culture

Rome, Italy: The Vatican Museums

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This post is not going to really be a detailed insight into the many museums of the Vatican, because I only had about two hours to spend there, so the whole thing was pretty rushed.  However, there were a few things about my visit I wanted to share, so I’m writing a half-assed post about it anyway.  First of all, if you’re going to see St. Peter’s, I don’t think there’s any means of skipping the queue (unless maybe you go with one of those shady and extremely annoying tour guides that hang about the place), but the queue moves fairly quickly – just make sure you have obeyed the dress code!   Basically, you must be covered down to your knees, and over your shoulders, and don’t think that wearing a short skirt with tights will do the trick, because my mother got refused entry wearing such a combo a few years back (which was pretty amusing to me, but she was pissed off about it).  Really, you can look like a complete slob as long as you’re covered up, which seems kind of wack, but this is the Vatican we’re talking about.  However, if you’re planning on visiting the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums, there is a very easy way to skip the massive queue.  You can book online at this website (which looks a little sketchy, but it is an official website. I used it and didn’t get scammed) and stroll right inside the complex whilst looking down your nose at the plebs lined up outside.  It costs an extra 4 euros to use this method, but you’re already paying 16 euros just to get inside, and I think the extra charge was well worth the sense of smug satisfaction I got from bypassing the queue.

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I was slightly worried about my outfit, due to the aforementioned dress code, as my skirt just barely covered my knees, and rode well above them when I walked up steps, but there’s no Swiss Guards at the Vatican Museums, and the regular guards didn’t seem that bothered, as I saw a couple women with skirts a few inches shorter than mine.  There is still ostensibly an enforced dress code though, so I wouldn’t push your luck by rocking up in a mini skirt or tank top or anything (I do hate that uncomfortable feeling of having men scrutinise your outfit though.  I don’t need to be stared at like a piece of meat by men trying to catch a glimpse of my defrauding knees).  Anyway, the experience once you’ve entered the complex is ironically, fairly hellish.  Since we didn’t have a lot of time, we decided to head straight for the Sistine Chapel.  Unfortunately, to get to it, you need to walk through about 50 rooms, each more elaborately decorated than the last, all whilst following signs that promise the Sistine Chapel is right ahead.  It felt like being in a some lame comedy sketch.

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Because you’re crammed in with a herd of people (and tour groups, my god the tour groups!  I really think they should have set hours when tour groups are allowed in, and then ban them the rest of the time), you can’t linger and look at stuff, so I got no more than a fleeting glance of most of these apartments as I was being shoved along in the crush.  The Map Room was notably cool though.

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I seriously reckon we must have walked through a set of rooms belonging to every pope ever before even getting close to the Sistine Chapel.  It’s like the Church felt the need to impress everybody with how much money they have by making us walk through the maze of rooms before getting to the one thing everybody comes to see.  I dunno if Papa Francesco approves of that kind of ostentatiousness.

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So, when most of the elderly and infirm had been weeded out through the endless trips up and down staircases, we finally made it to the Sistine Chapel.  No photographs are allowed in there, and you have to be silent, which is maintained by a cast of professional “shushers” (what a job!  Maybe I should move to Italy!).  I hate to say it, but after walking through a gazillion rooms with elaborate paintings on their ceilings, it was pretty anticlimactic. It was neat seeing God and Adam in the centre, but the whole thing was a little underwhelming in light of the splendour I’d already been forced to admire.

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After that, you have to walk through a crapload more rooms, most of them with convenient gift shops built in the middle, before you get back to the central area that holds a cafe and large gift shop.  The only other thing I felt I NEEDED to see before we left was the Carriage Pavilion, which is home to the former Pope Mobiles.  I mean, Renaissance art is all well and good, but I feel kitsch is the modern legacy of the papacy, and it doesn’t get better than the Pope Mobile.

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The Carriage Pavilion was pretty good.  For starters, you had to walk through a big garden to get there, and it was kind of hidden underground, so I don’t think many people even knew it was there, making it blissfully empty.  In addition, they had plenty of signs in English, and the carriages themselves were fabulous.

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I hesitate to use the expression “pimped out” to describe a papal carriage, but that’s essentially what they were.  There was a level of ostentation that went well beyond what was necessary, which was what I loved about them.  I also loved the busts of the popes, with a little description of each one.  You hear a lot about medieval and modern popes, but 18th and 19th century ones normally kind of get lost in the shuffle.

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And then there were the Pope Mobiles themselves, which is what I really wanted to see.  The bubble style Pope Mobile didn’t come into being until after the assassination attempt on John Paul II, so they had the uncovered model he was shot in, as well as a few covered ones from later in his papacy.

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Honestly, I prefer the older models, which were “proper lush,” as Tom Kerridge would say, but I guess I can see why they don’t use them anymore. I wouldn’t want to have my face blown off either, but I would probably just modify the cars to have thicker doors and bulletproof glass and such, as some popes have done to more modern cars.

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Seeing the Pope Mobiles was probably the highlight of my visit (which again, probably says something about my lack of culture), but I still made a point to stop by the Stamp Museum on the way out.  They had a little post office right after it so you could mail a postcard from the Vatican, with several Papa Francesco-based postcard designs to choose from, so I’m sure you can guess that I took full advantage.  There were probably about 10 more museums I didn’t even get to peek at, so I’ve no doubt I could have easily spent the entire day there if I didn’t have a flight to catch.

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To sum up, I’d say that you should definitely pre-book online if you’re visiting the Vatican Museums, and then laugh in the face of the obnoxious jerks trying to sell you overpriced tours to skip the line, as you’ll have beaten them to it.  Seriously, the Vatican is one of the worst places I’ve visited in my life in terms of being pestered to buy crap.  Worse than Tijuana even.  It really put a damper on the whole experience, as well as the stupidly convoluted route you have to take through the place.  Still, it is a piece of history, and they’ve got some cool stuff in there, so it is definitely worth seeing to complete the “Rome experience.”  At the very least, it gives you a chance to easily tick another country off the list.

 

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Boston, MA: Museum of Bad Art and the Warren Anatomical Museum

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These two museums have virtually nothing in common other than both being located in the Boston area, but I don’t really have enough to say on either museum to fill up a full length post, plus the Warren Museum doesn’t allow photography, so combining them allows me to include some entertaining photographs!  You may be familiar with MOBA (Museum of Bad Art) through their online gallery, which is in fact the only way to view most of their art collection.  However, they also have several “bricks-and-mortar” locations – one is in a movie theatre, so you have to buy a movie ticket to get inside, but the one we visited is in a public access television studio in Brookline, and is free, albeit slightly awkward to visit, as you have to look round the collection whilst people are at their desks working in front of you.

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The small collection (about 20 pieces) is displayed along two walls of a lobby, with a detailed (often amusing) explanation of exactly what makes each piece “bad art.” As MOBA puts it: “The pieces in the MOBA collection range from the work of talented artists that have gone awry to works of exuberant, although crude, execution by artists barely in control of the brush. What they all have in common is a special quality that sets them apart in one way or another from the merely incompetent.”  So basically, you’re not simply laughing at the work of amateurs, but more often things where the skill is adequate, but something goes seriously wrong with the composition.

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MOBA was definitely good for a chuckle or two, but if you can’t go to see the actual paintings, I don’t really think you’re missing out.  Their online collections are far more extensive, and easily accessible to all, so I’d really only recommend going to the Brookline collection if you’re already in the area and feeling bored.

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Now, for the Warren Anatomical Museum.  It’s located inside the Countway Library of Medicine, which is apparently some kind of Harvard/Boston Medical Library alliance.  It’s right by what appears to be the hospital district of Boston, so parking is kind of a bitch unless you use one of the garages.  We had to undergo an interrogation/bag search by the rather unfriendly security guard, and show a photo ID to be allowed access to the library, but the museum is free, and located on the 5th floor.

On their website, they claim that the museum has over 300 cases, and I’m frankly puzzled as to how they came up with that number; as far as I could tell, they had four display cases (even if you broke up the display cases into individual sections, it was maybe 16 at the most).  They may have had 300 artefacts, but even that seems a generous estimate.  What I’m saying is that the museum is small, much smaller than their website would have you believe.  However, I guess I shouldn’t quibble too much over size, as there were some pretty neat things in there.

The main reason I wanted to visit (other than my general love of medical museums) was because they had Phineas Gage‘s skull, and, perhaps even more excitingly, the tamping iron that was jammed through it (woo, inanimate carbon rod!).  I remembered learning about Gage in psychology and linguistics classes, but in case you’re not familiar with him, basically, he was a 19th century construction foreman who had an iron rod rammed through his brain in an accident.  Surprisingly, he survived the incident, and was still a functioning adult, even though his frontal lobe was completely destroyed.  Unfortunately, the accident completely changed his personality, and he went from being reliable and amiable to argumentative and impatient, meaning it was impossible for him to hold down a job, and he exhibited himself in sideshows until his seizure-related death (another side-effect of the accident).  The reason Phineas Gage is so important is because his accident transformed the understanding of the brain, which led to developments in medicine and psychology (and darkly, would later indirectly lead to things like lobotomies, although really, if they had studied the case of Gage at all, they could have figured out destroying chunks of the brain was definitely a bad idea).  So yeah, it was pretty extraordinary to see the artefacts relating to his case.

Boston is also where the first public surgery under anaesthesia was performed, by Doctor John Warren, who is both the founder and namesake of the collection, so there were of course materials relating to that.  There were a few impressive teratological specimens, and the skeleton of a woman whose body had been absolutely destroyed by rickets, in addition to the usual surgical instruments you would expect from a medical museum.  They also had some fascinating accounts from students at the Victorian-era medical school, and the lengths they would go to obtain skeletons to study (something which involved conspiring with the janitor to get their hands on a corpse, which he would then boil down for them).  The walls were lined with portraits of famous 19th century doctors; the portrait of Crawford Long showed him to have the dark hair and long face that would have made him just my type, but a photograph of him taken in later life made me realise he was much less attractive than his portrait led me to believe.

Although it was a bit of a hassle accessing the Warren Museum, and the collection was fairly tiny (at least, the collection on display, I’m told their holdings are far more extensive), it was a rare opportunity to see Phineas Gage’s skull, so I am glad we stopped.  If you’re in Boston and a fan of medical history, then it’s definitely a worthwhile destination, just don’t expect your visit to take much longer than half an hour.

Brugge, Belgium: Volkskundemuseum (Folklore Museum)…(and some random cool things!)

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On our last morning in Brugge, the sun finally made an appearance, and I had no particular agenda other than going for a wander and cramming as many frites in my mouth as humanly possible whilst still in Belgium.  After a lengthy stroll through the Sunday antiques market (of which more later), my boyfriend and I decided to check out the Folklore Museum because it had a resident cat (as good a reason as any, and it was also significantly cheaper than the Historium (probably the only time you’ll ever see me declining to visit a museum with authentic smells) Side note within a side note, in Dutch, historian is historicus, which I think is awesome).

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The Volkskundemuseum is a good fifteen minute walk along the canal from the main tourist area, in a residential part of town, so it’s a little tricky to find without the aid of a map.  It is housed within a long row of 17th century cottages along one of the ankle-destroying cobblestone streets so commonplace in Brugge, and is part of the Musea Brugge group, so admission is free if you have a Brugge City Card.  Otherwise, it is a reasonable 4 euros.

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I think the term “folklore museum” is slightly misleading, as when I think of folklore, I picture trolls, or ogres, or Baba Yaga, you know, fairytale stuff, not handicrafts.  Folk or Craft Museum would probably be a more apt description of the contents.  The collection is divided up into about 20 rooms, each devoted to a different trade.  The signs are all in Flemish, but there are free English guidebooks at the front desk that at least give an overview of what’s going on in each room.

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We found the cat (he’s called Aristide after Aristide Bruant, singer of Le Chat Noir) fairly early on, as he kept wandering in and out of the first few rooms, and he permitted a small amount of petting before disappearing for good.  The very first room was a schoolroom, and we progressed through trades including cobbler, cooper, and storekeeper.  Every room had a waxen tradesman in it, and was set up to resemble the workspace or shop each man would have worked in. In addition, there were a few bonus objects in glass cases, including some religious artefacts, and a shoe collection.

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According to our guidebooks, the final room of the first section was supposed to be a tobacconist, but instead contained a curious mishmash of carnival rides and games.  As there was no English signage, I’m not entirely sure what happened there, but it did seem out of place next to the rest of the museum.

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We then passed through a courtyard, and re-entered the museum through a working pub, Zwarte Katze (the Black Cat).  Well, working in the sense that they sold drinks and food, but no alcohol.  As the place was totally deserted when we there, it would have been awkward to stop and demand service.  There was a room above the tavern done up like the publican’s family bedroom, with a rather impressive collection of chamberpots. I guess everyone must have had their own.  Hygienic that way, at least.

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Back downstairs, we stepped into the delightful premises of the local candymaker, and his fine collection of candy moulds.  Sadly, there was no actual candy for sale, except back at the empty pub. Fortunately, I can do without boiled sweets when scrumptious Belgian chocolate beckons from every other shop back in town (and those gummi grapefruit slices I’m quite partial to.  I don’t know why they don’t sell them in the UK).

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The candymaker wasn’t the only one of my favourite tradesmen represented, as there was also an apothecary, armed with his splendid jars (and a comical mustache).  Finally, the craftspeople were rounded out with a hatter and tailor, the latter of whom was listening to popular songs of the ’40s on his radio when we walked in. (I say “listening,” but obviously he was an inanimate wax figure.  I’m not like that weirdo who gets it on with Kim Cattrall in that awful Mannequin film).

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There was a final exhibition on lace held in an upstairs gallery, which I found rather engrossing, as it touched on working conditions in addition to the lace-making process, with a variety of bobbins, and of course, lacework on display.  Of all the crafts represented in the museum, this was the only one that would have been traditionally done by women, often under unpleasant conditions.

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The hallway leading towards the exit featured a sampling of traditional business signs, including an oversized cigar and glasses, and a strange carrot shaped object that I think was also used to advertise a cigar-maker (or was it a barber?  I didn’t get a picture, and now I can’t remember). Anyway, the Volkskundemuseum offered an overview of a good cross-section of traditional Belgian trades (and mannequins!) but didn’t really provide more than something to look at, as the cat was the only interactive thing inside!  I think it was ultimately a better way to pass an afternoon than fighting through crowds at the larger tourist attractions, as we had the place virtually to ourselves, but it would have been nice if it had gone beyond being a mere arrangement of life-size dioramas (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).  3/5

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Now, I’d be remiss in ending this post without mentioning some of the highlights of Brugge, so here we go.  As I mentioned at the start, Brugge hosts a massive antiques market on Sundays that encompasses most of the city, and a large park near the train station (good luck navigating your suitcases through!).  Being Belgian, and therefore wonderfully quirky, this is no humdrum antiques market; instead, it is the finest collection of extraordinary crap I’ve ever seen!  Above, we have a head that bears a striking resemblance to Humphrey Bogart hanging out next to a Christ Child and some random paintings.  And if there’s another thing that I love that was to be found in even greater abundance than mannequin heads, it was terrible taxidermy.  Yes, that is a gun-toting rabbit you see above, surrounded by other furry friends.  You have no idea how badly I wanted to buy him, but my boyfriend claimed I wouldn’t allowed to take it through British Customs (I still have to check on that, because I am hightailing it back to this market to stock up on home decor if EU taxidermy is permissible.  So there!)

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The derpiest fox of the many, many derpy foxes.

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This clown manages to be sad and evil simultaneously.

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If that portrait in the back is of Napoleon, I NEED to have it.

Another amazingly strange feature of Belgium is the wide variety of vending machines available, which is kind of perfect for someone who dreads human interaction as much as I do.  Below, we have bread and strawberry vending machines.  I mean, really, can a country be any more perfect?

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And finally, I’ll close this monster post by mentioning the frituur and gelateria that sustained me through much of my stay in Brugge (ok, actually I ate at them both every day I was there). Da Vinci gelato was amazing and creamy, and fairly inexpensive too, as Continental ice cream tends to be (stupid London prices), and ‘T Brugsch Friethuys delivered perfect crispy golden brown friten every time, (much better than the ones from the famous frituur stands in front of the church) served up by an adorable mustachioed old man, who told us to enjoy them with the sincerity that comes from taking pride in one’s craft.  Both are on Geldmuntstraat, which is one of the roads coming off the main Market Square. So really, what are you waiting for?  Get yourself to Brugge!

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Gent, Belgium: Dr. Guislain Museum

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Oh, Dr. Guislain.  Not only did you revolutionise psychiatry in Belgium, but you also lent your name to one hell of a museum.  If only you’d looked a bit more like a young Joseph Banks (of Endeavour fame, and my historical crush of the moment.  Seriously, click the link, he was hot!), and a bit less like Benjamin Franklin with more hair and mutton chops crossed with the Quaker Oats guy, I think we could have really had something.  I suppose I’ll have to just content myself with your superb museum.

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I couldn’t tell you anything about the rest of Gent (other than it was a cloth-making town, which I only know courtesy of the Wife of Bath and her “wandering by the way”) as we specifically came for Dr. Guislain, and left afterwards without so much as a friet (don’t worry, I had paprika Hula Hoops in the car).  The museum is located within a working mental hospital housed in an imposing Victorian edifice of masterful brickwork. We found the entrance down a long outdoor corridor that runs next to a courtyard, where some of the patients were enjoying the sunny afternoon.  Admission was a mere 6 euros, which was very fair considering the size of the place.

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When I saw pictures of it online, they were all of one room of the museum, so I imagined it would be quite small, when in fact, it was positively palatial, spread out over two floors on each side of the building.  We began with the contemporary art collection of the Foundation Frances, which was arranged in two huge rooms.  The collection essentially explored man and the body, and as such featured some rather intense pieces dealing with brutality and animalistic tendencies.  I know I bash modern art a lot on here, but this stuff wasn’t bad, save for Tracey Emin’s crappy piece which was literally just some words written on a wall. Oh, and some of her used tampons.  Frankly, I just don’t see her appeal.

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Fortunately, around the corner, I spotted a re-creation of an early psychiatric ward, and the interactive pod pictured above, which is far more my type of thing.  The pod was a prototype of a device that could take a DNA sample, perform a brain scan, and administer medical tests, all whilst you’re comfortably ensconced on a plush leather chair.  Obviously, this one didn’t actually do brain scans or DNA testing, but the chair still tipped back, and you could at least take some reaction time tests in it, so it was nonetheless good fun.  The pod was part of a display on modern medicine which segued back into a mysterious hallway that we weren’t entirely sure we were supposed to be walking down.

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All the lights were off, and the rooms to either side were probably used for some kind of learning activities, but as they were empty, gave off the air of a creepy funhouse.  In one room, we even found some funhouse style mirrors, and another just had a line of sinks and an antique wheelchair.  It was kind of spooky.  At the end of the hallway, there was another art display, this time quite playful, as the art was created by a man with mental disabilities, and made up of different toys arranged together.  I enjoyed it.

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The floor above finally saw us enter Dr. Guislain’s permanent collections on the history of psychiatry.  This not only told the story of the Guislain Hospice and Dr. Guislain himself, but offered a history of the mentally ill going back to medieval times, illustrated throughout with some pretty wonderful (and terrifying, sometimes simultaneously) objects.  For example, pictured above is a collection of chains, and a harness contraption for conveying patients into bed, and below is a dunking chair, and a padded, covered bed, because nothing calms people down like forcibly dunking them into freezing water and then making them sleep in a dark, claustrophobia-inducing bed.

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This section was almost unbelievably massive.  I kept thinking we’d gotten to the end, and lo and behold, there’d be another room awaiting us.  I must have said, “It just keeps going!” about fifty times (almost as much as my other catchphrase, “I need a wee!”  I’m like a five year old sometimes).  The Dr. Guislain collection, in addition to being fascinating, was also surprisingly moving, as it featured pictures of some of the patients, as well as telling their ultimate fate (which was sometimes horrible), and even a few early videos where visibly uncomfortable patients were made to demonstrate their conditions before a crowd of onlookers.  Dr. Guislain would have been long dead by this point, but regardless, whilst the Guislain Hospice was a big step above chaining people up, conditions here clearly weren’t ideal.

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When we at long last reached the end, we discovered a small radiology collection, and the two fine wax figures shown above.  I can’t even recall who they were meant to be, maybe Dr. Guislain and his wife?  Or Pierre and Marie Curie since it was radiology?  Or maybe even Roentgen and his wife (the one who posed for the famous X-ray of her hand with wedding ring)?  I guess I should really pay more attention to signs, and not be distracted by hilarious wigs.  (Note: consensus is that they’re probably the Curies).

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At any rate, the psychiatry collections were fabulous, and quite informative, and I would have declared myself satisfied if that was all there was to see.  However, there remained another half of the museum to explore across the courtyard.

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This part of the museum was devoted solely to art, encompassing two separate collections.  The first was a special exhibit on the work of Gideon Kiefer, “Science Conceals Madness.”  They were pieces with a real dystopian feel; stylishly attired men and women calmly watching or doing deeply disturbing things, like performing a lobotomy, or selecting a live fetus from a jarred collection.  I liked his style, though I didn’t get any pictures (the ones above are by other artists) of his art.  So, I may have given a somewhat backhanded compliment to modern art above, but Kiefer and the second exhibit of outsider art are going to force me to give a genuine one.  I really, honestly liked this stuff a lot.

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The upper floor, was, as I mentioned, full of outsider art, much of it done by mentally ill artists (which is perhaps why I liked it so much.  It wasn’t trying too hard).  Some of my favourite pieces were by Tim Brown (on left, above), Willem Van Genk (left, below), and Hans Langner (right, below).  Van Genk had an interesting back story; he was a mentally disabled man who was questioned by the Gestapo as a child about the whereabouts of his father (who was in hiding), and forever after had a simultaneous fascination and revulsion towards raincoats, like the ones the Gestapo wore.  Thus, he would often parade around town in one, which made him feel invincible (and aroused), but would wear each one only once. On the other hand, although it didn’t have much background information, Langner’s piece was neat because it was just a room crammed so full of knick-knacks that it felt overwhelming, and slightly creepy.

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I think there was plenty of art for all tastes here, from dioramas, to lawn ornaments taken from an Indian garden, to paintings and beyond.  If I thought it was cool, then I’m sure most other people would enjoy it as well.  The outsider art collection concluded our lengthy tour of Dr. Guislain Museum, save for a stop in the museum shop for a few of their swell (albeit pricy) postcards.

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Well, I may have already given this much away in the introduction to this post, but I loved Dr. Guislain Museum!  It was the perfect combination of medical history, awesome artwork, and the most appropriate setting imaginable for a psychiatry museum.  5/5, and one of the best (if not THE best) places I’ve seen in Belgium, so make the trip if you’re anywhere in Flanders (or even Wallonia, they have French signs in addition to the English and Flemish!).

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London: The Fan Museum

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With its fan-tastic (literally) and ever-changing displays, the Fan Museum is one of the many attractions of Greenwich. Although Greenwich is kind of a pain to get to from Southwest London, there’s enough to see (and eat) there to make it worth my while, so I’ve headed out there a few times since it’s (sort of) warmed up.  I can’t lie; one of the main draws is the Brazilian churro stand in Greenwich Market.  Brazilian churros have far more in common with Mexican churros than with their inferior Old World cousins, and these ones are fried to order, rolled in cinnamon sugar and filled with your choice of dulce de leche or thick chocolate sauce (go for the dulce de leche, or at least the half and half, you won’t regret it).  Glutton though I am, once I consumed a churro, I was ready to head off in search of other amusements, and the nearby Fan Museum fit the bill.

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The Fan Museum is on Crooms Hill, a short walk away from both the market and Cutty Sark station.  It’s not terribly large, but the £4 admission charge seemed reasonable.  Apparently, they’re famed for the cream teas served in the Orangery, but as I’d just wolfed down a churro, I decided to stick with the museum only on this visit, which is split between four rooms on two floors of a Georgian house.  There’s already a decent amount of accompanying text for the permanent displays, but I found the free guidebook I was offered was even more informative, so do take advantage.

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The permanent collection offers a good introduction to the history and making of fans, with examples of all the different types, as well as fans in various stages of production.  I know a bit about the old language of fans, but I’d never really given that much thought to them otherwise, save for purposes of cooling (like those ineffective paper fans we used to make at the end of the school year when it got really hot, and we couldn’t wait to leave our sweltering classroom for the summer), so it was nice to have some background on them.

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Progressing upstairs (past the portrait of the rather formidable lady on the right), we entered the temporary exhibit, which was what I was most keen on seeing, as “curiosities” and “quirky” are obviously two words that draw my attention.  I wasn’t disappointed – many of these fans were truly bizarre.  For once I’ll shut up and let the pictures do (most of) the talking.

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Cigar fans and revolver fan.  Also note the twig fan next to the cigar fan, which was a particular favourite, because it looked like a crappy stick, but surprise, a fan!

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Advertisement for the cigar fan, and dagger fan, which I want for myself.  My boyfriend suggested it would be even better if the dagger fan was actually made up of small blades, and I’m inclined to agree.

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Devil fan.  Excellent.

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This was a surprise pervy fan.  The front looks totally innocent, but the back gets a bit Kama Sutra, if you get my drift…

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Velvet mask fan. I suppose that makes it multi-purpose, like many of the other fans we saw, though most of those were slightly more functional, incorporating things like combs and makeup containers.

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Instructions on how to use the ear trumpet fan.  Finally, a stylish Victorian hearing aid!

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And lastly, these fans, which converted into small parasols.  I think I’ll stick to the SPF 50+, thanks, as I doubt these provide enough coverage for the current state of the ozone layer.

The temporary exhibit took up two small rooms, and included a video of someone demonstrating all the functions of the fans, so you could see their novelty uses.  There was also a violin fan, which I didn’t get a picture of, and quite a few others.  Heading back downstairs, there’s a gift shop that sells (you guessed it) fans and other miscellany, including a scroll on the language of fans so you can try it out for yourself.  The guidebook made several cheeky references to the excellence of the shop, which amused me.

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The Fan Museum was very quaint, but stopped just this side of twee (I think all the weapon-themed fans helped with that).  I found the special exhibit enjoyable, and the permanent collection, though small, was interesting.  I’ll give it 3.5/5, though I would imagine the experience varies depending on what the temporary exhibit is.  It’s a nice, quiet place, so would be perfect if you’re looking to avoid the crowds of the Cutty Sark or National Maritime Museum, and take in some fine examples of an historic art in a lovely setting.

London: London Transport Museum

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Luxuriating in the plush interior of a Victorian era train. I believe this was actually a second class carriage, but it was still positively opulent by modern standards!

The London Transport Museum has long been beckoning to me from its perch in the middle of Covent Garden (right where I imagine the Georgian ladies of the night featured in Harris’s List did some beckoning of their own).  Massive queues, coupled with a hefty £15 admission fee had kept me away in the past.  However, a few weeks ago, a visiting friend was keen on seeing it, and there was no queue late on a Friday afternoon, so I was persuaded to part with some cash (and received an annual pass for my trouble, which is something I suppose) to gain entrance into this veritable palace of public conveyance.

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Immediately upon entering, we were directed up a sort of gangway which led us into a lift/mock TARDIS, which was, disappointingly, not any bigger on the inside.  As the doors shut behind us, dates began flashing on a screen above our heads, ostensibly sending us back to 1800 (I freely admit I was jumping up and down and clapping my hands with delight the entire time.  Even fake time travel is cool) which took the form of the second floor of the building.  We were greeted by an impressive fleet of omnibuses driven by (squee!) wax figures galore.  I think it was the first time I actually saw an omnibus in real life, and I was quite surprised at how large they were.  It made all the accounts I’ve read of people being run down by them make much more sense, especially as they would have also had giant, scary horses attached to them in real life.  This uppermost floor focused on early 19th century transport, with posters detailing the difficulties of pre-industrial travel lining one side of the room, and the omnibuses dominating the other side.

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Progressing downwards via the stairs (much less exciting than the lift), we jumped forward in history to Victorian London, and the infamous Underground steam trains (one of which I am sat inside at the start of this post).  This floor was quite narrow, and taken up mainly by the huge steam engines, and some information about the planning of the early Underground system (Circle Line), and the subsequent development of the suburbs, which is the basis of my interest in the history of the Underground (I am deliberately not referring to it as the Tube, as purists will tell you that only the deep line tunnels, like the Victoria Line, are actually the Tube proper.  All of the oldest lines, including the District, are mainly cut and cover, with some overground sections).  To understand how London expanded, you really need to know why and when the Underground arrived in the suburbs.  The Transport Museum only offered a bare outline of this process, with no mention of the many squabbles that delayed the growth of the Underground, which are covered in books like The Subterranean Railway and Underground, Overground (both of which, honestly, go into a bit too much detail for my tastes, especially the former title, but my interest in transport history is relatively limited), so judging by this, and the location, I have to say the museum is geared more towards the tourist than the TfL enthusiast.

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I can only guess at the depraved things this man is subjecting his fellow passengers to. Disturbingly, I have encountered similar passengers whilst Inter-railing through Europe some years ago. Oh, the stories I could tell!

Moving down to the ground floor, which was by far the largest floor, took us into 1900-the present day. Half of the space was devoted to the Underground (yet again), as it is obviously the most iconic form of transport in London, and included trains from a number of different decades that you were welcome to sit inside (along with a delightful cast of era-appropriately attired wax people).  I love interactive things like this, and I even took the opportunity, as I was alone, to swing from the bars inside one of the cars, like you see obnoxious children and even more obnoxious drunk people doing from time to time (I have to admit, it is pretty fun). There was quite a large section devoted to transport during the World Wars, which I found very informative, as well as an explanation of the technology that allowed for the creation of the Underground. I also really like the various posters that have been used to advertise the Underground over the years, and there was a small display of them here, along with a bit of information on Harry Beck‘s famous map (though not as much as I would have thought).

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The rest of the floor space was given over to the somewhat less enticing above-ground vehicles, i.e. buses and the tram.  Living in Wimbledon, I am all too familiar with the tram, which goes to such delightful places as Croydon and my personal favourite: Therapia Lane (pronounced the-rape-ia.  Not somewhere I’d want to find myself alone after dark, just in case it lives up to its name…), so I found it hard to summon up much enthusiasm over this part of the museum.  What I did enjoy, perhaps bizarrely, was the design of the bathroom.  They had a different moquette pattern on the back of each stall, made of wallpaper rather than fabric for obvious reasons, and a neat curvy hand-washing trough thing (less gross than it sounds).  Sometimes, it’s the little things that make the difference, and I thought it was a nice touch.  The shop is also fairly impressive, and a good place to pick up unique gifts (you can enter the shop without buying a ticket for the museum).  They have a large selection of the aforementioned TfL posters, along with moquette patterned purses, pillows, and even sofas (I secretly lust after the sofas, even though they are admittedly kind of hideous, but the £1000+ price tag is probably enough to assure that I am never able to turn my living room into my own personal version of the Tube.  I think I’d go for either the Barman pattern, found in new Central Line trains, or maybe the 1947 Roundel, if anyone’s interested.).

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I shall award the London Transport Museum 3/5.  I do think the admission fee is much too high, and the museum doesn’t go into enough depth to appeal to proper enthusiasts, but it was nonetheless a fun museum with just enough information to provide a general history of TfL to tourists and other casual visitors.  And the many things to climb on, and in and out of, ensure that less keen adults (and probably children too) won’t get too bored whilst people like me read all the signage. 5/5 for the mannequins though, they were magnificent! Thus, if you’re debating between visiting here and Madame Tussaud’s, there’s really no contest.  The London Transport Museum is cheaper, has much shorter queues (even in peak times), and I’m fairly certain their wax figures will afford you far more hilarity than anything the Madame can offer up.

London: Carlyle’s House

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As you may have surmised by now, I embark on a number of food-related quests in London. Most of them revolve around trying to track down much missed American foodstuffs, but an ongoing one is based around the ubiquitous croissant.  I’ve had many good croissants here, but I want to find the best one.  Poilane seemed like a contender, by virtue of actually being French; the only trouble was the need to justify (to the hermit in me who balks at leaving the house for anything unnecessary) venturing to Chelsea for something other than pastry (delicious and buttery though it may be). I gave consideration to the National Army Museum (which I will visit, one of these days), but Carlyle’s House won out in the end.

The Carlyles are a couple you can’t really avoid hearing about if you’re keen on either Victorian Britain, or the history of domesticity (I’m keen on both).  Jane Carlyle was one of those epistolary types (rather like Lady Mary) who left behind a sheaf of letters and a diary, which are often referenced in books about the history of the home, as she spent quite a lot of time bitching about her servants.  Thomas Carlyle, her husband, was known as the “sage of Chelsea,” primarily for writing books on topics like the French Revolution and Frederick the Great, which almost no one reads today because they are nearly incomprehensible (or so I’m told).  Essentially, they were famous because they were well placed in literary society, and enjoyed entertaining, so that everyone who was anyone in Victorian Britain came to visit them.  Also, they tended to make catty remarks about all their acquaintances, which is the main reason I like them.

The house is kind of a pain to get to, the nearest stations being South Kensington and Sloane Square, which are both a 15-20 minute walk.  I chose to go to Sloane Square route so as to pass Poilane, which meant a long stroll down the King’s Road where I was sidetracked by a random street market (I acquired some cheese bread that, whilst tasty, made my purse emit a disturbing miasma which I was concerned other people in the house could smell) and down to Cheyne Row (pronounced Chainee, apparently).  Obviously, it’s all rich people that live there now, but back in the Carlyle’s day, it was fairly cheap real estate.

Carlyle’s House still has an old-fashioned bell-pull (you pull a little knob out, which causes a bell to ring inside) in lieu of a doorbell to summon someone to let you in, which I found exciting. Admission was £5.10 for non-National Trust members, and I suspect they don’t take cards, though I could be wrong.  The lady working there gave me a brief introduction and then left me to wander around on my own (which is grand, guided tours usually bore me).  She described the house as a bit of a time capsule, with almost all the original furnishings, and it indeed had a hushed atmosphere (amidst the very creaky floorboards).  I don’t think I was necessarily the target audience for the house (judging from my slightly stilted welcome, although maybe my purse odour had something to do with that), as I was a good 30 years younger than everyone else there, but I’ve often felt like an old person inside a young person’s body, so I had no issue with that.  I hold out a vague hope that perhaps when I actually am old, my cantankerousness will be appreciated and I’ll have friends, but I suspect that cliques exist even amongst the elderly, and I’ll still be a misfit.  Anyway, it’s probably not a good place to bring children, as it is just a load of things to read, and antique furniture they’d likely just want to smear their sticky fingers over.

The house is a typical tall yet narrow Georgian, with only a few rooms per floor.  You begin in the parlour and work your way up (or down, to the kitchen).  Spread throughout the house are informational sheets and lots and lots of books (both by and about the Carlyles) and a selection of chairs where you can sit and read said books.  As I tend to share Thomas Carlyle’s views on reading in public libraries (something to the effect of being constantly annoyed by people sniffling and coughing), I skipped the books with the intention of just checking out a collection of their letters from my local library to read at home.  Actually, because he disliked the Reading Room at the British Museum so much, Thomas helped to create the London Library, which I aspire to someday joining (if someone wants to give me the £460 for yearly membership to help me achieve my dream, it would be much appreciated!).  I did read all the information sheets though, which provided a lot of background on the Carlyles.  My favourite things were all the quotes placed around the house; mostly snarky comments on other writers (none of which I can find online for some reason, but trust me, Orwell didn’t call Thomas the “master of belittlement” for nothing).  Jane held her own with the insults, and also believed firmly in the importance of healthy bowels (“most of life’s problems can be traced to the bowels”); she sounds like a woman after my own heart.

The rooms are well-preserved, full of charming furniture that I definitely covet for myself, including a decoupage screen Jane made.  I did find the pattern on the carpet rather dizzying however, and nearly tripped when walking up the stairs.  In addition to the parlour, you can go in Jane’s bedroom, a sort of living room/library (where Thomas died, wooo, spooky), and Thomas’s attic study. The attic was set up more like a museum, with some glass display cases, but everywhere else was arranged true to the period.

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You can also go into the garden (which is the only place where you can take pictures), where Thomas hung out and smoked his pipe.  I have the feeling that sort of thing would be frowned upon today, which is a bit of a shame as one of the best memories I have from the house I used to live in is hanging out in the garden during a party and smoking a pipe (of tobacco, don’t get excited) with my flatmates.  Very convivial, and that sort of thing.  The garden wasn’t terribly exciting, but the house was really enjoyable.

I know I’ve had some harsh words for the National Trust in the past (I believe I referred to most of their properties as “mediocre”), but the Carlyle’s House might help to bring me around.  It had a lovely atmosphere, and all the information provided made it actually interesting, though I have to think it was helped along mainly by the Carlyle’s wit.  I know I certainly want to do more research about the couple after visiting, which I think is what you want from a museum; to be inspired to learn more. Oh, and that croissant from Poilane was pretty damn tasty too, in case you were wondering. 4/5 for both.

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London: Museum of Brands, Packaging, and Advertising

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You only get treated to one picture in this post because the museum did not allow photography. And it’s of me.  Sorry about that.

My well-documented love of cake doughnuts was mainly what brought me to the Museum of Brands.  You see, the museum is located in Notting Hill, which is not an area I frequent, mainly because Portobello Road is typically nightmarishly crowded.  However, upon learning that there was a cinema that sold homemade cake doughnuts nearby, I set out to track them down the very next day.  I’ve long bemoaned the state of doughnuts in this country (namely that there really aren’t any besides Krispy Kreme and horrible supermarket jam doughnuts), so I was almost unbelievably thrilled to find delicious frycakes in London (so much so that I gave myself the mother of all stomachaches after wolfing down four of them).  Unfortunately, like pretty much everything else I end up liking here, the doughnuts are no longer available.  I can only hope they re-open someday.

Nonetheless, none of this has any bearing on the Museum of Brands, which is definitely still in business.  It’s another one of those places that I’ve known about for ages, via my beloved National Rail 2for1 brochures (seriously, grab one if you’re at a rail station around London.  You’ll save loads!), but had never actually managed to visit.  It’s located down a side street quite near to Portobello Road, in what I suspect are fairly new digs.  I’d read descriptions of the museum in Weird Europe and More Bollocks to Alton Towers, both of which are rather out of date, and they described the museum as being spread out over two floors, in a small space.  The current set-up is only on one floor, but the exhibits wind in a labyrinthine fashion throughout the building.  Admission is £6.50, which is standard London pricing for a museum of that size.

One of the reasons I’d been slightly hesitant about visiting the museum was that the above books made it out to be some kind of nostalgia fest of products from the’ 60s-’80s, which I’ve nothing against; the issue is that all the products are obviously British, so they don’t have any nostalgic appeal for me.  Fortunately, the Museum of Brands wasn’t devoted only to “retro” products.  Rather, you began the museum with the Victorian era, which was where branding (with the rise of industrialisation) really took hold, and progressed through to the present day, with signage throughout to track the growth of advertising and trends in consumer products.

The entrance to the exhibits had the facade of a Victorian shop, which delighted me, given my fondness for “streets of yesteryear.”  The museum was generally quite dark and narrow, which made it a bit awkward to look at things, as there were about eight other people who entered the museum at the same time as us, and anything more than two was indeed a crowd in the limited space.  I got around this by skipping ahead and then backtracking a bit, a plan which was complicated somewhat by a large Russian woman who kept parking it in front of the display cases, and then refusing to move, but she eventually got bored of this and clomped off, leaving me free to peruse things at leisure.  Each decade had its own section, with a description of the popular products on the market at that time, and objects grouped by type; usually food, toys, things pertaining to the Royal Family, household products, etc.  My favourite sections were probably the Victorian (naturally) because I love the advertiser’s extravagant promises, and the 1940s, because they had some hilarious anti-Nazi merchandise (Shitler brand toilet paper with Hitler’s face on each piece?  C’mon, that’s pretty funny).  I also liked the chocolate bars and cereal through the decades, because those are two of my favourite foods, and I like to torment myself by looking at delicious sounding products that are no longer available (as per the opening paragraph on doughnuts).

As I mentioned before, the products in question are all British, so I didn’t see many things that made me sigh wistfully (save for a few things from the early 90s that appear to have made it over here from America), but I found walking through the museum enjoyable regardless.  The museum does just what it says on the tin (ha! A bit of a pun, given the subject matter); it is a collection of brands, packaging, and advertising, which means you are just looking at a load of packets and boxes, but I appreciated the way they were organised, as well as the captions, which managed to neatly sum up the aspirational lifestyle of each era.  I’m going to give it a 3/5, as it wasn’t amazing, but it was an amusing way to pass an hour.  Shame there’s no longer any doughnuts in the area to tempt me back…

Las Vegas, Nevada: National Atomic Testing Museum

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You may all be glad to know that having milked posts out of my brief Slovenia trip for the past month or so, I’m finally moving onto some other places.  I visited the Atomic Testing Museum in late 2011, but I think it’s quite a unique place that others might be keen to visit, and I: A.) liked it and B.) have decent pictures, which is a rarity in itself, so you’re all going to have to hear about it now.

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I am not at all a fan of gambling, or clubbing, or watching Criss Angel, or whatever the hell it is most people do when they visit Vegas.  Thus, I made a point of seeking out other activities that did interest me, which as any regular reader of this blog knows, primarily means visiting museums and eating ice cream.  Oh, and complaining, but I could get enough of that in whilst being dragged around the casinos. (In case you’re wondering why I was even there, my parents went for a conference, and thought my boyfriend would enjoy Vegas, so naturally, I came along as well). So the Atomic Testing Museum, which was only a few miles away from the Strip, on E. Flamingo Road, seemed like a good alternative to gawping with dead eyes at a slot machine.

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$14 for admission seemed kind of steep to me, but I think I’m kind of spoiled by all the free/inexpensive museums in the UK, as those seem to be standard museum prices these days in America.  And frankly, it seemed like a bargain compared to the Hoover Dam.  The building is fairly utilitarian, like a typical government institution, but they’ve done their best to give the interior a groovy “atomic” feel (or in some sections, a nuclear bunker theme).

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The museum opened with the years leading up to WWII, and the scientific breakthroughs that would make the development of an atomic bomb possible.  This section was enhanced with the use of newsreel footage, and those retro videos about “Our Friend, the Atom.”  They also had some helpful tips on how to survive an atomic blast, complete with 1950’s mannequins.  Other than the temporary exhibit, this was my favourite section of the museum, as it was more about history than science. 

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I reckon most people would quite enjoy the theatre, where you can experience a simulated atomic blast, but I think I’ve established that I am a total weiner where loud noises are concerned, so I didn’t go in.  There was a countdown clock to the blast and everything, so I’m sure it was intense.  The next part of the museum went into the reasons why Nevada was chosen as an ideal test site, as well as the tests themselves, which went on from 1951-1992. Because the area wasn’t a test site until well after WWII, the museum didn’t dwell much on the obviously horrific destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but was more focused on the Soviets and the Cold War, which was, after all, the main reason for the development of so many nuclear weapons.

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The final area of the permanent exhibits was devoted mainly to the science behind the bombs, and included an impressive array of Geiger counters and various geological maps, but I passed through this section rather quickly, as it seemed a bit much to try to teach myself physics on a museum visit.  (Actually, my great-uncle was a physicist who I’m told worked on the H-bomb, but the science genes clearly skipped me, since I declined to take physics in high school in favour of biology and chemistry, as physics just seemed like too much math). 

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The best part of the museum, in my opinion, was the temporary “Building Atomic Vegas” exhibit, which was about the golden age of Vegas in the ’50s-’70s. This had all the hokeyness one could hope for, with displays on Liberace and Evel Knievel, and cardboard cutouts of Sinatra, Elvis, and JFK.  You better believe I got my picture with all of them.

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They even had some preserves dating back to the 1960s, and glittery costumes belonging to the former contestants for Miss Atomic Energy.  After some of the grim subject matter of the rest of the museum (since WMDs are never going to exactly be cheery), it was nice to luxuriate in some over-the-top cheesiness, which Vegas does so well.  This exhibit is no longer there, but according to the website, they do have one about Roswell in its place, which also looks promising (though sadly, far less camp). 

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The museum shop was pretty exemplary; lots of good postcards and various presidential themed stuff, including a FDR paper doll which I keep in a prominent place on my mantelpiece to this day.  (Now I just need the presidential Pez collection.  A candy dispensing Franklin Pierce?  Yes, please!)  I’m going to give the museum 4/5, even though all of the exhibits didn’t appeal to me, because I think it was well put together, and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn more about atomic testing (which, whilst not exactly classified, is not something you often hear that much about).  I definitely recommend it if you’re looking an excuse to pull yourself away from the contrived atmosphere of the Strip, and experience something more authentic to Las Vegas’s past. 

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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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