Friday, 31 May 2013

Preview: Chateau de Chenonceau

"If I could turn back time, if I could find a way." So sang uplifted songstress Cher in 1989. Well, if we could all turn back time to 1559 and find ourselves at the River Cher in the Loire Valley, we might find Diane de Poitiers expressing the same sentiment. Because that was the year that King Henry II died in a jousting tournament, and her perch on the untouchable pedestal as mistress to the king was knocked from under her. The power was suddenly in the hands of the king's wife, the formidable Catherine de Medici. One of the first things Catherine did to her rival? Take back her prized possession, her beloved, her perfect Chateau de Chenonceau.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Preview: Chateau de Chambord

The Loire is the longest river in France, with the Loire Valley stretching out across the middle third, at the heart of the country. In the 15th and 16th Centuries, it became a popular spot with lords, princes, and kings, looking for a bit of fun. With dense forests for hunting, fertile land for grapes and therefore wine, a river full of fish, and a pleasant climate, it was a perfect getaway for royals in need of a holiday break. Being along a river made transportation of materials easy - far easier than convoys of horses dragging heavy loads. Chateaux were built, in effect luxury castles for kings and queens to rest and play in, built not for actual defense, just for grandeur and glory. The largest, most magnificent, most imposing, and perhaps most useless of all these was the Chateau de Chambord.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Preview: Chartres Cathedral

In France, as with pretty much anywhere in the world, there has been a fair few things happen over the last 800 years. The Hundred Years' War, the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, and two World Wars among many other conflicts - it's been a rather destructive time. And so for a building - a large, prominent, delicate, and sometimes controversial building - to survive unscathed for these eight centuries is, well, remarkable. This is Chartres Cathedral.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Preview: Versailles

When I was 22, I went to a party, a really good one. In a terraced house over two floors, the soundsystem was in the living room and could be heard from the other end of the street, thump thump thump thump. The place was packed with revellers, literally spilling outside, chaotically, boisterously, with more than that hint of mania that makes a huge party. All the girls - though it was past 3am and my critical judgement may have been impaired - were supermodels. This is how it's done, I thought, this is what a party should be like. I'd never seen anything like it before. And I became determined to equal or better it: I wanted to hold the best party I possibly could. About two years later, now living within the ruins of a castle, I gave it my best shot. I think I pulled it off. A simple tale of me as a youth wanting to hold a big party; but in essence it's also the story of the origins of one of the greatest displays of ostentation the world has ever seen: the Palace of Versailles.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

10 More Greatest Alternative Pyramids From Around The World (Listverse)

I've had an article published on listverse: 10 Greatest Alternative Pyramids From Around The World. I think the title is pretty self-explanatory. It features upside-down pyramids from Slovakia, giant pyramids of death to hold the bodies of 40 million people, and pyramids built by real aliens.

The list and the order are, of course, pretty arbitrary, and there were loads of pyramids I didn't include, either because I felt they were too well known, or were too similar to others on the list. So here are some other great alternative pyramids.

The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation

Friday, 17 May 2013

Preview: Amiens Cathedral

John the Baptist certainly gets around. His severed head especially. One of the most popular saintly relics around, his head can be found scattered across Europe and the Middle East. San Silvestro church in Rome has his entire skull on display, the Residenz Museum in Munich does likewise, San Lorenzo cathedral in Viterbo, Italy, has his chin, and more recently scientists confirmed that bones, including part of a skull, found in a church in Bulgaria "could be" of John the Baptist. It's not just Christianity who claims him - Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and Topkapi Palace in Istanbul also have at least parts of his skull. And let's not get into the other body parts - I could base an entire tour around them. As it is, the only place I'll being seeing (part of) John the Baptist's skull will be in here: Amiens Cathedral.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Preview: Mont Saint-Michel

In the year 708, Aubert, the bishop of Avranches in north-west France, had a dream. In it appeared St Michael, not in a promotions drive for Marks & Spencers (that's an entirely different, St Michael) but with a message: Aubert was to build a sanctuary to him, on a small rocky island just off the coast. Aubert wasn't having any of it. He awoke, believing he'd been visited by the devil, and spent the day praying. The next night, St Michael returned, presumably trying to reassure Aubert that he really wasn't the devil and that he really wanted Aubert to build him an island sanctuary. But still Aubert wasn't convinced; he ignored the demands and prayed a whole lot more, maybe trying to stay awake a little longer that evening. It's fair to say St Michael wasn't impressed. The third night he visited Aubert again, and this time he meant business. Reiterating his demands for a sanctuary, he poked a hole in Aubert's head, and this time Aubert seems to have got the message. He built the sanctuary. The moral of the story? Just do what St Michael says, I guess. He seems to know best - Aubert might have a hole in his head, but the rest of us now have the medieval fantasy island known as Mont Saint-Michel.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Preview: Ely Cathedral

Religion loves a good virgin. Take St Etheldreda. She lived in 7th Century England and was the daughter of a regional king called King Anna, who presumably was a big masculine chieftan with no forewarning of how his name would sound 1400 years on. Etheldreda was married young to a local prince called Tondbert, but only after having solemnly made a vow of perpetual virginity - not usually a very promising start to a marriage. History doesn't record whether Tondbert studied himself in the mirror, asking "Is it me?", but the poor fellow died just a couple of years later. Off the hook, Etheldreda no doubt sighed, but soon found herself set up in another marriage, this time with Ecgfrith, the King of Northumbria. He may or may not have heard the rumours beforehand, but he had to endure twelve years of Etheldreda shaking her head. His frustration reached the point where he even asked the Bishop of Northumbria to intervene, and persuade his wife to consumate their marriage - but no luck.

Eventually, Ecgfrith gave up, and let Etheldreda do what she'd been wanting for all these years - to be a nun. As part of the wedding gifts from her first husband, Etheldreda had received an island surrounded by marshlands filled with eels, called straightforwardly the Isle of Ely ("island of eels"). Centuries later, in 1086, these eels were notable enough to appear in the Domesday Survey, which included the charming little touch of mentioning the community's fishery, which produced 3750 eels. But this was ahead, and Etheldreda wasn't there for the eels, she was there for the island, which was a safe retreat away from the troubles of the world. There she set up a monastery, for both monks and nuns, and became the Abbess of Ely. She died of plague a few years after, but by then her legacy was assured. A contemporary history, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum by the Venerable Bede describes her, with perhaps just a little relish, as “the virgin mother of very many virgins dedicated to God.” Her coffin was placed inside the church, and started producing miracles, such as healing, and the pilgrims flocked. Sainthood followed, and Ely became a well-regarded pilgrimage hotspot - and a good little earner for the church. Centuries later (about the same time the Domesday Book was earnestly counting its eels), England caught the cathedral-building bug from France. The Abbey of Ely was a prime candidate. Around the bones of Etheldreda, Ely Cathedral was built.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Google Maps: The View From Above

By the time I've finished visiting my 102 prospective World Wonders, I expect to have amassed approximately three years of actual travel time. In just the first year, I've taken planes, cars, buses, jeeps, bicycles, motorbikes, trains, subways, monorail, boats, tuk-tuks, kayak, hot air balloon, gyrocopter, and horse-and-cart; I've slept in innumerable hotels and hostels, of very varying quality; eaten food of unidentifiable origin and been forced - yes, forced - to thoroughly sample each nation's beer.

All this has been very enjoyable, but no doubt has involved some degree of time and effort. And it's not escaped my attention that's there's a much easier way to do it - Google Maps. By sitting on the sofa in my living room, moving the fingers on my right hand, I can pretty much visit the world. I've got eyes and Google has the images: who needs tuk-tuks, cheap hostels and mystery meat? (I'll continue to find myself forced to drink a variety of different beers.)

So I've taken a little time to find all my Wonders on Google Maps (Wikipedia's GPS coordinates have been very helpful) and see how they look. The purpose of this was mostly just curiosity, but I've found that it's been a pretty useful exercise in getting a rough idea of the scale of many of them. Some are in clearer resolution than others and some even have a nice 45° angle; in many cases (Europe and the US generally), a streetview is also possible. They are all there, albeit pretty blurry in a few cases, proving I suppose that they are indeed on Planet Earth.

Here they are, in a very rough order of size. Google Maps is oddly inconsistent with its zoom and scale, with it varying between locations. Even if it says 50 feet/20 metres, for example, the scale between these zooms can differ. Take a look down and you'll see what I mean. I've selected each Wonder at what I feel is their optimum zoom to show them off, and so I present them here in order of ascending size. I have to emphasise that this only very vaguely relates to the size of the Wonder, and even then, relates to their area rather than height, obviously. Still, it gives you an idea.

Actually embedding every Google Map image made things go a bit mental, so I've taken screenshots of them and pasted them here as pictures. Click on the picture to go to the Google Map, and click on the little orange man to see if there's a Streetview. Also, click on the name of the Wonder and go to my review or preview, for those that I've written.

At 50 foot/10 metre scale

Christ the Redeemer

Friday, 3 May 2013