castles

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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Rye, East Sussex: Rye Castle Museum and Ypres Tower

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Why Rye?  Well, it’s near the seaside, and is within day trip distance from SW London (and takes you right through what I like to call the cherry belt: that glorious part of Kent and East Sussex littered with roadside stands selling bags of Kentish cherries far superior to anything you’ll find in the supermarket).  And, I miss American-style rye bread with caraway seeds; I especially like it toasted, with cinnamon and sugar, because it’s got kind of a sweet-savoury thing going on, so the name may have made me a bit hungry.  But it’s not as though the town of Rye is particularly known for its bread (in fact, I didn’t see a single artisan bakery, just “traditional” British ones producing some awful looking mushy white crap, basically a hot dog bun in loaf form).  What they do have is a castle, known as Ypres Tower.

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First, I should clarify a couple potentially confusing things about the castle.  Coming off the back of so many posts about Belgium, you might be thinking that with a name like Ypres, the castle has some connection to WWI or Belgium.  It turns out it was once owned by a man called John de Ypres, and has nothing to do with Belgium at all.  Also, the actual castle is not the castle museum (as we thought at first); the castle is Ypres Tower; the castle museum is down the road in a nondescript building.  Also, though they’re all part of the same museum, the Rye Castle Museum (the nondescript thing) is free, but Ypres Tower is £3.  Now that I’ve cleared all that up, let’s crack on!

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I could tell almost immediately upon entering Ypres Tower and having a peek around the ground floor, that it was going to be the kind of museum I like.  Old-fashioned, almost exhaustively educational in places (while still playing fast and loose with history, to include legend as “fact”), and above all, charming.  The castle had a number of uses over the years, from private residence, to defence, and finally as a prison, which were all reflected in the museum.  I was greeted by the alleged skeleton of John Breads (great name, especially coming from Rye), who famously murdered a local man in a case of mistaken identity (he was trying to kill someone he had a grudge against, but it was dark and he got the wrong man, which just seems careless), and was executed, then had his corpse hung from a gibbet.  There was also a delightful tapestry thing, made by local women, showing the history of the castle – my favourite bit was the distraught looking prisoner pictured above. In addition, there was an herb room hidden in the corner, with some explanation given of various medicinal herbs.

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The steps leading to the first floor of the tower (and slightly beyond, to a garderobe, as I discovered to my delight) were uneven and a real tripping hazard, as we were warned by the man at the admissions desk (I did stumble on the edges of two of them, so he wasn’t lying), but led up to a room with cases of uniforms, pottery tiles, and some knitting done by those craftsy local women, as well as a large display about the history of smuggling in Rye.

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Yeah, you can see what I mean from that picture about some of the history being exhausting to read.  Anyway, although Rye is now a couple of miles inland, for many centuries it was almost an island, surrounded by the English Channel, as I learned from the old-school lighted relief map in the centre of the room.  So it was a major port throughout the Middle Ages: even after silting occurred and one of the rivers Rye sat on changed course, meaning it was no longer on the sea, it continued to function curiously like a port town, and its economy depended heavily on smuggling, because it no longer had an influx of ships to depend on.  (Rye still has a definite seaside feel to it, as I’ll discuss further in my next post.)

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There were some nice views out the side of the tower, even though we weren’t actually all that high up (as far as towers go, since there were levels above us), because Rye is built on a hill, and Ypres Tower is at the top of it.  After having a good look out the side, it was time to brave those uneven steps again (not as bad on the way down), and head down to see the basement gallery.

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The basement was clearly the child-friendly area; as always, I was overjoyed that none were there, so I could try on ALL the armour.  And play with medieval weapons.

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I clearly rock at firing a longbow (actually, I couldn’t have been an archer, going by the test at the museum.  I think you probably had to start practicing while your bones were still malleable, so your shoulders deformed in a useful way).  Anyway, I enjoyed this overview of medieval history; any time there is stuff to try on, I get way too excited about it.

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Heading back outside, we turned right to walk through the garden, and reached the former women’s prison.  All prisoners were initially held within the tower itself in appalling conditions, but Elizabeth Fry, famed Quaker prison reform campaigner, visited the prison and convinced Rye to open a separate women’s prison, where the women had actual beds, fireplaces, and chamberpots.  It was still pretty grim, and involved eating a gruel-based diet, as the short projection inside the prison shows (keep your eyes peeled for the animated rat), but better than having to sleep in a pool of your own excrement!

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Once we figured out that we hadn’t yet seen the Rye Castle Museum, which to be honest, didn’t happen until after we left Ypres Tower and consulted the free map we grabbed off the admissions desk, we headed down the hill to East Street, to see t’other museum.  This was pretty small, all one room, but hey, it was free.  There was a bit about WWI, and then just loads of glass cases with objects relating to Rye’s history.  I liked the pottery pigs, which are apparently a local thing (though no one seemed to have any for sale, not even a pottery shop we passed that had an array of other animals in the window; although there may have been some inside, they weren’t prominently displayed), because people from Sussex are apparently stubborn and “Wun’t be Druv,” which is to say they won’t be driven where they don’t want to go.

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This was a fairly standard local history museum, and apart from finding some of the objects amusing, nothing particularly stood out to me, but if you’re looking to kill some time, you may as well stop in as it’s free.  I liked Ypres Tower a lot better, and though it was indeed very old-school, that’s kind of what I liked about it, and I don’t think 3 quid was a bad price (especially relative to what the National Trust are charging for their Rye property, more on that coming soon).  3/5 for Ypres Tower.  I wouldn’t make a special trip to Rye for it, but if you’re already here on account of the cobblestones (seriously, why are cobblestones a tourist attraction?!) or all the supposedly haunted stuff (or just because you hadn’t ever been to Rye and are running out of things to blog about, like me), it’s one of the better attractions the town has to offer (though that’s not really saying much), so is worth a look.

Loch Ness, Scotland: Urquhart Castle

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Let’s face it: the only reason most people are going to Urquhart Castle is for the views of Loch Ness.  After all, ruined castles are a dime a dozen in the UK (or maybe I should say 10p a dozen?  Or about 6p if you convert it), and the main thing Urquhart has going for it is its deeply picturesque surroundings.  And being that most of the road around Loch Ness runs worryingly close to the edge of the loch (I was terrified of swerving off the road and drowning in the icy water), there aren’t that many places to get out and photograph it without risking death.  Which is probably why people are willing to pay £7.90 a pop to see some mouldering old stones (half price admission to Historic Scotland properties with English Heritage membership, woot woot, although the mean woman working the admissions desk clearly resented us for it).

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Actually, as far as things go, £7.90 isn’t all that bad, considering we paid the same to go to the “Loch Ness Experience,” which I need to take some time to warn you away from.  I knew it would be a tourist trap, but I often like tourist traps, as long as they make a bit of an effort to give the people what they want (hint, usually plenty of photo ops or weird stuff to look at, so in the case of the Loch Ness Experience, you’d expect a Nessie to pose with, right?  Wrong).  This place was so awful though, it still pisses me off.  It advertised itself as having all these different exhibits, but was actually just six different small rooms where they showed different bits of the same old-ass documentary.  It was seriously just one of those shows that they used to play on the History Channel along with all the alien abduction programmes (my dad used to watch those for hours for some reason, so I’ve definitely seen the Nessie one before) before it became the all Pawn Stars all the time channel.  I didn’t even watch the videos; they were so boring, and I was in a hurry to get to what I thought were the exhibits, only to find myself going direct from the videos into the gift shop, filled with every kind of Nessie tat available.  I actually asked one of the people working there if I’d somehow missed the museum, because I could not believe how shit it was.  And yes, there was not even a fake Nessie statue, we had to pull into some random hotel parking lot for a photograph with one of those.  Avoid the Loch Ness Experience like the plague, it is one of the worst places I’ve ever been!

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Anyway, back to Urquhart Castle, which at least delivers on what it promises.  Spectacular views of the loch, and some castle ruins.  There are a lot of steps involved, and the weather will probably be terrible, so prepare yourself for these things.  They did at least install metal steps in one of the towers, so you’re not having to climb those scary old stone staircases, but the other tower is still old-school, and passing people going the opposite direction on the stairs is really difficult.

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They did have signs in each former room of the castle, but they didn’t get that much into the history of it (or maybe they did, just not to the extent that I can remember it), it was more what each room was used for, that sort of thing.  It was, as I’ve said, very dramatic scenery, but I was kind of glad we only paid half price to see it.

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There was also a gift shop/cafe with a very small exhibit inside, basically just a wall of posters which got more into the timeline of the castle, and a few artefacts.  The gift shop was trying to hawk CDs of Scottish music, which meant that the soundtrack as I was looking at the timeline was frankly hilarious; some kind of Caribbean remix of “Amazing Grace,” featuring bagpipes and steel drums.  A video presentation was available to watch, but we didn’t hang around to see it, as we still had a lengthy drive down to Loch Ness, and I was starving (the cafe was less than thrilling, so we stopped off for cheesy chips in Fort William).  So, Urquhart Castle: Come for the scenery, not for the detailed history, basically. (If you zoom in, you may be able to spot Nessie in the right hand picture immediately below.  Please ignore the incredibly stupid face I’m making.)  2.5/5

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Maidstone, Kent: Leeds Castle

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Yes, you read that right.  Leeds Castle is not in Yorkshire, but in Kent (though maybe everyone else already knew that)!  I don’t actually know why it’s called Leeds Castle, and no explanation was forthcoming at the castle.  The relevant information here is that it bills itself as “the loveliest castle in the world,” complete with quotation marks, but no source for that quote (and if you’ve seen Father Ted, it is nigh on impossible to call something the “loveliest” without attempting an Irish accent), and that they charge a whopping £19 for admission (or £25 for an annual pass, but do people actually revisit this sort of place multiple times in a year?  I know I never get around to it (plus I have to always find new things to blog about, which puts me off repeat visits)).  Leeds Castle isn’t affiliated with the National Trust or English Heritage or anything either, so you’ve no hope of getting a discount unless you take a train out and get a National Rail 2 for 1.

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There was a pretty massive queue to buy tickets when we got there, as we’d unwittingly showed up in the middle of the “Festival of Flowers,” which meant that the rooms of the castle were decorated with autumnal arrangements, ostensibly in tribute to the poems of Kipling and Keats, but honestly, every arrangement looked identical, and more like they had taken tips from a generic fall Pinterest board (is that what they’re called, boards?  I could never really get into Pinterest.  It’s easier just to bookmark stuff) than poetry.  To get to the castle, you have to wander for quite a while through the landscaped grounds, which are crowded with waterfowl and peafowl (you can feed the birds, but it’s a lot bloody more than tuppence a bag).  Geese and swans make me uneasy (I don’t trust anything with the ability to peck my eyes out), so I kept my distance, but even I have to admit that the baby peacocks (peachicks? cocklets?) were adorable.

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The castle does have a proper moat around it, and is thus impressive looking, even if to enter it you have to go through the wine cellars instead of the front doors, which made me feel like an invader at risk of having boiling oil dumped on my head.  All the pathways were roped off so there was a clear route through the castle;  it cut back somewhat on people congregating in one area, so navigating the rooms wasn’t too bad.  They are a mix of the medieval (the castle was built in the 12th century, but repeatedly renovated over the years; the last major reconstruction was in the 1820s) and the modern – Lady Baillie, an Anglo-American heiress, bought the castle in the 1920s and modernised some of the rooms to her standard of opulence.

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The “Festival of Flowers” arrangements didn’t really add or detract anything from the rooms; they were kind of just plunked down in them as an afterthought.  I enjoyed the medieval part of the castle more as Lady Baillie’s rooms just resembled those of many other stately homes bought up by Americans in the Jazz Age, when all the English aristocrats could no longer afford the upkeep.  Leeds Castle was home to six queens over the years, starting with Eleanor of Castile (wife of Edward I); Joan of Navarre was in fact held there under duress after her stepson Henry V accused her of witchcraft – fortunately, he later retracted the charges, and she was allowed to go free (and she was able to purchase a ring worth £40,000 in modern currency during her imprisonment, so conditions couldn’t have been that harsh).

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There were some awesome sculptures within the castle.  One of the owners requested busts made of Henry VIII and his children, which took pride of place in one of the rooms, and I also loved the statue of Edward III on horseback, which is the earliest surviving example of an English equestrian sculpture, made around 1580.

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There was a small museum outside the castle walls with information about some of its history, and some objects belonging to the six aforementioned queens, and Lady Baillie herself.  Lady Baillie appeared to have quite a few famous friends, particularly Errol Flynn (when he was still hot, and not a gross old pervert) as well as a real fondness for dogs, which brings me to the Dog Collar Museum.

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One of my main motivations for wanting to visit Leeds Castle was to see the Dog Collar Museum, because it obviously sounds weird and awesome.  Unfortunately for me, the museum closed last year for renovation, and isn’t due to open until 2015 sometime.  So, because I didn’t research this well enough, all there was to see was two small cases of dog collars shoved in a general exhibition gallery.  I mean, they were still unusual dog collars, but I was disappointed to miss the museum in all its glory.  The other half of the exhibition space was given over to Henry VIII and his armour.

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The castle also had a few formal gardens, in which a surprising amount of flowers were still in bloom (I visited in late September, it’s just taken me a while to get the post up).

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However, I find it hard to get excited about flowers when a castle has a maze!  This one wasn’t particularly difficult, or maybe it would have been if some little twerp ahead of us didn’t keep jumping up and sticking his head over the hedges to get directions from his friends who had reached the centre, but we were stuck behind him and it seemed stupid to go another way when he was clearly on the correct path.  Still, this maze had a grotto in the middle, in the vein of the Forbidden Corner.  Whilst not as awesome as the complete Forbidden Corner experience (and how could it be?), it appeared to be based on Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and had a cool sea monster thing inside, so gets a thumbs up from me.

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I have to give a big thumbs down to the facilities at Leeds Castle though (and I’m not just talking about the toilets, though those were gross too).  Throughout my travels to historic homes in Britain, I’ve come to expect, nay, eagerly anticipate the very British tearoom that is inevitably tacked on to these attractions.  I don’t always partake, but I like to know it’s there.  Well, it just so happens that I was madly craving a piece of chocolate fudge cake (which they didn’t have at Leeds Castle) and a cuppa that day, and if there’s one thing the National Trust and English Heritage reliably provide, despite their many failings, it is chocolate fudge cake, or at the very least, some lemon drizzle or Victoria sponge.  Not Leeds Castle! All their cafes are operated by Costa, so you can’t just get a pot of tea, it is overpriced Costa tea.  And there were definitely no homemade cakes.  I had to settle for “Kentish scoop ice cream” that was sub-par and not at all what I was in the mood for, so that part of the experience was upsetting.  If I pay £19 to get into a castle, I expect a decent tearoom!

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So I’d say Leeds Castle was a mixed bag.  The grounds were indeed lovely, but I very much doubt it is the” loveliest castle in the world,” as I’ve seen plenty of castles that were just as nice, and offered chocolate fudge cake to boot (sorry, but when Jessica gets denied cake, Jessica gets angry!).  Bonus points for the maze and grotto, but that still doesn’t justify the excessive admission cost, and I also didn’t like how the optional “donation” was automatically included in the ticket price.  It wasn’t terrible, but I’ve had better days out at other palaces, and the interior of the castle wasn’t anything special for the most part, so I feel the middling score is justified.  3/5.

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Lewes, Sussex: Lewes Castle

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Lewes is a town in Sussex that is probably most famous for its exuberant Bonfire Night celebrations (which I’ve never been to, as I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea behind Guy Fawkes Day at the best of times, and people who are really enthusiastic about burning things in effigy kind of freak me out.  Also, fireworks scare me, and I’m terrified of being hit in the eye with a firecracker or something), but the rest of the year, it is a very middle class kind of place (typical of much of the South) with streets lined with antique shops, secondhand bookshops, and even an artisan bakery (which is, regardless of what this may say about me, exactly the sort of place I enjoy, especially the aforementioned bakery.  It’s called Flint Owl Bakery, and the cheese straws and raspberry friands (or butter muffins, as I like to call them) are amazing).  Whew, that was a long run-on sentence.  At any rate, in addition to stuffing myself with pastries, and visiting the shop at Harvey’s Brewery with my boyfriend (since he accompanied me to all the history), I also had time to visit Lewes Castle.

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The castle offers half priced entry for English Heritage members, which they sneakily don’t really mention, I had to ask as I saw it listed in the official English Heritage handbook, but it’s £7 without the discount (they do a combined ticket with Anne of Cleves House, which I’ll discuss in the next post).  The castle itself was built in 1069 by William de Warenne, Norman nobleman and brother-in-law to William the Conqueror, and was the scene of the Battle of Lewes in 1264.

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Seeing the castle pretty much consists of walking up a shit-ton of stairs, and not just any stairs, but really narrow and uneven winding staircases, so this is maybe not the place to go if you have mobility issues.  Personally, I’m fit as a fiddle, but I’m slightly scared of heights, and in particular steep staircases and ladders and stuff where I feel like I might fall and die, so it wasn’t really my cup of tea either, but I persevered (it helped that it wasn’t super busy, so there weren’t people trying to climb up staircases whilst I was going down, or vice versa.  I hate when that happens!).

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On each level of the castle (which was in two separate parts, the Barbican and the Shell Keep), there were small displays about its history, including a really long comic strip about the Battle of Lewes (which was useful, as I’d never heard of it before; medieval history not really being my thing (aside from the Black Death of course).  It was where Henry III fought a group of barons led by Simon de Montfort).  I also learned that the castle was used as a folly in Georgian times, gotta love those Georgians!

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The views from the top were of course pretty spectacular, since the castle is the highest point in Lewes, and looks out over the South Downs, for all that it was kind of a bitch to get up there.

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I think I enjoyed the Barbican more than the Shell Keep because they had some games that were undoubtedly intended for children, but as there were none around, I took control of the medieval crane and built a kick-ass castle of my own.  They also had a huge chest of dress-up stuff.   20140621_143752

After finishing with the castle (which didn’t take that long to see, sans all the climbing, as there wasn’t really that much information inside), we headed over to the small museum next door, in the building where we bought tickets.  This was mainly on archeological digs in Lewes and around Sussex – lots of prehistoric and Roman rusty things that I was not super interested in.  They had a map of all the discoveries in the area on the wall, but the coolest stuff wasn’t in their collection, like a creepy stone face-thing.  They did have a Roman milestone, which was neat.

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The upstairs part was slightly better, as it had some cool Georgian jugs and other (relatively) more recent artefacts, in addition to an extensive display on medieval life in Lewes based on some of the things they’d dug up.

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In keeping with the general ambiance of Lewes, there was a secondhand bookshop in the museum that specialised in local history books, and a gift shop that had an excellent magnet featuring the Lewes Martyrs being burnt at the stake, but that was all there was to the complex.  I did like exploring the castle, especially as it felt mostly untouched, but the museum wasn’t the greatest, and I left feeling glad we got the discount, as I would have been slightly salty about paying full price for what was on offer, so I’ll give it a middling 3/5.

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I can’t leave Lewes (even though I’m coming back to it next time) without mentioning that Thomas Paine, the writer and philosopher so beloved of the fathers of the American Revolution, lived here for about a decade.  As an American who loves history, I was super excited to learn this, and made sure to grab a picture with his commemorative plaque.  There’s also a pub called the Rights of Man after one of his most famous works (save Common Sense of course) across the street.  I didn’t have a chance to stop in, but it’s a Harvey’s pub (naturally) with an excellent sign featuring his portrait and his giant out-of-proportion hand.  This isn’t really relevant to the post, but I thought it was a point of interest, especially for American history buffs.

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Kent, UK: Dover Castle

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After a short drive down the coast from Walmer, we found ourselves at Dover Castle, another English Heritage property, hence another chance to get our money’s worth out of that membership.  If you don’t have a membership pass, Dover Castle is a fairly pricy outing at £17.50.  The castle dates back to the 1160s, during the reign of Henry II, but the oldest buildings on the property are the Roman lighthouse and Anglo-Saxon church.  There are also a series of tunnels; medieval ones under the castle, and a different set that  were constructed for defensive purposes during the Napoleonic Wars, but in more recent history served as the place where “Operation Dynamo,” also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was planned (over 300,000 Allied troops were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk during WWII by a fleet of ships launched from Dover, including many privately owned small craft).

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As directed by the girl working at the admissions desk, we first headed to those tunnels, since they only take groups of thirty people down at a time, to wait in the inevitable queue.  They also only do tours every half an hour, and the first one was already full, so we ended up having to wait about forty minutes for the “Secret Wartime Tunnels Tour.”  If the tour had been good, I wouldn’t have minded the wait, but it turned out to be incredibly lame.  After being shown a short newsreel, and an informational video about Dunkirk that mainly served to showcase some outdated technology, we were ushered down a long tunnel where graphics appeared on the wall to tell the story of Dunkirk; unfortunately, because we were at the back of the group, we couldn’t actually see what was going on.  We were then allowed to wander the last portion of the tunnels on our own, which included the communications rooms and some supposedly haunted messaging room.

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I’m not sure why they made such a fuss about it being a “guided” tour, as the guide’s only purpose seemed to be to hustle us along the tunnel; everything else was done by video.  I’m not really sure why they couldn’t just make the whole thing self-guided to avoid the waits altogether, but whatever, it was lame, and I wouldn’t advise waiting for it.  However, the Underground Hospital Tour didn’t have much of a queue when we were there, so if you want to see something underground, I’d probably go with that one – if it is as bad as the other tour, at least you won’t have wasted as much time, plus it’s a hospital, so might intrinsically be more interesting than some bare tunnels (I’m not knocking Operation Dynamo, I think it’s an incredible story, which is why it’s such a shame that it wasn’t told in a more engaging way).

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We emerged from the tunnels into a gift shop (naturally) and small museum that told the story of the tunnels in more detail, including a collection of British uniforms throughout history.  There were also some splendid views of the coast, and of the famous White Cliffs of Dover from this side.

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We’d passed an ice cream hut on the way down to the tunnels, and far be it from me to pass up an ice cream, so I grabbed a scoop of mint chocolate chip for the trek up to the castle proper (they do have a “land train” available for the elderly/infirm/just plain lazy, but I needed to burn off that ice cream, so we just walked everywhere.  It really wasn’t that far, and was probably faster than waiting for the land train to rock up).  The Great Tower is ringed by a number of small museums, and we decided to start with those first.

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The first museum offered an introduction to the Tower, and a video about the early Plantagenets (until I moved to Britain, I always pronounced Plantagenet with a silent “t,” which I suspect was far too French-leaning of me.  However, I still stubbornly persist in leaving off the “t” in filet, and don’t get me started on the pronunciation of “fete”).  The main reason this museum is noteworthy is because of the little sketches of “Roland the Farter,” the court jester.  Considering many of the visitors to Dover Castle are French (on account of all the ferries and the Channel Tunnel; Dover is so close to France that we could only get French radio stations as we neared the coast), I thought the first cartoon pictured above was delightfully cheeky (as is the second, in a more punny way).  Plus, he’s called Roland the Farter, which is hilarious.

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When we wandered into the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment Museum, I wasn’t expecting much more than a respite from the cold wind that had suddenly kicked up, especially because the first room was just full of boring plaques.  Happily, this small museum proved to be a treasure trove of terrible mannequins, authentic smells (at least, I think they were authentic smells, it is entirely possible that it might have just stank in there), and even one of those machines I inexplicably love that turns normal pennies into “souvenir” pennies.

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It was finally time to journey up the many stairs of the centrepiece of the castle, the Great Tower.  The Tower has been decorated to look as it would have during the reign of Henry II, and it is pretty fantastic.  There wasn’t much signage, so I didn’t have a clue where we were wandering to, but that was part of the experience.  Navigating the maze-like interior of the tower helped me understand how the layout would have helped deter would-be invaders, plus it gave the whole thing the air of a grand adventure.

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We began in the medieval kitchen, because you have to, really, in these types of places, and ventured up to a banqueting room.

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And made our way through some tunnels to discover a throne room,with even more hidden rooms behind the throne.

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One of which was a small stone chapel, with lovely small stained glass windows.  There was also some rather plush bedrooms in the tower, and the day had gotten so chilly I would have happily curled up beneath the furs in one of the beds, had I been allowed.

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Finally reaching the top of the tower, we were rewarded with even more gorgeous views of the coastline, as well as a good peek into the yard below that contained a trebuchet.

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The trip back down led us into a few more rooms we hadn’t caught on the way up, many of them with costumed actors in who were patiently answering visitors’ questions (fortunately, they weren’t actually re-enacting anything, which I always find slightly cringy).

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Upon safely reaching the bottom, we decided to tackle yet more stairs by heading down into the medieval tunnels, which were certainly very tunnely, but didn’t have much else to recommend them, so if you’re pressed for time, you can probably give them a miss.

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I did want to see the Anglo Saxon church, so we popped into that on our way out.  The Roman lighthouse is right next door, so we were able to have a peek inside that as well – it is just a crumbling stone tower (it’s the structure to the right of the church, below).  The church had a little history display set up in the back, and quite a lot of photos of the Queen and various other Royals attending the services there.

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I very much enjoyed the Great Tower, but the rest of the castle was a mixed bag.  The Royal Regiment Museum was entertaining, the views were very good indeed, but the tunnels were disappointing, and most of the other attractions on the property weren’t terribly noteworthy.  I think Dover Castle has a fascinating history behind it, but I feel like that wasn’t always made as clear as it could have been, and many of the things could have benefited from more signage (but that would probably go against the English Heritage policy of trying to sell guidebooks to everyone, so there you are).  I feel that if I had to pay 17 quid for entrance I would have been kind of annoyed, but as it was, it was a decent outing that didn’t quite live up to the hype of the brochure.  3.5/5

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Kent, UK: Walmer Castle

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Before I get into Walmer Castle, I’d like to direct your attention to a guest post I wrote for the Misadventures with Michael blog; it’s my attempt at putting together a little city guide to London.  While you’re there, be sure to check out some of Michael’s other posts; he’s got lots of useful city guides and other travel posts, particularly for people in the US!

Now, regular readers will know I have a bit of a thing for Wellington, well, the young Arthur Wellesley, at any rate.  Not to the extent of my historical crush on young FDR (I finished reading No Ordinary Time last week, and I sobbed through the entirety of the last three chapters.  Is it normal to cry over historical nonfiction?), but enough that I was very keen to visit Walmer Castle, on the Kentish coast near Dover, where Wellington died (and spent much of his time in the latter part of his life).  Fortunately, Walmer Castle is an English Heritage property, so we finally got to put those annual memberships to use.  The downside was, like many English Heritage properties, photography was not allowed inside the house (hence all the garden pictures accompanying the post), and there was very little signage inside the house, leaving us reliant on the audio guides (which I hate).

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Walmer Castle has long been the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports (though it was built in the 16th century as a coastal defence), so the residents have changed along with the Lord Wardens.  Wellington isn’t even the most famous one, as William Pitt the Younger, Winston Churchill, and the Queen Mother all lived here at various points in time, and Queen Victoria and Albert used to visit when Wellington was in residence.  Nonetheless, three of the rooms in the house are devoted entirely to Wellington, and it was these that I was most interested in seeing.

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The first contained a collection of coins bearing Wellington’s rather beaky visage (his nickname was “Old Nosey” which could probably be my nickname as well, since I’ve got a similarly sized schnoz myself.  Actually, kids in middle school used to call me Toucan Sam, so I think Old Nosey would probably be a step up), and a splendid array of Wellington Toby jugs.  The second of these Wellington rooms was the one he died in, which was arranged much as it would have been in 1852, with Wellington’s intriguing reading desk on display (he liked to read standing up), and the armchair he died in front and centre.  I dearly wish I could show you a picture of the armchair, which is understandably worse for the wear, but alas, the whole no photography thing.  The room next door to this had been turned into a miniature Wellington museum, with all sorts of great artefacts, like his death mask, the rag used to hold his jaw shut after he died, and a pair of the original Wellington boots.  There were a few cheeky touches, like a pair of pitchers proudly designed by Wellington that his friends apparently didn’t like using, because they “didn’t work very well,” and a picture of a villager in Walmer who bore a striking resemblance to the aged Duke and was often mistaken for him.

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Near the Wellington rooms was a small suite of rooms that Victoria and the Prince Consort would have stayed in, with some of the furniture they would have used still in them.  There was also a William Pitt the Younger room that had one of his chairs (alas, not one he died in, so my morbid curiosity was not satisfied in this case) and some other Pitt possessions, but the other rooms were fairly generic, and simply decorated as they would have been in various time periods.  One of the former ladies of the house (or, you know, an actress portraying her) voiced the gossipy audio tour, which offered more extensive detail, but she did ramble on for far longer than my attention span could take, so I cut her off early in most of the rooms, which means I’m probably missing some key details of the furnishings.

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The gardens were delightful, however, as you can probably tell from the pictures thus far.  I particularly liked the unusual hedges, which were left in lumpy, natural shapes (apparently Churchill liked them that way, and decided to just let them be).  There was a small walled garden for the Queen Mother, and a larger Woodland Walk, as well as a few fields that seemed ideal for picnicking (judging by the families using them for that purpose, I’m not big on al fresco dining myself as I dislike having to constantly swat bugs away from my food); some lovely tulip beds, and a few small greenhouses.  Walmer also had a tea shop, and a stunning view from the ramparts that were still accessorised with a few cannons.

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Because of all the neat Wellington stuff, I’d rate it slightly above the standard English Heritage property, and certainly above the average National Trust one.  Maybe 3.5/5?  Recommended for Wellington or Pitt the Younger fans, or people who like nice gardens; everyone else can probably skip it and either head to nearby Deal Castle for a similar experience, or Dover Castle for a more extensive one (which is the subject of my next post).  Personally, I think the Wellington death-chair made my trip worth the while, those with less macabre tastes might disagree.

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Island of Funen, Denmark: Egeskov Castle (Slot)

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I have been completely dreading writing this post simply because Egeskov Castle is properly huge, at least, once you count all the gardens and outbuildings.  I think I said the same thing about the National Museum of Denmark, but at least that was just a museum.  Egeskov Castle is not only  a castle, but has museums, games, and other attractions – similar to Osborne House, which I loved, but really, Egeskov puts Osborne House to shame (although it doesn’t have the bed Victoria died in).

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We were greeted at Egeskov (which is the sort of place you need a car to visit, as it appears to be miles from anywhere) by signs featuring the current owner of the castle – the eccentric Count Michael who has an apparent love for Segways and armour.  Ain’t nothing wrong with that, though the admission is a pricy DKK 180 per person (about 22 quid, but sometimes it’s best not to think about the conversion rate), presumably so he can afford the finest Segways money can buy.  (I kid, I’m sure he’s already wealthy, plus there’s undoubtedly a fair amount of upkeep involved).

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Unsure of the best place to start, we did the only sensible thing and headed straight for Dracula’s Crypt.  As far as I can tell, there’s no actual connection between Egeskov and Dracula, Bram Stoker, or anyone else relevant, so the whole Dracula’s Crypt is essentially just a hokey tourist trap, but I don’t have a huge problem with that.  It was full of drunken Germans when we arrived, and is basically just a dark room with a coffin that I believe is motion activated, though we managed to avoid tripping it.  The Crypt is incongruously plunked in the middle of a motorcycle museum that we pretty much skipped over, because I feel pretty meh towards motorcycles.

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In addition to motorcycles and cars, there was also a big Falck Museum.  I initially hoped Falck was Danish for folk or something, but it turns out it is a brand of trucks (?) that seems to have a virtual monopoly over emergency vehicles in Denmark.  Or maybe it just is the Danish name for an emergency vehicle?  I think I definitely missed something in translation, but there were some great mannequins in this section.

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The pink car shown here is a lady’s car that was driven by Woodrow Wilson.  It’s not particularly relevant to anything, I just feel like it’s the sort of thing you might want to know (assuming you’re anything like me).

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We could spy the castle across the water at this point, but it proved to be surprisingly difficult to get to, which is perhaps the point of a moat.  It involved going through a barn/museum, which gave a history of the castle starting in the 1800s, but it was difficult to focus on reading in the midst of wax figures with mustaches bigger than their faces.  From there, we had to cross over a ravine, but were still on the wrong side of the castle which gave us the chance (forced us to) walk through the extensive gardens.  There was an old hedge maze which looked amazing, but is not open to the public, and a random giant gold ball, but I was most charmed by the squirrel topiaries.  I mean really, squirrel topiaries!  Delightful.

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Before the entrance to the castle (which was finally in sight), we came upon the old Gate House, which now houses the dress collection of one of the 19th century Countesses of Egeskov.  I adore old dresses, and was more than happy to spend some time perusing her collection, especially as it involved going up spiral staircases.

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The highlight of the collection was undoubtedly the (partial) gown once owned by Marie Antoinette, which they wisely chose to display in a room with a mock guillotine and severed head.  I like the way this Count Michael (or probably the curator) thinks!

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Having at last made our way over the drawbridge into the castle, we were rewarded with an eclectic collection of taxidermy and other miscellany from around the world, including a “magical” foot stool (on top of the cabinet to the right).

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Most of the rooms were decorated as they would have been in the late 19th century, but the Great Hall is noteworthy for containing a pair of portraits with the kind of eyes that follow you around the room, and Count Michael’s suit of armour, which was only made recently, but is based on medieval armour.

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I’ve talked about my fascination with dollhouses quite a lot on here lately, but the one at Egeskov makes most other doll houses look like a pile of puke (just like Lil’ Lisa!).  Titania’s Palace (as it’s called) was created by a British artist and craftsman who built it for his small daughter so the fairies in the garden would have somewhere to live.  As it took him 15 years to complete it, presumably his daughter was no longer little nor believed in fairies by the time it was finished, but it’s still a nice story, and a gorgeous dollhouse.  The rooms are almost unbelievably intricate, and full of literary references.  In case you can’t study it in enough detail through the glass over the rooms, the video in the adjoining room gives an even closer look.  There was an older British lady in there watching it with me, and we both kept emitting little awed gasps throughout.

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The attic is home to more toys, though none so impressive as the dollhouse, as well as some pottery, and a curious little wooden man who sleeps under the rafters, as there’s some sort of legend that if you disturb him, bad shit will happen (I’m sure it’s more poetic than that, but you get the idea).

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There were many more gardens that we could have strolled through, but we had a long day ahead of us, so we headed straight to the Yew Maze (I think.  There’s also a Larch Maze, which is presumably like larch on oak to get out of).  I don’t think I ever actually found the centre, I just ended up wandering back out again after a while.  If you are wearing a skirt or dress as I was, might I advise you avoid exiting via slide?  Just like the super fun happy slide in Mr. Burns’s mansion, this slide also had a dark side, as it was really really slippery and caused my dress to ride up, which resulted in terrible thigh burning that lingered for days (too much information? I’m only trying to be helpful!)

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There are quite a few other activities at Egeskov that we didn’t partake in, as some of them cost extra.  There’s a playground for children, and some kind of Tree-Top Walk, which would presumably have resulted in me clinging to a tree in terror, and…a Segway jousting course!  You get to wear a breastplate and carry a lance, which you can aim at various obstacles in the course.  It wasn’t so much the cost that deterred me as the fact that everyone who went on it had a crowd of people standing around gawping at them, and I don’t do well with attention from strangers.  I’ve no doubt it’s a grand time if you’re not shy though!

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We saw a number of cafes around the place, most of them serving hot dogs (ick), and even chips mixed with chunks of hot dog, a concoction known as Pølsemix.  Fortunately, you could get chips sans meat, as well as a variety of exciting looking ice creams.  Although there were several gift shops, only the one at the exit was open during our visit.

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Overall, whilst I was disappointed that there wasn’t more information on the history of the castle (I’m still ignorant as to why and by whom it was built), it was nonetheless a pretty great attraction.  I don’t know if Count Michael is to thank for all the quirky touches, but if it is, he seems to be the sort of person I would get along with (which is saying something, as I hate most people).  I’d love to see more history and relevant information on the castle, but I’m still going to give it 4.5/5.

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Isle of Wight: Carisbrooke Castle

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So, I honestly wasn’t all that keen on visiting Carisbrooke CastleCharles I has never been that high on my list (he’s never been that high on anyone’s list, which was clearly part of the problem), and to add to that, Carisbrooke is a good mile and a half from Newport, which, to avoid the expensive and erratic local buses, necessitated a long trudge up a very steep hill. However, it seemed silly to take the hovercraft over to the Isle of Wight solely to see Osborne House, and as I’d been to the Needles, the donkey sanctuary, and the Garlic Farm on a previous trip, I was fast running out of island attractions.  Therefore, Carisbrooke Castle it was.

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Carisbrooke is an English Heritage property, which means they will try to persuade you to buy a membership, (even going so far as to only post the membership prices outside the door, to confuse foreign tourists) but if you stand firm, admission to Carisbrooke alone is £7.70.  The castle is most famous for being the place where Charles I was imprisoned prior to his execution, but the oldest bits of the castle date back to 1100, with various renovations throughout the centuries – the last being by Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, the other most famous resident.  The castle is also fairly renowned for its donkeys, of which more later.

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There’s a fair number of things to see around the castle, but we began with the museum, which was laid out in a handful of rooms over three floors.  I really disliked the signage in this museum; everything was in an irritatingly large font, giving the impression that the displays were intended solely for children, which I don’t think was the case, but it nonetheless infantilised the exhibits in an unpleasant way.  Captions aside, there wasn’t much point attempting to look around the ground floor, as it was packed full of children using the miniature trebuchet; clearly their parents were desperate to distract them after the donkey water wheel demonstration was postponed (I almost typed “donkey show” but I’d better not even go there).

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The top floor did contain some cool things, like the freaky doll pictured above, (her legs were in, er, pap smear position, whilst her torso was rotated the other way; no explanation for this was provided) and a player piano dating back to the 17th century that still worked! The main exhibit was on John Milne, (no relation to A.A.) geologist and pioneering seismologist, which my boyfriend was pretty excited about, but I found it kind of boring, and only perked up when I saw his paper on the Great Auk (anyone pick up on the Laura Ingalls Wilder connection?).

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There were some good Charles I artefacts in one of the attic rooms (yeah, he stinks compared to his son, but I’ll take regicide-related objects over geology any day), including the lace cap and cravat he was said to have worn on the day of his execution, and a lock of his hair, as well as some Roundhead armour and other Civil War memorabilia.

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The first floor contained Charles’s bedroom, but it has been so altered over the years, from having all the furniture replaced, to adding a useless minstrels gallery (and that’s not me being snarky, it actually was useless, as there were no stairs to access it!), that it bore little resemblance to the room he would have known.  Even the windows, which he mounted an escape attempt from, were changed, so I couldn’t even tell if he reasonably got stuck, or if he simply wasn’t trying hard enough (the current windows are much bigger than the originals would have been, so I couldn’t go by that).

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There was, at least, a rather good portrait of Charles II as a child, which wasn’t really compensation for the renovated windows, but it was something.  It’s worth noting that Charles I’s daughter Elizabeth was also imprisoned briefly here after his death, until she contracted pneumonia and died.

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Stepping out of the museum, we headed over to the chapel, which serves as both a Charles I and WWI memorial, and contains the cracking bust of Charles pictured at the top of this post.  Though the whole “remember” thing just made me think of the Guy Fawkes rhyme, which was another monarchical crisis entirely, it was a lovely quiet chapel, with a nice echoey floor.

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In an antechamber off the chapel, there was a video room showing the history of Carisbrooke Castle as told by a cartoon donkey that appeared to simultaneously rip off Shrek and Wallace and Gromit.  The actual donkeys are kept in a stable at the other side of the complex, from which they emerge several times a day to walk around the treadwheel to power the well, mainly for the delight of tourists.  They’re all given “J” names, but alas, there was no Jessica donkey; however, there was a Jill and a Jim Bob, which reminded me a bit too much of the Duggars (yes, I used to get sucked into watching that show when I was back home, because American TV is uniformly awful, with the exception of reruns of Seinfeld).  Cute donkeys though.

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Let’s see, the other main attractions involved walking up a crapload of uneven stairs to the top of the castle walls and the well, (which proved to be gratifyingly deep when I dropped a penny down it), or heading down to the Bowling Green, where Charles may have been allowed to exercise.  The top of the castle offers views of most of the Isle of Wight, and a garderobe, sans functional hole.  The Bowling Green was basically just a field, with cannons perched around the edges, and some hills that looked perfect for rolling down, but I didn’t want to ruin my dress, so I’ll never know.

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I shouldn’t neglect Beatrice’s garden, which was an Edwardian walled garden full of bees, and some butterflies, much to my dismay (damn stupid phobia).  The final part of the castle worth noting was the keep, which now contains a few replica weapons, like a crank-operated crossbow (you can turn it to your heart’s content, but obviously nothing is going to happen) and a cannon that “fires” when you touch the fuse to it (loud noise +flash of light).

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Ultimately, I think Carisbrooke Castle was middling at best.  At the end of the day, it was just a castle, and not substantially different from others I’ve seen; Charles I being kept prisoner was clearly the most exciting thing that’s ever happened here.  3/5; worth seeing if you’re interested in the Stuarts, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it.  And be sensible; drive or take a bus, because the walk is not especially pleasant.  They do sell chocolate “rat droppings” in the gift shop though, which I guess counts for something!

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Ljubljana, Slovenia: Ljubljana Castle

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Much like Bled Castle, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, Ljubljana Castle is another fortress on a hill with fantastic views.  Although Ljubljana isn’t quite as picturesque as Lake Bled, the castle is easily accessible by funicular, which I think we can all agree is better than trudging up an insanely steep hill under the broiling sun.  The website for Ljubljana Castle only has prices listed for the funicular ride + all the exhibits, which is 8 euros.  However, we opted for the return funicular trip with access to the free exhibits at the castle, which I believe was only 4 euros.

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Obviously, the funicular was pretty awesome.  It was a chilly, drizzly evening when we visited, so we were the only people going up the hill (which meant the grizzled operator was forced to emerge from his warm booth to escort us up, which he seemed none too pleased about), thus our views were uninterrupted by other people crowding the glass front.  I had just been lamenting the fact that we didn’t have time to take the funicular in Bridgnorth a couple months ago, but honestly, this one was steeper, and probably more fun.

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Upon reaching the top, we stepped into a weird stone tunnel/mazelike structure, finally locating some steps and emerging into the courtyard of the castle complex, which included a restaurant, a bar/club, a gift shop, and various museum galleries.  We began with the viewing platform, as sunset was fast approaching.

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“Red roofs. Red roofs.”

Ljubljana is a quaint little city to look out over, as the buildings are all around the same height, and of a similar architectural style, with distinctive red roofs.  Unfortunately, I have a short attention span where the outdoors in concerned, so I was anxious to check out some of the other attractions the castle had to offer.

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I was drawn to the penitentiary, so we went in there first.  It was small, but rather neat.  They had a few cells set up with information about the history of the prison, including the POWs held there during the First World War.  They even had a holographic prisoner in the last cell complete with authentic howls of despair.  There was also a computer screen where you could take pictures of yourself with a cell-looking background, and email them to family and friends.

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Above the prison, there was a small chapel known as the Chapel of St. George.  It was a nice little chapel, but there’s not really much to be said about it.  Now, because you had to pay extra to visit the Slovenian History exhibit, and the “Virtual Castle,” I didn’t learn much about the history of the castle, which I kind of regret.  The internet informs me that there was a settlement on the castle hill as far back as the Bronze Age, but the oldest bits of the current castle date back to the 15th century, which includes St. George’s Chapel.  So I guess it has age going for it if nothing else.

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There were some signs directing us to an art gallery, which turned out to be underground, with a rock wall on one side. Some of the pictures seemed fairly random, but there was also pieces of preserved murals that had been found in the castle, which I enjoyed.  The tunnels eventually led us out to a temporary exhibition, and here’s where things got a bit weird…

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This is just the outside of the castle, and has nothing to do with the Camel exhibit. I just didn’t have anywhere better to stick it in. Sorry.

It turned out to be an exhibit about Camel cigarettes.  At first, we were wandering through and saw mentions of “Camel,” but we thought perhaps it was some Slovenian thing.  It wasn’t until we saw the pictures of Joe Camel that it kicked in.  Now, I’m no prude about smoking, having briefly been a smoker myself in my youth, but it was clearly being paid for by Camel, as all the signage indicated how great Camels were – a promotional tobacco exhibit just seemed like a really odd choice for an art gallery.  There were a few disinterested girls sitting by a photo booth, who were apparently working there, but they gave off a vibe of being too cool to speak to us, so I don’t know if we were meant to use the photo booth or not.  Honestly, I’m kind of surprised no one offered us a free pack of cigarettes or something, as it seemed like the obvious conclusion to walking through a three-dimensional advertisement.  Bizarre stuff.

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The Pentagonal Tower. It was certainly very, um, pentagonal.

As we were visiting quite late, the gift shop was already shut, but the club had yet to get going (not that clubs are really my thing anyway), so there wasn’t much else for us to do up there.  Also, the ice cream was only Carte D’or, which I have already established I’m not a huge fan of, so it was getting to be time to seek out a more delicious ice cream in town (and there are delicious ice creams in abundance in the Old Town).  We had to wait for a good few minutes for the funicular (the website claims it runs every 10 minutes, I don’t know how true that is), since it just sits at the bottom of the hill, I guess until someone notices you’re standing at the top.  At least the waiting area is enclosed, and has good views and a few signs about geology on the wall to amuse you whilst you wait.  The ride down was just as fun as the ride up, though funiculars never go quite as fast as I would like, though I suppose a sedate pace is more desirable than a snapped cable.

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I’ll give Ljubljana Castle 2/5, which is perhaps an unfair assessment, since I didn’t pay to see all the exhibits.  Therefore, this whole review is probably rather pointless, unless you are a cheapskate like me who doesn’t want to pay for the full experience. Perhaps you enjoyed reading it anyhow.  They do offer guided tours of the castle during the day, which may be worth doing if you want to see everything, as there appeared to be quite a few areas that were otherwise closed to the public.  I would have liked to learn more about the history of the castle whilst I was there, but I guess it’s my own fault for not shelling out the big bucks (euros?).  The view and funicular were probably worth the 4 euros though.

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