Europe

Turin: National Cinema Museum

IMG_20150830_143536617   IMG_20150830_144016723_stitch

On our last day in Italy, we only had time to visit one museum in Turin (it was a long drive back to Geneva), and like any normal person, I was having a difficult time deciding between the enormous and renowned National Cinema Museum or some smelly old gunpowder tunnels (ok, the fact that I was strongly leaning towards the tunnels means that I am NOT normal, but regular readers already knew that anyway).  Fortunately, the voice of reason (aka my boyfriend) prevailed, and the Cinema Museum it was (the glowing review on Misadventures with Michael also helped).

IMG_20150830_134229071_stitch   IMG_20150830_134453736_HDR

The museum offers a number of different ticket combinations, mostly based on whether you want to go up to the roof or not.  It’s 10 euros just to see the museum, or 14 if you want to see the museum and access the roof by either lift or stairs.  Now, the museum is housed in a beautiful 19th century building with a cupola, and is probably about ten stories high, so I’m not sure how many hundreds of stairs are involved, but if the scenic glass elevator is the same price, why wouldn’t you take it?  Admittedly, there was a bit of a queue, but we only waited about 15 minutes to go up, so it wasn’t too terrible.  And yes, the views of Turin are pretty good, but the coolest part was getting to see the interior of the museum via lift, because the main floor has a lot of cool features and the other floors are made up of walkways that wrap around the building, so there’s a lot to look at.

IMG_20150830_135949416   IMG_20150830_140650197

Once we’d left the lift and made our way over to the museum proper, our experience began with a look through the beginnings of cinema, before the advent of cameras, when things relied on shadowboxes, puppets, or silhouettes (which I always want to pronounce sil-you-ettes a la Bert in Mary Poppins).  There were any number of interactive things here showing you how light and lenses worked, and (my favourite part) little peepshows of stereoscope type cards you could flip through (there was a sexy red lit “adults only” room of Victorian pornography, but I was partial to the devil and skeleton themed set).

IMG_20150830_141315267   IMG_20150830_141321921

Actually, I just lied, my absolute favourite favourite part was a phantasmagoria magic lantern show that we stumbled upon by chance when we peeked under a curtain (ok, there was a clearly marked entrance, but we hadn’t gotten to that part of the museum yet).  This began with creepy creaking door sounds, and progressed to a veritable cornucopia of ghosts and demons, and a man who got beheaded but calmly carried on rolling his head along in a wheelbarrow.  It was like a combination of the best bits of laff-in-the-dark rides and old fashioned haunted house effects, and I think I want a set of slides for my own house to project this shit on the walls and freak people out (not that I have ever visitors, probably because of reasons like this).  It was that good.

IMG_20150830_141930362   IMG_20150830_140721203

The gallery progressed on to cover early films, with a viewing room where you could watch some of them (I should mention that everything in the museum had an English translation).  I tend to love anything Victoriany, so you can see why this whole section, titled the Archaeology of Film, was so appealing.

IMG_20150830_142822085_stitch   IMG_20150830_142837760

However, the main floor also had its moments.  As near as I could work out, it was made up of composites of different film sets; or at least, sets that represented different genres of film.  So there was a kind of mad scientist room, a Western room, a musical room, a cartoon room, and many more.

IMG_20150830_142907240   IMG_20150830_143155061_stitch

And a “poo room” with toilets.  I’m not even sure what the deal is with that one.  I don’t think we looked around this floor correctly, as we entered the first set, and then just kept crossing from set to set, rather than going out the entrances and exits, so I think we missed the descriptions of what some of the rooms were.

IMG_20150830_143348895   IMG_20150830_145808184

The most awesome thing about this floor, without a doubt, is that golden demon looking thing you see me standing with on the right.  His name is Moloch, and he is a Phoenician god featured in the 1914 silent Italian film Cabiria; not being any kind of film buff I had never heard of this, but apparently people got sacrificed to him, so perhaps I shouldn’t have gotten so close.

IMG_20150830_144206189_stitch   IMG_20150830_142940015

The upper floors, despite there being about 4 of them, were unfortunately not very interesting, as they were all about Italian cinema, and I genuinely don’t think I have ever watched an Italian film in my life (French, sure, because we used to have to watch them in French class in school, but I’ve never taken Italian).  You access them via that aforementioned sloped walkway that wraps around the building, so it is a lot of walking for not very much useful content.

IMG_20150830_144733362   IMG_20150830_144837591

However, there was a whole section we very nearly missed seeing.  At the top of the stairs, before we entered the walkway, there was a curtain with a bunch of security staff standing in front of it, so we initially ignored it.  On the way back down we noticed some people going in, so we braved the guards and followed them through.  Turns out there was a whole floor of movie memorabilia and film posters hidden back there, which just goes to show you should ALWAYS pay attention to what’s behind the curtain.

IMG_20150830_145249224  IMG_20150830_145438656

I’m not a Star Wars fan, at all (except for Halloween themed Jabba the Hut dolls, if you’ve been looking at my Instagram) but even I can see that poster is hilariously inaccurate.  Other than that, the highlights were probably Christopher Reeve’s cape from Superman, some of Marilyn Monroe’s clothes, an original mock-up of one of the T Rex scenes in Jurassic Park, and Robocop himself.  I’m not really that into movies, other than ’80s comedies, a handful of musicals (starring either Gene Kelly or Julie Andrews, or, erm, Whoopie Goldberg (yeah, I love Sister Act. Deal with it)), cheesy campy horror films like Evil Dead (the original version only), and Indiana Jones (my god I love Indiana Jones), so most of this didn’t do much for me, but I can see how other people would think it was cool.

IMG_20150830_150035580   IMG_20150830_145544700

Considering they didn’t have anything from Dead/Alive or Hocus Pocus and I still enjoyed it as much as I did, the National Cinema Museum must have really been pretty decent.  Since I am the exact opposite of a film buff, all the ghost-type stuff in the Archaeology of Film section was my favourite by far, but I think most people who appreciate movies not starring Chevy Chase or Bruce Campbell would love this place.  It was superbly put together, and the building itself is attractive.  There is also a large shopping complex thing on the ground floor, with a gift shop (they have Moloch postcards and magnets, so we stocked up on both), a small branch of Eataly (the very expensive Italian gourmet food store; I’d recommend visiting the main store just outside the centre of Turin, not so much to buy things as to just admire all the types of pasta, but their gelato is reasonably priced and very tasty), and free wifi, so you could probably kill quite a lot of time in here if you were so inclined.  I’m going to give it 4.5/5, because I’m not that interested in cinema and I liked it regardless, so most people will probably love it.

IMG_20150830_131912233_HDR   IMG_20150830_131921863

Turin: Museum of Human Anatomy (Museo di Anatomia Umana)

I am sad for your sake that this will have to be a picture-less post (the no photo rule was especially strictly enforced in the museum); there were so many excellent anatomical specimens in this museum, it seems a shame not to show you any.  If you read my last post, you will know that the Anatomy Museum is one of three museums within the University of Turin that you can visit with a 10 euro pass (or 5 euro for one, though if you like anatomy, you’ll probably want to visit the Cesare Lombroso Museum too.  Just sayin’).  The Anatomy Museum is located in the same general complex as the Lombroso and Fruit Museums, just on the opposite side of it, so you’ll have to exit and walk around the block, but again, the museum itself is clearly signposted, so you’ll know it when you’re there.

Like the Lombroso Museum, most of the written content of the museum was conveyed through big sturdy wooden boards waiting in holders next to each display case.  I was initially dismayed to see that the signs only appeared to be in Italian; luckily, I flipped one over and realised that English was on the other side.  Huzzah!  Let me tell you, these were pretty excellent signs/captions/illustrated descriptions/factsheets (I’m not sure what they’re actually called, but you know what I mean). There were cute little drawings of the museum’s choice specimens on each one (insofar as pickled body parts can be cute), with diagrams directing you to the highlights, and detailed descriptions of all the wax anatomical models.  There was also information about the workings of the human body, so it was kind of like a crash anatomy lesson (Canvas actually offers a free online course called Mini Medical School; I took it last spring for something to do.  Not to brag, but I totally aced the infectious disease unit.  Well, actually all of it, because you can retake the tests, but I got 100% on infectious diseases on the first try).

The main gallery is quite long, with cases alongside both walls, arranged (for the most part) in anatomical order.  Each section includes a beautiful old wax model or interesting skeleton (or both), like the skeletons of a giant and dwarf.  There are also paintings of famous anatomists adorning the walls; my favourite was of course Vesalius (since Ruysch or Paré weren’t represented.  Coincidentally, I was reading The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons at the time, which I definitely recommend if you’re into anatomy or the workings of the brain.  There’s a whole chapter on Vesalius and Paré.  Actually, I like all of Sam Kean’s books, as I am also “keen” (get it?) on the history of science).  I got to look at an early edition of De humani corporis fabrica when I was doing my MA, and the memory of those gorgeous drawings has stayed with me.  Highlights of this section, other than the wax models, include a couple of South American mummies, an eighteenth century plaster cast of a pregnant woman, with belly opened; and a large amount of dry anatomical preparations (as opposed to wet ones aka “stuff in jars”) which really allow you to admire the muscular and circulatory systems.

The back room is all about the head, and contains an impressive amount of preserved brains just casually hanging out on shelves (in that neurology book I just mentioned, Kean kept compared sliced brains to foccaccia, which I thought particularly apt here since we were in Italy.  I did eat a lot of focaccia on the trip, so clearly I wasn’t grossed out by this).  There was a huge wood and ivory model of the brain, a few skulls (like the Lombroso Museum), and, also like the Lombroso Museum, the skeleton of its 19th century curator, Carlo Giacomini.  He too decided he wanted to become a part of the museum upon his death, so his skeleton is here, along with his brain, preserved using his own technique.  (Can I just say that I think this is an excellent idea?  One of my goals in life is to amass enough interesting crap whilst I’m alive to have my own Wunderkammern, and if that happens, I wouldn’t mind being stuck in there myself after I die.  Though maybe Jeremy Bentham style, where everything gets preserved, because I think that would creep people out more.)

The brain collection is largely from the 19th century, thanks to the work of Giacomini, there was of course also a phrenology case, including the plaster casts of heads of some famous/notorious individuals.  Aside from Napoleon, most of them were probably famous only in Italy, but I was intrigued by the story of the “Hyena of San Giorgio,” whose (plaster) head is on display here.  If you’ve read my Danish Police Museum post, you’ll know that a mysterious photo of a murder scene featuring a bloodied sausage grinder, with no English translation, has triggered my fascination with finding “sausage murderers.”  Well, it sounds like this Hyena fellow was probably one of those, as he brutally raped and killed a number of girls, and allegedly turned some of them into sausages.  I mean, awful stuff, obviously, but I do feel somewhat vindicated every time I discover proof that sausage murderers are a thing (if I’m getting technical, this may have started with one of those stories in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books (those of the terrifying illustrations that traumatised every child who grew up in the 1990s) in which an evil butcher was making children into sausages).

Anyway, moving on from that grisly interlude, because the Anatomical Museum really isn’t all that grisly itself.  Sure, there’s a lot of body parts, but they’re more about displaying the intricacies of the human body than deformities or abnormalities (to be sure, there are some of those, but not to the extent I’ve seen at other medical museums).  And the galleries that the museum is housed in are truly beautiful, very classically museumy, so even if medical stuff isn’t normally your bag, you may be able to appreciate this place for its historic value.  I really loved it; even the signboards were witty and charming, and the wax anatomical models were stunning.  If you’re in Turin on any day but a Sunday (the museums are closed then), I highly recommend taking an hour or two out of your day to check both the Anatomy and Lombroso Museums out…if you love medical museums as much as I do, you definitely won’t be disappointed.  4/5.

 

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

IMG_20150828_104106692_HDR   IMG_20150828_104153124

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.

IMG_20150828_103614625   IMG_20150828_103900686

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!

Prague Wrap Up Post

IMG_20150724_194816675_HDR_stitch   IMG_20150722_212209424

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.

IMG_20150722_200017088   IMG_20150722_200626062_HDR

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.

IMG_20150724_134239457_HDR   IMG_20150722_202857287

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).

IMG_20150723_204924   IMG_20150723_163108337

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.)

IMG_20150723_174613837_HDR   IMG_20150723_174712507_HDR

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.”

IMG_20150723_180932886_HDR   IMG_20150723_180828730

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).

IMG_20150724_151425617_HDR   IMG_20150724_151554321

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.

IMG_20150724_174611791   IMG_20150724_175110586_HDR_stitch

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.

IMG_20150724_194249202_stitch   IMG_20150724_194629168_stitch

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.

IMG_20150724_200759914   IMG_20150724_200306277_HDR

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.

IMG_20150724_195645201  IMG_20150724_195624020_HDR

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.

IMG_20150724_200108621   IMG_20150724_200610519_HDR

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).

IMG_20150724_201416702_HDR   IMG_20150724_201430962

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

IMG_20150724_140201099   IMG_20150724_140126761

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).

IMG_20150724_150151588   IMG_20150724_144131733

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).

IMG_20150724_150403476

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

IMG_20150724_115810160_HDR_stitch   IMG_20150724_112326077

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).

IMG_20150724_113940850   IMG_20150724_115018830_stitch

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.

IMG_20150724_114530500_HDR  IMG_20150724_114814289

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.

IMG_20150724_115349408   IMG_20150724_115512802_stitch

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.

IMG_20150724_120058535_HDR   IMG_20150724_120752382

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.

IMG_20150724_121235976_HDR   IMG_20150724_121907104

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.

IMG_20150724_122352909  IMG_20150724_122532389

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.

IMG_20150724_123434321_stitch   IMG_20150724_123626150

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).

IMG_20150724_123854822   IMG_20150724_124056855_HDR

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).

IMG_20150724_130039730_HDR   IMG_20150724_130127932_HDR

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.

IMG_20150724_124551458   IMG_20150724_124808034

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).

IMG_20150724_130025879   IMG_20150724_130507772

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.”

IMG_20150724_132319400_HDR   IMG_20150724_131428606

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.

IMG_20150724_205722   IMG_20150724_132618601_HDR

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.

IMG_20150724_111949019_HDR   IMG_20150724_133141633_stitch

 

Prague: Czech Police Museum (Muzeum Policie CR)

IMG_20150723_141846037_HDR   IMG_20150723_141829858

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.

IMG_20150723_133356576   IMG_20150723_141548362_HDR

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.

IMG_20150723_140129237   IMG_20150723_140057470

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).

IMG_20150723_141610770_HDR_stitch   IMG_20150723_141543510_HDR

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

IMG_20150723_150243807   IMG_20150723_145935452

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?

IMG_20150723_144607473   IMG_20150723_144704971

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).

IMG_20150723_144649052   IMG_20150723_144508447

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.

IMG_20150723_144712757   IMG_20150723_145410258

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.)

IMG_20150723_150125293   IMG_20150723_150135545

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).

IMG_20150723_151555429   IMG_20150723_151203617

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.

IMG_20150723_150348063   IMG_20150723_150310204

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

IMG_20150723_122039109   IMG_20150723_123657661

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.

IMG_20150723_112857516_HDR   IMG_20150723_113318045_HDR

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.

IMG_20150723_123620849   IMG_20150723_114020808

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.

IMG_20150723_114049479   IMG_20150723_114216781

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.

IMG_20150723_115605687   IMG_20150723_115112111

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.

IMG_20150723_120443903   IMG_20150723_120923671

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.

IMG_20150723_120943962   IMG_20150723_121308670

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.

IMG_20150723_121928532_HDR_stitch   IMG_20150723_122122186_stitch

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).

IMG_20150723_122837699_stitch   IMG_20150723_122925900

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.

IMG_20150723_123222737   IMG_20150723_124509876

Brussels, Belgium: The Parlamentarium and Cantillon Brewery

IMG_20150511_152754146_HDR   IMG_20150511_150820787

On our last day in Belgium, still riding high on the thrills of Kattenstoet, we decided to head back to Brussels early to give ourselves some time to do stuff in the city before catching the Eurostar back home.  (If I mention how much I prefer the Eurostar to flying, will they give me free tickets?  No, I don’t think so either, but it’s worth a try.)  We went to Brussels a few years ago, and I wasn’t terribly impressed with it then, but I don’t remember visiting many museums the first time around, and I also think the frites there are better than most of the ones in Brugge (must be the ox fat), so it was worth it just to get that cardboard cone of fried potatoes.  Unfortunately, we were there on a Monday, which is the museum closing day in Belgium, so it initially looked like we wouldn’t be seeing any museums this time around either.  Enter the Parlamentarium.

Aside from its amazing name, the Parlamentarium also had free admission, and of course its Monday opening hours to recommend it.  It sounded perfect, at least, until we actually had to find our way there.  We’d gotten into the Grand Place from Brussels Zuid with little difficulty (where I gobbled down some frites), but the European Parliament is located outside the touristy centre of the city, in a district full of scary embassies with soldiers clutching machine guns out front (America, I’m looking at you).  Strangely, considering how Belgium is renowned for being a flat country, Brussels appears to be built on a hill, and we found ourselves climbing it the whole way.  And we took a wrong turn at some point, which extended the journey.  And it was about 80 degrees Fahrenheit that day, which was a hell of a lot hotter than we’d been used to, so we sweated the whole way there.

But we made it in the end, albeit about an hour later than I would have liked to, because last entry to Cantillon Brewery was at 4, and it was at the other end of the city.  This meant our visit to the Parlamentarium would have to be a short one.  To get in, you have to submit your bag and person to a security scan, and then store your bags in the lockers they provide (which are free, at least), and I don’t think they encourage photography (save for with the cardboard cutout of Martin Schulz before the entrance.  And if I told you I knew who Martin Schulz was before visiting the museum, I’d be lying).  Because everything in the museum must be translated into the 24 official languages of the EU, to avoid having a million different signs in the Parlamentarium, they rely on audio guides.  The idea is that you scan certain points in the museum, and a short video will play in your chosen language.  However, it didn’t seem to be working correctly when I was there, as it kept trying to play me videos in French, only switching to English after the opening gallery.

I think this museum is for people more patient than I am; because there were loads of scanning points with fairly lengthy videos (or audio) for each, you would have had to stand there for hours to listen to everything, so I just skipped ahead to the interactive bits.  They had a giant map of Europe, with little moveable stands, the idea being that you scanned different points on the map to learn more about that country.  They also had a mock-up of the European Parliament (comfy chairs), with interactive screens where you could play games trying to match MEPs up with their seats, or vote on issues.

To be honest, I felt kind of embarrassed the whole time I was there, thanks to the UK’s Euroskepticism (and the antics of Nigel Farage).  It’s pretty ridiculous when the people representing you (well, in a general sense; as I’m not a citizen yet, I guess I don’t technically get any kind of representation) don’t even believe in the body they’re meant to be working with; seriously, what is the point of them even being there, other than to make themselves as obnoxious as possible and impede progress?!  I don’t like to get political on here, but I would categorise myself as more pro-EU than not (and having had the freedom to move here myself (which would not have been the case had I enrolled in my Master’s programme just a year later than I did, “thanks” to Theresa May! (ugh)) it would be pretty hypocritical of me not to support that same right for others), so visiting the Parlamentarium was eye-opening in lots of ways, and not good ones.  I wish I would have had a bit more time to spend here, for all that I wasn’t crazy about the audio guides, but I think a lot of it was just too political-sciencey to have held my interest anyway.  I appreciate that it’s free and open to the public though.  3/5.

IMG_20150511_163720363   IMG_20150511_163627650

Even though we didn’t spend much time at the Parlamentarium, by the time we found a train station and caught a train back to Brussels-Zuid, it was already after 4, and we still had to walk to Cantillon, so I was sure they weren’t going to let us in.  Fortunately, the gregarious man at the front desk didn’t seem too bothered by our arriving 15 minutes late, as there were still a few groups in front of us he was letting in.  I’d never tried Cantillon before visiting the brewery, but I like lambics very much (I really only like lambics and fruit beers; I’m into sour but not bitter), and one of my friends always raves about their stuff, so I thought it was worth investigating further.  7 euros gets you a self-guided brewery tour (what they refer to as a living museum of gueuze, which apparently is pronounced guuuuuuhhhhz, at least according to the woman in the shop) and two samples of their beer (about a half glass each, whatever that translates to in ounces, since I don’t think they were pint glasses).

IMG_20150511_162353026   IMG_20150511_162628338

The brewery isn’t all that big, as they have a fairly small-scale production, but the booklet they give you is pretty lengthy, and fully covers all the stages of the brewing process.  Really it was more about smelling your way through, as everything had a yeasty cheesy aroma that I rather enjoyed, there not being that much to actually see, since they weren’t bottling anything up at this time of year.  Gueuze is a blended lambic, made from lambics of different vintages, so I think they always have something brewing away (their Grand Cru is made of three year old lambic), there just isn’t anything to look at while it sits in barrels I guess.

IMG_20150511_162737501   IMG_20150511_162949730

I did kind of rush through the tour because I was eager to get to the sampling portion of the experience, which is handed out by a man with a grey ponytail who was mentioned on all the Trip Advisor reviews (I don’t know why, but after reading so much about him I would have been a little disappointed if he wasn’t there).  We got a sample of gueuze and one of kriek, both of which were delicious (though I am very partial to kriek).  They have more beers available to taste, but you have to pay extra for them, and as they were about to close, we didn’t want to linger too long.

IMG_20150511_163423049   IMG_20150511_163520312

If the taster sells you on their beers (as they clearly hope it will), never fear, because they have a variety of merchandise for sale next to the bar area, including t-shirts, cheese, marmalade, and of course, a range of Cantillon beer (though only a small selection of the various types they make).  We picked up four 75cl bottles, which in retrospect was a mistake as it meant we had to haul them back home, but they were quite a bit cheaper than they are in the UK, so whatever.  I know sour beer isn’t to everyone’s taste, but these guys seemed really passionate about what they do, and I loved their beer, so I enjoyed myself (even though the tour really isn’t worth 7 euros, but after getting the samples, you’re not likely going to complain about it); just don’t count on an in-depth or guided tour, because this isn’t the brewery for that.  3.5/5.  Until next time, Belgium!

IMG_20150511_164416053   IMG_20150511_163919411_HDR_stitch