palaces

Avignon: Palais des Papes and Pont Saint-Benezet

And now for the Palace of the Popes, the reason we spent a night in a budget hotel in Avignon North, which as far as I can tell is basically just a giant retail park (containing an outlet of the hilariously named but revolting looking cafeteria-style restaurant chain Flunch (we were not desperate enough to eat there, but intrigued by the name, I read some of the Tripadvisor reviews of the Paris branch, which made me laugh until I cried)). I wish I could say that all those Renaissance history classes I took as an undergrad were finally paying off, but to be totally honest, I’ve forgotten most of what I learned (the Renaissance isn’t my favourite, so I wasn’t paying much attention anyway). I did have a vague recollection of the Schism of 1378 (which I had always thought of as the Great Schism, but apparently that term is more commonly applied to when the Orthodox Church split from Roman Catholicism), and the resulting anti-popes, but as I learned at the palace, Avignon wasn’t only home to two anti-popes – it was home to seven legitimate popes as well (though the “legitimacy” of medieval popes is always questionable at best anyway, since they didn’t tend to get the title based on merit). The building was originally constructed as a bishops’ palace, but after Clement V was elected pope, he refused to go to Rome, and moved the papacy to Avignon instead (he was a real piece of crap, by the way. He decided that Venetians should be sold into slavery because the Church was at war with Venice (considering they were Christian, this was shitty even by the standards of the time since white Christians were normally the only people exempt from slavery) in addition to executing a bunch of the Knights Templar and members of other fringe groups). So the palace was subsequently enlarged into what is now the largest Gothic palace in Europe, and apparently having the papacy contained beneath one giant roof really helped to consolidate the powers of the church (not that that was a good thing).

  

Nowadays, it is just a massive tourist attraction (one of the busiest in France), so we tried to get there as early as possible to avoid both crowds and sun (hence the grim stay in Avignon North. Staying in Avignon proper was really expensive). We were perturbed when driving into town to see a huge line for one of the parking lots, but we persevered and found signs to one with loads of spaces that was much closer to the palace. Turns out the one with all the queues was the free parking lot, whereas you had to pay for the one we found, but quite frankly, I think it was worth the 8 euros to avoid the hassle of queues and shuttle buses. Although there were already tour groups gathering outside the palace when we arrived, I think we were still early enough to avoid most of the crowds, since we were able to just walk right in and buy tickets (we had been warned that there might be large queues, but you can order online to avoid this). As there were also no modesty standards in place, since the palace is no longer a religious institution, it was already a much pleasanter experience than the Vatican (though I think I would probably have met the standards without trying, given that my sun survival technique that day was to cover as much flesh as possible without sweating to death).

  

Admission to the Palais des Popes was €12, but we opted for the combined ticket, which included Pont Saint-Benezet (of which more later) and was €14.50. Every ticket includes use of the “histopad;” basically an iPad with headphones that acted as an audio guide/interactive element that guided us around the building. It was actually quite useful thanks to its inclusion of a moving map, because the palace is big and kind of confusing. Each room contained a black box in the middle that you were meant to scan with your histopad in order to see the room as it would have looked back in the 14th century and open the audio commentary. There was also a treasure hunt game on the histopads where you had to find a hidden coin in each room, and this was probably my favourite part.

   

Even though I’m normally not keen on audio guides and the like, I did enjoy the histopads because they provided loads of information in English, the games were fun, and I also think they helped move traffic along because you only had to scan the boxes for a couple of seconds and then walk away with all the information you needed in your hands, rather than standing in front of an object label and blocking everyone’s view. There is a part of me that feels it somewhat detracted from the experience of actually being in the palace, because I spent most of the time staring at the histopad rather than actually looking at my surroundings, but most of the rooms were pretty blah, so it wasn’t as big of a deal as it may have been somewhere else. My only real beef with it was that I seemed to walk faster than it was intending me to, and sometimes I would unintentionally walk outside the zone of one of the rooms whilst the audio guide was still talking, which completely cut off the audio, and walking back into the room didn’t bring it back, so some way of at least being able to replay things you’d missed would be nice (maybe there was, but I couldn’t find it if so).

    

The rooms themselves are big, but not terribly impressive without the furnishings shown on the histopad, though a few do still have interesting painted walls or stone carvings. There were a handful of objects to look at in most rooms, but it seems like most of what was here is probably now in the hands of the Vatican, because the scale of the building itself was the most impressive part. To be honest, I kind of preferred this to the over-the-top opulence of the Vatican, since all that ostentation just made me resent the Church even more. The route took us all around and through the palace, and right up onto the roof (which was windy and hot simultaneously). We had to keep crisscrossing across the courtyard in the process, and I was surprised to see that it was filled with a stage and seats, apparently for some sort of music festival. While in theory I think it’s nice that these buildings are still put to some sort of practical use, in practice, the seats and scaffolding ruined the appearance of the courtyard (we would find this to be an issue in other sites in France as well), and I hate music festivals, so I don’t even feel like they were ruining the ambience for a good reason.

  

In the end, my favourite room was the one that featured treasured artefacts from local museums – there was some awesome stuff in here, from taxidermied animals and memento mori paintings, to that amazing set of doors painted with medieval monsters (they look like the sort of delightful creatures you sometimes find in marginalia). Other than that, as I’ve said, there wasn’t a tonne to look at, so it was probably good we had the histopads, because I can imagine this would have been a rather boring experience before they existed. I’ll give it 3/5, mainly because I feel like they did put some effort into trying to make it a positive visitor experience whilst working with the limitations of the inside of the palace in its present meh state (it’s impressive from the outside though!).

  

After we finished with the palace (and its multilevel gift shop), we headed over to Pont Saint-Benezet. This is a bridge across the Rhone (well, partly across the Rhone now), which its website bills as “the most famous bridge in the world;” surely one of the most egregious examples of hyperbole I’ve ever seen. Really, more famous than the Golden Gate Bridge? Or Tower Bridge? Or London Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge, the Charles Bridge in Prague or one of the other famous bridges around the world that I at least know by name? I had literally never heard of this bridge before we decided to go to Avignon, so I’m not sure what they’re talking about. Perhaps it’s more famous in Francophone countries because of the song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” which I had also never heard of before visiting (and wasn’t terribly impressed with once I did listen to it. It is very repetitive and gets annoyingly stuck in your head).

  

At any rate, we turned up and were given a new set of audio guides, though these were the old-fashioned ones where you had to manually enter in each number and then hold it up to your ear whilst your arm fell asleep from holding it there, so it really paled in comparison to the wonders of the histopad. I ended up not really using the audio guide (it was way too long-winded) and just walking around the bridge, which, as you may have guessed, was built by Saint Benezet – according to legend he was a young shepherd who heard voices telling him to build a bridge (a sort of 12th century Field of Dreams I guess), but in reality he was probably just a local merchant. It was fairly useless as far as bridges go, since it was too narrow to admit carts, so could only be used by pedestrians and people on horseback, and thus wasn’t really suitable for the transport of goods. It only had that limited functionality until the 17th century, when a flood washed chunks of it away (Benezet’s body used to be kept in a chapel on the bridge, but apparently its alleged power to work miracles couldn’t prevent the flood, and it was moved to a safer location. Kind of a shame, as it would have been way more interesting with relics to look at). Today it only goes about halfway across the Rhone, which was a little unsettling. It’s a nice enough looking bridge (or half bridge) I guess, but I wish we hadn’t spent the extra €2.50 to see it and just bought some pain au chocolat with that money (not that we could have in Avignon, because once again, boulangeries were nigh on impossible to find, and only one of them was open (and didn’t sell pastries). We’d have probably had better luck with Flunch. Why have I been so misled about the prevalence of bakeries in France?), especially because it was so hot by that time I was desperate to get off the bridge and into shade. I can only give it 1.5/5, because I thought a bridge that doesn’t even span a river is “pont-less” (get it?), and the audio guides were pretty lame. If your time in Avignon is limited, I recommend skipping this and just going to the Palais des Papes, which at least offers some degree of entertainment and shade!

  

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London: Hampton Court Palace

dsc08740Even though Hampton Court Palace has been languishing in my sadly neglected Favourite Places page for years, and I wrote about my visit to some of its outbuildings during Open London weekend a couple years ago, I’ve never actually done a whole post about it.  Until now, of course.  Since I was doing all things touristy when my ‘rents were here, I thought I might as well take them to Hampton Court, it being one of my “favourite places” and all.

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As always when visiting Hampton Court, I took advantage of the National Rail 2 for 1 offer (vouchers available at all London train stations), which is easier to do at there than at some other London attractions, because the easiest way to get there is genuinely the train that runs twice hourly from Waterloo to Hampton Court (conveniently for me, via Wimbledon).  I recommend you do the same, if at all possible, because £21 is a lot of money.  I mean, you could buy like 5 ice creams for that, even at London prices.  But you do get a fair amount for your money, because Hampton Court is big, to the extent that you’ll get sick of walking around before you run out of things to see.  This is why, even though I’ve been there at least 5 times, I discover something new every time I go.

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Though in some instances, this is because they actually change the exhibits.  Case in point: Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, which was definitely not there the last time I visited.  These 15th century paintings were acquired by Charles I in 1629, so I’m not quite sure why they only seem to have gone on display in the last few years, but I’m not the greatest fan of Italian Renaissance art, so I can’t honestly say I was missing out on anything on previous visits by not seeing them.

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So despite our odd detour into Mantegna land, I suppose the logical place to start is with “Young Henry VIII’s Story,” which has been a fixture here for at least as long as I’ve been visiting Hampton Court.  It gives people who haven’t watched Wolf Hall (but seriously, Damian Lewis in a codpiece!  How could you not?  Even though the codpieces were too disappointingly small to be historically accurate…) or read as many Alison Weir books as I did as a teenager (I was a weird kid) a good grounding in what Henry VIII was like before he became an obese tyrant. Hampton Court was built by Cardinal Wolsey, but it was pretty promptly stolen by Henry when he saw how much ass it kicked compared to his own palaces (ok, technically it was “gifted” to Henry by Wolsey when he realised he was falling from favour, but I suspect that was in response to Henry dropping very pointed hints about what a great palace it was, and how fantastic it would look with a big ol’ throne in it).

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Then of course, there are Henry VIII’s actual apartments, which I’ll talk about now, even though we didn’t actually see them next because Hampton Court is like a big maze (it has a hedge maze, but the palace itself is basically a maze too).  Only about half the original palace exists, because William III and Mary II hired Christopher Wren to do some major construction work in the late 17th century, but the Great Hall and a few other cool rooms remain, including a gallery, appropriately called the “Haunted Gallery,” which is meant to be haunted by the ghost of Catherine Howard.  Though I’ve personally never sensed any supernatural presences there.

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Other Tudor attractions here include Henry VIII’s kitchens and wine cellar (always a big hit with children, which is why I don’t have any pictures of the kitchens: there were about three large school groups passing through whilst we were there, so I pretty much ran through them to avoid all the commotion) and the Royal Tennis Court, which is now a members’ club where people can still play real tennis (different from lawn tennis…it’s like a combo of tennis and squash I think.  Not sure how much it costs to become a member, but I bet it’s a lot, judging by how much it costs to just enter the palace once and not play tennis).  The Tennis Court has been completely redone since the last time I was there, and now contains museum-style displays about monarchs and their tennis skills, which I enjoyed.

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I should also mention Henry VIII’s superb astronomical clock, and the wine fountain in the courtyard (it can be seen in the second picture in this post), which is a re-creation of one used at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the famous meeting in 1520 between Henry and Francis I of France.  They actually fill the fountain with wine on special occasions, none of which I’ve managed to attend (not that I like wine anyway, but I would drink it from a fountain!).  Also, there is the fine topiary version of Henry, pictured above.

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But enough about the Tudors; even though Henry was the most famous monarch to inhabit Hampton Court, he certainly wasn’t the only one.  There were also William III and Mary II, who, as I mentioned earlier, did a fair bit of remodeling. William and Mary each have their own set of apartments here, but Mary never lived in hers as she died of smallpox before they were completed.  And they appear to be undergoing restoration work, because they’re not currently open to the public (they were even wiped from the map, but I definitely remember visiting them on previous occasions, and the internet confirms that I’m not just imagining them).  But William’s are open, even though they’re rather dull because not much information is provided inside them (there is a free audio guide, but I have never ever used it, so I can’t tell you what it’s like).

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I do have to quickly show you his loo though (on the left, the other room is just some sort of study, not a weird communal pooping room), because who doesn’t want to poo whilst sitting on a comfy velvet-lined seat (oh, just me then?)?!

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Another section of the palace I had absolutely no past recollection of was the Cumberland Art Gallery.  (No photos were allowed in the gallery, so these are from the hall outside.)  Unfortunately, most of the art seemed to be Italian Renaissance stuff, so I quickly lost interest and wandered outside to the row of Lely paintings (many of which were of Charles II’s various mistresses) leading the way to the Cartoon Gallery (another disappointment, as it wasn’t the Hogarthian type of cartoons I was hoping for, but rather some paintings Raphael did.  Snoozefest).

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Although Mary II’s younger sister Anne (pictured above), who was also queen, lived here too, Hampton Court nowadays skips right from William III to the Georgians (and I guess as well they might, if it leads to napkins that fabulous, but Anne’s personal life is fairly interesting in its own right).  The Georgian rooms also seemed to have been changed since my last visit, and redone more in the style of the Georgian stuff at Kensington Palace, which I guess makes sense since they’re all part of Historic Royal Palaces (but still, for that kind of money, I expect more individuality!).

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Georges I and II seem to have been a thoroughly unpleasant pair, always fighting with each other, and George II carried on the feud with his own child, Frederick (who died before becoming king, thus the crown passed to his son, who became George III).  Still, bickering makes for entertaining reading, and I was especially interested to learn about Caroline of Ansbach’s (George II’s wife) hernia, from which her bowels apparently eventually protruded (I assume through a layer of skin, not that her bowels were literally hanging out of her body, because I’m pretty sure that would kill you), making her extra cranky (understandably enough, though she never seemed particularly pleasant).

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And so let’s move on this fairly brief tour of the palace itself to the gardens, which are numerous and enormous.  In fact, you can buy admission to just the gardens (which I’ve never really seen the point of, but whatever); they include the privy garden, kitchen garden, orangery garden, and Tudor garden, amongst others.

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The gardens also include the Great Vine.  It is certified as the largest vine in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records, and I can confirm that it is indeed a really big vine, though not quite the tourist attraction it apparently was in the 19th century, when Victoria first opened the palace to visitors, and people queued for hours just to see the vine (which I find kind of charming, in a way.  They lived in an age that saw the creation of railroads, telephones, photography, electric lights, etc. and yet people would still patiently wait half a day to look at a damn vine).  We were the only people looking at it when I was there, but it is fairly tucked away, which is probably why this was my first time seeing it.

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Despite not really being a garden person, I have to concede that the ones here are pretty cool (not least because of that drawing of Henry VIII, which, no joke, is probably my favourite thing in the palace, tied only with the Henry topiary (I have a reprint of an old Hampton Court tram poster in my living room with a very similar looking Henry on it, only without him being angered by a fish).

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But of course the best part of the gardens is the hedge maze.  I won’t go for the obvious pun and call it a-maze-ing, because frankly, I’ve been to better (the one at Leeds Castle, which has a grotto at the centre, springs to mind), but it’s still pretty fun, especially relative to the other attractions available at the palace (don’t get me wrong, I enjoy looking at old palace rooms, but I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a barrel of laughs most of the time).  There is also a “magic garden,” but that appears to be some sort of playground for small children, so I didn’t investigate further.

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So concludes what is by necessity (so I don’t bore you all to pieces) an abbreviated tour of this very large palace.  It is expensive, yes, but you can easily spend half a day or more here and still not see everything, and I still think it is the best (by far) of all the Historic Royal Palaces (these include Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, the Tower of London, et al), so I firmly believe that if you’re doing the whole tourist thing in London, it is well worth a visit.  Even for Londoners, it’s worth coming here every few years or so, because exhibits do change, and you’ll probably discover something new.  Also, the palace just looks really cool, and I think we’re all a little fascinated by Henry VIII, even though he was one of the biggest jerks ever.  4/5.

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London: Kensington Palace

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Kensington Palace is honestly not somewhere that I was ever all that bothered about visiting.  Prior to this, I’d only been to two of the “historic royal palaces” (Hampton Court and the Tower of London), mainly because they’re so damn expensive unless you get a National Rail 2 for 1, which is only really useful: a.) if you’re going somewhere you’d take a train to anyway, and b.) if you have a friend to go with.  But I somehow found out (it might have been advertised on a poster in a tube station) that Kensington Palace and Hampton Court are offering half price admission throughout the month of January if you purchase your tickets online.  As I’ve been to Hampton Court loads of times already, it seemed like a good opportunity to check out Kensington Palace. After all, 15 quid feels kind of steep, but £7.50 is doable.

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It’s weird, but for all the times I’ve been to South Kensington and High Street Ken (I have a fierce Whole Foods/Ben’s Cookies addiction that drags me out there about every other week), I think I’ve only been in Hyde Park once, and never in the park that leads up to Kensington Palace (which I think is technically Kensington Gardens, and not Hyde Park at all.  Royal Parks confuse me).  Thankfully, the palace is smack-dab in the middle, so it’s pretty hard to miss (plus I was with my boyfriend, who unlike me, actually has a sense of direction).  Once inside the palace, you pass under a lace canopied room that they seemed quite proud of, and then into a central circular room, with various wings radiating out from it.  I began by heading up the stairs immediately past the entrance, to the “Victoria Revealed” section.

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Queen Victoria was born inside Kensington Palace, and spent her childhood there, away from what her mother deemed the excesses of George IV’s and William IV’s courts, and so she held her first Privy Council here after ascending to the throne in 1837.  The rooms throughout the palace were rather dark, presumably to preserve the artefacts, but it was most noticeable here because there was a sizable informational booklet for each room, and it could be kind of tricky to read it in the dim lighting (fortunately, I ignored my mother’s warnings as a child that reading in the dark would ruin my eyes, and so I’m pretty decent at it to this day…let’s just ignore the fact that I had to have LASIK on my left eye; maybe it’s given me crazy bionic vision?).

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Much like Osborne House, this exhibit painted a rather glowing portrait of Victoria and Albert’s domestic life, illustrated with clothing, jewellery, and paintings.  Albert’s wedding suit (uniform?) is shown above, along with one of Victoria’s pre-mourning dresses (not her wedding dress though).

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Much of the text was simply describing the objects in each room, without a tonne of background, so it was probably quite useful if you already had some knowledge of Victoria’s life and reign (for example, if I didn’t already know quite a bit about the Great Exhibition, I don’t think I would have gotten a good sense of its aims and importance from what they had to say about it).  It also jumped around a bit, from her marriage, to her childhood, and then up to the Great Exhibition (which was perhaps necessary because of the way the rooms flowed).  That said, I enjoyed seeing her very elaborate dollhouse, and her extensive collection of peg dolls, each of which she named and invented a back story for (I did a similar thing with my stuffed animals as a child, so I could relate.  Probably something to do with not having many friends/being an only child (I have a brother, but he’s seven years younger, so I was an only child for a while)).

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There were also a couple rooms devoted to Albert’s death and Victoria’s subsequent (life-long) mourning period, which is only appropriate given how much it shaped the rest of her reign.  I liked the collection of pictures of Victoria with various children and grandchildren, some of which I hadn’t seen before, and also the footage of her Diamond Jubilee that was being projected on one of the walls.

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There was a final room summing up her life, but this was the darkest room of all (literally, the room about Albert’s room was probably the darkest metaphorically speaking), so it was all but impossible to read about the objects as you came to them; rather, I had to huddle next to the only lamp and read about everything at once, but I did manage to find out that the charm bracelet shown above was a gift from Albert to Victoria upon the birth of her first child, and a heart in a different stone was added for each of her subsequent children (slim consolation given how grossed out she was by babies, but better than nothing I guess).  I can’t remember whose foot that is a cast of though.  Obviously one of the children, but I couldn’t say which one.

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The next place I ventured was the King’s State Apartments, which commemorate the “Glorious Georges.”  This section was especially exciting to me because I discovered a rack of scratch and sniff brochures next to the entrance, so even though there were no authentic smells piped in, you had your very own scratch and sniff booklet to take home and enjoy (it told you which scratch and sniff patch to use in each room, but honestly they all just stunk like “authentic smells” of varying degrees of intensity.  I still loved it).  Anytime I have a chance to put my big old schnoz to work, I take it.

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These rooms were very stately indeed, and had a fair bit of character thanks to the work of William Kent, and the eclectic artistic tastes of George II (basically, he liked chubby naked ladies).  Although they did feel very spartan with all the furniture pushed to the sides of the rooms, that is in keeping with the period; until the advent of electric lights, furniture was often placed at the sides of the room and pulled into the centre as needed, both to maximise space, and so people didn’t trip over things at night (at least according to Judith Flanders in The Making of Home).

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If you visit, be sure to read all the little signs hidden amongst the furnishings, because that’s how I found out some of the most interesting tid(t)bits.  For instance, George II’s wife, Caroline, moved the picture on the right above, known as the “Fat Venus,” when he was away (as she didn’t quite share his tastes for nude, Rubenesque women), but he threw a fit when he came home and discovered it was gone, so it had to be promptly returned to pride of place.

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Again, even with the additional information scattered throughout the rooms, I still feel that details were rather sparse, and I would have liked to learn more about this space, but that seems to be typical of all the “historic royal palaces.”  Maybe in addition to not using footnotes in her books, Lucy Worsley also has a distaste for decent signage?

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Moving back in time, to William and Mary, I next circled back to the main room again, and then headed off in the direction of the Queen’s State Apartments.  On the way, I passed a hallway full of embroidered cushions, which were delightful, so I had to share with you some of my favourites.  (You can really see where Victoria got her looks from (and lack of a chin) – her father, the Duke of Kent, on the right).  I forget to check if they sold any of these pillowcases in the shop, but they probably would have charged an exorbitant price for them anyhow.

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The Queen’s Apartments had a similar, albeit less grand setup to the King’s Apartments, but with facts about Mary and Anne instead of the Georges.  That’s Peter the Great of Russia looking rather foxy in that portrait above, but the most interesting thing in this section was undoubtedly the four poster bed shown on the right.  This is the bed where the alleged “warming pan” incident took place, when Mary of Modena, wife of James II, gave birth to her son, and people claimed that the baby was actually smuggled in a warming pan.  That wasn’t really the case, but Mary and James were forced to leave the country anyway, and it’s pretty cool to see the bed where such a famous historical incident happened (almost as good as seeing the deathbed of an historical figure).

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The final exhibit was “Fashion Rules,” showcasing dresses owned by the Queen, Princess Margaret, and Princess Diana.  The Queen had some nice dresses in the ’50s, when she was still a young woman, but they definitely frumped out over time.  By contrast, Margaret stayed quite stylish (she was described as a “groovy chick”), and some of her dresses were things I would wear myself.  And then there’s Diana.  I know it was the ’80s and early ’90s, but some of those dropped waist gowns are just unforgivably ugly.  ’80s fashion has a lot to answer for.  Not being a royalist (at least, not in the modern sense.  I’m definitely interested in historical royalty (because why else would I have bothered going to Kensington Palace?), but I don’t care about the current royal family), my primary interest in this section was the clothes themselves, and not the people who wore them, so this was kind of a meh exhibit for me due to the fugliness of most of the dresses.

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(They tried to make you feel royal when you used the toilets.  To be fair, they were quite nice).  The fashion gallery was the last public section of the palace, but to get out, you have to pass through the shop and a cafe.  Because we left near to closing, we weren’t allowed in the sunken garden, but had to walk the long way around to get out again (I think they try to confuse people so you have to stay in the cafe as long as possible, and buy their cakes so you don’t starve to death).  We did manage to get a couple pictures of the gardens generally though.

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To sum up, though I wasn’t super impressed with Kensington Palace (I’d rank it well below Hampton Court and the Tower of London (assuming you skip that awful Beefeater tour) in terms of history that took place here, and the amount of stuff there was to do and see), I do think it was probably worth paying half-price admission for, so take advantage of that deal whilst you can (I think it extends through part of February).  I did really like the scratch and sniff experience, but there just needed to be more information on everything overall, and improved lighting in the Victoria section (even if they have to keep the lighting low, maybe they could add more small lamps, so everyone doesn’t have to gather around the same one).  Worth a visit if you’re a Victoria or George II fan, but I think there’s more to be found on William and Mary in Hampton Court.  Still, I’m glad I saw it once, and for the most part, I enjoyed myself.  3/5.

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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.