Thursday, August 4, 2011

The royal rundown: A note about palaces

During my time in London and Paris, I managed to see eight castles and/or palaces. In the order I visited them, they are:
  • The Tower of London
  • Windsor Castle
  • Westminster Palace (a k a the Houses of Parliament)
  • Dover Castle
  • The Louvre
  • The Palace at Versailles
  • Hampton Court Palace
  • Buckingham Palace 
I admit that palace fatigue began to set in toward the end. So I'm probably biased toward the ones I saw earlier in my travels. But here are a few quick opinions on each of the eight. Can you guess which one was my favorite?

The Tower of London: The White Tower that William the Conqueror built was finished by 1100. Inside the tower is an exhibit on weaponry, but it's hard to get a sense of what it was like as a residence. Plus, the Tower's more sordid history as a torture center and execution spot make it a huge tourist draw and therefore incredibly crowded. The Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters, give excellent tours on the half hour.

The White Tower before things got too crowded.

Windsor Castle: We visited as part of our day of "tourist nerdishness", as one of three stops on a guided coach tour. That hectic schedule left us with only about 90 minutes to view the castle and grounds, which was just enough time to view the state apartments and that's it. The audio tour was excellent, with a basic introduction to each room and then options to learn more about certain details or rituals.

Windsor Castle is still one of the official royal residences.

Westminster Palace: This palace was built by Edward the Confessor during the mid-1000s so that the devout monarch could oversee the construction of Westminster Abbey. The state openings of parliamentary proceedings would sometimes take place here beginning in the 1300s. It became the permanent home of parliament in 1512, when Henry VIII abandoned the palace after a fire. Most of the palace was rebuilt following another fire in 1834. So you don't really get the same "palace" feeling as you do with the others on this list. The guided tour was good, though I think next time we'll try to visit on a weekday while parliament is actually in session to get the full experience.

Westminster Palace has been the home of Parliament since 1512.

Dover Castle: This castle was built between 1180 and 1185 to designed for royal ceremony rather than defensive strategy. Several of the rooms are outfitted as they would have been in that time, during the reign of Henry II. It is very interesting to see the size and colorfulness of the furniture at that time. The furnishings were created over the last few years by prisoners throughout Britain, according to the Times. Multiple staff members are stationed in each room to answer any questions about the furnishings, royal life, and the castle's history. The whole experience really gave you a sense of what life was like during the 12th century.

An reproduction of a chair from the 12th century at Dover Castle.

The Louvre: It is easy to forget that the Louvre was once a royal palace, and was, in fact, turned into a museum only after the French revolution. The Museum Central des Arts opened to the public in 1793 in the Grande Galerie and the Salon Carré, before gradually taking over the entire building. Napoleon I's conquests helped "grow" the collection.

The Louvre was a palace for many years. The Pyramid is a bit more modern. Photo by zoetnet/Flickr.

The Palace at Versailles: I preferred the grounds to the palace itself, because the crowds made it almost impossible to use the audio tour or even get a good look at what was in front of you inside the residence. Even the Tower of London's crowd was a pittance compared to this. The Hall of Mirrors was my favorite thing to see, but again, I didn't really feel like I had the time or space to completely appreciate it. Plus, my knowledge of French history is much less comprehensive and therefore what I was seeing was not as meaningful.

The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace at Versailles.

Hampton Court: I expected to truly enjoy this palace, considering how much I've read about Henry VIII and his many wives (not to mention what I've watched, and we all know how painstakingly accurate The Tudors was). Plus, half of the palace was renovated by William III and Mary II in the baroque style, making it a study in two architectural styles. But the entire visit was pretty much ruined by a horrendous audio tour. I'm sure it was exactly some people's cup of tea -- one of the castle workers serves as your tour guide for the day, explaining how court life works and "introducing" you to various people and places around the castle. The hum of daily castle life fills the background. It was rather like a radio play. And it annoyed me to no end. I couldn't fast forward easily through the nonsense to get to the stuff I wanted to know. The tour about William III was slightly better, but I still preferred the more straightforward approaches of the tours at Windsor and Buckingham.

Fountain Court at Hampton Court Palace.

The Great Hall in Henry VIII's state apartments.

This intertwined H and A were for Henry and Anne Boleyn. The king ordered all of them removed after her death, but this one in the Great Hall somehow survived.

Not surprisingly, Hampton Court had impersonators walking its corridors. Henry VIII is apparently a bit flirty. I didn't get close enough to find out.

Buckingham Palace: The tour seems short, as you see only about 20 of the palace's 775 rooms. But that probably is to be expected, considering that it is the administrative headquarters of the monarch, as the Prince of Wales informs you at the start of the audio tour. Although the audio tour probably benefited from following the irritation of Hampton Court's offering, I thought it gave the right amount of information and included interviews from various castle workers to spice things up. As a bonus, the palace has an exhibit this summer on Kate Middleton's wedding dress that I thoroughly enjoyed. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed inside.

Buckingham Palace has been the official London residence of the British monarchy since 1837.

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