The Cheesy Side of Hamburg (Hamburg mit Käse)

This is the second and undoubtedly my favourite of my mop-up style posts on Hamburg. You all know I love a bit of cheese (or should I say käse?), and fortunately Hamburg was very rewarding on that score.

Three times a year, Hamburg hosts a month-long festival called Hamburger DOM, which is apparently the biggest public festival in Northern Germany. It is just a really big funfair/carnival in the middle of Hamburg (free to enter, though you have to pay for everything inside), and is worth mentioning here mainly on account of all the creepy anthropomorphic food adorning the stalls, as seen above and below.

I’m not super into rickety carnival style rides (though I would have happily gone on the dark ride if Marcus was brave enough to go with me), but I did use it as an opportunity to try a couple of local delicacies (though sadly not a pickle from one of the ubiquitous pickle stalls, because I hate them, though I was delighted to see that they’re a standard carnival food here) – spaghetti eis and schmalzkuchen.

Spaghetti eis is just ice cream pressed through a spaetzle press so it comes out looking like spaghetti, and is then topped with strawberry sauce and white chocolate for the sauce and cheese. I could have gotten it in probably any local ice cream shop, but eating it out of a cone was so fun it almost made up for the low quality ice cream (not really though. I am an ice cream snob). Schmalzkuchen are just little fried balls of dough with your choice of topping – I know schmalz usually refers to some type of animal fat, but I think these were just fried in vegetable oil, though I didn’t actually check. Bad vegetarian.

Wax museums are one of my favourite things on the planet, so of course I had to go to Panoptikum. It was only like €5 with the Hamburg Card, and I don’t think you can put a price on the amount of joy that creepy wax figures bring me. They had free audio guides, but we skipped them, which means I don’t know who most of the German celebrities in here were (and just to clarify, the guy on the right is an unfortunate-looking German celebrity, NOT Jimmy Saville), except for Lena (above left), because I also love Eurovision, and still find myself singing “Satellite,” her winning song from 2010.

But yeah, this wax museum was pretty great. They had the whole gamut, from political figures like Angela Merkel and (ugh) Donald Trump…

to historical figures like a wall of kings and a shelving unit full of famous historical heads (I guess they’re no longer famous enough to merit bodies)…

to a very un-PC (but entertaining) freak show/hall of horrors downstairs (Michael Jackson was here, appropriately enough, though I think he was technically in the musician section)…

and Robbie Williams circa 2006 and a German woman who appears to be famous solely for the size of her breasts. Fabulous.

Finally, we went to see Miniatur Wunderland, because not only is it the “world’s largest model railway,” it is also apparently Hamburg’s leading tourist attraction. This was a terrible mistake. We had to book in advance, because Miniatur Wunderland is inexplicably incredibly popular, so we did it as the last thing before we had to leave for the airport. The website recommends spending some stupid amount of time, like 3-4 hours here, but we figured we could do it in an hour, and we weren’t wrong.

Miniatur Wunderland is in this giant building filled with other tourist traps, and we had to walk up about a million flights of stairs to get there, presumably to build anticipation. It costs €15 to get in, though I think we only paid something like €12 with the Hamburg Card. Then you have to walk through two floors of shop to even get to the stupid entrance. We went at an off-peak time, and it was still the most crowded thing ever. You couldn’t even get a space to look at the miniature things at most of the tables, and the lights kept going on and off to simulate nighttime, but it just made it hard to find your way from room to room without bumping into people. Also, this super annoying German guy kept following me around and going, “Wow” at everything, but with a German accent. “Wow-uh!” I wanted to punch him.

In theory, there were buttons you could press in every display to make various bits and pieces move, but in practice, children would just sidle their way in front of you so you couldn’t get near them. I did queue at the end to press the Lindt factory button, which spit out a piece of chocolate, but I had to pretty much hold this Augustus Gloop looking kid back with my elbow until it fell out and I could grab it. Wait your turn, Augustus!

The impression I got before going was that they were supposed to have re-created most of the world in miniature, but all they have is Hamburg, the US (solely the bits out west), Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and bits of Italy. The only thing I was sort of looking forward to seeing was London, to see how it compared to the real thing, but they haven’t built it yet. Other than the display of miniature conspiracy theories that we had to wait about ten minutes to see, because some guy wouldn’t move his ass (that’s where the photo of Nessie comes from), and the piece of chocolate, I really hated this place. Don’t go unless you REALLY like miniature railways, and have a much higher tolerance level for annoying children than I do.

To end on a high note, because I did genuinely really like Hamburg, aside from Miniatur Wunderland, I will talk about franzbrotchen, as I promised to do some weeks ago. They are a sort-of flattened cinnamon roll that originated in Hamburg, and they are everywhere, although obviously some are better than others. They come in a number of variations, and I recommend the streusel, because streusel makes everything better (though if you don’t want to be laughed at, make sure to call it “STROI-sel” rather than “STROO-sel” as most Americans, myself included, say). I recommend Hamburg in general – there’s loads of museums, and a cool bleak maritime vibe, which made for a lot of excellent sailory souvenirs, if you’re into that kind of stuff (I totally am).


Underground Hamburg: ElbTunnel & St Nikolai Museum

Because we saw so many other things in Hamburg besides the three museums that were large enough to merit their own posts, I’ve decided to do something a bit different than my usual mop-up posts and split them into two posts roughly defined by subject matter. This is the underground side of Hamburg, and I don’t mean the U-Bahn, though it was super handy and we used it a lot, or Hamburg’s notorious sex district (which we obviously didn’t visit, though I don’t think female tourists are allowed in one of the areas anyway, which is pretty messed up), but attractions that are literally underground.

The first of these is the Alter ElbTunnel (also called St. Pauli Elbe Tunnel), which is not so much a tourist attraction as a practical way for people to get from one side of the river to the other, as indeed many of the people down there seemed to be doing. In fact, I like to think of it as what the Thames Tunnel could have been if safe lifts had been invented at the time of its construction, so it would have had a practical use which would have given it a hope of surviving (though obviously I would have loved to have visited it in its heyday in any capacity). The ElbTunnel opened in 1911, and was apparently modelled on Glasgow’s Clyde Tunnel, which I have never visited.

The tunnel is free to use for pedestrians and cyclists, but there is a small charge for cars (though there’s no point driving through it unless you are just using it to get from point A to point B, as you’d miss all the lovely terracotta ornamentation). Access on foot is via one of four lifts (two on each side, and they have a separate giant lift for cars) or a big metal staircase, and we opted for the staircase, somewhat to my chagrin, as I’ve got a little bit of a thing about heights (doesn’t stop me from going up tall things, but I don’t actually enjoy being up there), and I would have felt a whole lot better if the staircase had been visibly supported by something more than a handful of steel girders. It was worth seeing from a (scary) height though, so much so that I took the stairs down again on the return trip. Probably best to opt for the lift on the way up though, as there’s a LOT of stairs.

The main reason for going down at all, in fact, other than the views of Hamburg from the south side of the tunnel, are the aforementioned fabulous maritime-themed decorations that line the tunnel, which you can see above in collage form. I particularly liked the rats with the old boot. The tunnel was bombed during WWII, but the tiles managed to survive, and obviously still delight to this day.

The other underground(ish) attraction I wanted to talk about is the St. Nikolai Memorial and Museum, which was largely destroyed during WWII. The remaining spire of this church is clearly very much not underground, and is a prominent part of Hamburg’s skyline. However, the museum is underground, being housed in the former crypt, so I think I can get away with this somewhat tenuous link. (Whatever, it’s my blog, I’ll do what I want.) Admission to the tower/museum is €5, and you get a euro off if you have the Hamburg Card. We waited a short amount of time to ascend to the top of the tower in the lift, which was somewhat underwhelming, as you’re still inside the tower at the top, and there’s no viewing platform or anything (and if you thought Hamburg was cold at ground level, just try it at 76 metres). I couldn’t wait to get into the museum, which was substantially warmer.

The museum talks about the events leading up to Operation Gommorah in 1943, as well as the bombing itself, which destroyed much of Hamburg, including the rest of St. Nikolai Church, and killed 35,000 people. This was a much more comprehensive exhibition than I was expecting, and really got into the history of the church (interestingly, the minister at St. Nikolai when the Nazis first took power was a liberal who was sympathetic to the plight of those persecuted by the Nazis and tried to help them. After he died (of natural causes), he was replaced by someone much more conservative), which was redesigned by George Gilbert Scott (Sr) in 1846 (the iconic spire is still the tallest church tower in Germany, and the fifth tallest in the world), as well as what living conditions for civilians were like at the time of the bombing, including the fact that though there were public bomb shelters, the few Jewish citizens who had been permitted to remain in the city were not permitted access to them.

This was actually a very interesting museum – I liked that it talked about how people trying to hide from the Nazis could use the chaos resulting from the bombing to flee the city and assume new identities somewhere else – and it had a fair amount of wartime photographs and artefacts. The decision was made after the war to preserve the church’s spire in its blackened state to serve as a memorial to all victims of war and tyranny. As part of the memorial, there have been some sculptures placed in the former churchyard of various despairing figures that some people were rather inappropriately trying to take smiling selfies with when I was there.

I’m glad we paid St. Nikolai Memorial a visit – it was interesting to get a German perspective on the bombings, since you don’t always see the aftermath when you’re looking at it from the perspective of the Allies (other than when Germany bombed Britain, of course), and it was well worth €5 for the museum, even though the trip up the tower was less impressive than I had hoped.



Hamburg: MK&G (Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe)

The Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, in addition to being fun to say, is a museum of art and design very much like the V&A (right down to their use of initials with the ampersand). I’ll admit it wasn’t on my initial list of museums to visit since I could go to the V&A any time for free and this seemed like more of the same, but we were forced to book our flight back to London for 9:30 at night because all the earlier flights were too expensive, meaning we had a whole day to kill in Hamburg after checking out of our hotel at the latest possible time (noon. I was watching Frauen Tausch, the German version of Wife Swap, all morning, whilst eating lemon gugelhupf. Don’t judge), and as it was the coldest day of our trip yet, there was no way I was spending all of it outside. So walking around a big ol’ warm museum for a good few hours was starting to look awfully appealing.

Admission to MK&G is €12, or €8 with the Hamburg Card. However, this includes all special exhibits, which works out much better financially than the V&A, which is free but charges anything from £10-£24 for exhibitions, though I have to say that the V&A’s temporary exhibitions seem to be of a much higher calibre generally. At least almost everything here had English translations, except for a few of the temporary exhibitions (including the one I was most excited to see, of course). The gallery immediately in front of us when we entered the museum was a special exhibition on Greek vases (this one did have English labels. Shame I’m not more interested in ancient history) but after that we were a bit confused about which way to go, as we couldn’t actually see any other galleries. Turned out we had to exit the Greek vase gallery from the back of the space, which led to galleries branching out in two directions.

Marcus really enjoys taking photos of silly-looking lions (of which there were many), so he was happy enough, but I wasn’t super interested in most of the Baroque stuff or the Christianity gallery (except for some creepy religious imagery with a skeleton, as seen above), and the exciting sounding hall of mirrors was just a fancy reception room. It wasn’t until we got up to the Modernity and Art Nouveau galleries on the first floor that things started to improve.

And boy, did things improve. Robots! These were actually full-body costumes that a husband and wife dance team created in (believe it or not) 1919-1924. Considering Karel Capek didn’t even introduce the word robot (which had been coined by his brother) to the world until 1920, these were remarkably modern looking, and frankly, awesome! Sadly, their creators committed suicide due to financial hardship in 1924, so the world never got to see what else they were capable of producing.

I normally really like looking at clothing, but the stuff here was fairly run-of-the mill, so instead I’m going to show you this sweet sad little lion dog, above (I have kind of a soft spot for lion dogs), and the set of knight figures from the Art Nouveau section.

The special exhibition I was keenest on seeing (the one that didn’t have any English in it, as I mentioned above) was “Therefore, Vote!” which contained posters for Germany’s first democratic elections in 1919. Fortunately, they were such a bold graphic medium that you didn’t have to be able to read them to understand the messages they were conveying. There’s something really visually appealing about propaganda posters, even grim ones with skulls and dire warnings about the Bolsheviks, which I realise is obviously intentional.

Also upstairs was an exhibition on social design, which I think featured students’ plans for remaking Hamburg (it was hard to tell as nothing here was in English either), and “Pure Luxury” which explored the art of lacquer, though the actual preserved beetles that had been lacquered made me feel sick. The rather hilarious tapestry in one of the other galleries featuring a girl and a blue bowl made up for it though.

The second floor is also home to the far-more-fabulous-than-the-hall-of-mirrors Spiegel Canteen, which is the actual 1969 canteen of the former Spiegel Publishing House. Sadly, you can’t actually go into the room unless you rent it out, so all hopes of having a cheeky franzbrotchen and tea in there were smashed.

After viewing the photography and furniture sections, we headed back to the ground floor to see the medieval and ancient galleries, which we had missed when we were initially down there (you had to pick whether to go to Baroque or Medieval, as the two don’t intersect or lead into each other), and I’m happy we made the effort to see them, because the Wunderkammer room had some interesting artefacts in it, as you might expect from the name. Love a Wunderkammer!

I also liked the creepy disembodied eyes in the Egyptian gallery, and the ceramics part of the musical instruments room (poor ceramic boar head). This museum felt nearly as large as the V&A (though maybe had less on each topic, as the photography section was teeny, and most of the galleries seemed to be smaller than their V&A equivalent), and we were pretty tired from walking around, so we were grateful there were comfy seats scattered around, especially the sofa, below. The general tiredness is also why this post is less in-depth than many of my posts, and more me just pointing out things I liked. I couldn’t be bothered to read much at this point in the trip. Sorry.

There were definitely many cool things in here (those robot costumes, the best!), and I think €8 was certainly a reasonable price for all we saw. I’m glad we came because it was a nice respite from the cold, and even though it was similar in many ways to the V&A, the few galleries that were specifically on German art and design made it different enough that it was worth our while. Apparently, the MK&G used to have a lot more so-called “degenerate art” until the 1930s when the Nazis decided to destroy it all, so it’s sad to think about all the things we were missing out on, but I’m glad at least some of it still survives. 3/5.


Hamburg: Museum of Hamburg History

I generally try to visit a city history museum everywhere I travel to get a better sense of the place, if the city in question has one, and fortunately, Hamburg was happy to oblige with the Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte (Hamburg History Museum). I was initially a little wary about visiting, because their website was entirely in German with no other language options, which typically isn’t a good sign in terms of there being English in the museum. However, the reviews on Trip Advisor assured me that there were English translations available in the museum, so I was willing to take a chance. The museum is located in the middle of a rather nice park (or at least it would have been rather nice had there not been such an icy wind outside), so on a reasonably warm day you can grab yourself a franzbrotchen from one of the city’s many bakeries, and enjoy the stroll (I still ate the franzbrotchen, I just didn’t enjoy the stroll).

Admission to the museum is normally €9.50, but we only paid €6 with the Hamburg Card, and it was a big museum (never mind that this type of museum would be free in the UK). We started our visit on the first floor with medieval Hamburg, and I was pleased to see that the vast majority of labels did have an English translation available. Unfortunately, I realised I just wasn’t really that interested in medieval Hamburg, at least not in the dry way it was presented here, so I kind of skimmed over this section. Fortunately, I did enter the dark wood panelled space at the end of this gallery, because it unexpectedly contained the object I most wanted to see (which I learned about on Atlas Obscura before visiting) – a skull with a spike through it!

The skull was found during construction in 1878, and has been at the Hamburg History Museum since 1922, except for a brief hiatus in 2010 when it was stolen, then recovered. It is thought to be the head of notorious 14th century pirate Klaus Störtebeker (yeah, I’ve never heard of him either), which had a spike driven through it so it could be displayed on a post as a deterrent to others (the video there mentioned that the hole had been made “very carefully,” and I had to wonder whether it was done when it actually was a skull, or when it was a fresh head, with flesh and brains still attached, which definitely would have required great care not to splatter brains everywhere!). At any rate, though their methods of execution were horrible, they weren’t that horrible, and it was done after Klaus was dead (from beheading) – it’s not a Phineas Gage type situation, although it’s not like Phineas was walking around with a spike through his head for long either. The head next to it is a reconstruction of what he might have looked like, based on the skull. There was also a display showing what a full row of these skulls would have looked like (there was an occasion where 78 pirates were executed on the same day, so although it already makes for a grim display, it could have been much worse), and some tools of execution, including the wheel, which they basically just smashed into your body until you were dead (so I’m not quite sure why it had to be a wheel shape, when a stick would have worked just as well, but there we are). If, like me, you are interested in this sort of thing and have a strong stomach, I recommend Joel F. Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner, which is about an early modern German executioner.

One thing I learned at this museum is that Germans (or at least Hamburgers) really really love model-sized versions of pretty much everything. Houses, churches, ships, trains, you name it (my god, how they love a model railway, and don’t worry, I’ll get to the shitshow that is Miniatur Wunderland in a later post). Before we went to this museum, I was planning on also visiting Hamburg’s Maritime Museum, but I had read that it is basically just nine floors of model ships, and after looking at two galleries full of model ships here, I really couldn’t face any more. But Hamburg’s maritime history is genuinely interesting because it is such a massive part of what shaped the city, and I was especially excited to see that they had their own section on Ballinstadt, which frankly told me more of what I wanted to know than the Emigration Museum did.

For example, they had a chart showing the price of various voyages on the HAPAG line, and what those prices would translate into today, so I learned that my great-grandmother paid the equivalent of €600 for her voyage in steerage to the US (about what a flight costs today). They also had a chart showing more information about some of HAPAG’s ships, and I could see that the President Lincoln was included, but unfortunately, the relevant parts of the chart were covered up by other papers, so I don’t actually know what they had to say about it. There was also some information about the cholera epidemic in Hamburg and what that meant for Ballinstadt, and way more photos of the complex than were at the Emigration Museum. I don’t regret visiting Ballinstadt and seeing it in person, but I wish they could have incorporated more of this on site, rather than my having to accidentally stumble upon it here.

And to get back on the subject of models, the museum has its very own model railway, which runs every hour on the hour. There is a guy who sits in a booth above it, and gives what appears to be a running commentary on all the action (in German of course), which I found hilarious. What a job, model railway commentator! It was pretty big and impressive though, and (spoiler alert) a much better experience than Miniatur Wunderland, since there were only a handful of people in here, though I must admit that I’m not the sort of person that gets my jollies from watching a model railway, even at the best of times.

The museum also has a gallery on Jewish life in Hamburg, complete with a replica (life-size this time) of a synagogue, though only one small sign in each room was translated into English, so I couldn’t read most of it. There were more galleries on clothing and music, and this weird social history sort-of-house structure that you walked through, exploring the 20th century through each of the three different floors (though don’t bother going upstairs, it’s just where they store the chairs for events). Because I have the sense of humour of a teenage boy, I laughed way too hard at the dickmilch part of the sign below, which was in the replica dairy. Half a kilo is more than enough, thanks.

This museum is way too big for me to talk about each gallery in detail, but other highlights included the section on the Great Fire of Hamburg in 1842, which had various objects partially melted by the fire (seems like every city has to have a “great fire” at some point until they learn their lesson and start implementing better fire safety measures (hope that doesn’t sound too harsh in the wake of Notre Dame, but it does go to show that there’s still work to be done when it comes to preventing fires)), the interactive map where you could see how Hamburg expanded over time, and the replica ship you could climb aboard. I only gave a cursory visit to some of the galleries, because there was too much to read on one visit, and we still spent so long here we didn’t end up having time to visit any other museums that day. I think some of the history galleries could have been more interactive, because some of them were frankly boring and seemed to stretch on forever, but the more modern sections of the museum were great (in particular the ones about HAPAG and the fire), and there was enough here for something to appeal to everyone, especially model enthusiasts. 3/5.


Hamburg, Germany: The Emigration Museum

I spent last week in Hamburg, a holiday I had booked at the start of March at a time when I was worried that we might be leaving the EU before the holiday took place, so I wanted to be sure that even if the shit hit the fan, I’d be somewhere organised enough that getting in and out of the country wouldn’t be too much trouble (having had a hellish experience using the non-EU passport queue in Rome some years ago, before I had British citizenship). I hope I’m not being too horrible about national stereotypes, but Germany seemed to fit the bill in terms of efficiency. Having already been to Berlin and Munich, I decided on Hamburg. In addition to being the home of the franzbrotchen (a type of cinnamon roll I am very enthusiastic about, of which you will no doubt hear more in a future post), it is also a former Hanseatic League city, and of course a port city with an interesting history and quite a few museums, so I was sure we’d find plenty to do.

Because it was a port that ran various ships to the Americas, it also attracted a number of immigrants on their way to a new life, including my great-grandmother (my maternal grandmother’s mother), who had travelled from the Galicia region of Poland in order to catch a ship to the US. In 1898, Albert Ballinn, the General Director of the HAPAG shipping company (HAPAG stands for Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft, which is probably why it acquired the acronym in the first place) started to have emigration halls constructed on an island near Hamburg for the emigrants to stay in as they waited for their ships, a complex that became known as Ballinstadt. This was not so much done out of the goodness of Ballinn’s heart, but rather to make extra money for the firm, prevent the emigrants from mingling with the Hamburgers, and try to prevent the spread of disease (immigrants who were obviously sick on arrival in America would not be allowed in, and had to be returned to Europe at HAPAG’s expense, so it made financial sense to try to keep them healthy). The Emigration Halls fell out of use after WWII (after they were taken over by the SS, that was obviously the end of emigration, and during the war they were used as POW camps), and became a Portuguese restaurant in the 1980s. Eventually, in 2004, Hamburg city government purchased the property and turned it into a museum on emigration.

I knew that my great-grandmother had departed Europe through Hamburg (I suspect my maternal grandfather’s parents did as well, I just haven’t found their records) so I was eager to see this museum. She died before I was born, so I never met her, but I wanted to get a taste of things she might have experienced. We took the S-Bahn out from central Hamburg to Veddel Island, and found Ballinstadt only a short walk away (which was fortunate, because it was extremely cold and windy throughout our visit). Admission to the museum is €13, though we purchased Hamburg Cards at the airport (we normally don’t buy city passes, but these included free public transport for the duration of our stay and discounts at every museum we were planning on visiting, so in this case it was worth our while) which got us €2 off. I had read in advance that none of the signage in the museum was in English, and I was bit apprehensive when I saw an English guidebook for sale at the front desk for €9.90, because I thought €11 was enough money to be spending on a museum where I couldn’t read anything, but we were provided with a booklet containing English translations for most of the main signage free of charge, so perhaps the guidebooks were for those who wanted additional information.

The museum was spread out over the three remaining dormitory buildings, and only the first building told the story of Ballinstadt, which was what I was most interested in learning about, the other two buildings being a more general emigration museum. There were small numbers on each panel that you’re meant to match up with your booklet to find the English translation of the text – though in sections where they weren’t many images or things to look at on the signage, I just parked myself on a seat (which you can spot me doing throughout the posts – my feet hurt!) and read all the room’s captions in one go. Life at the Emigration Halls definitely sounded grim – whilst the accommodations, after being expanded in 1908, were sanitary, they didn’t seem to have been particularly pleasant to live in. Emigrants were not permitted to leave the complex, and were forced to undergo regular medical examinations. There were parks, a church, and occasional concerts, so the emigrants had some opportunity for recreation, but most of their time was spent preparing for their upcoming voyage, though since they weren’t allowed off the premises, they had to buy everything at the HAPAG shop (and I’m sure they weren’t offered the lowest prices). And then of course most of them (including my great-grandmother) were travelling in steerage or ‘tween decks, which by the early 20th century were cleaner and less cramped than those on earlier ships, but were definitely still no picnic. Ballinn himself was the person who came up with the idea of using the ‘tween decks on HAPAG’s cargo ships to transport emigrants, as they weren’t fit for any other purpose (though were apparently just fine for people) – he said he would have been financially ruined had it not been for the ‘tween deck passengers (he was actually financially ruined by the First World War, and ended up committing suicide in November 1918).

All of the information about Ballinstadt was super interesting to me, but as I’ve mentioned, it was solely contained to the first hall. The second hall was the largest by far, and was initially primarily about pull-factors and push-factors that lead people to migrate. This building seemed very modern, with bold displays and interactive elements where you were supposed to insert a special card at different stations, but we were never given this card, perhaps because the screens were only in German, which we obviously didn’t speak. It was still fun to walk through and see all the different displays, especially the large ship in the middle of the hall moored inside a small indoor pond, which you could board, but I wish they could have offered something interactive for everyone, especially as it’s not difficult to provide translations for something that’s already on a computer.

I found the section on Ellis Island informative, especially the list of questions that immigrants would have been asked when they arrived (I’ve been trying my best to use “emigrants” and “immigrants” correctly throughout this post, but I find the distinction between them a little bit confusing, so sorry if I’ve made any errors), but I found that as the museum progressed, less and less of the material had translations available. By the time we entered the third hall, which contained a temporary exhibition, virtually nothing had been translated in our booklets except for the stories of various immigrants in one of the rooms, which I very much enjoyed (one of them was from a German man who immigrated to Cleveland because he was offered a job after helping to save 25 people’s lives during a maritime disaster). The last section before the gift shop contained computers where you could search HAPAG’s records (via Ancestry), and I was able to confirm that my great-grandmother did in fact come through here (I knew she had come to the US on the President Lincoln, out of Hamburg, but didn’t have proof that she had stayed in Ballinstadt. Now I know she did) in 1910 at the age of 16, travelling alone to the US. I wish I had asked my grandma whilst she was alive if she knew anything about her mother’s immigration experience, because I bet it was an interesting story.

Though I enjoyed this museum on the whole, I must admit I am perplexed as to why nothing inside the museum was in English. I always struggle with what to say about museums in foreign countries that don’t have English translations, because of course they’re not obligated to provide them – I know of few museums in the UK that bother to have signage in anything but English – and I don’t want to be the ugly American or Brit who demands them, but if they want to attract tourism, I always think it’s a good idea, because I know that I’m personally hesitant to pay to visit a museum unless I’m confident I’ll be able to read at least some of the signage. In the case of Ballinstadt, I think it really doesn’t make any sense at all to not offer English right on the signage. I know they’re trying to be a more general emigration museum than just the story of Ballinstadt, but I’m sure there are plenty of people like me out there who have ancestors who stayed in Ballinstadt and want to know more. And, as I learned in the museum, although some people ended up in South America, the vast majority of emigrants who passed through here were bound for the US and Canada, where their descendants now speak English, so I’m not sure why they’re not doing more to cater for these visitors. We were the only people in the museum for most of our visit, and when a few people turned up near the end, they were all evidently German-speaking, so I can’t imagine they’re attracting many foreign tourists as it stands.

I guess I should be glad that at least they offer the booklet for free, and that the displays were visually engaging, even if I couldn’t always understand them. Having recently visited the Migration Museum in London, I’m tempted to compare the two, but they’re such different experiences – one in established premises with informative factual displays, the other an art installation in a warehouse that focuses more on stories and emotion – that I think it’s better not to. I’ll give the museum 3/5, but I suspect that score would have been higher if I spoke German, and was able to read and use everything in here, so I’ll just have to hope they improve the interactivity for all visitors in future. Regardless, it was neat to stand somewhere my great-grandmother did and contemplate her experience here, but I think visitors without that personal connection might not have gotten as much out of it as I did.

Brugge, Belgium: Halve Maan Brewery

We made it into Brugge (Bruges) the day after visiting the Ardennes, and though there were any number of museums we could have visited (I was hoping to return to St. Jan’s Hospital Museum, which I haven’t been to since long before my blogging days. It is a former plague hospital!), we instead ended up on the Halve Maan (Half Moon) Brewery tour. I had been on this before (the same trip where I visited St. Jan’s), but not for over a decade, and frankly, I didn’t remember much from the original tour other than the free beer at the end. Tours in English take place every hour on the hour for €10, including a beer, and we managed to get there just as one was starting (I’d imagine, judging by how crowded ours was in the off-season, that they do fill up from time to time, so may be worth pre-booking if you’re more organised than we were).


Even if I had remembered the first tour better, it was still worth going again, because a lot has changed since 2007. They have doubled their production, which created the need for a new bottling facility (everything used to be made under one roof) outside of town, which in turn created the need for a pipeline to get the beer to the bottling facility (at first, they were using trucks, which is obviously cumbersome and not the most eco-friendly way), which was opened in 2016. It stretches 3.2 km underground, and Halve Maan are clearly quite proud of it, as it was the focus of much of the tour. The pipeline actually consists of four interior pipes, two for beer, and two for water, so they can clean out the beer pipes by pumping water through, and can track a leak to within a metre of where it occurs, which is pretty impressive for something that long!


An important thing to know about the tour is that it has a lot of steps. We were warned before starting that there were 220 steps over the course of the tour (not all going up, fortunately), and some of the steps were so shallow that we were advised to go down backwards, which is far from my favourite thing, but I managed. The benefit of going to the top of the brewery was that it offered excellent views of Brugge, so we had no need to climb Belfort, which had the most awful steps (as I learned on our last visit to Brugge) – however, it was also incredibly windy, which was less ideal. I was very glad to re-enter the warm brewery.


In addition to learning about Halve Maan’s beer (which only comes in a few traditional varieties – the blonde is the one you get to taste at the end of the tour), we also learned a lot about the history of the company and about the history of brewing in the city, which to me was the most interesting part. Up until the 1950s, Belgians used to have beer delivered straight to their homes, first by horse-drawn cart, and later by trucks, and the beer industry in Brugge thrived. However, when supermarkets moved into the city, they began to drive small family breweries out of business, and now only a handful, including Halve Maan, remain. In an attempt to diversify before they were driven out of business, some of the breweries began manufacturing soda as well, which frankly is more appealing to me than beer! Halve Maan made a lemonade (I assume 7-Up style rather than still lemonade), but it was discontinued in the ’70s, much to my disappointment.


As I mentioned earlier, the entire brewing process used to take place under one roof, which is why the building has ended up with so many different levels, each of which used to be dedicated to a different stage of brewing. Until the 1950s, they even roasted their own malt, which was done in a room with grating on the flooring, to allow the heat from a fire several stories below to penetrate. It got crazy hot in here when the fire was going, so men would only be able to spend a minute or two at a time stirring the grain before they risked passing out (and speaking from experience, breweries are pretty damn hot in general. I worked in one during a heat wave, and it regularly topped 40 C in there, which is no picnic, and that was just from the heat of the kettle and pasteurising tubs). There was also a special room with a copper floor that the wort was pumped into to cool down to around 20 C before yeast was added.


Our guide also told us about the patron saint of brewing, St. Arnold, who actually became a saint because he encouraged people during a plague epidemic to drink beer rather than water, because it was safer (frankly, I don’t see what that would have done against plague, which is not waterborne, but it’s certainly good advice against cholera and intestinal parasites. I think they meant plague in the sense of epidemic disease, rather than bubonic plague specifically). A comfortable retirement as a monastic brewer seems like a solid way to get sainthood – far better than being martyred! St. Arnold is commemorated with a statue inside the brewery and in the tap room, which was of course our last stop, where we claimed our free beer. I’m not a huge fan of non-fruit beers, but Halve Maan do produce a very consistent, drinkable product, and you can’t beat their logo! The brewery was so named because the brewery originally on this site was called the Moon, and when Henri Maes took over in 1856, he decided that by calling it Halve Maan, he could include his initials and pay tribute to the brewers that had gone before (the Maes family still own the brewery). I do love a moon (I’ve currently got four tattooed on me!), so of course we picked up a poster, even though as I’ve said multiple times, I really don’t have room for more wall art.


Most of the rest of our time in Belgium was taken up by drinking beer, eating chocolate and waffles (and frites, sans mayonnaise), and hanging out in our unexpectedly amazing hotel room (it had two bathrooms and was bigger than my flat!), though I did force my brother to a WWI site in the form of Passchendaele 1917 Museum, which I visited on my last trip to Belgium. I won’t be blogging about it again, as it is roughly the same and still very entertaining (and moving. It’s impressive that they manage to achieve both aims), but they did add a temporary exhibition in an outbuilding on America’s entry into WWI, which I found quite interesting (the exhibition was all in Flemish, but they had free exhibition guidebooks in English). We also dropped by Tyne Cot again, since it is right by Passchendaele, and that too was incredibly sad, as always, but very worth a visit. We ended our Belgian sojourn in Brussels, where we took my brother to Delirium Cafe, enjoyed waffles near the Grand-Place, and almost missed the Eurostar back after waiting in an incredibly long queue only to get to the front and be told we shouldn’t have been waiting in the queue after all (there were no signs anywhere to indicate this. I checked), but we made it in the end. I also discovered this amazing village called Beselare en route to Brussels, where everything was witch-themed (including the Sand-Witch shop). We sadly didn’t have time to stop, but I googled it after and they apparently host a witch parade every year, so I will probably be back for that or the next Kattenstoet (2021) before long!

Bastogne, Belgium: Bastogne War Museum

As regular readers will know, my brother visited me for a week a couple of weeks back, and while he’s generally pretty up for doing stuff, it’s not necessarily the same stuff I like doing (though the things I like doing are basically sitting inside, eating, and reading), so I wanted to try to find some activities we would both enjoy. He’s not too much of a museum kind of guy, but he does have some interest in the Second World War, so I thought a trip through Belgium would give us a chance to combine some of his interests (WWII and beer) with some of mine (eating chocolate and waffles). I prefer Flanders to Wallonia, but Flanders is of course very much WWI country, and for WWII, we would have to venture deep into the French-speaking part of Belgium, to the Ardennes.
Things didn’t get off to a great start when I really had to pee about an hour outside of Brussels, and there was nowhere to stop. We finally found a gas station large enough to have a toilet, but they had a sign on the door stating it was 50 cents to use the bathroom for non-customers, and none of us had any cash, having forgotten to get some in Brussels. This was obviously complete nonsense (charging to use a toilet at a gas station is almost literally taking the piss. Or maybe the opposite of taking the piss? I can’t decide), but I was willing to buy a bag of crisps with a card if it would give me access to the facilities. My brother asked them in English if we could use the toilet (he’s not accustomed to being in non-Anglophone countries), which got him a blank stare, so I just urgently shouted, “la toilette, s’il vous plait!” which got me the key, but the two women working there did mock me in French for quite some time, which I let slide because they did let me use the damn toilet in the end, but I obviously still bear a grudge (I took seven years of French, which is apparently enough to make my need for the toilet understood, but not quite enough to reply to insults in an appropriately biting manner).
Anyway, we eventually made it to Bastogne, and the Bastogne War Museum, which happily offers numerous free toilets once you’ve paid the admission fee (€14). Admission includes the use of their audio guide, which is one of those fancy modern ones that is triggered when you enter each audio zone. This is easier than punching in the numbers yourself, but annoying when you accidentally wander out of one of the zones and the audio guide gets cut off, with no way to bring it back. I liked that the sound came out of two little prongs that sat on the side of your head just above your ears, because those headphones that cover your entire ear make the outsides of my ears ache after a while (and don’t get me started on ear buds!). I read somewhere that the Bastogne War Museum was recently redone, and the new design was heavily influenced by the In Flanders Fields Museum, which everyone but me appears to really love (I didn’t hate it, I just think there’s better WWI museums out there).
This was apparent from the audio guide, which aimed to give us a more human perspective on the war by having people who lived through the war serve as our guides – though unlike the In Flanders Field Museum, which assigns you a historical counterpart based on your age and where you’re from, in Bastogne War Museum, everyone was given the points of view of four different people throughout – Robert, an American soldier, a 12 year old Belgian boy named Emile, his 20-something year old teacher Mathilde, who worked for the Resistance, and Hans, a German soldier (they emphasised that he was fighting because he had pride in his homeland, rather than being pro-genocide (which is still problematic because of the horrible things people do in the name of nationalism) but it seemed a bit odd to ignore that major aspect of Nazi Germany, though the Holocaust was covered elsewhere in the galleries). Actually Hans was probably the most interesting to listen to, just because it’s a perspective you don’t always hear – Emile was kind of irritating, but you ended up feeling bad for him in the end once you heard his story – and I think the four perspectives all together made for a more nuanced view of the war than what we got at the In Flanders Fields Museum (cool though it was to have been given someone to identify with based on your own stats), though obviously WWII was a very different war.
In addition to the audio guide, there were also three “multi-sensory” experiences dispersed throughout the museum (a bit hard to describe – basically you entered a themed theatre and sat down to watch some projections and audio commentary, with sound and light effects) – an Allied General HQ from 1944, the Ardennes forest during the Battle of the Bulge (my personal favourite, even though it was really really cold in there, but I think that may have been intentional to enhance the atmosphere), and a cellar under a cafe in Bastogne, where our four audio guide characters finally all met in real life. The rest of the museum was a fairly standard layout, with a few interactive things for children exclusively in French, though of course you had your audio guide popping on and off in the midst of reading signage.
I’m personally much more into WWI than WWII, so I didn’t know much about the Battle of the Bulge going in, other than the few episodes of Band of Brothers that I’ve watched (and I don’t even know if I watched the Battle of the Bulge one. My grandpa was stationed in Belgium for a while, but not until after the war ended, so he didn’t take part in any of these battles). But the museum offers a more comprehensive view of the war than just what happened in Bastogne, which was only one section of it (though it was the subject of two of the “multi-sensory experiences”), albeit a very sad part, as civilian casualties during the battle were very high (around 3000) due to all the bombing (from both sides), and the Germans also randomly executed a bunch of Belgian civilians just because they could (including, spoiler alert, Emile’s father).
By the end of the museum, I was fairly attached to all of the audio guide characters, even Emile, so it was interesting when we discovered they were all based on real people, and were told what happened to them after the war. They are now all dead, except Emile (at least at the time the audio guide was recorded), who took over his father’s bike shop in a nearby town, and apparently can still sometimes be seen walking down the road in Bastogne (as I’ve said, I wasn’t that keen on Emile, mainly because Emile had an accordion which he insisted on playing whilst hiding out in a cellar with a group of random villagers throughout the long days of bombing, and he played the same song over and over again (I think I would have left the cellar and taken my chances with the bombs!), but I loved the characterisation of Emile’s dad, who apparently said things like, “Holy Handlebars!” and “Holy Spokes!” because of being in the bicycle business. I think the latter phrase works better than the former). Overall, I think it was quite an interesting and fun experience, so I’ll give it 4/5.
This wasn’t all that was on site though, as there was also a huge, rather hideous sculpture of the famous scene of the sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square during V-J Day located behind the museum. As the nurse tells it, they didn’t know each other and he just randomly grabbed her and kissed her (she said it wasn’t even a good kiss!). I get it was the end of the war and people were excited, but it’s still a bit unpleasant and has nothing to do with Belgium, so I guess it’s just here on account of being an iconic image? The Mardasson War Memorial is also right behind the museum, and wow, that is a pretty imposing structure! It was built in the late 1940s to commemorate those killed in the battle, and includes a weirdly modern arty crypt underneath, decorated with the mosaics of Fernand Leger. I actually quite liked the crypt, it just wasn’t really what I was expecting from a site connected to the military, which tend to be much more staid, and I dunno, eagle-y?
It had gotten really cold and kind of rainy whilst we were in the museum, but my brother still wanted to view a few nearby sites, so we spent some time driving along the roads outside Bastogne, and quickly jumping out when we got to a memorial. My favourite one was the one that abutted a pine forest – though it was clearly planted after the battle, it was eerily silent inside, and gave you some idea of what the soldiers might have experienced before the fighting commenced. There was also a memorial paid for by Tom Hanks, who keeps on living up to his decent guy reputation (That Thing You Do is seriously one of my favourite movies of all time, and I actually really enjoyed his book of short stories, so I am kind of a fan).
We also walked through the town of Bastogne, and despite the tourist brochure’s assurance that “shops are open even on Sundays!” apparently they weren’t open on Mondays, as we were starving, and virtually everything was shut (echoes of our experience in France). We did enjoy the animal sculptures that we found lining the high street, but with no prospect of food there, we didn’t linger (so staying in Bastogne may not be a great idea on a Monday). We ended up stopping by a small crappy Carrefour just outside of town for bread and cheese (not knocking Carrefour, because I love the hypermarche versions), and didn’t find much more open, even when we got to Liege, so whilst my brother and Marcus wandered the cold streets in search of a hot dinner, I was perfectly content to pop down to the Delhaize next to the hotel and read a book in the warm hotel room in my jams whilst eating crisps and packaged chocolate waffles (and I think I chose wisely, because they went to some revolting taco place where my brother couldn’t even eat his food because it had unadvertised mayonnaise all over it. Mayonnaise is one of the things we both detest, but because I don’t eat meat, I find it easy enough to avoid, even in Belgium). Fortunately, we were heading to Flanders the next day, where things are open on weekdays!

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).