Category Archives: Germany 2022

Germany 12: Lovely Berlin, Part 1

A Boat Tour, The Brandenburg Gate and The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Berlin is a city in which I can easily imagine living – or, more accurately, where I imagine that I would have liked to have lived at one time: not so much now, when my days are filled with people here in Canada (including a lovely bunch of grandchildren) and places of which I am so fond. But when I was just starting out, if I had known about Berlin as anything more than a city in Germany that was frequently mentioned in my history classes, I might well have considered it.

From what I’ve read and seen in movies, I know that Berlin would have been an interesting place to live before World War II, especially during the “Golden Twenties.” Of course, I hadn’t been born at that point. I think I’d also have liked to have lived there in the 1980s, during the period when Nick Cave made Berlin his home. (Although Nick Cave himself did issue a warning about the dire fate that befell young women who wasted their youths hanging out in Berlin nightclubs.*) At that time, of course, the city was divided into East and West Berlin, so it would not have been the same as the reunified Berlin of today. So my fantasies regarding a life in Berlin are complicated and impossible. However, I am very happy that we had three days to enjoy some of its sights, sounds and flavours (if not its bars and music halls) in 2022. If there weren’t so many other places I still want to see, I’d put it back on the list for a more extended visit.

Our first day in the city, September 2, began with a stroll from our hotel (the Best Western am Spittlemarkt) to a dock on the Spree, where we would board a tour boat. On our way, we passed some scenic things and some interesting things.

Landwehr Canal

The boarding area for the tour boat was at one end of the Landwehrkanal, which runs parallel to the Spree River and is 10.7 km long. “It was built between 1845 and 1850 …. [and] connects the upper part of the Spree at the eastern harbour in [the district of] Friedrichshain with its lower part in Charlottenburg, flowing through Kreuzberg and Tiergarten.” (Wikipedia) Today the canal is primarily the domain of tour boats – and the approximately two-hour trips are a lovely way to begin to learn about the city. The boat passes through the famous Tiergarten, a park that was originally a hunting ground for nobility who stocked it with exotic animals, and which was badly damaged during World War II. It also goes past Museum Island, which we would visit another day.

One problem with taking photos when you’re seated at a table on a boat is that the same stranger appears right in front of you in almost all of them. I cropped him out of a lot of photos but the image below in which I covered over his face will give you a sense of how difficult it was at times to capture what I wanted without capturing him as well. The advantages of sitting at a table on a boat, on the other hand, include getting to know a bit about people from other places, such as an interesting young family that had just moved to Berlin from India via the USA.

The architecture and the scenery we passed on the tour were fabulous but since I didn’t take notes, I can’t remember what several of the buildings were. Maybe you know. If not, just enjoy the view, as we did. (Click on any of the photos to get a better view.)

Brandenburg Gate

After the tour, we walked a couple of kilometres to the Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor), stopping along the way for an ice cream cone. We passed a remnant of the Berlin Wall and a lovely statue of Heinrich Zille (1858-1929), a famous German illustrator and photographer of whom I had never heard until the statue caught my eye. On Unter den Linden (Under the Lindens. I love the name of that long avenue) which leads from Schlossbrucke (Castle Bridge) on the Spree to the Gate itself, we came across signs and installations protesting Russia’s war, and honouring Ukraine.

Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial

Before returning to have dinner in a restaurant near our hotel (German food this time!), we spent an hour or so at the beautiful and very moving Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

“Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and Buro Happold, [the Memorial] consists of a 19,000-square-metre (200,000 sq ft) site covered with 2,711 concrete slabs or ‘stelae,’ arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. [….] The stelae are 2.38 m (7 ft 9 1/2 in) long, 0.95 m (3 ft 1 1/2 in) wide and vary in height from 0.2 to 4.7 metres (8 in to 15 ft 5 in). They are organized in rows, 54 of them going north-south, and 87 heading east-west at right angles but set slightly askew. An attached underground ‘Place of Information’ holds the names of approximately 3 million Jewish Holocaust victims, obtained from the Israeli museum Yad Vashem.” Wikipedia (The history of how the site was designed and developed, which can be found at that Wikipedia link, is very interesting. So is the museum’s website, which tells us that “Following an amendment on 3 July 2009, the Federal Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is now also responsible for the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime and the Memorial to the Murdered Sinti and Roma of Europe.” Only a block or so from the Brandenburg Gate, the memorial is definitely worth a visit, for artistic as well as historical reasons.

And that was Berlin, Day 1!

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* To hear Nick Cave’s comments about the young women who have wasted the best part of their lives in Berlin’s nightclubs, check out this video (it’s at about minute 28). If you want a more accessible, albeit almost equally ancient (1990), documentary about Nick Cave, try this one instead.

Germany 11*: Dresden, Where a Day Is Nowhere Near Enough

On September 1, 2022, yet another lovely day, we left Prague and headed back into Germany, where our next two nights would be spent in Dresden. The train ride was perfection: quiet and smooth. I was trying to read a book but the architecture and the landscape constantly drew my attention. Despite the drought, the countryside was surprisingly green.

(Reminder: You can click on the images in each “Gallery” block to see them as a slide show.)

Dresden is the capital of the state of Saxony (our stops in Bayreuth and Munich had been in Bavaria) and, like Leipzig and half of Berlin, was located from 1949 to 1990 in the former communist state of East Germany. Since the mid-1400s Dresden was the seat of Saxony nobility, who invested time, money and effort to make it into a world-class cultural centre. In the 1800s it became known for its technology as well as its art. At one point, due to a “personal union,” it also became the seat of Polish monarchs, who contributed to its magnificent baroque and rococo architecture.

I had not realized that Dresden had been flattened by the Allies near the end of World War II, much less that the bombings have always been controversial, seen by many as indiscriminate and unnecessary as Dresden was not a military target. [This is a correction. When I first wrote this post I thought the bombings had occurred after peace had been declared. I erred and I am grateful to the reader who pointed out my error.] Then about a month before we left for Germany, both of my sons urged me to read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. What a great book that is! The writing style is remarkably distinctive (I hadn’t read Vonnegut before. Now I’ll read more) and the structure of the novel is brilliant, particularly the way it manages time. But quite aside from its literary qualities, Slaughterhouse Five provided me with an intimate picture of what it was like to be in Dresden as the war drew to a close.

The bombing of Dresden by British and American troops nearly reduced the entire historic and beautiful old city to rubble. During this event, which occurred between Feb. 13 and 15, 1945, “772 heavy bombers of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and 527 of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on the city. The bombing and the resulting firestorm destroyed more than 1,600 acres (6.5 km2) of the city centre. An estimated 22,700 to 25,000 people were killed. Three more USAAF air raids followed, two occurring on 2 March aimed at the city’s railway marshalling yard and one smaller raid on 17 April aimed at industrial areas.” Wikipedia This is the central incident in Slaughterhouse Five, which Vonnegut based on his personal experience as a prisoner of war who was being held in Dresden by the Germans when the attack occurred. Many of the buildings we visited in Dresden featured photographs of what they’d looked like after the bombing, and the amount of restoration that has been required (and completed so far) is astonishing.

We stayed in the old town but at the relatively new Hyperion Hotel Dresden am Schloss, in a room that was bright and functional –although having the bathroom in the middle of the suite was a new experience for me. We headed out for dinner and of course could not find the restaurant I had chosen (which, it later turned out, was a dining room right in the hotel where we were staying but it was only open for conference attendees). But we found a great alternative on the square, had a very tasty meal, and walked around a bit of the old town before calling it a day.

The Residenzschloss

Our first stop on September 2 was the mammoth Residenzschloss, or Residence Palace, which was right across the street from our hotel. This building is a major exhibitor of state and city art in Dresden, as it has been since the Saxony kings built the castle to live in, in the mid-1400s.

From https://www.skd.museum/besuch/residenzschloss/

First we saw a series of drawings from the Hoesch Collection which were on temporary exhibit at the palace. The exhibition, entitled Anselmi to Zuccari, included works from Italian artists from the 16th to 18th century as well as selections from the Kupferstich-Kabinett (Dresden State Art Collection). They were fascinating.

We then set out to explore the permanent collection of the Residenzschloss, and we could have spent all of our remaining time in Dresden there – if not the rest of our lives. It contains a lot of amazing stuff. By the time we were half way through it I was reduced to walking from piece to piece, unable to differentiate between the astonishing and the merely stunning. I took way too many photos of it all, thinking that I would examine them more closely later. I have done some of that today. 🙂 Here is a sample (Most of the Turkish influence came by way of Poland, btw):

Then we had lunch in a square off Galeriestraße. Crepes. Sehr lecker.

After lunch, we wandered around old Dresden for a couple of hours. We viewed the lovely baroque interior of the Dresden Frauenkirche, the exterior of the Dresden opera house (Semperoper) and the grounds of the Zwinger Palace, which is still in the process of restoration and which houses many works of art that we did not pay to see. Arnie and a street musician exchanged some musical notes, and we took a stroll over the Elbe by means of the Carolabrucke (Carola Bridge). We could see how low the river was after many months of drought.

Hunger Stones

And speaking of the drought, just before we left Canada my elder son had sent me information about a phenomenon known as “Hunger Stones,” which are etchings on rocks from long ago by the sides of rivers that have been exposed due to the low water conditions in recent years. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of a Guardian article on the subject:

Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine (“If you see me, then weep”), reads the grim inscription on a rock in the Elbe River near the northern Czech town of Děčín, close to the German border. As Europe’s rivers run dry in a devastating drought that scientists say could prove the worst in 500 years, their receding waters are revealing long-hidden artefacts, from Roman camps to ghost villages and second world war shipwrecks.”

Messages left on stones are warnings from the past that hunger and hardship are not far off once the waters have receded far enough that the messages – some of which date back as far as the 15th century – can be read. Many of these are along the River Elbe in the Czech Republic and Germany, but they have also been found in recent years in Italy, Spain, Serbia and other parts of Europe.

More Residenzschloss

After our afternoon stroll, Arnie wisely took a nap but I just had to check out a few more rooms in the Residenzschloss, since my ticket was still valid. By the time I was finished, I could barely walk, but it was worth it.

We concluded our Big Day in Dresden with dinner at Edelweiss, a Swiss restaurant near the Frauenkirche and then wandered back to the hotel where we collapsed into bed to rest up for our trip the next day to our final destination in Germany: Berlin.

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*Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that I gave the number “9” to the last two posts. I am reluctant to change the most recent post to “10” because it will make the url incorrect. But this is still “11,” no matter how you look at it.

Germany 9: Side-trip to Prague Part 3 – Prague Castle, Or Kafka on the Hill

One does not need to be a fan of Franz Kafka to get the full impact of visiting Prague Castle, but being one does add a dollop of spine-tingling interest to the experience.

I’ve recently reread Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, and am currently listening to The Trial (also unfinished) on Audible, and although he is not an author I would recommend to others (I think, like a taste for olives, you need to discover him on your own), I find Franz Kafka’s work intriguing – and he has inspired many of my other favourite writers, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Haruki Murakami (e.g., see Kafka on the Shore). Throughout our time in Prague I was always aware of the castle on the far side of the river that seemed to loom over the city just as The Castle does over the town in Kafka’s novel.

It would not of course have been a truly Kafkaesque experience if we had not become lost on our way up to visit the castle, but we did. Several times. Our first big mistake was that we somehow got on the wrong bridge across the river (there are way too many bridges) so our first order of business after we’d reached the other side was to locate the west end of the bridge we should have come across (and which we later successfully took back again) – the famous medieval pedestrian-only Charles Bridge (Karlov Most).

From there, we started up the winding cobbled streets toward the castle, but soon our ultimate destination disappeared behind the buildings that were closer to us, which inevitably led to wrong turn after wrong turn. The signs were not too helpful. But the homes and businesses we passed were endlessly interesting. We walked past the Slivovitz Museum (Slivovitz being a European-made plum brandy) and, part way up the hill, a bookstore named “Shakespeare and Sons.” To my mind, being lost is rarely a problem unless you’re pressed for time or your feet are threatening to wear out: you just see more stuff that way. (You can click on the photos for a better look.)

The Castle and The Cathedral

We finally reached the top of the hill where the Prague Castle is located, and when we emerged on the crest, the first thing we saw was a Starbucks! (We resisted the temptation.)

Within the walls of Prague Castle, which is a UNESCO site, stand a palace, a basilica, a cathedral, the cathedral’s Great South Tower, and the Golden Lane. St. Vitus Cathedral, which gives the complex its distinctive silhouette, is the third church to have been built on the same site since Prince Wenceslas founded a Romanesque rotunda there in 925. Following the initial construction of a chancel and chapels in the Gothic style, which occurred in 1344 during the reign of Charles IV – St. Vitus remained a work in progress until a final push, named “the Union for the Completion of the Cathedral,” led to its actual completion in 1929.

The cathedral is a huge, breathtaking complex that measures 124 m × 60 m (407 ft × 197 ft). The main tower is 102.8 m (337 ft) high, and front towers 82 m (269 ft) (Wikipedia). The Royal Mausoleum contained within it accommodates the tombs of Bohemian kings, Roman emperors, and patron saints (including St. Wenceslas), and “[t]he door in the south-western corner of the chapel leads to the Crown Chamber in which the Bohemian Coronation Jewels are kept” (St. Vitus website). St. Vitus just feels like the kind of place where a country would want to keep its kings, emperors, saints and crown jewels.

Part of our tour of the castle included a view out of the first window ever known to have been the location of a defenestration (a punishment much favoured by the Russian government in recent years). Here two royal governors and a scribe were thrown from the window during the Uprising of the Bohemian Estates against the Hapsburgs in 1618. All three survived – unlike most targets of modern defenestration initiatives. Their survival was later deemed to have been a miracle.

The Golden Lane

After we had toured the cathedral, we made our way to the Golden Lane, a fascinating alleyway still within the castle walls with access to dozens of small dwellings. Built in the 16th century, the row-housing-type arrangement is “now the last remainder of the small-scale architecture of Prague Castle. [The homes] were inhabited by defenders of the Castle, servants or for example goldsmiths and the Castle marksmen. The tiny houses were occupied until World War II, but already during the period of the First Republic, care was taken to ensure that the picturesque character of the Lane was not changed in the course of modifications. From 1916 to 1917 house No. 22 was inhabited by the writer Franz Kafka.” (!!)

Several of the dwellings are open to the public, and are either furnished to look the way they might have been when occupied, or serve as locations for relevant displays – from the artifacts of a torture chamber to the collection of amateur film historian, Josef Kazda, who saved thousands of films and documentaries from the Nazis during World War II. .

After walking back down the hill to the river, across Charles Bridge, and back to our hotel, we were almost too tired to go out again. But for reasons I can no longer recall, I had procured tickets to a Baroque concert at the Klementinum Mirror Chapel which was only a few blocks from our hotel. We managed to get there without getting lost!

The Concert

The “Four Seasons” concert we attended included works by Charpentier, Pachelbel, Verdi, Dvorak, Smetana, J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Vivaldi, and it featured members of the Royal Czech Orchestra as well as Marie Fajtová (soprano from the National Theatre), Robert Hugo (titular organist for the St. Salvator Church), and Viktor Mazaček (violin soloist from the Czech Philharmonic). The program and artistic lineup were as magnificent as they sound. And the “high baroque” setting was an extraordinary backdrop.

The Royal Czech Orchestra was established during the reign of Leopold I, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, and was reestablished after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The chapel itself, its website tells us, “was built in 1725 most likely by František Maxmilián Kaňka. The impressive installations of Baroque mirrors on the ceiling make the chapel unparalleled worldwide. Together with gilded stuccos of Bernardo Spinetti, marble panelling and ceiling frescoes by Jan Hiebl, these mirrors create great artistic value of the interior.”

To sit and listen to that magnificent chamber music in that magnificent chamber was an unparalleled experience, and I was beyond grateful for whatever impulse had led me to buy tickets.

The concert began at 6 and was over by 7, which gave us time to enjoy another dinner under the stars on the plaza near our hotel, thereby perfectly closing out our final night in Prague.

I’d be happy to go back anytime.

I will leave you with two very brief samples of the glorious music we were privileged to hear that evening.

Excuse the guy in front of me (as the guy behind me is probably saying about me in his blog post)

Germany 9: Side-trip to Prague Part 2 – A Very Long City Walk, and More about Miro

On our second day in Prague, we decided to explore the east bank of the Vltava River on foot. The Vltava is the longest river in the Czech Republic and it goes right through the capital. Apparently eighteen bridges cross it within the city limits, although we only saw five or six.

From the Old Town (Staré Mêsto), first we went north – past the large monument depicting Jan Hus (Christian theologian, philosopher and martyr), and many Gothic-style buildings – to the section of town called Josefov. Josefov was the Jewish ghetto for several centuries, and there we visited the The Old New Synagogue, also called the Altneuschul. “Europe’s oldest active synagogue, [the Altneuschul] is also the oldest surviving medieval synagogue of twin-nave design. Completed in 1270 […], it was one of Prague’s first Gothic buildings” (Wikipedia). There are two other synagogues nearby, and many buildings with Hebrew lettering and Jewish symbols.

The Jewish population of Czechoslovakia was nearly annihilated during World War II; approximately 78,000 Czech Jews died at the hands of the Nazis. Among those murdered were several relatives of our late friend Miro Klement, whom I mentioned in my previous post. Miro’s first cousins Ivo and Tomáš, who were only ten and eleven respectively, were among those who died at Auschwitz in 1944, as were two of Miro’s aunts, an uncle and several other relatives. At the urging of their families, Miro and his parents had fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 and, after stays in France and Italy, ended up in England for the duration of the War. Miro recalled how at one point prior to their move, they’d had to change apartments because someone had put a sign on their door that read “Jews live here.”

Visiting the streets where Miro grew up and seeing Prague’s Jewish ghetto brought home to me the horrifying reality of the Holocaust in a way that nothing had before. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for him to learn that immediate relatives including two first cousins, his playmates since the three of them had been born within two years of one another, had been gassed in a concentration camp. It would have been even more difficult for me to comprehend if anti-semitism and hate speech were not, yet again, on the rise.

Prague boasts outstanding examples of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings and as we headed south, we passed one astounding piece of architecture after another. From an early age, Miro had been fascinated with how buildings were designed and constructed; he later worked and taught in the field of architecture. As a teenager, after his family had returned to Prague following the War, he would take a streetcar around the city on Saturdays when his mother and stepfather were at work, admiring the buildings and visiting the castle, churches and cultural exhibitions.

The Dancing House

As well as appreciating classical structures, Miro was always open to architectural innovation – provided he found it to be of merit. (He had high standards). He was fond of the Dancing House (“Tančící dům“) on the Rašínovo embankment at the corner of Novomest Street and Resslova. It was completed in 1996 and in his memoir, Miro provided some background: “The prime piece of corner property, with its view of the river and many Prague churches, had been purchased by the Nationale-Nederlander company, which planned to put its corporate offices there. Václav Havel, who had owned property next door for many years, proposed a cultural attraction rather than an office building. The Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunić, who had friends at Nationale-Nederlander and had been given the contract, approached the Canadian architect Frank Gehry. The two created a building for the company that (to me [i.e., Miro]) looks like a child’s drawing, with windows that don’t fit together properly. Gehry originally called it ‘Fred and Ginger’ but ultimately gave up on that nickname because of the association with Hollywood, which contrasted negatively with the historical significance of the site. The Dancing House was already causing some arguments because of the design’s contrast with the many Baroque and Gothic buildings in the area. However, the building has since become a popular landmark in Prague, and the dining room on the top floor is very popular, due in part to its spectacular view.”

After we’d walked past the Dancing House, we had lunch at an outside cafe and then resumed our very long hike, the end of it largely uphill. We were intrigued by how many of the streets and sidewalks in Prague were cobbled, which does not make walking easier but does create an impressive footpath. We passed some city workers at one point who were replacing cracked or broken cobblestones. A lot of work must go in to keeping all those thoroughfares in working order.

At last we arrived at the Vyšehrad or Upper Castle (not to be confused with the Prague Castle), which is next to a cemetery where several famous Czechs are buried. We enjoyed spectacular views of Prague from the heights where the Vyšehrad is located.

Wenceslas Square

Finally we returned on foot to our hotel, bringing the day’s total steps (according to my watch) to nearly 14,000 – which was quite a bit for us! As we returned to the Old Town we made a detour to take in Wenceslas Square. Wikipedia tells us that this square is “the centre of the business and cultural communities in the New Town of Prague. Many historical events occurred there, and it is a traditional setting for demonstrations, celebrations, and other public gatherings. It is also the place with the busiest pedestrian traffic in the whole country. The square is named after Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia.”

We were very pleased that we were able to find the building on the square where Miro had lived with his family after returning from England. He wrote, “We lived in an apartment complex name Palác Lucerna, on the corner of  Wenceslas Square and Vodičkova. The Palác Lucerna was a multi-use building that included apartments, restaurants, offices and shops, and there was an arcade going through it. It was developed by the grandfather of Václav Havel, the playwright and essayist who was the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989 to 1992) and the first president of the Czech Republic (1993 to 2003).”

On the way back to our hotel we were amused to see a souvenir shop displaying team figurines that included our own Toronto Maple Leafs (see the Habs’ uniform above the Leafs’. Note to my friends and relatives in Edmonton: no sign of the Oilers!).

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Miro Klement, March 7, 1934 – November 13, 2021 (Copies of Miro’s memoir are available on request)

Germany 8: Side-trip to Prague Part 1 – Hotel Heaven and an Astronomical Clock

Our trip to Germany brought us tantalizingly close to the border of the Czech Republic, and we could not pass up the opportunity to visit Prague. Our very good friend Miro Klement had been born there and had told us so many stories about his childhood and about the city of his birth that we felt as though we had a special relationship with Prague long before we got there. The poignancy of our connection has been especially intense this year, because Miro died from Parkinson’s last November at the age of 86 and we miss him a lot. So our trip to “his” city was a bit of a pilgrimage.

In addition to the links to Miro, we were interested to see where Franz Kafka, Bedřich Smetana (known as “the father of Czech music”), and Antonín Dvořák had started out, and to visit a city that has been (deservedly) praised by many for its beauty and its rich history.

The train trip from Munich to Prague, which we undertook on August 29, was about six hours long. Although we caught only a glimpse of it, it was fun to cross the famous Danube River at one point on our journey. The countryside was lovely and as we approached Prague, the homes took on distinctive styles and colours.

To my amazement, we had booked a room in Prague that looked directly out on the square where the city’s famous astronomical clock is situated, on the tower of the Old Town Hall. If you want the same experience, book Room 44 at the Hotel U Prince. Breakfast is included, and the hotel elevator (in a glass cage) has a vase of dried flowers on the top of it! The only real drawback is that the room is very dark, even with all of the lights on: if you want to see what’s in your suitcase, you should bring a headlamp.

Puns were among Miro’s favourite forms of humour (along with limericks, of which he could recite dozens from memory) and as Arnie checked in to our hotel in Prague, I heard Miro’s voice in my head saying some variation of, “You’ll want to check that they take Czech cheques at the check-in.” (In our case, they took VISA.)

In Bayreuth, we had noticed the streets were very dark at night, probably due to the need to conserve energy as a result of the fallout from Russia’s war on Ukraine. In Prague, there seemed to be no shortage of artificial illumination at night, at least in the town square. There were however, many reminders of the war, including signs, flags and banners showing Czechs’ support for Ukraine. I read recently that the Czech Republic is now restricting tourism from Russia.

The people of Prague were warm and welcoming. As we travelled to the hotel from the railway station, our voluble cab driver told us about his time in Essex, where he had polished his English, and how much he hates Uber. Our bell-hop could not wait to show us the view of the square from our window and point out nearby sights on the map he gave us. The busboy at our first dinner, which we ate outdoors at a restaurant in the square, insisted we walk over to a nearby building to admire its colours after we’d finished eating. Everyone seemed friendly and happy to chat. That the city map we received was called the “Awesome Prague Map” underscores the civic pride.

The Prague “Orloj,” first installed in 1410, is one of the oldest astronomical clocks in the world. It bongs the hours every day and night (fortunately, not loudly enough to disturb the sleep of guests in nearby hotels). Wikipedia tells us that “The clock mechanism has three main components – the astronomical dial, representing the position of the Sun and Moon in the sky and displaying various astronomical details; statues of various Catholic saints stand on either side of the clock; ‘The Walk of the Apostles,’ an hourly show of moving Apostle figures and other sculptures, notably a figure of a skeleton that represents Death, striking the time; and a calendar dial with medallions representing the months.”

I took the opportunity to tour the old town hall, where I got a close-up look at the Apostle figures from inside the tower, absorbed lots of history about the City of Prague, and enjoyed “one of the most beautiful views of the Prague panorama.”

Check out the skeleton: Death strikes the time

Germany 7: Munich Part 3 – Two pinakothek galleries in one, and the Munich City Museum

It was difficult to decide which of the several world-class art galleries in Munich to visit, but time constraints limited us to one. Our choices included the Alte Pinakothek (according to Collins, “pinakothek” means “a place where works of art are displayed and stored,” and after all these posts about Germany you probably already know that alte means “old”), the Neue Pinakothek, the Pinakothek der Moderne, and a few other galleries whose names do not include the word “pinakothek.” We decided to visit the Neue Pinakothek, mainly to see several specific artists whose works are included there – including the German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich.

The Neue Pinakothek isn’t all that new: it was created by Bavarian King Ludwig I and opened in 1853. It was bombed during World War II and like so many other German landmarks, has since been rebuilt. It contains what is considered one of the most important collections of 19th-century (particularly European) art in the world.

Only after we’d taken a streetcar to the museum quarter of Munich did we discover that the Neue Pinakothek is closed for several years (!) for renovations. Disappointed but undefeated, we decided to visit the nearby Alte Pinakothek instead. The Alte Pinakothek features Old Masters from the 14th to 18th centuries and is one of the oldest art galleries in the world. How bad could it be?

Much to our surprise and pleasure, we discovered that a lot of interesting pieces from the Neue Pinakothek are on display in the Alte Pinakothek while the former gallery is closed. We also learned that on Sundays, admission to galleries and museums is only one euro! How civilized is that?

The reduced admission price did mean that there were a lot of people lined up to get into the gallery, and the facility itself was very crowded, but it also meant that we had the opportunity to see a number of amazing pieces in the Alte Pinakothek collection that we would never have seen if the Neue gallery had been open. So it was a win, win.

The Munich Museum

Later that day, we returned to the older part of the city and visited the Munich City Museum (Münchner Stadtmuseum), a (mostly) fun review of arts and crafts and other artifacts relating to Munich history. There you can see replicas of the “Morris Dancer” sculptures which date from 1480 and are the most valuable pieces in the collection – too valuable to actually display, it seems.

According to the Stadtmuseum website, the creator of these figures, Erasmus Grasser, was described by his peers as a “disruptive, promiscuous and disingenuous knave,” but perhaps they were just jealous: he was the one who got the lucrative commission to create a heraldic ceiling design and several coats of arms for Munich’s new city hall as well as creating the dancer figurines. (The Museum’s website includes far better images of them than I was able to get through the glass display cases.) The original figurines were removed from their locations and put into safekeeping in 1931.

Rally on Koenigsplatz in Munich, 09.11.1936

The Stadtmuseum does not ignore the fact that Munich is the city where the Nazi Party had its roots. An exhibition that traces the rise of National Socialism is located in an adjacent facility, with a separate entrance. It includes artifacts and uniforms from the Nazi era and extensive information on how the Nazi regime began in Munich.

The displays were difficult to look at, particularly as many of them called to mind what is happening in the United States right now.

Munich the Marvellous

Germany is a country made up of several distinctive regions. The architecture, cuisine, and traditions are quite different in Munich than they are in Frankfurt, Dresden or Berlin.

Munich is the capital of the state of Bavaria (in which Bayreuth is also located), and after a few days there, I had a much better sense of the meaning of the term “Bavarian.” It helped that we’d caught sight of a few guys in the altstadt wearing lederhosen, and later saw masses of fans of the FC Bayern Munich football team piling onto transit en route to a game. But it was something more basic – the look and the feel of the city – that made Munich such a delight, and utterly unlike any other place in Germany.

Even within Munich there are many different cultures and experiences. As I mentioned previously, the hotel we stayed in (The Mirabel) was located in a Turkish area. The hotel itself was very modern and very German, with a breakfast that would have pleased King Ludwig I or II. But one of our best meals was in a Turkish restaurant half a block away.

Munich is a lovely city and I wish we’d had time to see much more of it.

Germany 6: Munich Part 2 – The Jewish Museum and the Residence Museum

On August 27, our first full day in Munich, we saw two museums that could not have been more different. The first was a spare and dramatic testimony to the enduring presence of Munich’s Jewish community, and a damning record of the many efforts that have, for centuries, been intended to exterminate it. The second was (yet another) lavish demonstration of what happens when powerful people use vast amounts of public money to beautify their personal environments.

Munich’s Jewish Museum

We arrived at Sankt-Jakobs-Platz just as the Saturday morning services at the magnificent Ohel Jakob Synagogue were ending. The synagogue, the museum and a community centre, all completed in the mid-aughts of this century, form a focal point for Munich’s Jewish community. The synagogue stands a few blocks from one that was destroyed in 1938, and while it would be wonderful to think that the kind of thinking that leads to such devastation has been confined to history, that is not the case: in 2003 authorities uncovered a plot by neo-Nazis to bomb the cornerstone ceremony for this new facility, and “security concerns also led to the decision to house a memorial to the more than 4,000 Jews of Munich who were killed in the Holocaust in a tunnel between the synagogue and the community centre” (Wikipedia).

One of the people we chatted with out front of the synagogue observed that it looked like a tefillin box.

Inaugurated in 2007, the Jüdische Museum München is a stunning building with a see-through main floor that features a book/gift shop and a cafe. The permanent exhibition on the lower level is both elegant and moving. It includes an audio installation called Voices, which allows visitors to hear the stories of some of the thousands of Jews who have moved to Munich in the past 200 years. Other installations showcase the accomplishments of Jewish residents of Munich (including a Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and the lovely objects associated with Jewish rituals and traditions.

Two installations bring home the historically precarious nature of life itself for Munich’s Jews – one a chronology of significant events, another a display created by the renowned comics creator Jordan B. Gorfinkel, a former New Yorker who worked at DC Comics for many years, where he helped to create the Batman series.

The upper levels of the Jewish Museum house temporary exhibitions. One that engaged me for quite a while was called Heidi in Israel. It demonstrates how Johanna Spyri’s 1880 novel – about a young girl who is overwhelmed by loneliness when she is taken away from her grumpy but beloved grandpa and from their home in the Swiss Alps, and sent to work in the city – struck a particular chord with children living in what is now Israel, many of whom were European Jews who were coming to terms not only with homesickness, but with the whole concept of “homeland.” The novel was first translated into Hebrew in 1946, and has appeared in various forms to acclaim in Israel ever since, including as a radio drama and a play. Of course, Heidi is beloved by children everywhere and has been translated into many languages: one of the museum’s guides and I shared a moment when we realized that we had both read and loved the book within a few years of one another – she in Germany, and me in Canada.

I was intrigued to read on Wikipedia that “As an alternative to the mandatory national military service, young Austrians have the opportunity to serve as Austrian Holocaust Memorial Servants at the Jewish Museum Munich.”

Munich’s Residence Museum

The Munich Residenz is the former palace of the Wittelsbach monarchs of Bavaria, who occupied the facility from 1508 to 1918 – i.e., for more than four hundred years. This gave them time to acquire an awful lot of stuff. (Part of the palace was destroyed during World War II, but most of what was bombed has been rebuilt and restored.) It is no surprise to learn that this is the largest city palace in Germany, because it is huge. It includes ten courtyards and 130 rooms, and our feet wore out long before we tired of looking at the profusion of furnishings, artworks and decorations.

These photos depict only a small sample of the treasures on display at the Residenz.

And that was Saturday.

Germany 5: Munich, Part 1 – The Old City, including the Amazing Rathaus

In Munich, I had one of the best surprises of our entire trip. There were many sights and landmarks in Germany that I knew in advance I would like to see (most of which I did), but when we emerged from Munich’s subway system into Marienplatz I experienced a moment of sheer delight that was totally unexpected. As I said on Facebook at the time, it was the closest I’ve come to a spontaneous scream since the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show.

It was August 26, and we had arrived at Munich’s massive hauptbahnhof (train station) from Bayreuth mid-afternoon, then rolled (dragged) our suitcases two (long) blocks to our hotel. The Mirabell, at the corner of Goethestrasse and Landwerstrasse, turns out to be located in an area with a lot of Turkish restaurants and shops. After settling into our room, we wandered around the neighbourhood a bit, then decided to take the subway to Marienplatz, the central square in the historical section of Munich. (Munich’s wondrous transit system includes the S-Bahn on the surface, the U-Bahn underground, and a host of connecting trams and buses, most of which meet either at or under the Hauptbahnhof. Everything we wanted to see in Munich was easily accessible from our hotel.)

At the Marienplatz stop, we got off the train and took the escalator up to street level, thinking we would emerge into a plaza with some nice old Bavarian buildings surrounding it. Instead, this was the gasp-inducing sight that greeted us:

Neues Rathaus, Munich

Marienplatz has been the central square of Munich since 1158, and the massive Neues Rathaus (New City Hall) has been its prime attraction since 1874. (Parts of the building were damaged in the air raids of 1944 and were rebuilt following the war.) We took dozens of photos of this remarkable neo-Gothic building (of which I will spare you 99%), and when we went back the following day we waited in the square to witness the chiming of the hour from the Rathaus-Glockenspiel. To the great delight of tourists like us, this attraction features figurines that emerge from the central tower three times a day, enacting stories from Bavarian history,

Here’s a short sample of what the glockenspiel looks like in action. The top section depicts a 16th century joust that was held to honour the marriage of a Bavarian duke to a member of the House of Lorraine. The lower section shows coopers “danc[ing] through the streets to ‘bring fresh vitality to fearful dispositions’” during a plague in the early 1500s. In 2022, we can easily relate to the need for such distractions.

In addition to the New City Hall, Marienplatz is the site of the Old Town Hall (Altes Rathaus), the Marian column (the pillar you can see in the top photo in front of the Rathaus, with the gold statue of the Virgin Mary at the top of it), and many shops and restaurants. Nearby sights include the Frauenkirche and Peterskirche, neither of which we had time to tour.

The day after our arrival, we took a tram rather than the subway to the Old City. As we walked from the tram stop back to Marienplatz, we came across the Asamkirche, which I’d seen mentioned in my travel guide, and went in to have a look. This late-Baroque style church was built for the private use and “salvation” of its designers, two brothers – a sculptor and a painter. Wikipedia reports (albeit in a statement with no citation) that “Due to public pressure, the brothers were forced to make the church accessible to the public.” I did wonder what sins might have led the brothers to believe that they needed to create such opulent facilities in order to save their souls, but I’ve been unable to find the answer to that question.

Also near Marienplatz is Munich’s Viktualienmarkt where since the 1800s, large crowds of tourists and Münchners have gathered to eat sausages and pretzels and other tempting treats prepared by local vendors, to drink beer and listen to live music, and to purchase fresh meats, cheese, eggs, fruits and vegetables, as well as plants, honey, herbs and spices and a lot of other things.

Germany 4: Bayreuth, Part 2 – The New Palace and the Margravial Opera House

Both of the two amazing Baroque structures we saw in Bayreuth were built at the behest of the Margrave Friederich von Brandenburg-Bayreuth (1711-1763) and his wife, the Margravine Sophie Wilhelmine of Prussia (1709 – 1758). Partly due to their extravagant home-decor decisions and partly because of their mid-18th century contributions to opera in Bayreuth, their tenure had a permanent influence on the region.

The Miriam-Webster online dictionary tells us that a “margrave” is “a military governor of a German province, particularly a border province,” although this seems to be an archaic definition, or “a member of the German nobility corresponding in rank to a British marquess.” Britannica adds that it is a “ranking in modern times immediately below a duke and above a count, or earl.” I hope that helps.

When his father died, Friederich was unprepared to assume his role as margrave because his father had failed to explain to him what his responsibilities might be. Friederich’s wife, the beloved sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia, seems to have intervened to help where she could, simultaneously advancing her own agenda, and between the two of them they managed to build properties of historical interest and significance, support the arts and sciences (he established a regional university and an academy of art), and in general to enhance the reputation of the region (no doubt at the expense of thousands of less fortunate souls who could have put the money to better use).

Das Neues Schloss (The New Palace)

The old palace in Bayreuth burned down in 1753, and this provided an opportunity for Friederich and the Margravine to design and construct the building we toured on our second full day in Bayreuth. Das Neues Schloss, as it is called in German, was constructed to incorporate five existing buildings, which must have presented untold headaches to the architect. (How he executed his assignment – which he had to do on a shoestring on top of everything else because the Margravian couple had already overspent their building budgets on the Bayreuth Opera House and another residence – is engagingly described on German Wikipedia.)

The first floor of this enormous, horseshoe-shaped residence apparently features a comprehensive collection of faience (pottery decorated with coloured glass) and an exhibition entitled “The Margravine’s Bayreuth,” but we did not have an opportunity to see either of these exhibits due to the time of day. We were, however, able to stroll (almost alone) for an extended period through the second floor of the palace, where a significant portion of the baroque excesses that formed the original furnishings and decor have been either preserved or reproduced.

Some of the highlights of the residence’s long series of interconnected rooms include the rococo “Palm Room” and the “Hall of Fractured Mirrors.”

In addition to the wall designs, parqueted floors, decorated ceilings and accoutrements, I was taken with a decidedly undecorative bas relief on the main floor near the entrance to the residence, which has an interesting story attached to it. I think this is how it went:

Either “our” margrave or a previous one had a jester in his employ of whom he was very fond. The jester, a dwarf, was not popular among others in the court due to his barbed wit, and of course he was also the target of animosity because of his physical appearance. Ill-wishers (it is thought) arranged matters so that the jester’s small horse was tripped by a stone and fell, tossing the jester into the street and killing him. The margrave was so sad at this offensive act that he had a plaque made to commemorate the deed.

Bas relief depicting the demise of a favoured jester

The back of the new palace opens onto the long park we’d walked through that morning after visiting the Richard Wagner house.

Given its size and splendour, it is difficult to absorb the fact that the Margrave and Margravine’s visions for their New Palace had to be seriously curtailed because of their previous spending excesses. It is hard to imagine what the place would have looked like if they’d had unlimited resources.

The Margravial Opera House

After leaving the palace, we wandered further through Bayreuth’s lovely Alt Stadt (Old City) before going to find dinner. We had not intended to do any more sight-seeing involving admission fees that day, but when we came upon the Margravial Opera House (Markgräfliches Opernhaus), a UNESCO site, we learned that you can’t get even a peek inside the actual facility unless you are on a tour or attending a concert. There would be one more tour that afternoon, they said, but it was in German. The attendant offered us a reduced rate since we are German-deficient, and we decided to go for it. We were very glad we did.

Lovely fountain across the street from the Margravial Opera House

Described in the site’s brochure as “one of the most important remaining examples of baroque theatre architecture,” the Margravial Opera House was built in honour of the 1748 wedding of the Margravine’s daughter, Sophie, to Duke Carl Eugen of Württemburg. Wilhemine was very interested in music and she composed, performed, and played several instruments herself. She was also keen to build interest in opera in general and to let the world know how cultured things were in the Bavarian city that was her home: at one point she brought a whole Italian opera troupe to Bayreuth. In the weeks-long celebration of he opening of the opera house and Sophie’s wedding, there were Italian operas, French plays, and banquets.

The opera house in Bayreuth was designed by one of the leading opera theatre architects of the era, Giuseppe Galli Bibiena, and Bibiena’s son Carlo supervised construction and then worked at the facility for more than ten years.

To call the decor of the loge theatre “extravagant” would be to seriously understate the matter. There is no way to describe it. As our guide told us various facts in German, we sat in our seats, our heads back, staring open-mouthed at our surroundings. Every square inch of every wall and every bit of ceiling is decorated with wisps of gold and ribbons and cupids and paintings of people and every single bit of the design is probably where it is for a reason. It is a true sight to behold.

The lowered stage curtain is the illustration of an early opera set and gives some sense of what the place must look like when the lights go down.

The Margravial Opera House was extensively restored between 2013 and 2018 (mostly cleaned and brightened, as there was little actual damage) with a goal of preserving its unique beauty well into the future – not to mention its representation of an era where such excess was even thinkable.

The music was a lovely touch.

Germany 3: Bayreuth, Part 1 – The town, and the Wagner Museum

Quiet Charm and Culture

On our first evening in Bayreuth, we walked from our hotel down into the old part of town for dinner. En route, we passed Wahnfried House, where the Wagner Museum is located, and Neues Schloss (New Palace), both of which we would tour two days later. The streets were quiet, wide and cobbled, and even where people had gathered, they seemed to have done so on foot or by bicycle rather than by car. When we took a bus through the downtown area on our way to the concert at the Festspielhaus the following day, we noticed that the central part of Bayreuth looks much more urban than does the older area, but it’s still open and spacious, with a small-town feel.

The population of Bayreuth is 73,000. The town operates, I am guessing, like other single-focus tourism centres like Stratford, Ontario and Park City, Utah, upon which thousands of people from all around the world descend for several weeks each year to enjoy an annual festival ­– filling up all of the hotels and B&Bs, shopping, dining and asking stupid questions (“Why does this bus go this way when I want to go that way?” “Is a German dumpling like an English dumpling?”) then leaving the place in a state of relative peace and quiet for the remainder of the year. Festival attendees must drive the locals in these places nuts, but I’m sure we’re also essential to their municipal bottom lines.

We chose to eat at a popular restaurant named Manns Bräu. The outdoor patio was totally packed, so we sat inside, where we shared a table with a couple who’d come from a town near Cologne to hear the entire Ring Cycle, which started two days later and ran for four nights. They’d been coming to Bayreuth for decades.

Thanks to the Google Translate app on my iPhone, we were able to share our passion for Wagner’s music and our dismay at his antisemitism: all of this over sauerbraten mit sauerblau und Kloß (yes, a lot of sauer there, and a lot of calories), bratwurst, apfelsaft (apple juice) and beer (“What is the German word for lager?”) Sharing tables with strangers is a lovely custom.

On our second day in Bayreuth we attended the Tannhäuser opera that I have written about already, which was quite enough activity for one day. On our third, we toured three of Bayreuth’s cultural offerings, each of which was impressive and totally distinctive.

Haus Wahnfried and the Richard Wagner Museum

As I mentioned in my Tannhäuser post, after considering several options, Richard and Cosima Wagner decided on Bayreuth as the location for Wagner’s opera theatre and their own home, the latter of which they named Haus Wahnfried. (Wikipedia tells us that the name is a compound of the German words for delusion or madness [Wahn] and peace, freedom [Fried]. The inscription over the door provides a bit of explanation: “Here where my delusions have found peace, let this place be named Wahnfried.”) Built between 1872 and 1874, the home is now a museum featuring not only some of the original furnishings, tableware, etc. set out in their original locations so you get a feel of what it must have been like to live there, but also displays of Cosima’s diaries and letters, and Richard’s writing implements and musical scores. Part of the house was destroyed by bombs during World War II but has been restored. Some of the artifacts within the house were also destroyed (including Wagner’s writing desk) but Richard and Cosima’s daughter-in-law Winifred managed to put most of the furniture and art in safe locations in advance of the air attack.

The basement of Haus Wahnfried has been renovated to include technological displays that offer insights into how Richard Wagner created his music, and how the score is transformed into sound.

There is also a separate home that Cosima (a widow by then) had built for her son Siegfried and his wife Winifred; Winifred lived there until she died in 1980. Siegfried and especially Winifred were fierce supporters of the Third Reich in all of its ugly manifestations, and this home was for an extended period a favourite place for Adolf Hitler to take a break from his efforts to conquer and transform Europe. A failed artist, he apparently loved to hang out here with the Wagner family and with Bayreuth musicians. Displays in this house explore the relationship between the Wagner-run Festspielhaus and the National Socialists. Throughout our visit to Germany I was impressed with the way the country has acknowledged and confronted the demons in its past.

The dining table at Siegfried House where Adolf Hitler often ate. Just looking at it gave me the creeps.

A third building on the site is new and very modern. It houses a separate museum less focused on Wagner himself and more on his operas and on “Wagnerism” in general. There we saw costumes, props and miniatures of sets from various productions of Wagner operas at Bayreuth. There was also a fascinating collection of the kind of bizarre objects that have appeared all over the world since Wagner died, either in acknowledgement of Wagner’s extraordinary talent or in an attempt to profit from association with his fame. There is also a cinema in the building.

Out back of the villa itself is the smooth polished piece of marble (outsized, of course) that marks the site of Richard’s and Cosima’s graves (he died in Venice in 1883, she at Bayreuth in 1930.) Nearby are those of several of Wagner’s favourite dogs. The secluded area which is the location of these graves opens up onto an extensive civic park, formerly part of the new palace of the Margrave Friedrich von Brandenburg- Bayreuth (see next blog post), which gives visitors a sense that the Wagner property is much bigger and more pastoral than it is.

(This post is getting a bit long and I still have two significant sites in Bayreuth to write about so stand by for Part 2. 🙂