Wednesday, March 26, 2008

England Travelblogue: Castlemania

I've always felt that when you're traveling abroad, you ought to check out the major monuments that are very different from the types you might find back in your own home. And while aspects of England aren't terribly different from the United States, it is home to a variety of castles and other types of similar monuments that are unlike what I've seen here before.

Now people might argue that castles of some variety can be found in the United States. And true, there are quite a few estates and buildings that have been modeled to look a lot like these medieval structures. But at the end of the day, nothing beats the genuine article.

While traveling through England, I had the chance to visit two major castles as well as the incredibly famous Tower of London. All three monuments proved to be some of the most fascinating places I had a chance to visit during my trip. And each was different in its own way.

Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle, located in a town that shares its name, is one of the oldest castles in England that continues to be used today. The grounds are huge and there's plenty to see in the upper and lower wards. But while it's fun getting to see typical castle architecture up close, it's even more worth it to go inside the State Apartments, which are open for the public to see.

Right before you enter the State Apartments, you can take a look at one of the Castle's major tourist attractions — Queen Mary's Dolls' House. The doll house is a mini mansion and every little piece of it is amazingly detailed. The house is filled with miniature carpets, furniture, and books. And from what I've read, it even has a flushable toilet in there!

In addition to the doll house, you can also get a look at France and Marianne — two dolls gifted to Princesses Mary and Elizabeth in 1938 as a gesture from France — and their accompanying dresses and accessories. Both dolls were dressed more nicely than I probably ever will be in my lifetime, so I have to admit, I was pretty impressed by them.

Nonetheless, I didn't really grasp the reality of where I was until I entered the state apartments, which are lavishly decorated in a manner that seems almost otherworldly. One room is lined with old muskets and weaponry from floor to ceiling, while other rooms had a more palace-like quality. Gold trims, massive furniture, lush fabrics, and even intricately painted ceilings can be seen as you wander from room to room. And I suppose all of this should be expected when you're going through a royal castle.

But while I was wandering through either the reception hall or sitting area, one of the guides posted in the corner of the room was talking to another visitor and informing him that the bar for special events was often set up where she was standing. And that's when it hit me — Windsor Castle is one of those places where ancient traditions and modern life collide. In a way, it just seems unreal considering the world we live in today. While Windsor Castle isn't the only royal residence in the world right now, it's still a pretty unique place. In my opinion, this is definitely one of the reasons why visiting this castle is worth it.

The Tower of London
This was one of my favorite things about my trip to England and I really believe that it lives up to its hype. Since I was trying to save time, I didn't end up taking one of the Beefeater tours. But despite wandering around on my own, I was able to entertain myself enough to stick around for two to three hours. I'm sure I might have stayed longer if I didn't plan on following my agenda for the day so closely.

The Tower is a sightseer's delight — with its ancient history and ghost stories, the uneven floors, cramped medieval stairways and passageways, and the presence of Beefeaters, it's a great place for a history lesson and fun photo opportunities. While traveling through the Tower, I got a chance to see quite a few neat things, including old-style graffiti left behind by former prisoners many centuries ago. Actors were present in the medieval palace portion of the tower, staying in character even while interacting with the audiences gathering in front of them, which also added to the fun. I found myself eager to go from tower to tower, even as I grew increasingly tired from walking around.

Of course, one of the other great things about visiting the Tower is the presence of the Jewel House, home of the crown jewels. I actually really liked the way this was set up. At first, I found the house a bit intimidating because walking into it is like walking into a giant vault. However, I found it really visitor friendly in the way that each piece was arranged. By the time you hit the major jewels — such as the Kohinoor Diamond — visitors are expected to stand on airport-style moving floors. This allows them to take a look at the jewels without a problem and without blocking someone else's view. (A part of me now wishes this had been the case at the British Museum, while everyone crowded around the Rosetta Stone. It would have been useful!)

Anyway, despite traveling through the Tower pretty extensively on my own, I still feel as though that a lot more can be seen there. I definitely intend to go back at some point and maybe this time, I'll take a Beefeater tour!

Warwick Castle
This was the last actual castle I had a chance to see before my trip ended and I have to say that this too was a lot of fun. The castle grounds are absolutely beautiful (there's a mill set up in the back and though I skipped it, I also know that there happens to be a rose garden in another area).

The fun thing about Warwick Castle is the fact that you can explore it fairly extensively. I actually had a chance to venture into the dungeon, which was simultaneously fun and depressing due to its cramped, dark atmosphere. And because the castle actually belongs to the Tussauds Group now, a lot of the rooms are filled with wax figures that are meant to represent castle life. Some of these figures were actually rather creepy, but this also added an extra-fun element to the castle. In fact, I got so used to seeing wax figures everywhere, I nearly jumped out of my skin when a guide dressed as a peasant woman came skulking out of the shadows at one point!

This castle is nowhere near as large as the Tower of London or Windsor Castle, but thanks to its architecture and the presence of stocks and a dungeon on its premises, Warwick Castle has its own special charm. I hadn't really thought about going there until I planned my day trip to other destinations, but now I'm really glad I had the opportunity to check it out because every castle and fortress really is unique in its own way.

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