culture

Bits of Bavaria: Torture

In another instalment of my time living in deepest southern Germany I visit Burghausen castle’s torture museum and terrify myself.

When I was wandering around the castle last week I caught sight of a sign with the word “museum” in it, and assumed this was Burghausen’s internet-famous shrine to itself. Three rooms of rusty iron implements later and I realised what “Folter” probably meant, and that I was in fact completely alone in the city’s torture tower. Now let’s make no mistake, I am super morbid – in fact my fascination with the grisly side of the past is almost certainly the underlying reason for my history degree – but I became absolutely terrified as I climbed higher and higher and passed more and more horrible objects with their gruesome and oh-so-detailed instructional diagrams. I lost it somewhat on the third floor, after a gleeful small child opened the iron door to an oven and explained to me that this was where they burnt accused witches alive. (I don’t actually know if this was entirely accurate information, in my horror I did not read the sign before fleeing down the stairs).

The first item that greets visitors is a large phallic wooden board. This thrilled me, and I instantly whipped out my iPhone because really, what is funnier than objects that are inadvertently shaped like penises? NOTHING. I was therefore very disappointed to read the explanatory sign and diagram telling me that these were purposefully lewd stocks designed for obscenely behaved women. It turned out that the entirety of the first room was dedicated to implements for punishing sex-crazed females – the medieval ladies of Burghausen were clearly not very well behaved. I learned some interesting facts, such as that Sweden was the only nation in Europe whose men did not enforce the use of chastity belts on their wives whilst away on business trips, and exactly which historical period E.L. James got all the inspiration for that syuper accurate portrayal of the BDSM community.

I became rather panicked about ten minutes later after accidentally shutting myself in a cellar strongly resembling the location of the last scene of The Blaire Witch Project, so rushed through the remaining rooms. I did have a good laugh at a ducking-stool type affair, specifically reserved for baker’s accused of baking too small bread rolls. #medievalproblems

When I finally exited through the gift shop, I laughed rather too hysterically at a prominently displayed Amnesty poster campaigning against the use of torture, and then cycled home to nurse my mental scars.

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Samsara

BP_POS_samsara_A3_1206I watched Samsara on a big screen, and it’s the only way to do it. The film is phenomenal. Beautiful, intelligent and eye-opening, full of sequences and stills that will stick in your head for weeks and a soundtrack that crosses every continent and back again. Ron Fricke has made a film about globalisation and culture that isn’t didactic but only breath-taking, making you stop and think while your mouth hangs open. Samsara is the best film I’ve seen all year and probably longer – and all without any dialogue at all. Amazing.

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I watched Samsara at The Eye in Amsterdam, and this review is taken from my blog http://100filmsin100words.tumblr.com/ – it does exactly what it says on the tin.

Underrated European Travel Destinations

My friend Jazzy recently wrote this post about her top 10 travel destinations. Jazzy is fabulously and diversely travelled as I realised when I started to write my own version; many of her choices might not normally crop up on lists of top places to go on your hols, whereas most of my favourite cities are locations that hardly need advertisement – Amsterdam, Berlin, Havana etc. So to compromise I’ve decided to write a few instalments of some of my favourite underrated European travel destinations, and why they’re definitely worth a visit. Here’s three to begin.

Kotor, Montenegro

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This one also appears on Jazzy’s list, as it was our first stop in our travels around Montenegro with two other friends last summer. Montenegro itself is a tourist destination clawing its way into international view and is definitely worth a visit before it follows in the Czech Republic’s footsteps of becoming extortionately expensive and full of western Europeans trying to get a tan. It’s an incredibly beautiful country, and small enough that travelling its whole length and breadth by car or coach can be relatively cheap and easy, and offers some great views in the process. Kotor is perhaps the most scenic location of all, with its beautiful old town of churches and cobbled squares nestled into a mountainous bay of staggering beauty. We travelled there straight from Dubrovnik which boasts its fair share of sapphire-blue seas and delicious architecture, but Kotor still took my breath away.

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We only made it halfway up the old city walls, but the view was absolutely stunning and the next day we kayaked and swam through the wonderfully warm waters of the bay itself. Our first night also happened to coincide with the annual festival of “Bokoljska Night”, where the whole town turns into a party and we all danced the night away on our hostel’s balcony overlooking packed squares and drinking Rakia (a most hideous spirit that the country adores). Montenegrans are incredibly friendly and keen for visitors to enjoy their country and tell everyone at home how great Montenegro is, so every person we met was most hospitable; despite a town-wide power cut on our last night we still managed to feast on some of the best mussels I’ve ever had in a lovely little candle-lit restaurant. Really really recommend, along with the rest of the country.

Burghausen, Germany

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This is cheating a bit as I did not travel to Burghausen but was instead based in a village outside the city for five months last year. Having lived in the general area I can attest that its charms (although not to be sniffed at) are finite, and can be fully enjoyed in a visit of a couple of days – definitely in the summer. Perched on deepest Bavaria’s border with Austria (you can literally walk across a bridge into another country), Burghausen is home to an enormous chemical factory that employs most if its 20, 000 residents, and (rather more interestingly) the longest castle in the world. It’s also got a great little youth hostel, a scenic old town, and is surrounded by miles of beautiful countryside. There are loads of fantastic cycle routes to villages and particularly spectacular churches in the region, or if you prefer into the nearby monastery town of Raitenhaslach that is not only beautiful but serves up a great ice-cream sundae. If you’re culturally inclined and own a pair of lederhosen, then the annual drunken Mayweis’n shindig and erection of the traditional Bavarian may pole in the spring are events  not to be missed.

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However, in my view the best part of Burghausen is without a doubt its summer lake. It lies right beneath the castle flanked by castle walls, trees and a gunpowder tower, and makes for the perfect spot to laze a warm day away amid occasional dips into the water – or even a lap around the whole thing in a pedalo or a kayak. It’s a real hotspot in the summer months because it’s just such a delighful place to be. There are ping pong tables and volleyball courts and a cafe for you to sample a standard terrible German sandwich (or play it safe with chips and a beer), but the lake is long enough that if you want some alone time you can swim right out to one of its rafts or interesting sculptures and sunbathe undisturbed. My favourite thing to do is to while away an entire afternoon there until dusk, then climb back up to the castle and watch the sun set over the city. Fantastic.

Esztergom, Hungary

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I went to Budapest on an orchestral tour a couple of summers ago, and loved it. Its virtues do not need to be extolled as it is well-known to Europeans as super fantastic and great in every way, but I had never even heard of Esztergom before I visited Hungary, and probably never would have done if our lead second violinist hadn’t dragged us all off on the train to this city 30 miles outside of the capital. It’s quite a sight. The Estergezom Basilica is the largest church in Hungary, and is extremely spectacular – we spent most of our time there, exploring the outside and the inside and marvelling at views of the structure from every possible angle. The church and city have a rich history featuring siege and conquest and intrigue and enormous amounts of religious wealth that is still palpable.

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Although I’m a sucker for a good view, perhaps my favourite part of my visit of Esztergom was strolling across the Maria Valeria bridge into Slovakia. I love to walk over borders – isn’t that the joy of a united Europe? – and the view offered from another country was even more spectacular. I didn’t explore very much of the rest of the city and this was probably a good thing… a railway strike and an unexpectedly long walk meant only just catching the last on bus towards Budapest . The joys of central European public transport.

Coming up next: Grenoble, Utrecht, and many more…

London in 48 Hours

London. Capital of culture and pigeons. I grew up in London, and I feel that makes it inherently difficult for me to make the most of it. When you’re given one of the greatest cities in the world on a plate, can hop on the tube and be in the largest centre of freely accessible museums and galleries within half an hour, it’s an effort to actually make the effort (#firstworldproblems). But what I have found is that if I give myself short bursts of exposure to my capital I tend to cram in a lot more than I otherwise would have done.

Friday

Spent the morning doing very boring things like seeing the dentist and getting my hair cut, before visiting Hammersmith’s Polish Centre’s cafe for a beverage and a questionable piece of cake. Sometimes the joys of the suburban west need to be savoured too. My proper Londoning began at midday when my mum and I headed into town to check out the National Portrait Gallery’s Vivien Leigh exhibit, and lunch at a new favourite restaurant just off Trafalgar Square.

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Les Deux Salons is by now right up there in the list of my top London eateries. The food is always delish (and not even that overpriced), the setting unpretentious, and the cocktails carry a kick and a half. This time round I had a fantastically smoky butternut squash and chorizo soup, followed by grilled chicken and delightfully nutmeggy gratin dauphinois. Perf.

After lunch we had a leisurely stroll through some of our favourite Covent Garden backstreets before heading towards the British Museum and our goal of the relatively new “Vikings: life and legend” exhibit. With a British membership card at hand we flounced right in, to be met by a crowd of such vastness that we instantly turned tail and ran, promising to return the next day at a more favourable hour.

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At this point we went our separate ways, and I caught up with a friend over porn star martinis before fighting through the crowds at Leicester Square station. Literally the worst. Finished off my evening with a pint and a pal in a Chiswick pub that I had never tried before (we all have our regulars) but will certainly be patronising from now on. The Bollo is full of dusty paperbacks and pineapple shaped table lamps – the only things I look for in a drinking establishment.

Saturday

We dragged ourselves out of the house at half 9 to avoid the same nightmare of tourists (surely the collective noun) that had plagued our afternoon the day before, and were rewarded with a slightly less crowded exhibit. Although inherently a little disappointing (I complain in full over here), I got to gawp at some objects I’d previously only seen in my books, and also acquired a longship necklace as accessorising is the sole way of expressing academic rigour. We went up to the members’ lounge to revel in the birds’ eye view of what remains one of my fave Norman Foster constructions (and that’s saying something), and discuss funding options for my summer internship over tea and scones. It was unashamedly middle class and I loved it. We then wandered off to Lincoln’s Inn Fields where my mum went and did something at the Royal College of Radiologists’ HQ and I went to look at things floating in jars at the Hunterian Museum. Things floating jars are my favourite sort of things.

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Having stared at preserved bits and pieces for long enough we indulged ourselves in a wander around quiet Bloomsbury squares and then hit up Les Deux Salons for the second time in 24 hours (we are nothing if not creatures of habit); I had an amazing pea and mint soup and a killer burger and chips. Treating ourselves continued after eating with a viewing from a BOX of Jeeves and Wooster at the Duke of York – although much as I love P.G. Wodehouse and the episode of the cow creamer I was not particularly impressed. It was rather too slap-stick for my liking, and Stephen Mangan’s normally impeccable comedic timing was rather muted by the self-aware script, all the more obvious through a fantastic piece of improvised banter with an audience member halfway through. We did luxuriate in our fancy seating though, and followed it up with a cocktail at Joe’s Southern Bar and Grill. It’s a surprisingy fantastic underground affair off Covent Garden where we were met by a friend briefly in town from Berlin, before it was time to battle solo into Leicester Square again and head towards Caledonian Road for dinner.

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My friend Rosie lives in a fab little house just off the Cally Road, almost always full of great housemates and loads of food. She cooked us a roast chicken with her trademark sweet potato wedges, and we discussed our travel plans around the US of A this summer and re-visited her stick and poke tattoo from a drunken evening with sk8er bois in Seattle on her gap yah. What a pleasure it is to have interesting friends. We finished off the evening by watching the whole of Beyonce’s new album videography, and then strapping on the house supply of roller skates to attempt her impossible choreography. A rare treat.

Sunday

A morning spent enjoying my coveted double bed and then meeting some gal pals at a Mexican restaurant in Victoria for fajitas and sangria. A long weekend well spent; when I know I have such a limited time in my home town it really jump-starts me into seeking out everyone who’s around and enforcing my company upon them. It’s nice to live in an amazing city, and it’s nice to have nice friends, and it’s nice to take the time to appreciate all of these things all together.

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