East Grinstead, Sussex: East Grinstead Museum

I am, as I so often say, motivated mainly by food, and my visit to the East Grinstead Museum is a perfect example of this. We only stopped off because it was on the way to the Kent and Sussex Apple Juice and Cider Centre, which I need to visit every fall to procure cloudy apple juice in an attempt to satiate my autumnal appetites for American-style apple cider (if you get a good cloudy apple, it kind of fills the void, but is nowhere near as full-bodied and delicious as actual cider. Given the prevalence of hard cider here, I still can’t work out why no one seems to utilise all those apple presses to make the soft stuff, but I digress…). I get the impression that East Grinstead got HLF funding at some point in the relatively recent past to redo their museum, both because I had never noticed it before when searching for stuff to do, so it either didn’t exist or looked so unremarkable that I was disinclined to visit; and because the building itself looked relatively new, as did the displays.

  

East Grinstead is a free museum, and we found a car park that was free on Sundays just around the corner, though it appears that the museum itself has limited parking. The museum is all on one level, but the building clearly has an upstairs level (and was purpose built for the museum), so perhaps they only use it for storage or events. Therefore, the museum isn’t all that big, but it is split into two distinct galleries (three, if you count the small display area for art).

  

East Grinstead is remarkable mainly because of the Guinea Pig Club, which was founded here, at Queen Victoria Hospital. The Guinea Pig Club was described as “the most exclusive Club in the world, but the entrance fee is something most men would not care to pay and the conditions of membership are arduous in the extreme,” by their surgeon Archibald McIndoe. Basically, Queen Victoria Hospital was where airmen with severe burns were sent during WWII, and they were guinea pigs in the sense that they underwent radical and pioneering plastic surgery techniques to rebuild their faces. Despite all the pain and mental anguish that these men went through, they still maintained a sense of humour, and thus formed the Guinea Pig Club, primarily as a drinking club, for the men to socialise and talk about their shared experience.

  

Obviously this is an incredible story, and the museum devotes roughly half its space to telling it, including the experiences of some of the men in the club and the surgeons, nurses, and anaesthetists that treated them; and graphic descriptions (and depictions, in the form of wax figures, much to my delight) of the techniques used by McIndoe, including the rather old-fashioned (perfected by Harold Gillies during the First World War) but effective pedicle (see example above), where a strip of skin was cut loose along the bottom and sides, formed into a tube, and stretched and attached to another part of the body, for example, the nose, where a new blood supply would form. Once the new patch of skin had blood flow, the skin would be severed from the original area and reshaped to rebuild the patient’s facial features. While this worked very well, and helped to avoid infection in a pre-antibiotic age (since the inner layer of skin wasn’t exposed to air), it did mean that the patient would have to walk around with their arm attached to their face for a number of weeks (hopefully it was worth it in the end, but you can see why they needed a drinking club!). The residents of East Grinstead did their part to help these men transition back into society – it was known as “the town that didn’t stare,” because the people who lived here made a point to try and treat these men as normally as possible to help their mental recovery, and many of the men said that it was their acceptance by the people of East Grinstead that gave them the courage to resume normal life when they returned home. This was by far the best and most interesting section of the museum, and I really enjoyed hearing the stories of the men, and of course seeing all the wax figure tableaux.

  

The other main gallery of the museum was devoted to the history of East Grinstead, and this was more typical of every local history museum – some local memorabilia, a handful of prehistoric stuff, and some random ye olde artefacts (sorry if I sound less than enthused, but the museum I work for is very much in this vein, so it’s become hard for me to get excited about seeing much the same thing somewhere else, especially if I’m slightly jealous of their much more modern displays). However, this too appeared to have been relatively recently redone, and I did like some of the slightly more interactive elements, like the children’s table full of board games (including Operation, appropriately enough) and the wall of mystery objects where you had to guess their use and then use a mirror to check your answers. I also liked the little Iguanodon figurine (named Iggy) that they used as a sort of mascot on some of the object labels to tell us various facts about the town, apparently chosen because Iguanodon footprints have been discovered in East Grinstead.

  

There was also a small gallery filled with some artwork, as I mentioned earlier, although it was right next to the toilet, so not the easiest place to look around (it actually looked like there might have been more art in an adjacent room, but when I tried the door, it was locked, so perhaps not). But I have to give them props for having a very clean toilet with cute little rhymes in it encouraging visitors to donate to the museum to keep it running (effective too, as I dropped a couple pounds in the donation box on my way out). I also liked all the Guinea Pig Club themed merchandise in the shop, including t-shirts printed with their adorable logo, and especially the stuffed guinea pigs, though I couldn’t really justify buying one. I loved the story of the Guinea Pig Club – I would say that portion of the collection would be the reason to visit, rather than the local history stuff, unless of course you are a resident of East Grinstead (not to be mean about their local history collections, which are perfectly nice, I just think that if you’ve got a story as unique as the Guinea Pig Club, you might as well flaunt it!). 2.5/5.

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London: “I Object” @ the British Museum

Wow, it’s been a long time (almost three months) since I’ve done a London post, even though I live here. Actually, there really weren’t many exhibitions over the summer (or at least ones I was interested in), so it’s probably a good thing I went to France and America – it gave me something to blog about! But autumn is looking much more promising on the exhibitions front, including this one currently at the British Museum (until 20 January 2019): “I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent.”

  

I do quite like Ian Hislop (I really liked the Wipers Times musical, and I like a bit of HIGNFY as well, though I would not recommend actually going to see it filmed, because you will be there for HOURS with no toilet breaks), so I was eager to see this. Admission is £12, though we were able to get half off with our National Art Passes, and because it is not the British Museum’s main special exhibition, there was no need to pre-book (at least not on the day I visited, though if you do pre-book, be sure to leave time to get through the (newish) security/bag check shed, as there is often a lengthy queue). This isn’t to say that it isn’t still popular – there were definitely more people inside than I find ideal (bearing in mind the number of people I find ideal is zero), which would have been fine in a larger space, but because it was fairly cramped, I did have to contend with annoying people who spent way too long standing right in front of various displays and refusing to move, even when people were obviously queuing behind them.

  

I’d read a few reviews before visiting, which were mainly negative, so my expectations were not terribly high, but I think the exhibition got off to a strong start with Hislop’s five favourite objects, one of which (seen below left) was also my favourite object (so much so that I went home with a print of it, though I really don’t know why I keep buying prints). Unfortunately, it went a bit downhill from there. The whole premise of this exhibition is that Hislop believes history is written by the winners, so he was trying to find subversive objects that challenge the traditional historical narrative. Of course, these objects were taken from the British Museum’s collections, so were thus already part of the narrative in some sense. Ironically, the exhibition itself didn’t have much of a narrative; rather, the commentary was in the form of those little talk bubbles you see above, showing Hislop’s thoughts on each object, combined with a curator-written description of what the object was, but there was nothing particularly tying the objects together, and it skipped from different historical eras the entire time, with no coherent timeline.

  

That said, a lot of the objects on display here were pretty great, so even though I didn’t always understand what was going on with society at the times they were made (I was fine with the British stuff, but a lot of it was Egyptian and Roman, and my knowledge of those periods is pretty damn patchy, so just naming random emperors and assuming the general public would know who they were talking about was a bit presumptuous, even for the British Museum), I could still enjoy looking at them. And who doesn’t love a fart joke? Or a skeleton? (OK, maybe I’m the only one that loves skeletons, but I think a lot of people find fart jokes funny, judging by their prevalence throughout history.)

  

Or a poop joke for that matter, as seen above in the rather mean-spirited take on George III’s madness. Georges III and IV were well represented here (it’s hard to talk about satire without showing Georgian cartoons, because they were so brilliant), as was Louis XVI, though I suppose in that case the satire took a darker edge, given what ended up happening to him. I was intrigued to see that there were some dollars with political messages on them here – money that has been written on is still legal currency in the US, so I spent much of my teenage years scribbling poems and punk slogans on every dollar in my wallet, and I think I would have peed my pants in excitement (to go with the bodily fluids theme) if one of those dollars had someone ended up in here, but alas, these were much more boring than my angsty defacing.

  

I did laugh out loud when I saw the brilliant Louis Philippe pear drawings though (a caricaturist noted his resemblance to a pear, so that was how he was regularly portrayed in French satirical publications). Obviously it’s much easier to see the hilarity in a cartoon than in something like a statue – Hislop told us that the one above left was definitely satirical because of the “deliberately unattractive shape of the body,” (by the standards of that culture) but I just don’t really see it, given that it just looks like a normal fertility figure. I guess maybe if I had more of a background in ancient cultures and their standards of beauty, I could have appreciated the satirical bent of some of the objects more, but frankly I think the reasons given for the inclusion of some of the artefacts were a bit far-fetched, or else merited more explanation so they didn’t seem so far-fetched, because it kind of felt like he had run out of obviously satirical objects and was clutching at straws.

   

The most famous thing here was undoubtedly the copy of the King James Bible where “Thou shalt not commit adultery” was changed to “Thou shalt commit adultery,” which Hislop definitely views as satire because he thinks it seems too perfect to be a genuine typographical error – even if he’s wrong about that, at least it was a cool thing to see. The fake artefact that Banksy put inside the BM back in the early 2000s (it took a few days for anyone working there to notice) was more obviously satirical, and the caption is pretty great.

  

There were a couple minor opportunities for interactivity, such as listening to protest songs on headphones in various places in the exhibition, or drawing a protest badge, which Marcus did to what I think is great effect. Other than that, though, it was a traditional, fairly staid exhibition, so there was certainly nothing subversive about that aspect of it. I think maybe if there had been some opportunities for object handling, or otherwise interacting with the collection, it would have helped carry the theme through a bit better than being confined to looking at things in cases, as you would in the rest of the British Museum.

  

The exhibition was fairly small (only three rooms), so it didn’t take us very long to look around. Worth 6 pounds, but definitely not 12. In the end, it seems that much of satire does just come down to fart jokes, which I certainly don’t have a problem with, but I guess it’s not very highbrow, which may have been why a lot of the reviewers took issue with it. I think it was entertaining enough, but if you’re looking for a lot of analysis, an actual “alternative history” of the world, or just want to expand your knowledge of other cultures and civilisations, this is probably not the exhibition for you, as the commentary was mainly limited to the objects themselves, with no real background or narrative. Still, I liked it a lot better than “Living with Gods,” the last exhibition I paid to see here, and there was some pretty great merchandise in the exhibition shop (in addition to the print, I got a “Truck Fump” badge). 3/5.

  

Cleveland, OH: The USS Cod

Oh god, the USS Cod. Where do I begin?! Actually, if it wasn’t for the strange incident at the end of my visit, I would have rated it quite highly overall, so in all fairness, I should leave the weirdness for the end, and focus on the positive that was the bulk of my experience there (and leave you in a bit of suspense for once), starting with the excellent tagline on their brochure, “In 1944 she terrified the Japanese fleet. Today she will fascinate your family!”

  

The USS Cod is a decommissioned WWII submarine that is docked in Cleveland’s harbour, near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which I have visited exactly once, about fifteen years ago. That place is expensive!). Because there wasn’t anything particularly enticing that I hadn’t already seen at Cleveland’s museums at the time of my visit, I was searching for alternative attractions, and the Cod popped up. It had been dimly on my radar for a while (ha!), but I’ve toured a few ships before, and they usually involve climbing up and down ladders, which I am not keen on (when I worked in a brewery, I had to regularly climb down into the 1000 litre kettle to scrub it out, which remains the most terrifying thing I have done to date). Plus the Cod is only open from May-September, which doesn’t usually coincide with my visits, but as we were there in August, I had no excuse. Because Marcus was interested, I agreed to go, provided we could get pancakes first, and ice cream after, since I am motivated primarily by food. This of course presented no problem for either of us.
  
So we headed downtown, and happily discovered that the Cod had its own free parking lot, so we didn’t even have to pay for expensive downtown parking. Admission to the submarine was $12, which was collected by a cheerful man in the admissions booth who handed us brochures containing a self-guided tour, and told us more about the ship (which unfortunately I wasn’t really paying attention to because they had a sign saying they needed dollar bills, so I was digging through my purse to find four ones to give him so he wouldn’t have to make change).
  
Cod was launched in 1943 – because so much of the US Navy’s fleet was destroyed at Pearl Harbor, there was a real rush to produce a new fleet, including submarines, and Cod was part of that, so it was quite a technologically advanced submarine for the time, though apparently with terrible torpedoes, as they were defective. Cod has a couple of Cleveland connections, the first being that her engines were built here, and the second is that she was towed to Cleveland in 1959 to serve as a naval reserve training vessel. After she was struck off the Navy register in 1971, Clevelanders fought to save her, and in 1976 the Cod was opened to the public as a museum.
  
The Cod is the only decommissioned US submarine on display that has not had doorways cut into her hull for access, which is jolly well for authenticity and all that, but not so great for me with my fear of ladders. You have to actually climb into a narrow hole and launch yourself bravely over the edge onto the ladder (I’m smiling nervously to hide my fear). It wasn’t just any ladder though, as it strangely bent at an angle for the bottom few rungs, which you could not see when you were actually on it, so I had a brief moment of panic where I thought I would have to jump three feet to the floor, but then I felt one of the rungs with my flailing foot, and all was well. I would recommend not taking a bag with you if you go, as it was quite tricky manoeuvring down the ladder with my purse, but I saw some portly older gentlemen and a child come down the same ladder with relatively little difficulty, so maybe it’s fine if you’re not as afraid of ladders as I am. Fortunately, I am not claustrophobic, so once my feet had safely touched down, I was fine (at least until I had to go up again).
  
We had entered via the forward torpedo room, and we were pleased to see that our brochure guides were actually quite comprehensive. In addition, some of the rooms had audio guides in them that were activated at the press of a button, so we were able to learn quite a lot. I find the most interesting thing about submarines to be how so many men lived in such close quarters, so was more interested in the aspects of daily life than in the details of its missions or torpedoes. Therefore, it was neat to learn that the torpedo room was apparently the preferred spot for bunks, because it was the quietest part of the ship (when they weren’t actively launching torpedoes, of course!).
  
The officers’ quarters were directly behind the forward torpedo room, and frankly, I think I would have had to have been captain to have survived aboard this sub, because it was the only way you got a room to yourself (even the officers had to bunk two or three to a room, though at least it was theirs, and they didn’t have to hot bunk like the men). Their dining room had nice plush booths, and actually seemed quite cosy. They got china with adorable little anchors printed on it, and their shower seemed nicer than the one I have at home! (I’d take a pass on the toilet though. There was a long list of instructions on the wall that had to be followed every time you used the damn thing!) I could even deal with the yeoman’s teeny tiny office I think, because at least he got his own space (hell, I’d take that any day over awful open plan! I’m glad I only have to share my office with one person at work, and they’re often not in). One thing I loved about the Cod was that you could touch almost everything, and actually crawl right into some of the bunks, as you can see above!
  
The conning tower/control room area was all lit in red, and had another ladder to climb up to get a view of the conning tower, but I only made it up about halfway before I chickened out and gave up (there was nowhere to put your hands once you got past a certain point, which freaked me out). I was relieved to climb through yet another portal into the crew’s living quarters (the portals/doorways/airlocks (not 100% sure of the correct term) were pretty low – 6’2″ Marcus struggled a lot more than I did!), which had my favourite part of the audio guide, done by the submarine’s cook (or someone pretending to be the cook), who was of Italian ancestry.
  
Men on submarines had a reputation for being much better fed than the rest of the military (everyone who served on a submarine volunteered for it – as in, they were part of the Navy, and were still paid by the Navy, but they volunteered to be put on a submarine rather than a ship), because it was such dangerous and mentally draining work that they wanted to keep morale up somehow, and that was with food! The sub had giant cans of food stacked in every available space, which was apparently historically accurate. In addition to three very hearty meals a day, they also had access to unlimited snacks, and the Italian-American cook introduced many of the men to pizza for the first time (although he mentioned having to improvise based on what supplies they had on board, so I’m picturing ketchup instead of sauce, and horrible government issue cheese instead of mozzarella). They even had an ice cream machine, and with space at a premium, ice cream must have been REALLY important! The men also used the small mess hall (there were only 24 seats, and usually 72 men on board, so they had to eat in shifts) for movie nights, listening to records, etc.
  
After that, we made our way through several more engine and manoeuvring rooms before emerging into the aft torpedo room, where we were greeted by another very friendly gentleman who was telling a story about Andrew G. Johnson, the Cod‘s only wartime casualty, who was swept away and drowned whilst trying to fight a fire in one of the torpedo rooms. On a happier note, he also told us about how the Cod saved a Dutch submarine stuck off the coast of Japan in August 1945. They tried to pull the sub free, but it wouldn’t move, so the decision was made to take all the Dutch crew on board and blow up the Dutch submarine, so it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. This meant that for the two and a half days until they reached Australia, there were over 150 men on board. This also coincided with news of the Japanese surrender, so the entire ship was basically a massive, crowded party for the whole of that trip. Obviously, the Dutch were very grateful, and they still send dignitaries over every year to re-enact the saving of the crew of the O-19, which I think is pretty cool.
  
There was some memorabilia in this torpedo room relating to the O-19, as well as flags and things to show how many Japanese ships the Cod had sunk. The volunteer offered to take us back through the sub and point out things we might have missed, but neither one of us relished climbing back through all the portals, so we politely declined and instead headed up another scary ladder into the extreme heat outside (it was such a hot day that I was initially a little worried about visiting the submarine, since I imagined something with metal sides and no air conditioning would get pretty steamy, but they had fans on throughout and it was actually quite pleasant).
  
This is where things got weird. There is lots of fun stuff to take pictures with on the deck of the sub, including a big wet gun with seats, so we were walking around doing that when a female volunteer approached us and offered to take our picture together in front of the submarine, which was very nice of her. This would have been all well and good had she not started talking to us. I could tell when she started going on about how she thought Princess Diana’s death was a conspiracy that it would be better to get away sooner rather than later, and started inching my way towards the exit, but she followed us and just kept on talking. She went on to say that she wanted to visit Ukraine, but was waiting until Trump “sorted things out.” By this time, I was desperate to get away, but as we were about to make a run for it, she came out with, “I don’t know what your politics are, but I just want you to know that Donald Trump is a great president. Anything is better than the last one,” and carried on for some time about her love for Trump while we politely smiled and nodded and frantically eyed the exit. We were finally able to break away and get in the car, but wow, what an odd experience! I understand that a site like this is likely to be pro-military, and that’s completely fine – if she had wanted to talk about how great the US military is, that’s a different thing entirely and I’m certainly not going to argue with a submarine museum staffed by veterans – but it was not really a comfortable experience for politics to be brought into it, especially since we hadn’t mentioned it at all; to the contrary, I was trying to steer her away from the subject! I didn’t say anything, because it wasn’t really the time or place to do it, and of course she is entitled to her opinion, but I don’t really think it’s appropriate to bring up such a controversial subject to visitors who hadn’t mentioned anything even vaguely related, especially when said visitors were trying to look at the Cod merchandise for sale, because I probably would have bought something if I hadn’t been so keen to end the conversation.
  
If it wasn’t for that volunteer, I would wholeheartedly recommend visiting the Cod, as it is a very interesting experience, and I guess even with the incident at the end, it was still certainly an interesting experience, though not in the way I would have hoped. I’m pretty sure proceeds from your admission fee only go towards preserving the submarine, and not to any political causes, so I certainly wouldn’t tell people not to visit on the basis of one volunteer (and coincidentally, I happened to read an article in Cleveland Magazine a couple days later about a different volunteer on the Cod who sends letters every day to Trump about all the people that already make America great (implying that he doesn’t need to “Make America Great Again” because it already is great) The woman in the article was actually a Republican, she just didn’t support Trump, and after reading that, I’m thinking maybe she was also there that day and had said something to get our volunteer riled up, which was why she was otherwise inexplicably on the subject of politics) – but maybe once you’ve seen the sub, best to just hightail it out of there before you get drawn into anything (and I’m not just saying this because I don’t support Trump – if she had started going on about how much she loved Bernie Sanders or someone, with nothing else political in the conversation preceding it, I would have found it odd. Maybe not as awkward, but odd nonetheless)! If I ignore the end of our visit, 3.5/5.

Butler County, OH: The Donut Trail

This is a bit of a departure from my normal posts, but I’ve kept mentioning the Donut Trail, and I realise some of you are probably curious about it, so here we are. There is clearly some kind of PR genius working at the Butler County Visitors Bureau, because the Donut Trail is a brilliant way of attracting tourism to an otherwise unremarkable part of Ohio. I had never even heard of Butler County before the advent of the Donut Trail, and I certainly wouldn’t have thought of planning a trip to Southern Ohio before it – I took a trip to Wapakoneta as a teenager, which I suppose is actually central Ohio (I tend to think of everything south of Akron as “Southern Ohio,” at least culturally), but nonetheless, that experience was enough of a taster for me (this will make me sound like a snob, but I had driven down there with my jerk ex-boyfriend to see his friend’s punk band play a show, which turned out to be at a 4H Club. We accidentally went to the wrong place when we first got there, and walked into a room full of hunters gutting a deer, who didn’t take particularly kindly to two weird looking kids. Even after we hightailed it out of there and made it to the correct 4H Club, it was…interesting. I’m sure those kids were perfectly nice, but man, were they ever hicks). But once I heard about the Donut Trail, I was willing to brave just about anything to get my hands on all those doughnuts, not to mention the t-shirt.

   

Basically, someone noticed that there was an unusually high concentration of independent doughnut shops in Butler County, Ohio, which is just north of Cincinnati. Therefore, they had the clever idea to devise a trail incorporating 12 of them, with an accompanying passport. Visit all the shops, get your passport stamped at each one, and you get a free t-shirt, which you have to go to the Visitors Bureau to collect. As I’ve said, this is brilliant, because it not only attracts tourists, but it gets them to spend money at local businesses, all for the price of a t-shirt, which I’m sure they get cheaply printed in bulk.

  

Now, I love doughnuts, but I am a realist, and I know there was no way in hell I could eat a dozen doughnuts in a day and remain in any kind of functional state. Therefore, we decided to spread the trail over 3 days. This was also useful because a lot of these establishments open at 4 in the morning, and are closed by noon, if not sooner, so unless you want a much earlier start than I find acceptable, there is no easy way to hit them all in a day, given that the trail is about 80 miles long. We also had to first drive the four hours to Butler County from Northeast Ohio (where my parents live) before we could begin, so unless we left around midnight, we couldn’t have made it there early enough anyway. One of the doughnut shops is optional because it is much farther away than the others, so we decided early on that we were going to have to skip it to make the trail work, which I guess is not ideal, but it was a fully sanctioned cheat, so we took it.

   

Our first stop was the Central Pastry Shop in Middletown, and I started in the stupidest possible way – by ordering a giant cake doughnut. I love cake doughnuts the most, and this one came highly recommended by the woman working there (almost everyone we encountered on this trail was super friendly, and once they saw we were doing the trail, were very keen to point out all their specialties), but as I learned (actually, this was something I already knew going in, I just chose to ignore it at first), if you’re eating doughnuts in bulk, raised doughnuts are the way to go. The doughnut I chose was called an ugly, because of its crusty, irregular surface, and though it was delicious, it was very very fried.

   

By the time I’d eaten it, I kind of never wanted a doughnut again, which was unfortunate because we’d arrived at stop number 2: Milton’s Donuts. Here I just opted for a simple glazed (to the disappointment of the man working there, who really wanted us to get some kind of cream cheese concoction. I didn’t mention that I hate cream cheese with a passion, even if I had been in the mood for something rich, which I definitely wasn’t), and even though Holtman’s, our next stop, had an impressive variety (shown at start of post), I just went for a basic chocolate iced, along with an orange juice in an attempt to cut the grease. We tried to visit Stan the Donut Man on the way, which was already shut despite it supposedly being open until 5, and though I didn’t think much of it at the time, this would prove a bad omen.

   

Having already eaten two more doughnuts than I wanted to, we called it quits for the day, and headed into Cincinnati for Taft’s House, then checked into our hotel, and paid a visit to the excellent Rhinegeist Brewery (we specifically stayed downtown so we could walk there and both drink some beers for once. One of the annoying things about America is that they have like a million breweries, but no public transport outside major cities, which normally means that because I can’t drive, Marcus doesn’t get to drink, unless we go somewhere with my parents and they drive. And I don’t even like drinking very much, but I feel obligated to do it to at least justify not driving). The next morning, we got up bright and early and headed straight back to Butler County to Ross Bakery, which had a really nice man working there who was keen to hear all about London. I got off to a much smarter start by ordering a glazed twist, though I think the doughnuts might have still been with me from the day before, because I almost immediately started to get a stomachache. Things started to blur together at this point, but I know we visited Mimi’s, because I told myself I was only going to have a bite of their sprinkle doughnut and save the rest for later, but it was so damn delicious I ate the whole thing. We also went to Martin’s and the Donut Spot, and I was spending the time in between doughnuts slumped over in the car seat, clutching my gut with one of the worst stomachaches I’ve ever had. This was not a particularly fun day (you can actually see how much my enthusiasm plummeted between Ross Bakery and the Donut Spot).

   .

Fortunately, things eventually settled enough that I was able to grab a picture with the Alexander Hamilton statue in Hamilton, visit the Harrison Memorial outside Cincinnati, venture into Kentucky so Marcus could take a picture in front of the awful Creation Museum (we definitely did not go in, and it was kind of creepy even being near it), and even eat one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had from Taft’s Brewporium, which also has an excellent logo, based on the story of Taft and the bathtub (shame their beer was just OK, but I would go back for the pizza in a heartbeat), followed by soft serve from Putz’s Creamy Whip. We even made it to Jungle Jim’s later that night (the largest grocery store in the world, which I have wanted to visit for years, though sadly it was disappointing. It was big, it was just not as nice as I’d been led to believe, feeling more like a bargain store than anything), where we developed a problem with the brakes in our car (borrowed from my parents).

   

Because of this, Marcus was understandably a bit anxious about driving it the next day (I should point out the brakes still worked, they just made a terrible grinding noise every time we stopped suddenly. I can be a bit reckless, but I’m not suicidal), but we’d come so far that I wasn’t ready to give up on the Donut Trail. So we successfully visited Jupiter Donuts, Kelly’s Bakery, and the Donut House, just leaving old Stan the Donut Man. As it was only 9 in the morning, we weren’t really worried about them being closed, because who closes at 9, when you’re supposed to be open until 5?! Stan’s, that’s who. By the time we got there, there was a sign on the door reading, “Sorry, Out of Doughnuts!” At 9 in the morning. On a weekday. I mean, that’s a hell of a business model – making only enough doughnuts so you sell out eight hours before you’re supposed to (we were aware that a lot of these places closed as soon as they sold out, we just didn’t think anyone could possibly sell out that early). Needless to say, I was pretty damn pissed off, and spent a fair amount of time in the parking lot bemoaning my fate, and life in general, when I noticed a man going into Stan’s. Curious, I followed suit, and though they were indeed out of doughnuts, there was a woman working there who was more than happy to stamp our passports, so I could claim my damn free t-shirt. So while we did technically complete the Donut Trail, I felt a bit unfulfilled, having not actually eaten the final doughnut. Still claimed the hell out of my t-shirt though (there are more doughnuts printed on the back).

   

We had wanted to spend the rest of the day in Columbus, but because of the car issues, we paid a quick stop to Brewdog in Canal Winchester (since it was on the way anyway and we needed to stretch our legs), which now has a beer museum (which was OK, not really worth blogging about though) and headed straight back to my parents’ house. Although the Donut Trail didn’t turn out quite as I was hoping, I am still glad we did it (and honestly, I would probably do it again if I could space it out more. Writing this post has really made me want a doughnut!). All of the doughnuts we tried were good, and some were exceptional, though I would have loved to be able to complete it in a more leisurely way so I could have tried more of their specialties rather than limiting myself mainly to plain glazed so my stomach didn’t explode (I did allow myself one cake doughnut a day, so there was some variety, just not as much as I would have normally gone for). If you live in Ohio, I’d recommend doing it in a series of smaller trips rather than all at once. From talking to the people at the doughnut shops though, we certainly weren’t the only people who had travelled to do it (they mentioned people from all over the US, and a few other Europeans), and some people actually did complete it in a day, so I guess it is doable, though probably not particularly enjoyable. Now someone needs to come up with an ice cream or pizza trail, so I have something to do on my next trip to the States! And I think someone at the Butler County Visitors Bureau definitely deserves a raise!

Bonus incredibly unflattering action shot of me eating a doughnut.

Cincinnati, OH: The American Sign Museum

Doing the Donut Trail ate up a fair chunk of our morning the day after visiting Taft’s House, but we still had time in the afternoon to visit a museum, and though I suppose I should have done something more worthy and intellectual like the Underground Railroad Museum, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s House, or the Taft Museum of Art (founded by President Taft’s wealthier half-brother (he married money)), really I just wanted to see the American Sign Museum, so that’s where we headed.

  

The American Sign Museum is, appropriately enough, housed next to an old neon sign manufacturer, in a somewhat industrial looking part of town. It is apparently the “largest public museum dedicated to signs in the United States!” (exclamation point theirs). It is also probably the most expensive, with admission clocking in at a whopping $15, but honestly, from the moment I stepped foot in the parking lot and was greeted by a pig, a genie, an oversized bowling pin with a face, and many other giant vintage signs, I was ready to pay pretty much whatever they asked. (It was actually reminiscent of “Attack of the 50 Foot Eyesores” from The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror VI (one of my favourites, next to the “Shinning” one, and the one where Homer sells his soul for a doughnut. Actually every one of the first eight Treehouses of Horror is pure gold, and I’m glad it’s nearly the time of year for me to re-watch them all again!) which was both delightful, and somewhat concerning (though there was fortunately no lightning storm when we visited).)
  
Anyway, we parted with our $15 (each) and in turn received a souvenir button reading I ❤ Old Signs, as well as admission to the museum, of course. Walking into the museum was kind of like walking into a massive kaleidoscope, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend visiting if you’re susceptible to seizures. I loved it though, and had even worn my kitschiest 50’s style “atomic cocktail” print dress so I would fit right in (it makes me happy to theme my outfit with whatever I’m doing, if possible).
  
The museum was divided up into three main areas, plus a workshop where they restore the signs (you could go into the workshop, though no one was actually in the act of restoring whilst we were there). The first area made some effort to trace the history of signs, the second was a vaguely chronological progression of neon signs until the mid-20th century, and the third was kind of just a free-for-all of giant signs lining a street of yesteryear, including ones for McDonald’s (gross, but the sign was cool) and Howard Johnson’s (which I have never had in my life, though I think there are still some around, or at least there were when I was a kid. I feel like it’s more of an East Coast thing).
  
Many of the signs had their own signs (as in object labels) telling you more about them, but it was hard to focus on reading them with all that neon staring you in the face, so I think the best thing to do may just be to stand and soak it all in. This is a popular wedding venue, and I can certainly see why, though I suspect the background of the photographs might detract from the actual couple a little (not gonna lie, I would still totally get married there).
  
One of my particular favourites was the giant rotating Sputnik inspired sign shown above, which reminded me of a retro Christmas tree decoration (hell, I would just have that thing in lieu of a Christmas tree, and stick ornaments on its points), though I also loved all the ice cream and dairy signs, especially this one with a moving cow (and I want a chocolate malted right now, but Britain does not excel in the making of milkshakes (here’s a tip: a milkshake should contain ice cream, and not just be literal shaken milk) so I would just have to make it myself, which isn’t the best idea with shakes, because then you see how much ice cream goes in (a hell of a lot, if you like your shakes as thick as I do)). And the big Popsicle wall ad brought back memories of childhood, even though cherry is obviously the best flavour of twin pop, not orange. (It seriously must be at least twenty years since I’ve had a twin pop, and I don’t really know why, since I love them. Oh wait, maybe it’s because they’re impossible to snap in half cleanly, so more often than not, the whole damn thing ends up falling on the ground.) This definitely seems to be the kind of place where people go to reminisce, and you’d probably get even more out of it if you actually grew up in the ’40s, ’50s, or ’60s.
  

The theme was even carried through to the bathrooms, which of course had neon signs pointing to them, and the shop had quite a few reproduction signs and American Sign Museum t-shirts (with a retro-look logo) available for purchase, but I just went for one of the glow in the dark enamel pins of an ice cream cone (I have about a million enamel pins, but I keep buying more of the damn things. I also keep buying jackets, so I guess it all balances out). So, was this worth $15? No, absolutely not, but I had a fabulous time in the kitschiest (I know I keep using that word, but it fits better than anything else), most neon environment imaginable, and I am so glad I went. 3.5/5 based sheerly on the amount of joy this museum brought me.

  

Cincinnati, OH: William Howard Taft National Historic Site

Remember how I said on my post on Rutherford B. Hayes’s house that if I could drive, I would hightail it down to Cincinnati to see Taft’s house? Well, I didn’t suddenly learn to drive or anything, but I was accompanied on this trip home by Marcus, who can drive, so although I didn’t head directly there, I did manage to finally squeeze in a trip to Cincinnati. I was visiting the US over my birthday, which I used as the perfect excuse to do something I’d been dying to do since I read about it, which was to travel to Southern Ohio and complete the Donut Trail (of which more in a later post), and while we were down there, spend some time in Cincinnati, which despite growing up in Ohio, I had never visited.

  

We went to Taft’s house (or the William Howard Taft National Historic Site Ohio as it is more properly known) first thing after arriving in Cincinnati, because it was about a four hour drive down, not counting our stops for doughnuts and Grandpa’s Cheese Barn, and they shut at 4:45, with the last guided tour at 4. The site is run by NPS, and is free to visit. They only give tours every half an hour, and we had just missed one (honestly, I was hoping to miss it because I really had to pee and wouldn’t have been able to cope if I’d had to walk around a house first), so after a quick toilet break on my part, we were shown a short video about Taft’s life, and spent some time looking around the displays in the education centre opposite the house, which were mainly about Taft’s “goodwill tour” to Japan, the Philippines, and China, undertaken when he was Secretary of War under Teddy Roosevelt, which meant he was accompanied by the irritating sounding Alice Roosevelt (I have to admit that I might have liked Alice better for her rebelliousness if she hadn’t been such a bitch to poor Eleanor, but in various anecdotes she does just come across as a massively unpleasant person. Not that I’m really one to talk). This trip was undertaken to make new trade agreements and help end the Russo-Japanese War, and also helped usher in the age of American empire. Other than the exhibition, the most memorable thing in here was undoubtedly the animatronic version of Taft’s son Charlie who told various stories about his father when you pressed a button. I would have preferred an animatronic Taft himself, but I’m not going to turn my nose up at any kind of animatronic.

  

When it was time to tour the house, we headed over with the volunteer who had put on the video for us. As is not uncommon at NPS sites, we were the only people on the tour (to be fair, it was the middle of a weekday, and I don’t think Taft’s house is one of their more popular attractions), which I didn’t mind because at least we didn’t have to listen to a load of questions from fellow visitors. Although I keep calling it “Taft’s house”, it was really just his boyhood home, so “the Tafts’ house” would probably be more accurate. Taft’s father, Alphonso, was a judge and politician (he also helped create the Skull and Bones Society at Yale, which has notoriously produced a number of presidents since its foundation), and William very much followed in his footsteps. William was the product of Alphonso’s second marriage – he married Louise Torrey of Boston after his first wife died, and brought her back to Cincinnati with him. Apparently the Tafts, while certainly comfortable, were not particularly wealthy, and the house, while good sized, wasn’t really all that large for eight people, plus a few servants (Alphonso had two surviving children from his first marriage, and he and Louise had four children who survived infancy). The volunteer told us that they had a constantly rotating nursery, as the oldest child would move out from the nursery when the youngest was born, and move upstairs to the room of his older sibling, who would have departed for university by then (this worked pretty well due to the age gaps between the first and second sets of children). Mount Auburn, the area where the house is located, is evidently nowadays a fairly poor neighbourhood, but it was solidly middle class whilst the Tafts were living here, though there was apparently a divide between Irish and German immigrants, so typically homes would have either all Irish or all German servants, to discourage fighting. The Tafts bucked this trend, and had a mix of both (they especially wanted a German nanny, since they thought she would be stricter than her Irish equivalent).

  

There were only about four or five rooms downstairs, of which the parlour was the most noteworthy, as even though it wasn’t terribly big, it used to be even smaller, being divided into a men’s and women’s parlour. However, all that Louise Taft wanted for a wedding gift was a piano, and after it was purchased, they realised that neither of the parlours were large enough for it, so they knocked out the wall and the two rooms became one (and now I’ll have the damn Spice Girls stuck in my head for the rest of the day). There were some crazy long drapes in here, which was evidently the style at the time (though rather ugly), and the wallpaper and upholstery matched the drapes.  I also liked the children’s fireplace, decorated with storybook tiles (shown above), which was installed tile by tile by the children’s grandfather to commemorate every time he and the children finished the story that goes with each tile (there were a lot of storybook tiles being produced in England at that time), which I thought was rather sweet.

  

One of the downstairs rooms has been converted into a museum, as have all the upstairs rooms, which we were free to wander at our leisure, so the tour portion of the house didn’t actually take very long. The museum rooms were actually my favourite part, and they contained a few great artefacts, including an amazing (and amazingly expensive) law desk used by Alphonso, a lot of excellent Taft cartoons (mostly spurred on by the conflict between Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, after Taft refused to become Roosevelt’s flunky once in office), and a massive chair belonging to Taft. I have to admit that one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by Taft is because he was America’s fattest president (one of these years, I do want to host a completely tasteless “Girth of a Nation” President’s Day party celebrating all of America’s largest presidents (except Trump, even though I’m quite sure he’s not far off from Taft weight-wise)), although the story about him getting stuck in the White House bathtub is apocryphal – a new bathtub was installed during Taft’s presidency (as can be seen near the end of the post), but it wasn’t because he got stuck in the other one.

  

Although Taft was an unremarkable president (which angered Theodore Roosevelt so much that he formed the Bull Moose Party just to run against his one-time protege), he seems to have been a reasonably pleasant person, and by all accounts, a surprisingly elegant dancer. He had a fairly interesting life as well, serving as a governor of the Philippines before becoming president, where he (at least according to the museum) did his best to fight against the prevailing racism towards the Filipino people at the time. Most notably, Taft got to live out his lifelong dream of becoming a Justice on the Supreme Court when he was made Chief Justice by fellow Ohio president Warren G. Harding in 1921 (never mind the slightly corrupt bargaining that got him there). I definitely can’t say I agreed with most of Taft’s decisions, but for better or worse, he was instrumental in shaping the Supreme Court into what it has now become (at the time he started, they didn’t even have their own building. This may have been good for Taft, as he managed to slim down quite a bit simply by walking to and from work every day, a distance of 3 miles each way).

  

Although there wasn’t a tonne of information in here about Helen “Nellie” Herron Taft, his wife, she seemed to have been an interesting person, as First Ladies tend to be. She traveled with him and their three children to the Philippines, and did her best to respect the local culture by learning Tagalog and inviting locals to events. She was responsible for many firsts, including being the first First Lady to ride in the inauguration parade, the first to fight for better standards in the workplace, the first to own and drive a car, and the first to publicly support women’s suffrage (and the first to smoke cigarettes, but that’s not really a good thing); but she is probably best remembered as being responsible for planting Japanese cherry trees around the Capitol (they were a gift from Japan, and she and the wife of the Japanese ambassador personally planted the first two saplings, though I’m quite sure gardeners did the rest!).

  

Though Taft’s house wasn’t anything like the extensive home/museum complex that was Rutherford B. Hayes’s site, which was what I was hoping for (nor was Taft smoking hot like Rud, but I already knew that), it was still an enjoyable enough experience, and I’m glad I finally got to see the childhood home of one of our truly “larger than life” presidents at last (poor Taft. I’m really trying not to fat shame, but it’s difficult when that was basically his defining characteristic, even during his presidency. When I did a unit about him in AP US History in high school (we focused on a different president every week, which is one of the reasons I’m into presidential history today), our teacher told us to remember him by saying his name backwards, which is T-fat, so that’s how I refer to him more often than not). I picked up a pin from the shop, and they had some nice general presidential merchandise as well. As always at NPS sites, everyone working here was very welcoming and friendly, and I do hope they get more visitors than were there on the day we visited (I think they do get frequent visits from local schools, though those are probably in the morning) so they can stay open, since they’re the only Taft site I know about! (I don’t know exactly what happened to the house he lived in as an adult, but I assume it’s no longer standing.) 3/5.

  

Marseille to Lyon: Et Tout le Reste

Are here on Gilligan’s Isle! (I know I’ve made that joke before, but I couldn’t resist doing it again. Damn catchy theme songs.)  As you might have guessed, this post is not about Gilligan’s Island (though it could be, since I have a soft spot for ’50s and ’60s sitcoms. I’ve actually been on a real I Dream of Jeannie kick lately, which is pretty good if you ignore all the glaring misogyny), but is the usual sort of mop-up post I do at the end of a trip if I have enough places to write about that didn’t really fit in with my other posts.

   

The first of these is Chauvet Cave, or more accurately, the exact replica of the cave they’ve created 20 km away, called Caverne du Pont D’Arc. You can’t visit the actual cave due to its fragility, unless you’re a researcher, but the original is home to some of the earliest known cave drawings, which are around 30,000-32,000 years old but were only re-discovered in 1994, as a rock slide had sealed the cave off around 21,000 years ago. The replica would normally merit a post of its own, but for the fact that you can’t take photos in the cave (even though it’s a replica), so I don’t have much to show you. As soon as we worked out when we were going to be in the area, I booked tickets online, because they only do a handful of English language tours a day, and they often sell out in advance. These were €15 each. We ended up getting there about an hour before our tour, so we went to look around their museum first, mainly because I wanted to see derpy cave lion, who is featured prominently on their website. He was every bit as derpy as I was hoping, and there were some other derpy prehistoric animals as well, in addition to a short video presentation about the paleolithic people who did the drawings, and some basic information about the caves.
  
We finished with the museum in only about twenty minutes, so we just walked down to the cave to wait for our tour to start, along with loads of other Anglophone people. A French lady (who spoke English, obviously) gave the tour, and we were each given a pair of headphones so we could hear what she was saying, which was smart because a new group entered the cave every five minutes (there are tours in French pretty much every five minutes, but the English ones only appear to be once every two hours, which is why you should pre-book), so we would have been standing close enough to the other groups to make it difficult to hear our guide without them. Some guy tried to take a picture early on, despite everyone being told multiple times that it wasn’t allowed, and our guide politely but firmly shut him down, which I loved (and I was glad the darkness hid my smirk). The caves are pretty amazing, even in replica form (actually, especially in replica form, because I think it’s awesome that they were able to re-create the exact feel of a cave, right down to the much-appreciated cool temperature), and though the horse panel is the most famous, my favourite was actually the cave lion panel, because derpy cave lions! There are also a number of hand print drawings, some drawings of cave rhinos, cave bears, and deer; and a lot of cave bear skulls and bones (you can view photos of all the panels here). I’ve never been much for prehistory, but even I have to admit that cave drawings this old are really interesting and well worth checking out, though I was disappointed that the only thing in the shop featuring the cave lion was a notebook.
  
Later that day, en route to Lyon, we decided to make a pit stop at the Arnaud Soubeyran Nougat Shop and Museum, because why would I not want to chance to sample some nougat? There actually weren’t any free samples left when we arrived, but that didn’t stop me from buying quite a lot there, even at a steep €4 per hundred grams. We popped in to the small museum , which was free, and even though it was all in French, I thought it was adorable, especially the replica beehives with very characterful bees. I especially appreciated the free impeccably clean toilet (with a seat!). The nougat noir, which was really more of a brittle, was one of the most delicious candies I have ever eaten, and I highly recommend it (and I think you do get what you pay for, because their nougat was pretty much solid almonds, and when we looked at cheaper brands, you were lucky to get like ten almonds in the whole bar). We also stopped at Valrhona’s City of Chocolate, and though we didn’t visit the expensive museum of chocolate, we did stop in the shop, which had a ridiculous amount of free samples. I ate myself sick in about five minutes of arriving.
  
Since it seems to be the thing to do in France, we also visited some churches, including the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere, which was on a massive hill in Lyon that we had to take a funicular to access. Here’s a tip: there is a huge queue for the basilica funicular, but none at all for the amphitheatre one. If you take the amphitheatre one, you can easily walk to the basilica from there if you don’t mind walking up about fifty steps (I did mind, because it was a million degrees, but it was still better than queuing for like an hour). The amphitheatre was extremely meh, especially because parts of it were covered in scaffolding in preparation for a music festival that takes place there (and the museum was closed), but the church was fine, if you like that sort of thing. It had some impressive lions out front, and the walk down took us near the Musees Gadagne, so it wasn’t much of a detour from our day or anything.
  
On a more serious note, we also visited somewhere that was quite meaningful to me – not on account of being a church, but because my grandpa was there. As you might know, if you’ve read my other blog (which I was no longer actively posting on, but I will try to update it soon because on my recent trip home, I discovered a bunch of photos I’d never seen before (including some amazing photos of my grandma when she was a young adult) and a journal giving a day-by-day breakdown of where my grandpa was during the war. You know, the kind of stuff that would have been immensely useful when I was initially doing that blog), my grandpa served in WWII, and was stationed in Europe from late 1944-46. In addition to the letters he wrote to my grandma, I also have some of the pictures he sent her, and one of them was taken in Marseille, which I only knew because my grandpa wrote it on the back. Unfortunately, he didn’t write exactly where he was, so it took a bit of sleuthing based on the stuff in the background, but I eventually determined he was in front of the funicular at Notre Dame de la Garde, which overlooks the city. Ever since I found this photo a few years after my grandpa died, I’ve wanted to try to re-create it if I ever went to Marseille, and this was finally my chance (I have since found multiple photos of him in other locations in Marseille, but of course I only found them about a month after visiting Marseille).
  
The basilica has been here since the 1870s in its current form (though a church has been on this spot since the 13th century), and was actually bombed in 1944 during the battle to liberate Marseille (you can still view the scarred wall), though survived largely intact. This would have happened before my grandpa’s visit anyway, as he must have been either in late 1945 or early 1946, well after liberation. Sadly, the funicular (which looked amazing) was torn down in the 1960s (you can now either walk up (seriously a gajillion steps), take the cute little motorised “train” that rides up here, or just drive up and park at the top, which is lazily what we did), and all the walls looked different than the one my grandpa was sitting on, so it was really really hard to find the spot where he was, not to mention that the background looked completely different, because there was no funicular, and there was the addition of a lot of really tall trees that don’t seem to have been here in the 1940s. So I just had to try to take a photo in lots of different spots and hope one of them would match up. Eventually we found an information desk staffed by a nun, and though she didn’t speak much English, I showed her the original photo, and she was able to direct me to a spot near the large cross in one of the lower levels of steps near the church. I think the exact spot is now a car park, but I got as close as I could! It was just nice to be somewhere my grandpa had been when he was around my age (I kind of wish I’d brought his army jacket and put it on for the pictures, but that seemed a bit militaristic), and of course I went in the church and lit candles for him and my grandma (I’m not at all religious, but they were, and I reckon it can’t hurt!).
  
Finally, I feel I should talk about the elusive chichis fregis, or “fried willies.” Obviously, with a name like that, I had to try them, but as I mentioned in the Van Gogh post, there’s one particular village called L’Estaque about 10 km out of Marseille that specialises in them, with three stands opposite a little shopping street, and when we passed through, all of them were closed. Not to be deterred, I decided we needed to swing by on our way back to Marseille (we flew in and out of Marseille, so had to return anyway), and fortunately, this time they were open, though after a day of eating pastries, and knowing I had a flight ahead of me, I wasn’t inclined to eat as much as I would have done the first time we drove through. This was a shame, because the chichis fregis, though very greasy, were delicious, and the panisses were even better. The chichis fregis are like doughnuts flavoured with orange blossom water and coated in sugar, but with a very custardy interior and crisp exterior, and the panisses are made of chickpea flour, which is cooked with water to a polenta-like consistency, left to cool, and then cut into shapes and fried, which makes them more like savoury little fritters. Very good, and worth the trip, but I wish they had opening hours listed somewhere – at least on the actual stalls – so we could have avoided the disappointment the first time around! I also find it weird I didn’t at least find panisse somewhere else, since I thought it was a general south of France thing, but nope, I only spotted it in this village. Maybe I just didn’t go to the right places.
  
After this trip, France is still not on my list of favourite countries (I know this is probably not a common sentiment, but I much prefer Belgium to the bits of France I’ve seen. Admittedly, there’s still a lot of France I haven’t been to, and maybe those parts are better), but it’s warmed my opinion enough that I don’t think I’ll avoid it for eleven years again (I’m probably gonna need more panisses and chichis fregis at some point). I think I just need to time any future visits better so they’re not over a Sunday or in the height of summer!

Hauterives, France: Le Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval

I love a folly, and Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval (Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace) is more special than the usual folly because it was the result of an artistic vision and pure determination, rather than excessive wealth.  It was built between 1879 and 1912, by, as you might have guessed, a postman named Ferdinand Cheval. As the story goes, he was out on his mail route one day when he saw a stone that was so interesting it inspired him to build this entire palace (damn, it must have been some stone!). Cheval had rather a difficult life, struggling with poverty and the deaths of his first wife, first born son, and his daughter, so the attention the palace generated was probably a rather welcome respite from his daily life, but this palace was definitely primarily a labour of love. Even after stopping construction on the palace (which Cheval worked on well into his 70s), he went on to spend eight years building a family tomb in the nearest graveyard after being told by the local authorities that he couldn’t interred in his palace (he died in 1924, aged 88).

  

I’m not quite sure what the commune of Hauterives was like back in Cheval’s day (it is just described as being a “rural village” in the 19th century) but nowadays it is quite a thriving tourist village, thanks entirely to the palais (people have been visiting the palace since around 1905, so it’s been a tourist attraction for a while). There is a large parking lot in the centre of Hauterives (which sure came in handy) and the village itself seems to consist mainly of cafes and tourist shops selling Palais Ideal tat. Despite the palace being THE attraction here, we somehow managed to miss the (small) sign pointing to it, and wandered around aimlessly for a bit until we found the way (it’s really not that hard though, we were probably just being dumb).
 
Admission to the palace is €7.50, which I thought was a bit on the expensive side for an attraction of this size, but it’s not as though we’re likely to be in the area again any time soon, and after all, it’s not every day you get to see a palace built by a postman (actually, it’s a little weird to me that they emphasise the postman angle so much. Is a mailman not supposed to be capable of being creative? Or is it just that they’re meant to be so hard at work they shouldn’t have time to build a palace?).  We were given a brochure in English that had some information about the palace, and there was more in the small museum in the form of laminated fact sheets that translated the French captions (they had fact sheets in a variety of other languages as well) which was much appreciated. The only things we couldn’t read were Cheval’s little poems, quotes, and sayings, which were hidden in and around the palace.
  
The palace itself, whilst not quite as big as we were expecting (it is 26 metres long and 14 metres high, which is really big for something with this many intricate carvings that was made by one man, but not very big as far as palaces go), is incredible, as you can probably see. Each facade has a different theme; Cheval began with the east facade, which took him twenty years to build. The carvings on this side include the Source of Life, an Egyptian temple, a tomb that he wanted to be buried in (until permission was refused), three giants, and a niche for his wheelbarrow. The south facade is where his favourite stones live, and the west facade has elements from different cultures coexisting, like a mosque, a Swiss chalet, a medieval castle, and a Hindu temple. The north facade was the last part of the palace to be built, and is the story of the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve and loads of animals. Actually, there are weird little animals, both real and fantastic, throughout the whole of his palace, which were of course my favourite part.
  
Though the palace doesn’t really have rooms as such, you can go in and around it. There were entranceways that led to little tunnels that were lovely and cool and contained some of the best animals, and several staircases that let us explore the upper level of the palace, which was quite nice because sometimes you’re not allowed to touch things of this nature at all, but here you could be as tactile as you wanted. So it perhaps won’t come as a surprise that Cheval’s palace is in regular need of restoration, which makes me feel a little better about the entrance fee. There is also a small lookout point, also constructed by Cheval specifically so people could have a better view of his palace (he seemed like a thoughtful guy).
  
The palace was great, but it was, yet again, about a million degrees and horribly sunny outside, so I was glad to step into the small museum, which in addition to containing information about Cheval’s life, also contained a series of photographs of famous people visiting the palace (Picasso was a fan), early postcards available at the palace (I wish you could still buy those designs, because they were great), and art inspired by the palace, which was mostly amazing. (There is also a clean set of non-squat toilets by the museum, which I highly recommend using before you leave if you’re driving around all day like we were, because decent toilets in this part of France are few and far between.)
  
The shop was also surprisingly good, with loads of (modern) postcards and prints of some of the palais-inspired paintings inside the museum (of course I bought the one with all the animals in it shown above (the trumpet turtle sold me on it), even though I’m running out of space to hang things). We did successfully resist the allure of the other tourist spots in town (they all seemed to be selling ravioli gratin, which actually sounds delicious if available in a non-meat version and not made by a tourist cafe) except for the place with a case full of cold drinks, which are oddly hard to find in France (I don’t mean in restaurants, like the classic American tourist complaint about the lack of ice, I’m talking in the supermarkets. Even the hypermarches (possibly my favourite French word to say) seemed to only have fridges for Coke products, which isn’t really want you want on a hot day, except for the small Carrefour by our hotel in Lyon that had 1.5 litre bottles of iced tea in the fridge (I gratefully chugged down a whole one of those by myself after spending an afternoon walking around in the heat and sun, but then paid the price by having to pee every five minutes or so for the rest of the night. My tiny bladder is not really my friend, especially when travelling)). We then headed slightly out of town to Cheval’s tomb, which is well sign-posted and also has a parking lot (though you can walk if you wish, which I would have been fine with if it hadn’t been in the 100s). The tomb is also great, especially the intertwined snakes on one side, though it did seem to end rather abruptly on the side with a plain wall.
  
I can definitely relate to Cheval and his love of slightly derpy animals, even though I don’t share his talent for palace building. He clearly must have been a very interesting and talented man, despite all the hardships in his life, and I’m really glad I got to experience his palace. 4/5 for Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace (Jessica’s ideal palace would have a lot more shade and ice cream, but I still respect Cheval’s vision and the limitations of 19th century technology).

Lyon: Musees Gadagne

Yes, the Musees Gadagne include a puppetry museum, which I’ll get to later! But the musees consist of two museums on the same site (hence the plural) and I’ll talk about the Lyon History Museum first (saving the best for last).

  

Lyon, despite being several hours north of Marseille, somehow managed to be every bit as hot, and after walking around the Roman amphitheatre and church on top of a massive hill, which seem to be a feature of every French city (I’ll talk about them in a later post), I was dying for a nice, cool, indoor museum as a respite, and the Musees Gadagne neatly fit the bill. Obviously, it was the puppet museum that got me through the door, but I was perfectly happy to learn more about the history of Lyon as well – anything to kill time indoors.  Admission was €5, which included both museums and a free audio guide; probably the best deal of the trip!

  

I accepted the audio guide because I wasn’t sure if there would be any English translations inside the museum, but it turns out that I needn’t have worried, because the main panels in each room were translated into English, and were supplemented by excellent, extremely detailed fact sheets that gave an overview of the history surrounding the objects in each room. They were so good I barely used the audio guide.  Whoever wrote them clearly had a sense of humour, and also really loved exclamation points, as the sheets were scattered with them, even sentences that really didn’t require them (it reminded me of that Seinfeld where Elaine gets pissed off because Jake Jarmel doesn’t put an exclamation point in a note about her friend having a baby, so she inserts hundreds of them all over his book manuscript, which she was editing). Some of my favourite facts include that foreigners were allowed to travel freely in Lyon during their annual fairs, except the English, on account of their being enemies; that women evidently didn’t inspire the engravers in Lyon, because the queens in their packs of cards were flat and unattractive, whilst the jacks and kings had “fine appearance,” as the sheet put it; and that looms made different sounds based on the kind of cloth they were weaving: plain cloth went “pa-tin-taque!” and faconne (patterned) cloth went “bis-tan-claque!”

  

I liked that there were comfy armchairs in pretty much every room of the museum, because it meant I could take the fact sheet and plop myself into the chair for a nice leisurely read, as my feet were killing me by this point in the trip (which happens every time I’m on holiday, as I’ve said, because of my refusal to wear comfortable shoes. Not that flat sandals are uncomfortable to wear, but they don’t offer much in the way of arch support). I also liked the many derpy lions in this museum, particularly the lion chocolate which I would have eaten right then and there, had it not been in a glass case and over 100 years old.

  

I know a bit more about French history than the history of most other European countries, but still nowhere near as much as I know about British and American history, and my knowledge also tends to be Paris-centric, so there was a lot to learn here, though I confess I skipped some of the fact sheets towards the end (there were two or three two-sided A3 sheets per room, which is a LOT to read, even if you like reading as much as I do). I was interested to learn that Lyon didn’t entirely support the French Revolution (as the museum puts it, their opinions were opposite to what was happening in Paris: they were radical when Paris was moderate and vice versa), which ended up resulting in a siege where Lyon lost its official city of the Republic status (or whatever it was called in French – I forget the exact term). Despite this, they still had a good collection of Revolutionary artefacts, including the blade from a guillotine (but the thing that looks vaguely like some kind of horrible execution device in the photo below is just a loom)!

  

The museum boasted of having 31 permanent exhibition rooms, and they weren’t Lyon (lyin’, get it?) – fortunately, each one was clearly numbered so we knew where we were supposed to be going, as there were quite a lot of stairs involved (though lifts and ramps were also available for those who needed them). The most uncomfortable frustrating part was that I desperately needed the loo going in, but didn’t see one anywhere, so I kept wandering hoping one would appear. Eventually we came to a main staircase that had signs pointing to one that was up several flights of stairs, near the rooftop cafe.  After running upstairs and finding a lengthy wait there, I decided to run down to the ground floor which was also meant to have toilets. When I got down there though, I couldn’t find them anywhere, so ended up having to run all the way back up again, which was quite a trek. It was only when we were leaving that I discovered there was one on the ground floor after all, in the same room as the lockers, so bear that in mind if you visit!

  

There were undoubtedly a lot of things to like about the Lyon History Museum, but given how tired I was, 31 rooms was just a bit too many, especially because ultimately, my level of interest in Lyon’s history was limited. I think it would have benefited from more interactivity, which brings me to the puppetry museum, or Musee des Marionnettes, which I couldn’t wait to get to!

  

The puppetry museum has been recently redone, and is in the process of having more added to it, but even though it was much smaller than the Lyon History Museum, I still thought it was pretty great. We entered into a dark room with walls completely lined with the creepiest puppets, and you could stand in the middle and use a touchscreen to light up various puppets to learn their names and where and when they were made (though in some cases, like poor disturbing Krafff shown above, WHY they were made was the question I most wanted answered). There were a LOT of devil puppets in here (including the rather sweet fellow below), which was fantastic.

  

The next room we went in had three different screens with various puppets (or objects) sitting in front of them – when you turned a knob, a video came on explaining various aspects of puppetry; at least, that’s what I assume was going on, as the videos were all in French. I still got the gist of it from their movements, and had a lot of fun with the rather scary man-boy puppet you can see me manipulating (blurrily) above.

  

There was also a puppets of the world gallery, where inputting the numbers on the cases into your audio guide played recordings of the puppets telling you about themselves in the accent of their native country, and I suppose that alone made it worth having the audio guide hanging off my neck the entire time. You can see for yourself that some of these puppets were downright terrifying (Punch and Judy are bad enough, but the guy with the face in his chest takes it to a whole new level. I’m not sure what his deal was since he either didn’t have an audio track or I forgot to look).

  

There were also English fact sheets to read in these rooms, though these mostly contained interactive tasks for you to complete in order to learn more about the art of puppetry, rather than descriptions of the collections. You can see me treating my hand like a puppet, in preparation for getting to play with actual puppets in the last room (which is where I met my new friend as seen at the start of the post, who reminded me a bit of a less scary version of Lady Elaine Fairchilde from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood).

  

Sure, some (most) of the puppets were scary looking, but I was absolutely in my element. This is exactly the kind of quirky museum I love, which had been somewhat lacking thus far in our trip (there was an automata museum in Lyon, which I was dying to go to, but the website made it look very much as though it was intended for children, so I was discouraged from going. I still regret it though), and I adored all the interactivity. 4/5 for the puppet section of Musees Gadagne, and 3/5 for the Lyon history part. This is a great place to visit to escape the summer sun (or winter cold perhaps?) and enjoy learning more about puppetry and the city of Lyon (and try out some hella creepy puppets).

Avignon: Palais des Papes and Pont Saint-Benezet

And now for the Palace of the Popes, the reason we spent a night in a budget hotel in Avignon North, which as far as I can tell is basically just a giant retail park (containing an outlet of the hilariously named but revolting looking cafeteria-style restaurant chain Flunch (we were not desperate enough to eat there, but intrigued by the name, I read some of the Tripadvisor reviews of the Paris branch, which made me laugh until I cried)). I wish I could say that all those Renaissance history classes I took as an undergrad were finally paying off, but to be totally honest, I’ve forgotten most of what I learned (the Renaissance isn’t my favourite, so I wasn’t paying much attention anyway). I did have a vague recollection of the Schism of 1378 (which I had always thought of as the Great Schism, but apparently that term is more commonly applied to when the Orthodox Church split from Roman Catholicism), and the resulting anti-popes, but as I learned at the palace, Avignon wasn’t only home to two anti-popes – it was home to seven legitimate popes as well (though the “legitimacy” of medieval popes is always questionable at best anyway, since they didn’t tend to get the title based on merit). The building was originally constructed as a bishops’ palace, but after Clement V was elected pope, he refused to go to Rome, and moved the papacy to Avignon instead (he was a real piece of crap, by the way. He decided that Venetians should be sold into slavery because the Church was at war with Venice (considering they were Christian, this was shitty even by the standards of the time since white Christians were normally the only people exempt from slavery) in addition to executing a bunch of the Knights Templar and members of other fringe groups). So the palace was subsequently enlarged into what is now the largest Gothic palace in Europe, and apparently having the papacy contained beneath one giant roof really helped to consolidate the powers of the church (not that that was a good thing).

  

Nowadays, it is just a massive tourist attraction (one of the busiest in France), so we tried to get there as early as possible to avoid both crowds and sun (hence the grim stay in Avignon North. Staying in Avignon proper was really expensive). We were perturbed when driving into town to see a huge line for one of the parking lots, but we persevered and found signs to one with loads of spaces that was much closer to the palace. Turns out the one with all the queues was the free parking lot, whereas you had to pay for the one we found, but quite frankly, I think it was worth the 8 euros to avoid the hassle of queues and shuttle buses. Although there were already tour groups gathering outside the palace when we arrived, I think we were still early enough to avoid most of the crowds, since we were able to just walk right in and buy tickets (we had been warned that there might be large queues, but you can order online to avoid this). As there were also no modesty standards in place, since the palace is no longer a religious institution, it was already a much pleasanter experience than the Vatican (though I think I would probably have met the standards without trying, given that my sun survival technique that day was to cover as much flesh as possible without sweating to death).

  

Admission to the Palais des Popes was €12, but we opted for the combined ticket, which included Pont Saint-Benezet (of which more later) and was €14.50. Every ticket includes use of the “histopad;” basically an iPad with headphones that acted as an audio guide/interactive element that guided us around the building. It was actually quite useful thanks to its inclusion of a moving map, because the palace is big and kind of confusing. Each room contained a black box in the middle that you were meant to scan with your histopad in order to see the room as it would have looked back in the 14th century and open the audio commentary. There was also a treasure hunt game on the histopads where you had to find a hidden coin in each room, and this was probably my favourite part.

   

Even though I’m normally not keen on audio guides and the like, I did enjoy the histopads because they provided loads of information in English, the games were fun, and I also think they helped move traffic along because you only had to scan the boxes for a couple of seconds and then walk away with all the information you needed in your hands, rather than standing in front of an object label and blocking everyone’s view. There is a part of me that feels it somewhat detracted from the experience of actually being in the palace, because I spent most of the time staring at the histopad rather than actually looking at my surroundings, but most of the rooms were pretty blah, so it wasn’t as big of a deal as it may have been somewhere else. My only real beef with it was that I seemed to walk faster than it was intending me to, and sometimes I would unintentionally walk outside the zone of one of the rooms whilst the audio guide was still talking, which completely cut off the audio, and walking back into the room didn’t bring it back, so some way of at least being able to replay things you’d missed would be nice (maybe there was, but I couldn’t find it if so).

    

The rooms themselves are big, but not terribly impressive without the furnishings shown on the histopad, though a few do still have interesting painted walls or stone carvings. There were a handful of objects to look at in most rooms, but it seems like most of what was here is probably now in the hands of the Vatican, because the scale of the building itself was the most impressive part. To be honest, I kind of preferred this to the over-the-top opulence of the Vatican, since all that ostentation just made me resent the Church even more. The route took us all around and through the palace, and right up onto the roof (which was windy and hot simultaneously). We had to keep crisscrossing across the courtyard in the process, and I was surprised to see that it was filled with a stage and seats, apparently for some sort of music festival. While in theory I think it’s nice that these buildings are still put to some sort of practical use, in practice, the seats and scaffolding ruined the appearance of the courtyard (we would find this to be an issue in other sites in France as well), and I hate music festivals, so I don’t even feel like they were ruining the ambience for a good reason.

  

In the end, my favourite room was the one that featured treasured artefacts from local museums – there was some awesome stuff in here, from taxidermied animals and memento mori paintings, to that amazing set of doors painted with medieval monsters (they look like the sort of delightful creatures you sometimes find in marginalia). Other than that, as I’ve said, there wasn’t a tonne to look at, so it was probably good we had the histopads, because I can imagine this would have been a rather boring experience before they existed. I’ll give it 3/5, mainly because I feel like they did put some effort into trying to make it a positive visitor experience whilst working with the limitations of the inside of the palace in its present meh state (it’s impressive from the outside though!).

  

After we finished with the palace (and its multilevel gift shop), we headed over to Pont Saint-Benezet. This is a bridge across the Rhone (well, partly across the Rhone now), which its website bills as “the most famous bridge in the world;” surely one of the most egregious examples of hyperbole I’ve ever seen. Really, more famous than the Golden Gate Bridge? Or Tower Bridge? Or London Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge, the Charles Bridge in Prague or one of the other famous bridges around the world that I at least know by name? I had literally never heard of this bridge before we decided to go to Avignon, so I’m not sure what they’re talking about. Perhaps it’s more famous in Francophone countries because of the song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” which I had also never heard of before visiting (and wasn’t terribly impressed with once I did listen to it. It is very repetitive and gets annoyingly stuck in your head).

  

At any rate, we turned up and were given a new set of audio guides, though these were the old-fashioned ones where you had to manually enter in each number and then hold it up to your ear whilst your arm fell asleep from holding it there, so it really paled in comparison to the wonders of the histopad. I ended up not really using the audio guide (it was way too long-winded) and just walking around the bridge, which, as you may have guessed, was built by Saint Benezet – according to legend he was a young shepherd who heard voices telling him to build a bridge (a sort of 12th century Field of Dreams I guess), but in reality he was probably just a local merchant. It was fairly useless as far as bridges go, since it was too narrow to admit carts, so could only be used by pedestrians and people on horseback, and thus wasn’t really suitable for the transport of goods. It only had that limited functionality until the 17th century, when a flood washed chunks of it away (Benezet’s body used to be kept in a chapel on the bridge, but apparently its alleged power to work miracles couldn’t prevent the flood, and it was moved to a safer location. Kind of a shame, as it would have been way more interesting with relics to look at). Today it only goes about halfway across the Rhone, which was a little unsettling. It’s a nice enough looking bridge (or half bridge) I guess, but I wish we hadn’t spent the extra €2.50 to see it and just bought some pain au chocolat with that money (not that we could have in Avignon, because once again, boulangeries were nigh on impossible to find, and only one of them was open (and didn’t sell pastries). We’d have probably had better luck with Flunch. Why have I been so misled about the prevalence of bakeries in France?), especially because it was so hot by that time I was desperate to get off the bridge and into shade. I can only give it 1.5/5, because I thought a bridge that doesn’t even span a river is “pont-less” (get it?), and the audio guides were pretty lame. If your time in Avignon is limited, I recommend skipping this and just going to the Palais des Papes, which at least offers some degree of entertainment and shade!