fortunately the wind was nearly absent on the other side, so it was almost pleasant standing out there, overlooking the magnificent mountains spread beneath and in front of us. To the left was an exit that nutters take when skiing down (where poor Christophe must have begun his fateful journey).

Behind us was the enormous metal tower that sits above the highest viewing platform and that is visible from Chamonix, 2,700m below.

We headed back inside and made our way to the lift (no queue now) and headed out to the highest viewing platform.

The view from here was even more incredible, with the mighty but smooth summit of Mont Blanc lurking behind more jagged peaks, a constant stream of cloud emanating from the other side. We both felt a bit light-headed from the altitude.

The sun was just to the west of the summit, making photos a bit tricky, but taking photos is tricky anyway with an effective temperature of -40°C; a raised hand to shield the sun glares helped.

The automatic focus on my wide-angle lens stopped working, but otherwise the equipment was performing okay, if a little slow. I was surprised at how I still managed to turn the camera on and off and press the shutter release with my bulky mittens.

By 3.45pm it was time to go and leave the panoramas behind us, to embark on our long journey back to London. We made it back to the hotel with about ten minutes to spare, relieved and happy that my mis-planning hadn't involved missing out on such an incredible sight. Of course it'd be great to have an excuse to come back - I'd love to visit in summer - but it was truly worth the visit, even in a mad rush. If I were to go back, however, I'd make a bit more effort and get up a bit earlier so I could relax a little once up there; a coffee with the most stunning view would have been nice.