Sunday, 29 June 2014

Coming together in style

Sometimes it seems Christians and Muslims will never see eye to eye.

But there are a few examples around the world of the magic that can happen when both come together.

One of these is the Mezquita in Spain's Cordoba.

Inside the Mezquita
To be fair, it's a bipolar building but somehow it works.

Today, the Mezquita is officially the Cathedral of Cordoba, but it's strong Islamic architecture tells the story of how it was once a mosque.

Mezquita gateway

Call it laziness or call it recycling, but rather than knock down stunning Islamic architecture, Christian rulers simply converted them into something more their style.  It's like religious wars meets The Block. There are other examples of this in Spain, such as the the bell tower of Seville's Cathedral that was once a minaret.

Mezquita's belfry

In Cordoba, the result is the Mezquita.

My friend and I have plenty of opportunity to admire it, as by luck our hotel room overlooks the main gate.   Here locals and tourists dodge horse-drawn buggies and gypsies trying to sell sprigs of rosemary (I'm still recovering from receiving the "evil eye").

From the outside, the Mezquita holds its secrets close.  It's surrounded by an imposing stone wall, interrupted by ornate gates, that offers little hint as to what's inside.

The forest of arches
Once we step out of the sun and into the cool darkness of the main building, it's like entering a maze.  

Almost as far as the eye can see is a "forest" of arches that make up the Mezquita's expansive hall. 

Here, row upon row of candy-striped arches (made of onyx, marble, granite and jasper) speak of the building's Islamic history.  It's simple, but stunning.

But the Mezquita has one more surprise for us.   Like entering a clearance in a forest, we stumble into the ornate and light-filled Catholic cathedral that sits in the middle of the building.
The Catholic cathedral at the heart of the Mezquita

It's as though someone literally just plonked a cathedral down in the middle of the mosque (which is roughly what happened when the region's Islamic rulers were overthrown by Christians).

Looking back out to the forest of arches
In a deliberate contrast to the simple and calming hall of arches, the cathedral is decked out in paintings, sculptures and other decorative features demanding your attention.

The Christian's ornate cathedral
There are stunning mosques all over the world, just as there are beautiful cathedrals, but the Mezquita's curiosity is that they're both here sharing the same space.

The cathedral's altar

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Chateau dreaming

Call it delusion, but every time I do a very minor renovation or home project, I'm expecting to transform my humble two-bedroom Brisbane unit into a magnificent French chateau.

Certainly the time and money some of these home projects seem to take makes me think I could have easily built a chateau with the same resources.

Chateau de Chambord

Take my current wardrobe project.

A pretty simple task you'd think.   Rip out the old ones from the 1960s and put in some new IKEA ones.   The tradie had allowed in a day and a half, which I thought was overly generous.   I envisaged he'd just be sitting around twiddling with the allen key for half of that time.

Several days later, the saga continues.

Chambord's roofline

At this rate I'm convinced I would have been better off building the Chateau de Chambord from scratch on the banks of the Brisbane River.

I feel there's quite a few similarities between my wardrobe project and Chateau de Chambord, the largest chateau in France's Loire Valley.  (Stick with me here)

Chambord's inner courtyard
Originally built to serve as a hunting lodge for King Francois I, Chambord took 28 years to build.  I'm guessing they too had to deal with the delays caused by wardrobe issues.

Ironically, despite its grand scale, Chambord was only suitable for short stays because its massive rooms were hard to heat.   King Francois I himself only spent about seven weeks here all up.   Back home, I'm hoping to get a bit more use out of my wardrobes, but time will tell.

Unlike my unit, Chambord doesn't have many close neighbours.  (I'm guessing if it had, they wouldn't have been chain smoking bogans who live and die by the State of Origin outcome.)  And because Chambord wasn't surrounded by a village or a large estate, it didn't have a close source of food - another reason why it was only suitable for short visits.

While my unit has seen a few things for sure, it's hard to match Chambord's past.  It acted as a field hospital during the Franco-Prussian War and as a store for Louvre art works, including the Mona Lisa, during World War II.

It's been said that Chambord was the inspiration behind the Beast's castle in Disney's Beauty and the Beast.   Some people have speculated that my unit was the inspiration for Elsa's ice palace in Frozen, but I can't see it myself.

Should I come down with extreme home renovation fever, there is one feature of Chambord I would love to install.  

In the centre of Chambord is an open, double helix staircase.  These two interwoven staircases weave their way up three floors, but never meet.  It's an eye-catching folly that would surely be an asset in any home.
The double helix staircase
Sure the owners of the unit under mine might have some objections to this idea as they would have to sacrifice their bedroom, but it could be a real point of difference should I ever decide to sell.

Of course, all of this is just deluded ramblings from someone who is spending the next week literally eating, drinking and living among piles of his clothes waiting for the new wardrobes to be completed and hoping they transform his home into a castle.

On Chambord's roof

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The great wardrobe clearance

In a construction effort that mirrors the building of the Great Wall of China or Egypt's Pyramids, I'm having new wardrobes installed in my unit.

The carpenter is coming tomorrow (hopefully) to rip out the old chipboard ones and install some shiny new IKEA ones.

To get to this point I have been on a two-month odyssey that involved getting quotes, stock delays, numerous trips to IKEA and finally the delivery of the flat packs ready to go.

In preparation for the build (let's call it a build so it sounds more exciting), I've had to go through my wardrobes and get everything out.   Now this task is normally only something you do when you move house... and for very good reason.  It's boring, painful and messy.

But on the upside, I've used the opportunity to rid myself of all the crap I've collected during the past seven years of living here.

I don't consider myself a hoarder.  I don't have my grade three report cards or every birthday card ever given to me.  Still I've been surprised at just how much useless stuff I had held onto.

Here's just a selection of the "treasures".   Needless to say, if you want any of them be sure to check out the wheelie bin in the front of my place on Tuesday night.

Shopping bag souvenirs
I seem to have accumulated a vast collection of plastic bags of all shapes and sizes from around the world.   Perhaps I should just stick to conventional souvenirs in future?

Red Sea towel
When I was in Egypt in 2004 I needed a beach towel.   I bought this and used it for two days on the trip and then never again because it seems to repel rather than absorb water.

Inner soles of running shoes
As I've got orthodics, I take out the existing inner soles of new running shoes.  Why I hold on to them for years is anyone's guess.

Collar inserts
Often when you buy a nice collared shirt, you get a few bits of plastic to replace the bits of plastic that sit in the collar.   Perhaps they should just sew the existing ones in so they don't fall out in the wash?

Hotel toiletries
Clearly I haven't stayed in a hotel where I haven't swiped the sewing kit, soap, toothbrush or other toiletries on offer.   However, supply has vastly outstripped demand.

Disposable plastic plates and bowls
I'm not sure why I have these at all.   Maybe I went on a picnic once?  I'm sure I won't be doing that again.  I'm just not that kind of person.

Instruction manuals and receipts
This is the pile of paraphernalia for appliances I no longer have.   There's receipts and instructions for kettles, washing machines, televisions, fridges, toasters and more.   Interesting how these lasted longer than the appliances themselves.

Spare parts
These are some spare parts for a washing machine I once had.  I have no idea what they do but they are in mint condition.

Laserforce membership card
I went to Laserforce once as part of a work social function.  We were beaten by 10 year olds.   Probably don't need to hold onto the membership card for too many more years.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Jostling for position

Sometimes being a tourist is a contact sport worthy of its own Olympics.

You have this idea of being "at one" with an amazing site, and having the time and space to soak it all in.  In reality, you're deploying your elbows, and manoeuvring into position ready for combat.

This was how I experienced the Taj Mahal in Agra, India.

Don't get me wrong, it is a stunningly beautiful building.  But if you were thinking of having a quiet moment to yourself, perhaps recreating the iconic shot of Princess Diana sitting by herself in front of the building, then you're in for a shock.

My first battle with the Taj Mahal crowds came before I even got in the front gate.

In hindsight, the lengthy entrance queue where everyone is frisked and bags checked gave me a taste of what was in store. It seemed as though all of India and half of the rest of the world had turned out this afternoon to visit the icon (I also realise that I am part of the problem here).

Waiting in line gives you plenty of people-watching opportunities
The occasional cow also passes by while you wait
We had been warned not to take anything more than a camera, some money and a bottle of water to minimise any drama.  Others hadn't heard about this tip, causing confusion, concern and delay at the front gate.

Once inside, everyone is funnelled through a single-arched gate to enter the Taj Mahal grounds.  

Heading in through the main gate

This creates one of the most impressive reveals you're ever likely to experience.  The archway frames the Taj Mahal in the distance, and you pass through the dark gateway before emerging into the dazzling light to see the building in all its glory.

The gate frames the Taj Mahal perfectly
The sight is enough to stop people in their tracks.  As one in our group found out, this is also the perfect opportunity for pickpocketers to pray on visitors gazing upon the Taj Mahal in open-mouthed awe.

This is just the first of many photo bottlenecks I'll encounter here as everyone snaps away in the quest for the perfect shot.

Entering the main grounds

Once inside the main grounds there is space to spread out and momentarily escape the crowds.  It's these little moments when you can step out from behind the camera and actually appreciate the building and its riverbank setting.
Lady sits quietly on the Taj Mahal forecourt

But if you're wanting that great shot of just you and the Taj Mahal, perhaps making use of the pretty reflective pools, you need to be prepared to wait and negotiate with the throngs of others trying to achieve the same thing.
Taj Mahal, you and a few others

Regardless of who you are and where you come from, it's clear we all want a photo of ourselves in front of the Taj Mahal, preferably with no one else in shot so we can pretend we had the place to ourselves.

So does the Taj Mahal live up to expectations?   Surprisingly, it does.

It is a stunning building, and the detail and symmetry can be admired from all directions.  Even the crowds don't dent its appeal.

The afternoon sun against the Taj Mahal
To see what's inside the mausoleum, there's another lengthy line that snakes its way around the main forecourt.   But it certainly helps to have the building to admire while you wait.

The line to get inside the mausoleum

Waiting time gives you time to appreciate the building's finer details
Initially I thought a few hours would be plenty of time to see the Taj Mahal, but all too quickly sunset was approaching.  

The Taj Mahal changing colour as sunset approaches

People will argue whether the morning or afternoon is the best time to see the Taj Mahal.  Either way, the changing light of the day transforms the white marble.  As sunset approaches and the mausoleum takes on a yellow hue, everyone knows the game is over and it's time to leave.  

As the crowds thin, there's still time for one last shot before it becomes too dark.

Despite taking more than 100 photos of the building already, it seems I can't take enough.  On some level, I know that all the photos in the world still won't do the Taj justice when I get back home.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

A Roman holiday in Germany

Those Romans got around didn't they?

They moved through Europe like the Kardashians move through men, leaving small reminders that they were once there.

Though in the German city of Trier, just over the border from Luxembourg, there's more than just a few signs that the Romans were once here.

Trier's Old Town
Trier, on the banks of the Moselle River
Forget the occasional ancient foundation or artefact, Trier is brimming with some more impressive signs of Roman times.
Roman bridge over the Moselle River

I've stepped off the train a little a more than five minutes and searching for my hotel before I hit one of Trier's most impressive sites, the Roman city gate called Porta Nigra.

Named so in the Middle Ages because of its dark stone, it's a three-level structure that looks like it should be standing in Florence rather than in Germany.

Porta Nigra by day
Porta Nigra by night
It's the largest Roman city gate north of the Alps and in Roman times was one of four gates that stood on each side of the rectangular Roman city.

View into the old town from Porta Nigra
It's remarkably well preserved given it dates from about 200AD and I'm also surprised to learn I can roam through it.   Not just to be admired from afar, I work my way up to its upper levels where I am treated to a great view into Trier's old town from the many arches.

View down the middle of Porta Nigra
With the autumn afternoon sun beaming in I could easily sit here all day, but my hunt for the city's other Roman treasurers keeps me moving.

The archways of Porta Nigra

Sitting on the banks of the Moselle River, Trier is often touted as the oldest in Germany.  It's surrounded by vine-covered hills and the temptation to stop and savour some of the local wines (all in the name of research mind you) is never too far away.  But I press on.

Trier Cathedral
The vine-covered hills around Trier

My next stop is the Roman Amphitheatre on the outskirts of the old town.  It dates back to about 100AD and was used for gladiator fights and animal contests.

Trier's Roman Amphitheatre
Today, it's just me and an American couple trying to enthuse their two children about their amphitheatre visit by talking loudly about the movie Gladiator and Russell Crowe.

The Amphitheatre's entrance

What's most impressive here is that you can go under the arena to explore the caverns where animals were kept before being hoisted onto the stage.  I escape the loud and whiny American children by stepping down into the dark, damp and gloomy labyrinth.   I'm temporarily transported me back in time... until the American family join me.

Under the amphitheatre

I linger a little longer to see if a stray descendant of one of the amphitheatre's wild animals might like to make sport of the children.  Sadly, no.

To purge my mind of these nasty thoughts, I make my way to the Roman thermal baths.  It's amazing the Romans managed to conquer so much of Europe given they seemed to spend so much time in the bath.

Roman thermal baths

Trier's Roman thermal bath complex is the largest outside of Rome and is testament that you can be all conquering and clean at the same time.

All that remains of this Constantine statue is his giant foot