Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Pont du Garde, France

The Pont du Gard is possibly the most famous remaining aqueduct constructed by the Roman Empire's engineers, politicians, workers and slaves. This massive structure brought about 5 million gallons of water daily to Nîmes, carrying it about 50 kms from the springs near Uzès. They say that the engineers designed this aqueduct so carefully that the water was required to drop a mere 50 or so feet over the distance of 50 kms, a fall of about 34 cm/km. Much of the bridge spanning the Gardon River still survives (12 spans are missing), and the three levels of arches are indeed spectacular, both visually and as a feat of engineering. My friend Bob once climbed to the top and (foolishly?) walked the length of the top. Obviously, if one slips, there is limited time for a final prayer.

As Romans began constructing this massive structure, one can only imagine what the local villagers and farmers thought, for they would never have imagined such a project being possible. The aqueduct was yet another symbol of the authority, ingenuity, power and economic might of the occupying forces.

The large archways both reduced the amount of material required and allowed the river to flow unimpeded whenever it flooded, as it often still does.

Over the centuries, the flooding has only slightly eroded the pillars, which remain in remarkably good shape, considering they are more than 1,900 years old.

Part of the aqueduct served as a bridge/road across the valley.

Looking down from the bridge, you see the valley created by the River Gardon.

Standing on the bridge/road, we can look up at the underside of the second level of arches.

The entire structure was constructed without cement--the stones were cut so that they fit perfectly. The Romans are credited with inventing cement, but even they apparently sense--or knew--that something this heavy would be more than their cement could withstand. Some of these individual stones weigh 6 tonnes.

I am assuming that these square holes once held a wooden structure which served as scaffolding for the builders. As I admired the grandeur of the aqueduct, I wondered how many men fell to their death while working on this masterpiece.

Janice is photographing a few of the plants which somehow manage to survive on the part of the rocky riverbed which serves as a floodplain.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Tour Eiffel, Paris

There is a constant stream of people climbing the stairs in several of the Tower's four legs. From these stairways, you can see for miles through the protective metal fences. There are places to pause and rest. Some youngsters think the point is to 'win', other folks like to enjoy the internal structure of this enormous steel spiderweb, watch the activities on the ground slowly recede, and contemplate getting a gym membership.

Looking up, past level one, to level two.

The first observation level.

"We're so cool!" Actually, most people were keeping their coats on, but I guess the downside is that they then have difficulty displaying their underwear.

Tourists never get much time to themselves here. There are scores of vendors pushing cheap trinkets on you. These days there are many young men, possibly from India, Sri Lanka or various countries in Africa, going through the throngs independently, yet obviously working in groups for safety. I suspect that many of these men do not have working papers. In the afternoon, I suddenly heard many feet running, looked up and saw these guys scooting away from the Eiffel Tower as fast as they could go. They had spotted policemen who were possibly checking for permits. Judging from the smiles, this scenario is reenacted several times a day. Everybody knows that once the police have moved on, the vendors will once again be flogging the cheapest replicas imaginable of this famous monument.

Tourists are also besieged by women, who I assume are gypsies. They have been a well-known sight in Paris for more than a century. Over the past decades, I have seen them begging in the metro's underground hallways or sitting on streets, sometimes holding very young children who are sound asleep (I was told they are drugged). The ploy right now is for these women to approach tourists and ask "You speak Eeenglish?" If they get your attention--and they always do, they then thrust a well-worn handwritten paragraph in your face, usually telling of a mother needing a serious operation, etc. I learned by accident that if I have a French book title clearly displayed on my lap, these women leave me alone--likely because they do not have the message in French at hand. One friend told me that some gypsies now work for the mafia, but I obviously cannot confirm the report.

I like this picture of the women because it was taken just after they huddled together for their final instructions for the afternoon. The women were laughing, chatting, etc. Suddenly, as they brok up, their laughter stopped and they assumed their theatrical downcast looks of abject pathos and misery, their bodies went from being erect to being slumped, and they spread out, shuffling along, working the crowd, "Excuse, you speak Eeenglish?"

Many tourists visit Paris for only a few hours or a few days, and are invariably exhausted from trying to see 'everything'. I often observe combinations of excitment and exhaustion on people's faces. Those who actually pause to rest are very wise indeed.

I waited nearly 30 minutes to get this shot. I suddenly realized that a few of the tourist buses had this fascinating advertisement and that, if I positioned myself just so, I could juxtapose the ad with the real thing. I obviously have too much free time.

The Eiffel Tower is one of the world's leading tourist attractions, and possibly the best known symbol of Paris. In my youth, I willingly climbed the stairs to level two. This spring, I spent an afternoon around the tower on April 20th but gave up the plan to ascend the tower after seeing the long lines of people waiting to take one of several elevators or to climb several stairways, and after surmising that even if I climbed the stairs to take pictures, I would always be trying to shoot through the wire fencing which protects climbers (and keeps young guys from scaling the beams). So I stayed on the ground, taking pictures of the structure from below, usually against a rather dark-grey sky, or I watched people from a safe distance with my 200mm lens + 2x converter.

Strong as the tower is, we are not allowed to go to the top level, which is now used solely for broadcasting (and is one reason the tower has been preserved). There have been long discussions about this "temporary" structure, for it was never intended to last more than a few years. By now, however, Paris cannot afford to let it disappear, and that which was once both a marvel and an eyesore, is now inseparable from the capital city.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Cafes in Paris near Sacre Coeur and St Eustache

Very pregnant

Four men and three beers

Two women three beers


Stairs to the north of Sacre Coeur, leading up to the cafes

Le Refuge (at the top of the stairs)


Men only


Another cigarette

Why finding peace in the city can be difficult

Chips to go

Parisians love their coffee and their cafes. As soon as the sun starts to warm the days, Parisians find outside tables where they can relax, talk, read, check email, have a beer or Coca, or just watch the world pass by. Even as planes fly overhead and as cars pass within several meters away, or as pedestrians almost bump your table, these cafes provide a quiet answer to the hectic pace of life and places where friends can meet without worrying about preparing to entertain guests.

Taking pictures of people at cafe tables is not easy. Most people sort of know that once they are outside, on public sidewalks and streets, others can indeed take their pictures. But this does not mean that everybody welcomes intrusions into their private moments. Since I am somewhat shy and never want to be confrontational, I have developed a method for taking these pictures. I am learning to cradle my camera in the crook of one of my arms. The lens points about 70-90 degrees from where I appear to be looking. The camera's settings have been fixed for the lighting, I shoot at a fast speed in the hope of avoiding image blur, I usually set the lens somewhere around 35mm (wide angle), and set the automatic focus so that it picks up close images. Then the trick is to find people who are engaged in each other, or possibly supremely bored, and, when shooting, it is important to keep the camera reasonably level to the horizon. I find this enormous fun and equally unpredictable. Expressions change during a heated conversation, a cloud suddenly changes the light conditions, someone unexpectedly gets between me and the cafe tables, and so on.

These pictures celebrate friendship and cafes around the world.