Open the floodgates! Rouen’s museums are open!

May 23, 2021

Natasha and I have lived in France for almost five full months, and yet today was our first chance to visit museums; they were only allowed to reopen on May 19th. We decided we would prioritize the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Antiquities. The first was a logical choice because Rouen has a distinguished history for Impressionism, in particular. The latter relates to its standing as a city since Roman times!

All that remains of the Chateau de Rouen is the restored Grosse Tour (T1 in the schematic) and the foundations of T9. The maquette image is from the Jeanne d’Arc Museum in Rouen, and the schematic originally comes from a book by Pitte and Gauthiez.

Our first move, however, was to walk to the north of the museum area to see the “Donjon of Rouen,” a massive tower near what was once a massive wall surrounding the medieval city. We were grateful that the road rose gently to the top of a hill. The tower, sometimes tied to the Joan of Arc story, is all that remains of the massive Chateau de Rouen, constructed by King Philippe-Auguste in 1205. It might seem obvious to people today that Normandy is part of France, but this was actually quite controversial during medieval times. Here’s a brief timeline for the city:

A miniature of Rouen in 1525 from the south side of the Seine by Théodore de Jolimont
  • Before Common Era: The Veliocasses found this city near the mouth of the Seine.
  • 58-50 BCE: Julius Caesar wins Gallia Lugdunensis in battle, with Rotomagus (Rouen) being its second city.
  • 486 Common Era: Clovis I of the Franks destroys the “rump state” remaining from the Romans. Rouen becomes a major city of Merovingian Neustria.
  • 912 CE: The Franks cede Normandy to Viking leader Rollo for the promise he would keep other Vikings away, and he makes his capital at Rouen.
  • 1204 CE: King Philippe-Augustus of France reasserts his power over Normandy after the descendants of Rollo become preoccupied with ruling England instead.
  • 1419 CE: Henry V of England reclaims Normandy in the Hundred Years’ War.
  • 1449 CE: Charles VII of France regains Normandy.

In short, this is a popular city for invading armies. The stones that formed this mighty castle protecting the northern border of Rouen were re-used for other construction at the end of the sixteenth century. Ironically, it stands right next to a memorial to honor the victims of racism, antisemitism, and crimes against humanity during 1940-1944, another period during which Rouen was a contested piece of land.

Square Charles Verdrel

Natasha and I walked back down the hill and enjoyed a few moments in Square Charles Verdrel (named after the man who “Haussmanned” Rouen). The mature trees were lovely, and the waterfall played happily in the shade. Natasha and I disputed the type of animal that belonged in the little box on an island; she speculated an otter, but I was holding out hope that it was a beaver. I believe my cell phone read 10:03 AM when the main doors of the fine arts museum opened.

Rouen Musée des Beaux Arts

Jean Revel, the pen-name of a writer who lived 1848-1925, has a place of honor before the Rouen Fine Arts Museum.

Though Rouen was one of the largest cities in medieval France, today it barely cracks the top 40 cities in France by population. Why, then, does it have such an amazing art museum? It might be the result of the “First Mover” advantage! Even before the French Revolution, the arts community of Rouen had begun assembling a collection of art intended for public view. By the end of the nineteenth century, the collection had already outgrown the space it shared with two prior buildings, and it moved to its purpose-built gallery in 1888. Happily, seeing the permanent collection is absolutely free.

Figure allégorique, by Paulus Bor (Image courtesy of Ministry of Culture)

Natasha and I have different taste in art, so we sped up and slowed down for different sections. She loves a good portrait, and I enjoy landscapes, cityscapes, and above all, Impressionism! I think the first image that captured my attention was a 1621 Flemish painting of a young woman on her death bed, while Natasha’s gaze was drawn by an arresting image of Saint Catherine of Sienna from the late 15th century. I would also point to Paulus Bor’s “Figure allégorique,” featuring a woman with a very neutral expression bearing a snake wrapped around her arm. Natasha helped cushion the surprise for me when I walked into a gallery featuring a life-sized figure in a colorful plague-doctor mask. I worried that it was a performance artist who was going to FREAK ME OUT!

Happily, this figure was modern art rather than performance art.

I was very pleased to see Cardinal Richelieu by Philippe de Champaigne (17th century), and Natasha noted that we must be in Europe since she had spotted a larger-than-life work by Paul Rubens right next to one by Caravaggio! I goggled to see a full-size version of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s “Seated Voltaire,” executed in papier maché.

This image at the Rouen Fine Arts Museum comes from a considerable series of paintings by Claude Monet. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

For me, the highlight was always going to be the well-stocked section on Impressionism. The museum had a good explainer on why its relationship with François Depeaux had enriched its collection in this area so greatly. Since the hall on Impressionism came so late in our route through the museum, I was sad to have spent much of my energy already. I still enjoyed it thoroughly. I hoped that Natasha might take a photo of me next to Claude Monet’s painting of Rouen Cathedral portal in grey, misty conditions, but she takes museum restrictions on photography quite seriously.

I am grateful to the heritage architects who continually updated the Rouen Palais de Justice over the centuries! World War II was most unkind.

Soon thereafter, Natasha and I were back on the street. My belly was telling me it was time for a Burger King Whopper, but Natasha showed greater restraint and returned to our lodgings for something healthier. I did capture a nice image of the Palais de Justice (Law Courts) building, completed in 1509.

Rouen Musée des Antiquités

In sunlight, I promise that the Rouen Museum of Antiquities appears quite cheerful!

When a group of museums opened for the afternoon, we had a choice to make; would we visit the museum of iron work in a sixteenth century church, or would we explore the antiquities of this area instead? We opted to hike back to the north to see the Musée des Antiquités. Our route along Rue Beauvoisine showed us a hundred interesting shops as well as some half-timbered structures that clearly had a lot of years behind them. I only realized after we reached the museum that the same structure served for both Antiquities and Natural History museums. Again, the permanent exhibits were free, so we could explore just as soon as I locked away my backpack.

This glassware from the Romans has persisted for 2000 years.

While it is apparent that the museum of antiquities is not perhaps as well-funded as the fine art museum, its setting in the 1691 “Convent of the Visitation” gives both the building and its contents historic gravitas. The grounds of the convent are filled with stone elements from two thousand years of history. What blew my mind, however, was when Natasha pointed to a series of small glass vessels and explained that these were made by the Romans. I hadn’t realized that the technologies for making glass were so old! A macabre mannequin of a plague doctor was once again coolly regarding our progress through the museum.

These faces and animal figures were recovered in ruins from the first dynasty of Lagash.

I always enjoy a Mesopotamian archaeology display, and the museum’s collection had some lovely items. Some tiny clay faces that were molded circa 2500 BCE were really striking. As an inveterate cat person, I was astonished to see a pair of Egyptian sarcophagi for cats.

This praying woman, once part of a set of seven figures, adorned an underground tomb. First part of third century BCE, Canosa, Italy

The Grecian civilization was represented by a striking statue of a woman with upraised hands. At the time it was created, the Roman Republic was still actively aggregating the communities throughout the Italian Peninsula into itself; the bottom of the “boot” held several Greek communities. Natasha and I continued to the room from which we had entered, dominated by two massive Roman floor mosaics. During our honeymoon in Andalucia, Natasha and I saw some other astonishing floor mosaics created by the Romans, both in archaeology museums and at Italica.

These wall hangings are made from leather! 16th Century Belgium

Natasha spent some time looking at some glossy, highly decorated brown squares mounted on the wall in the other gallery of the Antiquities museum. I didn’t know the French word “cuir,” and Natasha was quicker than me to realize that these wall panels decorated with floral and vegetable images were embossed leather engraved with gold and black. They had been created in the sixteenth century, but they were still glorious today.

Patrons of religious institutions freqeuntly requested that they be remembered in the art for those institutions.

I am always going to collect photographs of stained glass, and the convent features some lovely “vitraux” dating as far back as the fifteenth century. For example, this pane featuring a family in prayer was created in 1440 for the church of the Augustins at Rouen.

These “fibules” were broaches intended to pin clothing in place, executed in gilded bronze. They were among the oldest post-Roman artifacts on display.

Natasha spent some time with a reconstruction of a tomb from the Merovingian period (sixth or seventh century). The artifacts such as a shield boss were familiar items for a ceremonial burial. Natasha looked over the skeleton for marks that could tell us about his life. She spotted some partially-healed broken ribs and a break in his temple. After looking at his legs, though, she proclaimed, “I can tell you one thing: this guy suffered from arthritic knees!”

St. Ouen and Rollo

The city hall and Saint-Ouen Abbey Church offer monumentality to their neighboring square.

Natasha and I descended from the museum on Rue Louis Richard, and it gave us a chance to see the northeastern part of the tourist district. I really liked Place General de Gaulle, facing city hall. It offered a cool side perspective on the Saint-Ouen Abbey Church. I think this is the third church I’ve highlighted for Rouen (the cathedral, Saint-Maclou, and Saint-Ouen).

This engraving of Saint-Ouen from 1822 doesn’t show the Abbey at its peak; the French Revolution had already repurposed its buildings to serve as the city hall (to name one example).

Saint-Ouen has been claimed as the masterpiece of Rayonant Gothic design. In other words, the reason the nave and choir are so high is to create lots of space for light to enter the church. The church was begun in a mad rush between 1318-1339, matching a new choir to the remains of a fire-damaged Romanesque nave. The fourteenth century was very unkind to France, though, and the Hundred Years War had particular resonance for Rouen, since it was a capital of sorts for the English invasion. The Rayonant nave was only completed in the early sixteenth century. The restoration of this church is currently underway (we didn’t get to see inside it), but it should be a considerable showpiece for the city in 2024!

Rollo, the invader-turned-duke of Normandy

Before we left Saint-Ouen, I made sure we stopped to say hello to Rollo. In American high school classes on world history, we sometimes learned of Viking invasions as occasional events of extreme destruction replaced by the slow recovery of the victims. Rollo is an excellent counter-example. His skill in terrorizing the people of Normandy led the king of France to name him as its duke! Charles the Simple decided that Rollo might be strong enough to defend Normandy from other Vikings, and so he gifted the massive territory to him in 911 CE, after the Siege of Chartres.

With so many activities on one day, Natasha and I were both ready for a nap!

Roaming in Rouen

May 22, 2021

A two kilometer walk past major sites in Rouen

The reopening of museums, combined with a three-day weekend, enabled Natasha’s and my visit to a new city. We decided on Rouen, a city that particularly thrived in medieval times, just a couple of hours away on the train. Unbeknownst to us, however, an upstairs neighbor had planned to host another noisy party until 2AM the night before our train ride. As a result, it was a very bleary-eyed Dave and Natasha that arrived at Gare Saint-Lazare on Saturday morning. Happily we had acquired tickets through the SNCF “Oui” service, and finding the right train platform for the “grand lignes” was not too challenging. A few minutes before departure, the gates opened, and our mob moved aboard the train cars. Natasha and I climbed to the upper level of a two-deck car so we could watch the world flashing by. We were not aboard a TGV, but our train was still able to maintain quite a good speed to the northwest, following the course of the Seine River. We departed Paris at 8:38 and arrived at Rouen Rive Droite just after 10 AM.

Gare de Rouen, Rive Droite

Trundling down Rue Jeanne d’Arc to our Air BNB was no problem; the road is a main artery of the historic city center. We liked the distinctive facade for the train station, and we had tantalizing hints of Rouen’s major tourist sites as we passed Square Charles Verdrel. We arrived at our housing at Rue Ganterie just in time to meet our host and her son, who familiarized us with the place we were staying.

These half-timbered houses on Rue Beauvoisine illustrate the variety and age of these buildings.

Natasha was ready to start our adventure once we unpacked a few items from the backpack. We headed west on Rue Ganterie in hopes of second breakfast at Hygge, a restaurant that offers quite a few gluten-free options. It didn’t take long before we discovered a recurring theme; the historic center of Rouen is filled to the brim with half-timbered buildings! After months of “Haussmann” structures in Paris, we were delighted to be surrounded by something very different. In the early nineteenth century, Paris would have looked quite a lot like Rouen, but in many respects the Second Empire replaced all those street fronts with new structures. To our dismay, Hygge had not reopened in time for this holiday weekend.

Old buildings can certainly be restored to beauty, as these buildings on the south side of the square illustrate! At right, La Couronne Restaurant occupies a building originally constructed in the 14th century.

Instead we continued south past the restaurant to the Place du Vieux-Marché (old market). This bustling square was thriving with people at the sidewalk cafés; I think all of France has been waiting for the opportunity to return to them as the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed.

Église Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc contributes its distinctive form to the old market square.

The historic market square is really distinctive in appearance. Those half-timbered building fronts (some long-standing and other less so) really set Rouen apart from Paris. The center of the square is dominated by the Église Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc, a church that opened its doors for the first time in 1979. Natasha and I were both charmed by it. After a steady diet of Gothic churches, I was delighted to see a truly original architecture, as though a medieval Norse carpenter had envisioned a whale beached in the square! The adjoining shopping area had been constructed to match, and we encountered a few folks handing out flyers along with the crowds of shoppers. We parked ourselves at a café to enjoy a coffee or a drinking chocolate and watched the world go by.

We passed southeast from the Place du Vieux-Marché to Place de la Pucelle. Natasha guided me to Hôtel de Bourgtheroulde after reading one of the information boards. The structure was initiated at the close of the 15th century (around the time Columbus sailed). In the early 16th century, its interior courtyard was sculpted with a bas-relief celebrating the diplomatic success of the “Camp du Drap d’or,” a 1520 meeting between Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England. It was nice to see a monument devoted to peace rather than to war. I also peeked around the corner to see the Protestant Temple Saint-Éloi, which could benefit from a powerwasher!

Yes, building each floor a little further over the pavement was a common strategy in the past!

As we continued northeast along the Rue de la Vicomte, we felt the walls closing in around us. It is not an optical illusion; the upper levels of the half-timbered facades are closer together than they are at street level. It does give one the sense that they’re toppling toward you.

Gros Horloge has held pride of place since the 14th century.

We turned right from there to join the busy foot traffic to the southeast on Rue du Gros Horloge. After we crossed Rue Jeanne d’Arc, we could see the Renaissance clock tower for ourselves (my first sighting of it was a photograph print on the wall of our Air BNB). Its clock movement dates from 1389, though it was electrified in the 1920s. Léon-Jules Lemaître painted some lovely Impressionist images of the Gros Horloge in the nineteenth century.

Rouen Cathedral is such a fascinating topic that I believe it will get a post of its own!

As we continued along the Rue du Gros Horloge, we heard church bells announcing noon, and their source was obvious. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen was the tallest building in the world when its spire was completed in the late nineteenth century. It lost that title to Cologne Cathedral, which then lost the title to the Washington Monument, which then lost the title to the Eiffel Tower! I will have more to say about it in a later post, but for now I would just like to say that the massive facade of that church and of its towers are ornate. I can see why Impressionist painters would find themselves fascinated by the play of light across its surface.

The square before Saint-Maclou, Rouen

We passed around the north side of the church to do a little bit of gift shopping, passing by the Historial Jeanne d’Arc, which has not reopened along with other museums in the city. At Place Barthélémy we took in the fine view of Église Catholique Saint-Maclou, and then we passed north along Rue de la République to find a sushi place for lunch (quite near Royal Donuts, which is definitely on my itinerary!). We stood in the doorway of Moshi Moshi to protect us from a sudden rainstorm. When our food was ready, we walked west along Rue de la Chaine to reach our Air BNB in a lovely shopping district.

Time for a nap!

“Older and Meaner:” the Missouri State Penitentiary

July 25, 2021

Missouri State Penitentiary presents a stern exterior on Lafayette Street in Jefferson City, MO.

Even though I grew up in Missouri, I feel I still have a lot to learn about the state. Visiting my brother in the summer of 2021 was joyful because it was my first time to return to Missouri since before the pandemic, but it was also a cool opportunity to learn more about the state capitol at Jefferson City. When Tom suggested we take the two-hour “history tour” at Missouri State Penitentiary, I jumped at the chance.

As we drove to the prison for our 3:30 PM visit, the clouds let loose with a sudden shower. I was grateful that we didn’t get drenched as we ran for the prison entrance, but the rain picked up considerably once we were inside. When the entrance doors were mechanically closed and bolted by the control office, they added a more substantial barrier to exit than the heavy rain. We were inside for the duration.

This control center for the main entrance was our backdrop for the early part of the tour since the rain impeded our wandering outside.

In the nineteenth century, penitentiaries represented a substantial change in how justice was pursued in the United States, built in the belief that prisoners could be isolated from negative influences and taught the habits of hard work. The facilities at Auburn, New York and Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, constructed in the first half of the nineteenth century, set the model for this reform of offenders. Missouri State Penitentiary was crafted to follow the “Industry, Obedience, and Silence” model of the Auburn System.

As powerful as these walls were, they were unable to withstand an EF-3 tornado.

Why is Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) significant? As detailed in J.P. Rasmussen’s book, the decision to build the first penitentiary west of the Mississippi River at Jefferson City was a stake in the ground to anchor the capital to that site. The first state capitol building in Jefferson City had only been completed in 1826, and more established communities in the state had agitated to abandon the project of creating a new city for the capital. By keeping offenders at a new MSP, the state’s counties would not have the burden of holding them in lesser facilities. Critically, if the offenders were housed at a central facility, they could labor in secure workshops. In effect, Jefferson City would be built on the profits of industries that could harness poorly-paid offender labor. The initial MSP was created by an 1833 act of the Missouri legislature and was completed only two years later. After a series of expansions, the MSP drew offenders from several states, eventually housing 5200 offenders (roughly ten times as many as Alcatraz). After remaining in service for 168 years, the MSP closed its doors in 2004.

Our tour guide was concerned about the rain, since he wanted to show us the oldest building still standing at MSP. For thirty minutes, he extemporized on the history of the prison, keeping an eye on the rain outside. He discussed some of the most famous offenders held here, such as James Early Ray. He explained that the building we stood in (Housing Unit I) represented a real innovation, housing female offenders separately from male. I would have liked to have learned more about Kate Richards O’Hare and Emma Goldman, women who were imprisoned from 1917 to 1920 for blocking the draft of troops for World War I. As observed by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”

Housing Unit 4 (1868) has an impressive exterior, but we could not visit the inside due to storm damage.

It is worth mentioning that the oldest building still standing on the site was built in 1868, three decades after the prison came into existence. A hint of what existed before was discovered when an exercise yard was built for one of the other prison halls. Workers were able to uncover a line of prison cells dating from the 1840s; our tour, however, allowed us only to see them through a half-opened window a dozen meters away. Housing Unit 4 (1868), the oldest building still standing, is still pretty impressive, though we were not able to see the inside. A powerful EF-3 tornado ripped through Jefferson City in 2019, and it left gaps in the powerful walls surrounding the prison and removed the roof of Housing Unit 4. It is unclear when enough funds will be collected to repair the damages since the site is expected to cover its own maintenance expenses from tour ticket prices.

Long may your memory endure, Mike the Cat!

I am always a sucker for stories about cats, and I particularly liked the story our guide related about Mike, a feline who lived at the penitentiary from 1953 to 1974. Mike served as a “mule” for cigarettes, with a feeding schedule that took him to each hall of the penitentiary campus. His services were aided by a set of saddle bags crafted by prisoners to match his fur.

These large towers on Housing Unit 3 feed the ventilation system for the building. My brother appears in the red shirt at lower left.

Since Housing Unit 4 was unavailable, our tour emphasized Housing Unit 3 (1914). Just a few parts of the building had displays to help us understand the site. The prison cell of James Earl Ray was an early stop on our walk. A substantial display addressed the 1953 double execution for the kidnappers and murderers of six-year-old Bobby Greenlease. The guide played up the mystery of $300,000 ransom money that was given to the kidnappers but never recovered.

These ranks of cells seem more bleak now that they get less maintenance.

At several points in the tour, the guide made “spooky” allusions to ghost sightings in the facility, attesting that he had seen them himself. At one cell within Housing Unit 3, they had even posted three photographs purporting to be ghost sightings, though they looked like ordinary flash artifacts to me. The guide complained that the most compelling of the three photographs had been stolen by a guest. He also prevented the guests from walking down a corridor near which he had observed a ghostly man on a toilet. These comments seemed a bit upsetting to a child near me on the tour. I tried to keep my eye-rolls to myself. I have no idea how the people trailing behind us by ten meters were able to hear these ghost stories; the explanations could only have been audible to 25% of the group, at most.

The Missouri State Archives have plenty of photos to document this prison’s history.

September 22nd, 1954, was one of the darkest nights in the history of the MSP. A group of offenders sought to retaliate against an informer who was being protected by having been moved to the death row cells. After two guards were jumped and their keys stolen, a group of prisoners freed several more cells of offenders; at that time, the MSP held 2575 offenders in total. A major riot resulted in a fire that consumed the automobile license plate shop and damaged other buildings. One of the two informers sought by the rioters died under sledgehammers stolen from the shop, while the other survived. The overwhelmed prison guards were soon buttressed by 100 police from St. Louis and members of the 138th Infantry of the Missouri National Guard. In total, the riot lasted 14 hours. Four offenders were killed, and thirty-four were injured. Four officers of the law were injured. Seven offenders were given life sentences for their actions in the riot.

This area was once chocablock with industrial facilities powered by convict labor.

At the close of the tour, we returned to our cars and drove around to the state motor pool on the east side of the facility. We were allowed through a security fence there to see a large grassy field surrounded by the walls on the river and the eastern end. This pleasant meadow represents the former site of the factories that benefited from prisoner labor. The historic photograph on display documents a clothing factory, a tag plant, a furniture factory, a soap factory, a shoe factory, and the “I-Hall” industrial area. Let’s be completely clear: these factories gravitated to Jefferson City because free men and women required higher wages than the industrialists wanted to pay. The offenders were not paid free-market wages for their efforts, and their principal route for spending money was in the prison commissary. In effect, the prison got paid twice for this system; the first payment was the agreement by which the prison agreed to lease out its laborers, and the second payment came from their laborers spending the “wages” they received. I believe it is pertinent to remember that Missouri was a slave state at the time MSP was constructed, and the use of physical coercion to ensure every prisoner was working in the factories would not have raised an eyebrow. Jefferson City was established through the labor of incarcerated offenders.

My Aunt Joyce talks with my brother Tom in front of the gas chamber for Missouri State Penitentiary.

Of course, we were brought to that area not to see the former industrial site but rather the gas chamber. Missouri executed a total of 40 offenders at this location, with all but one dying by inhaling cyanide gas– the most recent died by lethal injection instead. I was a bit horrified that people wanted photographs of themselves sitting in the chairs of the gas chamber, but we all make our own decisions. I was surprised to learn that the bricks in the path leading to the chamber were manufactured by A.P. Green, the grandfather of former Senator “Kit” Bond. I thought the most poignant aspect of the gas chamber was a panel showing photographs of each person executed there.

When historian Mark Schrieber was asked in 2009 to compare the MSP to other prisons, he simply described it as “older and meaner.” This quote matches a concern I had with the banter on the tour. Our guide explained that the Auburn System would allow a corrections officer to beat a prisoner who looked him in the face or spoke out of turn; our guide’s companion, a current corrections officer, said it was “unfortunate” that this was no longer allowed. When a guest suggested that people would pay money to see a convict executed, the guide and his companion laughed. These are just two examples of ways that the tour script seemed to dehumanize the offenders who had been incarcerated at MSP.

Missouri State Penitentiary is an interesting tour, and it certainly gave me a lot to think about for America’s prison system in the present, not just the past. I hope that on my next visit to Jefferson City I can see the museum that is housed in the former Warden’s Residence!

How do I make a PDF from a book?

While eBooks are great for travel, I love the feel of holding a physical book. The five bookshelves at Turtle House are all sagging with the weight of the books we have shelved on them. Some aspects of physical books, however, can really hold us back:

  • Searchable: If I want to find where a particular book mentioned a particular family, the index might or might not be able to help me!
  • Loanable: In normal times, lending a friend a book in the same city is as easy as dropping it off. During the COVID-19 pandemic, though, that is a very iffy proposition. Also, many of my friends live in other countries.
  • Translatable: If I am using an Afrikaans book as a source, I will probably need to run it through Google Translate. That can mean a fair amount of typing to find the right section.

To resolve these problems, I’ve produced PDFs from some of the older books I have on hand. Some of the steps, however, can be a bit complex, so I thought I would share some of the ways I have addressed them.

To photograph or to scan?

Flatbed scanners are frequently found in offices, but they seem less common in homes. Today one can easily acquire a high-resolution scanner for less than $100; essentially any scanner on the market can achieve a resolution of 600 dpi (dots per inch), which is probably the highest dpi at which you would want to scan a book page. My Canon CanoScan 8600F may date from 2007, but it’s still capable of 4800 dpi! If you have a flatbed scanner, it’s the most common route to book scanning for these reasons:

  • Even lighting: The scanner will move a light bar slowly across the document, with the CCD (detector) moving in sync. As a result, all parts of the page will be uniformly lit in the resulting image.
  • Sharp focus: The CCD knows that the image it’s trying to capture is just above the glass, and so very small details can still be clear.
  • High resolution: To help you visualize how much detail a 600 dpi scan captures, I am showing a sentence from a book on my shelf:
A sentence from Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien (1971) shows the detail of 600 dpi (when image is viewed at full size).

I would offer a bit of advice for getting top performance from your scanner. First off, if the lid has any weight to it, that can help you ensure that as much of your image is flat on the glass as possible. Any parts of the page that aren’t flat on the glass will likely be darker and less focused. Some scanner lids are on hinges that can be raised so that the lid is pressing more or less uniformly across the book.

In the top scan, only one side of the book is wearing the weight of the scanner lid. On the bottom, both sides are carrying that weight for a more uniform scan. The difference is that the hinge has been lifted for the bottom image.

In most cases, the text pages of books are entirely in black and white. By scanning them in grayscale, you can save quite a lot of space (one byte per pixel instead of three bytes). At 600 dpi, it is quite likely that you will be able to resolve the black dots used to half-tone printed black-and-white photographs. That is less likely to be true at 300 dpi or less. It is okay to use a color scan only on the pages that actually use color! Mixing grayscale and color images won’t cause problems for the later steps.

When scanning books, in particular, you are likely to encounter real challenges when the book binding does not allow the pages to be opened completely flat (as seen in the areas closest to the middle in the image below). The effect this has on the resulting scan can be very problematic, depending on the extent to which the book lifts away from the glass and how closely the publisher has crowded the text to the inner edges of the page. The following image from Cassell’s Concise French-English Dictionary illustrates the problem nicely.

If the middle of the book is raised from the glass, it will appear darker and unfocused. Image from Cassel’s French-English Dictionary (1968)

The raised part of the text is further from the glass, so it receives less light, is not at the right distance for sharp focus, and receives a distorting curve from perspective. In the image above, I have added some other problems that may affect image quality. The book has been held in straight alignment by abutting the lower edge of the pages against one edge of the scanner surface. As a result, the bottom of those pages are cropped slightly. Next, if I am scanning hundreds of pages, I want each scan to go quickly. If I’m doing just one scan, I can use the “Preview” feature to select the part of the flatbed that contains my book. If I’m doing a whole book, I’m likely to skip the Preview step and just scan the entire flatbed. That increases the likelihood that I’ll have a black or white region surrounding my pages. It’s also quite likely that the image has been turned at 90 degrees. We’ll deal with both these problems in the next section.

Some books are simply not going to be a good fit for a flatbed scanner. You might be pressed into using a camera or <shudder> even a cell phone to photograph a book. Why might you choose this strategy?

  1. You may have only a short time with the book in question, or it may be so many pages that scanner processing would simply take too long (the best case for me is around a minute a page with my flatbed).
  2. The size of pages is too large; some coffee-table books, for example, are much bigger than A4/Letter size, and your scanner may not have a big enough bed to capture a whole page.
  3. You don’t have a scanner or can’t bring the book to it (person sitting in a hidden alcove at the special collections library, I am looking at you).

This is the set of things I worry about for photographing book pages:

  • I don’t have enough pixels. If I use my Canon EOS-M 100, I have a 24 megapixel sensor (6000 x 4000 pixels), If the page is 80% the width of the frame and each page measures 6.5″ wide, I am effectively producing a 370 dpi image (6000 pixels x 80%) / (6.5″ x 2 pages per image).
  • I don’t have enough light. Ideally, I would be able to photograph the book with a great light source such as the sun. If I am relying on a lamp inside, I am going to need a large sensor to capture as much as I can. This is the category where having at least a “mirrorless” or better camera is important. A “point-and-shoot” or cell phone is going to have a much smaller sensor to capture light, meaning it will need a higher ISO to make an effective photo. How steady can you hold your phone while touching the button on-screen? See the image below for example of the blurring that results from a camera shot of an open book.
  • My pages are trapezoids. Your only chance to get a perfectly rectangular page is to position the camera on the vector pointing directly up from the center of the page. We’re going to miss that, generally, so your pages will be photographed a bit to one side or the other. If you shoot both pages in one image, they’ll look like a butterfly, as in the example below.
This snap shot by my Samsung J-4’s 13 MP camera illustrates the reduced resolution and light characteristics of a mobile phone. Image from Oudtshoorn and Its Farms (1913) by Goodlonton.

I offer a couple of more “advanced” strategies for this type of photography. It may be that the pages of the book are bending a fair bit when opened; this bending will complicate text recognition at a later step. Try to find a small pane of glass (such as the glass sheet found in a photo frame). Lay the glass with its edge in the middle of the book, covering the individual page you want to photograph. Now that page should be mostly flat. If your light source is in the wrong position, you may now need to worry about glare / reflections! Once you have a book cradle, the glass, and perhaps a weight on the opposite page to hold it out of the way, you have what we call “infrastructure.” It may become simpler to shoot all the even pages and then all the odd pages once you have this cumbersome stuff in place. It’s okay to shoot out of order; we can straighten that out later.

Image manipulation

Whether your images are coming from a scanner or a camera, you will almost assuredly have some image manipulation to handle. For the last several years, I have made considerable use of Paint.NET, a free bitmap editor for Microsoft Windows that handles almost everything I need. Some folks may be scandalized that I would choose something so simple and would argue forcefully for GIMP or other software. This is an area with a huge number of good options, so find the one you want.

The following breaks down the most common steps you’ll need.

I use Paint.NET software every week.

Reorientation and Rotation

Frequently our cameras and cell phones get confused which side of a picture is “up.” Helpfully, almost every bitmap editor in existence can manage a 90 degree or 180 degree rotation. It’s likely, though, that some images will require a smaller tilt this way or that to keep the lines of text straight (but heaven help you if you’re dealing with trapezoids from an off-angle photograph). For many software tools, a tilt of 1 degree or even 1/2 a degree is a different option than a 90 degree turn. In Paint.NET, you can handle fine tilts in Layers: Rotate while the large scale turns are in Image: Rotate. While turning by 90 degrees does not involve image detail loss, you don’t want to repeatedly adjust your image by 1 degree increments. If you don’t get the fine rotation right on your first try, undo it and then try a different amount of rotation.


It seems that bitmap editors have come to a common mechanism for cropping the image. Select the tool that looks like a dotted line in a rectangle. Click down on a point in the image that represents the upper-left corner, then drag down to the lower-right corner. Let go of the button. Now use the “Crop” option (Image: Crop to Selection in Paint.NET).

Saving and Renaming

If you told your scanner that you wanted to capture a grayscale image of the page, the software probably uses a byte for each pixel of the image; if you specified a color scan, it probably uses three bytes for each pixel. Saving a 600 dpi 24-bit (three byte) version of the image will eventually take quite a lot of space, especially if you are using a format like BMP or TIFF without compression. I frequently save in PNG format at first, expecting to reduce the size of the files at a later step. Books that contain color images are not printed in millions of colors, though they may appear that way at a distance. A 600 dpi scan of a page should be able to resolve the three or four different colors used for “offset printing” of color images. At 600 dpi, you can generally use a reduced palette format like GIF to save the images with very little loss of quality. At 300 dpi, your image is less likely to separate the dots of ink. I would recommend that you save each image with a name expressing its position in the book, such as p035.png; the leading zero is important to ensure that p35 does not erroneously end up between p349 and p350! Let the operating system sort them for you. It’s also easier in this way to detect that you had multiple images of a particular page.

ImageMagick can pull off some serious wizardry to help you!

Palette Reduction and Normalizing

If you are working with a black and white page of text, you’ll want letters to be as dark as possible and their background to be as light as possible. In many cases, this would require fiddling with the “brightness and contrast” or “gamma curves” for an image. I frequently make use of ImageMagick to batch process a large number of scanned images all at once. Its “-normalize” option in “mogrify” mode causes the software to push the light and dark parts of the image away from each other. It can be convenient to read images in an uncompressed bitmap format (whether TIF or BMP or PNG) while writing normalized images in a reduced palette format such as GIF.

Concatenating to PDF

A directory of images is less convenient for reading than a PDF that stitches them all together. Most Windows computers will have the ability to “print” a directory of images to PDF without any added software. This option can have some undesirable outcomes, though, such as cropping bits off the edges and padding them to A4 or Letter size. Again, I have found ImageMagick to be quite helpful. Its “convert” mode with the “-adjoin” option can create a PDF from a series of images, even specifying the DPI at which it should be viewed.

The magic of Optical Character Recognition and compression

At this stage you will likely notice two things you don’t like about your PDF. First, it’s quite likely to be large, especially if you stayed at 600 dpi. The second is that it shows an image of text, but the text that the image represents cannot be copied as text on the clipboard. The fine folks at OCRmyPDF have created software that can manage both tasks for you, so long as you have access to a computer running Linux. The free software uses the “Tesseract” library to recognize text from an image, and one can even specify the language appearing on-page so that it can recognize words and accented letters more easily. Since PDF format supports some highly-compressed ways to represent each page, OCRmyPDF is able to recompress images much more than GIF can offer. I frequently see the PDF file that emerges from the software to be three or four times smaller than the input PDF. The “sidecar” option can even kick out a text file storing all the text inferred from the entire PDF!

Communicating to others

To this point I have detailed the method to produce a high-quality PDF from a book you own (or that you have fair use right to support your academic research). Distributing that PDF to other people is quite a different topic. It is definitely worth you while to learn about copyright and intellectual property before you send a copy of a PDF to someone else. Consider this quote from the page I linked there: “Everything published after 1977 is protected for the duration of the author’s life and another 70 years after their death.”

With that said, I want to mention Library Genesis, an international service to make full-length copies of books available in electronic format. My most common use of “LibGen” is that I have a copy of a book that I own in physical format that I want to take with me on a trip. Given that airlines are now squeezing passengers out of checking baggage for the cheap seats, cutting back on the weight of my baggage has become quite important. Rather than bring the physical copy of the book with me, I might put the PDF or EPUB version on my cell phone; both these formats are frequently available for books at LibGen. The service also offers the ability for users to upload new works anonymously. You as an individual still bear the responsibility of ensuring the documents you upload are not covered by copyright!

Chartres Cathedral: a paradise of stained glass

August 24, 2021

I have tried to avoid becoming one of “those tourists,” people who march directly from the train to a tourist site, snap lots of photos, and then step directly into traffic without looking. When my opportunity to visit Chartres arrived, I scheduled myself half a day in the town. Unfortunately, my cell phone decided that the morning of my trip was the right time to refuse connection to the mobile network. The “Oui” app from SNCF wouldn’t show my ticket QR code! As a consequence, I slipped back an hour in my departure for Chartres. The train, departing from Montparnasse, took a little more than an hour to cross the distance, but it feels like a bigger difference in environment, since one can live in Paris for months without seeing anything like agricultural land!

The Broken Sword monument of Jean Moulin, a hero of the French Resistance in WWII

I decided to follow Avenue Jehan de Beauce away from the train station rather than walking directly to the cathedral. I was pleased to see that it soon gained a pedestrian-friendly Esplanade de la Résistance on its east side. Its “chemin de memoire” explained several memorials along the path, with maps to attractions like the Fine Arts Museum. The Broken Sword monument was notable for celebrating the life of Jean Moulin (French Resistance) and remembering those lost in the concentration camps of World War II. It appears opposite the Médiathèque L’Apostrophe, housed in a beautiful Art Nouveau building from 1926 by Raoul Brandon.

Architecture like this can definitely sway me from a planned cathedral visit! Médiathèque L’Apostrophe of Chartres

A massive plaza right next to it had picked out “#Chartres” in 3D letters in front of an admirable vista of the city’s cathedral. I stopped instead to photograph Sainte-Foy, an old church of solid composition, even if it were much less impressive in size. During World War II, the crypt of this church was used to protect some of the materials from Chartres Cathedral from bomb strikes.

I wandered for a little while, both because the streets were far from a north-south / east-west grid and because I had some difficulty getting my internal north pointed in the right direction. The plazas and historic buildings seemed to stretch in every direction, and it appeared that business was booming despite the never-ending pandemic. Before too much time had passed, I had circled the cathedral to approach from the south. Given how much larger it is than most other buildings in Chartres, one can generally find it by entering a plaza and looking up.

Chartres has plenty of cafes in charming plazas for high-quality people-watching!

Encountering Chartres Cathedral

I first heard of Chartres when I was a little boy (and yes, I was small for quite a lot longer than my age-mates). My primary or middle-school teacher was trying to explain medieval times to the class. She showed us a videotape dramatizing the construction of a cathedral as a multi-generational task; almost no people alive to see the cornerstone placed would survive to see the nave completed, let alone the choir, the facade, or the never-ending towers. Chartres began construction in 1145 CE. It wasn’t the earliest of the Gothic churches; that honour usually goes to Basilica of Saint Denis, which completed its Gothic nave and choir during 1135-1144 CE, or the Cathedral of Sens, which broke ground in 1135 CE and had a completed nave in 1164 CE.

Chartres was distinctive in part because of a disaster; a fire in 1194 forced reconstruction of its nave and choir. The key elements of Gothic architecture (pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses) had been established long since through experimentation at places like Saint-Pierre de Montmartre and Saint-Martin-des-Champs. Chartres would integrate these elements for substantial elevation of the structure, integrating a trio of rose windows with enormous clerestory stained-glass and sculptures throughout the church. Chartres Cathedral inaugurated the “High Gothic,” and it has been honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The rose window at the north end of the transept dates from 1235 CE. The five lower images are Melchizedek, David, St. Anne, Solomon, and Aaron. The rose above celebrates the Virgin Mary.

I was quite surprised by the stark contrast between the inside and outside. At present, the exterior wears its 800 years with a combination of crumble and corrode. The inside, however, is light and airy throughout the nave (but again one sees a contrast between transept and nave since the side areas have not completed restoration).

The nave and choir interior view, Chartres Cathedral

The ongoing restoration has performed its everyday miracle on the wall of sculpture separating the choir from the ambulatory, with just the last scenes from the 17th century life of Jesus still dark while the rest gleams in white.

Did you ever wonder why heritage people argue for restoration work? Look no further. This massive statue wall separates the choir from the walk surrounding it. The part at the right awaits restoration.

My interest in Chartres stems from my interest in stained glass; unlike almost every other Catholic Cathedral in France, the original panes are still in place for the great majority of its fantastic collection, and almost all were created in the 12th and 13th centuries CE. One frequently hears that stained glass windows played a role in communicating stories from the Bible to a largely illiterate population. While that is true of Chartres, these beautiful “vitraux” also extend to the lives of saints and even to historical figures. I would not have expected to see Thomas à Becket and Charlemagne featured in their own windows, but there they were! I was also interested to see that the creatures of the zodiac made an appearance, plus four animal heads were grafted to the pulpit.

Cobblers practice their trade at the bottom left of the Life of St. Stephen (1220-25 CE)

I loved the little touches that showed that different sectors of the Chartres community had contributed to its construction. I snapped an image of cobblers making shoes in the corner of St. Stephen’s window.

Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière, the central panes of the Virgin Mary, is one of the oldest and most famous windows in the church (1180 CE). The colors of her cloak came to be known as “Chartres blue.”

The veneration of Mary is obviously going to feature in a church called Notre Dame, and I loved the famous window in “Chartres Blue” that celebrated her. The 15th century carving of her (see below) was much smaller than I had expected, but its magnificent frame was something special. I did not visit the extensive crypt; I am unsure whether the public is allowed to see the reliquary housing the veil of the virgin that made the site such a draw for pilgrims at the millenium before last. I found a couple treasures at the gift shop, one for me (a mousepad with the pattern of the famous labyrinth from the floor of the cathedral) and another present for my mother-in-law.

Our Lady of the Pillar was carved in pear wood during the 16th century. The neo-Gothic surround was created in 1830.
BONUS WINDOW! The lancets below the southeast rose show four prophets (Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel and Jeremiah) holding the four evangelists on their shoulders in a very literal “prophecy fulfilled” visualization.

Upon exiting the cathedral, I spent some moments at the south porch; I had already seen its interior, with an enchanting set of windows showing prophets perched on prophets’ shoulders. The exterior, however, features a beautifully sculpted depiction of the last judgment. I have decided I rather like this subject for art ever since I first used Hans Memling‘s depiction in a slide for my biomarkers class, using it to explain dichotomous classifiers. In any case, the side of the Chartres sculpture showing those judged unworthy of heaven is delightful, with very naughty-seeming demons dragging their charges to hell. One demon has clasped the ankle of a woman, and her hair trails behind them on their journey. I am convinced that the creativity and whimsy of artists is what sets apart one work of art among others of the same topic.

These naughty demons are just what this Last Judgment needed! (Southeast portico)

Why did Chartres manage to retain these priceless windows and sculptures when so many other churches were destroyed in the Revolution (Lady Chapel of St. Germain-des-Pres) or World War I (Rheims Cathedral) or World War II (Rouen Cathedral)? The Historic Monuments Commission / Fine Arts Commission agreed to remove the windows from Chartres Cathedral for remote storage during World War I and World War II (this story is told in more detail in Saving the Light, by Victor A. Pollak). The cathedral itself was greatly endangered in the course of World War II. The American Army resolved to destroy it, believing the cathedral was being used as an observation post by German forces (the town of Chartres had become a logistics center for the Germans occupying France). Colonel Welborn Griffin objected to this order, volunteering to determine whether or not the cathedral was playing a military role. He shines as the hero of Pollak’s book.

Centre International de Vitrail

The Centre de Vitrail in Chartres is exactly the right place to learn what each of those windows mean.

I decided to visit the Centre de Vitrail, just north of the cathedral, to learn more about the creation and restoration of these images. My attention was arrested at the entrance to the centre by an apparently well cared-for fluffy grey and white cat. I rested my hand nearby, and she stretched her paw out to touch my finger! I stroked her head for a few minutes, and all was right with the world.

Here it is! It’s an index to each pane of each window in the Cathedral!

Because the museum opened only at 14:00, I popped over to a restaurant for some lunc. While the Centre offers its flossy brochure only in French, the descriptions on the walls are offered in both English and French (just a few are French-only). I particularly appreciated their glossaries of uncommon terms, as they apply to stained glass:

  • Stop-gap
  • Grisaille
  • Foliation
  • Apse
  • Cartoon
  • Jewelling
  • Silver stain
  • Carnation
  • Coloured through the Mass
The downstairs of the Centre de Vitrail offers noteworthy architecture of its own.

After a while I became aware that the building I was visiting had many of its historical “bones” on display. I could see up into the rafters, and its modern art display in the cellar was staged in a decadent Gothic backdrop, with ribbed vaults throughout. The Centre provides maps for a great many of the Cathedral’s compound windows, so it is a great way to understand the details of a given story told in glass.

This majestic modern work by Pierre-Alain Parot shows that we have made great strides in glass since the 12th century!

Lübeck: Queen City of the Hanseatic League

When Natasha and I learned we would be in Hamburg, we realized we would be close to a UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Hanseatic City of Lübeck! Since the train ride between the two was less than an hour, Natasha and I squeezed a day-trip into our time in North Germany. My most distinct memory of that morning was when I reached over to hug Natasha on the train platform, when a hidden wasp nailed me on my right wrist!

Walking from the Lübeck train station to the historic city center takes very little time, since the first bridge to the island is just a couple hundred meters from the train station. Immediately, we were treated to the classic view of a fifteenth centry gate to the city wall. The Holstentor has its own museum inside, but we had our minds on a different museum for our limited hours there. The former city gate is just as irregular as heck, with slumpy walls and asymmetries in the conical roofs. It’s full of personality, though, and I am delighted we could pass through to the city beyond.

The 1464 Holstentor was the western city gate of medieval Lübeck. The twin towers at the left are Marienkirche, and the tall steeple immediately to the right is St. Petri.

If you like classic horror movies, you might have encountered “Nosferatu.” The location scout had a stroke of luck in spotting the Salzspeicher, the warehouses that held salt for export to the Baltic region. We encountered the “Speicherstadt” in Hamburg, representing a “warehouse city,” so the same root term shows up here, too. There’s a lovely viewing platform across the Trave River for a good morning gaze.

The Salzspeicher (16th-18th c.) were warehouses for salt, a sought-after commodity in the Baltic.

The international trade network centered in Lübeck was at the heart of our interest in the city, so we made our way clockwise around the island to come to the European Hansemuseum. I hadn’t purchased tickets in advance, so we reserved a pair for the early afternoon. We left ourselves a couple hours to lunch and visit the city interior.

The Heiligen-Geist-Hospital (constructed 1276-1286) featured a church and dormitory for patients. It continued in use until after World War II!

Our feet first brought us to St.-Jakobi-Kirche. The stately church stands much taller than everything else in the neighborhood. It is worth mentioning that while in France it is natural to assume the largest church in town is Catholic, in northern Germany you might make the assumption that the biggest churches are Lutheran. Natasha’s attention, however, was drawn by a massive raised-bed flower garden on exhibition in the square. While she moved from planter to planter with a contented smile on her face, I snapped some photos of the Heiligen-Geist-Hospital, a building which first entered service as a hospital in 1286 CE. It’s the oldest elder care facility in all of Europe (thought Santo Spirito might contest that title).

Marienkirche (constructed 1250 and 1350) coexists with modern business blocks.

Natasha had read about a noodle restaurant with gluten-free options near the town hall of Lübeck, so we marched south in search of it. We found some really nice views of landmarks along the way. I particularly liked spying Marienkirche from the east, since it is very hard to photograph up close; I craned my head way back to see the tops of those towers when we were across the street from it. The Kleines Nudelhaus in Fleischhauerstraße was a revelation for Natasha. The way the manager presented her with the gluten-free noodles was like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. I was really happy with a photo Natasha took of me eating noodles. I recently replaced my Twitter profile photo with it!

With a few minutes to spare, we made it back to the northern edge of the island for our scheduled visit to the museum.

Hanse Museum

The reason we prioritized visiting Lübeck relates is the same reason its historic core is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In many respects, Lübeck was the center of the medieval “Hanseatic League” trading network. One might think of it as the 12th-16th-century successor to the first-millenium Viking trade networks. It was dominant in the North Sea and Baltic Sea at roughly the same time as the Silk Road was resurgent under Mongol rulers. I mentioned that Lübeck and Hamburg were not far from each other, and the watercourses on which they are sited flow to different sides of the Jutland Peninsula (which houses all of Denmark), so a short land transit between the cities could substitute for a relatively long sea transit.

The cog was an ideal vessel to handle coastal trade in the northern waters of Europe, transporting up to 90 tons of cargo while retaining the ability to operate in shallow waters.

The five most-developed trade centers in the Hanseatic League were Novgorod, Lübeck, Bruges, Bergen, and London. These cities developed “kontors,” cities-within-cities specialized in trade, often with some degree of extraterritoriality; trade disputes might, for example, be governed by Lübeck law even if the contested events took place in Novgorod, Russia.

This depiction of a Russian fur trader from Lübeck Cathedral refers to the centuries-long contact between Lübeck and Novgorod.

I was really pleased to see how much Novgorod was emphasized at the museum, since I had the chance to visit that city back in 2017. Its kontor was located across the Volkhov River from Novgorod’s historic center, adding physical separation to legal separation. Novgorod was a supplier par excellence of furs to the Hanse, and its exports of wax were also notable. I liked the idea that Novgorod could export hunting birds via its connection to the Hanseatic Leage; just how do you convince a falcon to stay on a ship?

In Medieval times, tools like these enabled cities to construct massive churches and palaces!

For some reason, I was really struck by the display of medieval building construction equipment at the Hanseatic Museum. I don’t think anyone who reads this blog would be surprised that I marvel at the rude tools used to create massive structures like Notre Dame Cathedral. When human-power was the only force available for construction, it is not surprising that major projects could require decades for completion.

Amber results from the fossilization of tree resin. These fragments are 14th-15th century production waste.

When we hear the term “Crusade,” we often imagine armored knights en route to Jerusalem. If you have read more broadly, you might know that the Reconquista in Spain also pitted Christian armies against the Muslims of Al-Andalus; the Pope used the term “Crusade” there, too. I did not expect to learn about “Northern Crusades,” though. As trade developed with the areas now occupied by Baltic States Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, amber exports revealed considerable wealth in the region. The Northern Crusades sent Teutonic Knights to the Baltics to convert pagans at the edge of the sword; naturally, one could imagine that the real goal was to increase the area under control by Christian rulers.

Jürgen Wullenwever (1488-1537), Dr. Heinrich Sudermann (1520-1591), and David Gloxin (1597-1671) each presided over different aspects of administering the Hanse in the centuries of its waning power.

I hope it will be okay for me to offer a criticism of the Hanse Museum. The last parts of the tour might logically be assumed to cover the loss of dominance suffered by the Hanseatic League at the end of the 16th century. One of the rooms did discuss the on-and-off status of the Steelyard kontor at London as the kings and queens of England attempted to regain tax authority over trade (as early as the 14th century until expulsion of Hanse merchants by Queen Elizabeth I in 1598). As the museum is structured, we were sitting in a small mockup of the Lübeck Hanse meeting hall in one room and then stading next to a bunch of wax clergymen in the next. If one is sleepy from travel, one might get the mistaken impression that the church ended the trade dominance of the Hanse. The London story is actually the more correct explanation; other trade groups, tied to particular nations, became jealous of Hanse profits and found their own ways to muscle the Hanse aside.

A return to wandering the city

Having finished our circuit of the museum, Natasha and I spent a moment exploring the Maria Magdalene Monastery, also described as the “Castle Friary” on the museum website. The oldest part of the structure dates from 1229 CE (it replaced a ruined fortress at the point of the island that would be exposed to ships coming in from the Baltic). The beautiful vaulting of the chapterhouse was delightful. We could only see the sacristy through glass, but the fresco work was on point. I recall that the paint work was much more recent than the structure itself, but it complements it beautifully. I liked the pair of Dominican friars carved in stone that we saw in the long hall; they date from 1400 CE. Natasha captured a photo of me with two friars molded in wax that appears at the top of this post.

Sacristy of the Maria Magadelene Monastery

We continued back toward the center of the island, passing on the eastern road (Große Burgstraße) rather than the western one we had followed to find lunch. It seemed like every building had some sort of interesting gable or architectural history or some famous German (the town was home to three different Nobel Laureates).

The detail work on the Lubeck Rathaus is subtle and beautiful.

The rathaus complex at roughly the center of the island is really eye-catching, having almost 800 years of history behind it. Adjoining the massive 13th-century Marienkirche, the complex sprawls through a variety of galeries and courtyards. Just walking past it on Breite straße, I loved an ornate projection on the building and a delicately carved staircase climbing the exterior.

The Rathaus complex completely surrounds the plaza, so this is one corner of it!

As people who know me well will attest, I am a fiend for sugary treats. As a consequence, it was clear that I must visit the Niederegger Marzipan Museum! The ground floor shop had me drooling right away. We picked up a few presents for our loved ones, certainly (and my wife found some treats for her beloved husband), and then we passed upstairs to see the museum. The first floor above the salesfloor was a cafe, and we continued to the second floor where we found the museum. We were the only people upstairs during that visit, so perhaps not many tourists know about the site.

Marzipan started as a medicine of sorts, with early production largely sited in monasteries. By the 16th century, apothecaries began supplying the candy medicine. Only in 1714 did confectioners in Lübeck gain approval to produce it themselves. Marzipan could only become a widely-enjoyed treat after sugar beet factories were established in 1801. In the 19th century, Lübecker Carl Schröder gained renown as an artist with marzipan, crafting sulfur molds with rich detail for his creations. For me, the highlight of the museum was an amazing array of twelve life-size statues created by Johannes Kiefer. I do not think I could eat my own weight in marzipan, but at least I know what that would look like!

Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen is part of a table full of life-sized figures crafted from 500 kilograms of marzipan by Johannes Kiefer

Natasha and I were pretty tired after our romp through the historic island of Lübeck, and we made our way back to the train station. I paused as we passed a monument to Otto von Bismarck. A group of young people had gathered around the plinth on which his statue stood. It seemed like a good reminder that the past meets the present all around us!

Otto von Bismarck stands next to the walking path from the train station to the old town.

Hamburg: the Museum for Hamburg History and the Alter Elbtunnel

Our walking path

Natasha and I can never resist a history museum, and so we decided to spend our Saturday visiting the Museum for Hamburg History. We headed for an area on the border of St. Pauli and the Hamburg Neustadt along the Elbe River. Helpfully, our hotel near Berliner Tor positioned us well for a train running directly to the Landungsbrücken (“Landing stages”) stop.

The type of stone used to build the landing structures is called “volcanic tuff.”

We emerged from the train station to see the waterfront. We had arrived around 9:30, and relatively few people were out and about. The stone landing buildings (constructed 1907-1909) are really pretty, and a modern promenade extends in either direction along the shore for quite some distance. The landing is two-thirds of a kilometer of length. We “bookmarked” the site, knowing we would want to return later in the day. For now, though, we wanted to reach the museum early in case we were only able to schedule our visit at a later time; neither Natasha nor I could determine how to purchase tickets from the website.

The 35-meter Bismarck Monument stands atop a catacomb of World War II air raid shelters.

We should have realized that marching to the museum would require us to climb quite a height above sea level. We huffed and puffed up the stairs to the Hotel Hafen Hamburg, but soon we realized we were on the wrong side of the ravine centered on Helgoländer Allee. We walked across the bridge of Seewartenstrasse to the east side. We thought we would walk north through the park there, but a heavily graffitied wall around construction pushed us further east. We had a tantalizing glimpse of an imposing white stone statue of Otto von Bismarck. When we reached it, we were looking across an active basketball court at Otto’s back. We had just another block or so to the museum, and Natasha was happy to spot berries growing wild at the side of the road.

Museum for Hamburg History

The Museum entrance

It is no mistake that the Museum for Hamburg History appears just east of a ravine; it was constructed atop the 17th century Henricus Bastion, part of the western wall protecting Hamburg from attack. The museum is run by the city, rather than the nation, and that makes it quite similar in role and administration to the Carnavalet Museum in Paris. The current structure was purpose-built for the museum (founded 1908), with construction spanning 1914-1922. You might imagine that other challenges were besetting Germany during this period of construction. I particularly like that the building incorporates elements saved from much older buildings that were destroyed or replaced in the period before it existed, some remaining from homes that were built in the sixteenth century!

If you’ve ever been curious about the phrase “breaking on a wheel…”
Some “miniatures” were much taller than I am!

From looking at a map, it might not be obvious that Hamburg is a marine city, but the Elbe River widens to an estuary (mixing area for salt and fresh water) just west of the city. As a bit of shorthand, we can find the boundary where an estuary becomes a river by asking where it was possible to build a bridge with medieval technology. For the Elbe River, that boundary is Hamburg. We often think of pirates as being special to the Caribbean Sea, but Hamburg was apparently the haunt of a great many medieval and early modern pirates. The museum exhibits a few skulls from that period, because the penalty for being a pirate was to have your skull nailed to the pier! The original dock area of Hamburg was relatively compact, but a light-show connected with a model of the docks illustrates just how much this harbor has been expanded over time, particularly as Hamburg became a key shipbuilding area during the World Wars. If you are a fan of miniatures, I would definitely say do not miss this museum, because it features them everywhere, particularly on its top floor display of a massive model train network.

I think we would have to pay quite a premium today to acquire a hand-painted pianoforte or harpsichord. Hamburg has featured some very prominent musicians over time.

I think many contemporary visitors to the museum will be a bit confused by a prominent seventeenth-century model of the Solomon’s Temple; it essentially gets a room by itself due to its size! In 1604, Juan Bautista Villalpando wrote a commentary on Ezekiel’s vision, trying to develop a fully-realized schematic for the Temple. For some architects of the period, Solomon’s Temple was considered the apogee of earthly design and as the reflection of the celestial temple. In 1680-1692, Gerhard Schott commissioned a scale model to be constructed in wood, lead, silver, leather, and gilt. It fascinates me that so much effort went into the realization of this model starting from fewer than 100 verses drawn from a book of the Old Testament!

This downscaled image from Wikiwand is a much cleaner image of the room-sized Temple of Jerusalem model; have I mentioned I loathe shooting photos through glass? In this case, the second story has been removed from the foreground wings to allow a better view of the temple itself.
This Wikiwand photograph emphasizes the temple proper at the center of the model.

The city history museum is well worth the time for a visit. I found it a little hard to stitch all its material into a single timeline in my my mind. I would find it difficult, for example, to answer a question like, “what events marked the biggest turning points in Hamburger history?” A question that frequently bothers me is, “why did the principalities, baronies, and free cities of Germany coalesce into a single nation relatively slowly?” I am not sure how to answer that even now.

St. Nicholas, carved in the early 16th century, was regarded as the patron saint of seafarers.

It is worth noting that the marked pathways in the museum anticipate that each visitor will follow a single path through all the displays of the museum. Because Natasha and I were skipping past some sections, we frequently found ourselves having to pass through doors that had been marked with “do not enter” signs since the museum wanted us to follow their prescribed route.

The inner atrium has been covered by a glass roof to create a pretty cool event space!

I have frequently explored topics in Jewish history on the blog, and I would say that the exhibits on the Jewish community of Hamburg were worth a look. Natasha and I spent a while exploring that area when I came across this sentence in an area with a schoolroom exhibit: “On June 30th, 1942 all teaching of Jewish schoolchildren was prohibited and those few Jewish pupils and teachers still living in Hamburg were almost all deported and put to death.” I don’t know what about that matter-of-fact statement affected me so much, but I had to sit down for a while. We humans must learn some lessons from our past to avoid destroying ourselves.

The Anglican Church, consecrated in 1838, was a nod to the English-speaking members of the Guild of Merchant Adventurers

Our museum visit had come to an end, and it was time for lunch! Natasha is a friend of phở, and she realized we were only a couple of blocks from a Vietnamese fusion restaurant called “Nom.” We had almost reached it when we stumbled upon the Anglican Church of Thomas à Becket— just as the Museum had reported, the church had few external features that announced it as a church, though more recently a gold cross had been emblazoned on its facade. The Vietnamese food was excellent, by the way. I had the chicken coconut curry soup and a jasmine tea. They really hit the spot!

St. Michael’s Church

Hauptkirche St. Michaelis

Since we were just a couple of blocks away from it, we decided to visit St. Michael’s Church. We did not brave the line to enter, but we did pause for a photo or two. An epic statue of St. Michael braining a demon stands above the main portal; it’s a particularly lurid design. Much more modestly, Martin Luther stands around the corner, facing a parking lot. At least, I think of him as more modest; the statue had him looking rather pompous!

Saint Michael and Martin Luther

Natasha and I descended once more to the waterfront. We followed a shaded path through the Michelwiese. Halfway down, we had quite a surprise when we encountered a statuesque head carved from stone, dubbed “Angelito,” that was brought here from Easter Island in 1999 (the image appears at the top of this blog post).

The park at Michelwiese

Alter Elbtunnel

The Hambuger Elbphilharmonie was constructed during 2007-2017 atop a 1963 brick warehouse in the Elbe River.

With only a little more walking, we had returned to the Elbe Waterfront. I paused for a photograph of the symphony hall, built with many delays and added expense atop a building at the west end of an island in the river.

Natasha and I walked along the waterfront toward the west. The sidewalk had become far more crowded by the early afternoon. We tried to merge with the traffic, but we had plenty of stops and starts as people sped up, slowed down, ducked in and out, or pushed bikes and strollers into the mix.

Gustav Adolf Church of Sweden, Hamburg, Germany

Rather suddenly, a cacophony broke loose on the road running alongside the jetty. A parade of decorated cars, flanked by police cars, protested the infringements of basic rights, perhaps agitated by enforced mask wearing or vaccine pressures from the government. For my part, I would really like it if people would follow public health guidance so this plague can finally end.

Another few steps forward, we encountered another protest, this time by vegans. I felt at least a bit sympathetic to their cause. What drew my eye, though, was that a protester was dressed in a shark onesie. Where do I sign to get my shark onesie?

North entrance to the Alter Elbtunnel

At long last, our feet brought us to the grand, round entrance hallway of the Alter Elbtunnel. The Old Elbe Tunnel was constructed during 1907-1911 to connect the St. Pauli waterfront to the Steinwerder shipyards. Today Hamburgers can use it any time of day to traverse the Elbe by bicycle or foot. Natasha and I opted to descend to the level of the tunnel by the stairs since it seemed a great press of people were using the large and small elevators. I don’t think we realized just how far down those stairs ran…

Looking downward at the stairs leading to the Elbtunnel
Looking upward from the Elbtunnel at the elevators in motion

The tunnel itself was not so different than one might expect, with tiled walls, a bike pathway down the middle, and pedestrian sidewalks on either side. If motor-powered traffic had ever been used for moving cargo this way, there’s little sign of it today. The massive elevator that drew us back up to ground level, though, was rated to handle 10,000 kg / 130 people!

If you have claustrophobia, you might avoid the Elbtunnel.

Since the tunnel was a bit claustrophobic, we thought we might take a ferry back across. We found the ticket machine at the landing, but it insisted on our paying the 6.80 euro in coins rather than card or notes. We didn’t have enough change in hand, so we trudged back toward the tunnel. Our return walk was less enthusiastic than our first pass. With our feet sending messages of unhappiness, we returned to the Landungsbrucken station. The ticket machines, however, had become quite uncooperative, arguing against my using a French bank card and then refusing to recognize my euro notes. Natasha and I piled in all of our change to acquire our tickets, and in no time flat we were back at Berliner Tor.

This skyline of Hamburg from the south side of the Elbtunnel shows Bismarck right by the Landungsbrücken tower at the left. St. Michael’s tower appears near the center.

Hamburg: Altstadt and Speicherstadt

Natasha and I briefly visited the city of Hamburg, poised at the mouth of the Elbe River. With just two days in Hamburg and one day in Lübeck, we had an admirable taste of maritime Germany! Natasha picked the Park Hotel for our stay, located in the Berliner Tor neighborhood, which gave us good access to both the airport and the main train station of Hamburg.

Our wander in Altstadt

Our first brush with the old town or “Altstadt” came in the evening hours of Saturday, August 14th. We started in the Rathausmarkt, the marketplace adjacent to the town hall. We hopped the subway from Berliner Tor to Jungfernstieg, a lakefront walk where the wealthy daughters of Hamburg could promenade in public. We came aboveground to discover a busy shopping area, but we turned toward the Rathaus, the first stop on our tour. We had a lovely surprise waiting for us. The Philharmonia was playing an open-air concert!

The Hamburg Rathaus is a bit of a fairy tale! The blue arc at left is the bandshell for the symphony performance.

The Rathaus was a beautiful site, with its high spire visible throughout most of the Altstadt. My eye decoded the outside as “Victorian,” and Natasha called it nineteenth century. Maiken Umbach noted that the design competition for the town hall took place in 1885, with a “Neo-Renaissance” exterior that featured twenty statues of emperors from the Holy Roman Empire. That high spire I admired shows the imperial eagle above the coat of arms for the City of Hamburg.

The passage behind the Rathaus allowed for a much closer inspection.

We followed a passageway between the Rathaus and the Chamber of Commerce behind it to find an enclosed plaza with an impressive fountain. As we exited the plaza, we were surprised to find a little fuel station at the exit! The Chamber of Commerce is pretty impressive in its own right, though the view of its facade (marked as “Handelskamer Hamburg”) is somewhat obscured by the construction taking place on the next building.

Who doesn’t like a stately chamber of commerce building?

Natasha reminded me that it was time for dinner, and she had located a restaurant that seemed a good prospect for gluten-safe food. We moved a couple of blocks northwest to the Bok Imbiss Cafe, located in a food court behind the mall space along Bleichenbrüke. We crossed the former city wall and then two canals in two blocks to reach the restaurant. It’s a reminder that Hamburg’s wealth came from maritime trade, and these inlets and canals (“Venice of the North”) produce a lot of surface area for businesses to access the water. I was also reminded of the incredible water channels in St. Petersburg.

That tower to the left belongs to the Alte Post building (1847).

The Bok Imbiss Cafe was an excellent choice! I enjoyed a teriyaki tofu and Natasha relished a lovely red Thai curry salmon salad. We still had a bit of light in the sky, so we continued our tour to the southeast. We reached the Trostbrücke bridge, the original of which was constructed in 1300 C.E. The bridge has a really cool pair of statues, one of Archbishop Ansgar and one of Count Adolf III, two figures associated with the origins of Hamburg. The bridge also offers a stellar view of some astonishing brick buildings, one of which features copper models of sailing ships at its crest.

This stately building appears to be the home of the F. Laeisz group of shipping companies. At lower left, you can see the archbishop’s statue.

When we passed those two buildings, we found another surprise. St. Nikolai Church occupies a site that has been home to a church since the late twelfth century. The current structure was constructed in 1874, but in 1943, the Allied bombing of Hamburg obliterated the building. I liked that the stabilized ruins have been turned into an art gallery of sorts and as a monument against war. For a couple years after its construction, the tower was the tallest building on earth, so it’s cool that people can visit its top to see the city from above (during business hours).

As the daylight fled, I captured an image of St. Nikolai, now a memorial against war and art gallery.

We exited the park to the west where we marveled at a massive pedestrian overpass with its own escalators. We struck out toward the Rathaus again to finish our tour since the light was fading. When we reached the city hall, the music from the symphony was reflected between buildings, so I paused to shoot a video while panning across the Rathaus exterior. Natasha and I strolled hand-in-hand to the waterfront, looking at the Binnenalster with its central fountain. it was a lovely image to savor at the heart of Hamburg.

Looking across the Binnenalster toward the headquarters of Hapag-Lloyd

The Kontorhausviertel and Speicherstadt

Our walking course was only a mile, but it crossed water six times!

Natasha and I resolved to spend more time learning about Hamburg’s trade history. The following morning (Sunday), she and I set out for the Speicherstadt, the “warehouse city” of Hamburg. Starting from the Meßberg underground station, our first priority was finding a quality cup of coffee for Natasha. It seems a bit of an oversight now, but we turned our backs on the Chocoversum, the chocolate museum of Hamburg, in search of a cafe.

Much of the Hontorhausviertel is constructed in “clinker” bricks, but I think the building housing the chocolate museum is constructed of more conventional ones.

We were happy to find ourselves in the middle of an historic area, the Kontorhausviertel (office building quarter), where massive buildings to support Hamburg’s commerce were established in the early twentieth century. We particularly liked the Chilehaus, designed by architect Fritz Höger and constructed in 1922-1924. It’s a fine example of “Brick Expressionism” for that era, with an acute corner like the prow of a ship!

The Chilehaus was named for the trade that won Henry Brarens Sloman his fortune; he imported saltpeter from Chile.

Right next door in the Sprinkenhof (constructed between 1927 and 1943), we found our cafe. Natasha and I arrived in the middle of Sunday Brunch, which looked pretty tasty! Nonetheless, we limited ourself to coffee and tea, and we enjoyed the happy patter of relaxed munchers around us. I was pretty impressed by a copy of the “Kontorhaus Journal,” a glossy publication detailing the businesses in the area.

This photo of the Speicherstadt warehouses was taken from a bridge on Bei St. Annen since the sun was shining when I crossed that one!

Natasha and I crossed the Wandrahmsteg (bridge from 1962) to the Speicherstadt, getting a pretty good view of the trend-setting building for Der Spiegel. The Speicherstadt itself is an artificial island created by driving oak piles into the riverbed. The motivation was the occasion of Hamburg’s joining the German Empire in 1888. Since the free port would be excluded from import sales taxes and customs, Hamburg was very motivated to have its warehouses located in the free port. They responded by building a massive warehouse district between 1883 and 1927. World War II’s Operation Gomorrah destroyed the western section of the warehouse district in 1943 (along with much of the rest of the city). The operation was notable for its use of “chaff” to prevent radar detection of the bomber wings bringing incendiary and high explosive bombs to the city. To talk about the military technology or loss of buildings is beside the point, though. The 9000 tons of bombs dropped in this operation resulted in more than 37,000 fatalities, largely civilians.

The misty morning supplied some drama to the warehouse district.

I was taken by an interesting museum at the northeastern end of Alter Wandrahm. The “Dialog House” has exhibits dedicated to enabling participants with normal sight to experience the world from the perspective of guides who lack sight. If we had more time in Hamburg, I would have liked to have tried it. Instead, we crossed to Brooktorkai and walked southwest to the Fleetschlösschen restaurant. We might have continued down that route to reach Miniatur Wunderland, but we hadn’t reserved tickets weeks in advance as would be necessary! We might have taken in the Maritime Museum, but we had other plans. We turned back to the northwest to cross on Bei St. Annan, because we knew our next destination. It was time for the coffee museum!

I believe the building with the copper domes is the headquarters for HHLA Hamburger Hafen und Logistik. It is rather pretty.

Coffee Museum

Since the late nineteenth century Hamburg and its free port had become the main hub for importing green coffee to central Europe. In the huge warehouse district, around two hundred coffee merchants at a time occupied the Sandtorkai, their offices and the coffee exchange just a short walk away from the city center, the town hall, and the chamber of commerce.

German History as Global History: The Case of Coffee by Dorothee Wierling in German History in Global and Transnational Perspective, edited by David Lederer (2017)

The Burg coffee roastery has been based near its current address since 1923. It’s a lovely place to stop for coffee, and we saw lots of lovely gifts that family members might enjoy. I was tempted to try one of the coffees, but I am really a tea person at heart. Natasha lingered over a cup of Burundian roast, with a smile that would not leave her face. I munched my way through a lovely chocolate cake with mighty chunks of pear.

This portable coffee making kit includes a roaster and spice kit.

The outstanding aspect of the roastery, however, is that it sits above a museum of coffee history. Helpfully, the museum starts the story long before Hamburg was involved. It was my first time to learn of the “dancing goat” legend, of Ethiopian shepherds who saw strange behavior from goats eating from particular bushes. Gradually the coffee bean migrated outward from the sahel, particularly once Arabian trade began featuring the commodity. Portuguese and then Spanish traders moved cultivation much farther afield, to east Asia, Brazil, Guatemala, and many other places. We might today think of Central America as the natural home of coffee production, but cultivation on a large scale there only began in the 1840s.

Early espresso makers brought Italian style to Germany.

Hamburg’s connection with coffee is tied to the rapid industrialization that took place in Germany throughout the 19th century. Coffee was a means to an end by early capitallists: “Coffee turned out to be ideal because of the enormous advantages of its triple effect: it helped workers stay awake, it apparently muted hunger and it optimized the capitalist goal of raising profits by increasing worker output. On the downside, coffee masked medical problems and exhaustion, causing premature worker death.” (Justus Fenner 2013)

An early professional-grade high-pressure coffee maker of contemporary type

Hamburg’s enviable position in maritime trade had persisted for centuries, and by the 1860s, coffee had become the most valuable agricultural product imported into its harbor. “The strategy of the Hanseatic coffee firms to assure steady profits had three components. First, they would step up importation of low-quality coffee from Brazil. At the same time, they would make a direct incursion into high-quality coffee production in order to control that part of the coffee commodity chain. Third, they would create a bifurcated consumer market in Germany, where more profitable sales of high-quality coffee would compensate the lower prices and potential risks of importing lower grade coffee.” (Justus Fenner 2013)

Turn-of-the-century grinders or roasters

In many respects, Germany was a Johnny-come-lately to colonization. Its merchants, however, found ways to benefit from Guatemala’s openness to external investment. After Guatemalan coffee gained a reputation for high-end coffee exports, German firms gained control of existing plantations within the country and cultivated new ones. Hamburg had soon become the pre-eminent supplier of coffee to Central Europe.

Natasha and I wandered north to Hauptkirche Sankt Petri, close to the Rathaus. At last the sun had come out, and we were able to enjoy our wander from the harbor to the old town in style.

The Hauptkirche Sankt Petri is our beacon back to the old town.

Grande Galerie de l’Évolution and Masala Dosas

Even people who live in dramatic world cities have a sleepy Sunday now and then. Natasha, being mindful of my banged-up knee, suggested that we take on a mild walk in the Jardin des Plantes, a public garden we had first seen in the heaviest snow day that we’ve had in Paris! The natural history museum there was hosting a special exhibition of cut and uncut precious stones that had drawn her eye. She purchased tickets online, and soon we were on our way!

Our wander, segment 1

We rode line 8 to La Motte-Picquet Grenelle and then transfered to line 10, which passes through my favorite Saint-Germain-des-Prés district before reaching Gare d’Austerlitz. We were able to find the exit dropping us directly across the street from the Jardin des Plantes. I would give kudos to the McDonald’s site planner who realized that corner was a hot property.

The entrance to the Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy also featured a cool stegasaurus bronze, just around the corner.

We entered the park by its south-eastern corner. We first encountered the entrance to the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie Comparée (Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy). We were interested in natural history, but this wasn’t the museum for which we’d bought tickets! We continued onwards and saw an amazing array of colored blossoms, spreading just as far as the eye could see. The Jardin des Plantes had been transformed since we first saw it in January!

What a nice place to meander on a sunny day! What a nice place to shelter when rain drops suddenly appear!

As I have mentioned before, the parks of Paris are designed for active use, not passive looking. The many parallel paths of the Jardin des Plantes had plenty of families in motion along with many joggers. The tree-lined paths bracketed a central green just packed with little patches of flowers, each with helpful labels.

The sunlight was answered in these tiny eyes, staring at the sky.

Natasha paused before a lovely space packed with warm colors. “Which of these flowers do we have planted at Turtle House?” she inquired. I picked at my collar nervously, having failed to study for the quiz. “Marigolds!” I suddenly ventured, pointing my finger. “Yes,” she replied, “and calendulas and zinnias, too!”

The massive Grande Galerie de l’Évolution is the centerpiece lying at one end of the extensive flowerbeds.

Moments later, a few sprinkles fell from the sky, and so we made a more concentrated effort to reach the museum entrance. I was distracted once again when I saw the Galerie de Géologie et de Minéralogie, but ironically that was not the location for the precious stones exhibit. We continued just a bit further to the entrance of the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution.

The Great Gallery of Evolution

We encountered a great disappointment when we entered the line for the precious stones special exhibition. Due to our misunderstanding the ticketing options, we had acquired tickets for the permanent exhibition of the museum but not for the precious stones. Compounding the problem, we learned that no more tickets were available for the special exhibition for today. It’s the sort of thing we would have caught if we had planned this visit earlier than this morning! We were crestfallen but continued into the exhibition space.

The Grand Gallery of Evolution lives up to its name!

If you have ever explored a natural history museum crammed with small glass boxes with dusty taxidermy animals inside, please push that thought out of your mind. The Grand Gallery of Evolution occupies a building of 97,000 cubic meters, similar to the volume of Notre Dame Cathedral. Its three upper floors cover land animals, while the ground floor features sea life (it is below the floor you see in the image above). The panels in the ceiling change color from moment to moment, sometimes emulating thundershowers to accompany a soundtrack. It’s a surprisingly open indoor space.

Can’t visit Africa? It will come to you!

Natasha and I felt right at home as we examined the beasts in the parade down the first floor, titled “the diversity of living things: terrestrial environments.” We were surprised to see just how many African beasts were represented in the parade. Since I am writing a manuscript on the spotted hyena right now, I was very happy to see that the taxidermy collection included both a striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) and spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), though I did not see a brown hyena or aardwolf.

At the left, we have the striped hyena. At the right, we have the spotted hyena. I would not wish to tangle with either.

I would draw special attention to a side gallery that appears on the second floor. “Menaced species, disappeared species” shows that man has become a factor in evolution, adding our unnatural selection to natural selection, both by hunting and by destruction of habitat.

It seems unlikely you will ever see any of these species in the wild.

This gallery of extinct and threatened animals is a hard one to visit, knowing that some of these species will soon fade from memory as no animals of those species remain in the wild. Since the logo used to mark each case was a dodo, I was disappointed that no dodo skeleton or taxidermy was on display; I believe that one was previously visible at the entrance to this hall, though it seems to be absent for now. The roll call is extensive, from California condors (fewer than 100 remaining) to Cape Lions (an example of which appears at the lower left in the image above). I particularly loved the Eurasian Lynx, a feline you would have to seek in Asia today.

The Eurasian Lynx can be found in some regions of Asia, but in France, it appears the last sighting was in the 1970s in the Pyrenees Mountains.

A surprising artifact in the extinction hall was a beautifully machined clockwork installed at the Versailles Petit Trianon chapel in 1785 for Marie-Antoinette. It didn’t stay there long, since the Revolutionary government decided to move the machine to the museum in 1794.

This is a gharial. Farewell, peaceful sleep!

I don’t think I would give you a complete account of the museum without mentioning some fresh material for my nightmares. The museum held two different stuffed gharials. That name didn’t mean very much to me, but these are crocodilians that grow up to six meters in length (just under 20 feet). The animals living in Southeast Asia have become critically endangered, with fewer than 1000 remaining in the wild. Some populations are being maintained in the upper reaches of the Ganges River, though. It is important to remember that non-cuddly animals deserve to live, too.

This is a Southern right whale. Does that mean she has a Confederate flag on her truck? No! It does mean, however, that those brown “strings” hanging from her skull are “baleen,” enabling her to filter krill from sea water for food.

…and some lovely extras

The Great Mosque, along with its 26-meter minaret, was inaugurated in 1926.

Ever since I saw that the Great Mosque of Paris was next door to this museum, I have wanted a proper photograph of its minaret. Today the sunlight was beautiful and the cloudy skies were dramatic. I finally had my image!

I rejoined Natasha in the garden, and we would have lingered there if another cloudburst hadn’t come on-scene. We paused at the garden exit (where we had entered earlier) when we realized that the French had erected a statue to the founder of the doctrine of evolution. You might have expected to see Charles Darwin up there, but no, it was a majestic statue of Lamarck! Well, he had the benefit of being fifty years earlier and of being French. We’ll let that one slide.

This image of Chennai Dosa next to Gare du Nord is from a user at Tripadvisor.

Even though Natasha and I had fortified ourselves with brunch before we started our adventure, we knew we would be ready for proper food when we finished our adventure. We boarded the metro again, but this time we used line 5 to move from Gare d’Austerlitz to Gare du Nord. Generally we crave masala dosa, and sometimes WE CRAVE MASALA DOSA! It was our second visit to Chennai Dosa, and we emerged with happy bellies.

A twenty-minute constitutional was just what we needed after a dose of dosa.

It’s not really straightforward to take the metro from Gare du Nord to our place, so we decided to walk off the dosas with a little constitutional down to the Bonne Nouvelle metro station on line 8. Our route was not very demanding since we we needed to toddle down Rue la Fayette, make a turn south on Rue d’Hauteville, and then stop when we ran out of road.

Saint-Vincent-de-Paul’s prominence benefits from being built on a small hill.

I had a bit of a problem when that turn to the south arrived, though. My attention was drawn by the lovely facade of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul. We had encountered the church only at a distance before; it’s a pretty prominent landmark to the left as one looks toward the city center from Sacré-Cœur atop Montmartre. I was fascinated to learn that this church was constructed on the site of the Saint-Lazare enclosure, which once served as a half-way house for wayward members of aristocratic families before it became a prison during the French Revolution. The current church only began construction in 1824.

I may be mistaken, but the Bonne Nouvelle metro station seems a little scruffier than others in the network.

Natasha and I ambled south, occasionally peeking back at the church as framed by the concrete canyon surrounding us. Rue d’Hauteville was a nice place to walk, since the cross streets were all minor and ground-floor businesses didn’t project into the road. When we reached its terminus at Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle (my brain always translates this as “Good News”), we realized we were in proximity to three notable sites: La Esquinita Mexican Grocery, the Chocolate Museum, and our metro stop. Turning neither right nor left, we immediately descended for our ride home. Our nap awaited!

The Sumptuous Château and Jardins de Versailles

June 15, 2021

Despite living near the rail line to Versailles for six months, Natasha and I delayed our visit to its famous palace and gardens until my brother Tom came to visit. His enthusiasm for seeing the palace was infectious, though seeing even a small part of the site consumed all our energy for that day.

The path of our wandering at Versailles

Coming to Versailles by train was easy. We hopped onto the RER C rail line that follows the left bank of the Seine in our area, double-checking that the train was the one that terminated in Versailles (the RER C has multiple routes). The tickets cost 3.65€ each way for each of the three of us, so the travel costs for each direction were only about twice the price of a subway ticket within Paris. One of the aspects of the rail route that I found striking is that the RER C passes through a long tunnel under the Forest of Meudon. The total travel time was just a hair over twenty minutes.

The Javel RER train station was built for the 1900 Universal Exposition.

Emerging from the train station at Versailles, we were happy to find a well-marked route for tourists on foot. We followed the D10 toward the north and then turned left to follow the D186 to the west. Once we made that turn, it was obvious we were heading toward a massive palace complex, with gold light reflected from the outer fence and the roof line. We arrived almost exactly at 11:00, the start time on our tickets (in order to space tourists throughout the day, Paris museums are currently allocating only so many arrivals at a give time). Because we had not “hot-footed” it from the train station to admissions, we had many tourists in line before us, but the time passed quickly.

The Chateau

Voltaire lampooned the eastern facade of Versailles, though he appreciated its gardens somewhat more.

Natasha and I decided to download the official Versailles tour app on our phones, while Tom used a free audioguide device. I soon felt very frustrated by the app’s guidance because it couldn’t seem to discern where I was in the complex despite my having enabled Android location services, and whole sections of the palace were missing from mine that were present on Natasha’s install. Tom’s dedicated audio guide seemed to work much better.

The Royal Chapel was a relatively late addition to Versailles, having been constructed during 1687-1710 CE by Jules Hardouin-Mansart and Robert de Cotte. The left pane was a photo from the first floor (“upstairs”), while the right pane was taken from the ground floor.

A visit to the Château is likely to take in a mix of State Apartments, Private Apartments, and Historic Galleries. We found ourselves in a large herd of tourists as we passed the royal chapel on the ground floor, but once we had climbed the stairs, the press of people diminished somewhat. I had thought we had visited most areas of the Château, but looking back at the website I see we entirely missed the Royal Opera and the Congress Chamber, plus many formerly private spaces for the royal family. Natasha noted that many areas were closed to public view during our visit.

Louis XIV et la famille royale by Jean Nocret (1670), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Louis XIV, at right, gets pride of place over his brother “Monsieur” Philippe, Duc d’Orleans (left), reputed for naughty behavior and military valor.

I cannot be the only person who sees room after room filled with fanciful images of god-king Louis XIV with a sense of revulsion. I would like to think that Louis XIV himself felt a sense of scorn about the cult of personality that the art of the Château of Versailles represents, even if he personally cultivated it.

La Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) may be the most famous individual room of the palace. Visitors can walk through corrals at either end of the room, leaving the center clear for photographs.

Tom surprised me by echoing a refrain that I frequently say to myself on my travels: “I feel so frustrated when I imagine a substantial fraction of a nation’s resources being consumed to make a fabulous palace for the king.” Natasha was frustrated that the historical events that took place at the Château of Versailles were largely omitted by the information presented for each room. The 1871 Proclamation of the German Empire and the 1919 signing of the Treaty of Versailles both took place in the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), but the room was exhibited with no signboards to highlight these aspects of its history.

The Gallery of Great Battles was added by Louis-Philippe in 1833-1837 after the monarchy was restored in France. His additions abut those of Napoleon I, who also made use of the palace.

Having passed a couple of hours inside the Château, we were ready to see the gardens, grounds, and other buildings of the Versailles Estate. We started with the South Parterre, which was in bloom on our late spring day. We continued down to the Bosquet du Dauphin, which seemed more like a carefully partitioned area of small woods and undergrowth than a garden per se. The fountain in the Enceladus Grove was pretty interesting, but a barrier kept us from a better view. Natasha adored the gold lizards and turtles of Latona’s Fountain, and I loved the drama of Apollo’s Fountain.

Looking West from Latona’s Fountain gives a lovely perspective on the cross-shaped Grand-Eaux des Versailles in the distance.
Looking East from Apollo’s Fountain, Latona’s Fountain is the small mound at center just below the palace.

That said, we were all pretty hungry after our late-morning wander, so we stopped for lunch at La Flottille, a restaurant first opened in the late 19th century, located next door to the Grandes Eaux de Versailles (a long canal crossed at right angles by slightly shorter canal). We were grateful that the restaurant took reasonable precautions for folks with celiac disease. I ordered pizza and was very rapidly faced with a medium ham, mushroom and cheese I could have easily split with someone else, but Natasha and my brother both had plenty of food in front of them, too!

The rooms of the Grand Trianon have beautiful elements in considerably plainer walls than the main palace. They seemed like more comfortable places to live, though!

With full bellies, we decided to visit the Grand Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s Estate. We had a bit of a walk before us, though; the estate operates a little train of wagons to ship tourists from one site to another, but we were put off by its price (a bit less than five Euros per passenger).

The gardens lying west of the Grand Trianon were considerably plainer than those of the main chateau, but they were still beautiful.

We found Trianon without a lot of effort. Natasha and Tom agreed that the little palace seemed like a far more comfortable place to live than the Château proper. I was delighted that the substantial crowd we had encountered in the Château had not come to Trianon en masse; we encountered very few tourists at Trianon at all.

The Queen’s Hamlet was crafted in the 1780s, two generations after Louis XIV but just before the French Revolution. People were quite mad about Marie Antoinette’s rumored spending…

We continued past the Petit Trianon, enjoying the shaded walks and small canals with large-scale public art. I was feeling rather worn out from the high temperatures and bright sun of the day, so I asked that we limit to just one more site. Natasha placed a high priority on visiting the Queen’s Hamlet, so we continued to the northeast.

Does this look like the palace of a queen?

I didn’t know what to expect of the Queen’s Hamlet, but it surely wasn’t what we found. In 1783 Marie Antoinette (queen to Louis XVI, the grandson of Louis XIV) ordered the creation of a small village around a lake so that she would have a place to retreat from the pressures of court. The hamlet is perfectly charming, and we all enjoyed its peace and quiet.

I badly needed a beast of burden to haul me back out to the main gate!

When we walked up to the Queen’s Hamlet, we had thought we could exit the Versailles estates by the Saint-Antoine Porte, but a substantial ditch separates the Queen’s Hamlet from the exit road (the Grand Trianon seems to be the only port of entry allowing one to reach the Hamlet). We had a split vote on whether we were sufficiently tired and dehydrated to pay the cost of the little train back to the palace. Natasha has previously observed that once I start heading back home, it is an uphill battle to convince me to take an interest in anything other than plodding in that direction. For the next forty minutes or so, the three of us trudged and panted our way back to the main Château. Sadly the kiosk next to the Grandes Eaux where we planned to acquire more water was closed, so we just marched forward in the sun.

We were very happy to discover a cafe with refrigerated water bottles just before we reached the train station. Is it possible that too much sunlight would make us hesitate to revisit one of the greatest palaces on earth?