364. Basilica de Santa Maria Maggiore

IMG_6381 (640x480)Of the 26 Churches dedicated to Mary in Rome, apparently the Basilica de Santa Maria Maggiore is the largest. Makes you wonder how many churches there are for everyone else if there are already 26 for Mary! I guess they don’t call it Roman Catholic for nothing.

The Basilica de Santa Maria Maggiore is apparently so special it enjoys extraterritorial status (like an embassy) and is patrolled by guards of the Vatican. It was fairly majestic and marvelous, as far as churches go, with loads of excellent frescoes. And a good thing I came prepared with my modesty scarf. The Crypt of the Nativity was quite a site also, (practically all covered in gold). It is a huge tourist draw card as it is said to contain wood from Jesus Christ’s Crib. I’d be well imressed to find out exactly how they verified that one, given Jesus didn’t become Jesus Christ Superstar until he just about carked it. Nonetheless, I was right up in there getting my touristy photos too!

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Jesus’ Crib has been on Extreme Makeover: Religion Edition

363. Triton, My Favourite Roman Fountain

IMG_6355 (480x640)There were tonnes of them, but being a little more understated and demure, in my opinion Triton was the best.

A marvelous way to turn the ordinary (dispensing water to the citizens) into something quite spectacular! There were loads of more functional looking taps on the sides of the road, looking as though they were still straight from the aquaducts, but they were quite old and rusty looking, often smelling a bit funny and giving the impression that by 2012 standards the water quality was fairly dubious.

Some of the contenders:IMG_6586 (480x640) IMG_6581 (640x480) IMG_6331 (640x480) IMG_6351 (640x480) (640x480)IMG_6035 (480x640) IMG_6212 (640x480)

361. The Palatine and Forum

IMG_6095 (640x480) StitchThe ruins on the Palatine Hill (which included the old Roman Forum) were a really great “outdoor museum.” It was so much fun to walk around and imagine what life was like in Roman times, and everything that had occurred there. It definitely struck me as a bit of a shame that it all looks so dilapidated. Obviously, being ruins, it is not the most aesthetically please area to have in the city centre, but mostly i felt they could have done quite a lot with it to really help fuel the imagination (illustrations of what it used to be like, information to read), rather than looking like they’ve only begrudgingly left it there because it is a World Heritage Site.

I really enjoyed walking around in the late afternoon (once the heat became bearable), taking it all in. It was like walking through a beautiful park, only with a ridiculous amount of fascinating history! Sadly late afternoon meant they came along and kicked me out fairly promptly.

360. The Colosseum

colosseum RomeIn some ways the Colusseum was completely what I expected, in others it was really the opposite. Overall, I think it was less exciting than I imagined, largely because it had the Paris factor – you’ve seen so many pictures of it everywhere that it doesn’t feel particularly new, different, magnificent or surprisng. It was once again like looking at a giant postcard. The thing that did surprise me, though, was that it was smack bang in the centre of the city. You literally turn a corner and there it is, right in front of you. It was like any other building in an inner city block, without any kind of entrance or parking and barely space around it like you’d expect with an enormous landmark like that. It felt all very “Get in, get out, you’ve seen what you came here for.”

Although from another perspective, that is part of what makes the Colosseum so special – ever since the times when it was actually in use it has been there in the centre of the city, with Roman life going on around it. At various points, it was so normal that it practically became a quarry, as people begun to tear it down so as to use the materials it was made of. However, it is nice to know that from when it was completed in 80AD to today it has always been seen as a magnificent building and worth keeping around.

When I showed up I had already read online that a ticket for the Colosseum is also a ticket for the Palatine and Forum, and you can buy them at either entrance. So I headed to the Palatine and Forum entrance where there was no line, and then shot back over to the Colosseum where it seemed like there were thousands of people lining up in sweltering heat. It felt very good to breeze past all the suckers straight to the entrance!

313. Père Lachaise Cemetery

IMG_4262 (480x640)Despite being known for housing the graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, among many other celebrities, the Père Lachaise Cemetery still felt like a bit of an odd tourist destination. Nonetheless I have grown quite fond of walking around cemetaries in different countries and seeing how they differ, and one as old and famous as this one was really interesting.

As I had learned when touring the Catacombs, the cemeteries of Paris had big problems with being overcrowded, and you really understand that notion when you visit it.

In the older part there are many monuments, mini chapels and mausoleums, although some are barely larger than a telephone booth. Apparently it is not uncommon for graves to be reopened and family members to also be interred on the same plot. It was quite interesting walking around seeing all the sculptures  stained glass windows and the architecture of the mausoleums. From the ornate to the abandoned, there was definitely a big difference in how well maintained they were. Some had fresh flowers, others were covered in cobwebs, or with trees that had burst through the concrete.IMG_4187 (640x480)

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There is also a large collection of memorials for different groups in WWII as well as deaths in more recent battles and incidents. Some of the memorials were really quite striking in both their messages and the imagery portrayed.IMG_4249 (480x640) IMG_4257 (640x480)

And then of course there is the scavenger hunt of celebrity graves including Chopin, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and many more. They even have maps to help you find the most ‘popular’ ones.IMG_4266 (640x480) IMG_4265 (480x640)

310. The Louvre

Just the building itself was a magnificent piece of art, but all of the other famous works were also a fantastic experience. My favourite part was actually the sculpture gardens – refreshingly spread out compared to all the other parts which were jammed in.

The sheer volume of security (including armed soldiers and sniffer dogs) was astounding and felt a little over the top, as was the Nintendo “audio guide” complete with 3D simulations. Not sure why that was necessary when you were actually atthe museum, but the different options of how to get around (e.g. the “highlights” for a tighter schedule) was helpful.

I felt like I barely scratched the surface, and there were entire wings I didn’t get to see in the enormous behemoth of a building, but it was amazing, especially ever time I stopped and reminded myself to look up and see even more great art on the roof. Even looking out the windows at the grounds felt like admiring a painting!

303. The Catacombs

While most people have very romantic illusions of Paris, in reality throughout history it has had some serious issues with being a foul place and to be frank, still has problems with being much more dirty and smelly than is necessary. The stench of the Parisian metro system however, pales in comparison to the problems of the 1700s, where there were so many corpses that needed disposing of, and the cemetaries were so full, that water contamination and sickness were becoming huge problems.

Add to that the collapse of an entire street in 1775, into some of the 180 miles of underground mines in Paris, which lead to King Louis XVI created the Inspection Generale des Carrieres [or quarries], an agency that still exists. The Inspection Generale des Carrieres revealed that much of Paris was likely to collapse into the mines below, and spent a great deal of time strengthening and reinforcing the tunnels. As for the oversupply of bodies, it was decided that 6 million corpses would be dug up, and relocated to the now reinforced tunnels. Not content with simply shifting them, it was also decided that they should be arranged to decorate the tunnels, along with plaques with famous literary lines.

Many describe it as a beautiful way to be buried. I, however, am not too sure I would be happy with my body being dug up and turned into a tourist attraction, or even just taken apart and mixed in with the other bones…

It was also hard to know what happened to all of a body. I spotted plenty of sculls, pelvic bones and femurs, but where were all the rest? Thrown into a big pile somewhere?

Finally, a word of caution for visitors. The entrance is small, the tunnels are narrow and only a certain amount of people are allowed through at once. Which means the lines are reaaaaaaally long. We probably queued up for about 2.5 hours. I’m not sure if this is a place where you can buy tickets in advance to skip the lines either, so they could be unavoidable (if you are there in the peak of summer). Also not a good idea to get there in the last few hours that its open, I’ve heard stories of people lining up for an hour and half only to have the place close on them. Oh and one more warning, its creepy.
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288. Dunkirk Beach Front

IMG_3187 (640x480)Dunkirk was a fascinatingly historical spot to visit. Not merely for war history of the evacuation of Dunkirk, but the other end of the beach (Malo Les Bains) provided a really interesting peek at what the seaside holiday was like in the inter-war years and the 1950s.IMG_3184 (640x480) IMG_3188 (640x480)

I really loved seeing the beautifully painted beach huts, and charmingly decorated piers. It was pastel colours galore and perfectly in line with nostalgic seaside imagery. Upon searching for a bit of information in an attempt to discover when it became a popular beach spot, all I could find on Dunkirk was war history. However, I did stumble across an interesting article about how the beach holiday rose so dramatically in popularity in the 50s. During a time of austerity budgets were slim, but a bigger issue was that although religion was on the decline, everything was still closed on Sundays so there were few other options for entertainment on a Sunday. Despite the beach becoming popular, and fashion subsequently following, activities on a Sunday were still fairly contentious. Photos of Prince Philip playing cricket on a Sunday were as outrageous and shocking as the Kate Middleton being snapped sunbathing topless!IMG_3202 (640x480)

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Sadly, these days, making it across the Channel to France is no longer an achievement of a holiday, with the ease of accessibility of the guaranteed sunshine of Spain, and the myriad cheap airlines flying there. Never have British stereotypes been more visibly conformed to than in the line for a Ryanair flight to Majorca and Ibiza and Malaga at Barcelona airport!IMG_3178 (640x480) IMG_3179 (640x480) IMG_3180 (640x480) IMG_3177 (480x640) IMG_3185 (640x480) A solo sunbather amongst the empty promenades, with his wind shield:IMG_3189 (640x480) IMG_3191 (640x480) IMG_3193 (640x480) IMG_3194 (640x480)

The result is that Malo Les Bains, in the peak of summer with its golden sandy beaches, promenades lined with restaurants  children’s play areas backing on to the sand (including built in trampolines) and marvellous beach huts, was completely deserted. It was quite surreal, and almost felt like an exhibition in a museum.

Down the other end of the beach, that was much more the desired effect, with a memorial and really interesting display outlining the events surrounding the evacuation of Dunkirk (where almost 400,000 French and British soldiers were evacuated in 9 days, many of which on around 700 non military/private boats, called the ‘little ships of Dunkirk’). Having studied it in great detail at school, it was really fascinating to actually be there.IMG_3205 (640x480) IMG_3210 (640x480) IMG_3209 (640x480) IMG_3215 (480x640) IMG_3214 (480x640) IMG_3213 (640x480)

287. Église Saint-Éloi

IMG_3166 (640x480)Right in the centre of Dunirk (or Dunkirque, in French) is the Église Saint-Éloi. It is over the road from the information centre/war memorial, so pretty hard to miss. I thought it was a really lovely church, particularly as all around the centre alter were a bunch of smaller, very nicely set up alters for different saints etc, and at the time of my visit the sun was beaming through the stained glass windows quite brilliantly.

281. Stumble Across Feminist Mecca

We got severely lost trying to find our rental car company and wound up dragging our suitcases around an industrial area in the outskirts of London when BAM there it was, the Dagenham Ford factory, AKA where the Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968 went down, which ultimately led to the Equal Pay Act 1970.*IMG_3079 (640x480)
Stumbling across that factory definitely made me feel like we were visiting a historical monument or tourist attraction, rather than wandering around in what felt like circles with a really heavy backpack, but also reminded me we were really in the middle of nowhere and should just ask someone for directions…

*OK so a little research revealed that it all actually went down at another factory, but its much more magical to assume the film was historically accurate! A great movie too.