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Travel Can Be Torture: Prisons

In more than 10 years of my “Been There, HAVEN’T Done That” columns,

I’ve taken you to the best sites. Now I’m taking you to the worst – Prisons.


There are many different types of prisons around the world waiting to be explored from the more famous such as San Francisco’s Alcatraz – now one of that city’s greatest attractions — to France’s similar venue – Devil’s Island. Even the City of Brotherly Love – the city that gave us Liberty (the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution) has the Eastern State Penitentiary where instead of hearing gangster rap – you see where a gangster got a rap – Al Capone’s over-decorated prison cell.


In addition to the infamous — prisons also attract the rich and famous. Many of history’s greatest have been prisoners in such places as South Africa’s most famous prison Robben Island which – like Alcatraz and Devil’s Island – was also an island. It’s where Nelson Mandela was prisoner under apartheid. My tour of Robben Island was “living history” – my guide (and every guide) is a former political prisoner. So you hear their story firsthand. 


Many buildings were deliberately constructed as prison. Some prisons are merely sections of buildings. Many prisons were built into the foundations of lavish residences – castles and palaces. Many prisons are museums that tourists can visit. Prisons fall under many sightseeing categories – many became museums focusing on history. Many focus on celebrity – featuring many famous – and infamous — people who were incarcerated. Many are dungeons and torture museums. And there are even prisons where people pay to stay such as the Liberty Prison in Boston – now the “Liberty Hotel”


Does it make me a sadist if I discuss my favorite prisons? However, I become a sadist every time I lead tourists to a medieval “Donjon” right in Paris where its most famous guest was the world’s most famous sadist – “The Marquis de Sade” himself. The prison of Paris’ medieval 14th-century Chateau de Vincennes — located in the bucolic Parc de Vincennes — was a veritable “Who’s Who” of French History – or rather “Who was Who” – since not all prisoners made it out alive. The Marquis de Sade saw the handwriting on the wall – or rather his graffiti on his cell’s wall — along with countless others’. (Yes, prison-cell graffiti reading is an added sightseeing bonus.) Also imprisoned at Vincennes were Voltaire and the WWI spy, Mata Hari, who was also executed there.


Right in the center of Paris is another former medieval palace that became a prison – not for long-term sentences – but usually for just one-nighters – prisoners’ last night on earth before their appointment with the doctor – Dr. Guillotine. Seeing Marie Antoinette’s cell – and the guillotine blade that killed her – brings the sad fate of her death to life.


One of my favorite cities is Venice – where you don’t cross the streets — you cross the canals ‘ bridges. And from the 15th century on – if you crossed the Doge himself — you’ll wind up crossing his palace’s “Bridge of Sighs” -– sighing from painful torture acquired from within. After touring the gigantic lavish rooms frescoed by Venice’s great “Mannerist ” (painting style after the Renaissance) painters –you’’ll wind up in the basement — the prison. However, if you take the Doge’s Palace’s “Secret Tour” – you’ll also wind up in the attic where the worst torture – and hangings – actually took place. (But is it really a “Secret Tour” anymore if you can now book online?)


While I believe that showing man’s inhumanity to man (and to be politically correct “women’s inhumanity to women) – torture — can greatly increase popularity – and profitability. I also believe that the torture-viewing experience should be genuine, not commercial. One of my favorite Tuscan towns, San Gimignano — with its many medieval towers – has a purposely-built museum of torture that you can enter from the street like a store where you buy off the rack. However, at this type of commercial establishment, you can also – as a souvenir – buy the rack! While I was facetious with “women’s inhumanity to women” – this Tuscany Torture Museum actually shows “Man’s inhumanity to Women” – with special torture designed just for women. 


(In the heart of Rome — in what used to be a former tomb (how convenient for victims of torture) that became a lavish Papal Residence with a prison in the dungeon – is the famous Castle St. Angelo – formerly Hadrian’s Tomb.) 


Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany — one of the most beautiful walled cities in the world – also has an ersatz Torture Museum – the Medieval Crime and Justice Museum – which displays the cruelest instruments of pain in one of the most peaceful locations imaginable – a church cloister — the Cloister of St. Johannes Church. It really did inflict pain on me – paying for something that was commercial and totally out of place. Thank God (church-cloister pun intended) they didn’t make it even more crass by making it a 21st-century interactive museum with an “electric sofa” replacing the antiquated electric chair. However, in addition to the ubiquitous rack, I did see some eye-opening exhibits and eye closing exhibits such as “The Nuremburg Maiden” – a coffin with knives that penetrates the perpetrator when closed. And something unique that I found to publically shame the wearer – “The Mask of Shame.” A twist of fate – wearing a mask in medieval times was a “Shame.” Whereas in our 2021 Pandemic world — wearing NO Mask is Shame!


Gravenstein Castle in Ghent, Belgium is at once a wonderful example of a fortified castle – in a moat – in the center of a city. And it’s the actual place where actual torture was inflicted in its actual dungeon. Seeing torture instruments in places where the torture was administered adds an even greater sense of horror – combined with a sense of history.


A torture chamber that has history and literary history is the Medieval Chillon Castle in Switzerland. Its dungeon and torture chamber inspired Lord Byron to write his epic poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon.” The castle’s location — rising over a lake – is so peacefully picturesque – it contrasts greatly with the torment inflicted in its dungeon.


One of my favorite cities, St. Petersburg Russia, has one of the world’s most fascinating prisons in the 18th-century of Peter and Paul Fortress where even Peter the Great was not so great when it came to his son and heir, Tsarevich Alexis. While Alexis was the prodigal son — Peter the Great turned out to be a prodigal son-of-a-bitch father – who had his son tortured to death in the prison in the Peter and Paul Fortress. 


In the 20th century the Peter and Paul Prison had a revolving door. Anarchists who plotted against the tsars and his ministers were held and even tortured there — including Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Ulanov (Lenin’s brother) and Trotsky. And then — after the Bolshevik’s October (1917) Revolution – it was the tsar’s minsters and Romanovs – nephews and cousins of Tsar Nicholas II –who were imprisoned there – and inflicted with the ultimate torture – murdered by the Bolsheviks. With so much sensational and incredible real history – why spend time and money to see ertsatz torture museums without any historical relevance to time and place?


Wax dummies frequently add to the verisimilitude of an attraction that’s real to begin with. Also in St. Petersburg, wax dummies act out the murder of Rasputin in the Yusupov Palace’s basement where the grizzly history-making murder actually took place – where Prince Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitry (Tsar Nicholas II’s nephew) murdered Rasputin. That palace basement “dungeon” (disguised as a tea room) is truly harrowing with the perpetrators’ and victim’s wax dummies (fake people) acting out a (real) murder in the (real) place where it actually happened. It sure beats the fake museums in which the only crime is ripping off the tourist. 


Commercial exploitation of torture and horrors did not start in Gimignano, Rothenburg or at America’s largest commercial torture museum in St. Augustine, Florida. Torture as a sightseeing experience started in London. On many different occasions I stood in queues of people crowding to see the damp, dank cells – and torture chambers in — what’s probably the world’s most famous prison – The Tower of London. However, even as a 10 year old when taken to see Walter Raleigh’s cell – I had a shocking experience I couldn’t believe that people in the infamous Tower of London could be treated like that. Believe it or not — Sir Walter Raleigh’s cell was . . . . . a fully furnished bedroom – almost posh!


However, in London frequently the lines have been even be longer to see Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. Recreated horror scenes with wax dummies. At least the Madame’s earliest collection of eerie is authentic. During the French Revolution Madame Tussaud was hired by the executioners aka “The Committee for Public Safety” (if that’s “Safety” — I’d like to defund that Committee) in which Tussaud made plaster casts and then wax heads of the Guillotined including Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI — making Madame Tussaud the first “French Impressionist.”


My favorite — if you can use that word to describe torture museums – is the real thing — two fantastic “Inquisition Museums” in South America where the accused were tried and tortured – in buildings and cells that still exist and instruments of torture that are worn out. One is the Inquisition Museum in Lima, Peru — and the other is in the beautiful Caribbean walled city of Cartagena, Colombia – the Inquisition Museum of Cartagena.


Besides seeing history — where the torture took place – in those South American Inquisition Museums — you also get a feeling of sadness that torture was condoned and enforced as an official state policy of fear and harm. In fact, the Cartagena Inquisition Museum has something in common with Venice’s Doges Palace – a stone face (used as a brick on the façade) with a hole for a mouth ‘’ – still visible on their exteriors. It’s where the public could anonymously condemn someone to be tried, tortured and even killed. (Although “anonymous denunciation” is also a great way of getting rid of your competition.) Never saw that on any street-entry “Torture Stores.” 


While we’re in the Americas and in the 18th century, let’s visit our own country. America – Colonial America — has a history of prisons and for another type of prisoner – Debtors’ Prison. Colonial Williamsburg is also a college town that grew up around the 18th-century “College of William & Mary.” (And I’m pleased to say that – to my knowledge – none of “W&M” students ever went to that “gaol” for Student Loan Debt.) While the notorious Bluebeard’s pirates were incarcerated in the Williamsburg Gaol – even they weren’t tortured. The only form of “torture” at the Williamsburg Gaol was public humiliation in the gaol’s outdoor pillory which today is one of Colonial Williamsburg’s best places for Selfies. 


The next best thing of being tortured to death is being scared to death. And you can even experience the other worldly in the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City which offers haunted tours. Whoever dreamt up the idea of those “haunted tours” came to the right place – prison – and should stay there. While even bogus torture museums show the instruments of torture. I have yet to see any white sheets (after dark) parading around the halls and cells of so-called “Haunted Prisons.” How did the Travel Channel miss this series – “Haunted Prisons”? (Although I still want to host and produce “Haunted Nude Beaches” for them – in which an apparition of me nude will scare the living – and dead – daylights out of anyone.) 


Sadly, dictators of the 20th century made torture– too real – by making it official state policy. While Berlin’s Gestapo Headquarters was razed – it’s basement remained. Today that basement is enclosed and is now “The Topography of Terror Museum” in which real horrors will stay with you forever. And Berlin’s torture and prisons didn’t end with the Nazis. To witness Communist’s East Germany’s spying and torture visit Eastern Berlin’s Stasi Museum – “East Germany’s KGB.”


The city with the ultimate in Torture Museums where the entire building was used by both the Nazi and Communist murderers — is Budapest’s “House of Terror Museum.” It scared the living and dying daylights out of me. (While the death toll of over 400,000 Hungarians by the Nazis in the last months of WWII is a far greater number of than in all the 40 years of Communist rule – Nazi murder is devoted to just one floor while Communist crimes in general are given three floors.) 


If sightseeing prisons with torture is becoming a bit tortuous – let’s visit “Prisons for Entertainment.” As I wrote in last November’s BT, HDT travel column, “Location Vacation” – let’s visit prisons that were locations for movies. 


Israel’s Acre Prison had a revolving door – a bit like St. Petersburg’s. The Acre Prison in the North Israeli town of Acre (hence the prison’s name) was used as the prison in the Paul Newman epic, “Exodus,” in which the British — under the Palestine Mandate — imprisoned Zionists and after Israel’s Independence – the Zionists imprisoned the British.


Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol – Ireland’s most historic prison– was also the location of many movies such as “The Italian Job,” “The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones” and “Michael Collins” – the Liam Nissan’s staring vehicle about the eponymous Irish freedom fighter in which Kilmainham Prison played itself. While in Ireland visit Cork County Prison in which that prison – also a museum – became a broadcast center for one of the first Irish radio stations.


Further afield is Australia’s Melbourne’s “Old Melbourne Gaol” in which Australia’s legendary outlaw, Ned Kelly, (Australia’s Robin Hood and Lone Ranger) was imprisoned and where movies about Ned Kelly were filmed. 


In Istanbul, there’s a prison where the movie, “Midnight Express” was filmed where you can do time – but you have to pay the price — a big price when you leave. The “Midnight Express” jail is now the elegant Istanbul Four Seasons Hotel.


There’s even a prison in my neighborhood, Manhattan’s UES, just a few blocks from where I live – where another movie was filmed. And this time it’s recommended by my comedy-professor side instead of the architecture professor. That “prison” — a foreboding brick building on the corner of 88th street and Second Avenue — also happens to be where my favorite Neil Simon movie was filmed – the apartment building of “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.” 

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