Turin, Italy: Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology (and the Fruit Museum)

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I recently turned thirty, and rather than sit at home eating a cake of sadness and mourning the loss of my youth (not sure what a cake of sadness would even involve.  Probably raisins, because I hate them), I thought it would be better to go on a short trip somewhere, especially as my birthday tends to fall right around the August Bank Holiday weekend.  Italy is not normally high on my list when it comes to museums (aside from the few I visited in Rome last year), since I’m not a big fan of religious art or architecture, but I’m always in the mood to eat some gelato and focaccia, so my stomach overpowered my mind this time.  In the end, we managed to plan a driving holiday that would take us to some less-than-culturally-exciting destinations on the Ligurian Coast, because focaccia, but would also give us a couple days in Turin, which fortunately did have quite a few museums I was interested in seeing.  On the top of my list was the Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology, located on the University of Turin campus.

I think it’s been well-established that I love both crime and medical museums, so combining the two was sure to be a winner.  Especially when the collection was primarily from the 19th century, and Cesare Lombroso himself was still residing in the museum (in a way).  Finding the museum wasn’t too tricky, since it was well sign-posted, for all that we had to go up a couple floors inside an old university building, and unusually for Italy, it was not only open on time, it was even open a bit early (it opens at 10, but we got there about five minutes before and there was already someone at the admissions desk).  There are currently three museums that are part of the university (they also have a normal anthropology museum that looks pretty cool, but it’s closed for renovation): criminal anthropology, an anatomy museum (which I was also keen to visit), and a fruit museum, which came as a surprise to me, as I’d only noticed the first two on their website.  Admission is 5 euros for one museum, or 10 euros for all three, which we went with as I knew I would definitely want to see the museum of anatomy as well.

The museum did not allow photography (most likely because of the human remains and all), but I was relieved to see that there were large boards throughout the museum providing English translations of each gallery description, as well as translations of most of the item captions.  Obviously, this greatly enhanced the experience.

On walking in, we were greeted with a mock-up of a court room, and a dialogue between a young man and an old man debating all the changes that took place during the Victorian era (or Italian equivalent, which I guess would include Garibaldi), followed by a room showcasing some of Lombroso’s equipment, and a description of his work.  Basically, Lombroso was the Chair of Forensic Medicine at the University of Turin from the 1870s onward, and he had a special fascination with criminals and mental illness that led to him combining forensics, anthropology, medicine, and a hefty dose of pseudoscience into a discipline known as criminal anthropology.  It relied heavily on phrenology and physiognomy, so has essentially been proven to be complete nonsense, but nonetheless, Lombroso was seen as producing some revolutionary work in his time, and he also had an influence on introducing more humane treatment of prisoners and asylum inmates.  And he left this amazing museum behind, so he clearly wasn’t all bad.

The main gallery, Lombroso’s original museum, was probably the most interesting part.  It’s here that his skeleton resides, along with an impressive collection of criminal skulls and wax death masks taken of prisoners (people who died in prison, mind, they weren’t specially killed for this or anything).  There is also some wooden furniture  featuring human figures with elongated heads made by an asylum inmate called Eugenio Lenzi; his stuff was really awesome, and I’d love to get my hands on a piece.

There were actually quite a few things created by prisoners and people suffering from mental illness, including a costume made from clothing fibres that weighed forty kilos, which a certain psychiatric patient insisted on wearing every day (and considering how damn hot it was when we were there, I have no idea how he didn’t just pass out or die of heat exhaustion).  I also loved the collection of water jugs made by prisoners, including one featuring a mustachioed man and cat motif.

Speaking of prisoners, another room contained little wooden models of cells from four different prisons, as well as a larger model of the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania (which is supposed to have an amazing haunted house in it for Halloween…part of me really wants to go, and part of me is kind of glad I don’t live anywhere near there so I don’t have to).  Eastern State specialised in the silent treatment, where prisoners even had their own private exercise yards built at the ends of their cells so they never came into contact with the other prisoners.  Little wonder many of them were driven insane.

The museum closed with a re-creation of Lombroso’s study (very cosy, with a couch and some plush chairs, I’d have it) and a hallway explaining some of his theories in more detail, and refuting them with modern science.  Like most people back then, he had some racist ideas based around physiognomy, though a bit unusually, because he was Jewish, believed that “Semitic peoples” were the highest race.  He also didn’t seem too keen on women, which is again not surprising given the time period he lived in, but didn’t do much as far as winning me over.  However, I can’t knock the museum, which is delightful, especially all the wax masks and inmate-made artefacts, and I’d definitely recommend checking it out if you’re passing through Turin.  4/5.

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I also mentioned that there was a fruit museum.  I love fruit, but I probably wouldn’t have bothered going in if we hadn’t got the museum pass that meant it was essentially free.  Also, it was right across the hall from the Lombroso Museum, so I really had no excuse not to venture inside.  Disappointingly, unlike the other museums, nothing here was translated into English, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating the many, many beautiful models of fruit that adorned cabinets around the museum.  Seriously, there were hundreds of different apples alone.  I never knew there were so many varieties!  There were also tonnes of pears, and assorted cherries, plums, and melons…even a few root vegetables. (I just found out, via the brochure, that it is predominantly a pomological museum, which explains why it was mostly apples and pears.  Which I am admittedly not big on unless they are baked into a crumble or covered in caramel or smashed into cider (or perry), but I ate a lot of plums when I was in Italy (since I missed cherry season), and they were fantastic).

The other item of note was a small display about caterpillars.  Longtime readers will know that I am absolutely terrified of butterflies, but I was fairly indifferent towards caterpillars until I saw these paintings.  A caterpillar when enlarged is a hideous creature, and especially when cut in half in giant 3D model form.  Ick.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the fruit museum, but if you’ve gone for the multi-pass, it’s worth popping in just to marvel at those plastic fruits.  It might well be better if you can read Italian, because it seemed like there was quite a lot in there about the science of agriculture, and the history of fruit growing in Italy.  And Francesco Garnier Valletti, who started the museum.  So I’ll only give it a 1.5/5, but you might be able to bump it up a couple of points if you can understand Italian.  By the way, I didn’t forget about the anatomical museum…more on that in the next post!

Chichester, West Sussex: The Novium

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“Oh boy, Roman crap!” I thought sarcastically to myself as I entered Chichester’s Novium.  But really, it turned out to be ok in the end.  I can’t pretend that it’s worth making a special trip to Chichester for any reason, but if you are stupid enough to do it, like me, you’ll probably find yourself inside the Novium at some point, since aside from the cathedral, it’s really the only tourist attraction to speak of there.  Fortunately, it is free and offers clean toilets with no daddy-long-legs in them, which is more than can be said for Chichester’s public toilets (ugh, I can still picture their horrible thin legs crawling around.  When I say daddy-long-legs, I mean it in the American sense of a spidery thing.  I think Brits call them harvestmen, but I’m not looking it up because I don’t want to have to look at pictures of the damn things).

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It is perhaps apt that the Novium offers nice bathroom facilities, since a Roman bathhouse used to stand on this very spot, and the museum has been cleverly built around the ruins so you can admire them without having to exert yourself too much.  Unless of course you want to look at them from the special viewing area on the first floor, which you will want to do because that’s where all the galleries are.  Then you have to walk up a bunch of steps (though a lift is available).

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There’s a kind of foyer area outside the first floor gallery that is currently dedicated to Sir George Murray, a Vice-Admiral in the Royal Navy from Chichester who was chummy with Nelson, and his wife, Ann, who outlived him by nearly half a century.  The main gallery features a huge glass “cube case” holding objects relating to Chichester’s past, from the Roman era through the present day.  I was partial to the former possessions of Joe “Pie Man” Faro, including his baker’s hat, gravy warmer, and a few ads for his pies.

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The second floor’s distinguishing characteristic was a huge window overlooking the cathedral (you might be “blinded by the light” shining in if it’s a sunny day), with a little map describing everything you can see from this vantage point, including some unique Chichester-made chimney pots (they have a couple examples you can touch sitting out).  The gallery up here, by far the largest in the museum, has objects currently grouped by the type of human emotion they represent: Joy, Sorrow, Bravery, and Creativity.

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I was digging it, because there was some pretty rad stuff in this gallery.  My absolute favourite thing was a sling produced by St. John’s Ambulance during the First World War, showing all the different ways it could be used to wrap various injuries (with a mustachioed man as model.  Something about the moustache really takes it up a notch.  I’ve always kind of wanted a phrenology head, and I found one the other day with an amusing moustache.  If I had 3700 euros laying around, you’d better believe that’d be the one I’d buy).  There was also a drinking mug with a fake frog moulded into the cup, to give whoever was drinking out of it a fright.  Excellent. UPDATE: My boyfriend noticed how much I liked that sling (probably because I kept talking about it) and bought me one for my birthday, so now I have my own WWI instructional sling.  Kick-ass.

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With the centenary and all, there was a fair bit of WWI stuff, including a little trench hut set up in the corner (you weren’t allowed inside though, boo) and a wounded soldier mannequin lying on a cot, but I gravitated towards the display of hats for trying on.  I think I probably look better in a standard British Army cap than a German one, though I have to say the pickelhaube really kind of suited my boyfriend (every time I see a pickelhaube, I just think of that 3 Stooges short where they’re doughboys who accidentally set off a canister of laughing gas, and get captured and taken to the German headquarters where they all laugh their asses off when one of the Germans falls on his spiky helmet.  Classic).

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They also had a mobile stocks cart (built in the 1820s, yikes! That’s more recent than I would have thought) for wheeling offenders around the town so they could be pelted with rotting vegetables, or worse, if they were really unpopular.  And a small display of skulls explaining what each one could tell us about the person it came from (the one with a hole in it from a person with a persistent ear infection made me cringe a little.  I only had a couple ear infections when I was a kid, but I still remember how agonising they were, and I can only imagine letting it progress to the point where the pus punched a hole in your head.  Jeez).

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I should also mention that there is a small temporary exhibit on the ground floor about the history of collecting, which has as its prize object an old Japanese Shogi game on loan from the Horniman in London, as well as some information about explorers and their collections, including Cook and Livingstone.  Although I read a couple negative reviews of the Novium on Trip Advisor before going, I frankly don’t see what their problem was.  It was a free museum, and I was actually pretty impressed with many of the objects on display, as well as the labelling, which, despite a few spelling and grammatical errors, tended to be comprehensive, educational, and often amusing.  It has clearly been renovated in recent years, as all the facilities seemed pretty up-to-date, but hadn’t lost the old-fashioned charm of a local museum.  3.5/5.

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Oh, and because the cathedral was also free, we popped in there too, so I’ll just show you a few highlights.

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The 3-dimensional man on the wall is to commemorate a local man, John Cawley, who was one of the MPs who signed the death warrant of Charles I.  He managed to survive the Restoration (just) by going into hiding in Belgium, but died in the 1660s.

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They had a small treasury room containing a lot of boring silver and pewter (basically a bunch of “you have chosen…poorly” Holy Grail replicas like in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Damn I love that film), but also a weathercock with dents on his tail where he was clipped by bullets during the Battle of Britain, so that was pretty cool.

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And they had a bunch of large wooden paintings depicting kings of England, and I guess some popes?  Or maybe something more Anglican, like Archbishops, I dunno.

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There are also some pretty cool gargoyles on the outside of the cathedral, and apparently a pair of peregrine falcons roost in the tower, so those are things to look out for.  As I said at the start, I really don’t think Chichester’s the kind of place that merits a special trip (in retrospect; at the time, it seemed like something reasonable to do of a Saturday, at least until we got stuck in traffic for a couple hours) but if you find yourself in the area, there’s a couple of free things you can do to kill some time.  And clearly there are people out there that really like Roman stuff, as judged by the unexpected popularity of my old post on the Verulamium, so you may also enjoy the bathhouse ruins in the Novium if this is so.


Weston-super-Mare, Somerset: Dismaland

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I’m interrupting my regularly scheduled posts to share my experience at the most bemusing place on Earth with you…that’s right kids, it’s Dismaland!  As soon as I heard about Dismaland, I knew I’d have to go, if only for the sake of this blog.  It’s a five week event (and I think there’s only about a week left, at time of posting), and tickets do regularly go up for sale on the Dismaland website for a reasonable fiver a ticket, but judging by the prices some of them are going for on Ebay, they are not easy to get.  Fortunately, I was lucky enough to receive a pair for my birthday, so I didn’t have to worry about all that!  Thus, my boyfriend and I made the long drive out to Weston-super-Mare last Saturday to investigate.

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If you’re not in the UK, you may not have heard of Dismaland (or Banksy for that matter, in which case just click his name, because I don’t feel like explaining (and seriously, not being into modern art, I’d never heard of Banksy before moving to London, so don’t feel bad about it if you haven’t)); basically, Weston-super-Mare is a typical English seaside town (meaning it’s slightly seedy and run-down, but there’s ice cream and chips, which are really the main reasons for going to the seaside, for me anyway), where Banksy took over an abandoned amusement park/fun fair deal with some other artists to create a limited-time-only “bemusement park.”  If nothing else, it’s been brilliant for Weston tourism-wise, as thousands of extra people have been flooding in for the past month to visit it.

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We got there about an hour and a half early, because even with timed tickets, we weren’t entirely sure what the queuing situation would be like.  (Also, rather than pay to park in the Dismaland lot, we parked on a random residential street for free, so we had a bit of a walk.)  It took us probably another ten minutes to walk through the insane amount of barriers set up around Dismaland, even though there was no one waiting in the online ticket line (there were just that many barriers).  The line for people without tickets was another story…throughout the entire four hours we spent around Weston, it looked like the queue didn’t move at all, so I would NOT recommend showing up without a ticket, unless maybe you live nearby and can get there really super early in the morning or something.  Anyway, when we got to the front, the woman there told us there was no point queuing for that long, and to come back at 1:30 for 2 o’clock entry (even though the employees were all meant to be deliberately unhelpful, she was actually quite nice), so we left to get an ice cream (there’s a place nearby that will swirl your choice of like 28 different flavours in your Mr. Whippy…pretty good, for Britain at least (whenever I think of British ice cream, I think of that scene in Good Omens where Adam and his friends can’t think of more than three flavours of ice cream. Brilliant)).  Note: MAJOR spoilers ahead, so don’t read on if you’re going to Dismaland and want to be surprised.

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When we returned at 1:30 as directed, there was already a sizeable queue of people waiting, so we ended up having about fifty people ahead of us instead of being first in line. Oh well, once 2 rolled around, at least they were pretty quick about checking tickets and letting people in.  You have to go through a real security check before entering, followed by a fake security room where everything is made of cardboard, and “security staff” constantly yell at you not to smile.  Then, someone half-assedly hands you a map of the park (he drops most of them on the ground), and you’re off.  We’d heard it was best to see the inside things first, as queues form fast, so we duly headed to the tent immediately on our left, which was meant to hold an array of art exhibitions.  And a stage featuring the “Dance of Death,” which turned out to be a figure dressed as the Grim Reaper (that may or may not have had an actual person inside, we couldn’t decide) who comes out in a bumper car and spins around to “Stayin’ Alive.”

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I decided, it being Dismaland, that I should enter into the spirit of things by not appearing to have fun at any point, which is why you’re going to see a lot of pictures of me deliberately looking grumpy (though I’ve been known to do a pretty spectacular grump face with no encouragement whatsoever).  The art in here was ok, nothing particularly memorable, except for maybe the beach ball hovering about blades, and that big mushroom cloud thing.

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There was also a room dedicated to this big, dystopian model village, which had annoying people leaning all over it trying to take pictures.  Surprisingly, the guards weren’t actually yelling at them, but were rather nicely just asking them to stop.  If it had been me, and I was being encouraged to be unpleasant, I would have taken out the stress of all the years I worked in customer service and screamed at the lot of them, but that’s just me.

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When we left the tent, we came out next to a big stage that apparently screens clips from various movies (didn’t watch it, so I don’t know what), and hosts bands on Friday nights, but honestly, the carnival games seemed more interesting.  There were a handful of them, including “Hook a Duck from the Muck,” shooting apparently weighted cans with a cork gun, and attempting to knock an anvil off a post with ping pong balls…as you can probably guess from those descriptions, they were all essentially unwinnable.  Well, hooking a duck from the muck (muddy water) initially looked doable, but the girl working there constantly slaps your pole away, or throws stuff at your duck if you get close to snatching it, so there is no way we were able to get the “fish finger in a bag” that was the prize (someone must of though, because there’s some for sale on Ebay).  There also appeared to be a portrait artist who drew the back of your head instead of your face, but when we got closer there was a sign saying it was for demonstration purposes only, and you couldn’t actually have it done, which was a real disappointment.  They were selling so much other art, so why not something personalised?

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We popped into a random circus tent that didn’t have too long of a line, and it turned out to be filled with taxidermied stuff (taxidermied always comes up as misspelled when I type it, but I feel like it should be a word, so I persist. You all know what I mean anyway), and a curious tea set made up of dishes with body parts attached.

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There were also some gross Alien-esque things hanging on the walls (that on closer inspection may just be snakes with weird headdresses, in which case they’re not really gross.  I love snakes), and an adorable bunbun with a moving head and twitching nose that apparently had killed his magician master, hence the heap of clothes on the ground.  Or perhaps the magician had turned himself into a rabbit?  I guess it’s fairly ambiguous.

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The centrepiece of the park is undoubtedly the burnt out castle in the middle of the lake; intrigued to see what was inside, we headed there next.  It turned out to be the opportunity to have a souvenir photo taken (5 quid, and they don’t tell you what you’re posing in front of until after the photo is taken), and to have a look at the wreckage of Cinderella’s coach, complete with paparazzi.

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There were a couple rides at the park: a Ferris wheel and a carousel.  I’m not sure what the gimmick was with these, except for the Ferris wheel seemed to go much faster than a normal one, which made me not want to go on it since spinning things make me hurl.  This being Banksy, there was some kind of political thing called a “Cruel Bus” in the back of the park that we did not go in because the queue was insane, though apparently it has pictures of torture devices from around the world in it, and a whole lot of boring-looking charts (I glimpsed them from the open door of the bus).

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As promised, there were many ways to waste your money, if you were so inclined, which naturally also involved queuing (which was one of my main beefs with this place).  The Pocket Money Loans was something of a mystery going in, but they turned out to sell postcards and prints, which we duly acquired.  There are also black balloons that say “I am an Imbecile” that sporadically emerge from somewhere near the toilets, a van selling programmes, run by a notably grumpy-faced girl (she was obviously really into her role), and a gift shop (which you exit through, natch) with t-shirts and posters.  Foodwise, there’s a pizza cart, and a stall selling Dismalafel, which was tempting because of the name (and because I love falafel), but I was saving my appetite for potato scallops from a local chippy (I’ve only just discovered them, and why are they not a thing everywhere?  Slice of potato dipped in batter and fried, hells yes!  Perfect vegetarian alternative (if you’re not averse to a bit of fish grease)) so I could not tell you how they are.

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The last tent we went into had a bunch more artwork that was more highly politicised than the other stuff, and it was right next to a bunch of stalls run by various anarcho-type organisations.  I don’t know, I kind of outgrew the whole “anarchism” thing when my teenage punk rocker days were over, and I’m not really into having politics shoved down my throat (even politics I agree with, it’s the principle of the thing), so this was my least favourite part, but with Banksy’s reputation, it’s to be expected.

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Lastly, there was a Punch and Judy show which was rumoured to be Jimmy Savile themed, and perhaps some of the shows are, but the one I saw had to do with wife and child beating (also cheery, and I guess what Punch does anyway), and turned out to be really really boring and hard to hear, so I didn’t watch it for long enough to see where they were going with it.  I mean, it went on for like fifteen minutes, who’s got time for that shit?

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I don’t know, obviously the place is called Dismaland, but I was kind of hoping it would be more fun, or gothic or something (I think I want everything to be a haunted house, or otherwise spooky, and most things aren’t).  As I said to my boyfriend when we went in, I was hoping for/half-expecting something like the Valkenheiser salvage yard in Nothing but Trouble (you probably haven’t seen it because it’s the worst movie ever, so I won’t recommend it even though I love it (but there is a random cameo by Tupac, and the most disturbing hot dog eating scene ever), but basically the JP had this sprawling estate filled with junk heaps, abandoned giant mascots from various businesses, creepy music blaring from loudspeakers, and a roller coaster called “Mister Bonestripper” that literally stripped your bones at the end of it.  Well, maybe not that part, but I definitely was hoping it would be more creepy, rather than just intensely political), and it wasn’t that at all.  Just a lotta art and crap to buy, and not very much to actually do, other than queue.  So yes, in that sense, it did live up to its name, and I am very glad that my tickets were a gift (and that the person who gave them to me did get them for retail price, rather than having to pay something crazy on Ebay), because while it was definitely an experience to go, I don’t think it was worth more than a fiver (I mean, I went for free, but yeah, don’t spend more than a fiver if you’re the one buying them).  I can’t help but feel that the point of Dismaland was somewhat lost on someone like me. Perhaps people who really enjoy Banksy and underground art, or who are more politically active/less cynical/more participatory than I am will get more out of it, but I wasn’t super impressed by any of it.  It was something to see once, and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to go, but I’m still not sure it was worth the seven hour round-trip drive from London to Weston. 3/5.

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Prague Wrap Up Post

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And now it’s time to live up to the “travelogue” part of my blog description, and give you a rundown of all the non-museum stuff I discovered in Prague.  I’ll get to the first picture in this post in a second, but the second one is just of some church down the street from my communist-looking hotel.  I totally dug the castley turret bits.

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We of course had to see the famous astronomical clock, so we got that out of the way the first night we were there.  Though I wasn’t fond of the fifty million other tourists crammed into the square, and I had a death grip on my purse the whole time in case someone tried to grab it, I AM a big fan of that little skeleton perched on the edge of the clock who rings a bell on the hour.  I could have done without the religious figures spinning around the top in favour of more Mr. Skeleton, but meh, when in Prague.  I also fell for Fish Man, just a couple streets away from the astronomical clock.  I assume he’s some kind of fish-related saint, but I prefer to invent a back-story wherein he is a grizzled old fisherman who watches over the street with his fishy bounty.  And the Charles Bridge is hell; personally, I would have happily skipped it in the first place…now that I’ve experienced it, there will certainly not be a next time.

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If you’re walking the streets in any kind of touristed area in Prague, you will come across the trdelnik (I like to pronounce it turtleneck, but I imagine it’s more like tr-DEL-nik).  It is identical to the Hungarian kurtoskalacs, or the Anglicised “chimney cakes” you sometimes see at Christmas markets in the UK (also the West Side Market in Cleveland used to have a stand selling them, so I imagine they’re available in places in the US with a sizeable Eastern European population, as it’s apparently a common pastry in many Slavic countries).  It’s essentially a yeasted dough cooked on a spit, and coated with cinnamon and sugar whilst it bakes, so it develops a lightly carmelised sugary crust.  Basically, it’s like a really crispy cinnamon roll, so it’s obviously delicious.  Rumour has it that it’s not actually a traditional Czech pastry, and is in fact limited to Prague, but the smell will lure you in at some point, national dish or not.  Since I don’t eat meat, my options in Czech restaurants were pretty much limited to fried cheese or…fried cheese, which was fine the first night, but got a little tiresome, especially at the one place I ordered it where it didn’t even come with chips.  You at least need the chips to break it up, especially if you hate tartar sauce as much as I do, because that’s what’s always served on the side.  Horrible, horrible tartar sauce.  Therefore, trdelniks were one of my main forms of sustenance, and I was grateful for them.  The best are rumoured to come from a crepe shop near the castle (with a little trdelnik man out front, you can see him pictured above), but I didn’t think they were anything special.  I mean, it’s a hot cinnamon pastry, it’s going to be good no matter what, and they were 60 CZK at literally every place I saw them, so just get one wherever, you can’t go wrong (unless you don’t get one at all, that would be sad).

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Woman cannot live on trdelnik and fried cheese alone (though I can ride it out for a surprisingly long time, intestines be damned), so I also found a small chain of gelato shops (they have at least two locations) called Angelato.  It certainly wasn’t the most amazing gelato I’ve ever had, and their lemonade was appalling, but the pistachio gelato was tasty and cheap (a scoop is under a quid), so we grabbed a cone from there every night.  There is also soft serve available in a variety of flavours for about 50p a cone, which was a joy to someone who is so damn sick of unflavoured Mr. Whippy.

I can also recommend that strudel from Susta Strudl I mentioned in the Vitkov Monument post.  Just don’t try to visit it on a weekend; they’re not open then.  The national soda of the Czech Republic is kofola, which tastes like watered down Coke, kind of gummi coke bottle-esque.  I also found a candy bar that was almost my last name (the “Sojove” bar; my surname is Sajovie), but I cannot recommend that anyone eat it under any circumstances.  I found out (after taking a revolting bite) that it is a “rum-flavoured soya log,” and is every bit as terrible as the name implies.  Fortunately, beer can be had for about 50p a mug, so it’s easy enough to wash the taste of any regrettable foreign sweets out of your mouth.  (Food is general is pretty cheap; we managed to get a full meal (if you consider my fried cheese to be a full meal, with chips I’ll give it a pass) including beer for about a tenner.)

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Prague is a city of hills, and you will find yourself doing a lot of walking up and down them; it’s unavoidable. However, one of them does have a funicular attached that you can ride with a normal public transport pass.  Unfortunately, this means that everyone rides it, and it gets unpleasantly full.   I had the misfortune of being seated in front of a baby that let out an ear-piercing screech every three seconds, so I was pretty much deaf by the time I reached the top. If you are less deafened and cranky than me, there is some stuff to see up there, but it’ll cost ya.  There’s some kind of Eiffel Tower-esque thing, a couple churches, some gardens, and an “enchanted grotto.”

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There are also prune plum trees, and shhhh, I might have snatched one off the tree.  My grandparents used to have prune plum trees (my grandma put them in pierogi sometimes) and they are my absolute favourite plums, so I was super excited to see them.  It was a little under ripe, but I didn’t get the runs or anything, so it’s all good (I’m probably talking about my bowels too much in this post, sorry).

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Let’s see, other touristy shit includes the Lennon Wall, and some stupid love lock bridges.  I hope my readers wouldn’t think of contributing to a love lock bridge anyway, but seriously, please don’t do it.  It not only looks dumb, but it ruins the bridges. Also, there was a delightful man-statue sticking out over the river behind that bridge, and you could barely see it because of all the stupid locks, which pissed me off even more.  I just don’t understand it.  I also don’t really get the John Lennon Wall thing, because there’s only a couple tiny pictures of him anyway, and then the rest is just random awful looking graffiti.  Ugh, and Segways, can I just say how much I hate those Segway tours?  Some man tried to talk us into going on one, and literally chased us up the hill on his Segway as we race-walked to try to get away from him.  It would have been comical if it wasn’t so bloody irritating.

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But calm down now Jessica, there’s a King Wenceslas riding an upside down horse statue inside some random shopping mall, and it’s pretty excellent, disturbing bestiality-connotations aside.  Speaking of animals, Prague has a crapload of spiders.  You will notice spiderwebs on the railings of all the bridges (which will make you not want to touch anything), and on all the bushes and traffic lights.  They are big gross spiders as well, so it’s something to be aware of if you visit in the summer and have some arachnophobia going on.

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And at last we come to what was genuinely one of my favourite parts of Prague.  Right behind my hotel (I could see it from the window on the end of my floor), there was a sort of semi-abandoned amusement park. It’s called Luna Park, and is probably about a mile and a half north of the city centre (dunno what the district I was staying in was called, but I’ll put it on the Maps page, so you can find it that way).  I love reading about the old World’s Fairs, and I love old amusement parks and industrial looking Victorian architecture, so this place was a winner.

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The absolutely gorgeous main building, which may now be empty (part of it burnt down in a fire in 2008, and they’re repairing it), is called the Industrial Palace, and was built in 1891 as an exposition centre.  I love it to bits, and I could definitely picture some Great Exposition style show taking place there.

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There’s a few restaurants to the side of it, and behind it is a small amusement park, though the rides didn’t look terribly safe, and literally no one was riding them.  There were a few people working back there, but we were the only people visiting.  It felt slightly eerie, although apparently there’s a major fair held here in the spring, so that must be enough to keep it going.

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You’ll also find a big pyramid, where they apparently stage shows, and a Victorian dancing fountain attraction.  We didn’t pay to see it, but it was running when we peeped through the fence, and I have to say that it would probably be better at night when it’s lit up, as it was really nothing special during the day.  The dancing fountain at Tower City Center is more entertaining, and you can watch that one for free (I spent many happy hours as a child gazing at it).

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Finally, one of the buildings to the side of the Industrial Palace has some awesome busts adorning it.  If you’re staying in the centre of Prague, I don’t know that I’d make a special trip up for it (unless you like old Victorian shit as much as I do), but there are trams that stop right in front, so it’d be easy enough to do I suppose.

Well, that concludes my Prague adventure.  Considering we were only in the city for two and a half days, I think we crammed a lot in, and once I found some attractions away from all the tourists, I quite enjoyed myself, so I’d definitely go back some day.  When my stomach is ready to handle more fried cheese.


Prague: Franz Kafka Museum

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Kafka’s another one of those authors that I feel I should know better than I actually do.  I have a vague recollection of reading “The Metamorphosis” at some point, but none of his other works.  Nonetheless, the English major in me clearly likes the idea of visiting literary museums, and I’d heard the Franz Kafka Museum was (appropriately enough) meant to be rather surreal, so I was game.

The museum was clearly aimed at tourists, with a pricy (by Czech standards) 200 CZK (£5.50) admission fee, and guidebooks available in a range of languages, but everything in the museum is translated into English, so English speakers can safely skip the guidebooks (even though the lady at the desk may try to sell you one).  Other than the attempted upsell on the guidebooks, I quite liked the shop (across the courtyard from the museum, it’s where you have to go first to buy tickets), as they had an excellent range of postcards, much better than any I’d seen elsewhere in Prague (albeit with a price tag to match).  I also loved the “fountain” right in front of the museum; there seems to be some kind of phallic fixation in Prague, and this fountain was no exception.  The man on the left had a rotating pelvis, so that his pee-stream was directed from side to side. I was so impressed, I took a video (you can find it in my old posts on Instagram if you’re interested).

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There were no pictures allowed in the museum, so photos of the courtyard and of one of the passages into the museum will have to suffice.  Basically, you immediately head upstairs when entering the museum, and go into a dark room (seriously, if you wandered too far into the edges of the museum, you risked smashing into the weirdly shaped walls, it was so dark) that details Kafka’s childhood growing up in the Jewish quarter of Prague.  I was relieved (literally) to find a bathroom in the corner, as free public toilets are hard to come by in Prague; unfortunately, there was only one unisex stall, so I ended up waiting for quite a while to use it (please, add some more stalls!).  After that ordeal was over, I was able to read about some of Kafka’s friends (fellow intellectuals), and then move into the next room to learn about Kafka’s romances courtesy of some hanging shelves that gave me motion sickness.  For real, they swayed back and forth like we were on a ship or something, and trying to read them was slightly nausea-inducing, which was a shame, because they were interesting.  Finally, I was most keen to learn about the progression of Kafka’s tuberculosis (before visiting the museum, I wasn’t even aware that he was consumptive), since tuberculosis is one of my favourite diseases.  Yes, I know it’s no laughing matter to the people who contract it (and it’s one of the top killers throughout human history), but I find it fascinating (and I still maintain that the only time Val Kilmer has ever looked good was when he was Doc Holliday dying from TB in Tombstone…I think I just have a thing for gaunt, pasty men).

There was a red-light infused portal at the end of the floor with steps leading down that I joked was the descent into hell, and I suppose it was, in a way.  This was the point where things got surreal (as I’d been hoping all along); really it dealt with the inspiration behind some of Kafka’s books and stories, but it did so in a rather fantastical way.  The gallery was basically configured like a giant filing cabinet that stretched on for the length of a couple rooms, and included constantly ringing phones and jabbering voices to give the visitor a real taste of the bureaucratic experience.  I could see how working in such a place (even a less exaggerated version) could be enough to drive one to the brink of madness (which is why I’ve always been terrified of office jobs (though it’s not like I’ve had much luck with non-office jobs either)).  There was also an odd little film in an all-white room that I think depicted a sketch coming to life (Kafka was a doodler, and I really liked his pieces of artwork that were in the museum.  I forgot to check if they had any prints in the gift shop, but I didn’t notice any).


The museum finished, rather lamely, with a boring round room that had early editions of some of his books, kind of a let down after all the surrealism (which also included a section about an imaginary torture device that Kafka dreamed about and used in one of his stories; the mock-up of it was really rather horrible).  I was a bit annoyed that no one had bothered to check our tickets at any point, but I would imagine they do sometimes, so I certainly wouldn’t recommend trying to sneak in without one, pricy (relatively speaking) though it may have been.

I do wish the museum was just a bit cheaper, but by British standards, especially that lame-ass Lamb House that the National Trust charges £6 for, I don’t think £5.50 was that unreasonable.  I really enjoyed all the surreal stuff, and I learned enough about Kafka’s life to make me interested in reading more of his work, though I’m still not convinced existentialism is my thing.  To be honest, the whole reason I have any kind of fondness for Kafka is because I read Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore in my early 20s when I was going through some emotional stuff, as people in their early 20s tend to do, and I loved it to bits and memorised a bunch of quotes from it, which maybe says more about my partiality for Murakami than Kafka, but it was still nice to find out more about him, especially as his life seemed so closely tied to the city of Prague itself (he once said something about all his life being contained within a certain square within Prague)…in this way I suppose he was similar to James Ensor and Ostend.  At any rate, I think the Kafka Museum is worth a look if you have literary inclinations/interests.  And definitely at least stop by to check out the fountain in the courtyard; it was one of my favourite things in Prague!  3/5.


Prague: Prague Castle

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I knew all too damn well going into it that Prague Castle was not going to be for me.  But I guess it’s one of those things you’re supposed to see, and I don’t know when I’ll be in Prague again, so I went along with it.  The castle had two strikes against it from the get-go as it is: a.) very touristy and b.) up a large hill.  I’m way too lazy to be walking up hills, and I hate people.  I also wasn’t impressed with the queue to buy tickets, or the weird photographic licence you had to buy if you wanted to take pictures (50 CZK, and I only saw it being enforced inside the castle itself; the cathedrals were a free-for-all).

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Prague Castle is actually a large complex of buildings on a hill, and not just the castle, so there are different admission prices based on how much you want to see.  Due to my obvious lack of interest, we opted for Circuit B, which included the cathedrals, the castle, and the “Golden Lane,” but excluded a few of the exhibitions.  At 250 CZK (about 7 quid), it was fairly pricy by Czech standards, and I was glad we didn’t go with the 350 CZK Circuit A.  As you can probably tell from the pictures, St. Vitus Cathedral was a complete madhouse; not quite as bad as the Vatican, but close.

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The stained glass was gorgeous, but I always resent having to pay to visit a cathedral, especially because you were allowed to walk in the entranceway (probably not the official churchy term) without a ticket, you just couldn’t venture all the way to the back (the best of the stained glass was at the front anyway).  And another thing…even though I am not at all religious (I can’t emphasize this enough), my grandparents were, and so I light a candle for them whenever I visit a cathedral, because I know they would have appreciated it.  Usually, you drop a donation into a box, and then you’re free to select a candle, light it, and put it wherever you want to on the candle rack (or alternatively, light the candle of your choosing, if they’re the bigger votive kind).  Well, not here.  I put my money in the box, but then some man came up, thrust a tea light in my hand, whipped out a dirty old lighter to light it for me (usually they have little sticks you light off one of the other candles or a main flame, so it feels classier/more ritualistic), and then gruffly pointed at a spot on the rack to show me where I had to put it.  I don’t know, if I actually was religious, I probably would have been even more pissed off about it.

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We happened to walk out of the cathedral right around noon, which is when they do the changing of the guard, so we stopped to watch for a little while, although I was at the back of the crowd so I couldn’t see squat.  I got bored after a minute, due to my inability to see anything other than the tops of their hats, but I did like the band.  There was also an oompah type band near the entrance, who provide the musical accompaniment to traditional Czech dances done in traditional Czech costumes, which look very similar to Polish or really any other Central/Eastern European dances/costumes I’ve seen.  Not that I’m complaining; I kind of dig a good polka.

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So we left before all the hordes did, and headed swiftly over to the castle, which you really do need a ticket to enter.  As I said before, the photographic licence thing was “enforced” here, by a very meek girl who politely asked to see your licence and then quietly said, “please stop taking pictures” if you didn’t have one (I shouldn’t make fun of her I guess, I’d rather that than some burly security guard who smashed your camera in a fit of rage).  It was pretty spartan inside though, and it felt like you were only allowed to enter a very small portion of it.

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Fortunately, that part happened to include the window where the Second (and most famous) Defenestration of Prague took place.  Now, I took a fair few Renaissance and Early Modern History classes as an undergrad (well, my whole Master’s was on Early Modern History too, but I focused on England then), and I seem to remember discussing the Defenestration of Prague a lot.  Or maybe it just stuck in my mind because it was one of the few bits that was interesting.  Anyway, the Defenestration of Prague occurred in 1618, when the Protestants in Prague got pissed off at the Catholic Hapsburgs who controlled the government, walked into what was meant to be a civilised meeting with them, and ended up hurling a few Catholic officials out the window in a fit of rage (you know, as you do).  The officials survived, despite it being a third story window, which the Catholics tried to chalk up to a miracle (the Protestants blamed a dung heap), and it ended up being one of the catalysts for the Thirty Years’ War.  All I know is that there is something intrinsically amusing about the concept of defenestration (as long as it doesn’t end in death); in fact, I used to play a game with one of my old flatmates wherein we had to make up different variations on defenestration like decapifenestration, where someone cuts off your head and throws it out the window, or depedifenestration, where someone just cuts off a foot and throws that out the window (yes, we were nerds).  So I was exceedingly pleased to see the window where this all took place (I dunno whether it was actually the same glass and everything, the sign next to it was pretty vague, but still), and this was by far the most enjoyable part of the Prague Castle experience for me.

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There was also a balcony where you could see exactly how far the defenestrated men must have fallen, and some upstairs rooms (that we almost missed, because you have to walk past the exit to find a staircase leading off the main hall) with some amusing plaster animal heads that I suppose are copies of ones that adorn the castle (though I didn’t notice the real ones; they were probably way up in the rafters), but none of this compared to the joy of seeing the historic fenetre.

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We also got admission to St. George’s Basilica, which was far less impressive than St. Vitus’s Cathedral.  You probably could have poked your head in for free, and again, save for that funny looking painting of a man up there, the most interesting part was what I think were relics on the way out of the basilica.  They weren’t really that great of relics; in fact, except for some bones at the bottom of one, I’m not even sure what they were (nothing like Catherine of Siena’s head in Italy, which is creepy and neat and definitely worth seeing).

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The last area our tickets covered was the “Golden Lane,” apparently so named because a lot of goldsmiths used to work there (I guess because it was right next to the palace, and it was probably the royal family and courtiers who bought a lot of the gold).

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It was made up of brightly painted cottages that I think I was supposed to find adorable, but they were just kind of meh.  We ended up wandering into some armoury museum, having been promised an amazing and unique experience by one of the signs.  It turned out to be a very long narrow room with a few suits of armour and weapons and things in it (granted, the bird armour was cool), but you had to just shuffle along single file because there were so many people.  It was also completely airless in there, which was not welcome on a very hot day.  At least it was included in the admission price.

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Some of the cottages (the ones that hadn’t been turned into gift shops), had little re-creations in them to show what they would have been like when people of various professions lived in them.  The most popular by far was the fortune teller’s, which actually had a full-on line outside of it that I was not about to wait in, but Kafka supposedly lived at number 22 for a while, so I at least got a picture in front of that one, despite the obvious annoyance on my face at being surrounded by so many tourists (more on Kafka in the next post).

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There was some tower at the end of the Golden Lane, but I wouldn’t recommend going up it.  We walked up a shitload of steps just to see some lame fake “torture chamber.”

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On our way out, we managed to get a better look at some of the gargoyles outside St. Vitus (one of the exhibits our ticket didn’t include had more info about them).  It turns out that they included a frog (adorable) and a lobster (which is frankly more terrifying than any monster gargoyle could be, I hate lobsters).  There is also a statue of a boy with a golden penis.  I have no idea why he has a golden penis, or who he is, but naturally I got a picture with him too.

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I think it’s fair to say that I wasn’t terribly impressed with the castle’s offerings, as a whole.  I also didn’t appreciate that they charged to use the toilets there…didn’t I pay enough already?  The Defenestration of Prague window was by far the best thing they have to offer, and I’m still not even sure that was the actual window used (the sign was implying it was, but it didn’t actually come right out and say it…maybe it was a faulty translation).  Without the window, I would have been perfectly content to just wander the complex and look at the buildings from the outside, as St. Vitus’s Cathedral was really the only one with an impressive interior.  And I could definitely have done without the masses of tourists…this is why I generally aim for more unusual attractions – so I don’t have to deal with them.  2/5.

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Prague: Czech Police Museum (Muzeum Policie CR)

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The Danish Police Museum and the Criminology Museum in Rome remain two of my most popular posts, so I wanted to carry on the tradition by visiting the Czech Police Museum, despite reading beforehand that virtually nothing was in English.  Perhaps surprisingly, given the subject matter, the museum is housed in a prettily painted building that used to be a monastery (and sick house), in a secluded spot at the end of a residential street.  Admission is a mere 30 CZK (about 80p), so I figured even if I couldn’t read anything, at least I wasn’t wasting very much money on it.

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Well, I may have not been able to read any of the captions, but I definitely got my money’s worth, because the museum is massive!  A lot of the main portion of the ground floor wasn’t terribly interesting, as it just consisted of photos with a lot of Czech text, so I didn’t really know what was going on.  But there were smaller rooms off the main gallery (which wrapped all the way around the building), and these were more promising.

One of the highlights of the museum used to be the preserved body of a police dog called Brek, who apparently was used to “sniff out” dissidents during the Communist era (sounds a bit grim really), but I think he’s now buried in the grave out back.  However, there’s still a stuffed dog in there, so he presumably either isn’t real, or is the body of some other German Shepherd.  I didn’t touch it or anything, but the fact that it was just sitting out on the floor and not in a glass case or anything makes me suspect it was probably not a real taxidermied dog.

As always, I was excited to see the murder section, which contained some death masks of executed criminals, a suitcase that once held a dismembered torso of a woman (bloodstains intact), and a mysterious plank with a box attached that I couldn’t quite figure out the purpose of.  Lo and behold, I found a video player in the next room with English translations available, and learning more about the plank/box was one of the options.  To be honest, I really wish I hadn’t pressed that button, because I was a lot happier not knowing what it was.  I’ll spare you the details; they made me feel sick to my stomach (and this is coming from someone who reads a lot of historical crime nonfiction) but suffice it to say it was a torture box designed by a serial killer.  So yeah, you may want to skip the videos unless you don’t mind learning more than you bargained for.  I should also say that there were a lot of very graphic photos of murder victims who’d literally been hacked to bits, so if you have a weak stomach (I generally don’t, except where torture is concerned I guess), I’d maybe skip this section of the museum (it’s pretty much all concentrated in two rooms, so it would be easy enough to skip).

The only other English part was another video player in the forensics section, which was safe enough for those of a less macabre bent, but kind of boring as it was all basic info about the history of forensics that I already knew from visiting a number of these types of museums.  I think there was meant to be some interactive stuff in the forensics section, but none of it seemed to be working properly, and it was all in Czech besides.

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I was already satisfied I’d gotten my 80p’s worth after seeing the ground floor, but there was still a whole other floor above us, so we went to check it out.  You weren’t supposed to take pictures in the museum, but we couldn’t resist snapping a few shots in the black light room (in my defence, it didn’t contain any sensitive information or anything, but I probably still shouldn’t have done it).  I think this was supposed to show the effects of taking hallucinogens, presumably to deter visitors from using them; however, I gotta say that this room was awesome, so they may want to rethink their anti-drug campaign if this is it.  Same thing with a different room warning about the effects of partying too hard, with its thumping bass and unintentionally funny tableaux.  I was glad these things were there though, since a good chuckle was much needed after learning about that awful torture box.

Alas, there were still some depressing stuff up here, namely a guillotine room/shrine with mournful music.  As far as I could work out, it was dedicated to victims of the Nazis who had been executed on the guillotine (I’m not sure if the one there was the actual one used…I kind of hope it wasn’t, but it may well have been).

In what I think was another attempt to brighten things up, the last room was completely full of children’s art.  I don’t know why, unless it was, as I said, just to cheer visitors up before they left, because most of it was very cute (especially the elephants), but it did seem oddly out of place.  I feel like at many points in the museum some English would have been an enormous help; that said, I’m probably not their target audience, so maybe the demand for it just isn’t there.  But really, even just a guidebook with a basic description of all the rooms, like they gave us at the Police Museum in Denmark, would have been tremendously useful, and might attract more visitors.  As it stands, I think this was the most depressing police museum yet (based on subject matter, not the lack of English).

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After leaving the museum, we headed out the back way, which seemed to be set up like some kind of driving obstacle course.  There was also the grave of Brek, that police dog.  I’m not sure why he’s shown such reverence if he was actually used to harm dissidents…not that it’s the dog’s fault, but strange nonetheless.

Due to the complete lack of English inside the museum (except for those videos), I left with far more questions than answers, but to be fair, I knew what to expect language-wise coming in, so that was my own fault.  Still, for 80p, I think it was alright, as there was plenty to look at, and I did enjoy the anti-drug displays (though perhaps not in the way they intended).  So I’ll give it 3/5, but reiterate my warning that much of it is pretty gruesome, and you won’t understand most of what is in the museum unless you read Czech, so it certainly isn’t for everyone.  And on a slightly cheerier note (I suppose…), I’m turning thirty tomorrow, so in addition to a few more Prague posts, if all goes to plan, I’ll have a few more awesome-looking museums to tell you about when I return from my birthday trip!

Prague: Death Exhibition at the National Museum

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Remember that death series happening around Prague that I mentioned in my last post? (You can just scroll on down to it if you don’t, not that it really matters.)  Well, to carry on with that, here’s the exhibition at the new building of the National Museum, which is right next to the old building, at the end of Wenceslas Square.  As far as I can tell, the old building is currently under construction, so only the new building has exhibitions in it, and even then, it appeared to be limited to two temporary ones.  It’s 160 CZK if you want to see both of them, but the Noah’s Ark exhibit seemed like it was aimed at children, so I opted to pay 100 CZK (around 3 quid) to see just the death exhibit.  Until now, I couldn’t figure out why it was called SMRT; because it was all caps with no vowels, I assumed it was some kind of acronym (or a Simpsons joke), but it turns out that smrt means death in most Slavic languages.  No idea how you say it with no vowels though! Smert?

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The death exhibition is on the ground floor of the building, and turned out to be divided into three separate sections.  The first was called “Life and Death in the History of the Earth” and was more like a natural history exhibit, with lots of taxidermied animals and facts about death in the animal kingdom.  Fortunately, this being a major museum, everything was translated into English.  However, rather oddly for a new exhibition, the signs had a dated look to them.  I don’t know, the whole exhibition felt rather old-fashioned, which is no bad thing, but not what you’d expect from a large national institution in this day and age.  So there was plenty to read, but not really anything interactive, which was ok as at least it meant there weren’t many children in attendance (well, because of that and the subject matter, I suppose).

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My favourite aspect of the exhibition was the creative manner in which some of the things were translated into English.  For example, the description of that vulturey type bird above as “bad-looking.”  Delightful.  After a few rooms discussing various types of predators and poisonous (and venomous) plants and animals, the exhibit segued into ancient burial practices, with a display of some mummies and skeletons.  There were also some items found in the burial ground of a medieval monastery.

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This section of the exhibition was by far the largest, and I particularly liked the skull-lined room in the narrow hallway leading out of it.  However, the next section, called “Dealing with Death,” was probably the most interesting, at least to my morbid sensibilities.  It began with a discussion of anatomy, and some early modern anatomists like (my favourite) Frederik Ruysch (love his work), and then progressed into the various ways people die.  So there were some exciting stories of famous Czech murder cases, a re-creation of a crime scene, and a whole room full of execution devices, most of which appeared to have actually been used. The wheel, used for smashing people’s bones systematically until they eventually died, was probably the most horrible (they’d smash your vital organs first if they liked you, otherwise you had to wait until after your limbs and stuff got broken), but the scaffold creeped me out a bit too, as that had definitely been used at some point. (For more on historical methods of execution, The Faithful Executioner is worth a read, although all the conjecture gets a little annoying.)

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There was also an educational room about suicide, which broke down the methods people use by gender, as well as the suicide rates of various professions.  And some posters discussing famous people who had committed suicide.  Most moving of all was the part on end-of-life care, which carried on into the main hall of the museum with a film about an older gentleman who’d moved into hospice.  I watched a few minutes of it, and it seemed sad, yet honest and informative (I didn’t want it to turn into another Up ordeal where I started crying in public, so I wasn’t going to watch the whole thing in case the guy died at the end).

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The final section, entitled “Dealing with Death and Funeral Rituals” was by far the smallest and was again mostly an overview of ancient funeral customs, with some Greek and Roman objects found in grave sites, but also included things like funeral music (with headphones for listening), and some of the items used in modern embalming techniques.  This was probably the least enjoyable section, for me, as a lot of it was on religion and anthropology, which admittedly aren’t my favourite topics.

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I guess this exhibition wasn’t quite what I was hoping for (I think I had something less natural history related, and more goth in mind, maybe), but it wasn’t bad, for all that it felt rather dated.  I really did like the second section on “Dealing with Death” quite a lot, and for three pounds, it was a decent way to spend an hour. I’m happy that something like this was offered, as I think death is a fascinating topic, even if some of the content wasn’t necessarily what I would have preferred.  3/5.


Prague: National Memorial on the Vitkov Hill

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A few weeks ago, I went on a VERY spur of the moment trip to Prague (as in, we found a really good deal late on a Monday night, and left on a Wednesday morning).  Therefore, I didn’t have quite as much time to plan things out as I normally would, but with a little help from Atlas Obscura and my trusty (albeit outdated) Weird Europe book, I think I found enough off-the-beaten-path stuff to do.  Actually, I discovered a special death themed series of exhibitions taking place throughout the city thanks to an article that appeared in The Times a couple weeks before we were even thinking of booking the trip (which might have helped tip things in Prague’s favour, though frankly the flight + hotel prices were enough to do the trick).  The National Memorial on Vitkov Hill was one of the locations hosting this exhibition.

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Truthfully, the whole reason I wanted to go to this part of town at all (because it’s quite far from the centre) was because I had to try the strudel from Susta Strudl, and getting strudel AND going to a museum seemed marginally less ridiculous than going half an hour out of the way just for dessert (well, breakfast, technically).  Before I’d ever been to Europe, Passport to Europe with Samantha Brown was one of my favourite shows, and I remembered that she visited this little hole-in-the-wall (literally) strudel shop on one of the episodes, and walked off with this massive pastry for a stupidly low price.  I knew that if I ever went to Prague, I’d have to do the same, even though I’m not that big of a strudel fan normally (because why have fruit when you can have cake?).  Fortunately, there’s a tram that runs nearby (and you probably should take the trams whilst in Prague: they’re cheap, an easy way to see a lot of the city, and they really bez it along those tracks, which is pretty fun), at least, nearby if you don’t accidentally miss the stop and get out four stops later like we did.  So we (eventually) procured a good foot of still-warm apple strudel for something like 42 CZK (about £1.15), and I can safely say it lives up to the hype.  It was probably lucky we ate a huge quantity of pastry, as we needed the energy to walk up the massive Vitkov Hill.

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Upon reaching the top, we were greeted with the sight of a rather bleak Soviet-era structure complete with a gargantuan man-on-horseback statue.  Admission to everything inside the monument is 120 CZK (just over 3 quid, I loved the exchange rate), including the current temporary exhibition, Famous Funerals (part of the SMRT Death series), which runs through March 2016.

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Getting around the National Memorial is slightly confusing, as it involves a lot of back-tracking and it wasn’t immediately clear how we got to the roof-top viewing area (more on that later), but almost everything was translated into English, so at least we could read the posters and labels.  The main room on the ground floor contained a brief history of communism in the Czech Republic (here’s a tip, you can save yourself the climb up the stairs hidden on the sides of the main display, because there’s nothing up there), and led into a number of ante-chambers, one of which was a WWI memorial.  At the other end, we found a mausoleum that was intended to hold some high ranking Communist officials, though I’m not sure how many people actually ended up being interred there.

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The Famous Funerals exhibit was also on the ground floor, and was devoted solely to famous Czech funerals (obviously, I guess), so I’d never heard of any of the people mentioned in it, but it was still interesting.  There were some fabulous death masks, and a mourning brooch made from Bozena Nemcova’s hair (I’m still not entirely sure who she was (Wikipedia just says she was a writer during the Czech National Revival movement), but I noticed she was on the 500 CZK note, so she must have been important).  I also learned about the sad case of Jan Palach, a Czech student who immolated himself to protest the crushing of the Prague Spring movement.

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The next room was also a mausoleum of sorts, and it contained some gorgeous mosaics that I think were meant to honour various Soviet professions (sorry the pictures haven’t come out better; the lighting wasn’t great).  Really, the mosaics throughout the entire building were just fantastic; there’s something I really like about the style of a lot of communist propaganda…it manages to be wholesome and sinister at the same time.  I believe this room originally held the corpse of Klement Gottwald, leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in the 1940s and ’50s, who was preserved Lenin-style and put on display until the decision was made to cremate and bury him in 1962.  I think he currently lies under a memorial in a corner of the mausoleum basement, but I’m not 100% sure about that.

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We’d been encouraged to go up to the roof-top viewing area by the admissions desk lady, but initially had some trouble finding it as the stairs only led up to the second floor and then kind of petered out.  We did find a small lift at the end of some hall, and a woman working there noticed us lingering, came over and gestured “up,” so we realised she would take us upstairs in the lift.  There were stairs that we took to go back down, although they came out in some different part of the building we hadn’t seen before, so I’m not sure if you can actually walk up that way, or you have to take the lift, but I’d probably recommend taking it up anyway, because there were a lot of stairs.

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At any rate, we were well rewarded when we reached the roof, because there was absolutely no one else up there, and the views were incredible.  Vitkov Hill is quite high, which came in handy here as we were able to see the whole of the city spread all around us. And you do pretty much have a 360 view, thanks to the lack of safety fences (just be careful around the edges, though they are quite high so you can’t really accidentally fall off).

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On our way out, we encountered the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (which I believe is free to visit without museum admission), and got a view of that horse statue from the front (since we’d approached the monument from the back when we arrived).  I loved how overblown everything in this memorial was.  I also appreciated the excellent views, and the complete lack of the tourists that plague the rest of the city (perhaps because it’s not in the centre, and does involve climbing that hill).  Though I think I maybe didn’t pick up on all the nuances about the communist era the exhibits were trying to get across, I did very much enjoy myself, and recommend it if you like Soviet art and want to get away from all the tourist traps.  Just bear in mind that aside from the exhibits on the ground floor, it is pretty much a big empty building, which I normally might not have dug so much, but something about those mosaics made the whole thing work.  And you should definitely get yourself a strudel if you’re visiting on a weekday (oh, and the Army Museum is at the bottom of the hill, and it’s free, so that might be worth a visit as well)!  4/5.

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Sevenoaks, Kent: Ightham Mote

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Firstly, pronunciation.  On the way there, my boyfriend and I kept calling it “Ick-thum” Mote, as that was the best we could do with that spelling, but going by the people working there, it’s apparently more like “Item” Mote.  Just so you know, although I don’t think we attempted to pronounce it whilst we were actually there, so at least we didn’t publicly embarrass ourselves.

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Anyway, Ightham Mote is another National Trust property that we chose to visit primarily as it would give us an excuse to cruise the back roads of Kent, looking for local cherries (happy to say we found some, and bought two large bags, which were gone in a day.  The people at Ightham Mote may well have thought I was a vampire, with my pasty skin and blood-red, cherry-juice stained mouth and fingers).  Admission for non-members will set you back 12 quid, plus whatever they charge for the pay and display lot, in which case I’d probably just skip the property and retreat home to gobble down cherries in a darkened room.  But as we are members, we pressed on.

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As usual, information about the history of the home was somewhat lacking, but it was clearly Tudor (going by the exterior alone, not to mention the chapel ceiling commemorating the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon), though it turns out the original house was even older than that (14th century), and the exposed beams that give the house its character today are part of the Tudor extension.  It was evidently owned by a Victoria Cross holder (since there was a VC on display in the chapel), and latterly, a wealthy American businessman (he owned some kind of paper company in Maine, and was a WWI veteran) who left the house to the National Trust upon his death.

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Also, it is home to the only Grade I listed dog kennel in the country (which can be seen in the picture of the courtyard a few paragraphs up), though the only dog I spotted on the premises was an adorable old yellow lab (or maybe golden retriever, it was hard to say since I only saw his head) who likes to hide behind the counter in the gift shop.  I think his name was Frank.

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For the house, they only handed you a laminated map, not even one of those big fact sheets, although there were some in a couple of the rooms.  I was assured that the volunteers would only be too happy to proffer information, though that really only happened in the drawing room, the American dude’s bedroom (I just looked up his name, it’s Charles Henry Robinson), and the billiards room.  So, much of it was just blindly wandering, and there isn’t much to distinguish one stately home from another with no context.

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That said, the Drawing Room is decorated with rare hand-painted late 18th century wallpaper, with a bird design.  My favourite bird is pictured above (that expression!).  And there was also some kind of rare 18th century Chinese cabinet as well, which didn’t look terribly different from newer imitations.

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And there was that aforementioned Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon ceiling in the New Chapel (there was also an Old Chapel, but it was no longer used or decorated as a chapel, hence the “old” bit I guess), though I didn’t quite get how it related to Henry and Catherine, as I could only make out some castles and what was maybe a Tudor Rose.  Maybe there were some intertwined initials or something up there, but it was pretty faded so it was hard to tell.

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Also of note, though you wouldn’t have thought so from looking at it, was the exceptionally hideous yellowish carpeting in Charles Henry Robinson’s bedroom.  It is the same carpet that was used at the Queen’s coronation in 1953; they only laid down carpet in Westminster Abbey for the day, and then sold it off after they no longer needed it, so Charles Robinson snagged himself a big ol’ piece.  It is a particularly awful colour because red would have appeared black on black and white TV, and the BBC deemed that puke yellow would actually show up best, so there you have it.  The whole point of this is that you may well be walking on the same carpet the young Queen walked on, if that sort of thing is exciting to you.

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You have to leave the house and walk through the courtyard to get to the Billiards Room, but as I said, the guy working in there was the most helpful one in the whole property, so I wouldn’t skip it.  The Victorian billiards table weighs a tonne (literally), so this room had to be purpose-built with reinforced floors to accommodate it.  The volunteer offered to let us try it out, but I cannot successfully manage a cue for the life of me (I don’t understand what goes wrong, but whenever I try to play pool, there’s absolutely no force behind my shot, and the cue ball doesn’t even move.  It’s just embarrassing), so I went to look at the witches’ jars in the next room instead, which were found on the property filled with hair and things to try to keep witches out (though making a protection charm seems like a rather “witchy” thing to do for people who were anti-witchcraft).

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There are gardens all around the moat (mote), and apparently some trails as well, so we had a bit of a wander, but there isn’t much to be said about them, save for the midges.  We were contemplating sitting in one of the deck chairs that had thoughtfully been set up by the pond, when we realised there was a virtual cloud of midges hovering above them.  So we didn’t linger for too long.

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I did check out the cafe on the way out, in the hopes of obtaining a delicious millionaire’s shortbread like the one at the Vyne, but alas, it was not to be.  There was a small museum near the exit, which I think was a fundraising attempt, as it mentioned all the conservation work that needed to be done on the house and how much it all cost, although if I had paid 12 quid to get in, plus parking, I certainly wouldn’t be in any hurry to donate even more.  As it was, I was once again thankful for that membership as there is no way I would have been happy with parting with that much cash to see Ightham Mote, especially when the most valuable thing I learned there was how to pronounce the name.  3/5, another middling, albeit photogenic property.

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