Europe

Stockholm: The Swedish History Museum (Historiska Museet)

After dropping an absolute fortune on museums on the first full day of our trip (we saw ABBA the Museum, the Vasa Museum, and Skansen all on the same day), we decided to save some money on the next day by visiting some free museums (so we could spend that money on ice cream, Daim, and cinnamon buns instead, of course). So that’s why we opted to check out Historiska, the Swedish History Museum, which is free, over the Nordic Museum, which is not.

  

It was not located on what I call “Museum Island,” but was on the same island that we were staying on, which appears to be the centre of Stockholm. I think this helped cut down on the crowds, because compared to Skansen and the Vasa Museum, it was almost empty.  We started our visit in the famed “Gold Room” in the basement, which held lots of prehistoric and Viking gold. Unfortunately, I’m not really that interested in prehistory or the Vikings (though I did read Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World, about the history of the North Sea, prior to this trip, and it wasn’t that bad (despite his irritating habit of beginning sentences with “More,” when he meant “moreover” or “additionally,” either of which would have sounded less awkward)), so I could take or leave the gold (I mean, I’ll take gold if anyone’s offering, but I’m not so keen on looking at it).

  

That said, there was a temporary exhibit in here that I did enjoy, even though it took me a little while to understand what was going on. There was a video in one room that featured refugees telling their stories, except there was a big gold square over their faces. In another room, I found a display of precious objects that the refugees had managed to bring with them; for example, one Syrian woman had brought her high school diploma, because her dream was to get a Ph.D, but her education was interrupted by the war, so she hoped that by holding on to her diploma, she’d be able to attend university someday. So then I realised that the video and objects were tied together, and I guess the gold square was the way of tying them into the Gold Room, but it was an odd artistic choice, and I think unnecessary, when they simply could have said something like: “these objects are as precious to them as gold was to the Vikings.”

  

We then headed up to the main galleries, where the sensible thing to do would probably have been to start with prehistory, and work our way up to more modern times, but due to my aforementioned lack of keenness on prehistory, we headed straight upstairs instead to walk through a series of 11 “scenes” representing the 11th-21st centuries. This ended up being my favourite part of the museum; I knew I would like it when they promised a “sensory experience,” which always means there’ll be stuff to smell (maybe even authentic smells), and sure enough, there was a row of spice jars to sniff in the 18th century room.

   

But that wasn’t the only fun to be had in here! You followed a timeline in the floor marking key dates in Swedish history through all the sections, and along the way there were neat artefacts, games, stuff to touch, short videos, and even a quiz to find out whether you were a witch or not (I definitely am, which was not at all a surprise)!  And I learned a lot about Swedish history, which was nice, because I knew next to nothing before visiting.

  

After getting to the 21st century, the gallery led into an art installation about the eugenics movement in Sweden at the start of the 20th century, and all the racist ways other cultures had been represented at museums and universities around the city. This included a huge word map on one wall showing all the people who were propagating these horrible ideas, and the institutions they worked for (this wasn’t a public shaming so much as historical record though, since they’re all dead now), as well as mannequins taken from various old anthropological displays (the kind that still exist in some old museums).

  

There was also a gallery about the Battle of Gotland in 1361, which I had never even heard of before, but it was basically a massacre where Swedish farmers tried to defend themselves against the Danish army, and were slaughtered mercilessly (or so the Swedes say anyway, I’d be interested to know if the Danes see it differently). Their bodies ended up in mass graves, which were excavated in the 1920s, and now many of their remains reside in the museum, which is probably not what they would have wanted (well, they probably would have preferred to not be killed in the first place, so it’s probably a little late to worry about that), but damned if it’s not really cool. They even had videos showing how exactly some of the people were killed or fatally injured (using animation and no blood, so not as gruesome as it sounds) based on the marks in their bones, which I thought was fascinating!

  

Following that, there was a large exhibit containing religious artefacts taken from medieval churches, which I would normally be pretty meh about, but the Swedes didn’t disappoint here either. Some of the altarpieces were amazingly intricate, and my absolute favourite scene is the one on the left, above, which shows people calmly waiting to enter the dragon’s mouth that leads to Hell, with a couple demons acting as bouncers (Hell is apparently the hottest (literally) nightclub in town). There was also a fabulous head of John the Baptist, and a really comfy couch where you could curl up and listen to recordings of medieval organs being played, which were delightfully melancholy sounding.

  

There was a room at the end of this floor explaining how the curators choose the objects that go into the museum, and how they arrange them. I was very interested to see that they had a Buddha that I had just been reading about in that North Sea book in there!  It was also interesting learning about how modern curators feel limited by the 19th century cataloguing system that is still in place at Historiska, and are thus trying to digitise and recategorise all the items so they can tell different kinds of stories.

  

We then headed downstairs to the Viking gallery. I did enjoy the quiz before we entered where we found out which Norse god we were (I’m Odin, the quiz is here if you want to take it too!), but the gallery was more or less what I was expecting. It was undoubtedly well-done, but didn’t really win me over to the Vikings (maybe if there was a pooping Viking, like the one at Jorvik Viking Centre…). It was also really the only crowded part of the museum (they had a range of Viking clothes to try on, but there were way too many kids for me to even get near it), so I moved through here pretty quickly.

  

And straight into prehistory, because we were doing the museum backwards. This actually surprised me by being better than I thought…unlike the usual approach of just having case after case of primitive tools, rocks, bones, or what have you, they made the first section (well, second section if I had walked through correctly) into something inspired by an airport departure lounge (not the one in Stockholm, which was godawful, but a nice one). You went to different “gates” to learn about different topics, and they tied prehistoric civilisations to the modern world by grouping things by themes, such as families, homes, travel, etc, and showing how ancient peoples mirrored the world today.

  

The second part was somewhat more traditional, but had some cool facial reconstructions based on ancient skeletons, and little doors hidden near the bottom of each room that made animal sounds (they were definitely meant for children, but I still bent down and opened every one) that were meant to show what kind of animals prehistoric Swedes would have kept. Most of this section (unlike the rest of the museum) did not offer English translations, except for a brief object guide in each room, so we went pretty quickly through here too.

  

On the whole though, I really liked this museum. It felt very interactive and modern, which they managed to achieve without dumbing anything down or getting rid of actual artefacts (take note NAM!), and I learned a lot!  It also helped that it was one of the least crowded museums we visited, which is surprising, given that it was free and pretty large (but it wasn’t near any other tourist attractions, so a lot of people probably didn’t know about it). I think this was actually my favourite museum out of all the ones we visited in Stockholm (and not just because it was free, though that certainly didn’t hurt). 4.5/5.

 

Stockholm: Skansen

Built in 1891, Skansen is apparently not only the first open air museum in Sweden, it is “the world’s oldest open air museum” (I assume they mean the oldest one still in operation, because it was based on an earlier open air museum in Denmark). It is located on what I’m calling “Museum Island” and we initially weren’t sure if we wanted to visit it, having passed it on the search for a supermarket earlier in the day and seen the queues of people waiting to get in. But, when we returned at mid-afternoon, the crowds had mostly dispersed, so after a fortifying ice cream from one of the stands out front (with rainbow sprinkles, or “strossel” as they’re called in Swedish (which is fun to say)), we decided to take the plunge and check it out.

   

Admission was 180 SEK (nearly 17 pounds), which was another reason for our initial hesitation, but the park is huge. Too big, actually, at least for us at the end of a long day of museuming, because it is built on the side of a hill, and walking around got really tiring really fast. The sun had also decided to make an appearance, and it felt much stronger in Sweden than it is in England, so we had to stop and slather on sunscreen pretty sharpish after entering.

  

Anyway, Skansen was originally built because Artur Hazelius, Swedish folklorist and founder of the nearby Nordic Museum (which we sadly didn’t have time to visit), was concerned that the old way of life was dying out due to industrialisation, and he wanted to preserve some of the traditional trades and buildings while he could. This includes the snus industry, which has a small museum dedicated to it inside the park. In case you don’t know what snus is (are?), because I sure didn’t, it is a kind of moist tobacco that you stick under your upper lip (but is apparently different than dip), and was extremely popular in Sweden until relatively recently, despite the high rates of mouth cancer that occurred as a result. Even though I’m pretty sure the tobacco is flavoured (like something other than tobacco), it still sounds absolutely disgusting to me (and I used to smoke the occasional cigarette, so I’m not completely immune to tobacco’s lure).

   

The museum was not very big, but it had some interesting objects in it (and some excellent mannequins, as you may have noticed). I really liked the collection of “snus dog” boxes, and the surprisingly graphic “erotic” boxes (and I’m not exaggerating the graphicness…definitely don’t enlarge the picture below if you’re at work or something), which were kind of hidden in a case off to the side. I was also interested to learn that snus were a big industry in Chicago, due to the large Swedish population there, and there was even a mock-up of a snus shop in Chicago in the basement.

  

I didn’t notice any snus for sale in the actual museum shop though, which was probably a good thing, though they do still grow tobacco on the premises, and you can even take home a tobacco plant of your very own. All too soon for my liking though, we had to leave the pleasing darkness of the museum, and venture out into the rest of the park (especially bad because I thought I lost my sunglasses at the ABBA Museum, and there was nowhere to buy a new pair on Museum Island, so I had to wait until we got back to “Shopping Island” to get a cheap pair. And of course, about an hour after buying them, I found my old sunglasses buried in the bottom of my bag, so now I have two pairs. But my point is that the sun was really bright, and my eyes were killing me by the end of the day because I thought I didn’t have sunglasses).

  

Fortunately, there was an escalator to take us up into the part of Skansen where all the historic buildings were, so we didn’t actually have to hike up the steepest part of the hill ourselves. I spotted a bakery almost immediately, and I am not one to resist cinnamon buns, old timey or otherwise, so I ended up buying one and also a sugar-coated roll shaped like a pretzel (yeah, I know I had just eaten an ice cream, but we skipped breakfast that day so I was hungry (and hangry)!). Not as good as the oat crunchies at Blists Hill, but still pretty alright. (They had more food stalls in the middle of the park, but they were mainly selling carnival type food, like popcorn, cotton candy, and the ubiquitous Scandinavian hot dogs (ick) and nothing of any real nutritional value (not that cinnamon buns are nutritious, but they are fairly filling).)

  

Unfortunately, the rest of the historical village was just weird, quite frankly. In all my experience of living history museums (which includes the awful summer I did an internship at one), the whole point seems to be, you know, “living” history, in that there are actual people there in costumes to show you how candle dippin’ and wool spinnin’ and things were done. Aside from the bakery, the church, and one of the farm buildings, almost none of the buildings were open, so not only could you not see the interiors, you weren’t “living” anything, because there was no one there to tell you about anything.

  

We seriously wandered around for about an hour, with me pointing out buildings that looked cool, only to find that every single door was padlocked when we got close to them. If the buildings aren’t open at the height of tourist season, then when exactly are they open?

  

Happily, there were a few animal enclosures, because although I’m not crazy about the idea of wild animals being kept in zoos, I do admittedly like looking at them, and they were the high point of the whole experience. We saw lynx, bears, eagle owls, and moose (and looked for the buffalo in vain, but they were being penned up somewhere whilst their enclosure was being cleaned), but my favourites were definitely the reindeer, because there were so many of them, and the babies were pretty damn cute (not so much the adults, who appeared to be molting).

  

After seeing the animals, I was ready to leave, but we still had to wander through more of the park just to get out, and yep, those buildings were all closed too!  We did miss a few sections, because I was so tired of walking around that I couldn’t be bothered anymore, but I highly doubt they were any more interesting than the stuff we did see. From the sheer size of it (and had we gone first thing in the morning, when we had more energy) and all the neat looking buildings there, Skansen had the potential to be really cool, but due to virtually everything being shut, it was actually incredibly boring. I like historical buildings as much as (actually, probably more than) the next person, but most of the fun is in getting to go inside and see how people actually lived in them, instead of just staring at a bunch of exteriors. I enjoyed seeing the reindeer (and eating a cinnamon bun), and the snus museum was OK, but everything else was pretty lame (and their bathrooms were super gross, as you can probably tell from my face. Actually, that face sums up my feelings on Skansen generally), and 17 quid is a lot to spend to essentially just look at a few animals (they did have a few activities available, like carriage rides and a funicular, but you had to pay extra for those, and we’d already wasted enough money). 2/5.

  

 

Stockholm: The Vasa Museum (Vasa Museet)

Stockholm is spread out over something like 17 islands, each with their own distinct character, so, as I hinted at in my last post, I started giving them names to reflect that (different than the Swedish names they already have, because apparently I’m like some kind of jerk Victorian explorer or something). The island that ABBA the Museum shares with Skansen, the Nordic Museum, the Biological Museum, et al, naturally became “Museum Island” (though there are other islands with museums on them, it’s not the same concentration as here). Sadly, because “Museum Island” contains so many popular tourist attractions, it is extremely busy, meaning that our experience at what is arguably Stockholm’s most famous museum was never going to be an entirely pleasant one.

 

The Vasa Museum is built around a ship, the Vasa, which sunk in 1628 only 1300 metres off the coast of Stockholm on what was meant to be its maiden voyage (probably due to being top-heavy). After laying underwater for over three centuries, it was finally raised from the sea in 1961, preserved, which took decades, and eventually became the centrepiece of this museum, which opened in 1990. If you read my post on the Mary Rose a few years ago, this is probably all sounding awfully familiar, and indeed the museums are very similar, which is why I can’t help but compare them throughout.

  

There were long queues just to buy a ticket at the Vasa Museum, but by using the ticket machines, we were able to bypass them. Admission is 130 SEK, or about 12 pounds, which is cheaper than the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth where the Mary Rose is kept, but you get to see other ships and museums at the Historic Dockyard too (including Nelson’s Victory), so you probably get more for your money there. Anyway, the Vasa Museum is basically just one huge room with the Vasa itself as the centrepiece, with various levels where you can get a view of the ship from different angles and heights and look at some exhibits.

  

The Vasa is in a much better state of preservation than the Mary Rose (the Vasa is about 100 years younger), though this has the unfortunate side effect of meaning you can’t really see inside the ship, other than what you can spy through the gun ports on the lower levels. It’s so fabulous on the outside that I wish I could have seen the inside too, and although they have re-created the officers’ quarters and one of the gun decks upstairs, it’s not as good as getting to see the whole of the interior.

  

As far as the exhibits themselves went, I think they would have been decent enough (but not great) had the museum been less crowded. The main floor contained a splendid collection of figureheads that I think were meant to be replicas of ones on the ship, though I couldn’t actually get close enough through the hordes to see for sure (everything was in Swedish and English, so that wasn’t an issue).

  

There was also a small set of tableaux off to one side re-creating scenes in the history of the ship, which were exactly the kind of thing I love, or would have loved, if again, there weren’t so many damn people that I couldn’t even wriggle in and get a picture with that gawping woman (I think she was watching the ship sink) without someone blocking me.

  

I was actually kind of fascinated by the section about how the ship was re-discovered and salvaged, simply because I hadn’t realised that people still used those kind of creepy old-school diving suits in the 1960s (though I guess I should have known, because there’s that scary claw suit guy in For Your Eyes Only, and that was in the ’80s. Apparently they’re still used for some things, but made of more modern materials). I also didn’t know that diving bells had been invented by the mid-17th century, when they were used to bring Vasa‘s cannons up to the surface.

  

One of the upper levels contained some objects that had been found on the ship, though there didn’t appear to be quite as many as were on the Mary Rose, or at least, they weren’t discussed in as much detail.  I remember the Mary Rose Museum had a lot of quotidian objects, and they talked about the sort of people they would have belonged to, which was really interesting, but the Vasa Museum seemed to have mostly weapons and stuff, and not as many personal items.  However, the Mary Rose had been in service for 34 years before sinking, whereas the Vasa didn’t even really make it out of port, so there probably wasn’t as much stuff accumulated on board.

  

Another one of the levels was about what was happening in Sweden at the time of the Vasa, and included some most excellent portraits. One of them showed a Polish nobleman from that time, and explained that one of the carvings on the ship was of a Polish man being crushed under the boot of a Swede, and that they could tell he was meant to be Polish on account of his distinctive mustache and eyebrows (I’ve got a fair bit of Polish ancestry, and though I don’t have the mustache (yet, anyway), I do pretty much have the unibrow if I stop plucking, so maybe they weren’t just being racist?). I learned that Sweden and Poland were at war a lot in the 17th century (my knowledge of most continental European history is abysmal (I know a bit about Western Europe, but almost nothing about Eastern Europe or Scandinavia)), and the Poles were even blamed for the sinking of the Vasa.

  

I have to admit that one of the highlights of the museum for me was a video that was definitely intended for children, about a piglet called Lindbom, apparently based on a children’s book. Lindbom ends up on board the Vasa, where he is about to be eaten, but manages to escape in the end, aided by the ship sinking. I literally stood there for ten minutes watching this video, just to make sure Piglet Lindbom was OK (he was very cute).

  

The other highlight was the osteoarchaeology section, which included the bones of some of the people who died aboard the ship, along with explanations of who they might have been and what conditions they were suffering from, and facial reconstructions of some of them. I took an online course in osteoarchaeology last year, and while I am definitely no expert (osteoarchaeology is hard!), it was nice to review some of what I’d learned. Plus skeletons are just cool, and facial reconstructions always crack me up.

  

Other than the people they’d done reconstructions for (ten people, including one woman and one person of indeterminate sex who may have been a woman), I felt like there wasn’t that much information about the people who might have been on board the ship, which is a shame, because that was what I loved most about the Mary Rose Museum, though maybe this was partly because only 30 people died aboard the Vasa, whereas almost everyone on the Mary Rose died, so there wasn’t as much osteoarchaeological evidence available for the Vasa.

  

Also, while there was definitely a pretty good explanation of the techniques they used to conserve the wood on the ship, Marcus mentioned that he thought they didn’t really seem to say how the ship was actually repaired, because it can’t have been as intact as it is now when they found it. For example, they mentioned that all the bolts in the ship had to be replaced, but didn’t say how they actually did it, just what the new bolts were made from.  They did attempt to explain how the ship was originally built, back in the 17th century, but even that wasn’t very clear to me, since they seemed to skip some steps.

  

So we both thought that the content was somewhat lacking (while there were some explanations provided, we both wanted more), and the crowds really did have a detrimental effect on our experience, as many of the people were particularly annoying about not moving out of the way (one guy was standing there for five minutes taking pictures of the same small section of the ship, even though we were clearly standing there waiting to get closer). I feel like the Mary Rose Museum went into a lot more detail about both the people on board the ship, and the ship itself, while the Vasa Museum only skimmed the surface of its fascinating story (though part of the problem (in addition to the factors already mentioned) could be that I know WAY more about British history, so maybe they had the same amount of historical background, I just needed a lot more about Sweden because I don’t know much about it). But the ship is absolutely fantastic, no doubt about that, it’s just that the museum doesn’t quite match the Vasa‘s glory. 3/5.

 

Stockholm, Sweden: ABBA The Museum

After spending most of an unusually hot summer working in an even hotter brewery (on days when we had the mash kettle heating and the pasteurisation tanks on, it got up to nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit in there (37 Celsius)), boy, was I ready for a holiday (actually, I quit my awful job so now every day’s a holiday until I find something new, which hopefully won’t take as long as it took to find that job)!  And preferably, a holiday somewhere relatively cool, because I really do not cope well with heat, which pretty much left out everything south of Scandinavia and the Baltic states. I initially quite liked the idea of Estonia and Finland, but we couldn’t find any flight deals, so Stockholm it was!  Which actually worked out perfectly, because the weather was pleasingly cool (in the shade, almost too cold without a jacket), and it meant I got to visit one of my dream destinations: ABBA The Museum!

  

You might think I’m being sarcastic, because maybe I don’t really seem like the sort of person who would love ABBA, but I genuinely do (I’m also way more into Eurovision than I should be, which is probably also ABBA’s fault). And though I knew that ABBA The Museum would be super overpriced (I mean, c’mon, you can tell from the name alone), I didn’t even care. If I was going to Stockholm, nothing was going to stop me from seeing it.

  

Based on the crowds I’d seen the night before when we walked around the Old Town, I knew July was prime tourist season, and I wanted to ensure that other tourists didn’t ruin my ABBA experience, so we got there right after it opened, even though we had to skip the free breakfast at the hotel to do so (and they had Swedish pancakes on that buffet, so it was a sacrifice, though I made up for it by eating obnoxious amounts of them the next two mornings). This was a smart move, because there were only a handful of visitors in the museum, and we didn’t have to wait for any of the activities, but by the time we left, there was already a queue to get in (it’s located on the same island as a bunch of other museums, so it attracts loads of visitors). And boy, was it ever expensive!  250 SEK, which is about 22 quid. A LOT more than I’d normally drop on a museum, but when in Stockholm…

  

Since the entire museum was in Swedish and English, we did not rent audio guides, but simply headed into the museum, which began on the floor below the admissions hall with an exhibition about Eurovision, including an array of famous costumes worn at the competition from Sweden and beyond (most notably the hideous tutu/blazer combo Celine Dion wore when she won it for Switzerland in 1988). There was also a Eurovision quiz, a chance to sing along with some Eurovision hits in front of everyone (which I was way too embarrassed to do), and some screens where you could watch videos of seemingly all the Eurovision grand final competitors, maybe since the competition started(?). I was too eager to get to the actual ABBA bit to find out how far back their Eurovision archives went, but I did stay to watch one of my favourite Eurovision contestants in recent memory – Sunstroke Project and their infamous thrusting saxophonist, representing Moldova. They originally competed in 2010 (video here), and though they didn’t come close to winning, they were such a fan favourite that they came back again this year, much to my delight!

  

After getting my fill of terrible Moldovan music, I ran down another flight of stairs into the museum proper, and it was pretty much an instant ABBA assault (as I was hoping). It opened with a giant semi-circular movie screen showing clips of all ABBA’s hits, and there were TV screens in pretty much every room blasting out more ABBA. The first gallery was really the only traditional museum room with lots of text. There was a biography for each member of ABBA before they all got together, as well as a few key ABBA artefacts, like the guitar Bjorn used when they won Eurovision in 1974 (which is what really put ABBA on the map).

  

The next room, in addition to containing a ’70s style crime against wallpaper, held the infamous ABBA phone. Supposedly, only the members of ABBA have the number, so if it ever rings and you pick it up, you will be talking to either Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny, or Frida, but somehow I highly doubt that it has ever actually rung. And if it had when I was there, I imagine it would have been a very awkward conversation, because what the hell am I going to say to ABBA anyway?

  

It was the next section where things really started to get fun. In addition to ABBA’s recording studio (either a replica, or they dismantled the whole damn thing and reassembled it, I didn’t really pay attention), it had three main interactive stations. The clever thing about this museum is that you had to keep hold of your ticket the whole time, and scan it for access to the activities, meaning everyone only got one try at everything and they couldn’t stand there hogging things all day!  Also, everything you did was recorded and loaded onto your own personal private page on the museum website, accessed by entering in your ticket number, which made for cringe-worthy viewing after we left. The first activity was simply to mix one of ABBA’s songs, and try to make it sound as good as the actual version, which was not easy.

  

Then, there were karaoke booths where you could sing along with ABBA songs to see if you had the chops to become the fifth member of ABBA (though not really, because they’re broken up). Fortunately, these were fairly private booths with a curtain that closed behind you, so I felt free to belt it out. As much as I would love to be the fifth member of ABBA (we would be called JABBA, obviously), my singing voice is terrible and I know it, so I don’t see it happening. I made up for my disappointment by going on to the next activity, which scanned my face and then “dressed” me in some of ABBA’s most famous outfits. I don’t think I can pull off Agnetha’s number, but I genuinely quite like Frida’s dress and hair on me (on the right, above). Maybe it’s time for a new hairstyle?

  

After walking past a hall of more ABBA-artefacts, we entered a rather confusing room which was dark and contained a stage. I think we were supposed to get up on the stage and dance around with ABBA holograms or something, but there was a women who worked there who was standing in the corner, ignoring us and staring at her phone, and since I didn’t really know what to do, and didn’t particularly want her watching me while I did whatever it was, we skipped it and moved on to the next section.

   

Which somewhat made up for missing the holograms (or whatever), because we got to be in an ABBA music video (we picked “Chiquitita” solely because of the creepy snowman in the background). And let me tell you, watching the video of us halfheartedly dancing around is way more cringing than listening to the karaoke, even (see above for evidence of my dancing ability, or lack thereof). Still fun though.

  

There was also an ABBA quiz, wax figures of ABBA, and some creepy ABBA puppets that came from some music video I’ve never seen before. The ABBA part of the museum concluded with a gallery of the actual costumes they wore on stage, and though many of them were remarkably ugly, I did dig the fox dress and of course the cat outfits, which were for sale in t-shirt version in the gift shop; and finally, there was a brief acknowledgement that the group had indeed broken up (and gotten divorced) long ago, though this clearly wasn’t something the museum was trying to dwell on (I guess ABBA lives forever in here).

  

The museum also contained a temporary exhibition about the musical artists that have performed at Grona Lund over the years (an amusement park that is literally next door to the museum), but as I have never been to Grona Lund (it was expensive just to get in, and then you had to pay for rides on top of it), I wasn’t terribly interested. I should also note that the museum contained the only clean public toilets that I encountered in Sweden, possibly because I was one of the first people to use them that day, but still, take advantage if you need to, because the other options on Museum Island are grim.

  

The gift shop felt more like a merch table at a concert than a museum gift shop, with prices to match, but they did have some excellent ABBA shirts, and I splurged and bought myself one of the aforementioned cat shirts (Frida’s version, simply because the yellow cat was derpier than the blue one, and thus obviously superior). So counting the shirt, I ended up spending about 50 quid here (not counting Marcus’s ticket), which is definitely a lot of money, but relative to what we paid to see some of the other museums in Stockholm, I can’t really complain too much (and at least I left with a wearable souvenir!). It might be light on content, but the interactive elements genuinely were a blast (except for the one I skipped on account of the unhelpful employee), and if you’re an ABBA fan, I think this is a must!  Non-fans can of course skip it, because you probably won’t get much out of it, though even Marcus admitted that he had fun here, just maybe not 22 quid’s worth of fun. I’m so happy I finally got to go though, and it did very much live up to expectations (including the overpriced part, but at least I was expecting it, so I wasn’t that bothered). 4/5.

 

Turin: National Cinema Museum

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prague Wrap Up Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Prague: Franz Kafka Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Prague: Prague Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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