THE first opening to the public of Buckingham Palace, London residence of the queen, seems so fitting, now. It is hard to realize that it took 100 years for the doors to be unbolted after Queen Victoria spurned the notion as excessively democratic.
Her successor, Queen Elizabeth II, has been more or less catapulted into letting the public penetrate the royal portals by a need to pay for last year's fire damage to Windsor Castle, her other palace 20 miles away. Now the opportunity to wander through the rooms and corridors of the British capital's most famous building can be had for the price of 8 British pounds (about US$12, at current exchange rates). Even when the repairs at Windsor have been paid for, it is hard to imagine Buckingham Palace ever reverting to the status of a closed preserve.
Visiting will be limited to the summer months, when the queen is away, but there is plenty inside the fairly prosaic outer walls of the palace to justify the "Wow!" I heard escape the lips of a stately matron from Vermont on the first day the palace was opened to visitors.
"It's not just the paintings and sculptures and tapestries and chandeliers," she whispered as we stared at Rembrandt's glorious portrait of Agatha Bas, "it's the fact that we've been allowed inside."
That, it seems to me, is the real reason why tens of thousands of people have been standing in line to visit what Londoners affectionately call "Buck House."
The experience does not offer an opportunity to learn much about how the queen and her family live. Their private quarters are firmly closed. What one is allowed to see are the state apartments, where events such as investitures (the bestowing of knighthoods and the like) and royal banquets are held.
But there is plenty to show that, for all the formality of the place, this is a family home. Many of the pictures on display do the work of a family album.
Traveling back in time, there is Winterhalther's awkward-looking painting of Queen Victoria's large family, Thomas Lawrence's portrait of George IV in his coronation robes, two paintings of a majestic Charles I by Anthony Van Dyck, not to mention scores of portraits of lesser royal luminaries.
AND to remind visitors that as well as being a place of history, the palace is where most of the time today's royals live, a trio of corgis could be spotted through tall glass windows. The queen's stubby-legged dogs were being exercised on the palace's endless lawns by a functionary in a long scarlet jacket.
Maybe it will fade with time, but there is an endearing and, to me, very English feature of the tour: There are no guides. Instead, uniformed palace attendants hover in rooms and hallways, hesitating between cool reserve and a folksy desire to help.
"That's Mars and Venus - by some kind of an Italian," a woman attendant says, pointing to a sculpture by Antonio Canova at the foot of a staircase. "But don't quote me."
The staff has been thoroughly schooled in the need to preserve security and to avoid being too familiar. But one male attendant couldn't resist tugging my sleeve and pointing to a gold-painted fire extinguisher. "You know," he said, "already a chap has asked me about that. He thought it was more interesting than the paintings."
You can spend as much time as you like touring the apartments - and it pays not to be in too much of a hurry.
As you wander through the Throne Room with its surprisingly modest pair of chairs, or the Blue Drawing Room, the Silk Tapestry Room, and the two long picture galleries, there are dozens of sights worth more than a moment's pause.
In the White Drawing Room, for instance, you can't miss the roll-top desk (Risener, 1775) or the array of 18th-century Sevres porcelain vases. But you could fail to appreciate the significance of the 10-foot gold-framed mirror in one corner. It is actually a disguised door which the queen likes to burst through, startling her guests as she enters the room to greet them on state occasions.
With so much to see, it is surprising that fewer people have been touring the palace than the queen's advisers had expected. It was intended to sell up to 8,000 tickets each day, but about 7,000 have been purchased.
The advantage of this is that the visitor is not jostled by too many people. Ticket touts have had a thin time, too. And although the amount of money taken at the gate has been lower than the queen hoped, neither she nor her courtiers are too worried.
A souvenir shop, strategically located near the end of the tour, has been doing a roaring trade, and the proceeds have more than made up for lower takings at the gate.
If you want something to take home with you, you can spend 75 British pounds ($112.50) on a crystal bowl stamped with a royal crest, 20 British pounds ($30) on a silk tie patterned on the ceiling of the Queen's Guard Room, or as little as British pounds2 ($3) on a pack of postcards depicting the state apartments.
I settled for a box of pralines (price: 4 British pounds), each chocolate shaped like a crown. So far I haven't been able to bring myself to eat them. Anyway, it's nice to show your friends where you've been.
* The state apartments at Buckingham Palace, London, are open until Oct. 1 from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tickets, issued for specific times, cost 8 British pounds (US$12) for adults, 4 British pounds for children.