Il Duomo di Milano

The main objective of my brief stop in Milan was to visit the duomo in the heart of the city. Like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the building is enormous. But that’s probably about as far as the similarities go. While St. Peter’s is built in the elegant Renaissance style that would later give way to the more opulent and gaudy Baroque style, Milan’s duomo is in the sombre and austere gothic style.

There is an interesting contrast between the outside of the cathedral and the inside. While the former is in bright, white stone that is nearly blinding to the eye on a sunny day, the interior is dark and gloomy and with very little decoration.

Next to the church is the duomo’s museum, which is interesting to visit. It houses a collection of many of the figurines that once decorated the church’s interior and exterior.

And if you’re weary from all the culture and spirituality, the Galleria Emanuele Vittorio II with its glitzy shops is right next to the duomo.

I visited the duomo in the late afternoon, and there were no queues to enter the cathedral itself nor the museum.

The Vatican Museum – I Musei Vaticani

Introduction

The Vatican museums house an huge collection of art that has been collected over many centuries by the catholic church. The collection ranges from ancient Roman statues to contemporary pieces by Salvador Dalì. The collection is immense, and a visit to the museum leaves you with a sense that probably there is a lot more to show but that is not on display.

The Stanze di Raffaello refers to a set of four reception rooms that were originally commissioned as the living quarters for Pope Julius II. Each one of the four rooms is decorated in frescos done by Raffaello, which is where they get their name from – The Rafel rooms. Probably the best known of these frescos is that of the School of Athens in the Room of the Signatura.

But without a doubt, the absolute show stopper of any visit to the Vatican museums is the Sistine Chapel that was painted by Michelangelo. Perhaps the best piece of advice to give anybody visiting the Vatican museums to make sure they keep looking up, because the decorations on the ceiling are truly amazing, and this is even more the case in the Sistine Chapel: in the centre of the ceiling is The Creation of Adam. And this, I must admit, left me completely speechless. Again, it’s one thing to know about these famous pieces of art and reading about them in books. But to see them for real is quite humbling. Not just because of the artistry and craftsmanship that when into their creation, but also because one cannot deny just how much these unique works of art have shaped Western civilisation and culture as we know it, irrepsective of whether or not one approves of the catholic church.

Practicalities

Tickets for a visit to the Vatican museum can be booked online. From what I’ve heard and read on the web, in usual circumstances tickets sell out fairly quickly. So it’s normally best to book as far in advance as possible. However, I visited in July 2021, when Italy was only just starting to recover from the Covid pandemic. There were quite a few visitors on the day I visited, but the facilities are obviously used to coping with significantly larger crowds. There were no queues for security and I was actually allowed in thirty minutes ahead of the scheduled slot I had registered for. Upon entering museum, you first need to exchange your online ticket for a paper ticket, simply to let you through the turnstile to enter the exhibition.

Photography, as well as video or audio recordings are not permitted in the Sistine Chapel. The photos below are all from the actual musem and not the chapel.

St. Peter’s Basilica

Introduction

Michelangelo’s Pietà is a marble statue of Mary holding the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. It is, undoubtedly, one of the most important sculptures from the Renaissance period. Upon entering the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican, the Pietà is located immediately to the far right of the edifice.

Without a doubt, most of us have already seen pictures of the sculpture in films or photos. I consider myself fortunate enough to know, now that I have seen it with my own eyes, that none of the pictures even come close to doing it justice.

I am not at all a religious person, must I must admit I was moved by the sculpture, and found it difficult to walk away from it. It’s not just the realisation that you are standing in the presence of such an important piece of art, nor inconceivable talent of Michelangelo’s craftsmanship, or the amazing accuarcy and detail of the sculpture that leave you speechless. I think, what moved me was the immense look of despair on the face of Jesus, and the solemn, despondent sadness in Mary’s. She sits there, with her murdered son in her lap. Her left arm is slightly raised, with the the palm of her hand facing up, in a gesture that suggests the silent question that all of us ask ourselves when we need to come to terms with the loss of a loved one: why does it have to be this way?

The Basilica

Visitors are free to enter the Basilica without a ticket, as it is still an official place of worship. However, visitors are expected to behave with the necessary decorum befitting such a place. Short shorts, sleeveless tops and a big cleavage are nor permitted – on men or women – and guests will need to cover up before they enter.

Apart from the previously mentioned Pietà and the oppulence of the decorations inside, it is the sheer size of the Basilica that impresses the most. To begin with, you’re not even fully aware of it, until you find your bearings and see just how much the people in the Basilica are dwarfed by the height of the ceiling.

Le Palais de Versailles

Introduction

Shortly before his death in 1643, King Louis XIII expressed in his testament that a council should be put in place to rule on behalf of his underage son, who would later become Louis XIV. However, upon his death, his newly widowed wife, Queen Anne, had the testament annulled. She had most of her husband’s former ministers sacked or exiled, declared herself her son’s regent and appointed the mercenary Cardinal Mazarin as her minister toversee the affairs of the state.

Queen Anne successfully expanded the range of the crown’s power with the help of Mazarin. She appears to have held the unwavering belief that the crown’s entitlement to rule was divine providence, and in her view that meant that the monarch was destined to reign supreme. In as much, a lot of the decisions she took as regent were aimed to secure her son’s reign by increasing his powers.

Eventually, Louis XIV assumed control of the government upon the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661, at the age of 23. It had been expected that he would appoint a minister to oversee the government of the state, similar to the way his mother had with Cardinal Mazarin and his father before that had with the ruthless Cardinal Richelieu. But Louis XIV was his mother’s son, and believed that it was his duty to shoulder the divine burden of ruling the country by himself. And so the young Louis proclaimed to his astonished parliament that ‘l’état, c’est moi ‘-‘I am the state’, and assumed control of all affairs of the state.

Louis XIV went on to rule the French monarchy for 72 year. His reign saw the rise of absolutism in France and in Europe, which firmly placed the monarch at the very heart of political power.

I mention this all here, because the château de Versailles played an important role in fostering the image of the King who ruled by divine appoinment. The building is imposing, to say the least, and its dimensions are difficult to grasp, even from close quarters. Clearly, its main purpose had been to impress and to indimidate, to make sure the Roi de Soleil’s claim to power went uncontested.

My visit in July 2021

Today, the palace and its grounds are open to the public and are undoubtedly one of France’s major tourist attractions. The palace sits on a vast domain of land that sprawls over an area of more than 800 hectares. My plan had been to visit the palace during the Covid pandemic, in the hope of avoiding the worst of the notorious crowds that are usually lining up to enter the building and its grounds. And I think I managed that rather well. I purchased a ticket in advance with a jump the queue option. And indeed, I was able to enter without delay. There still were quite a few people. Nonetheless, it was still possible to amble through the palace and enjoy it at my own pace.

Where to stay

I stayed at the MGallery The Louis in Versailles itself. MGallery is one of the many brands of the Accor group of hotels. Usually, I rather like their properties. But sadly, The Louis is certainly not one of them. The infrastucture is a bit dated and the staff could really do much better. However, what The Louis has going for it, is its excellent location only 200 metres away from the main entrance to the Palais de Versailles.

Conclusion

Below I have added some pictures taken during my visit. However, I am painfully aware of the fact that they do not really do the place justice. I also don’t think I would be able to fully describe the grandeur of the place in words. So I’ll just say that I’m glad I visited the Palais de Versailles. Not just because I wanted to tick it off the bucket list, but because it really is a truly very impressive sight to behold that is so closely linked and so prominent in the history of Europe.

The Salon des Glaces

Queen Mary’s Rose Gardens and Primrose Hill

As you exit Oxford Circus Station and step into the street, there are four ways you can go. Heading west will take you up Oxford Street to Marble Arch, while heading east will take you down the other half of Oxford Street to Tottenham Court Road. You can also turn into Regent Street and head south, past Liberty’s, Hamley’s and the entrance to Carnaby Street towards Picadilly Circus.

Or else, you could just head up north in the direction of the BBC building. Keep on going until eventually you will stumble upon a very small enclosed park, which is known as the crescent and which houses, among other things, the entrance to Regent’s Park tube station. Keep heading north. Cross the road and you will find yourself at the entrance to the much larger Regent’s Park.

Queen Mary’s Rose Garden is located in the middle of Regent’s Park. The entrance is quite unspectacular, but if you go there when the flowers are in bloom, the delicate scent of the roses is quite dazzling the moment you step into the garden. Inside the garden it’s easy to forget that you’re actually still in London, one of the busiest cities in Europe. It’s peaceful and quiet and there are plenty of benches to sit and take in the sights and the smells of your surroundings.

Eventually, if you keep heading north you will arrive at the entrance to London Zoo and the exit from the park. Exit Regent’s Park and then turn east to walk along the canal, until eventually you will emerge in Camden Town near the old Camden Lock.

By this time, you may be feeling hungry. As some of you may know, I have a bit of a thing about Indian food. And fortunately for me, there is a Masala Zone in Camden that also opens for lunch. Without fail, I always have the Grand Thali…

On Camden High Street keep heading in a northwesterly direction towards Chalk Farm tube station. Turn left into a narrow lane that will eventually take you up on a foot bridge across the railway lines. Cross the bridge and keep walking until eventually you reach another vast green area – and that is Primrose Hill.

Primrose Hill is not a natural formation. The mound is man-made and was created when the engineers of London started excavating to build the tube. The rubble they dug out of the ground was eventually dumped in the same place and eventually created the hill.

From up top you have a brilliant view of the London sky line. In the summer is a nice spot to just sit and watch the city.

Concorde

Surely, you didn’t think I would write a piece about British airliners and not mention Concorde. That would be, in a word, sacrilegious.

Sadly, I am too young to have had the opportunity to fly Concorde. But at least I do remember seeing her in Heathrow on occasion. One time, I wasn’t even five yet, because we still lived in Malta, we were on our way back home on one of Air Malta’s Boeing B 720s. And anyone who has ever been in a Boeing 720 with the engines on knows that it’s certainly not a quiet aircraft. In any case, I sat glued to the window as we approached the threshold, because Concorde was taxiing out ahead of us and I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t miss her departure. Little did I know that there was absolutely no way anyone at the airport was going to miss Concorde making her grand exit.

I could just about see her from my seat, standing on the runway in front of us, lined up and waiting for her clearance. And then the blue flames lit up as the afterburners were ignited and the thunderous roar of her four engines caused everything in our rickety old B 720 to start vibrating. I could even feel the roar deep down in my ribcage. It was magnificent…

Many years later, 34 to be exact, I met a man through the univesity where I work who usually lectures at Bristol University. He came to Switzerland to give a guest lecture. And seeing as the topic was Concorde, I figured the students probably wouldn’t mind me tagging along too.

What I remember about that meeting eight years ago, is that I’m quite sure the whole room heard the loud bang caused by my jaw dropping to the floor the first time our visitor from Bristol commented, in passing really, that ‘… at least that’s what it was like when we were designing Concorde…’.

Really? I mean… really? Like, Concorde? Standing before me was a very polished, well-mannered and very funny, humble gentleman who had actually been on the design team of Concorde! Our first meeting after the lecture did not go very well, because in my excitement at meeting him, the very first thing I did was ask him if I could touch him, as though to make sure he were real. Oh Lord, did I just say that out loud…? Fortunately, the gentlemen obviously knew a geek when he saw one and kindly extended his hand to me in greeting.

But I digress. In total, including the prototypes, 20 frames were built. The fleet was rather unceremoniously withdrawn from service following the tragic crash at Paris Roissy airport in 2000. But 18 have been preserved and are more or less accessible, or at least visible, to the public:

  • 001: F-WTSS Musée de L’Air et de L’Espace, Paris Le Bourget Airport
  • 002: G-BSST Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton
  • 101: G-AXDN Imperial War Museum, Duxford
  • 102: F-WTSA Musée Delta, Paris Orly Airport
  • 201: F-WTSB Airbus Plant, Toulouse Airport
  • 202: G-BBDG Broolandy Museum, Weybridge
  • 203: F-BTSC destroyed in a crash in Paris Roissy in 2000
  • 204: G-BOAC Manchster Airport
  • 205: F-BVFA Smithsonian National Air and Space Musem, Washinton DC
  • 206: G-BOAA Museum of Flight, East Lothian
  • 207: F-BVFB Auto und Technik Museum, Sinsheim
  • 208: G-BOAB Near the threshold of runway 27L, Heathrow Airport
  • 209: F-BVFC Airbus Plant, Toulouse Airport
  • 210: G-BOAD Intrepid Museum, New York NY
  • 211: F-BVFD Scrapped in 1994 after being parted out for spare parts
  • 212: G-BOAE Grandley Adams Airport, Bridgetown
  • 213: F-BTSD Musée de L’Air et de L’Espace, Paris Le Bourget Airport
  • 214: G-BOAG Museum of Flight, Seattle WA
  • 215: F-BVFF Roissy Airport, Paris Roissy Airport
  • 216: G-BOAF Aerospace Bristol, Bristol

And yes, because I just am such a geek, bold marks the ones I’ve already seen. The others will have to wait. But my time will come…

IWM Duxford

The frame on display at the IWM in Duxford is one of the prototypes and it’s still in the layout it was during flight testing. You can go inside and one of the friendly guides will show you around.

The Intrepid Museum

The frame at the Intrepid Museum is also accessible with a tour guide. They’re usually not all the knowledgeable, but that’s okay if it means being allowed inside Concorde.

The British Airliner Collection at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford

The start of World War II meant the abrupt end to the once proud British aircraft building industry. In the wake of cessation of hostilities and the capitulation of Germany, the British naively believed that they could more or less pick up where they had left off. Little did they realise that by then the Americans had already widened the gap, technologically at least, that would make it near impossible for the British ever to catch up.

In any case, after the war Winston Churchill set up the Brabazon committee, the aim of which was to explore the needs of the British aviation industry for it to be best prepared to meet the needs of the British Empire. Which was probably the second mistake, because by then the cracks were already beginning to show that would eventually lead to the Empire collapsing under the heavy burden of the costs necessary to maintain it on the one hand, and the awakening urge for independence by the former collonies and dominions.

The Brabazon committee gets its name from the first Baron Brabazon of Tara. The committee came up with a list of five types of aircraft that would be needed in future. The list was later extend to seven to include sub-types and categories of aircraft.

Tragically, it is probably safe to say that every one of the aircraft proposed by the Brabazon committee, perhaps with the exception of the Vickers Viscount, was a commercial failure. And some of the aircraft, like the Bristol Brabazon, never even entered into service.

Fortunately, some of the aircraft the were built as the result of the Brabazon committee’s requirements are still perfectly preserved today in the IWM Duxford near Cambridge.

Type IIa – The Airspeed Ambassador

Type IIa described a medium-range piston engine aircraft intended as a replacement for the Douglas DC-3. The Airpseed Ambassador is often referred to as the Elizabethan, as British European Airways introduced its Elizabethan European Service with this aircraft.

The Elizabethan had a capacity for sixty passengers. Only 23 of the aircraft were built, of which BEA had ordered 20 and that operated with the carrier for six years between 1952 and 1958. They found a second home with charter operator Dan Air.

Type IIb – The Vickers Viscount

Type IIb described a medium-range turboprop aircraft with a pressurized cabin that was intended to serve not so busy short- and medium-range destinations.

The Viscount proved quite a success. It had a seating capacity of 75 and a total of 445 of the aircraft were built in different variants. Perhaps what makes the Vickers Viscount quite unique among the airliners of the Brabazon committee, is that it was the only one to be operated by a US American operator. The last operational Viscount was not withdrawn from service until 2009.

Type IV – The De Havilland Comet

Type IV described a highspeed jet engine passenger jet.

The De Havilland Comet is probably the most famous post-War British aircraft design – for a number of reasons. When the Comet entered into service in May 1952, it caused a sensation as the world’s first commercial passenger jet. At the time, the British had every reasons to be confident about their design. After all, the only competitor for the Comet at the time, the American Boeing B 707, was still years away from its maiden flight and the first year of operations with the Comet suggested that it might even be possible to operate a commercially viable service with the type, despite the limited seating capacity of only 36 seats in the configuration of its launch customer BOAC.

But then of course, tragedy occurred and in fairly short sequence two aircraft literally fell out of the sky. Eventually it was determined that the aircraft had broken apart in mid-air as the result of structural fatigue caused by repeated cyles of pressurization and depressurization as the aircraft climbed and descended. Eventually, the manufacturer had no other option but to withdraw the aircraft from service until a solution could be found – which eventually meant, among other things, redesigning the windows from square to round to more evenly distribute the stress to the window frame.

The Comet was the first of its kind and De Havilland paid dearly for that. Its competitors were mindful to avoid the many mistakes that were made with the design of the Comet, and were able to benefit from the ground breaking advanced that were made by the British. For the Comet though, it was too late. By the time it had re-entered into service, the public’s and the operators’ confidence in the type was gone and the Americans had made significant progress on their own design, which would later evolve into the Boeing B 707.

Only 114 De Havilland Comets were built.

The Bristol Britannia

The Bristol Britannia was an elegant turboprop airliner that probably never should have been built – even though it proved popular with passengers and operators. Its design was marred by two hull losses during the trialling phase, which subsequently lead to significant delays in its development. Eventually, by the time the Bristol Britannia entered into service with BOAC in 1957, it was already too late, because the Boeing B 707 was looming on the horizon. The Boeing B 707 outclassed the Britannia on most counts: it has a greater seating capacity and it was significantly faster.

But the Briannia certainly was pretty. Probably its most recognisable feature were its four powerful Bristol Proteus engines with their four large propeller blades – which were commonly referred to as the Bristol Spinners. The phrase was later used as a British slang term for large breasts, although I think that’s probably no longer in fashion in the age of political correctness.

The Hawker Siddley Trident

The Trident was the result of a call that was made by British European Airways for a jet airliner to serve its European network. The Trident’s claim to fame is that it became the first aircraft to do a fully automatic landing in bad visibility in revenue service. Perhaps its most unique feature though, was the nose wheel, which was offset to the left and after take-off would retract sideways to the right into its gear well and not forward, as most airliners do.

The Trident’s main issue was that it was developed around the same time as the American Boeing B 727. By then, Boeing had pretty much corrnered the market for passenger jets, following the success of the Boeing B 707. And in fact, the Trident entered into service in 1964, only two months behind its rival, the Boeing B 727.

BEA was the main operator for the type, with 24 aircraft being delivered to them. Subsequently, 20 were inherited by British Airways when BEA and BOAC merged. In total only 117 of the Trident were built. By comparison, 1832 Boeing B 727s were built, making it the most successful passenger jet until the B 737 came along.

The Vickers VC-10

And now, finally, we turn to the VC-10, which is, hands down, the most beautiful and elegant airliner ever built. I think. Technically, the VC-10 was quite a marvel. It was designed to operate long-range services with good hot and high performance characteristics for operations to and from Africa. In 1979 the VC-10 broke the speed record for the fastest transatlantic crossing of a subsonic aircraft, with a flight time of only five hours and one minute. It held that record until 2020, when a Boeing B 747 undercut it by five minutes.

Only 54 VC-10s were ever built, 29 of which went to BOAC. There are many reasons why the VC-10 failed, even though it was very popular with the crews and the passengers. For one, the Americans did everything they could to prevent it from becoming a success. For another, Vickers was already having serious financial issues by that time. But probably its biggest flaw was that it had been built too close to the specification of only one customer – BOAC. As such, many of the aircraft’s performance characteristics were of no real interest for many other operators.

But she was so, so elegant…!

Växholm

When I was a child, Ferien auf Saltkrokan, or Seacrow Island in English, was one of my favourite books by Astrid Lindgren. I have no idea how many times I read that book! Essentially, the story follows the adventures of four siblings on summer vacation on Seacrow Island with their slightly clumsy but kind and good hearted father. For me as a child the characters were so real that I often wondered what it would be like to visit the island and meet them in person.

Seacrow Island does not really exist, of course. Astrid Lindgren made it up. But the island of Växholm in the Stockholm archipelago comes pretty close to what I always imagined Astrid Lindgren’s island might look like.

And if you need a rest from ambling through the quiet streets of Växholm, I can highly recommend the Växholms Hembygdsgard Café, which has an extensive selection of truly delectable creamy cakes.

When I was there, the place was quite busy. But it was still nice to sit down by the water, listening to the birds chirping and eating a gorgeous creamy cake.

La Hummuseria, Madrid

La Hummuseria is a vegetarian restaurant in the very heart of old Madrid. If you’re not paying attention, it may well happen that you end up passing the restaurant without even noticing, because it sits right above the entrance to an undergorund carpark.

The decor of the restaurant is hard to describe. It’s an uncoordinated mix of different styles and pieces of furniture that have been thrown together haphazardly. But the decor is not why you should visit this place.

The cuisine has a decidedly mediterranean flavour and is an interesting mix of middle eastern mezze and Spanish tapas. As such, if you’re visiting as a pair or with a group, it would probably make sense to order a selection from the menu. The staff are all very friendly and will certainly be able to lend a hand if you get stuck for choice.

It’s probably best if you plan ahead and make a reservation way, way in advance. But it’s certainly worth it!

Lelystad, The Netherlands

If you’re a bit of an aviation geek or a kid that never really grew up, you should seriously consider a visit to Lelystad airport in the Netherlands and the Aviodrom museum. It really is brilliant!

First of all, the number of exhibits is quite impressive and includes legends like the Boeing B 747-300, the Fokker 100, a DC-4, a DC-3 and a Lockheed Constellation, to name but a few. Admittedly, some of the aircraft are not in such good shape anymore, exposed as they are to the harsh and not always very pleasant Dutch climate. But even so, it’s still a pretty awesome experience to stand under a 747 and give him a belly rub! You can even enter the aircraft to catch a glimpse of what the cabin used to look like in the old days.