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New York City Weekend

New York City

February 2018

My first trip to New York City was on December 31st, 1998.  After spending the Christmas holidays in New Jersey, I took a train with my future ex-wife – things were still somewhat rosy at that time – to Penn Station in Manhattan.  I took my first NYC cab ride to a friend’s very small apartment in the Upper East Side.  We were only able to spend a few hours in the city since we had a flight back to Jacksonville the next morning.  I remember walking around Times Square in the afternoon as crowds began to gather early for the legendary party of all New Year’s Eve parties that was to take place that night.

Later that evening, after spending time in the cramped one-bedroom apartment with a festive gathering of twenty or so friends of friends, the claustrophobia that frequently floods my nervous system began rushing in.  Noticing the tell-tell signs, my wife and I stepped outside for some city air.  I remember looking at my watch.  It was 11:30 PM.  How long would it take us to walk down to Times Square for the ball drop – 30 minutes?  I figured that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for a small-town South Carolina kid, so we set off down the cavernous streets until we could walk no further.  We were at least six blocks away from Times Square when the human sea stopped our progress.  I could see the laser lights in the distance and before I could check my watch again, the chant of 5-4-3-2-1 told us it was now the opening seconds of 1999.

            People were hugging strangers and singing Auld Lang Syne.  The crowd surged to the rhythmic thump of music. A fight broke out between two guys with girls perched on their shoulders. As we pushed through the crowd toward a side street trying to reclaim our personal space, a yellow cab pulled up and discharged five tardy, tipsy revelers.  As soon as the last girl stumbled out of the backseat wobbling on high heels, we quickly dove into the cab and gave the driver the address to our temporary home where we slept on the kitchen floor. Ah, youth.

A couple of years later, I found myself back in the City for a couple of days after attending a conference in Connecticut.  It was September 2002, and the City and I both had large holes that were in need of repair.  One hole was caused by a divorce (although amicable), the other by a senseless terror attack that, at least for a while, turned us all into New Yorkers. I visited what was then referred to as “Ground Zero,” staring at the huge construction site through a cyclone fence that still had dead flowers laced through the galvanized links.

I’m happy to say that after fifteen years, both holes have been filled in glorious fashion.

Last month, Karen and I flew from Atlanta to LaGuardia airport on a Friday morning. We’ve both found that cabin fever sets in for us around February. We arrived late morning and caught a cab to Times Square. After checking into the Hilton Garden Inn on 8th Avenue and 49th Street, we walked a block or so to the Playwright, an Irish pub, and had lunch.

This was Karen’s first visit to Gotham (and my first in 15 years), so we braved the cold, misty rain and took a long walk along Broadway, 5th Avenue, and 42nd Street. This gave us a good opportunity to see the Times Square neighborhood, Broadway, the New York Library, Grand Central Station, Nat Sherman’s tobacco shop, Radio City Music Hall. After a rest, we walked back down to 42nd Street and had dinner at The View, a revolving rooftop restaurant that gave us great, though cloudy, views of the city. After dinner, we went to the Music Box Theater where we saw the multiple award-winning musical, Dear Evan Hanson.

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Time Square

I’ll have to say that I’ve spent 40 plus years saying that I’m not very fond of musicals, but if you get the chance to see one on Broadway, you’ll come away with an appreciation.

On Saturday, we got a reprieve from the wet weather and spent the morning exploring more of the city. We took the subway down to Battery Park where we could view the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. We then walked up to Wall Street where we saw the New York Stock Exchange and the old Custom House. We then walked up to see the new Freedom Tower and the World Trade Center area. This is a monument to perseverance more than defiance. Walking over the remains of thousands and looking up to see the new gleaming tower, the World Trade Center neighborhood gives you the sense that we are all part of something bigger than national pride or religious fervor.  You feel like you are a part of a worldwide community.

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Freedom Tower

We then walked up through Tribeca and SoHo and ate pizza in NoLita (North of Little Italy) at Lombardi’s. After lunch, we took a taxi back to the hotel where we freshened up. We then walked down to the Shubert Theater where we saw Bernadette Peters star in the amazing Hello, Dolly. After the show, we went to another Irish pub for a couple of drinks.  I’m convinced that in every city, whether it’s in Brazil, Continental Europe, South Africa, or South Carolina, you will find an Irish pub.  In NYC, there seems to be one on every block.

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We then walked over to Patsy’s where we had a terrific Italian dinner. Frequented by both celebrities and tourists, Patsy’s may not be the hole-in-the-wall local joint that we typically look for, but it is certainly worth a visit if you want some authentic New York/Italian cuisine. Also, don’t be surprised if the white-clad chef and owner, Sal Scognamillo, pays you a visit a time or two during your meal.  After seeing him interact with several other tables, we were convinced that this was where all the locals dine.  But when he came to our table, we realized that he just treats everyone as a close friend.

After all of the changes over the years, the City was still familiar to me.  Change can be painful but it can also give you more strength than you ever thought you could have. Things will continue to change; I just hope it’s less dramatic the next time I visit.

Karen was thrilled with NYC, and I’m sure we’ll be back soon to see Central Park, the Yankees and Mets, the Metropolitan Museum, and countless other sites. This quick trip was the perfect remedy for the wintertime blues.

Key spots to visit – too many to list. Seriously, it’s NYC. We enjoyed dinner at Patsy’s on 56th Street, the Times Square Diner for breakfast, Lombardi’s pizzeria at the corner of Spring and Mott, Battery Park, the Freedom Tower, Grand Central Station, the New York Library, and the Theater District/Broadway.

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The Last Passenger

The flight to Seattle was expected to be full. Chuck still held out hope that the seat next to him would be unclaimed leaving the short row to himself. As passengers continued to file past him to their seats, he took out a Clorox wipe from his backpack and began disinfecting his arm rests and the TV screen mounted on the seat in front of him. Just as the flight attendant announced that the cabin door was being closed, he looked up to see the last passenger to board was standing over him. 

“Looks like you’re the lucky one. I’ve got the window seat,” said the plump, red-faced man with disheveled hair. Chuck unbuckled his safety belt and stepped into the aisle so his new neighbor could squeeze into his seat. He cringed as the stranger launched a violent sneeze which made a flight attendant jump. 

After they were both settled in, the stranger turned to Chuck and introduced himself. “Name’s Dwight.  Sorry I’m a little addled, I almost missed the flight. I think I’ll be okay once I take my medication,” Dwight grunted as he bent down to dig around in his brief case.

“Let me guess, Tamiflu?” Chuck was already wishing he had one of his disposable surgical face masks that he accidently left in his checked luggage.

“No, it’s for my kidney that used to belong to someone else,” Dwight sighed clutching a brown pill bottle in one hand and half-filled bottle of water in the other. “I had a transplant a couple of years ago.”

“Is the donor a friend of yours?” Chuck asked absently.

“Not really…it was my ex-wife.”

“Really!” Chuck was suddenly intrigued with the stranger. “Before you were divorced, I assume?”

“Oh yeah, but only about a year before. Things went south not long after the surgery. Can you believe that bitch asked the judge if she could have it back?” Dwight shook his head and frowned. “I think it was just a trick to get full custody of the dogs.”

“Good thing you got it when you did.” Chuck noticed that a passenger across the aisle was also listening in to the conversation with wide eyes.

“No doubt. I knew I was lucky before they even closed me up.” Dwight tossed a tiny white pill into his mouth and made loud gurgling noises as he drained his water bottle. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “The hell of it is though, every time I take one of these pills, I think of that mean-ass woman.”

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Gonzo the Great – A Vignette

The sun was only two fingers away from sinking into the light grey waters of Pamlico Sound, which separated Ocracoke Island from the rest of North Carolina.  Leon sat on the weather ravaged dock made of creosote timbers and cracked concrete, sharing an 18-pack of Old Milwaukee with his only friend, Gonzo.

It had taken an hour for Leon to convince the ferry boat captain in Morehead City that Gonzo was a tame bear.  Still, several passengers refused to board and chose to wait another six hours for the next crossing. The bear had snored like a passed out drunk on the ride across the sound often drowning out the steady drone of the belching diesel engines of the ferry boat.  He finally woke as the pungent odor of raw shrimp and fried clams drifted from the landing dock to his leathery, piggish nose.

The afternoon spent on the dock was just the latest misery in Leon’s middle-aged years.  He ran his calloused fingers through his greasy unwashed hair then rubbed his sunburned neck.  He was supposed to have checked in with the traveling carnival three hours ago, but the local authorities would not let him leave the dock with his “dancing bear” until a veterinarian could be brought out look over the stinking, flea covered animal.

Occasionally the two vagabonds would catch a whiff of the carnival smells as the gentle sea breeze blew cross the island from the fairgrounds.  Leon’s stomach gurgled as he thought of the fried dough, sausages, and smoked pork.  The thought of funnel cakes caused him look down at his feet.  On his left was a dirty red sneaker, on his right was a walking cast.  The doctor in Asheville who had asked him if he knew he was diabetic told him that he had to wear the ridiculously large ugly boot or risk losing his foot.  It didn’t really matter anymore to Leon.  He had lost his right sneaker somewhere near Rockingham anyway.

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On Baseball

Suwanee, Georgia

December 30, 2017

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PNC Park – home of the Pittsburgh Pirates – Summer 2017

Karen and I have several items on our travel bucket list.  One is to visit every Major League baseball stadium.  So far, we’ve been to, Pittsburg, Washington, Seattle, St. Louis, Colorado, Baltimore, both parks in Chicago, and of course Atlanta.

Karen was a casual fan when we met and has since transformed into a real fan who keeps up with her hometown Braves and even keeps score when we go to a ballgame.  For me, I’ve always been obsessed with baseball.  When I was five-years-old I remember seeing the 1977 World Series between the Dodgers and Yankees, which featured Reggie “Mr. October” hitting three homeruns in the 6th game giving the series win to the Yankees.  My granddad insisted that we all pull for the Dodgers during that series because as a true southern gentleman he wouldn’t be caught dead pulling for the Yankees.  This is the same man who refused to carry $50 bills because “The Government defiled them with Ulysses S. Grant’s picture.”

As much as I love watching games, my baseball career actually ended when I was 10 years old.  During my first year of ‘fast pitch” (no batting tees or coaches pitching to the kids) Jimmy Beauchamp plunked me in the helmet with a fastball on the first pitch of the at bat.  It certainly was not Jimmy’s fault; I’ve always had a rather large head.  I remember that it didn’t hurt, but somehow, I wound up sitting on home plate and watching my mom hurdle over a four-foot-tall chain-link fence.  I tried to wave her off on my way to first base, but she insisted that I come out of the game.  She was well ahead of her time when it came to concussion protocol.  I also remember that my coach had to restrain her from charging poor Jimmy on the mound.  After that incident, I found it hard to stay in the batter’s box on inside pitches and became an easy strikeout victim.

After abandoning my early dreams of playing in the big leagues, I continued to follow my favorite teams throughout my childhood.  My teenage summers were spent working late nights stocking the shelves at the local Food Lion.  After working in the bright florescent lights, I found it difficult to go straight to sleep at home, so I would watch baseball games on the west coast.  The Los Angeles Dodgers were once again in the hunt for pennants, and I remember cheering them on during the summer of 1988.  Later that season, they would win the World Series against the Oakland Athletics which featured the iconic Kirk Gibson home run.

In my senior year of high school, I remember following the 1989 World Series which saw the Athletics face the Giants in the “Bay Bridge Series” which included a devastating earthquake and an Oakland four-game sweep both of which took the national headlines away from Hurricane Hugo, the 20th century villain of South Carolina who rivaled the 19th century villain known as Hurricane Sherman.

I was never really a Braves fan growing up, although I’d kept up with them on Ted Turner’s Superstation that broadcast the Atlanta games around the world.  In 1991, I was in a dorm room at Clemson when I saw Sid Bream slide into home clinching the National League pennant, and I got caught up in the dynasty that followed.  Although they only won one World Series in the strike shortened 1995 season, they would go on to win 14 National League pennants in a row. I moved to Atlanta in 2003, and although I watch baseball on television almost daily during the season, I make it a point to go see several games at the ballpark.

At one time, I could tell you the World Series winners for every year from 1977 to the present.  Although I’ve since forgotten most of these trivial tidbits as I’ve gotten older.  The other day I complained to my dad about how surprised I was at how my memory was not as good as it used to be.  He responded with, “Well, it only gets worse as you get older, Pete.”  I don’t even bother to correct him anymore.

Next year, Karen and I are planning an ambitious road trip that will take us into Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin where we hope to see ballgames at Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee.  We plan to hit several National Parks along the way, so stay tuned for our “Parks & Recreation Trip” in 2018.

Happy New Year,

Uncle Jon

PS: When do pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training?

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Washington Nationals Game – Summer 2017

 

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Uncle Jon Slept Here

Capitol Tour and Library of Congress

Washington, DC

July 10, 2009

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Day four of my visit to the nation’s capital.  Karen is working all day today and well into the evening at the Daughters of the American Revolution conference.  After eating breakfast, we went different directions.  She walked to Constitution Hall, and I rode the Metro to the South Capital Station.

I had reservations to tour the Capitol Building at 8:50 AM.  The two chambers of Congress were closed today so only the rotunda and Statuary Hall were available for tourists.  The tour was short but definitely a “must see.” Just standing at the center of the rotunda under the statue of George Washington and looking up into the richly painted dome inspires such awe that you barely notice the docent pulling at your arm to continue the tour.

Each state is given the opportunity to place two statues in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall that represent their citizens in some way.  Georgia has Crawford Long and Alexander H. Stephens.  South Carolina has John C. Calhoun and Wade Hampton.  All very important statesmen during their respective eras.  Interestingly enough, one of Florida’s dedications is to John Gorrie, the father of air conditioning and artificial ice-making.  Without him, parts of Florida may still be uninhabitable.

After the tour, I walked through the connecting underground tunnel to the Library of Congress.  The main portion of the Library of Congress is housed in the remarkable Jefferson Building which was built in the 1880s and is a perfect example of American Renaissance architecture.  The exquisitely painted interior is one of the most ornate you will see outside of Europe.

The original Library was commissioned by John Adams during his presidency.  Over 700 books were bought in England to provide the US Congress with a law library.  During the War of 1812, the British burned the library collection along with the capital and the rest of the city.  Later during Thomas Jefferson’s retirement, he offered for sale his entire library (the largest in the US at that time) to the government.  It was immediately acquired and it formed the basis of the new library.  Several years later, in 1851, another fire (this one accidental) destroyed two-thirds of the Jefferson collection.  The present library has attempted to make an exact restoration of Jefferson’s library.  At the time of this writing, they are about ninety percent complete.  I was able to see this extraordinary recreation as one of the main exhibits.  One-third of the books were the actual surviving books that Jefferson read and treasured.  Simply amazing!  Today the Library takes up three buildings and contains nearly 24 million books.

After visiting the Library, I walked behind the Capitol on Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol Hill neighborhood and stopped in the Hawk ‘n Dove for lunch.  (I’ve since learned that the Hawk ‘n Dove went through a ground up renovation in 2013.  When I visited it again in 2017, I found that it had lost some of its dive charm but it is still a good place for lunch and a pint.) I then went to Riverby’s Bookstore on East Capitol Street near the Folger Shakespeare Library. I bought a couple of books and walked up to the National Archives.  I saw that the line was long so I took the Metro back to the hotel and took a “much-needed” afternoon nap.

At 5:30, I walked over to the Post Pub at 15th and L Streets.  This is an archetypical dive bar haunted by Washington Post newspapermen and a few tourists.  I highly recommend this bar if you are into wood paneling and juke boxes.  I had a great bacon cheeseburger and four Bass ales while talking with some of the locals.  Four is a good number for ales.  It leaves you in good spirits without the feeling that you want to drink four more.  One more beer, however, and you find yourself committed to drinking all night.  Before you know it, you’re fighting with the karaoke guy because he doesn’t have any Iron Maiden songs.

Until next time…drink responsibly and ramble on.

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How to Handle Cutthroats and Bullies

Fernie, British Columbia
September 4, 2017

I’ve just returned from four days of fishing for wild Canadian westslope cutthroat trout in British Columbia. This is the third year in a row that I’ve fished the famous Elk River that runs through the beautifully tranquil town of Fernie in the eastern-most portion of the province. After each day of fishing on the Elk, I swear it’s been the best day of dry fly fishing I’ve ever had. And as a perfect complement to the extraordinary fishing, the town of Fernie, surrounded by the Canadian Rockies is a brilliant destination in itself.

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After being founded in 1904 by coal mining pioneer William Fernie, the town immediately burned to the ground. Subsequently, the inhabitants thoughtfully rebuilt the town’s buildings using brick. Nonetheless, the brand-new “fire-proof” city burned once again a few years later in an even more ferocious inferno after a forest wildfire ignited a lumber mill on the edge of town. Many of the buildings you see today in the downtown area date from the town’s second resurrection. Although coal mining and industrial forestry are still major staples of the area economy, Fernie is now famous as a snow skier’s paradise, the birthplace of guitar legend Alex Lifeson, and the shooting location for the critically acclaimed film Hot Tub Time Machine. During the summer off-season, however, mountain biking and (more importantly to this out-of-shape, middle-aged adventurer) fly fishing take center stage.

Unlike many North American trout streams where anglers can tie on a buffet of multiple nymphs and wet flies, Elk River fishing regulations specify that only single flies can be used. The freestone river is typically fished with an experienced guide and a drift boat. The recommended rod size for catching the 14 to 19-inch long, plump “cutties” is the standard 9-foot 5-weight. However, it is recommended that anglers also bring a 7 or 8-weight rod just in case they get the opportunity to catch the celebrated main event: the monstrous Bull Trout. These chances quite often occur as follows…

It’s around 2 PM (Mountain) when after giving my Chernobyl ant a seductive twitch, the chesty cutthroat politely sips the fly. After quietly mouthing “God save the queen,” I quickly lift my rod tip which immediately bows under the pressure of the now irritated trout. After a brief sparring match, the trout is on his way toward the landing net when a three-foot long sea monster materializes from the depths of the rocky river bottom. To my horror, the alien marauder tears a chuck out of the fatigued trout like a barracuda attacking a freshly hooked, hapless red snapper. My shock is interrupted by the puzzling cries of delight from my young guide, Dylan, who has now cast down the net and is scrambling to unsheathe the “bull trout rod.”

Although only 22 years-old, Dylan has more fishing experience than most professional fisherman three times his age. Like most of the guides on the Elk River, he fishes on his days off and habitually wears a baseball cap with a brim as flat as a billiard table with a variety of flies perched on top. I’m not even sure whether the flies are hooked into the bill or just placed there unattached. The bill is so flat that I’ve heard he places his sandwich and coffee there so the he can fish through lunch. By contrast, I was taught to form the bills of my caps using two rubber bands and a Budweiser tallboy. As far as I can tell, the differences in extreme brim shaping are more generational than geographical.

Still catching my breath, I’m handed the stouter rod. Instead of a floating tip line, the 8-weight rod and reel is strung up with a sinking tip fly line with a heavy leader on the end of which is tied a streamer that reminds me of Richard Petty’s hatband. After casting a dry fly the size of a sand gnat all day, my first few casts with this enormous streamer is very lackluster. From a distance, I’m sure it looks like I am angrily whipping the river in retaliation for some egregious personal offense. Needless to say, after this demonstration of vulgar casting, the bull trout has retreated to its lair at the stream’s bottom. Always tactful, Dylan gives me the sympathetic line that I’m sure he’s delivered to out-of-town fishermen every day since the summer began, “Good try, those bullies are almost impossible to hook…now let’s change up your rod and fish this riffle coming up.”

If you’re planning on fishing the Elk this summer, my recommended gear list would include: fly rods (both 5 & 8 weights) and reels, dry fly floatant, beard oil, extra fly line, iPhone, last year’s leftover Canadian Loonies, reel covers, lucky bottle opener, waders that you probably won’t use, Dukes mayonnaise, polarized sunglasses, passport, western flies [especially fat alberts, purple hazes, a mix of beetles (especially Ringos), various hoppers and ants, greasy poos, skanky pops, slack jaws, whisker don’ts, lip rippers, and gummy worms (for when no one’s looking)], Copenhagen snuff, 18-inch-long zip ties, earplugs, Faulkner novel, hat, bandana, more than one pair of fishing pants, wading sandals, wool socks, under drawers, nippers, forceps, two Daredevil comic books, leaders and tippet, fleece jacket, mustard-based BBQ sauce, sunscreen, a bottle of Four Roses bourbon whiskey, and a Case Sodbuster.

I also highly recommend Elk River Guiding Company, Big Bang Bagels, and Fernie Brewing Company.

Until next time…ramble on.

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The Louvre and Saint-Denis

Paris, France
June 24, 2010

On our last day in Paris, we finally decided to go to the overwhelming Louvre museum. On our arrival, we were immediately met with an unbelievably long line to enter the museum. After about fifteen minutes, we were informed that the long line in which we were standing was not the line for the museum but a line to get the new iPhone at the adjacent Apple store. We were then directed to a considerably shorter line for the museum. This line, however, was not moving at all. The museum still seemed to be closed thirty minutes after the posted opening time. It was then that we got our first taste of the frequent strikes that workers unleash in Europe.

We were told that the strike would not end until at least noon, so we decided to take a walk in the adjacent Tuileries Gardens. These gardens go back to the time of Catherine de Medici, Queen of France, back in the mid-1500s. The gardens became a public park after the French Revolution in the waning years of the 18th Century. In the Tuileries Gardens, you will see a statue of a gentleman blowing a horn while riding winged Pegasus, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (not THE Arc de Triomphe but pretty impressive nonetheless), and the Musee de l’Orangerie which houses Monet’s Water Lillies and some of Rodin’s sculptures.

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Sainte Karen poses with a local in the Tuileries Gardens

After lunch in one of the Gardens’ cafes, we took a train to the nearby town of Saint-Denis and the basilica which houses the tombs of many of the French monarchs from Dagobert I to Louis XVIII as well as several queens, princes, princesses and other influential French statesmen. The Basillica itself was the most amazing site. Built in the 1100s, it was one of, if not the, first gothic basilicas built in the middle ages.

Of course, the town and basilica are named for Saint Denis who is famous for losing his head. Literally. Back in the 3rd Century, Rome still ruled the world and had not yet converted to Christianity. In fact, during this time, the Romans were known to go out of their way to punish Christians in creative and brutal ways. Denis, who was the bishop of Paris, and a couple of his buddies were decapitated in the city by the Roman authorities. Legend has it that Denis then picked up his severed head and walked several miles preaching the whole way until he finally collapsed and died. It was at that exact spot where the Saint Denis Basilica was built.

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Excuse me, ladies…my eyes are down here.

The town of Saint-Denis is also known for its higher than average crime rate, so be mindful of your surroundings.  Following the 2015 Paris Attacks which included the mass shooting at the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan theatre, the mastermind behind the attacks was killed in a gun battle with police in Saint-Denis.

 

When we got back from Saint-Denis, we still had a few hours to spend at the Louvre. We saw the Mona Lisa (now encased in a climate controlled, bulletproof glass case to protect it from loonies), the Venus de Milo, the painting of Emperor Napoleon’s coronation, other important paintings and sculptures, exhibits on Greece, Rome and Egypt, artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia (make sure you check out Hammurabi’s Law Code etched on a seven-foot stone), medieval objects and art, and Napoleon III’s apartments.

The Louvre, by itself, is reason enough to visit Paris. Just make sure you give yourself a couple of days in case of strikes and to ensure that you see all that you want to see.

Until next time…ramble on.

https://uk.tourisme93.com/basilica/

http://www.louvre.fr/en