Sainte-Chapelle: Notre Dame’s Luminous Gothic Stepsister

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Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris sits proudly guarding the Seine River and hosts millions of tourists each year. It is an historic and beautiful cathedral. As impressive as it is, I feel overwhelmed by its immensity rather than captivated by its beauty.  My favorite Paris church, Sainte-Chappelle, is located nearby on the same island in the Seine. Sainte-Chapelle is much smaller and receives far fewer visitors than Notre-Dame and, in contrast to its larger sibling, offers a wonderfully intimate and enchanting experience.

The king and the commoners

Gothic spires of Sainte-Chapelle

In 1239, the French King Louis IX purchased the Crown of Thorns that was said to have been worn by Jesus during the crucifixion and the king needed an appropriate place of worship to house that valuable relic. He built Sainte-Chappelle inside the Conciergerie, his royal compound on the island. Completed in only six years, the church consists of two sanctuaries, one on top of the other. Only the king and royal family were allowed to worship in the upper chapel. Servants and commoners worshiped in the lower chapel.

A symphony of color

Sainte-Chapelle stained glass scenes

In the upper chapel, a rainbow of sunlight streaming through fifteen stained glass windows pierces the dark interior and creates a stunning visual symphony. Walls of stained glass completely surround the sanctuary providing a pictorial representation of more than 1,000 scenes from the Bible. While the images are beautiful, they also served a practical purpose. Books were extremely rare in the thirteenth century and few people knew how to read so the Bible stories were illustrated through the pictorial representations in the mosaics, frescos, and stained glass of the churches. Chairs are set up that allow visitors to sit and admire the scenes. I am always struck with wonderment when I sit in the chapel and admire the artistry. How did those artists create such beauty working with crude medieval tools? 

By contrast, the lower chapel is much less ornate. It is adorned with wall paintings but the light, color and airiness of the upper chapel are missing. The commoners and servants were relegated to a drab, dark chamber for their worship.

A visit to Paris can be exhausting. There are so many sights and museums to visit that many visitors wear themselves out going from one sight to the next. To really enjoy the city, visitors should pace themselves and occasionally take the time to simply relax in a beautiful setting and recharge. Sainte-Chapelle is my favorite place to unwind and refresh.

Islands of History in a Sea of Modernity: Forts of the UAE

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Travelers to the UAE are drawn to the flamboyance and glamor of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It is easy to be awestruck by the superlatives of modern wealth but there is much more to be seen in this young, yet historical country. Before this region of the Arabian Peninsula became a modern mecca of wealth and success, local tribes fiercely controlled portions of the desert landscape. Local rulers often built impressive forts that served as symbols of their power and control and provided security for the family and tribe.

Many of the forts built over the past four centuries still survive and have become icons celebrating the cultural heritage of an amazingly resilient culture. At the Al Jahili fort (one of the largest forts in the country) in the oasis town of Al Ain, visitors can wander through the remains of the summer palace of a royal family. In the center of Dubai, the Al Fahidi fort has been transformed into a wonderful museum that traces the history of culture in the region from prehistory to the present. Sprawling over a rocky bluff, the Fujairah Fort guards the Indian Ocean port of Fujairah continues to stand tall after more than 300 years.

When visiting the UAE, take the time to explore beyond the resorts, desert camel rides and shopping malls. This region is home of a fascinating cultural heritage that few visitors take the time to experience. Check out some of the forts and museums to learn how the people of this region were able to endure and thrive in this searing desert climate.

Fujairah Fort

Fujairah Fort

Watchtower at Al Jahili Fort

Watchtower at Al Jahili Fort


Shopping in Dubai

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Dubai is a shopaholics paradise. Check out this link for 5 Great Shopping Experiences in Dubai.

Sharjah – City of Art and Culture

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The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Arts and Culture

The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Arts and Culture

Sharjah's colorful central marketplace

Sharjah’s colorful central marketplace

Immediately adjacent to the northern boundary of Dubai, the Emirate of Sharjah refuses to be overwhelmed by its glamorous neighbor. The half-hour drive from Dubai to Sharjah paints a different portrait of the UAE. A bustling modern city, albeit without the glitzy skyscrapers, surrounds a historical district that preserves the rich cultural and artistic heritage of the region. The museums of Sharjah are a great way for visitors to gain an understanding of the historical and cultural heritage of the UAE.

The Sharjah Art Museum houses a wonderful collection of art from 18th Century lithographs to works by contemporary artists. Many works from the Sheik’s private art collection are on display and the permanent collection is complemented by the works of talented contemporary artists and impressive temporary exhibitions. The lithographs and paintings by European artists who visited the region are world-class.

A short distance from the Art Museum, the Museum of Islamic Arts & Culture provides a unique glimpse into the artifacts and traditions of Islam. Over the centuries, Islamic scholars made important contributions in a variety of scholarly fields, notably science and mathematics. The modern museum brings the history if this often misunderstood culture alive in a way that is easily appreciated.

Few of the expatriates living in Dubai and even fewer of the visitors to Dubai take the short detour to this wonderful Emirate. If they ventured that short distance north, they would be richly rewarded.

Getting Around in Dubai

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Dubai's sleek modern Metro station

Dubai’s sleek modern Metro station

Getting around in Dubai is interesting. The Metro system is inexpensive, clean and reliable but there are only two lines. I use the Metro as much as possible. Often it is best to take the Metro part of the way to your destination and catch a taxi to go he rest of the way. Bus lines traverse the city but route information is scarce so you really have to know where you are going. Taxis are also safe, clean and inexpensive. They are operated by the Transit Authority that operates busses and the Metro. It is easy to flag down a taxi just about anywhere. drivers are well acquainted with the city.

There are some challenges, however. The city is spread out over a very large area and getting from one area to another often takes a while. The main challenge is that no one seems to use street addresses. You navigate by landmarks – tell the taxi the nearest hotel, mall, roundabout or other landmark. If you know the nearest main street, that is also helpful. Recently, trying to find a local pizza restaurant, I looked up the address on their website. No street address, it just said across the street from a certain hotel. So, I looked up the hotel website and it just said located in Downtown Dubai. I was walking and I wandered around the section of Dubai known as Downtown Dubai for about 20 minutes – I finally found it. Next time I will know to use a taxi because I am sure he will be able to take me right to the hotel.

You might ask how they get mail if they don’t use street address. Well, everyone, businesses and private residences alike, uses P.O. boxes

Dubai’s Bastakiya District

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Courtyard with art installationBastakiya Street

Bastakiya Art Gallery

Bastakiya Mosque

Cooling towerPalm frond houseBeginning in the early 1800s, wealthy merchants and pearl traders built their homes near the Dubai Creek in the Bastakiya area. Wealthy inhabitants built houses out of blocks of coral that were covered with plaster. Less wealthy inhabitants used palm fronds as a building material. Narrow streets provided shade for pedestrians. Tall towers catching the wind and large interior courtyards provided an early form of air conditioning.

Over the years, this area had deteriorated so, in an effort to promote an understanding of the Emirati culture, the Dubai government has purchased all the houses in this area and restored them to their original glory. Rather than allow the buildings to sit unused the area is now home to several small museums, eclectic art galleries, restaurants and a variety shops selling handcrafted items.

True to Emirati hospitality, if a door is open in this area, it is an invitation for guests to enter. You can wander through the lanes and check out the buildings by yourself but, to get a good understanding of the history and culture, I joined a tour offered by the Sheik Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding. The tour was excellent and the guides were great.
This little bit of traditional culture nestled in the center of a modern sprawling metropolis is a great counterpoint to the glitz and glamor of the huge shopping malls.

Dubai Creek

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DhowsDhows, traditional trading boats, load goods to be delivered throughout the Middle East and western Africa.

Burj Khalifa

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Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa

The Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building towers above the Dubai skyline.

Dubai: City of Contrasts

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I arrived in Dubai a week ago not really knowing what to expect. I knew the glamorous reputation. The tallest building in the world, the biggest shopping center, and artificial islands shaped like palm trees might indicate over-the-top extravagance. What I have found, however, is a city successfully leaping into the twenty first century while remaining grounded in a strong cultural heritage.

Visitors to the city who take in the malls and resorts often miss the rich cultural experience that exists in Dubai’s neighborhoods. The Bastakiya area proudly displays its traditional houses made with coral or with palm wood and the bustling Deira neighborhood is home to thousands of expatriate workers from the Indian subcontinent. The Dubai creek harbor area is teeming with abras, traditional water taxis, and dhows, wooden cargo ships loading wares to deliver throughout the region.

In Dubai, it does not seem that the modern world is clashing with the traditional society as it is in many areas of the world. Here there is a harmonious merging of the two.

Civita di Bagnoregio: The perfect complement to a Rome visit

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Perched precariously on a small plateau an hour’s drive north of Rome, Civita offers a peaceful counter point to the frenzy of a visit to Rome. Traffic-free Civita can only be reached by a pedestrian bridge from the town of Bagnoregio. Once a thriving medieval town, Civita has been reduced by time and erosion to a mere remnant of its past. With a peaceful town square, a small church, a couple restaurants and great views in all directions, it is the perfect place for a leisurely afternoon with a glass of wine and a plate of freshly made bruschetta. A tiny museum displays a vintage olive press but the main sight in Civita is the town itself.

Lying between Rome and Florence, this area is often overlooked by visitors to central Italy but there are plenty of reasons to spend a few nights here. Hotel Romantica Pucci http://www.hotelromanticapucci.it in Bagnoregio makes a great base for exploring the region. Orvieto, with its cliff-side setting and a magnificent cathedral that features an ornate façade and amazing frescos by Lucca Signorelli, is only a 30-minute drive to the north. It is said that Michelangelo went to Orvieto to study the frescos before painting the Sistine ceiling. Hilltop towns such as Montefiascone, Sorano and Pitigliano, http://www.pitigliano-toscana.com, are all worth a visit. Each offers a thriving small town in a spectacular setting. Visitors interested in history will appreciate the area to the southwest of Bagnoregio. The Etruscan civilization flourished in the area as the Roman civilization was growing to the south. Eventually the Romans conquered the Etruscans but artifacts of the Etruscans remain, particularly in the tombs such as those found at Tarquinia http://goitaly.about.com/od/northernlazio/p/tarquina.htm.

Southeast of Bagnoregio is the small town of Bomarzo. The town itself is rather plain but it is the gateway to the Parco dei Mostri (Park of the Monsters) http://www.bomarzo.net/index_en.html. This estate features a series of massive sixteenth century sculptures, some carved out of the natural bedrock, situated in a park-like setting. The sculptures are impressive and the park is a great spot for a picnic.

A car is necessary to get the best out a visit to the area. Bagnoregio is an easy drive from the Rome airport. Another option is to take one of the frequent regional trains from Rome to Orvieto and rent a car there. Either way, a few days spent in the area around Bagnoregio make an excellent beginning or end to a Roman holiday.