Another one off the bucket list: An El Clásico in the Santiago Bernabéu

I honestly still can’t believe it. It really still feels like I dreamed it all up. I was in Madrid. I went to the Santiago Bernabeu. I watched an El Clásico.

So, yes, I am writing about this here partly to convince myself that I was there. It happened. One of my wildest dreams came true.

When I found out I was going to be sent to the UK for three months for work, one of the first things I did was to check the La Liga calendar. My heart started racing at the realization that I will be in Europe for the second El Clásico of the season. And it was going to be in Madrid. I was all in a tizzy, and that was maybe four or five months before I even left for the UK, before I even made the final decision to go.

There was no question of me wanting to go, of course. But the El Clásico is arguably the biggest league match in Europe, if not the world, and tickets are hard to come by. Even if any become available, the prices are enough to make even the most ardent fans balk. It was not an easy decision to make, but as my friends pointed out, it was a golden opportunity. I was in Europe at the same time as an El Clásico! When else will that ever happen again (without even more expense on my part, that is)? And so after some considerable stress with the Real Madrid website (why is there no confirmation page when you purchase via the English site, huh, Madrid?) and some Google Translate, I was the tearful, hysterical owner of a pitch-side ticket to the match of my dreams.

And the tears came flowing again as the stadium slowly loomed large while we were driving down Av. de Concha Espina, on the way out of the city for some sightseeing. I couldn’t help myself to request my hosts that we drop by the stadium for some photos, even if I was going to be back for the match that evening and for the stadium tour the following afternoon.

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I guess it goes without saying that there were more tears.

Fortunately, I managed to get a hold of myself for the match. I did not tear up, although my stomach was in knots and my hands were clammy. I was surprised I did not lose my shit as I took my seat. Everything about the Bernabeu, the scale of it, the noise, the fans, was overwhelming. It was bigger, louder, and crazier than anything I imagined. It was perfect.

I have photos of the team’s warm-up and during the pre-match ceremonies. When the match got started, however, it was hard managing a camera and trying to keep up with what was going on across the pitch. I finally decided to give up and focus on the game, to watch it through my own eyes and not through my camera’s tiny screen.

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It was thrilling to watch the team I have watched so many times on television live, in the flesh. It’s unbelievable how much quicker everyone is in person versus on TV, Gareth Bale in particular (fine, ok, Messi was great, too).

 

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We didn’t win the three points, but the match was fantastic. Ending 3-4, it has been called by pundits as the best Clásico in recent memory. And I was grateful to have been there for it.

That wasn’t the end of my Real Madrid experience, though. The next afternoon, I went on the Real Madrid stadium tour. I was awed by the size of the Bernabeu the night before, when it was filled to the rafters with fans. But it looks even bigger when it’s empty in the daylight.

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The tour starts almost from the very top of the stadium, and you work your way down. It includes the the team museum. And while the museum is a little too self-important and self-congratulatory even as team museums go, there are little gems to be found, like the shoes on the left: Zinedine Zidane’s boots from the La Novena final, no longer our LAST Champions League title . How wonderful it is to be able to say that.

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From the museum, you make your way down the stands to pitch-side level. Then it’s up again to the President’s box, from where this shot was taken:

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I didn’t realize that the tour included the team’s locker rooms. Imagine my shock when I entered a door found myself facing a row of toilets, followed by these:

 

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Any fan could imagine what kind of thoughts were buzzing around in my head at the sight of the team showers and sauna. It was fascinating to me that these facilities were part of the tour. Apart from the icky thought that hundreds, probably thousands, of visitors walk through what is basically someone’s bathroom and closet… well, let’s just say there were other thoughts.

However, my favorite part of the tour were the lockers. It blows my mind that I was standing there, in the same room where the likes of Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti give their half-time talks/sermons, where titles were drunkenly celebrated, or losses mourned. This was only a place I read about where Sergio Ramos played his (probably questionable) music,

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and where the incomparable Xabi Alonso used to hang (sob!) his impeccable clothes,

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and where Cristiano hangs his awful Gucci belts.

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After spending as much time as one reasonably can staring at lockers, I was off down the tunnel. It was surreal walking up and down the same steps the players do before and after each match.

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The stairs bring you right to the player benches and the centerline of the pitch. I am a little ashamed to say how much time I spent just standing there, taking it all in, and also waiting for the Real Madrid TV crew who were doing an interview in the middle of the pitch to clear out so that I can take my photos with a near-empty pitch:

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I am still in awe of the entire experience, and part of me still can’t believe it, even when I have pictures to prove that one of my wildest dreams has come true. I was there, amidst the Madridistas, cheering my team on against our greatest rivals. I was there, where some of the greatest players of the world have walked through and bathed, where history has been made, where dreams have been fulfilled, where hearts have been broken. I was there. And in a way, I always will be.

Hala Madrid!

My London Food Diary

I have already documented what I consumed in Paris for Pepper, and now it’s time to show London some love.

Burger and Lobster – Knightsbridge (multiple branches)

As the name of the restaurant suggests, Burger and Lobster serves only two things. The lobster, however, they serve either whole or in a lobster roll. I chose the latter partly because my first encounter with it went so well, and partly because I didn’t want to deal with the mess of a full lobster.

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For 20 GBP, you get the lobster roll, fries, a small salad, and bottomless lemon butter sauce. The lobster roll seems to be a cross between a Connecticut and a Maine roll. There’s mayo, of course, but there’s also a lot of buttery and lemony flavor. I love Maine-style lobster rolls, so I would’ve preferred a touch more mayonnaise. Or, judging from how good the lemon butter sauce was, going full-on Connecticut might’ve been a good idea, too. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy this. The lobster meat was delicious, sweet, and tender. The brioche “bun”, generously buttered, was particularly good. Even the side salad of peppery arugula and onions helped balance everything out. It’s a little pricey, but it was worth two visits from me.

The Knightsbridge branch doesn’t accept reservations, but their other branches do so try to get one if you can. Or you might end up waiting a very long time.

Shake Shack

Shake Shack is obviously not original to London, but I could not, could not miss an opportunity to eat at the Shack and finally get to try the famous Shack Stack.

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I was worried the breaded mushroom would be overpower the beef patty, but it didn’t. The mushroom patty was done perfectly, the crust crispy and not greasy at all. I liked how the crunch contrasted with all the other textures in the burger. There were some consistency issues, however. The beef from my Stack from my second visit was a little bland and did get lost in everything that was going on. The other two times, however, I was quite satisfied with my burger.

I finally also had one of Shake Shack’s famed milkshakes. I ordered a strawberry milkshake and paid a little extra to get it malted. It was the thickest, creamiest milkshake I have ever had but it was too sweet and too rich for my taste.

Four Seasons Chinese Restaurant – Gerrard Street (multiple branches, reservations a must)

One of the disadvantages of traveling and eating alone is that you don’t get to try  a lot of what a restaurant has to offer. Hence, my friends and I took advantage of the time we had together to eat family style at Four Seasons in Chinatown.

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We took full advantage of the opportunity, as you can see. The highlight of the meal was the roast duck. I’m no expert on the fowl, but my friend who sees Donald Duck and thinks “yum!” thinks very highly of Four Seasons’. Everything was good, though, and it was a little embarrassing of how little was left of the food above after the four of us (yes, there were only four of us) were done eating.

The Breakfast Club – Soho (multiple branches)

My first try at eating at The Breakfast Club’s Soho branch was a failure. The line and the wait was too long and I was too hungry to wait. There was still a line on my second attempt, but it was a much more manageable one, and within twenty minutes, I was in.

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The line is not because is the food is life-changingly good. There’s a wait to get in because the menu of breakfast classics is well done, cheap, and served in generous portions. There was nothing groundbreaking about my plate of French toast with bacon and bananas. It tasted exactly as I expected it to taste, and sometimes, that’s all you need.

The Riding House Cafe

Another lovely spot for breakfast in Soho was The Riding House Cafe. I chose their buttermilk pancakes mainly because it came with vanilla clotted cream. I was a little wary when it was served to me because the top of the pancakes looked tough, reminding me of English muffins.

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One slice in, however, and all my fears were allayed. The pancakes were tender, light, and fluffy despite their crusty-looking exteriors. The berry compote was wonderfully lumpy and refreshingly tart, it cut through the richness of the clotted cream beautifully. The English sausages I ordered on the side for some saltiness in my meal were also excellent, garlicky and herb-y.

The Diner

My friend and I ended up at Camden after leaving that long Breakfast Club line. I was still in the mood for breakfast food, so I suggested The Diner when we passed it. I vaguely remember reading about it while researching brunch spots in London.

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I ordered the Mexican Breakfast Pan loaded with chorizo, sauteed potatoes, baked eggs, salsa, beans, guacamole, jalapenos, and cheese. It was a lot, but I thoroughly enjoyed this. There was so much going on, that each mouthful was different, and that’s a good thing. My favorite part of the plate was the salsa and the jalapenos, since they brightened everything else on the plate. They contrasted the creaminess of the guac, the richness of the eggs, and the starchiness of the potatoes. I maybe would’ve loved a squeeze of lime or lemon juice over the entire thing just for the citrus-y kick, but then I say that about a lot of things.

The Diner is also known for their milkshakes. While I didn’t have one, my friend did. The staff kindly customized a peanut butter-hazelnut one for her and the sounds she made while slurping it were… well, let’s just say I knew it was amazing, even without tasting it.

Duck and Waffle (reservations a must)

I guessed Duck and Waffle was a popular restaurant even before my friend and I called for a reservation. Our 10:30pm slot for dinner confirmed that. One of the reasons for its popularity is the fact that it is on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower, offering spectacular views of Central London.

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We were seated right across from The Gherkin, with a view of the Thames and Tower Bridge. While the views took my breath away, I started to worry if that was all the restaurant was about. That Duck and Waffle was popular and a tad pricey mainly because of its location and its touristic value.

Hence, I was a little wary digging into my plate of, naturally, Duck and Waffle. It was half a waffle, duck leg confit, a fried duck egg, and mustard maple syrup. The waffle was nothing remarkable, not that I expected the world from a waffle. The star of dish was the confit, crispy, juicy, savory. With the runny yolk, some waffle and the sweet syrup, it made for quite a bite. I’d come back for this, even if the restaurant was in the basement of the building.

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My apologies for the poor shot, but the lighting was very dim.

There were several other places and things that I tried that didn’t make it here mostly because I didn’t get to photograph them (my excellent takeaway burger from Five Guys comes to mind). There were some things that weren’t bad at all, but weren’t really worth writing home about. But overall, my experience with London food was great, and there really is no reason everyone’s shouldn’t be. If you’re going to London, forget about what’s been said about how bad the food there is, do your research, go beyond fish and chips, and London will surprise you.

 

Burger and Lobster – Knightsbridge
Fifth Floor Harvey Nichols,

109 – 125 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7RJ

Four Seasons Chinese Restaurant
12 Gerrard St,
London W1D 5PR

Shake Shack
24, Market Building, The Piazza,

Covent Garden, London WC2E 8RD

The Breakfast Club – Soho
33 D’Arblay St,
London W1F 8EU

The Riding House Cafe
43-51 Great Titchfield St,
London W1W 7PQ

The Diner
2 Jamestown Road,
London NW1 7BY

Duck & Waffle
Heron Tower
110 Bishopgate, London EC2N 4AY

 

I’d put up with English weather for this…

Whether it’s a picnic with friends, a stroll for two, or some alone time on a bench with a book, there are few things lovelier than time spent in London’s many wonderful parks.

As enjoyable a time as I had exploring the city’s food, museums, and palaces, I probably miss the wide, green expanses of the city’s Royal Parks the most.

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Green Park

 

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St. James’s Park

 

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Regent’s Park

 

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Regents’ Park

 

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St. James’s Park

 

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St. James’s Park

 

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Regents’ Park

 

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Regents’ Park

I’m starting to feel an actual ache in my heart just looking at these pictures.

I’d be willing to put up with the crazy, unpredictable weather if it meant that I get to spend the lovely days lying in the grass with a book at any of the parks. I can’t believe I just said that, but it’s true.

God, I miss London’s parks.

 

Salmon Baked in Foil and Sauteed Spinach

One of the things I was excited about during my three month stay in the UK was shopping in the supermarkets. I looked forward to the array of produce and ingredients I did not have access to in Manila, at least not at reasonable prices.

As excited as I was to shop and cook, though, I had to be more thoughtful about what I chose to make at home. In the Philippines, I had at least five other people to feed, so baking pans full of baked pasta or chicken thighs were not an issue. But the same approach would not work for me in England. It’s not possible to cook just half a lasagne without having to either buy a brand new baking dish, risk a half-open box of pasta going bad, or eat the same thing for a week straight. Hence, I had to look for recipes that were adaptable and practical to cook for just me and my roommate.

I zeroed in on salmon recipes, as fillets of Scottish salmon were available in convenient pairs at Waitrose and Tesco. Maybe because I’ve seen them cooked that way in some cooking show, I Googled “salmon baked in foil” and the first search result was this recipe by Giada de Laurentiis.

The flavors were right up my alley so I decided to give it a go. I’ve never cooked salmon before this, so I was a little nervous, but I figured things couldn’t go that bad with tomatoes, lemon, thyme and oregano.

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I was right. The result was tender, moist, flaky salmon infused with all the flavor from the herbs and lemon. Despite zero marinating time and a short bake in the oven, the fish is quite flavorful. Another plus is that it takes only about 45 minutes to make this dish from start to finish.

To accompany this dish I chose  Garlic Sauteed Spinach from Ina Garten because the the Food Network site said it only took 10 minutes to make. It’s as straightforward as it sounds, it’s spinach sauteed with a lot of garlic, but with the special Ina Garten touch: butter. As much as I adore butter, I wasn’t too sure about how well it would go with spinach, of all things. But I never should have doubted Ina. I now make amends for my lack of faith by adding more butter than the recipe calls for.

 

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I make the spinach about fifteen minutes into the cooking of the salmon, so that they are both done at the same time. If the salmon is done before you’re finished making the spinach, don’t sweat it, just take the pan with the foil parcels out of the oven, the fish will stay warm as long as you don’t open the packages. I’d rather have the fish waiting for the spinach than the other way around, because the veg is best when served immediately.

But both are so easy to make, though, you’ll probably work out the timing to have them done at the same time by your second or third go at them. The other wonderful thing about these dishes is that making them for two or six doesn’t really result in that much more work and time, you’ll just have to slice a bit more tomato and garlic.

These two recipes make for a very quick, easy, and, lovely meal (I would’ve said “healthy” too, but I think the amount of butter I top my spinach with prevents me from saying that). I was surprised at how something that took so little time and effort could yield such elegant results.

Now if only finding fresh, affordable salmon in Manila was just as easy and quick.

Chatsworth House, part 3

Chatsworth’s grounds and gardens are as well-known as the actual house, and it’s not hard to see why.

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This is one of the many beautiful statues on the grounds. In the distance, you could see the famous Cascade. Unfortunately for me, the Cascade was being repaired while I was there (you can see the bright blue tarp) so even if I was able to get up close, I didn’t take any photos of it.

 

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Fans of the 2005 Pride & Prejudice movie will remember this spot for the awkward yet utterly charming conversation between Darcy and Elizabeth when she visits Pemberley, not knowing Darcy was home. It is one of my favorite scenes in the movie with both actors playing their embarrassment and awkwardness so well. Unfortunately, this was as close to the spot as I could get, as the steps and the entire southern front of the house is restricted from visitors (you’ll see why later).

 

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Really, how beautiful is that lane? I can’t tell you how long I stood there, just staring and taking it all in.

 

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Art installations tucked away in surprising corners of the grounds.

 

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The view of the estate from the bottom of the Cascade.

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A wider view: The Emperor Fountain, the house, the greenhouses from the Cascade.

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Despite my disappointment that the south front of the house was closed off from visitors, I understood why they did it when I was taking the above shot. It’s a much, much better picture without random people dotting it.

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But this is the money shot, no? The house, the Canal Pond, and the Emperor Fountain. If only the sky cooperated.

Overcast skies notwithstanding, my time at Chatsworth was some of the most memorable of my entire trip. The House, the grounds, the gardens, and the entire estate were even more beautiful than I have imagined them to be and that’s saying something, as I’ve idealized it as Pemberley in my head. But even without its associations with my favorite book, movie, and fictional characters, Chatsworth’s sheer scale, grandeur and, natural beauty make it worth the detour to Derbyshire even for those who have never seen or read Pride and Prejudice.

I daresay it will even be worth a second visit.

 

 

PS: I have an entire album of photos from Chatsworth on my flickr, in case you want to see more or if you want to see the panoramic shots better.

 

Of Tea and Scones

I have complained about the English weather and now, I am writing about tea. Obviously, my time in England has made an impression on me.

I used to not like tea. I wrinkled my nose at it and called it “flavored water.” Then I had a cream tea at the quaint  Copper Kettle Tea Rooms in Bamburgh, and my opinions on scones and tea have been changed forever.

First, on cream teas. They are not, as I first thought, tea poured with cream instead of milk (although that sounds like that could be delicious). A cream tea is a pot of tea served with one or two scones, cream (preferably clotted cream) and jam. While a full afternoon tea spread is quite lovely for a special occasion, I prefer cream teas, especially when it comes with an excellent scone.

And an excellent scone… well. I used to think that the ones I used to get at the poorly named chain French Baker were quite good, especially the chocolate chip one. They were hefty and doughy, and I actually liked that about them. But as I found out in the UK, those were not scones, not in the true definition of the word. Because proper scones are anything but hefty and doughy.

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The Copper Kettle Tearooms, Bamburgh, Northumberland

They are light, moist, and crumbly. They break apart at the slightest tug of your fingers, but they stand up to the light pressure of cream and jam spreading. And the ones from The Copper Kettle Tearooms were rounds of tender, buttery perfection that I will measure all scones against.

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Afternoon tea from Jesmond Dene House, Newcastle

The scones from afternoon tea at Jesmond Dene House were not up to the Copper Kettle’s standards, but the rest of their afternoon tea spread was quite nice. I particularly loved the traditional sandwiches: egg and cress, roast beef with rocket and horseradish, salmon and cucumber, and cheese and pickled apple. Afternoon tea is not something I would do on a regular basis because it is quite indulgent, but it is quite a lovely experience. I see why it’s such a popular thing to do, especially between groups of girlfriends. It’s bonding and chatting over dainty food and (typically bottomless) drink, in picturesque, refined settings. What’s not to love?

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Cavendish Hotel, Baslow

But if I’m being honest, I have the tea to have the scones to have the clotted cream and jam (because clotted cream is awesome and it deserves its own post). But that’s not to say that I haven’t changed my mind about tea, because I have (I only love clotted cream more). As it turns out, I only needed a healthy pour of milk and some sugar to appreciate tea as more than “flavored water.” To my tastebuds, at least, the flavors of tea come to the fore with the creaminess of the milk, and, to my surprise, I’ve come to love those flavors.

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My surprisingly excellent DIY cream tea at the Newcastle International Airport lounge

So even if I don’t have rich, thick, sweet clotted cream or the soft, buttery scones to spread it on, I’ll have tea anyway.

Chatsworth House, part 2

As beautiful as my first visit was, the highlight of my time in Chatsworth was of course my tour of the house and garden. So in my second post on Chatsworth, I take you with me to my favorite parts of the house.

The tour of the house starts from the northern side of the building. You are welcomed to the tour by some very friendly guides and by this imposing Weeping Ash tree.

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I can only imagine how pretty this tree is with all its leaves. I’ve only ever seen Weeping Willows and I’ve never seen one that goes as high up as this Ash.

From the main entrance and ticketing area, your tour starts almost immediately in what is the most remarkable room of the house, the Painted Hall.

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Fans of the 2005 Pride & Prejudice film will remember this as the starting point of Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth’s tour of Pemberley, led by the housekeeper. Elizabeth almost got left behind by her group because she was staring in awe of this room. I don’t blame her one bit.

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The tour includes a visit to the State Apartments created for the visit of King William II and Queen Mary II, which never happened. The State Apartment windows face the Emperor Fountain and the Canal Pond and, of course, the verdant landscape of the estate.

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The view from the windows of the State Apartments. Can you imagine waking up to this?

The other room in the house of historical significance is the State Dining Room, where Queen Victoria once dined.

 

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Look at that ceiling!

But because I am a bigger bookworm than I am a history nerd, I was far more impressed by the library, one of six in the house, housing the collection of 17,000 volumes amassed by the first seven Dukes. This collection includes books from half a millennium ago, so the room is always kept under low light. Access is restricted and visitors are only able to survey the library from the door. If I wasn’t afraid of being kicked out of the house, I would have loved to walk along the shelves to just look at (not even touch!) the books.

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Just down the hallway from the library is my favorite sculpture in the Chatsworth collection, if not in the world. Not that I know a lot about sculpture, but I think the Veiled Vestal is stunning.

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Carving stone to realistically look like soft, flowing fabric must be difficult enough. To work it and make it look like a thin, delicate veil over the gentle features of the vestal virgin is just amazing. You can even make out the waves of her hair on her forehead under the veil.

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Isn’t she breathtaking?

But the Veiled Vestal is just one of the many remarkable sculptures in Chatsworth. The Sculpture Gallery is the last part of the house tour, and it showcases the Devonshires’ collection rather beautifully.

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The room used to be more heavily decorated with rich tapestries and curtains which were removed during filming for Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice. Inspired by the changes made for the movie, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire decided to make them permanent. They redecorated (or, to be more accurate, un-decorated) the Sculpture Gallery to match the 6th Duke’s original and simpler designs for the room. I think the bare walls and almost monochromatic scheme (I do dislike those pink boxes) rightly puts the focus on the pieces of art.

 

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The Sleeping Endymion by Antonio Canova

 

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Hebe by Antonio Canova

 

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There was one key bust that was missing from the gallery. In the movie, Elizabeth gets lost in thought in front of the bust of Mr. Darcy in the Sculpture Gallery. While it is no longer alongside the more notable pieces of art, it is still in the house. Chatsworth retained the bust as a souvenir, and it is currently displayed in a corner of the Orangerie shop, beside the Austen-related items for sale.

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It may not be by Antonio Canova and may not have been deemed worthy of a place in the gallery, but this definitely has a special place in my heart. As tempted as I was I did as I was requested and did not kiss it, though.

A little Darcy/McFadyen ogling was a fitting end to the visit to (his) house. The next part of my tour was a visit the magnificent gardens, which I’ll try to do justice to in my next post.