Category Archives: Germany 2022

Germany 15: Final Thoughts

It has now been six months since we left Germany. I wrote the first few blog posts while I was still there, but then the activities increased and time ran out, so I resumed the series after I got back to Canada. I had no idea at that point that it would take me half a year to finish it! But each time I have cleared a space in my life to write a post, I have had the opportunity to revisit our journey and reflect on our experiences, which has been a great pleasure. I am going to miss my Germany-blogging time.

I loved almost everything about our trip to Germany. It was both too long and too short, which means it was probably just right. I was enduring the worst depression of my life while we were there (more on that in the next blog post: it was caused by a misadventure earlier in the summer and was more chemical than physical), and that made the journey far more difficult than it should have been. I am extremely grateful to Arnie for bearing with me through it all. But for the most part, the daily excursions and attempts to get from A to B without getting lost were the distractions I needed during that time: it was the downtimes that were the hardest – the nights, the flights, other periods of inactivity. So maybe it was exactly the right sort of place for me to be at that time. Now that I am almost totally recovered from the depression and anxiety, when I look back on the events of August 19 to September 7, 2022, I remember them with great enthusiasm. Each time I write about a museum, a view, a cobbled street, a gallery, a train, a restaurant, even a hotel we visited in Germany or Prague, I wish I could revisit it and have a closer (or sometimes broader or more extensive) look.

This is the fourth major trip I have chronicled on my I Am All Write blog, the other three being India in 2011, Cuba in 2016 and Italy/Croatia in 2019. I am looking forward to the next adventure although we have not yet made concrete plans. My next initiative here online will be to revisit the India blog and restore some of the images from that trip that seem to have fallen off the Internet, and then I want to turn all four trips into little books that I can give to my grandchildren, in case they ever want to know what I thought of the places I visited. But I’m sure I’ll occasionally post other miscellaneous essays and notes on this site between now and our next trip as well.

In fact, my next post will arrive shortly after this one. In it, I will revisit and reflect on my adventures with psilocybin and depression earlier this summer. But before I leave this Germany series completely, I wanted to record a few final thoughts.

Germany Is a Wonderful Country to Visit

To be honest, I probably never would have put Germany at the top of my list of places to visit if I hadn’t been so keen to see a Wagner opera. Having converted to Judaism during my first marriage and stayed intimately involved in the community ever since, I had a feeling that I would be disloyal in the extreme, if not worse, to visit the country where so much unspeakable horror had been visited upon the Jewish people for so many years, resulting in so many horrific, needless and cruel deaths, including those of relatives of several people I know or knew and love or loved, and of millions of others as well. And to go there because I am totally smitten by the music of one of the best-known antisemites in history? With antisemitism on the rise throughout the western world, I was not only nervous of confronting this layer of Germany’s historical reality, I was engaged in a mighty battle with my conscience.

It is probably because of these hesitations that I found Germany so remarkable – in a good way. Granted, I did not have the courage to visit Dachau, which is very close to Munich, but we did spend time at some of the numerous museums and monuments in almost every city that have been built to honour the memories of those murdered during the Holocaust, and to commemorate the thriving Jewish communities that were decimated or completely eliminated by the Nazis.

In this blog series, I have talked about our visits to the New Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, the Jewish Museum in Munich, the Jewish Ghetto in Prague, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Of all of them, I think I felt most immersed in the reality of the horror when we visited the National Socialism exhibition at the Stadtmusuem (City Museum) in Munich. Visitors enter this exhibition by a separate entrance beyond the main facility and inside, it is dark and stark, and you are suddenly aware of what it must have been like to have SS troops walking through the streets of Munich and broadcasting over its airwaves. It is truly terrifying, as is reading the history of the events that led up to the dawn of the Third Reich. The fear intensified as I reflected on the apparently normalization of racial intolerance that is growing in so many cities in “democratic” countries today.

But quite aside from these many varied and comprehensive memorials to the Jews (and, in the case of the Berlin “Memorial” exhibit, the Sinti and Roma, homosexuals and those who were euthanized because of mental or physical health conditions), there are reminders of World War II and its precursors and aftermath everywhere in Germany – whether it’s Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, the Platform 17 memorial (which we didn’t have time to visit) also in Berlin, or the 2012 installation Silenced Voices, which still stands outside the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. There is almost nowhere you can go in Germany’s larger centres where you are not reminded of the horrific events that took place in the first half of the 20th century, and this – from all I have seen and heard and read – is intentional. By putting these events front and centre, making them a part of the very fabric of daily life in German cities, the country has made its past inescapable. ((If you would like to contribute to the “remembering,” check out the Every Name Counts initiative, which is always happy to welcome new volunteers.)

To live, even for a few weeks, amidst these reminders, is restorative. It’s not just the memorials and historic sites, but the continuing reconstruction of so many buildings and neighbourhoods that were bombed to bits that serve as constant reminders of WWII. (The videos now coming out of Ukraine help me see how it must have been when the bombs fell – not only on Germany but in England, across Europe and elsewhere around the world.) I felt as though Germany has been accepting – rather than hiding or denying – what it was and what happened to it, with a view to not letting that ever happen again.

Sometimes I think that here in North America, we are too well buffered from the reality of World War II: especially as more and more time passes, we must take the steps required to seek it out in books or films, and we need to be taught it in schools, if we are to become even a little aware of that era in European history. But there, in that beautiful country, the past is everywhere. It is like the country is shouting “This is where it happened! No more!” It is a relief. (I am not suggesting that the populism that is gnawing away at the roots of democracy in other countries is not rearing its ugly head in Germany as well – particularly, it seems, in the north. I have been reading articles all year like this one and this. However, the authorities in Germany seem to be staying on top of outbreaks involving sedition and hatred, which is reassuring.)

Germany’s efforts to keep the past front and centre mean that it is possible for thoughtful visitors to put the Nazi era into context. A whole lot of interesting and magnificent (and some not-so-magnificent history) came before 1900, and there’s been a lot of “history” since. Germany is a clean, beautiful country, (very well organized!), with friendly welcoming people and endless sights to see. It is a country that takes preserving the environment seriously – during August they offered a transit pass for only nine Euros that one could use in every city in the country all month! It is also a very diverse country, with residents who, it is clear, have arrived there from all over the planet. (For some reason I found it disconcerting to find excellent Italian restaurants in Germany with German-only-speaking staff, until I asked myself, “Why don’t you find it unusual to find them in Canada with English-only-speaking staff?”)

A note I wrote on FB while I was on the road: “Germans drink a lot of beer. They walk around the streets with open bottles of it in their hands, and consume huge jugs in restaurants.” They also smoke everywhere outside, including on restaurant patios, which are jammed. There is far less obesity than there is in North America (I’ve always thought that the rise in obesity in NA was connected to the prohibitions on smoking) and many more people on bicycles, probably because the bike lanes are generous and make more sense. Maybe also because of cost and energy consumption. Younger people on bikes seem to wear helmets more often than older riders, but this is not a scientific report. There are scooters everywhere. A car did run into one of those right below our hotel window one night. No one was hurt, which was amazing. The police came and sorted it out.

End of totally unreliable report on German health.

Some Tips for Travellers

I spent quite a bit of time trying to learn German before we left, but online is no way to learn to use a language so I was pretty much in over my head when we got there. The attempt was beneficial, however – having a few basic words, and being aware that Germans run nouns together to form new nouns (e.g., die Qualitätskontrolle for “quality control,” or Orangensaft for “orange juice”) and capitalize nouns in the middle of sentences, and knowing that “ß”sounds like “ss,” made it much easier to navigate signs and menus.

Almost everywhere we went, English was spoken – often fluently or almost fluently. But even where it wasn’t, the people were friendly and tried to make sense of what we were telling them as we did charades-like performances to suggest what we were asking, with a few possibly unrelated German words thrown in. In Berlin, two people who were travelling (not together) in the opposite direction from us actually let a few S-Bahn streetcars go by in their desired direction until they’d helped us figure out why we couldn’t get a ticket out of the dispensing machine on our side of the tracks. And in Bayreuth, when we got stuck on a bus that had been diverted from its regular route due to a water-main break, the other passengers (none of whom spoke English very well at all) pitched in to let us know the best place to get off to begin our long walk back to the hotel.

These are a few things to bring (or procure right after landing, in the case of the SIM card) that will make your trip to Germany (and probably other countries as well) run more smoothly

  • a SIM card so that you can make local calls and check the maps on the Internet without tapping into your life savings;
  • a portable charger/powerbank for your phone: I generally only use a quarter of the power in my phone in a day, but when I’m travelling, I often run out of juice by early afternoon. Having one of these in the backpack is a peace-of-mind saver, and probably at times an actual life-saver.
  • coins for washrooms. Almost all public washrooms are staffed and require at least one Euro coin, sometimes two. It’s worth it – the toilets are clean and well supplied.

Next Time I’d See the Zoo

Next time, the Berlin Zoo would be at the top of my to-see list. “With about 1,380 different species and over 20,200 animals, the zoo presents one of the most comprehensive collections of species in the world” (Wikipedia). Ironically, as I have mentioned before, it was originally a hunting ground.

“The beginnings of the Tiergarten can be traced back to 1527. It was founded as a hunting area for the Elector of Brandenburg [….] In 1530 the expansion began; acres of land were purchased and the garden began to expand towards the north and west. The total area extended beyond the current Tiergarten, and the forests were perfect for hunting deer and other wild animals (Tiergarten might literally be translated as animal garden). The Elector of Brandenburg had wild animals placed within the Tiergarten, which was fenced off from the outside to prevent the creatures from escaping, and was the main hunting ground for the electors of Brandenburg. This hobby, however, began to fade away as the city of Berlin began to expand and the hunting area shrank to accommodate the growth.” (Wikipedia)

The site was designated as a public zoo in the mid-1800s, and in 1914 an aquarium was built. The zoo and its aquarium had more than 3.5 million visitors in 2017. It is the most-visited zoo in Europe and one of the most popular worldwide (Wikipedia).

“During World War II, the zoo was hit by Allied bombs for the first time on 8 September 1941. On 22 and 23 November 1943. in less than 15 minutes, 30% of the zoo population was killed on the first day, and on the second day the aquarium building was completely destroyed by a direct hit. Of the eight elephants, only one survived, the bull Siam, and 2-year-old hippo bull Knautschke was saved from the gunfire in his animal house. Most damage was done during the Battle of Berlin: from 22 April 1945 onwards, the zoo was under constant artillery fire of the Red Army. Heavy fighting took place on the zoo area till 30 April, and safety measures forced the zoo keepers to kill some predators and other dangerous animals.” (Wikipedia)

The zoo is only one of the splendid things we did not have time to see in Germany. Next time I’d also see (starting a list here 🙂 ):

  • Kurfürstendamm “one of the most famous avenues in Berlin. The street takes its name from the former Kurfürsten (prince-electors) of Brandenburg. The broad, long boulevard can be considered the Champs-Élysées of Berlin and is lined with shops, houses, hotels and restaurants. In particular, many fashion designers have their shops there, as well as several car manufacturers’ show rooms.”

I’d happily go back to visit or revisit lots of other stuff as well, but until I figure out the secret to eternal life in this dimension (and the ability to stroll through it without too much pain), I may need to move onto the next country instead of planning to return to those we’ve already seen.

And so, onwards.

Germany 14: Lovely Berlin, Part 3

Museum Island, the DDR Museum, and Some Platzes

If you have any interest in 20th-Century European history and you are in Berlin, you will be richly rewarded by a visit to the DDR Museum. (“DDR” stands for Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or German Democratic Republic [GDR].) We spent several hours there on our last full day in Germany, and every moment was fascinating.

Museum Island

In the middle of the Spree River in Berlin there is an island where five world-class museums are located: the Altes Museum, the Neues Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Bode Museum and the Pergamon. The Pergamon, the most popular, includes “The Collection of Classical Antiquities,” “The Museum of the Ancient Near East,” and “The Museum of Islamic Art.” Other museums are close by, across the river from the island.

After nearly three weeks of sightseeing, unfortunately we’d had enough of world-class museums and art galleries. We did, however, wander past a few of the acclaimed buildings on our final day in Berlin – our subway stop for the DDR Museum was at Museum Island. Next time I’m there, I intend to start my sightseeing at one of the museums on the island. I was sorry that we didn’t have the perseverance this time.

The DDR Museum

The DDR Museum is located across the eastern arm of the Spree from the magnificent Berlin Cathedral. We were fortunate to visit it when we did, as two months later a huge Aquadom in the Radisson Collection Hotel, right next door to the Museum, exploded, spewing a million litres of water and 1500 fish into the lobby and the street. The DDR Museum will be closed for several months as a result of the damage from that catastrophe.

The description of the DDR Museum in my Lonely Planet guide is what attracted our interest. “This touchy-feely museum does an insightful and entertaining job of pulling back the iron curtain on daily life in socialist East Germany. You’ll learn how kids were put through collective potty training, engineers earned little more than farmers, and everyone, it seems, went on nudist holidays. A perennial crowd-pleaser among the historic objects on display is a Trabi, the tinny East German standard car – sit in it to take a virtual spin around an East Berlin neighbourhood. The more sinister sides of daily life, including the chronic supply shortages and surveillance by the Stasi (secret police), are also addressed.”

(Rather than transcribing the information from the signs that were posted near the displays and installations, I am posting photographs of some of the signs themselves – which were often as interesting as the visuals. I’ve added comments here and there where I think they may be helpful.)


As the Lonely Planet Guide said, the Trabant, the East-German-made automobile (called “Cardboard on Wheels” in the display), was of great interest to visitors. Apparently, the East Germans were dismayed at the success of the Volkswagen that was being manufactured on the far side of the Wall, and had hoped this would compete. It did not. Most East Germans had no alternative but to purchase the “Trabi,” but they invested a good deal of time and energy on do-it-yourself repairs, and the cobbling together of home-made parts.

Daily Life




An East German Apartment

A completely outfitted East German Apartment is displayed in the DDR Museum. It was very spacious, but just about everything in it was shoddily made and apparently everything broke down all the time. The East Germans became adept at repairing everything.

Alexanderplatz, Potsdamer Platz and Gendarmenmarkt

After we left Museum Island we went to Alexanderplatz to look around and enjoy some currywurst (tasty!).

Then we took the U-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz, where we visited a beautiful new shopping mall and admired a lot of buildings.

For our final evening meal in Berlin (and Germany), we took the U-Bahn up to lovely Gendarmenmarkt, where we had a lovely dinner and saw some unexpected sights that made us very glad we hadn’t just gone back to the same restaurant we’d enjoyed twice before near our hotel, as our tired feet had strongly suggested we should do.

Germany 13: Lovely Berlin, Part 2

The Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie and a Word or Two on Transit in Berlin

Getting around Berlin without a vehicle is incredibly easy. All of the major German cities that we visited had excellent transportation networks, but Berlin’s was outstanding. We were able to buy a pass each day and travel all over the central part of the city, and the only thing we needed to remember was to get our tickets stamped in a machine in the station after we bought them. With your validated ticket in hand, you don’t need to go through admission gates or anything – you can just hop on and off the trains (U-Bahn), streetcars (S-Bahn) and buses, which will take you anywhere you want to go. (With the stamped ticket, you are ready to provide evidence that you are a paying customer if asked by a transit authority person: fines for not having a ticket are steep.)

The underground networks almost always have elevators and escalators that actually work (unlike what often happens in Toronto), and some of the escalators are so smart that they don’t start moving until you (or someone) steps onto them. I recently read that Berlin’s mask mandate on public transportation will be lifted in February, 2023, but it was still in effect when we were there so we felt safe.

I was also impressed with the proliferation of bike paths throughout Berlin, and at nearly every major intersection there are bikes and scooters available to rent. If you lived there, you would hardly ever need to use a car. I’m sure most people don’t.

Walking home late one night, we also saw a chauffeur service that appealed to me for the compactness of the vehicle on offer.

The Reichstag

On our second day in Berlin, we visited the Reichstag, which houses the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament.

The original building, built in 1894, was burned by arsonists on February 27, 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany. Hitler blamed the fire on “communists” and used it as a lever to induce Paul von Hindenburg, the German president at the time, to suspend civil liberties. The Reichstag Fire was therefore seminal in the rise of Nazism in Germany. The building was also bombed by the Russians during World War II.

“The ruined building was made safe against the elements and partially refurbished in the 1960s, but no attempt at full restoration was made until after German reunification in 1990, when it underwent a reconstruction led by architect Norman Foster. After its completion in 1999, it once again became the meeting place of the German parliament: the contemporary Bundestag” (Wikipedia). (Where would I be without Wikipedia?? I support it annually with a small donation, and encourage you to do so too.)

The Reichstag’s Dome is seamlessly melded into the reconstructed original structure to create a breathtaking architectural work. Here are a few cool things about this fabulous blend of old and new:

  • “The steel and glass structure allows viewers to look directly into the chamber of the Bundestag. The passage of natural light highlights the transparency of government and its openness to its citizens” (Waagner Biro Reichstag Dome). The metaphor reinforces the idea that the people are above the government and not the other way around, as they were under the Nazis.
  • “The glass dome was designed by Foster to be environmentally friendly and energy efficient; in allowing daylight to shine through the mirrored cone, the use of artificial lighting is significantly reduced, and thus so are carbon emissions. A large sun shield tracks the movement of the sun electronically and blocks direct sunlight which would not only cause large solar gain, but also dazzle those below.” Wikipedia
  • “The dome is open at the top, allowing waste air from the chamber below to escape and bringing fresh air into the building.” Rainy Day Traveller
  • The Reichstag Dome allows a 360° view of the city. It is just south of the Spree and just north of the Brandenburg Gate so you get a nice view of a whole lot of interesting stuff. (On the day we visited, flags all over the city were lowered to half mast to honour Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, who had just died.) The audio guide available as you enter the Dome is worth getting: you can listen to it as you stroll up and down the helix-like ramp structure inside.

It is essential to book a ticket ahead of time to tour the Reichstag. On the recommendation of our nephew Paul, I booked our visit even before we left Canada, and I was glad I did. If you want tickets, which are free, here’s the link.

Checkpoint Charlie

That afternoon (September 3), we visited Checkpoint Charlie. Obviously, one must do that when one is in Berlin for the first time – although we had heard there was nothing much to see at the site aside from tourist-magnet stores (containing actual magnets and other things that can help you to prove to your friends and family that you were at a certain place when you were away. I have a fridge covered in those kinds of magnets, and I love them. But I didn’t get one for Checkpoint Charlie).

Germany was divided into East and West in 1952, with the Soviets controlling the East and the Allies the West. Berlin was right on the border, so one side of it was in the more prosperous western sector and the other side in the more disadvantaged (Soviet) eastern section. Families and friends were separated by this division, and for that and numerous other reasons, millions of people wanted to get out of East Germany. It was easier to get across the border in Berlin than in most other parts of the divided country, because the city was being administered by the Western Allies. By 1961, 3.5 million people, or nearly 20% of the population of East Germany, had escaped to the West. Many of these people were young and well educated, and most of them had jobs, so their defections had a significant effect on the already-depressed East German economy. The Soviets grew increasingly determined to stop the flood of escapes.

The Berlin Wall started out as a barbed-wire fence in about 1961. Soon after it was erected, East Germany began construction of a concrete barrier – not only in Berlin but in other parts of Germany as well. “Along with the wall, the 830-mile (1336 km) zonal border became 3.5 miles (5.6 km) wide on its East German side in some parts of Germany with a tall steel-mesh fence running along a ‘death strip’ bordered by mines, as well as channels of ploughed earth, to slow escapees and more easily reveal their footprints” (Wikipedia). The Berlin Wall itself, “Erected in haste and torn down in protest, […] was almost 27 miles long and was protected with barbed wire, attack dogs, and 55,000 landmines” (National Geographic).

Checkpoint Charlie (named from the Allies’ designation of it as “Checkpoint C”; the Soviets called it “Friedrichstraße Crossing Point”) was the only place in Berlin where “foreigners and Allied Forces” were allowed to cross the border. “During its 28-year active life, the infrastructure on the Eastern side was expanded to include not only the wall, watchtower and zig-zag barriers, but a multi-lane shed where cars and their occupants were checked. However, the Allied authority never erected any permanent buildings. A wooden shed was replaced during the 1980s by a larger metal structure, now displayed at the Allied Museum in western Berlin. Their reasoning was that they did not consider the inner Berlin sector boundary an international border and did not treat it as such” (Wikipedia).

Following the erection of the wall, many additional escapes took place (some of which are listed and described in gory detail at the Wikipedia link I’ve cited above) and these led to more and more refinements to keep East Germans out of West Berlin.

The original Checkpoint Charlie crossing booth is displayed in the open-air museum on the northeast corner near the checkpoint location, along with displays of photos and texts describing the history of the crossing and depicting several escape attempts. These displays were very informative. We did not tour the actual “Mauermuseum” (Wall Museum) as we felt we had a pretty good idea of what it was all about from the locations that were accessible for free. The next day, when we visited the DDR Museum, we got a really fascinating look at what life had been like on the East side of the Wall. Stay tuned for more on that next time.

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!


* 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.


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.


*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!).


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.