When I tell Americans that my grandmother is British, they usually say something like “Oh so when you visit her, you drink tea and hang out in castles?” No, she prefers coffee and — hmm. We do actually spend a lot of our time together at castles or palaces or other “stately homes,” as big country mansions are called in the UK, because we go to National Trust and English Heritage properties on day trips. This past spring, we even ended up at a giant house that looked a little familiar to me, and my grandmother casually remarked that I’d been before, for her and my grandfather’s 40th anniversary party. Because of course she had an anniversary party at a 12th-century palace.
Hartlebury Castle was built in the 13th century, and from the start was the seat of power for whoever was Bishop of Worcester at the time. Various royals have visited over the years — Mary Tudor stayed there instead of nearby Ludlow because Ludlow had the plague (a serious vacation downer); King George III and Queen Charlotte took a walk in the gardens in front of 8,000 people (what a strange zoo); and Queen Elizabeth II planted a tree here once (it’s still there). But the best royal story is when Bishop Hurd renovated an entire bedroom for the Prince of Wales to stay in, only for the prince to leave after less than an hour. Rude!
That same Bishop Hurd built a library renowned for holding many works from the Age of Enlightenment. Today, it is the only Anglican bishop’s book collection housed in the same room and shelves built for it. The photos on the website look beautiful, but when we visited, it wasn’t on one of the days the library is open to the public, so I’ll content myself with my grandmother’s memory of having cocktails there during some fancy event a few decades ago. She said it is indeed a lovely room. So there you go.
Why has my grandmother been a fairly frequent visitor of this mansion? She’s very involved with her church, and has known the last 6 bishops of Worcester through her work with the diocese. In fact, she and my grandfather were a part of the history of the palace. In the 80s/90s, my grandfather, as Chairman of the Board of Finance for the Diocese of Worcester, was tasked with finding an artist to paint Bishop Philip Goodrich’s portrait. He had decided on someone, but hadn’t yet asked him to do the job, when my grandmother said, “Dear, you’ll have to find someone else to do it. I’ve just seen the obituaries…” So the two of them drove to London and spoke with a curator in the National Portrait Gallery. They recommended an artist who’s most well known for her sculptures but does many paintings as well, Maggi Hambling. Later, once the painting was completed, they drove back to London to ferry the official portrait back to Worcestershire. The portrait tends to polarize people; I’m one of the ones who likes it, but apparently some people think it doesn’t capture Bishop Goodrich’s warmth. What do you think?
The final part of the castle is the Worcestershire County Museum, which holds a large toy gallery (including a large map of fairyland drawn by an artist according to instructions from his children), a Victorian school room, clothes from various decades, and even a display of archaeological finds, including a mammoth’s tusk! I especially liked the large display of gypsy caravans, with their bright colors and sometimes ornate carvings. The display plaques made an effort to dispel some of the racist stereotypes still repeated about travelers; dispiriting that people need a museum to remind them that others are fellow humans deserving of respect.
Stately homes nowadays are always trying to make accessible the lives of the people who used to live there, so that visitors can feel more of a connection with the place. I like the places that try to do this across class lines — introducing visitors to parlor maids as well as ladies of the house — and the ones that ambitiously try to show the changes in a house over the hundreds of years of its existence. I think it’s just what a national property open to the public should attempt, making history feel real and immediate. But history doesn’t have to be ancient; it can be much more recent than that. And different histories layer themselves on top of one another (one of my favorite themes). Going to Hartlebury with my grandmother layered the histories of the palace for me: a 1980s cocktail party in the 18th-century library; a 1990s celebratory dinner in the great hall that has held feasts since its construction in the 13th century; and a line of paintings going back hundreds of years, including one portrait driven down from London by the woman I was sharing tea with in the castle restaurant. Well, I had tea; she still prefers coffee.
Look up, because you might see something wonderful. If I were to make one of those dreadful inspirational posters, that’d be the caption and the photo would feature one of the ceilings of the National Palace of Sintra. Because “look up” might be bland life advice, but it’s just plain practical when it comes to this palace.
Sintra, a hilly region slightly northwest of Lisbon, has been used by rulers for centuries as a place to establish power and build pleasure palaces. There’s nothing left of the Al-Andalus building that was once here (luckily the so-called Moorish Castle up the hill is another UNESCO site you can visit). What remains today is a mostly medieval and Renaissance construction, with decorations and furniture ranging from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
There’s a lot of mention in the castle of the Manueline style, which looks vaguely like it’s from the Tudor period (because I live in the UK and most of my sense of this type of architecture comes from here, Tudor is my reference point), and indeed the style is named after King Manuel I, who reigned 1495-1521, overlapping with Tudors Henry VII and Henry VIII of England.
I love when you can see different fields directly influencing one another in specific historical times and places — as in, this type of literature is directly related to the political turmoil of a time, or in this case, this type of architecture is directly related to the major expeditions of exploration Portugal was making at the time. Taking elements of the Gothic style, architects in the Manueline style added influences from places Portuguese ships had ventured to — especially India (which included Islamic elements, and of course the previous rulers of Sintra were Arab Muslims, the Moors, and so it’s all intertwined). The Manueline style also incorporated elements that referenced the Age of Discovery directly, including ships, anchors, items from the sea, and botanical flourishes. (This is especially apparent in the monastery in Lisbon — stay tuned for a post on that!)
Legend has it that King João I decorated the Magpie Room as a public rebuke: his wife caught him cheating, and he had as many magpies as there were women at court painted on the ceiling of this room, not because he felt guilty but because he wanted to chastise the women who gossiped about the affair.
Most of the rooms in the palace are by now known according to what graces their ceilings: the Swan Room, the Mermaid Room, etc. One room, however, has the most boring name but the most magnificent ceiling: the Coats-of-Arms room. Manuel decorated this ceiling with the coats-of-arms of the most prominent 72 Portuguese families at the time — although a couple hundred years later, one of those was removed, because members of the Távora family were convicted of plotting against the king. Oops.
The National Palace of Sintra was in use by the Portuguese monarchy up until the founding of the Republic of Portugal in 1910, at which time it became a national monument. A few decades later it was restored, and in 1995 it was listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO as part of the Cultural Landscape of Sintra. It’s open to visitors who want to catch a glimpse of royal splendor — even if it means getting a neckache from looking up.
Porto is one of the loveliest cities I’ve been to. Colorful buildings topped with orange roofs tumble down a hillside to the Duoro River, upon which rabelos and modern boats bob gently. The Ponte Luis I arches over the water, reaching from the main city to the many port wine cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia. When I was there, the sky was never anything but blue, and the river sparkled in the sun.
I arrived near midnight and took a cab to my Airbnb. The driver was chatty, and he made a great joke. He asked where I wanted to visit, and I mentioned the bridge and the cathedral. He said something about a palace and I said that sounded good. “Well it’s really another kind of church,” he said, and chuckled. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized he was talking about the Palacio da Bolsa — the extravagant stock exchange building from 1850. Another kind of church, indeed.
I had planned to visit the Sé cathedral, but as I arrived, a police escort guided a line of black cars out to the main road, and I found the cathedral closed. When I inquired at the tourist kiosk, they said that the bishop had died just a few hours before, and as the building next door to the cathedral is the bishop’s house, everything would be closed for at least the rest of the day. As I heard a tour guide spin it to his charges, “You’re here at a historic time!”
The port wine cellars are the places that port is actually made. The grapes are harvested in the Duoro River valley and made into wine (as with champagne, you can’t call the drink port unless the grapes are grown in this specific area), then immediately shipped downriver to Vila Nova de Gaia in Porto. The fresh wine is fortified with brandy (which all the port wine companies make themselves), and then it’s fermented either in giant vats (for ruby wine) or smaller oak barrels (for white and tawny wines). Some of the barrels are later re-used by Scottish companies to age whiskey in. Port wine is about 20% alcohol and sweet; you drink white as an aperitif (before dinner), ruby with dessert (especially chocolate), and tawny as a digestif (to end your meal most perfectly).
It’s a relaxing city to sightsee in, as most of the places you want to visit are pretty close to each other, and any time you have to climb a particularly steep hill, you can stop off for a quick drink at a cafe to recover. The way you wander about town is integral to the experience of being there — climb to lookouts around the city, walk across the bridge on the upper level for the views, glide along the Nova de Gaia side of the river in the teleferico, take a boat tour under the bridges of the city.
Enjoy this short video I compiled of Porto from various points around the city.
Have you been to Porto? What was your favorite part?
Ho Chi Minh wanted his body cremated, his memory kept alive in the spirit of the soldiers still fighting the war that went on several years after his death. But the leaders left behind upon his passing on September 2, 1969 decided they needed a more visible symbol, so they embalmed his body and erected a tomb in which to display it. The tomb is modeled on Lenin’s, and as with that monument, hundreds of people file past the embalmed body every day to pay their respects.
I’d heard how strict the guards were about not allowing visitors to take photos, but we were allowed to take our cameras into the complex. The mausoleum is only open for three hours every day, and some days the line extends for ages. Luckily for me, the lines were short when I visited, so I stood under an awning for only about 20 minutes before I entered the building. Once we were in front of the building, the guards enforced the no-photos rule, so I have none of the inside.
Inside, we walked single-file past armed guards, up a ramp and into the tomb. The glass case was mounted on a pedestal in a sunken floor, and was surrounded by another four armed guards. We were ushered through quickly, just enough time to see the waxy face and uniformed body of Ho Chi Minh, an eerie Snow White in a glass coffin.
Outside, we were all encouraged to visit the palace grounds. I watched a group of schoolchildren, giggling in their little uniforms, sing a patriotic song together. I saw the outside of the palace, which had been built for French colonial rulers, was then used as the palace for Ho Chi Minh, and is now blocked off to the public.
Ho Chi Minh apparently preferred to live in a simpler building during his presidency, and that building was displayed next to his three fancy cars near the small lake down the path. A little further along was the house on stilts, an even more basic construction that he retreated to during the later part of his tenure.
How much of this humility is legend and how much is the truth of the man, I don’t know. From the little I know of Ho Chi Minh, he did seem to truly believe in the cause he was fighting for, and in the liberation he believed a unified communist state would bring to Vietnam. It’s entirely believable that a man who worked most of his life for that outcome would request cremation and be embarrassed by the mausoleum he received instead.