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LONDON: Cleopatra's Needle

If you are familiar with London landmarks then you will be familiar with Cleopatra's needle. Sat amongst the sites of London on the Thames Embankment it can easily be missed. While it doesn't have the visual attraction of Tower Bridge for example, the history of Cleopatra's Needle to this country is enough to look at this unique (almost) monument in a completely different light.

What is Cleopatra's Needle?

Cleopatra's Needle is the popular name for each of three Ancient Egyptian obelisks re-erected in London, Paris, and New York City during the nineteenth century. The London and New York ones are a pair, while the Paris one comes from a different original site, Luxor, where its twin remains.

Although the needles are genuine Ancient Egyptian obelisks, they are somewhat misnamed as they have no particular connection with Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt, and were already over a thousand years old in her lifetime. The London "needle" is one such example, as it was originally made during the reign of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Thutmose III but was falsely named "Cleopatra's needle".

The Paris "needle" was the first to be moved and re-erected and the first to acquire the nickname.

On erection of the London obelisk in 1878 a time capsule was concealed in the front part of the pedestal, it contained:
 A set of 12 photographs of the best looking English women of the day, a box of hairpins, a box of cigars, several tobacco pipes, a set of imperial weights, a baby's bottle, some children's toys, a shilling razor, a hydraulic jack and some samples of the cable used in erection, a 3' bronze model of the monument, a complete set of British coins, a rupee, a portrait of Queen Victoria, a written history of the strange tale of the transport of the monument, plans on vellum, a translation of the inscriptions, copies of the bible in several languages, a copy of Whitaker's Almanack, a Bradshaw Railway Guide, a map of London and copies of 10 daily newspapers.
Cleopatra's Needle is flanked by two Egyptian sphinxes cast from bronze that bear hieroglyphic inscriptions that say netjer nefer men-kheper-re di ankh:

'...the good god, Thuthmosis III given life...'

The two sphinxes are not Egyption as they were cast in bronze at the Ecclestone Iron Works in Pimlico in 1881.

Strangely, these Sphinxes appear to be looking at the Needle rather than guarding it. This is because of the Sphinxes' improper or backwards installation. Around the obelisks the Embankment has other Egyptian flourishes, such as buxom winged sphinxes on the armrests of benches. On 4 September 1917, during World War I, a bomb from a German air raid landed near the needle. In commemoration of this event, the damage remains unrepaired to this day and is clearly visible in the form of shrapnel holes and gouges on the right-hand sphinx.

How Cleopatra's came to London

Cleopatra’s Needle was presented to the British Government in 1820, although there had been plans to bring it back as early as 1801 as a memorial to the victories of Nelson and Abercromby over the French in Egypt. However, it was 1877 when the obelisk finally arrived in this country.

As it weighed over 200 tons it was encased in an iron cylinder which was then rolled by means of levers and chains down a track into the sea. It was fitted with a deck house, mast, rudder and steering gear and was manned by a crew of Maltese sailors. This ‘craft’ was named Cleopatra and was to be towed to Great Britain by the steamship Olga. They sailed on 21 September 1877. Captain Henry Carter (who had supervised her construction) commanded the Cleopatra and Captain Booth was in command of the Olga.

The two vessels could only make 7 knots and disaster struck in the Bay of Biscay when the tow ropes had to be cut in a violent storm on 14 October 1877.

Cleopatras Needle in transport casing
 The Cleopatra began wildly rolling, and became untenable. The Olga sent out a rescue boat with six volunteers, but the boat capsized and all six crew were lost - named today on a bronze plaque attached to the foot of the needle's mounting stone.

Eventually Captain Carter and his crew were rescued and the Cleopatra drifted away in the storm.

It was assumed she was lost but she was later sighted by the Fitzmaurice and towed in to Ferrol Harbour. 

From there, she was towed back to England by the paddle tug Anglia arriving at Gravesend on 21 January 1878.

The obelisk was eventually erected on the Thames Embankment while the Cleopatra was broken up immediately after the obelisk had been removed on 6 July 1878.

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If you are unfortunate enough to have not been born in the green and pleasant land that is known to all as England, then your first thoughts of Her Royal Highnesses' kingdom is likely to be the City of London. More specifically, Buckingham Palace, St Paul's Cathedral, and Big Ben!

Of course, when it comes to the iconic landmark Big Ben, an explanation is required due to persistent an erroneous confusions over its correct name. The building that is often perceived as Big Ben is in fact the Palace of Westminster, which itself is also incorrectly called the Houses of Parliament.

The Palace of Westminster dates from the medieval period when it was a royal residence. 

In fact, it still home to a royal medieval throne which is situated in the Lords Chamber which is known as St Edward’s Chair, or more popularly as the Coronation Chair. 

Why is this important? Because each year the Royal Head of State travels in splendid procession to the Palace of Westminster for the annual State Opening of Parliament. This colourful pomp and ceremony of Parliament is one of Britain's most famous traditions.

Be aware that the Palace of Westminster is still called the Palace of Westminster and only houses the Houses of Parliament!

Furthermore, the Gothic tower built at the east of Westminster palace is also often mistakenly called Big Ben. 

The truth of the matter is that the name Big Ben refers to the bell within the tower on which the clock strikes the hour, while the tower itself is called Saint Stephens tower. Be that as it may, the clock - known as 'The Great Westminster Clock' and still not Big Ben - is considered by many to be the most famous clock in the world.

Big Ben Facts

1. The Great Westminster Clock became fully operational in 1859.

2. The Big Ben Bell weighs 13.5 tonnes.

3. Pre-Decimal pennies used to adjust the clocks timings. One penny will add around two-fifths of a second in 24 hours.

4. The Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airey and Edmund Denison QC MP designed the Great Clock and recommended clockmaker Edward Dent to build it.

5. In order to fit the huge mechanism, the clock was winched up inside the Clock Tower.

6. The pendulum is 3.9 metres long and beats every two seconds.

7. The clock mechanism weighs around 5 tonnes.

8. What runs the great clock now composes of contemporary metal work. However, the original parts from the clock mechanism on display about a third of the way up the Clock Tower.

9.  The original clapper cast in 1858 but was never used.

10. The original the original hammer used to strike Big Ben in 1859 was found to be too heavy at 6 1/2 cwts. This was replaced in 1862 by the present hammer of 4 cwts.

11. The first Big Ben bell was  caste and brought down from Stockton On Tees to London. It weighed 16 tons and was mounted on a trolley pulled by 16 horses. Sadly this original bell cracked during testing and was replaced by another weighing 13 tons cast in Whitechapel, London.

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ITALIAN HISTORY: Who was Julius Caesar?

Gaius Julius Caesar July 100 BC – 15 March 44 BC was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. He also greatly extended the Roman empire before seizing power and making himself dictator of Rome, paving the way for the imperial system.

Julius Caesar was born in Rome on 12 or 13 July 100 BC into the prestigious Julian clan. His family were closely connected with the Marian faction in Roman politics. 

Caesar himself progressed within the Roman political system, becoming in succession quaestor (69 BC), aedile (65 BC) and praetor (62 BC). In 61-60 BC he served as governor of the Roman province of Spain.

Back in Rome in 60 BC, Caesar made a pact with Pompey and Crassus, who helped him to get elected as consul for 59 BC. 

The following year he was appointed governor of Roman Gaul where he stayed for eight years, adding the whole of modern France and Belgium to the Roman empire, and making Rome safe from the possibility of Gallic invasions. 

He made two expeditions to Britain, in 55 BC and 54 BC.

Julius Caesar, in his famous account of the Gallic Wars of the 50s BC, provided readers at home with a blood-curdling description of the Germanic tribes he encountered in battle:

'...The various tribes regard it as their greatest glory to lay waste as much as possible of the land around them and to keep it uninhabited. They hold it a proof of a people's valour to drive their neighbours from their homes, so that no-one dare settle near them. No discredit attaches to plundering raids outside tribal frontiers. The Germans say that they serve to keep young men in training and prevent them from getting lazy...'

Caesar then returned to Italy, disregarding the authority of the senate and famously crossing the Rubicon river without disbanding his army. In the ensuing civil war Caesar defeated the republican forces.

Pompey fled to the Egyptian capital Alexandria, where he was murdered on the orders of Ptolemy. 

Caesar followed and he and Cleopatra became lovers. Cleopatra, who had been exiled by her brother, was reinstalled as queen with Roman military support. 

Ptolemy was killed in the fighting and another brother was created Ptolemy XIII. In 47 BC, Cleopatra bore Caesar a child - Caesarion - though Caesar never publicly acknowledged him as his son.

Cleopatra followed Caesar back to Rome where he made himself consul and dictator and therefore master of Rome.

He used his power to carry out much-needed reform, relieving debt, enlarging the senate, building the Forum Iulium and revising the calendar. 

Dictatorship was always regarded a temporary position but in 44 BC, Caesar took it for life.

 His success and ambition alienated strongly republican senators. A group of these, led by Cassius and Brutus, assassinated Caesar on the Ides of March 44 BC.

This sparked the final round of civil wars that ended the Republic and brought about the elevation of Caesar's great nephew and designated heir, Octavian, as Augustus, the first emperor.

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VALENCIA: The Lonja de la Seda

The Lonja de la Seda or 'old silk exchange'  is tucked into a medieval street near the Mercado Central, up a flight of steps. It is one of the principal tourist attractions in Valencia, and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

 The design of the new Lonja of Valencia was derived from a similar structure in the Lonja of Palma de Majorca, built by the architect Guillem Sagrera in 1448.

The architect in charge of the new Lonja was Pere Compte, who built the main body of the building – the Trading Hall (or Sala de Contractació in Valencian) – in only fifteen years (1483–1498).

A blue band runs along all four walls of the Trading Hall, also called "Hall of Columns". It proclaims in golden letters the following inscription:

Inclita domus sum annis aedificata quindecim. Gustate et videte concives quoniam bona est negotiatio, quae non agit dolum in lingua, quae jurat proximo et non deficit, quae pecuniam non dedit ad usuram eius. Mercator sic agens divitiis redundabit, et tandem vita fructur aeterna.

According to the local Valencian scholar Joan Francesc Mira, this inscription showed that it was not a necessary to be a Protestant or a foreigner to establish the basis of a good trade. It also showed the union of ethics and economy.

Visitors first arrive by climbing steps through heavy doors into a beautiful soaring Gothic hall whose ceiling is held up by graceful twisting columns. 

This ceiling was once painted blue, adorned with stars.

The columns and the ribs etched into the ceiling represent palms, emblematic of honest business dealings. This venue served as a commodity exchange at the heyday of Valencia's power, a period dating from around the mid-1400s well into the 16th century.

The grand hall lets out onto an enclosed orange garden on one side, and to a small room like a chapel with leaded windows, which itself leads onto a Baroque chamber with heavy wooden coffered ceilings.

 Above that hall is another large assembly room. These two rooms served as courts.

However, there is a couple of problems with La Lonja. 

There is almost no visitor information and the place looks as though it has been robbed. 

Besides the table where the staff take your money the buildings are almost completely empty.

There is no sense of history, and no attempt to tell the story of this fantastic building.

If you speak Spanish - and I don't -then the guide tours are supposed to be good. At the end of the day, they need to take a few leaves out of the national Trust book of how to appropriately dress a historic property.

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ITALIAN HISTORY: Who was Christopher Columbus?

Born in 1541 to a middle-class wool weaver and part-time cheese salesman, the great Genoan explorer Christopher Columbus has the legacy of one of the worlds greatest visionaries. Inspired by his beliefs, his journeys of incredible discovery caused an intellectual transformation that ushered in the modern age. Although Christopher Columbus is now credited with history’s ‘most recent’ discovery of the Americas (the 11th century Icelandic explorer Leif Ericsson is currently the earliest documented European to set foot in mainland America) the fruits of his travels have also made him the accidental father of modern glasshouse production. 

A strange association indeed, but a feat that would never have been impossible were it not for his mis-calculation of the size of the Earth (in particular the Eurasian continent) and poor grasp of maritime navigation.

Inspired from works by Ptolemy, Pierre d’Ailly and the ‘Travels of Marco Polo’ Columbus wrongly concluded that Asia could be reached easier and far quicker by using a western route across the Atlantic.

His conviction was soon to become an obsession and so he began to petition the various European Royal heads of state in order to finance his ’Enterprise of the Indies’.

Beginning first with Portugal, then France and even England, he was refused time after time mainly on the grounds of the huge costs that an exhibition like this would encounter. Eventually, after already rejecting him once before, it was Queen Isabella of Spain who granted him the commission he required, making his dream of finding a western route to Asia a reality.

History was sealed on August 3rd 1492 when a small fleet comprising of the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Nina set sail for the first of four voyages of discovery exploring the New World. However it was during his second voyage to the South American mainland that he stumbled across the indigenous Tupi-Guarani Indians.

This was the encounter that was to change the course of history, triggering a chain of events which for centuries captured imaginations across continental Europe. By doing so he set in motion a desire for massive investment and innovation, the like of which may never be seen again.

The Tupi-Guarani Indians were the dominant civilisation in the areas that Columbus visited, inhabiting the Brazilian coast from the mouth of the river Amazon, down to Cananéia, and including large sections of the Amazon basin. 

They enjoyed an advanced culture that practised what we still regard as modern agricultural and horticultural techniques including the selective breeding of plants to increase flavour and yields. Unfortunately their culture also included a taste for human flesh, the dish of choice being captured prisoners of war.

Their whole culture and government was based on the act of cannibalism, and following a successful raid on a neighbouring tribe, prisoners would be brought back to the village to be fattened up. 

A few weeks later an elaborate party/ritual would be arranged, after which the prisoner is summarily executed by a blow to the back of the head. He was then skinned and cooked with seasonal fruits and vegetables. A small piece of flesh was then served to each member of the tribe so that they could gain the spiritual strength of the unfortunate victim.

Despite these rather gruesome eating habits the Tupi-Guarani Indians are also the first humans to encounter and domesticate the pineapple. 

This highly specialised fruit also has a unique characteristic, which in one way is quite poetic when you consider its ancestry. 

It has the only known source of bromelein, an enzyme that can digest protein. In other words the pineapple has quite literally flesh-eating properties. 

In fact over the years there have been numerous reports where eating pineapples has caused an itchy or burning sensation to the mouth. In extreme cases this has caused the lips and internal parts of the mouth to bleed.

Their first encounter with a pineapple occurred in November 1493 during the second voyage to the Caribbean region. After securing anchor off the volcanic island of Guadeloupe,

Columbus led a small party ashore to study what appeared to be a deserted tribal village. Among wooden pillars spiralled with serpent carvings, his crew found large pots filled with human body parts, accompanied nearby by several piles of freshly foraged fruits and vegetables. 

Undaunted or perhaps just extremely hungry, the party helped themselves to the non-human aspect to the meal, enjoying in particular a curious new fruit which they had found. They described it as having ‘…an abrasive, segmented exterior like a pine cone and a firm interior pulp like an apple...’ Luckily they were able to return to their ship before the tribesmen returned.

During his fourth and final voyage to the West Indies in 1502 Columbus made his way down to the Isla de Pinos off of the coat of Honduras. Here that he met, along with his brother Bartolomeo, native traders travelling with a large canoe filled with merchandise.

It was described at the time to be ‘… as long as a galley…’ It’s believed that this was the moment local tribesmen first traded fresh pineapples to Europeans eventually reaching mainland Europe for the first time in November of that year.

The Renaissance Europe to which Columbus returned to was a civilization largely bereft of common sweets. Sugar refined from cane was a rare commodity and at the time had to be imported at great cost from both the Middle East and the Orient. 

Without modern methods of refrigeration or transportation, fresh fruit was also scarce with orchard-grown produce only available in limited numbers during their harvest periods.

Once safely returned to Europe, Columbus’s succulently sweet pineapple became an instant hit. Overnight it had become an item of both celebrity and curiosity for royal gourmets and professional horticulturist alike.

Unfortunately combining its notoriously short shelf life with a 1-2 month sea journey made obtaining the fruit for Europe almost an impossibility.

Its extreme rarity meant that the pineapple quickly became a symbol of wealth and luxury, but despite the best efforts of European gardeners it was nearly two centuries before they were able to mimic the perfect environment in which to grow and then bring to fruition a pineapple plant.

It was during the 1600s, when the pineapple was still regarded as a rare and coveted commodity that King Charles II of England actually commissioned an official portrait by Hendrick Danckurts to immortalize him in an act of royal privilege.

 The theme naturally was to have the King receiving a pineapple as a gift from his head gardener John Rose.

Of course today pineapple growing is big business with over 15 million tons of produce being harvested by 80 countries every year.

Each one sells for less than a couple of pounds, bought by people without a single thought as to the fascinating history of its origins.

And why not, even on his death bed Columbus had no idea as to the value his pineapple brought to the world, but to be fair neither did he know what part of the world he had discovered it from.

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VALENCIA: The Turia River

The old Turia river bed is truly a jewel of Valencia. It runs right through the central axis of the city, making it a 9 km stretch of a green belt surrounded by ancient walls and buildings.  In truth, it is not a masterpiece of landscape design, but it does gives you a sense of the spirit of Valencia.

The city of Valencia grew up on Turia from an early Roman settlement. The river was prone to floods and after a catastrophic flood in 1957 which devastated the city of Valencia, the river was divided in two at the western city limits.

The water was diverted southwards along a new course that skirts the city, before meeting the Mediterranean. 

The old course of the river still continues although dry - through the city centre, almost to the sea.

Today, the old riverbed is now a sunken park and with intermittent gardens that allows cyclists and pedestrians to travel much of the city without the use of roads. In fact, by following the river bed you can find some of Valencia's best museums, gardens and architectural buildings which are on the river banks. 

However, the walk can get a bit boring as the landscaping is sporadic and only on occasion a decent standard. Make a point to avoid walking in the cycle paths and try not to get knocked over by groups of running/shuffling pensioners.

Be aware that if you are using the river to visit these attractions it can be hard work walking in the heat of the day - even more so during the summer. 

Make sure that you are dressed appropriately and take plenty of water with you, because there aren't as many opportunities to buy drinks down in the river bed as you would think.

The park, called the 'Garden of the Turia' boasts numerous ponds, paths, fountains, and landscaped gardens.

You can also find football pitches, cafés, artworks, climbing walls, and an athletics track.

However, the government went further and developed the riverbed into an entire world of leisure and culture. So over time, the riverbed became the area for new cultural projects.

The Palau de la Musica now has its own section of the garden, while the City of Arts and Sciences sits right in the river bed. The space between Bridge de las Flores and the Calatrave (Exposicion) Bridge is often used as a venue for fairs, festivals or circus's.

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PARIS: The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower is one of the most - if not 'the' most iconic symbol in Paris, and probably the whole of France. However, it attracted an enormous amount of criticism when it first broke the skyline in 1889 as part of the Universal Exhibition in Paris, but fortunately its graceful symmetry soon made it a star attraction.

During its construction, the Eiffel Tower surpassed the Washington Monument to assume the title of the tallest man-made structure in the world, a title it held for 41 years, until the Chrysler Building in New York City was built in 1930. Furthermore, it is still the tallest structure in Paris as well as the most-visited paid monument in the world.

Despite its delicate appearance, it weighs 10,100 metric tons and engineer Gustave Eiffel's construction was so sound that the tower never sways more than 3.5 inches in strong winds!

You may be surprised to know that Gustave Eiffel only had a permit for his tower to stand for 20 years. In fact it was going to be dismantled in 1909 when its ownership reverted back to the City of Paris. The City had planned to tear it down because part of the original contest rules for designing a tower was that it could be easily demolished.

Luckily, the tower proved valuable for communication purposes, and so it was allowed to remain after the expiry of the permit. In the opening weeks of the First World War, powerful radio transmitters were fitted to the tower in order to jam German communications. This seriously hindered their advance on Paris, and contributed to the Allied victory at the First Battle of the Marne.

Eiffel Tower facts

1. The puddled iron structure of the Eiffel Tower weighs 7,300 tonnes, while the entire structure, including non-metal components, is approximately 10,000 tonnes.

As a demonstration of the economy of design, if the 7,300 tonnes of the metal structure were melted down it would fill the 125-metre-square base to a depth of only 6 cm, assuming the density of the metal to be 7.8 tonnes per cubic metre.

2. Depending on the ambient temperature, the top of the tower may shift away from the sun by up to 18 cm  because of thermal expansion of the metal on the side facing the sun.

3. At the time the tower was built many people were shocked by its daring shape. Eiffel was criticised for the design and accused of trying to create something artistic, or inartistic according to the viewer, without regard to engineering.  As experienced bridge builders, Eiffel and his engineers understood the importance of wind forces and knew that if they were going to build the tallest structure in the world they had to be certain it would withstand the wind.

Gustave Eiffel
In an interview reported in the newspaper Le Temps, Eiffel said:
"Now to what phenomenon did I give primary concern in designing the Tower? It was wind resistance. Well then! I hold that the curvature of the monument's four outer edges, which is as mathematical calculation dictated it should be […] will give a great impression of strength and beauty, for it will reveal to the eyes of the observer the boldness of the design as a whole."
As a demonstration of the tower's effectiveness in wind resistance, it sways only 6–7 cm (2–3 in) in the wind.

4. When built, the first level contained two restaurants: an "Anglo-American Bar", and a 250 seat theatre. A 2.6 m promenade ran around the outside. On the second level, the French newspaper Le Figaro had an office and a printing press, where a special souvenir edition, Le Figaro de la Tour, was produced. There was also a pâtisserie.

On the third level were laboratories for various experiments and a small apartment reserved for Gustave Eiffel to entertain guests. This is now open to the public, complete with period decorations and lifelike models of Gustave and some guests.

5.  Gustave Eiffel engraved on the tower seventy-two names of French scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in recognition of their contributions. This engraving was painted over at the beginning of the twentieth century but restored in 1986–1987 by the Société Nouvelle d'exploitation de la Tour Eiffel, a company contracted to operate business related to the Tower.

6. Maintenance of the tower includes applying 50 to 60 tonnes of paint every seven years to protect it from rust. The height of the Eiffel Tower varies by 15 cm due to temperature.

7. In order to enhance the impression of height, three separate colours of paint are used on the tower, with the darkest on the bottom and the lightest at the top. On occasion the colour of the paint is changed and the tower is currently painted a shade of bronze. On the first floor there are interactive consoles hosting a poll for the colour to use for a future session of painting.

8. The only non-structural elements in the whole design of the tower are the four decorative grill-work arches, added in Stephen Sauvestre's sketches, which served to reassure visitors that the structure was safe, and to frame views of other nearby architecture.

9. One of the great Hollywood movie clichés is that the view from a Parisian window always includes the tower. In reality, since zoning restrictions limit the height of most buildings in Paris to 7 storeys, only a very few of the taller buildings have a clear view of the tower.

10. Eiffel's drawings were so precise, giving details for more than 18,000 metal parts, that the tower was erected in just a little more than two years. An astounding 2.5 million rivets hold the parts together.

11. The Eiffel Towers has recently been declared the most valuable monument in Europe - worth 435 billion euros (£343 billion) to the French economy. This equates to six times its nearest rival, the Colosseum in Rome, valued at 91 billion euros.

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