Europe

Brussels, Belgium: The Parlamentarium and Cantillon Brewery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Berlin: Jewish Museum

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Although most of the museums I visited in Berlin ranged from mediocre to downright disappointing, I’ve saved the best one for last: the Jewish Museum. Not only was it air conditioned (a bonus in itself), it was also huge and well thought out.  However, you shouldn’t go expecting a Holocaust Museum (though there is one of those elsewhere in Berlin).  While there is obviously some content relating to the Holocaust, the primary focus of the museum is the history of Judaism.  It kind of reminded me of the Maltz Museum in Cleveland, which is also very good (although I haven’t blogged about it yet!), only much bigger!  The museum consists of two buildings, an old and a new; the new one contains all the permanent art installations.

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You have to go through a full-on airport security style checkpoint upon entering the museum, but I do understand the reason for that.  However, I was irked by (and uncomprehending of) the different admission options.  A single adult ticket was 8 euros, but a family ticket, for two adults and up to two children, was 14 euros!  If they want to let children in free, then fine, but the family ticket should at least cost the same as two regular adult admissions.  So, because my boyfriend and I don’t have children, we had to pay 2 euros more than a whole family would, which I really don’t think is fair.  People shouldn’t be penalised for not having children (even though that does seem to be the trend…I notice the same thing going on with discounts for English Heritage and the National Trust).

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Anyway, you enter the museum down a flight of stairs, which in retrospect seems a bit backwards (although we just went the way the guy working there told us to go), because I feel like the museum makes more sense if you go to the upstairs galleries first.  The downstairs part is really the artsy half of the museum, but it is pretty cool.  It’s made up of long intersecting halls (axis) that are meant to represent different aspects of Jewish life under Nazi Germany.  There’s an Axis of Continuity, Axis of Exile, and an Axis of the Holocaust.  The last one leads to the Holocaust Tower, which is a bunker-like room with only a single shaft of light coming down from the ceiling.  It really is kind of overwhelming being in there, especially because the door is really heavy and slams shut with such finality.  The axis leading up to the Tower is full of objects belonging to families who perished in the Holocaust, with a little paragraph telling their story.  The Axis of Continuity has a learning centre attached with some WWI artefacts (which I appreciated, because WWI tends to get a little lost compared to the even greater horrors of WWII, but I still find it extremely interesting), and a lot of computer modules where you can learn more about certain aspects of the Jewish faith, like keeping kosher.  The final Axis tells the story of the families that successfully emigrated before the war, and leads to the Garden of Exile, which is meant to mimic the experience of being set adrift in a foreign land.  It’s made up of a series of columns set over an uneven pavement, so that wandering around feels disorientating.  It was neat.

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To represent the victims of the Holocaust, the museum also has “dead spaces” built into it; basically passages that lead to nowhere, or halls with nothing in them.  The largest of these is filled with metal plates in the shape of faces, all piled up on top of each other.

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The room next to it had a robot that was copying the Torah at human speed, which was fun to watch, and a distraction from the bleakness of this opening section.  We then progressed upstairs to start exploring the main galleries, which tell the story of Judaism from its beginnings thousands of years ago, up until the present day.  At the start of it, there was a wish tree, meaning you could write down a wish and pin it to the tree, but I was too embarrassed to let other people read my wishes (which probably goes against the whole principle behind it).  Most of this first floor was geared towards Judaism in the Middle Ages (and the Early Modern period), when much of the persecution began in Europe, particularly following times of plague.  There were lots of fun interactive games and activities throughout this floor, and I found it enjoyable and educational (everything was in both German and English, and they appeared to have a range of audio guides available as well).

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The next floor talked more about Judaism in the 19th  and early 20th century, and all the changes that happened in Germany around this time, like the First World War, and the reforms of the Weimar Republic (which were subsequently all reversed when the Nazis came to power).  It was sort of shocking to see how rapidly the rights given to Jews changed during this period, and I can well see what a horrible and confusing time it must have been to live through.

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It wasn’t all doom and gloom though, as they included some more playful aspects of the modern faith, as well as some amusing stories about prominent Jewish philosophers and thinkers.  There was a quirky selection of yarmulkes in one case (apparently you could get a Friends yarmulke when the show was popular), one of those machines that transform coins into flattened out coins that was free (!), and even a vending machine selling kosher Haribo (they sub the pork gelatin with fish gelatin)!

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Unfortunately, because these galleries were so large and full of detail, I was feeling tired by the time I got to the end of them, and kind of rushed through the last sections (which were of course about the time just before and after the Holocaust, so maybe it was good I was able to properly appreciate all the relevant installations before I started looking at this section).  Everything here was incredibly informative, and very well put-together, however, and there were enough interactive things to generally hold my attention quite well.  I was honestly very impressed with this museum, and for once, I think the admission price was a fair one (except for the fact that we had to pay 2 euros more than a family! ugh!).  I’d definitely recommend stopping by this one if you’re in Berlin, because it really is about so much more than the Holocaust, and touches on human experiences common to all of us.  I’m not Jewish, or religious in any way, but I still found it very interesting!  4/5

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Berlin: The DDR Museum

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I think it would have been difficult to visit Berlin and NOT go to the DDR Museum, as its advertisements are prominently displayed throughout the city.  In addition to that, it was literally right next to my hotel, so I couldn’t even use laziness as an excuse not to go.  Not that I was a particularly reluctant visitor, as the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, praising the many interactive exhibits.  I was a bit put off by the queue to get in, but naively assumed they wouldn’t let everyone in if the museum was filled to capacity.  How wrong I was.  We paid 7 euros each, and scanned our tickets in the Ampelmann barriers (he’s the little green man on crosswalk signs in Germany, and is apparently much better than green men in other countries because he is wearing a hat and shoes) for entrance…and were met with utter chaos.

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The pictures above should give you some idea of how many people were crammed into this relatively small (only two main rooms) museum.  Clearly, the advertisements work, which is great for them, but they need to institute some kind of timed ticket system or something, because as things stand now, it is a most unenjoyable experience.  I don’t relish having to push my way through crowds of fat smelly teenagers (for real, there were some serious B.O. problems happening in there, and the cramped conditions weren’t helping matters) to look at things.  The most crowded display was a Soviet car you could climb into; there was a queue stretching half the length of the museum to get in, and these people weren’t budging.  It might have helped if they had simply climbed into the car, snapped a picture, and got out, but nope – there were middle-aged men sat in there pretending to drive for minutes at a time, I mean, really?!

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I’ve somehow gotten halfway through this review without even telling you what the museum is about, so I should remedy that now.  It basically tells the story of life in the DDR, or East Germany, which was of course the Soviet half.  However, this was a more lighthearted perspective on the DDR than at the Stasi Museum, or the Tranenpalast, as the DDR Museum chose to focus more on the mundane drudgery of everyday life, rather than the dark side of living under communism.  Not that those subjects weren’t addressed, but they were done so in a playful way (that I supposed detracted from some of the harsh realities of life under the Soviet system), for example,  a mock interrogation room where you could have the fun of pretending to torture your friends!

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In addition to the interrogation room, there was also re-creations of a jail cell and a typical DDR era home, where you could theoretically touch and fiddle with everything, though you couldn’t in reality as it was so crowded and there was already a crowd of people plopped on the sofa to watch Soviet television.  Another annoying feature of the museum, which would have been fine if it wasn’t so busy, was that most of the information wasn’t out in the open – the museum was set up as a series of walls covered in cabinets, and you had to open the drawers and lift the flaps to read everything, which you couldn’t do if someone was blocking the way, so it just added to the general inconvenience.  There also seemed to be some “Disneyfied” touches in there for no reason at all, other than to increase the “interactivity,” for example, a spray of mist as you walked from one room to another and some portraits of Karl Marx and Lenin (and other some other communist, Engels, maybe?) with moving eyes that followed you around the room (which was neat, I’ll grant them that, but would have felt more at home in the Haunted Mansion than a museum).

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There were, as promised, many interactive things, but I didn’t have a chance to use most of them as the smelly teenagers already had their paws all over everything.  There was a short film, or game, or objects to look at under every one of these many flaps, but there was no way you could stand there and watch a film with a crowd of people waiting behind you, and though I did play a couple of the games, I felt like a jerk as I really had to hog the space to do so.  One was a game where I was a factory manager trying to increase productivity, and the game told me I would have been an awesome manager under the communist system (maybe that’s where I’m going wrong, work-wise), in another I had to create the ideal communist by dressing up a girl from a selection of outfits and expressions (I was trying to make her look a bit like me, which led to the game informing me I did not look like a good communist, so now I’m not sure what to think).

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The museum did have a lot of gen-u-ine Soviet artefacts, which was pretty cool, and seemed to be really aimed at capturing quotidian affairs, so there was a lot on fashion (ugly, everyone was desperate for Levis because Soviet jeans blew), travel (you could only travel to other Soviet countries, so lots of trips to the Baltic coast, especially to Nudist resorts.  There were a LOT of nudists back then), and work.  There were also some cute whimsical touches, like puppet versions of Soviet party leaders and the little military dove shown below.

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Everything was in German and English, and the displays I was able to look at (by pushing through the crowds) were quite interesting, so I think this could have been a very good museum if they somehow regulated their visitors (and I was there on a Wednesday morning, so it really shouldn’t have been a peak time or anything).  It is definitely quite a different approach than that taken by the Stasi Museum et al towards the DDR, and I think perhaps glosses over some of the worst parts of communism (or tries to turn them into a game, which is just as bad), but I think as long as you balance your visit to the DDR Museum with one to a more serious museum, you can still manage to get a good picture of Soviet German life.  However, I’m going to have to majorly downgrade them for not doing something to limit the flow of visitors, as it ruined my whole experience.  2.5/5, but could have easily been a 3.5 or higher with proper crowd control.

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Berlin: The Stasi Museum

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I’ve mentioned before how I’m not hugely interested in 20th century history (except FDR, I love FDR), but the Stasi Museum sounded intriguing – a museum on the East German secret police based in their former headquarters, with authentic preserved offices.  I read before visiting that only the main displays were in English, but that was also the case at the Criminology Museum in Rome, and that worked out ok, so I was willing to give it a go.  Since it was obviously located in the former East Berlin, the museum was in an extremely ugly area of town (I’ve heard that Karl Marx Allee, the youngest planned thoroughfare in a major European city, is within walking distance, and is bleakly imposing), though one of the nearest stations is the hilariously named Frankfurter Allee.

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Reviews of the museum also mentioned that they gave you a cloth propaganda patch as your ticket, but after paying my 5 euros, the guy just handed me a receipt, so I guess not anymore.  However, the museum charged an extra fee if you wanted to take pictures (not sure if it’s that well-enforced, but I didn’t want to take any chances (given the venue and all) so I just paid the extra euro – the things I do for you guys!) and they gave us one of the patches as proof we’d paid that fee, so I guess that’s the way to get one (there was also a shop, but it appeared to be shut when I visited, so not sure exactly what they sell in there).  At least they didn’t charge for the toilets, unlike a lot of other museums in Berlin, but of course there was no air conditioning, which made the visit brutal, especially when we got up to the 2nd and 3rd floors. There wasn’t even any windows that opened on one side of the building (so I can kind of see why Stasi agents might have been pissy)!

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As promised, though the walls were lined with colourful propaganda posters with no English translation, the main exhibit in each room was written in English in addition to the German (the museum was divided up in a bunch of small rooms, I’d imagine these were Stasi offices at one time as well).  A lot of the content seemed to be on all the communist organisations that were set up for the East Germans to join, like youth clubs; and the Soviet holidays they attempted to introduce (only the youth day caught on, rather than the substitutes for Christmas and Easter and such).  However, there wasn’t much background information, and the museum seemed to assume the visitor already knew all about the Stasi, including how they were formed, and the names of the main officials, which was definitely not the case for me.  Also, half the rooms on the first floor just contained an ugly chair (and a wall covered with seat cushions, so I guess we were supposed to note the different fabrics used in East Germany for some reason), and a poster with a photo and biography of various people, all in German, which I think was meant to be a tribute to those who were wrongfully imprisoned or killed by the Stasi, but it took me a good few rooms to figure this out.

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There were also an inordinate amount of everyday objects that had been reconfigured as spy cameras on display, so I guess everyone was spying on everyone else at all times.  This did convey, more so than the actual text, some of the horrors of living under communism, and the lengths the Stasi would go through to try to police people’s lives and thoughts.

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Because of this, I expected the preserved offices to be simultaneously utilitarian and formidable, but they turned out to be a surprisingly cozy homage to mid-century style.  I mean, this was furniture any hipster would kill to have in their living room.  It’s certainly not to my taste, but it wasn’t particularly communist looking at all; it actually looked pretty trendy for the time, unlike the dated furniture and clothing they were fobbing off on the ordinary citizen.

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They made a big stink about Erich Mielke’s preserved office being there (I kept referring to him as Eric Milky, because I have no idea how you actually pronounce his surname), and I know he was the head of the Ministry for State Security because the museum told me, but I don’t know anything else about him other than that.  Maybe the average German has heard of him, because the lack of information was puzzling otherwise.

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There were also some kind of crazy lifts that my boyfriend was interested in; apparently they somehow go sideways or on a circular track or something?  I dunno, they weren’t operational so I couldn’t witness them in action.  Anyway, the offices were probably the most interesting part of the museum, simply because of the chance to see the creature comforts that these leading communists surrounded them with, like a mod looking TV, and a radio with (very high-tech) Scotch tape marking the approved Soviet stations, though there was nothing to stop you from listening to Western radio if no one else was around (except of course, for the spy cameras hidden in literally everything).  Though the museum managed to get across the authoritarian leanings of the DDR, as well as the paranoia lurking under the surface of the government, and it was clear that most citizens would have had to be constantly on edge to avoid getting hauled off by the Stasi, I still would have liked to learn more about the history behind the agency, and I don’t feel that the displays were all they could have been.  3/5.

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While we’re on the subject of East Berlin, I of course had to swing by Checkpoint Charlie for a quick photo, which was easier said than done because the place is absolutely swarming with tourists trying to do the same thing, and they also have a couple “American” guards stationed at the checkpoint who pose for pictures (for a fee) so I had to avoid them as well.  I did not go to the museum, because it cost something ridiculous like 15 euros, and all the reviews said it wasn’t that good, particularly as there is plenty of wall-stuff to see for free, like a section of the remaining wall (as seen below) and the Traenenpalast (though they’re both a fair walk away from Checkpoint Charlie).

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Finally, this has nothing to do with anything communist, but I thought this post could use something funny at the end to lighten the mood, and I had to throw these pictures in somewhere.  We kept seeing these stupid bears all over Berlin, since “Ber” means bear in German.  Here are two of the creepiest examples (and I kind of look like a creeper too).  Enjoy!

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Berlin, Germany: Charlottenburg Palace

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I know I often complain on here when I feel that museums in England are poor value, but after a recent trip to Berlin, I might have to rethink some of my grievances with British museums.  I went to Munich years and years ago, when I was doing the whole backpacking thing, and I wasn’t terribly impressed, but I thought I ought to give Germany another chance, so we headed to Berlin a few weeks ago.  In retrospect, going in the middle of July was a mistake, because almost nothing was air conditioned, something I wasn’t counting on because unlike Britain, Germany gets proper summers (and even though it’s only hot in London for a few weeks, most public places are still air conditioned, even if our homes aren’t).  I completely wilt in hot conditions, and lose the will to do much of anything (as evidenced in my trip to Thailand), so making it to all the attractions I’d planned on visiting was always going to be a losing battle.  However, I did head across town with my boyfriend (on the most awful sweltering train) to see Charlottenburg Palace, which was built for Sophie Charlotte of Hanover in the late 17th century (Sophie Charlotte was the sister of George I of England, and was by all accounts an extremely intelligent and cultured woman who sadly died in her prime, at the age of 36).

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I implied at the start that I had some complaints, so here we go.  Admission to just the palace was 12 euros, which I figured fair enough, it was comparable to other stately homes, and cheaper than most British palaces.  However, they made it seem like the gardens weren’t included in the price of admission, so we paid the extra 3 euros for a Charlottenburg+ pass, which was good for entrance to everything on the site.  After visiting the palace, we realised that the gardens surrounding it were public grounds, and we didn’t need to pay admission at all to visit them, much less a supplementary cost to our palace admission.  All the extra cost of the + pass was to gain admission to a little bonus pavilion behind the palace that we couldn’t have cared less about visiting anyway, and the mausoleum, which was fine but not worth paying to see.  So be aware that unless you want to see some extra art, the base 12 euro ticket will suffice.  Another thing that riled me up was the fact that they charged 50 cents to use the toilet.  I understand why they might charge for the toilets in the gardens, since they’re open to the public, but the only way you could access the toilets in the palace was if you paid admission, and if I pay 15 euros for something, I at least want to be able to use the bathroom free of charge.  They also charged extra for information sheets (I mean, basic single sheets of paper that would be free to just stand there and read and then return in any other museum), and it was another 3 euros if you wanted to take pictures in the palace, which is why all of mine are of the grounds.  I understand that the palace is probably enormously expensive to run, but if that’s the case, then just tack an extra euro onto the admission fee, don’t charge people to use the loo!  It just felt really money-grubbing and made me instantly resent the place.

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They offer a free tour, but only in German, so everyone else is dependent on the audio guide, which surprisingly was free of charge (given that they charged for everything else).  It actually wasn’t that bad, as it had a fast-forward feature and most of the recordings were relatively short, so that you could hear all of it in the time it took to look at a room.  That said, though I have awesome retention when I read something, I suck at remembering things I’ve only heard, so most of the history of the palace completely escapes me.  My overriding memory is of room after room filled with portraits of bewigged men sporting hilarious “Dirty Sanchez” style mustaches that looked like they’d been Sharpied in over the painting as an afterthought.  And some portraits of Sophie Charlotte herself, and her husband, Frederick I of Prussia.  Whilst the palace was once home to the famed “Amber Room,” which was covered entirely with amber (obviously), it was given as a gift to Peter the Great of Russia (along with all Frederik Rusych’s finest specimens…man, I wish I could travel back in time just to see Peter’s baller collections), and “lost” after the Nazis stole it during WWII.  The most famous remaining room is therefore the Porcelain Cabinet, which certainly has the most porcelain I’ve ever seen adorning the walls of a room – it was built to hold Sophie Charlotte’s collection, but she died before it was finished.  There was also a small chapel inside the palace, with a pipe organ, and lots of rooms named after the colour of their panelling, which was usually some kind of ostentatious velvety looking number that certainly didn’t cool the place down any.

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There were two floors inside the palace (though the audio guide kindly gave me the option of only seeing one floor and then leaving, I guess in case I couldn’t bear the temperature inside the palace anymore, or really needed a pee but didn’t have any change), and the upstairs was set up more like a museum rather than as a reconstruction like the downstairs rooms.  I did like how when I was looking through some of the showcase rooms, the audio guide told me that they wouldn’t describe the pieces to me because then I’d linger in there too long and block everyone’s way, so they would just play some classical music for my enjoyment as I looked at the collections (I wish the English Heritage audio guides were so thoughtful and advised visitors to be considerate of other people trying to look at stuff…I’m looking at you, woman blocking the Horn Room at Osborne House).  My favourite display in this section was a set of china that Frederick requested be decorated with “exotic animals,” so he ended up with a monkey and then a bunch of imaginary creatures.  You could also see some of the Royal Jewels, though as the selection was limited to jewelboxes and one pair of diamond earrings, it was ultimately not that impressive.

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We were already pretty tired when we left the palace, because of the heat and all, but since we stupidly paid extra to see ALL the buildings, we felt like we should at least check them out.  The New Pavilion was directly behind the palace, and as I said earlier, is home to an art collection.  I cringed a little when the man inside offered us the use of another audio guide, because I felt it would be rude to turn it down, but I could not bear the thought of listening to another full audio tour.  So I took one, then fast-forwarded through most of it, but from what I heard, the guy voicing this one (which was entirely different from the one in the palace, which was split between a different man and a woman) sounded like the Crypt Keeper or Igor or something.  He had this really creepy monotone voice, which amused me, but wasn’t conducive to learning about art.  I gave all the paintings the most cursory of glances, and then thought it would be best to find the mausoleum, which was obviously more up my alley.  After wandering for a bit through the gardens (which had rather nice flowers and a fountain), I spotted a rock pointing to the mausoleum, which turned out to be about four times the size of any mausoleum I’d ever seen (when we spotted it in the distance, I couldn’t believe that was it).  The inside held stone effigies of four of the Hohenzollerns buried in there, and felt nicely chilled because of all the marble.  In fact, that’s probably the only thing that made the extra admission even sort of worth it, the delightfully cool temperature inside.

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After walking back through more of the gardens, I was ready to leave because the heat was just unbearable (I was hoping they’d have a stand that sold ice creams and maybe pretzels, like this one palace we went to in Vienna where I had the biggest and most delicious pretzel of my life, but no such luck), so we called it a day and headed back to the station, even though we never found the Gazebo, which was also included in the Charlottenburg+ pass.  I still don’t know an enormous amount about the Prussians or House of Hanover (at least, the branch of the family that never made it over to Britain), as the audio guide mainly covered things like the furnishings and the layout of the palace.  Even though it is the largest palace in Berlin, I’m not sure it was worth going to the outskirts of the city for.  Those little extra charges just really got on my nerves, and other than the Porcelain Cabinet, and Sophie Charlotte herself, there was nothing particularly remarkable about Charlottenburg.  2.5/5 is a fair score, I think.

London: Museum of the Order of St. John

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Oh, to think I had such grand plans for London Open Weekend.  I was at last going to be able to see inside all those amazing hidden places I’d heard about, like the abandoned station at Aldwych, and the ruins of Alexander Pope‘s grotto.  But my hopes were cruelly dashed in a manner that reminded me of everything I hate about London.  Firstly, the coolest things, like the old Tube stations, weren’t even open to the public, presumably for health and safety reasons.  Other things, like Pope’s Grotto, required advance booking, and even though I tried to book a place shortly after the Open Weekend list was released, they were already booked up, thanks to the millions of other people who live in London who apparently instantly sign up for these things to spoil everyone else’s good time.  Finally, the few places that allowed walk-in visitors had hour-long+ queues.  Not very open at all then.  As a result, I spent the weekend going to a few lesser known sites, some which will probably feature in a later post, but for today, I’m going to talk about the Museum of the Order of St. John.

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I’m not entirely sure why I chose to visit this museum on Open Weekend, when it’s open to the public anyway, but as I said, most of the normally-closed-to-the-public places were nigh on impossible to gain access to, so I was on a mission that particular weekend to find creepy places for a special October post, and I recollected that the Order of St. John had a crypt of some sort.  The deal with the Order of St. John, as far as I can recall from the history provided in the museum, is that it is has similar beginnings to the Knights Templar, with roots in the Crusades, but the Order of St. John has a specific focus on healing and healthcare.  After getting booted out of the Holy Land, they moved to Malta and founded Valletta, and still have an official order in Rome.  As they were a Catholic Order, they were dissolved in England under Henry VIII and the creation of Anglicism, but were again given a royal charter by Victoria, and have re-inhabited this space in Clerkenwell ever since (though in the interim, it was a pub amongst other things, and Hogarth lived there for a while as a child, which almost made up for not having the chance to get the behind-the-scenes tour of his home in Chiswick).  The building contains a small museum that recounts all this information, and interesting though it is, I suppose the highlights are the set of rooms located upstairs.

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These include the cavernous Chapter Hall, where banquets take place, and the Council Chamber, lined with plaques commemorating former Royal Patrons of the Order.  The Hall has the names of its patrons wrapped around the room chronologically, as well as portraits of some key members, and a splendid curio cabinet that appeared to be inlaid with tortoiseshell, yet contained no curiosities, which seemed like a bit of a waste of space to me.  If I had a cabinet that fine, I’d be sure to fill it with the oddest taxidermy and body parts in jars that I could find (probably part of the reason why no one will ever give me a curio cabinet like that).  The plaques in the Council Chamber commemorated most of the deceased members of the Royal Family from Victorian times onward, including some lesser known ones, so I had a swell time searching the walls for some of my obscure favourites, like Prince Eddy.

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Due to what I can only assume is my own stupidity/lack of observational skills, I completely missed seeing the church, and thus the crypt, which I believe are housed in an adjacent building, so the Order of St. John wasn’t creepy at all; just rather magnificent in a stuffy, buttoned-up way.  Back downstairs, I took time to admire the collection of medals, and noted that one of them was awarded to a fellow for capturing a mad dog after it had bitten three people, and “several dogs,” which amused me as most of the other ones were awarded for far grander reasons, though I suppose saving people from a mad dog is perhaps no less worthy, especially if it were a really big, scary dog.  The back room talked more about the medical work the Order of St. John has done from WWI onwards, which is really the point of the Order, more so than hosting fabulous banquets.  They are currently most well known for their eye hospital in Jerusalem which treats anyone in need, and of course St. John Ambulance, which was instrumental in organising an ambulance service in Britain back in the Victorian era.

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Although the Order of St. John Museum is included on the list of medical museums in London, I think its main focus is charitable works rather than medicine, so you shouldn’t come expecting loads of medical instruments, or indeed, stuff in jars, like you’ll find at some of my favourite medical museums in London.  Instead, it’s a solemn place with an old and venerable history.  However, this solemnity does affect the museum experience, and it is thus nowhere near as fascinating as most other “medical” museums I’ve visited.  I’ll give it a 3/5, because I do think the upstairs rooms are certainly impressive, and worth seeing, and the museum was nicely put together, if a bit lacking in excitement.  I’ll try to return to visit the crypt in future, as maybe that will cause me to bump up my rating a bit.

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Hastings, East Sussex: A Brief Tour of Three Local Museums

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I’m finally done with the long run of Denmark posts, and back in Britain (at least for now, hint hint).  I’m sure everyone knows by now that I love a day at the English seaside, mainly so I have an excuse to eat cheesy chips and ice cream.  When the weather was starting to turn a few weeks ago, we thought it would be an auspicious time to head to Hastings, as it would probably be the last good seaside weekend of the year.  Besides, Hastings seemed to abound with quirky free local museums, so I imagined I’d come back with plenty to write about.

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Interestingly, Hastings isn’t where the famous 1066 battle took place – that would be a few miles up the road, in the aptly named Battle.  But, they have made the most of their coastal location with a variety of maritime themed attractions.  We skipped the expensive ones, like the “Smugglers Adventure” and instead headed straight for the Shipwreck Heritage Centre.

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It was not very big, and unfortunately, not that good either.  Most of it was devoted to the Shipwreck of the Amsterdam, but I think I would have rather just gone to see the ruins.  There was a mildly amusing computer game where you had to make decisions as a sea captain; unfortunately, I based my decisions on what would have been historically accurate, and not on what was best for my crew, so I didn’t do very well.  You can see the highlights in the pictures I’ve posted – a chunk of the original London Bridge, and Captain Jazz Hands up there.  Amusing mannequins aside, it was nothing special.

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So we moved next door to the Fishermen’s Museum, with cholera-ridden Dick van Dyke.  He’s not a Pearly King, as it might appear at first glance, but is wearing a suit decorated with shells.  Although the Fishermen’s Museum was similarly petite, the collection was far more eclectic, and thus, more appealing.  The room was dominated by a replica ship that you were welcome to climb aboard, and the walls were absolutely crammed full of paintings, giving it the air of a Victorian parlour gone mad (carrying on with the Mary Poppins theme, I’m picturing the interior of the home of that admiral who spends all his time on the roof firing off his cannon (which is for once not a euphemism)).

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There was even a fish-themed stained glass window, and a taxidermy collection including an albatross, and a giant lobster that gave me the creeps.  I have a definite phobia of crustaceans and arthropods.  Arthrophobia?  Is that a thing?  Anyway, I loved learning about local characters like Biddy Stonham, the Tub Man, and admiring the winkle trophy.  I also enjoyed the collection of photographs of 1890s Hastings.

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If you have to choose between the Shipwreck Heritage Centre and the Fishermen’s Museum, I definitely think the Fishermen’s Museum is the way to go, but they are both free, so there’s really no reason you should have to limit yourself.  After finishing there, I wanted to go to the Flower Maker’s Museum, as flower makers came down with some pretty horrible diseases as a result of the arsenic used to colour the leaves green, but I didn’t write down the address before we left, and it wasn’t in the main stretch of Old Town with everything else.  So, we popped into the Old Town Hall Museum of Local History instead, which we had passed during our search.

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The Town Hall was spread over two floors, though it was still only two rooms.  It was mainly full of posters that tracked the history of Hastings, though there were a few wax figures, figureheads, and other random objects. The set-up was a little odd, as there appeared to be no way to progress chronologically through the collection, no matter which end you started from upstairs, but I suppose it didn’t matter a great deal.  I did learn a few interesting titbits, but it didn’t take much time to look around here either – I’d say we didn’t spend more than half an hour at any of the three museums, and probably less in some cases, so I’m glad we didn’t have to pay for any of them (though I did leave a donation at the Fishermen’s Museum, as I think they’ve got a good thing going).

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When it comes to rating them, I’d give the Shipwreck Heritage Centre 2/5, Fishermen’s Museum 3.5/5, and the Town Hall Museum 2/5.  None of them are anything I’d go out of my way for, but they’re not a terrible way to pass an afternoon in Hastings whilst you’re building up an appetite for chips.  Speaking of chips, I was dismayed to see that cheesy chips did not feature on any of the local menus (why is it some places in Britain have cheesy chips everywhere, but they’re as hard to track down as Bigfoot in other towns?) though we did have a large portion of the non-cheesy variety that were surprisingly tasty. I still don’t know what is so difficult about keeping cheddar cheese on hand though, as the combination of greasy chips and cheap cheddar slightly melted by the heat of the chips is magical. Excitingly, Hastings had one of my favourite American treats for sale: Hawaiian Shave Ice, but the shaver they were using wasn’t quite right and it came out more like a snow cone.

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Hastings has a number of other attractions, from the cliff railway to arcades, and even a waterfall, but other than a stroll along the pebble beach, we didn’t partake of any of them (it was already late afternoon after visiting the museums).  I’m glad I finally went to Hastings, as it’s another seaside town to add to the list, even if they need to get some cheese for their bloody chips!

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Roskilde, Denmark: Viking Ship Museum (Vikingeskibsmuseet)

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Even though the Vikings aren’t really my thing, I couldn’t leave Denmark without visiting at least one Viking-related attraction.  Enter the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, with its collection of (you guessed it!) Viking ships, both originals and re-creations.  Like every other museum (and everything else) in Denmark, it is eye-wateringly expensive at DKK 115 (I mean really, 14 quid to look at a handful of ships?!) but we were so accustomed to high prices at this point that we didn’t even question it.  In fairness to them, the paper wristband was a lovely shade of blue that complemented my eyes, so I did get something for my money.

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The Vikingeskibsmuseet (the Danish sounds way cooler than Viking Ship Museum) is mostly outside, which I suppose is why they offer a discount during the long Scandinavian winter months. They seemed to offer a lot of outdoor activities for children, but for adults, there wasn’t much to do other than wander around looking at the workshops and reading the signs explaining how the ships were constructed.  Regular readers will know that I love a pun, but I’m also partial to a good simile.  Therefore, I was happy as a sandboy to learn the expression “like larch on oak” which is apparently so commonly used in Denmark that they didn’t bother to offer an English equivalent, so I simply throw it into conversation whenever it seems appropriate (example: macaroni and cheese go together like larch on oak).  Anyway, I discovered larch on oak via a sign attached to an oak tree, one of many small potted trees sitting around to demonstrate the types of wood used in Viking ship construction.

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I did clamber aboard one of the ships in the harbour, which was no easy task as there were no steps, and the edge was quite high.  From May-September, you can actually ride aboard one, but it costs DKK 80 more, and I think they only offer one trip a day.  I got my fill of pretending to be a Viking simply by sitting on the boat, and at least that way, I didn’t have to help row (as you do on the boat trips) which is probably for the best as I am rubbish at that sort of thing (I reached this conclusion after spending an afternoon at camp constantly bumping into the side of the lake in my canoe.  This was the same three day camp where I realised I hated horse riding.).

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We’d killed all the time we could outside, so it was time to head into the building where the five original ships were kept.  The Skuldelev ships date back to the 11th century, when they were used to form a blockade in a channel of Roskilde Fjord (Roskilde was then the capital of Denmark).  They were excavated in 1962, and have been preserved and re-assembled in the museum; by studying them, historians have been able to reproduce the modern versions of them that are found in the museum’s harbour.

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All this is very well, and the history behind them is interesting, but when you get down to it, you are just staring at the skeletons of ships.  This is probably why I could never get into ancient history – I like stuff that still looks like something.  Though once again, my lack of cultural appreciation is not really the Viking Ship Museum’s fault.  The hall they’re displayed in is slightly too spartan and barrack-like for my tastes, but I was fascinated by the posters at the back of the museum, which included an incredibly brutal description of human sacrifice and gang rape (basically, you did NOT want to be a slave girl in Viking culture).  A gallery downstairs told the story of reconstructing the ships, but it was so packed with people that there was scarcely room to look around.

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I am, however, inclined to invest in a Viking cape, which I found in a room at the end of the ship hall, as I think I looked rather fetching (and ’twas very warm, so could provide a stylish alternative to my ratty old bathrobe). In addition to trying on Viking clothing, you could also practice writing your name in runes, or watch an interminable video of ship life, seemingly guaranteed to induce sea sickness (hey, maybe that’s the secret of the sea sickness you can experience at the Grimsby Fishing Heritage Centre!).  They had some cute Vikingy knick-knacks in the shop, but alas, no suitable capes.

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Though I wasn’t completely enamoured with the Viking Ship Museum, it did do what it said on the tin – albeit at an inflated admission price.  I think it may be slightly more entertaining for children (assuming they’re fluent in Danish) as they did seem to have a lot of interactive things going for them.  Probably best for people who are into the Vikings, or ships, obviously.  2.5/5

Grenen, Denmark: The Place Betwixt Two Seas, and the Skagens Museum

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First of all, I’m excited to announce that I’ve written a guest post over on the Smitten by Britain blog on some of my favourite offbeat museums in London, so please go over and check it out (it has the added benefit of being much more concise than my usual posts)!  And now, Grenen.  Ever since I learned that there was somewhere I could stick my feet in two seas, I’ve wanted to do it.  I’m not at all a fan of swimming, but I love wading in ankle-deep water and letting my sore feet enjoy the soft sand and the gentle lap of waves, or in the case of English beaches, sharp, uneven pebbles and freezing cold water laced with rubbishy detritus (my feet are inevitably always sore because all my shoes are uncomfortable).  But Grenen was indeed the dream, with a perfect beach of fine white sand, and reasonably warmish water.

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Grenen is at the northernmost tip of mainland Denmark, and as such was a fair drive away from anything else we were visiting, though it is only 3 km down the road from the touristy seaside town of Skagen (of watch fame). There isn’t a lot there besides a tourist shack selling postcards and other tat, a cafe serving up the ever-present Danish hotdogs and ice cream (with flavoured sprinkles for the latter, woot!), and a few small museums.  So, ice creams in hand, we clambered over a rocky hill and found ourselves on the aforementioned sandy beach, taking that as our cue to promptly remove our shoes and head down to the edge of the water.

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The bit where the North and Baltic Seas meet is a long walk down the beach, which I undertook with rare pleasure, savouring the texture of the firm, moist grains underfoot, but for those less inclined to struggle through the shifting sands, there is Sandormen.  No, it’s not a Danish superhero (superheroes?), but the name of a tractor vehicle that tows tourists up to the edge of the sea.

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There’s not much to say about the actual experience, other than you have to queue for your turn to straddle Denmark, but once you get your moment in the spotlight, you stand there grinning like an idiot whilst the waves crash into your legs with surprising ferocity.  It was just a brilliant experience that I am uncharacteristically not going to be cynical about (as you can probably tell from my big shit-eating grin at the start of the post), though you do need to watch out for dead jellyfish on the walk along the coast, as stepping on one would spoil a good mood pretty quickly.  5/5, and probably one of the best times you can have whilst standing in four inches of water.

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And then there was the Skagens Museum.  For some reason, we didn’t realise it was an art museum until after we paid the DKK 90 admission, which I personally thought was a really high price considering the size and subject matter of the museum. Had I known it wasn’t a local history museum, I definitely would have spent the afternoon at the charmingly random Teddy Bear Museum (also in Skagen) instead.  It’s not that it was bad, I’m just disinclined to spend over a tenner to look at art, especially when there were other things I would have rather be doing.

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Once I got over my initial disappointment, I have to admit that it was a rather nice little museum, even though I’d never heard of any of the artists, who were all Danish.  An entire room was about to P.S. Krøyer and his relationship with his wife Marie, who was also a painter.  His former studio was inside a hut in the museum’s gardens, which you can visit.  Apparently Skagen had quite the art scene from the 1870s-1900s, with painters flocking in from all over Denmark to paint the beaches and other scenery. There was a special exhibition on them which detailed the character of each beach/region around Skagen, with a display of paintings of that area, which I quite enjoyed.

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The upstairs gallery was devoted to charcoal sketches, and broke down the composition of some famous seaside paintings by Krøyer.  We then wandered out to look round the garden, and to peek inside the painter’s huts, which were filled with interactive screens that appeared to only be in Danish.  The set-up of the museum was a little odd, because like every other Danish museum, they forced you to put your bags in a locker (which was something that annoyed me throughout the trip, am I really going to stuff a massive painting into my purse?), which was to the right of the admissions desk, but you had to exit through the gardens to the left and back of the museum, which meant walking back through part of the museum and a gift shop to leave, after picking up your bags (and rendered forcing people to store their bags pointless).  A minor quibble, I know, but I do like to air grievances when I can (actually, it’s probably 80% of the reason why I have a blog!).

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I did enjoy the statue of the manly men above though.  It looks as though it could be Lenin and Trotsky, but it was actually Krøyer and some other painter.  I wasn’t super keen on the Skagens Museum overall, but that’s mainly due to my lack of interest in landscapes and Danish art.  If you are an art fan, then I’m sure you’ll like it, as it did seem nicely put together, and there was quite a lot of information on the painters within. I’ll give it a 3/5 because my lack of artistic refinement is not the Skagens Museum’s fault, but I’m still slightly salty about skipping the Teddy Bear Museum.

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Denmark: Silkeborg Museum

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I’m going to be brutally honest here: no one is going to Silkeborg Museum because they’re desperately keen to see an exhibition on the colour blue, or some antique tables.  If Silkeborg is on your itinerary at all, it’s because you want to see Tollund Man.  And why not?  He is the best preserved bog body that’s ever been discovered, so if you’re into that kind of thing, this is the place to come.  My boyfriend and I had a busy day ahead of us, so upon arriving shortly after they opened, we paid our DKK 50 admission, and headed directly over to Tollund Man, who is kept in the new museum building, across a courtyard from the old one.

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I’ve seen other bog bodies at the National Museum of Ireland, but those were just sort of shrivelly things wrapped in cloth, with half the body missing in most of the cases.  To be honest, they kind of looked like people who’d been crushed by steamrollers.  Not Tollund Man, though.  As you can tell from the picture at the start of this post, he is superb (and positively plump by bog men standards!).  According to a sign in the museum, his body had to be reconstructed because the condition deteriorated, but the head is original, and the detail is incredible, especially considering he died, oh, about 2400 years ago.  Tollund Man gets his own special room, one of those ones where the light slowly flickers on when you walk in, which adds to the anticipation.  The Silkeborg Museum is also home to Elling Woman, but she’s one of those smashed-looking bog bodies, and as such is thrown in with the rest of the Iron Age collection, which, in a bizarrely literal interpretation of the term “Iron Age” also includes a set of chain mail that you’re welcome to try on if you can lift it off its hanger.  I was afraid I’d fall over if I did manage to get it over my head, so I left it.

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As I stated at the beginning, the rest of Silkeborg Museum wasn’t terribly memorable.  I did in fact go have a look at the blue things (blue is my favourite colour after all), which mostly consisted of fabric and blue kitchenware (seemingly quite common in Denmark, and I totally want some). The rest of the museum appeared to be devoted to local history, and the only English to be found was in the form of a laminated sheet of paper that briefly described the theme of each room.

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I’m struggling to recall what else was in there;  I think the obligatory mention of Vikings, and some stuff on local crafts and trade, and the history of Silkeborg Castle.  To be fair, the museum was under construction when we visited, so I think a couple of rooms were closed off.  I do remember the glass collection (largely because I have the picture of it) and a few rooms done up Victorian style – I think one of them had a table owned by Hans Christian Andersen in it.

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So to sum up (and so quickly today too!), Tollund Man is fabulous, and well worth seeing if you’re nearby (but probably not worth a significant detour), but I don’t think you need to spend more than about half an hour at the rest of Silkeborg Museum.  The main attraction is Tollund Man, and I think they know it – whilst the Iron Age gallery was fairly informative, and appeared reasonably thoughtfully put together, everything else just kind of seemed like an afterthought.  2/5 for the museum as a whole, but Tollund Man gets 5/5.