Suermont-Ludwig Museum, Aachen

A double glass door at the entrance of the museum. The museum name is in text, high up on the doors. To the left are the letters S and L, to the right, the letter M. The museum is at number 18 on the street.
The entrance on Wilhelmstraße

The Suermont-Ludwig Museum in Aachen is housed in an 1800s mansion, which has been extended over the years such that it now covers the whole of its lot, where once there were gardens at the back. It’s a gem of a museum, containing art and some curiosities from Aachen collectors, that’s well worth a couple of hours to visit. There’s a lot of religious art and if that doesn’t interest you, you can easily knock an hour off. It is closed on Mondays.

Floorplan of the original Villa Cassalette, showing how the museum has spread into the gardens through three periods of extension work
Info leaflet in the cloakroom

Entrance is normally €6, €3 for concessions, but I went on a Thursday and had free entry. I hadn’t seen mention of that on their website, so it may not be every Thursday. I think the guard said something about all museums being free, so if you can find out which day it happens on, that would be a good day to make a museum day of it. There is a very reasonably priced 6-museum card for €14, though.

The entrance and cloakroom are on the ground floor, along with a small but well-stocked library – worth a look for the ceiling alone, but the quiet makes it a place not to stay unless you want to read in peace. Up the staircase for the sprawling galleries. Only the first floor was in use when I went, but there looks to be extra space on the second floor for more exhibits – perhaps only on paid days.

A large display room showing Aachen residents' collections. It's an eclectic group, with mummies, glassware, hunting equipment, locks and more.
Room of curiosities – even the ceiling is an exhibit
A display case showing over 40 small models of medieval figures, each dancing with the grim reaper.
Medieval figures dance with death
The oldest items here are a small elongated vessel (an alabastron from Rhodes 500-475BC) and a colourful bird, probably a handle of a vessel (Syran, c.800)
A painting of religious allegories, overseen by Jesus and angels in the sky, while people succumb to and try to escape from temptation and devils.
They were just putting this painting back as I wandered through. Seemed to warrant a photo
Ornate decoration in the ceiling. Not lavishly coloured, but there are very detailed carvings.
The ceiling decoration
Statue in a display case of Jesus with a Samaritan woman at a well. The woman is looking straight at Jesus while pouring water into an amphora, with the stream going directly in even while she isn't looking.
Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the well, 1520-1530. Christ and the cocky Samaritan at the well, more like – she’s not even looking, and not spilling a drop!
Painting of genteel folk making music. All are finely dressed with ruffs and much shiny clothing, maybe silk. They lounge, play or look on with great confidence
And while we’re talking about rocking an attitude, look at these genteel folk making music. Especially the one in a white silk(?) jacket

Exhibits are grouped first by their century – largely 15-1600 and 16-17 – and then thematically. There is a large selection of Dutch paintings.

A painting of peasants drinking outside in a village while children play with animals in the street
Joost Cornelisz or Cornelis Droochsloot, Village with Drinking Peasants, c.17th
A painting of a Dutch river, meandering through the landscape with a bridge in the foreground and a town in the middle, while a mountain rises at the back of the scene.
Pieter Vermeer, Dutch River Landscape
A painting of married man and woman, separate but painted and arranged such that the man faces right and the woman left, so that they complement one another
A married couple – it was a Dutch ‘thing’, apparently, to have separate paintings of married couples arranged in relation to each other.

The painting below is displayed on a screen, so the animation can be shown. The painting has been simply (in effect, probably not in practice) such that the bee that sits on the flower at top flies away, a dragonfly flies in to sit on the blue flower and so on. I found it mesmerising, and it brought the painting to life in a very interesting way.

A screen shows a still life painting, with a shell containing flowers, more shells and a lizard in the foreground. Insects alight on the flowers, and have been carefully animated so as to bring motion to a still life.
Balthasar van der Ast, Flowers in a Shell and Snail Shells

There is free wifi in much of the museum, which is useful for looking up occasional latin phrases (perhaps I should have known that Ecce Homo means a representation of a scourged Jesus, bound and crowned with thorns. Equally, I would have ignored one, but by the time I was on the third, I had to check). I looked up the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, which is referred to in the painting below. Workers recruited early were offered a denarius for their full day’s work, which was a very generous offer. Through the day, more people were recruited, not offered a set amount but told it would be fair. At the end of the day, all were paid a denarius, to the complaints of those early workers. And this is like religion – devout all your life or not, the rewards are open to all.

A painting of a market, with goods, sellers and buyers in the forefront. Behind people are milling - presumably some of these are workers about to head to the vineyard.
Kopie nach Pieter Aersten (1508-1575), Market Scene, (with the parable of the workers in the vineyard)
Naked nymphs or angels painted in bright colours on a background of cloud and blue sky - the ceiling in the library
Ceiling decoration in the library – taken at an angle in an attempt not to disturb readers

A lovely museum, big (one of the largest provincial museums in Germany, the entry hall info board says) but not too big and with lots of beautiful things to see.

A large brown building on a large square. People are sitting on the steps in front of the huge building, which has turrets on both the left and right side. Trees run up the side of the plaza towards the city hall.
Aachen’s city hall

Revoltella Museum, Trieste

On an extremely warm day in Trieste, I didn’t fancy going far, but anywhere cool was a real draw. This museum covered both bases, being a couple of minutes walk right in the middle of town, and mostly air-conditioned.

It isn’t hugely expensive, at €7. Reviews stress how beautiful it is, and sprawling, which is useful information. Even more useful is the irritation of those who weren’t told about the app (“Revoltella”) – download that, get the code from reception (it is on a card, but the card is filled with info and it’s easily missed) and you can read/have narrated extra information on any item with a number next to it. I found the narration interesting and very soothing, though towards the end of the visit I was reading them as tiredness hit. It gave for me the perfect level of background about the picture and, more importantly, talked through the techniques used. An art historian would be less enamoured.

Painting by Giovanni Fattori showing soldiers in camp reading a letter from  home.
A painting with a number. Giovanni Fattori; soldiers reading a letter in camp

The museum grew out of the collection of Baron Revoltella, who left his house to the city to house it. He left quite a bequest; the building, the collection and funds to expand it. He was a financier of the Suez Canal, among other things, and there is a whole room devoted to paraphernalia from his visit there.

A tall room with purple walls and curtains. In the corner is a small screen which is supplied with a view of the square outside by a system of mirrors.
This room overlooks the square, with a camera obscura in the corner to give the baron a preview

The Baron’s palace is itself a great exhibit, just strolling through the rooms looking at old furniture is probably worth the entry price. There are a few artworks here, some with narration, along with the Suez Canal exhibits. It’s worth knowing there are several more floors, so as to avoid feeling done once you’ve seen the lavish accommodation, ballroom and so on.

It is a bit of a gear-change to then head to the floors containing just art, but I was soon into the run of it

Walls are white and decorations, including the chairs, gold in the dining room, seen through the two pillars that mark the entrance from the next room
The dining room
Sculptures

The museum has actively sought to extend its collection with works, concentrating on artists from the region but not restricting itself to them. There’s a gallery of sculptures which then feeds into more art, before you climb the stairs to a couple more floors. On one of these I had very close attention from one of the staff, which became a game as I attempted to out-wait him on one piece, or tuck myself slightly out of view behind another. If I’d felt any irritation or sense of unwelcome, it was removed when he called me back to let me know I’d missed out the top floor. The stairway was part-way round the fifth floor and I’d forgotten all about it.

A painting of young girls outside a church after their first communion. The scene is full of people, but attention is drawn to three girls in the foreground by the sharp, almost photo-realistic depiction of their features. The one in the front is the only character who seems to look directly at the viewer, holding attention
Carl Frithjof Smith, After First Communion, 1892.
A medium-sized open gallery has modern art on the walls and sculptures on different plinths around the room. Lots of skylights allow natural light into the gallery
The top floor – modern art and sculpture

I thoroughly enjoyed both my visit and the chance to cool down in the building, though I was pretty tired by the end, from the walking, the reading and the concentration. I went through some areas more quickly than others, but always found something to grab my attention. It’s a gem of a place, whether you go to see the art, to experience the feel of the place or both.

The Revoltella Museum website (museorevoltella.it/english/)

Round Salzburg with the Salzburg Card

At €30 for one day, €39 for two and €45 for three, the Salzburg card gives access to public transport (not including the S-bahn) and (one entrance only for each) attractions across Salzburg. Even in one day, it can save a small fortune, but over three you can avoid a lot of expense, and head into attractions purely on a whim. I was in the city for a week, so a three day card made sense, though I waited till after two very hot days had passed. I bought the card online, and saved a screenshot of the QR code to my phone for use, though there are plenty of places to buy a real one, and everyone else I saw had an actual card in hand.

I am not much of a one for heights, so the cable car at Untersbergbahn (South of the city – get the bus) was a challenge as well as a quick way up the mountain. Full price – €28 both ways, €18 one. Some people walk up and get the cable car down, though there are also long walks signposted on the mountain if you want to spend time up there. I had a short walk and took a ride down through clouds. It is quite a dramatic ride up, heading towards a cliff face before rising steeply to crest it, then jolting over the edge to hang over a valley, moving on and up towards the next peak where it stops. Most of the car I was in audibly “oohed” at that first jolt – the sense of space opening out under your feet is quite something.

View of the Untersberg mountain from below, With cables disappearing toward the mountain, appearing to not rise toward the peak.
Cables from ground level

Having bottled even the shortish walk up the next peak – it apparently takes an hour or so, and much older people and small children took it on quite happily – I was soon on my way North to the Hellbrunn Palace. I hopped off the bus at the zoo, a stop before the Schloss, just because some other people did, and ended up popping into the zoo (normal price: €12.50). Several people commented later that it seemed an odd place to have a zoo, several km South of the city, but it grew out of the wildlife collection/facilities built for same by Markus Sittikus, one of the city’s archbishops. It’s dramatically situated, built right up against the rocky hill in the middle of the park, and with the Untersberg mountain visible as you look away from the rocks. Plenty of animals, and it made me smile. On a day with temperatures 30+, it didn’t seem quite so cruel to have some of them there.

A large outside space with lots of birds in the water or nearby. There were also antelopes and ibexes in this enclosure, not shown.
Pelicans and others

After the zoo, I exited at the South side which took me into the park. I walked through, heading up the hill for the added difficulty, which brought me to the “Little-month Palace”. Set on a hill, this now holds the Folklore Museum (Full price €3.50. Entry included with entry to the Hellbrunn Palace, but you can go straight in with the Salzburg card). It’s worth a look, and they do a good job of providing a variety of exhibits, with folklore on the ground floor, art on the second and an example of a Great Giant Samson on the top. It’s a lovely building with great views over the estate from the top floor. It gets its name from the story that it was built in a month, though that is referred to as a legend.

Finally, I went down the hill to the main palace and the highly recommended Trick Fountains. At one time, all the posh houses had or wanted trick fountains, but when they fell out of fashion they were mostly removed, making these a stand-out feature. With a Salzburg card, you still need to head to the ticket office to get a timed slot for the fountains and you then use that ticket to enter the palace whenever you want to. I wasn’t initially keen – you’re given an audio guide, but then held in the first area. There is a reason for that, though; for one, they want to take your group’s picture and sell it to you later, but they also want to keep everyone together at a table surrounded by seats. And a lot of very wet concrete. The bravest, or most game, sat obediently at the table while the rest of us watched from the side, as a member of staff showed us what the hand-operated controls do.

Once through the first 3 items on the audioguide, you are free to walk at your own pace, with the audioguide talking you through each item and guiding you to the next. The whole thing won me over – the mechanisms are ingenious and very clever given their age, but also very naff (reminiscent of those jerking Santas in Christmas dioramas). It certainly invited opinion, I can’t imagine anyone thought “oh, let’s just leave it, it’s harmless”; nope, once this was out of fashion, it would have looked like the crappest thing in the world.

But for all that, when someone is squirted by a nozzle they didn’t spot, a deer’s head catches you on the way out with water coming from its mouth and antlers, covering a large area, or people run toward a grotto as the whole pathway is given a ceremonial squirting, it is tremendous fun and funny. Some of the nozzles are under control of the staff, who will give you time to avoid the water if you want – or indulge the kids who very definitely want to get wet.

I moved on to the palace, which has a very interesting exhibition about the life of Markus Sittikus, who built or inaugurated the Palace, Salzburg Cathedral and so on, despite not living to a grand old age.

The next day I used my card in the city, using the lift (MönchsbergAufzug) to get up the mountain to the Modern Art Museum, walking back down and going to the Natural History and Toy museums

I took the funicular up to the fortress. Having seen a queue outside the day before, I was going to wait till later, given the fortress is open till the evening, but there was no queue at 4. Once inside I realised that even a long-looking queue is only in place while the gates are closed and should clear fairly quickly – the Salzburg card lets you jump the queue in any case, but I preferred not to. The fortress is large, with several museums inside; the state rooms are not included with the card unless you go up before 11, but there’s plenty to see. I picked an entrance via some steps, which took me straight into the fortress but I felt a little as though I was being shuffled through a tourist experience for a while. I’d recommend walking round the outside first and enjoying the views, before going into the museums – they start with the regimental history, while I was still wondering what each room was.

A view of Salzburg from the fortress showing the river and several green-copper domes, including the cathedral.
Panoramic view of Salzburg from above

On my final day I used the bus to get to parkrun and back, all included with the card (though no one asked to see it), took a river cruise – I booked ahead as I was passing the ticket office, asked for 5, he checked whether I’d said 3 or 5, and then I got a ticket for 4. I realised in time to make it back from the Salzburg museum, which is about 1km away. All these things were good, and I was happy with them all, but they also seemed a smidge overpriced without the card – a fantastic bargain with one. I highly recommend you get the card if you plan on doing more than one thing.

The Salzburg Card – info on benefits and how to buy.

Lentos Kunstmuseum (Art Museum), Linz

The Lentos Kunstmuseum is right next to the river Danube and just a short walk from the centre of town. Entrance is €10 and the wifi is excellent – that wouldn’t normally be the first thing I noticed, but I had stayed in two places without wifi and had notifications to update.

The museum is in a distinctive glass building. The galleries are all upstairs on one long floor, with a couple of exhibition spaces in the basement, which also has cloakrooms and lockers (€1, refundable). That long exhibition space is supported by two feet – one has the ticket office and shop, the other the cafe. It’s described as a contemporary art museum, pointing to the majority of the main exhibition being modern art, but there are some older, more classical, pieces early on, too. Reviews vary in the amount of time recommended – I was there for an hour and a half, and that was a fairly leisurely pace.

Soap blocks make a large installation, with three videos projected onto the surrounding walls detailing the soap-making process
Sapun Ghar, Iris Andraschek. About soap-making in Aleppo, and the main installation is soap blocks.

The special exhibition at the moment contains work by Iris Andraschek, in a variety of different media. I’d highly recommend finding the exhibition guide by the entrance, though there was only one copy in English when I went. It gave good descriptions and context for the whole thing.

A series of aquariums, with found objects blown by pumps in the water, forming interesting shapes or making continual noise in the case of the balls in one aquarium
Aquariums, Iris Andraschek 1992-2022

There is a Picasso and a Warhol, though in general the museum focuses on art from artists from the area, or with some link to it. That doesn’t seem to limit them too much in where people are from, or in the breadth of exhibits, and I enjoyed my stroll through despite knowing very little about what I was seeing.

Zamek Malbork – The Malbork Castle Museum

A large sign on a grassy bank spells out Malbork.
Malbork – this is just along the river to the south of the castle

Malbork, a town in Northern Poland an hour or so from Gdansk, lays a claim to having the largest castle in the world by land area. Different people or guides phrase this differently – some mention the fact that it’s the largest brick complex in Europe, probably because that the brick such a distinctive feature. Overall, it may not mean much more than that the walls have been extended to cover a larger area than others chose to. It’s also all a reconstruction, as so often is the case in Poland, and there’s an exhibition on the restoration from 1962, following a fire in 1959 which had added to the damage done in WWII.

Malbork Castle, seen from the riverside, on the South side. Behind the high outer walls, the High Castle stands several storeys higher. All made of brick, it's a perfect storybook castle.

The size of the site means this is a lengthy visit if you see it all, particularly if you listen to all of the excellent audio tour that is included in the main admission price.

A model of the whole of the castle site shows the scale of the walls and the layout of the high, middle and lower castle areas

Visitors are free to walk round the edge of the castle, and there’s an audio tour to guide you round that for 15pln (£2.70). The castle is open 9am-8pm, Tuesday-Sunday. Main admission is 70pln (£12.50), or there’s a reduced rate of 30pln (£5.50) after 5.15pm from Tuesday-Sunday. See the castle ticket webpage for up-to-date information.

The walls are made of red brick. A high arch with raised portcullis leads into the courtyard, past two other gates. The ground is cobbled with large flat stones laid where cart wheels would roll
The main entryway, once past the ticket check

The castle is from the 13th century and was the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights. It’s suitably grand. The tour takes you through the three castles, High, Middle and Lower – I realised on the tour that although these terms are self-explanatory, it had never occurred to me that a “High Castle” was a term in actual use, rather than just a description.

Brick buildings and a tall tower surround a cobbled courtyard with green lawns at the lower castle
Courtyard, lower castle

The guided tour is excellent. It’s location-specific, so you can ignore any particular section by just wandering off, though I was happy to listen and head to where I was told. You can still explore more or less as you want, and some parts are slightly fiddlier to find – exit into the corridor and you’ll see a gargoyle on the wall, he said, but it was a small gargoyle and I looked the wrong way the first time – which added to the sense of exploration.

A very large Great Hall, with a small fireplace to one side. Pillars along the middle of the hall hold up curved arches that spiral out across the ceiling
Curved roof in the grand hall
Curved arches on the ceiling, painted with creeping vines and flowers.
A guided tour
More curved arches in the roof of a corridor, painted with creepers and flowers.
Remember to look up

Along with the grand architecture there’s plenty of paraphernalia to see. Amber is big in the region and the castle has a large collection. There’s an amber museum in Gdansk if you’ve not had enough, too, though one was enough for me.

A courtyard is lit by dappled light shining through the branches of a tall tree. Ivy grows up some of the brick pillars.
Courtyard
Courtyard of the High Castle. All around are high walls with open arch windows (no glass). In the middle of the cobbled courtyard is a well, covered by a structure with wooden stakes and a conical tiled roof.
Courtyard of the High Castle
People walk round a huge range in the kitchen, which has arches covering where the fire would have raged. The lighting gives it a red glow.
The kitchen
A long room, with white walls and painted frescoes above head height. Tall black pillars hold the arches that spread across the ceiling.
Note the outfits of the staff at the far end
A wooden bridge joins two sections of the castle. It is viewed from below, unreachable from here and at about the level of the 3rd storey.
Wooden bridge joins two sections

The castle was built for strength and so was never besieged. After 1457 it became one of the residences for Polish royalty until 1772. Swedish forces invaded and occupied the castle during the 30 years war, in 1626 and 1629, but it has not been the scene of much fighting. The tour therefore concentrates on interesting architectural features rather than historical political to-ing and fro-ing, and is all the better for it.

I enjoyed the tour and was a little sad when it ended and I had no more words from the soothing narrator. As a result, when he suggested downloading a further app and joining him in a tour of Malbork’s medieval city, I did just that (though I saved it for the next day – it really was an exhaustive tour of the castle). The Movi guide has guided tours for plenty of areas in Poland, along with the Kaasmuseum in The Netherlands and The Witold Gombrowicz museum in France. Well worth a look for Poland.

Information about Malbork Castle from Wikipedia.

European Solidarity Centre, Gdańsk

Situated to the North of the city centre, the European Solidarity Centre is an imposing building in rust-coloured metal, with a huge statue to memorialise the shipyard workers killed in anti-communist riots.

Tall statue, with three concrete legs with crosses at the top, supporting large anchors in memorial to the steel workers killed in 1970. Rusty-looking Solidarity museum is behind; it is a multi-storey building, but nowhere near as high as the statue.
Solidarity centre and statue outside

The inside of the centre felt entirely at odds with the more brutalist outside, giving a great contrast. It is a vast atrium of calm, free to visit without paying to visit the museum. Plants everywhere help contribute to that atmosphere. When I came out of the museum, a small visiting orchestra was giving a performance of classical music, which fit the place perfectly, though the quiet that followed was also wonderful. It’s a great space, into which a lot of care has clearly been put.

The hall inside the centre, before you get to the museum. A vast atrium of calm with plants everywhere creating a chilled atmosphere
Inside the Solidarity Centre.

I booked ahead for my visit, having been (sort of) turned away the day before. There are timed entry slots, so if you arrive at 3pm, you may be told to push off till 4pm. I didn’t hang around and just booked for the next day, then showed my email at the audioguide station and scanned in to the museum upstairs.

This museum commemorates a hugely important time in Poland’s history, as it fought to be rid of Communism. It’s also salutary for a free Brit, as a reminder and a warning – simply reading the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a rejoinder to recent laws passed by people who I can’t politely describe. Even knowing that there is a group of people who will turn their nose up at any mention of that declaration, sure they are supporting a nebulous idea of freedom and making up their own minds even as they are led down the path of radicalisation, just as the British press did by lying about the EU for years, with otherwise politically-unengaged people knowing they should say “up yours Delors”. To give a funny (but not) example – on Question Time, one responder said she voted to leave the EU because she was fed up of the straight bananas ‘we’ get now. Not only swallowing the lies, but shaping her own reality to believe they had affected her world.

Hard hat are stuck to the ceiling in a room which has recreated the look of the Gdansk shipyards, with exhibits about the protests there
Shipyard exhibit

The museum starts in the shipyard, taking visitors into that time by recreating some of the look of the place. This was mostly not a bloody revolution, so some of the history is a little dry; there are lots of meetings and conversations. But there’s plenty to see, and the individual stories that start in the next room bring the narrative to life. It’s not a story I feel able to sum up, and in any case my reaction was much of the time one of anger at more contemporary events (and yes, for the reactionary right, I did also feel lucky to be able to express that anger, but that isn’t good enough on its own), but the pictures tell some of the story of the museum. For better information, you might start with a page about Lech Wałęsa.

Landrover-style Popemobile used by Pope John Paul
The Popemobile that John Paul II used
A large video wall shows protests. There is a tablet to browse other information, and photographs of people involved in protests in a glass exhibition cabinet.
Interactive exhibits
An exhibit stands in a room with a mirror-roof. That mirror allows you to see that the curved panels of the exhibition are that shape so they spell out the word "solidarnosc"
Exhibition space in the shape of the word solidarnosc.
Photo of union leader and Nobel Prize winner, Lech Walesa, made up of other documents, artfully arranged
Lech Wałęsa
A broken gate with police riot shields and a vehicle arranged behind, to give a feel of protestors facing the authorities
A protestor’s eye-view of conflict at the shipyard, where authorities broke down a gate with a tank
The road to democracy
A round table recreates the feel of union organisers debating with authorities
The history of the debates shown on video screens
A display of posters of different Solidarnosc candidates standing for election, every one of them photographed individually with Lech Wałęsa
Solidarnosc candidates in the Polish elections, individual posters for each, photographed with Lech Wałęsa – a hugely successful initiative.

There are fascinating exhibits on the size of the Communist bloc in Europe, and its dispersal over time.

A coloured animated map of Europe colours Communist colours in red, then shows them changing to grey as Communism is defeated over time
Decomposition of the Eastern bloc
Large walls in a room carry the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in several different languages
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Part of the Declaration of Human Rights, "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association"
“Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association” (and because it apparently needs pointing out, ‘peaceful’ means non-violent, not kept quiet because noise is a bit annoying)
"No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile"
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile” (And perhaps don’t send asylum seekers, perfectly entitled to travel, at vast cost to other countries. Particularly don’t do that and then listen quietly while useful idiots bang on about people not having enough babies)

I found the museum very interesting, if very dry in places – though we should be grateful that for the dullness of people debating in rooms, rather than fighting for supremacy. The audio guide is excellent and guides you through the place expertly. At times I switched off a little and let the feel of it roll over me, and that works, too. It’s close to being a must-visit in Gdańsk, though you might also choose not to go, and appreciate that freedom instead.

Museum of World War 2, Gdańsk (Muzeum II Wojny Światowej w Gdańsku)

WWII Museum

As the stench of corruption in the UK spreads far and wide enough that I can smell it from here, where without the first edition of “the paper of record” (ha) you might have no idea of a powerful man’s second attempt, (that we know of) to give work to his mistress and where the long-running crisis in the legal system (long pre-dating covid, to go with those prompted in health, transport and so on by under-funding or assuming the private sector will do more than look after itself) finally looks to be coming to a head, it seemed a good idea to take a reflective look at where a democratic vote for a legendary fuckwit and media management can take humanity.

A corridor lined with Nazi swastikas and Soviet sickles sets a tone
Nazi and Soviet symbols

I ended up at the Museum of the Second World War, North of the old city. Fortunately this is an excellent museum, informative, reflective and thanks perhaps to Gdańsk’s unique perspective on events, sombre even as you get to the ‘triumph’ at the end.

Gdańsk’s own history is complex, ruled over time by Germans, Poles, Prussians and itself. From 1918 to 1939 it was in a disputed corridor and with a huge majority of Germans in the city, it wasn’t given back to Polish control. In the late 1930s, Poles and their language were excluded from public life and ultimately the status of the city, with its Nazi majority in parliament, was used as an excuse to invade Poland. After the war, though Poland was on the winning side, its rewards for such were ambiguous. Gdańsk itself was annexed by Poland but had a Soviet-installed Communist government.

The museum is split up into several zones. The entrance is down stairs from ground level, and then you head down to floor -3 for tickets and exhibits. You start in a long corridor with exhibitions off to each side, though the first two are small rooms, giving an idea that you will be popping in and out. Then you head into another small room, through and everything opens out, and it is clear that this is not a museum presenting things in small bites. It is very atmospheric, and you could almost wander through and just gaze around you for an experience all of its own.

A large hall, with military uniforms, half a plane 'dive bombing' from the wall and computer screens against the wall
A large hall

That said, there’s also a whole stack of information. In the picture above, which was the first large hall I came to (entirely possible I missed one, so I won’t say it is the first), there are captions in Polish and English for everything. To the right are several interactive displays, again in Polish and English, allowing you to read more about the history of the war, or browse the pages of a journal displayed to one side and so on.

Some exhibits are large, some just small excerpts of life – like the barbed wire, above – that hang on huge walls, often to chilling effect. I got to the end of that long corridor – roughly where the ‘Terror’ sign offers entry to another gallery – and figured I was near the end. Word to the wise (but not wise enough to check a floorpan) – this is about halfway.

A video screen with a film giving an overview of WW2 action
A video display

There are lots of exhibits, even a couple of reconstructed streets to allow you to feel a wartime atmosphere, and plenty of information about battles etc., but it is fair to say this museum is not nerding out on hardware or small detail of troop movements. Instead it is aiming more at a representation of how the war looked and felt to the people involved, particularly in Europe. So there is a tank and half a plane, but lots of uniforms, propaganda and information posters, personal effects from civilians, combatants and prisoners of war. As you might expect of a Polish museum, there’s a section devoted to The Katyn Massacre, a terrible story both in that it happened and that people were further terrorised by being lied to and gaslit (strange to think this for Brits was once a distant idea) for years.

A map showing Japanese brothels all over Asia
Showing aspects of the human cost – Japanese ‘comfort houses’ in Asia
Several pipes from floor to ceiling rotate, showing metal identity plates from those forced into labour
Revolving identity plates of workers
Hanging displays showing headshots of people killed in the Holocaust
People killed in the Holocaust
A set of propaganda posters from different countries, in the theme of 'careless talk costs lives'
Careless Talk etc.

On the same theme, of the Polish view of the war, there’s an enigma machine and a case with the story of Marian Rejewski, who was first to crack the code, and some stark casualty figures – check the green bar at the top, below, which shows (as a percentage) how many more Polish civilians were killed.

The museum is big, fascinating and clearly lovingly curated. It was busy when I went, but rarely crowded, and there are plenty of seats and free wifi if you want a break. It is open 10-6 Tuesday-Sunday, and you can book tickets online. Though not for Tuesday because, as I found out entirely by accident, on that day it is free. Otherwise the main price is 25zl (£4.62).

If you have a little time before or after, I also recommend the 20-minute experience that is the Piwnica Romańska, a Romanesque cellar offshoot of the Archaeological museum. It shows the remnants of a 13th century Dominican monastery, costs 8zl and although it’s technically a museum, it’s more of a show. I turned up and no one was behind the desk, while a couple of bemused tourists wondered if they should wait, or could just go in. The man of the couple put a foot on the stairs as if to test this out, and was warned off by a grumble from the old lady sat next to the desk who might have been knitting. Or just guarding. I hung around while they scuttled off, and was greeted fulsomely by the lady who returned, though she thought she had already spoken to me and I had already paid. By now I was ready to follow instructions, so I went downstairs and when she said there would be a film at 12, I figured I should stay in the first room, which has a few exhibits to one side, and a screen. 3 others, including the couple, joined me, and though we looked at the next room, which clearly had the results of the dig in, the ticket lady was corralling us into that room masterfully, just by twitching toward the door. We watched the short film, and were then invited into the first room, and she pressed whatever was necessary to start the narration. It was loud and clear, and then talked us from room to room, but we had further instructions from the ticket lady to keep us in the right place. There’s an ossuary and a central room with funky columns and features, and you should go and take it in if you can. If not, these pictures give an idea – imagine being controlled over when you move, and a deep voice talking you through where to look and when to walk.

Vasa Museum (Vasamuseet), Stockholm

The Vasa Museum wowed me when I visited it over 10 years ago, did so again on this visit and is surely one of the great museums. Many museums in Stockholm are free to visit; this one is not, but the 190kr (£15) is worth it. It’s located on the same island as the Djurgarden, to the East of the very centre of the city. “Is it the funny-shaped building?” someone asked me, and well, yes, probably. Note that much of the supporting material, audio and visual, is available from outside the museum – see the bottom of this post for links.

Vasa Museum, seen from the Gamla Stan (where the National and Modern museums are).

It has long opening hours, 8:30-18:00, to cater for everyone who calls in during the day. I came reasonably early at around 10 (it was a 4km walk there, too, so that stopped me being super early). That may have been peak time for groups, and it was noticeably quieter around lunch time (midday onwards), but I only really noticed it at a couple of exhibits that were blocked with people being informed, and I went back to those later in any case. As for entering, don’t be put off if you see a lot of people entering – groups have a separate entrance and queue, and individuals can be in within moments. I wandered up to a self-service machine, pressed the screen for adult entry, held my card to the machine, took the printout, had it checked, and I was in.

I sort of wanted to see the ship last, and to hold the pictures of the whole thing till the end, but it makes some sense to just let you see it. My jaw didn’t actually drop, but I certainly stopped (and there is a big, wide space after the entry doors, allowing a lot of people to stop dead if necessary).

Vasa ship from 1628, in a museum
The Vasa.
Vasa from above, showing some of the carvings.
The Vasa from above – different colours mean reconstructed parts, but there aren’t many.

The ship was built between 1626 and 1628. It then set sail, made it 1,000 yards or so, sails set and all gunports open, before a gentle breeze rocked it and another one made it capsize, take on water and sink, with 30+ deaths (some captions still suggest 50, so I think the estimate has come down over time). When I last came I remember distinctly describing it as “set sail, fell over, sank and that’s why we still have it”, and being fairly sure it was bad design. The museum was probably never so definitive. Certainly the ship is not wide enough for the two gun decks and remarkably high ship, but it also didn’t have enough ballast (related to the width, as there wasn’t enough space), the original designer died, and the king interfered and insisted on sailing soon. None of those are pointed to as the main cause, but since an inquest at the time found no-one guilty, we’re left to think it was a combination of those factors (or that it was the otherwise-great King Gustavus Adolphus, and no one was going to blame him).

A smaller model (10ft or so) of the ship stands in front of it
Vasa and mini Vasa

There are several floors, each of which has exhibits and in some cases, especially ground and lower ground, galleries to wander through. The higher floors are mostly for viewing.

To the right of the entrance is the information desk, toilets and lockers, and a cinema with an excellent film about the history of the ship, particularly focusing on the work done to salvage it. Efforts were made periodically, including at the time, but the most successful two were a slightly destructive 17th century set of dives that retrieved a lot of cannon, at the cost of much of the top of the ship, and the 1950s full floatation.

A photo of the ship being floated, in a partial wooden shell, from the 1950s
The recovered ship being floated

The picture below of the rear of the ship gives a small idea of how high above the water she must have sat. The picture is taken from roughly the water line. There is still a *lot* of ship above.

Rear view of the ship, with gun ports open and preserved dark wood
Rear view of the ship
Ornate carving of a lion. They haven't all survived, but it is remarkable how many have.
Lion carving on the back of a gun port

The ship is so well preserved because it luckily – for us – sank in anaerobic conditions, and much of it sunk into the mud, more so after an early salvage attempt. The usual cause of ship decay, Teredo Navalis or shipworm, does not live in the conditions where the Vasa was. Still, conservation was intense from the beginning and continues, with initial supposition that it had been conserved and was now good replaced by the understanding that ‘we have the Vasa, but not forever’.

To give an idea of some of the conservation work: First the ship had to be sprayed with water continuously to prevent the wood drying out. Once it was in a temporary home, the water was then replaced with a Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) solution, which meant continual spraying over days or longer, leaving a mist over the ship. Iron rivets had been driven into the ship underwater in the 1950s and those were more recently found to be rotting and damaging the wood. Most have now been replaced by a special steel mixture. The air conditioning within the building was found not to be powerful enough during one especially wet summer, and had to be completely replaced by a better system. And the ship is in a cradle, for which it is not designed, so is settling (if I remember correctly) by a mm each year, and not evenly, so they are currently trying out new bolsters.

It’s a lot of work.

Look at all those carvings. Incredible. It’s 98% original, and you can generally see the newer bits, as they’re different colours to the dark PEG impregnated wood, and mostly on the top. And people had to walk out onto that bowsprit to get to a lookout (not pictured) at the end.

A long view of the Vasa from behind; the back of the ship is particularly ornately decorated
The ship from behind, and the longboat below
Carvings of people and Sweden's coat of arms on the back of the ship
The stern (back) of the ship. I told you there was a lot of it.

There’s plenty of sea-jargon to take in, if you want to, though it is generally explained. That said, there are a few exhibits that are a little like reading Greek. An excerpt, talking about one of the sails (preserved, if holey, and on display, of course).

“The port clew, formed by a seized eye on the bolt rope.
The seizing used is a racking seizing…

A part of the port leech rope with the lowest bowline cringle…

Part of the rope with one of the five cringles for the buntlines.”

A reproduction of the crow's nest overlooking the ship
Your chance to step onto a crow’s nest. Even with the protection, I didn’t go to the edge, thanks
Reproduction of a gundeck with cannons on either side
A reproduction of a gun deck. It is not high, but much higher than they would normally have been, contributing to the top-heaviness.

It’s an extraordinary sight, and I recommend this museum wholeheartedly. I had no doubts about returning, and saved it for my final day in Stockholm. It did not disappoint and I was there several hours. There’s free wifi and a restaurant and then the gardens to wander round afterwards, too.

A front-on view of the ship within the museum.
Designed to strike fear into enemies’ minds, now it just inspires awe in visitors’
My face in front of the ship
A bonus view of me

Links

The Vasa Museum’s own website.

Vasa Museum audioguide (English) – 15 tracks, available in the museum, via the free wifi.

An interactive ‘up close’ guide to the exhibits.

Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire

On the last day of the unseasonal, if welcome, warm weather in March, I was headed South and took the chance to stop at Bolsover Castle, which is very close to the M1. It’s an English Heritage site, free to members, £12.60/11.30/7.60. There’s a free car park in front, which is also very convenient for the Wetherspoons pub. The latter may explain why on a quiet day the car park was full, but at any rate there is an overflow car park by the side of the castle, just continue along the road past the castle entrance and take a sharp right.

Panoramic view with battlements at the front and rolling green fields disappearing down the hill.
View from the castle over the model village.

The castle as we see it, dominating the skyline as you approach, was built by the Cavendish family in the 17th century on the site of an older medieval fortress. It had plenty of bedrooms, but was meant more for entertaining than as a place to live, with the administration of the estate (essentially all the eye can see, and the Cavendish family owned several of the other ‘great houses’ in the area) carried out from elsewhere. Most famously, William Cavendish spent £14,000 (his entire yearly income) to entertain the King and Queen when they visited in 1630.

There is plenty to see. The views over the valley are spectacular in themselves, the old long buildings are fascinating, the gardens kept simple but smelling lovely and the Little Castle with partial reconstructions of the ornate insides. There’s also an exhibition and second-hand bookshop in the first buildings you find, which contain the parade ground. William Cavendish is known as the English father of dressage, believing strongly that there was no need to brutalise a horse to make it behave, and proving so. Apparently his manuals of horsemanship are still relevant, which is quite something.

The Little Castle was holds rooms for entertaining and Cavendish’s bedroom, with upper floors closed for renovation. More entertaining happened in the long building to the side of the Little Castle, but the cost of maintaining such a large site meant a later owner took the roof off it and let it fester. As a result it looks older though it actually isn’t. The paintings above the wood panels, seen above, are described as closer to fine art than just decoration. There are plenty of staircases and small rooms off to one side (originally privies, but now clean and tidy!) to check out, but the art is the highlight, and so the video below is recommended to give you an insight.

A QR code inside the entrance to the Little Castle links to a YouTube video, Bolsover Castle: A Journey in Art (6:44).

You’re never far from a great view of the countryside. The model village down the hill (not a small one, a real one laid out in a ‘model’ of good living) is clear because of the square layout – it was known as New Bolsover, which is now the name of the road on which it sits.

Looking through a 'v' shaped archway  to a wall, stairs and then countryside behind
View through an archway.
Looking at a tall tree in the castle grounds, with a wall and the Little Castle behind. Mole hills dot the grass close to the camera.
Little Castle stands on the right, the abandoned long building to the left.
View of the Little Castle from the courtyard.
Venus statue in the courtyard, a rare working fountain from the 17th century.

I wandered round Bolsover, a nice enough town, with a pretty church and footpaths heading off down the hill if you want to explore. If you fancy a pint I’d recommend The Blue Bell, on High Street, based purely on the views – it has a beer garden perched right on the edge of the hill, so you can sit and enjoy the view. With a long drive ahead, I managed to resist temptation, though it was strong, and instead found an all-day breakfast for a fiver at a cafe in town which also did excellent cakes.

Game On Exposition, Forum, Groningen

This exhibition aims to take you through 50 years of video games with some emphasis on Dutch game makers, though not to the exclusion of classics such as Space War, Pong, Pacman and so on.

It’s on the 5th and 6th floor of the Forum (entry on 6th), in the middle of Groningen, and you’ll need a mask and covid pass with proof of identity to get in. It started on 2nd October 2021, and is currently bookable through to the end of February, which I’m presuming is the close. Tickets are €12.50 (€7.50 for students), though you can add entry to Storyworld on the same day for just an extra €2.50 (for a total of €15) to make it all bargainacious. I had to buy my ticket on the day, as going via the web is tilted to Dutch bank cards and accounts, but that was no problem. It also meant I wasn’t tied to a time slot I’d picked in advance, so on this quiet weekday (I saw no one but staff till the end, where four of us were on different machines) I just could roll up and head in.

As it’s in the Forum, there’s free wifi throughout, you just need to be able to head to forum.nl/wifi to get a code – it’s for 24 hours, so you could do that in advance if you don’t have mobile access. There are free lockers inside the exhibition so you don’t have to carry anything with you – just read the instructions more carefully than I did, or it will take you a couple of goes to set a code.

Neon lighting marks the entrance to the exhibition, with retro video games visible in cabinets behind.
The entrance.
A large info board in red with white grid lines, above give display cabinets showing items from the 70s, including converse trainers, a telephone and an etch-a-sketch.
Introductory panel and paraphernalia from the 70s.

There are some explanatory panels giving context, and some basic info about the consoles and games on show, but really this is all about playing. I think even if you came here to learn, you’d probably pick up more by actually trying out the games, but I doubt many people come in without some interest in playing games. I headed straight for Asteroids, paused briefly by Pong and then tried Sentinel for the first time.

Two cabinets hold an Atari Jaguar and Nintendo 64 console for play. Mario Kart and Sentinel are loaded and ready. Above are a Gamecube and older Atari on display only.
Atari and Nintendo.
Two cabinets hold old consoles with controllers attached for play. Sony Playstation and Sega Dreamcast, with older consoles above, display only.
Sega and Sony.

Some of the older exhibits are only for display, or are playable but fallible. I found the Puck Monster console, below, hugely exciting to get my hands on, as I had one a long time ago, but the joystick only sporadically moving left meant that playing it was not as much fun as looking at it. I wonder how many of these older exhibits were in full working order at the beginning of the exhibition, and how many stopped being fully operational a long time ago. At any rate, it’s a full-time job for someone, going round and re-connecting controllers and so on, particularly on the more temperamental of the modern pieces of kit; there was a Wii-U simulation that is used to give surgeons experience of laparoscopy, which is amazing, but the controllers are fragile. Fine if you’re showing surgeons how to be careful, maybe less so with others wandering around and trying it for fun.

Puck Monster hand held console from the 80s (?) - it's big, but can be held in two hands. A version of pac man, powered by batteries or a DC adaptor, with two game modes.
Puck Monster – Pac Man? Never heard of him.
More portable game consoles and units, for play, mostly retro, but including a Nintendo DS with a recent Pokemon.
Portable games for play.

A little knowledge is useful as you wander round, particularly at quiet times. Obviously if you’ve played a game before then you might know what you’re doing, but it’s also handy to know that if an Xbox says it’s lost contact with the controller, then you press and hold the round X button to reconnect, or on a Wii, press a button.

Three games next to one another, playable by single players. Splatoon, Super Monkeyball and Vib Ribbon.
Splatoon (2015), Super Monkeyball (2001), Vib Ribbon (2000)

I tried all sorts of games, but had the most fun with the ones I didn’t know well but that were easy to pick up. A modern “stroll about and solve puzzles” game held me for the longest, as what I should do wasn’t clear, but revealed itself with just a few moments exploration. Other games, particularly fighting games, have never been my strongpoint, and even when I realised that there was a list of which buttons did what (often at waist height – or small child height, perhaps) I didn’t get much further.

Portable Games section divided by a screen. Playable Rockband is on a console to one side.
Portable Games section.

The two floors are split into 16 sections, though they flow into each other naturally. The first floor – head downstairs once in the front door – starts with the old and heads through classics into multiplayer, while upstairs shows the portable systems, simulation and independent games but still ends with older arcade cabinets. They’ve done a good, and smart, job in making multiplayer games available periodically, not all in one place, and the same is true of most other things – you don’t go past the entrance and then run out of original classics, for instance, and I ended my visit with games of Track and Field and Pac-Man. So much is possible with emulation now that some of these games may not be running on original hardware – I couldn’t work out whether the fact that the bottom lines of Track and Field’s display had slipped out of view were because of a screen positioned wrongly, or an emulator with different aspect ration. But it didn’t matter to me – the fun is in the playing, and for me, in rediscovering old favourite controllers. There were a few ‘clicky’ microswitched joysticks to use with the Commodore 64, a variety of fighting sticks (which were my favourite for everything, but designed particularly for fighting games) and a simple joy in bashing buttons to get my athlete running faster in Track and Field.

Large red display board about connected gamers, with items from that era in display cabinets below, such as a Furby, mobile phones and trading cards.
2001 Connected Gamers

It’s a great and well-designed exhibition. It misses out all sorts of things – I’d have liked to see an Amiga and Spectrum, for instance – but that’s to be expected and besides, the joy is in the combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, rather than in seeing a whole load of things that you already know all about. Highly recommended, and even better if you can take a friend to enjoy the multiplayer games. My one recommendation is that you allow time to eat beforehand, as several hours in the exhibition on one banana left me pretty tired when I left.

I expect you’ll see that quote on a poster some time soon.

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