After two years of self-imposed travel black-out to Europe, I finally decide to take the plunge for an opera trip to the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. After applying for two years in 2017 and 2018 unsuccessfully, I was offered a slot to purchase tickets for Wagner’s Ring cycle for 2022.
Normally all performances are sold out years in advance. You qualify after four years of application. I’m sure the COVID pandemic was a big detractor for many, so my chances of getting tickets were improved. I deliberated back and forth until I was advised by others to “live my life as I would have normally before the pandemic”.
I am taking a break from the past year’s construction project. If you have been following the story of the ADU (accessory dwelling unit) under the direction of Foreman Felix, we will resume after this two week diversion!
Munich–the Gateway to Bayreuth
After a direct flight from San Francisco to Munich, it felt odd to suddenly be plopped out of nowhere to a country that I had studied and admired so much. Being in Germany reminded me of all the reasons I became a Germanophile: Citizens take the environment and sustainability seriously; clean, predictable, comfortable public transportation; appreciation for and attention to architectural detail; and safe streets (except for bicyclists running over pedestrians).
Refreshing my German language studies before coming helped to prepare me, despite a huge reliance on fully capable English-speaking Germans. The immediate sensual experiences were the lush green countryside, church bells ringing, and the distinct lack of smell or taste.
This summer, scores of public transport agencies have joined together to offer a special incentive to use their services. For a flat price of 9 Euros, passengers can ride any of the local agencies throughout Germany for an entire month (June, July and August). You can get just about anywhere in Germany, as often as you want, for the price of a round-trip subway ticket!
Many residents were concerned that trains and buses would be overcrowded. Rush hours and popular tourist sites need to be avoided, but the summer months are normally the lowest ridership. I wondered if statistics were due to the high volume of Germans traveling outside the country during summer months pre-Pandemic. In any event, it appeared that my three changes to reach Bayreuth were completely manageable.
Dachau Memorial Site
Worry-free travel encouraged me to venture to Dachau to visit the grim Concentration Camp outside of Munich. Now known as a Memorial Site, it was a second visit for me. It was not as jarring as the first, when memories were raw and more startling.
Mature beech trees and religious institutions are now located on the site to reduce the impact to visitors. Audio-visual materials translated into English helped to describe what happened. Efforts to explain economic hardships after World War I and during the Thirties gave perspective on the past. When the Americans arrived in 1945, prisoners were freed. Unfortunately, the advent of the Cold War distracted the war trials. Few were held accountable for causing the Holocaust.
Alte and Neue Pinokoteks and the Modern Pinokotek
This extensive array of Western Art from the Greeks to Impressionists propelled me into full museum battlement. I covered many miles by foot and found the masters including DaVinci, Raphael, Durer, Van Gogh and Manet. I was delighted to find an Egon Schiele, one of my favorite artists. And the pastel collection was a great value lesson on how the medium achieves more luminosity over oil paintings. Pastel artists struggled with the chalky powder, so I felt vindicated by my shared frustration.
From the Alte Pinothek to the Modern, I searched specifically for any display of Thonet bentwood chairs. My early education as a design major gave me an appreciation for the best industrial design and chair production. The Modern Pinothek did not disappoint–in fact it showcased a chorus line of beautiful period Thonet chairs in chronological order!
In the trendy Schwabing neighborhood where I was staying, I stumbled into a woodworker’s shop specializing in Bentwood refurbishing. Like many Germans in August, the proprietor was on “urlaub”, or vacation. A peek through his shop window motivated me to follow up with him after my return to the U.S. I also learned from conversations with a retail supplier that, while “Thonet” is produced in Germany, “Brueders Thonet” is a separate company out of Vienna, Austria. Important to know the date and source of production when searching for vintage pieces.
Several spins around Schwabing, the equivalent to St. Germain de Pres and near the Ludwig Maximilian University, yielded a boutique selling exquisite hats and headpieces, an academy for ancient Greek Sculpture where you can sketch to your heart’s delight, cute babies, and a yummy French bistro next to the hotel where I stayed.
(Note: the copper pipe in the featured photo above would never survive in San Francisco! Ah…such trust…)
I’m off to Bayreuth, about three hours by train-bus-train to see Wagner’s Ring Cycle! Sixteen hours of sitting in a theatre seat could just about get me around the world! Yes, the gods must be crazy and I am about to find out.
Don’t forget to write from wherever you are! When was the last time you were in Germany?!?
I have been contemplating how to initiate 2021, after a three-week hiatus from posting Travels with Myself and Others. The uncommonly normal existence in New Zealand seems awkward and inconceivable in light of the unprecedented events taking place in the U.S. Perhaps it is best to acknowledge what has allowed our privilege to be here possible.
The New Zealand government, along with a few other island countries like Japan, Korea and Taiwan, has overcome huge obstacles to protect its people from the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this tiny country of 5 million people, the government has been as transparent and straightforward as possible in its approach to the pandemic.
It also maintains stringent control over non-native flora and fauna. Travelers are unable to bring in foreign species such as fresh fruit and vegetables. Even sun-dried goods such as herbs, mushrooms, sausages and dried meat may contain microscopic live organisms. These items are confiscated and require zapping in high temperature ovens before being released.
Similar to these protections that have been in place for decades, the government takes special precautions against incoming biohazards and diseases such as COVID-19. In going through the agricultural area of Te Puke in Tauranga, signs along the highway remind everyone to protect its local kiwi fruit production.
New Zealanders are aware of their special circumstances. They are grateful for the government’s efforts in being vigilant. They read the news headlines and follow international developments closely. They follow the rules. Everyone knows about the thin line separating them from most of the rest of the world. In the end, no one is separable.
There was talk about creating a bubble for travel with Australia, where 75% of expatriate New Zealanders live. However, breaches in Melbourne, Sydney and where the new COVID-variant is detected, widening the net seems unlikely at this time.
New Zealanders have been very understanding and compassionate, as they hear distressing stories from other countries rampant with COVID-19. They want to make sure that New Zealander living abroad are able to repatriate and be comfortable during the two weeks in the managed isolation facilities.
New Zealand has done the right thing. With good leadership, good policies and practical thinking, it is one of the safest places to be on earth at the moment. We are fortunate to be here and hope that it will remain this way.
Mt. Ruapehu National Park
Everyone was more than ready for 2020 to end. With a few strategic choices and decisions, we were able to fulfill our goal of reuniting our nuclear family in New Zealand. Our last few weeks were filled with joyful holiday activities among close family members and a new addition to the family. We traveled from the North Island to the South Island.
We celebrated our Christmas holidays in Ohakune, at the edge of the UNESCO dual World Heritage Tongariro and Whanganui National Parks. During the off-peak season, we were able to enjoy one of New Zealand’s popular winter destinations with few or no crowds. (It is summertime now). On New Year’s Day, we took the gondola ride up Mount Ruapehu, the largest active volcano in New Zealand and the highest point in the North Island (over 9,000 ft).
Volcanic activity in the area restricted a 2 km radius area, but fortunately it wasn’t in the gondola’s path. New Zealand is unleashed when it comes to extreme sports such as bungee jumping, zipping, and hair-raising climbs. Being liability free, New Zealand is a hearty land for adventure travelers. Seismic and volcanic activity along the ring of fire further increases the potential danger and drama. Some tourists were killed last year when the volcano at White Island near Tauranga erupted.
Overnight in Wellington
We stopped to visit friends and the Te Papa Museum in a brief overnight stopover in Wellington on the way to Christ Church. Filled with a variety of classic and modern art, history, and natural history, the museum had plenty of material to teach and inspire visitors of all ages.
The Wellington Sunday Market in the Central Business District offered summer fruits and vegetables that seemed brighter, fresher, and larger. I was drawn to the pattern, shape, and form of each product. After a delightful and leisurely evening with a close relative, we managed to slip in a dim sum lunch the next day in the center of the city before heading to Christchurch.
Ohakune Forest Walks
Earlier in the week, we took one more hour-long forest walk in Ohakune before heading to Wellington. We had a chance to appreciate the gorgeous display of famous New Zealand ferns.
Middle Earth is a reference to Peter Jackson’s famous Lord of the Rings. Much of the filming took place between Auckland and Tauranga, but it seemed like a more appropriate name for the middle of the North Island. I haven’t seen the series yet, but I am inspired by being here.
With thanks to our pastry chef daughter, we shared the joy of cooking with our beloved family between Christmas and New Year’s. We concocted, baked, glutted ourselves with special meals and dishes and challenged each other’s intellectual skills on a hand-made Scrabble board.
As we enter into an uncertain future over the next few months and the advent of the holiday season, it seems inappropriate to revel in travel experiences. Yet they bring fond memories of a time past. I wonder whether we will ever be able to have such joyful experiences again. The COVID pandemic has indeed affected every country to a large extent because of travel. Globalization has taught us that there are drawbacks to a shrinking planet, and costs to mixing human interaction, culture, economies, and democratic principles.
Nevertheless, here is my defiant celebration of the past. Secretly, I hope that the world will rebound in the coming year. In doing so, perhaps we will be older and wiser at our choices, and ensure greater appreciation of our relationships, our environment, and protecting both.
In previous posts, I confessed about my love for Dresden. Granted, Berlin topped my favorite city in Germany, until Munich came along. Like children, it’s hard to give way to one over another. Nevertheless, I maintain great fondness and admiration for Dresden, the first city where I studied German and formed deep impressions about Germany.
Music and art surround you in Dresden. The U.K.’s Daily Telegraph regarded Dresden as having one of the best music festivals in Europe, with popular performers like Rufus Wainwright and Eric Clapton showcased along with world-famous classical conductors and symphonies. When I first studied art history in college, I became curious about where Dresden was (pronounced DRAYS-den by Germans). Many famous Romantic paintings were located in Dresden.
I returned to Dresden several times–for the music, the beautiful Baroque architecture, historical museums and art collections, the intimate surroundings, and the familiarity.
The new state of Altstadt vs. the old state of Neustadt
The location of Dresden’s landmarks are confusing, because the old part of the city was rebuilt after WWII and should be called Neustadt. But the neighborhood to the north of Dresden on the other side of the Elbe River is already called Neustadt. It was named that after a big fire in Dresden in 1685.
The beloved original Baroque buildings have been imitated every 200 years or so and throughout generations in between. So it is barely detectable whether they are from today (21st century), yesterday (19th century), or from its original reconstruction (1685). Dresden is fixated on the urban massing and proportions of five-story blocks with mansard, gabled roofs. It has committed itself to an elegant and functional building form worth repeating.
The plazas and central area of Dresden surrounding the major museums, the Frauenkirche, the Residenz, and the Semper Oper continue to impress old and new visitors to this historic imperial city. The large pit that was left open for a few years in the middle of the city due to archaeological excavations have been filled. In its place are replicas of the old Baroque buildings that were bombed during WWII. (See header above).
In the center of town, numerous free musical events took place throughout Altstadt (the old new part of the Old City). Fellow German classmate Vladimir and I reconnected and caught a couple of young and old rock bands, two choir groups, and a brass chamber music ensemble. The often shuttered Japanese Palace was open on the weekend to host some of these events.
The Neustadt neighborhood, created after a major fire in the heart of Dresden’s Altstadt, or “Old City”, is still relatively historic and elegant, with Baroque buildings from the 18th Century. So it’s a bit of a misnomer and confusing to first-timers here. The streets are still relatively narrow in scale, with streetcars rumbling along the cobbled streets in a predictable ambient noise level. They are punctuated by the occasional bells ringing from the many local Protestant churches nearby.
The Neustadt area where I live is jammed with young residents and visitors. It’s a lively scene every night. Party-goers on bicycles invade the corner and perch on the curbs for hours on end. While the noise is evident, the scene is manageable. The bauhof or courtyard in my apartment building provides just enough sound separation to make any noise barely detectable.
The true test will be the annual local festival in the area next weekend, when the neighborhood comes unwound for three days. Clubs and restaurants will offer free music in nearly 20 different locations.
Courtyard buildings, designed to allow light and air into the deep superblocks, create intriguing walkways and chasms of sunfilled delight and discoveries from the busy thoroughfares now laden with shops and restaurants.
Inside the Kunsthof Passage, or “Arts Passage”, is a delightful array of new buildings designed in the same proportion and massing as the surrounding Baroque buildings. Exteriors are decorated with tile artwork in a fanciful display of creativity and fun. “Lila Sossa”, a resturant now becoming an institution in the area, serves organic dishes and desserts from Mason jars.
I’ve been buying my groceries at the corner Bio-Markt. It’s a minature supermarket complete with organic produce, fresh meat, dairy, and bread. I avoided the bread and wine to promote healthy living, but I did buy some landjaeger, one of my favorite dried sausages. It is packed with flavor, great for a snack or outing, and demonstrates one of Germany’s culinary skills: sausage-making. A joke on twitter said the Germans, facing COVID lockdown, have now resorted to their würst-käse scenario.
Food is still inexpensive and inspired by international standards of quality and diversity. I had a vegan rice wrap with glass noodle and spring rolls with tea for under $8 for dinner last night, but had trouble deciding among the extensive selection of Japanese, Afghan, Indian, Turkish, and even German specialties within a one-block radius of where I lived.
Germans are learning how to eat better and their culinary adventures are catching up with the rest of the world. Germany has the second highest number of Michelin star restaurants after France. Like the English, German latter day culinary awareness is under-appreciated. The fruit basket on display at a fair is a reminder of how ugly fruit and vegetables are wasted for visually-appealing choices.
Pictures at an Exhibition
Although I am primarily in Dresden for a German course, I feel like I am leading a double life. I have been researching Music Festival concerts being held for another week here. I have managed to squeeze three performances in three days while attending classes. If you were ever contemplating how to learn about music by going to performances, this is the place to do it.
Prices are reasonable and with student “rush” tickets from the Goethe Institute, you are in business. I paid 20 Euros for “Pictures at an Exhibition”, a piano recital at the Albertinum Museum. It turned out to be a double bargain, since access to the museum was free immediately before the performance.
In a fascinating program combining music and art, Tokarev first played Tsaichovsky’s “Character Pieces for a Year” for piano. Each month’s themes portrayed different moods and feelings, from romantic songs to grand celebrations. The second half was followed by Mussorgski’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”. The tunes were skillfully enhanced by a video installation.
The program certainly increased my appreciation of the two composers, and it communicated the beauty in their work. Kandinsky’s “Large Gate from Kiev” painting from 1924 was featured in deconstructed movement and timing. Everything was seamlessly coordinated into an exquisite visual and musical experience.
Nikolai Tokarev, the soloist, has won numerous European piano competitions, performed alongside many European orchestras, and produced CDs interpreting beloved Russian composers.
The Albertinum Museum exhibition, “100 Years of Bauhaus” was the second windfall. Created in Germany in 1920s, the Bauhaus included members shown in the exhibition such as Maholy-Nagy, Feininger, Klee and Kandinsky. It was a good warm-up to the performance.
The teachings of the Bauhaus formed the foundation for my undergraduate training in design at UC Berkeley. The Bauhaus developed design concepts and tools for mass production. Art, technology, architecture, painting, sculpture and construction are integrated with each other and this approach was developed from this movement.
Two-dimensional geometric lines and color like those by Piet Mondrian evolved into three-dimensional shapes. It is easy to see how industrial design and furniture like those by Marcel Breuer were an extension of isometric details and design.
The attendees at the Exhibition were exhibitions themselves. One woman wore a tastefully chosen black and white polka-dotted dress with red heels and accessories. Another more casually dressed gentleman clad in classic German black pondered in front of a textured wall. It served as a backdrop for artwork designed in the 20’s as part of the Bauhaus movement.
Last but not least, a quick rip through the classical section of the Albertinum revealed many forgotten items in storage and on display–a sad reminder of the dilemma of wealthy collectors.
After the end of the performance and three encores, the warm evening air outside reminded me of what a special place Dresden is in place and time. The view below is photographed from the Albertinum in Altstadt. Frederick Augustus, Elector of Saxony and the King of Poland, built most of Dresden’s original Baroque buildings here in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries.
An irresistible ticket price of 10 Euros drove me to the Semperoper to see Angela Georgeiou, the Romanian diva, in Tosca. Despite being in my favorite opera house, sitting in the fifth row slightly off center, a “clean” stage without a distracting cast of thousands, and the bargain, the performance was disappointing.
Here are two other concerts I attended:
Grigory Sokolov Piano Recital
Born in 1950, Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov can still apply all faculties and fingers to a long and rare public performance. The audience was extraordinarily attentive, reflecting the pianist’s skillful yet delicate playing.
The Germans, as I have mentioned before, are stingy with kudos but you know you have seen something worthwhile when the audience gives multiple standing ovations (after stamping their feet). Sokolov showed his gratitude by performing several encores. It didn’t hurt that the newly renovated Concert Palace in the heart of Dresden is acoustically perfect. Musicians travel to the venue by bike and tourists arrive by public transportation at the front door, so pre-concert traffic is non-existent.
Dresden High School for Music
Music permeates daily life in and around Dresden. The Dresden High School for Music demonstrated its mettle with a high quality string orchestra consisting of 11 to 19 year olds. Serious students and attentive audiences symbiotically promote a strong future for classical music in Germany. The school was beautifully and acoustically designed for music and performing arts.
Rather than for me to carry on about why I love Dresden, I will defer to earlier posts written in August 2014. You will find them in the search or in the summary of posts for that month.
We will be pausing the Europe Series/Silk Road Extension next time, in order to feature real-time postings from New Zealand. Be sure to join us for new insights of traveling in a country that has managed the COVID pandemic better than most other countries.
After introducing the city in the last post, I feel obligated to complete the rest of my Berlin posts from 2016. Yes, it’s long, but for those interested it will capture a hefty dose of the sights and sounds of Berlin that should still exist today. The only downfall to me is that most travelers outside of Berlin are unable to experience the city’s treasures real-time today, in November 2020. Let’s hope we can do so by this time next year….
I’ve also included a quick trip to Berlin at the end of this post from Winter 2016 with daughter and pastry chef, Melissa.The upcoming and final post from Germany will be from Dresden.
Aside from the pillaging of art treasures from their original sources, the collection was exceptional. Mostly from 2400-1200 B.C (Middle and Late Kingdoms). Queen Nefertiti’s head was here, but photography was not allowed. Exquisitely beautiful. Figures were lively and not as stiff as most representations of Egyptian art. They spark the curiosity and desire to learn and understand more. Enjoy the photos and captions where available.
The Berliner Dome, like the Berlin TV Tower, shares a prominent place in the city’s skyline. And, like the Tiergarten, this visit gave me a chance to slow down and absorb its inherent beauty . While it is a “Protestant” Church and not a “Catholic” cathedral, it nevertheless was highly ornate. In 1905, it was a last gasp for the Prussian monarchy. It was restored in the 1990s.
The main chancel apse had three impressive panels showing the birth, cruxifiction, and resurrection of Christ. A large organ in the niche to the left made me want to return to hear it one day. The basement was a bit creepy as it held the crypts of many of the Hollenzollern lineage, including that of King William Friedrich (1861).
I subjected myself to an adventure at the Comic Opera, where I saw Massenet’s “Cedrillon”. It was loosely based on the story of Cinderella, so a bit of a ho-hum with nice music. The cast was subtly baudy (if that’s possible). It reminded me of the opera-goers’ version of San Francisco’s Beach Blanket Babylon. The chorus or corps de ballet definitely provide the tongue-in-cheek comic element. Despite top-notch singing and a pretty good stage set, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
The opera house itself was worth seeing. It still conveyed the grandeur and aura of the past, but sadly was a bit shabby and in need of a face lift. A surprise inspiration were large video screens in the lobby, that show current performances and cast lists. Cedrillon is replicated here. The last photo below shows the actual evening’s cast and curtain call.
Berlin recognizes its Jewish history and the part it plays in understanding the city today. Our guide, Matthias Rau, started our tour of the area at one of three Jewish cemeteries in Berlin. A reproduction of the headstone of Moses Mendelssohn is located in the cemetery (see photos in slide show below). He was one of the major leaders of the Jewish community in Berlin in the 18th Century. If you are interested, you can read more about Moses Mendelssohn here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_Mendelssohn
Brass plated tiles with inscriptions of names of Jewish people who lived in the area are found throughout Berlin. Organized by a private foundation, this effort identifies individuals, their birthdates, where they died, and when. Most of the inscriptions we saw identified Auschwitz as the place of death. (We later noticed plates in Kreuzberg.)
1. Only some of the stonework with inscriptions were salvaged at the cemetery. The grave sites are covered with ivy.
2. The site of the “missing house” is used to identify Jews who had lived in the building. Tags on adjacent buildings indicate where each family lived and are stark reminders of the lives that disappeared.
3. A tribute to Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi in Berlin. She was part of the Jewish liberal sector.
4, 5 and 6: The New Jewish Synagogue (1866, Oranienstrasse 30) was the center of the Jewish community (also wooden doorway from Entrance) .
7. Augustus Strasse, where the Jewish School (shown in photo on the left) was located. It now is used for community space, the Kennedy Center, and other public facilities.
24 hours in Berlin
On Saturday, a fellow German student from Dresden and I spent the day exploring Berlin together with the following schedule:
10:00: Met friends from the Berlin Goethe Institute for Brunch at Sud Bloc, a Turkish Restaurant in Cottbus Tor.
12:00: Instead of the the 9th Berlin Art Biennale, we chose to visit the International Design Festival, since the Biennale was around for another couple of weeks. This is certainly a fantastic city for art and artists. Below are a few of the displays that were presented at Kraftwerk, a huge warehouse/industrial building in Berlin Mitte near the Heinrich-Heine Station
14:30: Walked through trendy streets in the Mitte near Rosenthaler Platz. The KW Institute for Art, one of the Biennale centers, is located on Augustus Strasse. It parallels another delightful alley, Linienstrasse, that is sprinkled with cafes, one-of-a-kind handmade items, and art galleries. I had a red lentil and avocado sandwich with a German rose wine across the street from the old Jewish school. Melissa and I had seen the Kennedy Exhibition there in January 2016.
16:00: Stop at my Air BNB on Brunnenstrasse for a cake and coffee break.
17:00: Visit the Bernauer Strasse wall exhibit (see posting from last week)
18:00: Alexanderplatz pit stop, with a Afrikaner Festival food and entertainment in high gear.
19:45: Performance of the Return of Tobias, an Oratorium by Joseph Haydn at the Elizabeth Church around the corner from where I am staying.
This was a bonus performance. I was debating about whether to go after such a full day. The performance was sold out, but seating behind the orchestra was available for 5 euros! I could enjoy the full choir, orchestra, and professional quality opera singers and kick my shoes off at the same time. The performance began with actors at the cemetery a couple of blocks away, setting the stage for the story. Everyone returned to the church, where the full story, singing, and beautiful music in an intimate setting unfolded. A delightful close to an exhausting day.
The following day’s activities started with alot of guilt-laden German studying, but in the afternoon I treated myself to a brilliant performance of “Tristan und Isolde” by Richard Wagner at the Deutsche Oper. The marathon performance lasted 5 hours, from 4pm until 9pm. (Only the Meistersinger at the SF Opera was longer at 6 hours). Needless to say, the German stiff upper lip in me kicked in. In classic behavior, when in Berlin, do as the Berliners do.
The opera was very moving and emotionally draining–one of the best I have ever seen. To top it off, there was a standing ovation. That was a thrill. First to see a heart-pounding performance, then to witness genuine, never-ever inflated gratitude offered by a hard-core, German audience.
By purchasing student rush tickets an hour before, I am able to procure the best seats available (5th row from the stage, 9th seat in from the end) for 15 euros (thanks to the Goethe Institute). The only minor inconvenience being so far forward is having to tilt my head up to read the double subtitles in German and English. That’s hardly a problem or complaint for what I am getting at these prices. The difference in cost of opera tickets pays for my four-week German class!!
For the next two to three days, I was completely free from my German Class military-style training and academic obligations. I raced around to the spots that I missed, then spent the final 24 hours on a day trip to Dessau to visit the historic Bauhaus Workshop, School and Houses.
48 Hours in Berlin
The Berlin Biennale was in full swing throughout Berlin. To catch up, I made a pilgrimage to Fasanenstrasse, a small, elegant street near the Zoological Gardens and Uhlanstrasse Station. A few of the galleries promoted in the Art Forum “picks” are located here, including the Galerie Kornfeld, that was showing “The End of Flags” by Hubert Scheibl.
The Bucholz Gallery, where Melissa and I visited in January, presented the work of Wolfgang Tillmans. He was born in Remscheid in 1968. His work covered photographs of his studio and the accumulation of paper.
Not particularly inspiring, but I found the gallery itself much more exciting. It is an historic, protected building with beautiful Art Nouveau tendrils on the ceiling, panels over doorways, and in the carved oak staircase in the vestibule.
Contrasted with the stark white walls, it was easy to appreciate the delicacy and the artistry in the original building decoration. Contrary to my altbau where I am staying, this is what I would consider a classy version. There are also some really elegant auction houses and galleries promoting collector books and Asian antiques, gorgeous art nouveau jewelry and beautiful period silver by Georg Jensen and Henry Van de Velde.
After walking down the street and looking for a memorial plaque for Essad Bey or Nussibaum, I was very happy to discover it directly across the street from the Cafe for Literature and the adjacent Museum for Kathe Kollwitz. The Berlin literati must have hung out in this neighborhood. It felt like the Montparnasse area of Paris, except more compact.
Essad Bey was a journalist who was both Jewish by birth and Muslim by election. He had a fascinating life history that is chronicled in the New York Times bestseller by Tom Reiss, “The Orientalist”. I was surprised that my German teacher had read the book when I told him it was my favorite book.
Born in Lake Baku, where one of the first oil discoveries was made, Bey lived an early riches to rags life. His family escaped after the Bolshevik Revolution to Turkey, then Paris, and eventually he was educated in Germany. He became a journalist, was writing histories of Hitler and Mussolini, fell out of grace, and then died a tragic death. It’s a fascinating book where fiction and reality are often obscured.
Later in the morning, I walked about a mile east to KDW, Berlin’s version of Harrods or Galeries Lafayette. The top floor is devoted to gourmet food, with stations that offer a variety of seafood, meat, and a host of regional specialties. Up until now, I haven’t put much (or any) focus on eating. This was my opportunity to catch up.
The cases proudly presented cheese, sausages, and brot (bread). I looked for anything unique from the other gourmet food halls, but could only find wiener schnitzel and kartoffel stations. If you are into German food, you can get the gourmet version here. I succumbed to the bratwurst, senf (mustard) and sauerkraut, just as a show of loyalty. While this wasn’t exactly a pilgrimage to the annals of gourmet dining, I could still enjoy the German culinary ernestness. I bought a sample of Niederegger’s marzipan from Lubeck after hearing about it in my German class.
The Bauhaus Archive in Berlin was high on my list of places to visit. The exterior was odd, with the north-facing skylights a prominent feature of the design of the building. Thankfully, a new museum is underway. After 883 international entries, a Spanish architect won the competition and beat out an American. You can see the entries, if you are interested, here: http://c4c-berlin.de/projekte/bmd-de/
The existing exhibition still contained all of my favorite things: design philosophy and principles from inception to reality; creative thinking; and highest quality craftsmanship. I was thoroughly engrossed and listened to every post on the audio guide (not a small feat, especially since it was in the afternoon!). Again, it reinforced my passion and dedication to good design.
The Ninth Annual Berlin Biennale, as mentioned earlier, is underway this summer. In addition to the KW Center for Contemporary Art, the main anchor is at the Academy for Art, just inside the Brandenburg Gate. The exhibition in combination with the interior of the building was crazy beautiful and disgustingly fascinating. I couldn’t decide which photos to include, so here is a mix-match of both exhibits and building features (renovated by Beynisch Architects from Stuttgart in 2005):
Click on the photos above to increase the images.
The terrace featured a virtual reality presentation. I stood in line for the 3-4 minute scene that was pretty entertaining and worthwhile. The scene showed the view from the top of Brandenburg Gate, fogged up, then dove to an underwater sequence. The person in the photo is bending over to look through the viewer underwater.
The evening was topped off with a final opera. The Deutsche Oper unveiled a new production of the “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” by Mozart. If you remember what a rogue and rock star Mozart was in his day (drinking, women, and wild living), this production really conveyed that. They brought the days of Mozart to contemporary status, complete with nudity, sniffing cocaine, and searching for home (a la ET).
Initially, I didn’t want to go, as I had seen an old video of this opera. It was very hoaky and racist. One of the opera students in the GI had seen a preview of the preview and recommended it to me. She emphasized that it had been updated and was worth seeing. She was right, but there were still a few questionable moments in the opera left over from Mozart that were hard to overlook.
The bare naked bodies were less surprising to me, as “Tristan und Isolde” had unveiled their own version of nudity to me earlier. I’m not sure it’s becoming a trend for opera, but I wondered how the old ladies at the opera regarded these scenes. They didn’t seem to raise any eyebrows, from what I could decipher. Everyone, including me, stayed WIDE AWAKE. If that’s one way to get a more alert audience, it definitely worked.
The story line is simple–a group of young people get captured by an extra terrestrial and are sent to a far away land. They try to find their way back. In the mean time, they are living a fast and senseless life with sex, drugs and videotapes. They search for a way back. It was a great production, very hip, and very well received. Look for this updated opera with fantastic music and even a few “Queen of the Night” arias sprinkled in for extra amusement.
Note: look for the curtain call with the scantily clad girls–some of them only put on underwear in the final scene!!
Winter in Berlin
The following post was written on a visit to Berlin in January, 2016, six months before I studied German there in June, 2016.
OK, this was an unplanned visit to my favorite adopted country. My daughter Melissa is between jobs and after contemplating Morocco or Mexico City, we agreed that Berlin was not a bad option for interesting food, art and culture.
Our first of two weeks revolved around a number of upcoming new restaurants, galleries that are open over the holiday break, and special performances.
After stalking many of Europe’s best venues, I learned that there are impresarios who descend on famous sites such as the Berlin Philharmonic. When the orchestra is off, they lease the facilities. Many of the promotions cater to local tourists from France, Italy and Eastern Europe.
The usual Swan Lake, Mozart masterpieces, and Strauss waltzes are offered, but are not part of the regular program. While we did partake in a Russian ballet company performance, it takes a bit of close navigation to understand who is producing what and when.
Nevertheless, we enjoyed seeing a bit of traditional ballet contrasted with a modern version by Duarto/Kylian, two contemporary choreographers. The latter audience was much younger and local, while the former was stocked with a mostly tourist audience.
There are museums and galleries galore here, probably too numerous to count. For that, Berlin beats Mexico City hands down. We tackled the Pergamon earlier over the weekend with friend Vladimir from Meissen with some difficulty, as the Museum Island is still being renovated and access to each museum is limited.
Yesterday we covered art galleries in the Prenzlauer and Kreuzberg areas that included the Institute for Contemporary Art and the Kunstraum Kreuzberg. Old schoolhouses have been repurposed for gallery use as well as after school music and arts programs. A decent cafe in each allows visitors to enjoy the environment while warming up to the cold chill (and now snow) outside.
The Kennedy clan are well known to Berliners, almost more than to Americans. Aside from JFK’s famous quote, he was known to protect West Berlin from succumbing to the Communists in East Berlin. A small but significant historical detail.
The Xmas Markets were fun to explore and finally experience. The “gluhwein” tastes better than it sounds, and is merely what we call mulled wine. And the stollen or Xmas cake leaves a bit to be desired, particularly when traveling with a pastry chef.
The hip new food fare here, however, has been delightfully innovative, inexpensive, and thoughtful. While not always successful (veggies a bit on the raw side), the intent on making food healthy, delicious and beautifully pleasing to the eye is very evident. While not a foodie myself, I am swept up by the company I am keeping. Traveling with one can cause you to get into the picture pretty fast. Take a look at some of the plates: my favorite was the avocado and red beets on toast. Easy enough to make me want to make it as soon as I return home..
For the wannaknows, we hit Lokal, Industry Standard, and Horvath.
On our last day in Berlin, we started the morning with breakfast at the Coffee House for Literature. Located in a pre-war building on Fasanstrasse just south of the Zoological Garden stop and near the Uhlanstrasses Metro Station, this famous coffee house rivalled that of the Cafe Einstein in Kurfürstendam, where writers, poets and intellectuals gathered over addictive coffee. We ventured into one of the Berlin galleries listed in Art Forum, but the exhibition was very tiny and not as fruitful as our visit to another recommendation at Kunstraum Kreuzberg on Marienplatz earlier in the week.
We made it just in time to Potsdamer Platz to attend a free noontime concert at the Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall. The symphony was not performing due to the holiday schedule. Instead, we were able to listen to a short Mozart chamber music performance. On the program, parents are reminded that lunchtime concerts are not aimed explicitly at children, and therefore should only bring children who are able to remain “quietly seated for approximately 45 minutes”. That seemed very reasonable and successful as a message.
We battled the elements during most of our short visit to Germany and Holland, and this day was no exception. We decided to take a short walk to the Culture Forum, where the Gemälde Gallery of the Staatliche Museum of Berlin is located. It is a huge repository of art and it held major exhibitions on the Botticelli Renaissance and Albrecht Durer. Surprisingly, we found more Vermeers, Bosches, Brueghels, and Rembrandts here than those in the Rijksmuseum. We realized that the Dutch Masters were scattered throughout Europe and that the paintings by native sons were not necessarily displayed in their host countries.
The Botticelli exhibition compared many other artists’ work that emulated the classical Botticelli Venus. She served as a model and inspiration for many other artists, from Neo-Classicists such as Ingres to Elsa Schiaparelli, a dress designer. For me, I found the latter day 19th Century renditions by John Ruskin and William Morris, early leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, the most interesting. You can see the rich textures of the Morris tapestry already creating the signature pattern that later became so famous in the Liberty of London wall coverings.
I found myself particularly attracted to exhibitions that compare and contrast two different artists’ work. They seem to provide a lesson in comparative world history and painting that I otherwise wouldn’t discover. I am also becoming more comfortable with and more whetted to art museums as a cultural and intellectual experience. I have an opportunity to learn history in a visual way that is easy and interesting for me. The excellent curating and wealth of material certainly enhance these comparisons in the few museums we visited on this trip.
By the end of the day, we were pretty wiped. Nevertheless, my professional food guide was relentless and targeted a German restaurant as gesture to my insatiable appetite for things German for the finale. Sadly, it was closed for the holiday cleaning! We went to the next best, an Austrian restaurant famed for its Wiener Schnitzel. If you look closely at the photo above, you will notice that the regular fork looks out of scale with the schnitzel on the plate. That’s because the schnitzel was super-sized!
The day before, we beat it back from Amsterdam to hit a local Kreuzberg Turkish restaurant.
Ich bin eine Berlinerin
My month’s stay in Berlin was quickly drawing to a close, and I had a confession to make. Dresden is no longer my favorite city. Berlin has definitely topped it. I can cite all the reasons, but I feel guilty. Up until this point, I didn’t want to mess with my determination to be true to only one love. But Berlin has been so seductive, that I can’t help but declare a new winner.
There are the obvious elements: the culture, the energy and vibrancy of the city, the opportunity and capacity for more. Berliners have a very honest and understanding perspective on their history, and are intelligent about the many competing facets of politics, economics, and social responsibility.
Aside from sweeping generalizations, let me give you a couple of examples. Going into the Natural History Museum (Naturkunst), you feel like you are entering a cave of mankind, with the stodgy old building, guards who predate the DDR, and an air of the old mensa in the canteen. Yet the displays for both adults and children were among the most illuminating (literally and mentally) that I have seen in any museum. They brought to life the complicated story of mankind and got you excited about being one of billions of living organisms on earth.
The fastidious art history guide who led our Goethe Institute visits to museums was very checked, efficient and to the point. When she came to meet the group on her bike, she walked it through the crowded streets of Berlin and escorted us to the museums a mile away. It demonstrated the commitment the locals have to logical living. She was a 50+, so it was particularly nice to see older people staying fit.
Speaking of being fit, I had promised one of the trainers at UCSF that I would investigate the healthy living differences in Europe for her. There isn’t any better place to do that but in Berlin. Germans see it as part of their life style and holistic way of living–you are what you eat, you do it in as responsible a way as possible, and you keep life and everything around you in balance. More people are into nuts and fruits, expensive bio-produkts, and health than most Americans. And there are many discussions about work-life balance, deep breathing, and yoga mats.
All of my German classes devote units to fitness and health, so I may be getting an extra dose because it is a language course. Maybe all language courses, by time you get past introductory vocabulary, have to start tackling more challenging subjects to keep students engaged with contemporary topics. Yet I found the extensive recycling descriptions that cover all the different types of waste in German more intriguing to me and a cultural commitment above all else.
Combined with the general German focus on living a sound and healthy life, there is an emphasis on kids and education. True, kids are becoming a scarce resource in Germany, and therefore not surprising to see Angela Merkel embracing immigration. But kids historically from the “kinder garten” to free Waldorf schools to free University-wide education is amazing to me. One of the Italian students comes here to do her Ph.D. because the education is free if she gets placed. WOW!! Where are all the American students who want to study abroad! Going to Canada???? I wish I had known this before.
I hope I have provided a few convincing arguments. These have little to do with what I have been writing about in terms of art, music, and culture. But they permeate all the different little decisions that go into the creation of those higher, more ethereal and less accessible elements of society. In Germany, there is a deeper appreciation of one’s history and a need to share it. It will still take generations to amend the past, but it is on the road to recovery.
While these differences don’t make the case for Berlin over Dresden, it’s probably just the size and proportion factor that gives way to my new-found fascination. Berlin as a city has many treasures yet to be found, while Dresden, like an old shoe, has been very comfortable and always willing to serve.
Preface: this is a reprint from a series of posts from June 2017. Due to COVID-19 restrictions to traveling, I am compiling past travels to help us cherish the joys and foibles of humanity. Some observations have even more relevance today and speak to our need to slow down. This post is long like a podcast, so enjoy a glass of wine as you read. You can click on any photo to start a slide show for easier viewing.
We talk a lot about slow food but not slow living. I have spent a lot of time meandering through parks in Düsseldorf, partly because you run into one in any direction before you know it. The city parks are incredibly accessible, well-maintained, and beautiful here. Because Düsseldorf is along the meandering banks of the Rhine River, it is relatively flat. A lot of bikes travel at a reasonable pace and share the footpath with pedestrians. It reminds everyone to slow down. Maybe it’s time to think about slow living.
Here are some views of one of the beautiful parks in the heart of the city.
I’m blasting a series of shots of buildings, sights, and details here:
And for modern architecture: Daniel Liebskind’s masterpiece of the Ko and Shadow-Arkaden, a mixed use office and retail complex. The exterior on the Nordliche Dussel (a small lake) side is mesmerizing. The buildings speak to the river with its reflections and undulating curves. The rear wavy-gravy houses Apple and Tesla, and there is an intimate plaza for people-watching.
Now I know and agree why Düsseldorf is deemed one of the ten most livable cities in the world.
I even managed to break out pen and paper to sketch a static and well-behaved model to prepare for my upcoming sketching class.
And the music legacy lives on as well…here’s the parting music and dance that took place on a casual 90 degree afternoon on Konigsallee around the corner from my apartment:
In Düsseldorf, you can hear year-end recitals by students at the Robert Schumann Musikhochschule free of charge. The piano recital I attended had a dozen or so students. Watch for these world-beaters in the upcoming years. The majority were Asian students. It will be interesting to see how they can influence Western music in their own countries.
I’m finally getting around town and am starting to like this place. There’s a reason for it being in the top ten livable cities in the world: a vibrant economy, clean streets, energetic people, and lots of historic and cultural sites to visit. What’s not to like?!?
Sunday Strolling along the Rhine is a Dusseldorf must-do, and a beautiful one at that. Its promenade is one of the longest and prettiest that I have seen anywhere. Here’s a snippet of the casual ambience, combined with a Sunday afternoon book fair. Of course everyone reads books here!
Over the weekend, friend Vladimir was visiting and we made a stop at the Neanderthal Museum. Not one of my favorite periods, but here’s a tiny description of the 2,500,000 years of Migration, described as a “river”, with ebbs and flows” (step up the slide show to view):
The burial discovery of a family of 14 showed how they were hacked by axes, where blows to the head were visible. The museum is the site for a discovery of Neanderthal man that was dated to 40,000 years ago, but earlier discoveries of Neanderthal man were made in Belgium before then. A number of artifacts and archaeological finding were duplicated and used to explain the evolution of man.
We made it back in time to see an innovative and clever version of the “Magic Flute”. The Germans are experimenting with new ways to present and appreciate classic operas. In this one, they used the Buster Keaton silent film era graphics and period style as the backdrop for the beautifully enduring music. It worked well, the graphics and animated portions were original, creative, and thoroughly enjoyable.
Barry Kosky, an Australian, was the director for the production and has now since become one of Germany’s most famous and sought-after creators of new and innovative opera interpretations.
Art in Düsseldorf
The attention to art, music and culture in Düsseldorf is clearly evident, albeit subtle at times. In addition to promoting fashion, media, and trade fairs, the city has a bright and forward-thinking approach that will continue to make it a leader in these industries.
Unless you knew about Luther promoter Cranach and German Expressionist Otto Dix, these exhibitions may have slipped right past you. After a walk through a stately collection of Modernist buildings, I discovered the Kunst (Art) Academy, where Gerhard Richter studied and taught.
I originally came to the area seeking art supplies, and was delighted to find a tidy art store complete with what I needed for my sketching class in Morocco.
I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to lay everything out for you. Just like ingredients for a soup, these are going to be the base and the flavor for my upcoming sketches. I loved all the German-quality sketch paper, colored pencils, pastels, graphite pencils and holder, and even the UHU glue stick. After further inspection, however, I discovered that the gray pliable art eraser (in a plastic case) came from Malaysia and the markers from Korea. Oh well.
And just so you know I have my priorities straight, I stopped at the German bakery Heinemann’s for a kirsch cake over a Chocolate sponge and chocolate biscuit. They even packed the whipped cream with tender care “to go”.
Studying German in Düsseldorf
After an eventful day traveling from London via Brussels and Köln to Düsseldorf, I settled down to my “home” for the entire month.
My AirBnB hostess quickly corrected me as she watched me unsuccessfully enter the internet access password she had given me. She reminded me that Düsseldorf needs to spelled “DuEsseldorf” to be correct. No E, no Entry to the Magic Kingdom of the Internet.. OK, right, as they say in the U.K.
Some of my former German class buddies may be curious to hear how my class is shaping up. Students are diverse in age and nationality. One or two Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and Indonesians; Ukrainians, South Americans, Saudis, British and Americans. It’s best to avoid groups of three or more students from the same country as clumps and gangs form! I’m pretty satisfied with the collection for now, but we’ll see.
After learning about all the fairy tales in class to conjugate the past tense in German, I was wondering if I hadn’t shrunk myself. At the place where I am staying, the owner trains horses and is about 6′ tall. She fitted out the apartment to suit her height. The kitchen table is at my chest height. Standing up (because there are no chairs this high, not even bar stools), I can slurp soup directly from the bowl on the table top without having to lift it.
I also need a stool to get to the bottom shelf of the overhead kitchen cabinets. I wonder if I’m not going to face an avalanche of dishes stored over my head every time I reach for one. It’s a pretty funny scene after the third or fourth time around when I try to cut corners. I really feel like a dwarf.
Speaking of dwarves, we learned all about Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood in my German class. Don’t forget that these stories all come from Germany. The Schwarzwald, or Black Forest, isn’t far from here either. I always thought that the stories had a dark and ominous tone to them. I never understood why little kids were always getting lost in the forest. But not to worry. Walt Disney borrowed them, sanitized them, and made them safe harbors for the Disney Empire.
Our first German class topic was about the brain and learning. It was a great introduction to the up-to-date, state of the art German education. It quoted the most current research, citing numerous examples of ways to retain new information. I reflected on the brain research studies in San Francisco: superstar Adam Gazzaley’s research on distraction and brain landscapes.
We have devoted our lives to multi-tasking to the point of distraction. While hipsters can manage and focus, it’s a bigger challenge for those of us who have built multiple careers on prior knowledge. It gives us little time to clear out the attic and the clutter is evident.
As part of learning new German vocabulary, our class was taught all the various learning styles: seeing, hearing, speaking, and a combination of speaking and movement. We should vary exercises and not be fixated on only one method. For instance, walk around and recite seven new words, but no more, for very short periods. These suggestions are based on brain studies and the most effective ways to retain information.
Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus….
We also learned in class that men learn quickly but also shut down information quicker than women. This started a lively conversation stereotyping men’s and women’s learning styles. It was too tempting to resist judgment between the sexes: one student claimed that men were smarter while women paid more attention to detail.
This naturally caused a call to arms between my new kindred English woman architect classmate and me. We exchanged some rapid eye movement and eye rolling and began to dispute the claim. Initiated by a couple of male students from “not-so-liberated” countries, we stepped up and did what would have done Gloria Steinem proud. But in the midst of it, I felt a sad mood descending on our spirited encounter.
A few months back, I had seen a program about the Flüchtlingen (refugee) experience in Germany on Deutsche Welle, Germany’s version of Voice of America. A recent immigrant interviewed expressed his gratitude for free and public education, housing, and health care, but he noted how he was not accustomed to going to training classes with female students. I couldn’t help but flash on this observation.
I wondered what experience one of these male students had in classes with women students. While I don’t consider myself a super-feminist, I saw the huge canyon between my perspective and this classmate. Should nations of Western Europe and the US strive to convince the world to go our way? Or are we imposing our might on others? I felt as if there was a mountain of work convincing this student that women were as good as men. Maybe women in his country just don’t ever get a chance to take men to task. Where does that put Angela Merkel, a chemical engineer, running a major country? Or maybe we should just back off?
I was grateful that I lived in the US, where you are at least free to enter the ring. We assume that Diversity means other races and cultures but in some cases we have to remember to include women on the list.
Why Study German?
Many of my friends are astounded by my staying power for German culture. German could be regarded as passionless rather than passionate, dry as opposed to juicy, tired instead of energetic. To me, they are all the positive words I use.
My deep respect for the technical foundation of Germany was obvious to our family friend in Bath. He knew exactly why I come here, and cited the Bauhaus before I could claim the catch phrase. Even though he isn’t as obsessed as I am, he’s close to being an architect in mind and practice. Judging from his beautiful home in Bath, he already manifests an Bauhaus way of combining design and engineering together.
I’ve written about this in great detail in the past, but for newcomers, I’ll summarize three reasons, well actually, four, why I come to Germany every year:
1. To learn the second language I started in high school, fell in love with (after 5 years of studying French), but never had enough time to pursue;
2. To develop my love for the integration of art and science in architecture, and to savor Germany’s application of art history and technical skills together;
3. To learn about and follow opera in German.
4. An extremely understanding husband, who lives with a crazy woman and gets a month off every year to recover from the other 11 months of being with her.
That’s my reason for being in and doing Germany. As for Dusseldorf, it’s in the top ten of liveable cities in the world, so why not? It’s the fourth in a series where I have chosen to study in Germany, after Dresden, Schwabisch Hall, and Berlin, in that order. Some of you may have missed earlier posts (Berlin is next on the list of this series).
Yesterday, our German teacher explained that up until the Soccer World Cup win in Germany in 2014, Germany had never openly displayed the German flag. We were just learning the word for flag, and it was our teacher’s teachable moment.
Multi-Culturalism in Germany (post script: these following paragraphs were written in 2017, that somehow now have even more relevance.)
In Frankfurt, I met a nice African-American woman, Carol Lynn. She had been working and living in Germany for over 35 years. She came from DC, so I couldn’t help but rave to her about the NMAAHC. She listened politely, then told me briefly about her life. Her family was already 5 or 6 generations traceable, back to the original slave owner. Her family of 9 siblings promoted many offspring, numbering over 100 members in the family and 50 nieces! She had many jobs working both as military and civilian personnel supporting our American presence in Germany.
I began to realize how many Americans are in Germany. Until now, most of my travel had been concentrated on Eastern Germany or in the countryside, so it was less evident. This conversation gave me perpective. Particularly for African Americans, I wondered if it wasn’t a more positive experience abroad than at home. Like James Baldwin, African-Americans could escape systemic racism in America.
It’s important for all cities to embrace its members in a multicultural society. It isn’t enough for struggling minorities to merely “parallel play” and be marginalized. All cultures must be engaged in a common goal and feel that they are contributing collectively to the vibrancy of the city to which they belong.
Apropos to all of these observations and experiences, I had asked husband Gee Kin to reflect on our recent travels. Here are his thoughts, and please send us yours.
Diversity in the World’s Great Cities by Gee Kin Chou
San Francisco is considered one of the great cities of the world. However, it’s a mere village compared to two other great cities on the list: New York and London.
I’m not talking about size; I’m talking about diversity.
Within the 64 square miles of San Francisco proper, White and Asian faces dominate. Yes, Latinos and African Americans become a larger part of the picture when you expand the geography to the greater San Francisco Bay Area, but many are marginalized; African Americans in particular live in increasingly segregated communities. Africans from Africa, and Islamic headscarves are rare.
In New York, and even more so in London, a random day is likely to include contacts with several ethnicities. The shop assistant may have emigrated from Egypt, the bank teller from Nigeria, the hotel clerk from Bulgaria, the waitress in the upscale restaurant from Colombia and the electrician from Barbados. Every day encounters with ordinary people doing ordinary things. It may seem trivial but this is not the daily Bay Area experience.
I had always thought the “diversity” of the Bay Area was the future and the role model for the rest of the world. But visiting New York and London after a long hiatus has reminded me not to get too smug about San Francisco.
Essen in Essen
Essen always had a curious name, since it sounds like the German word for “Food”, or “to eat”. There doesn’t appear to be any connection. I was tempted to feature the food we ate in town, but it wasn’t anything remarkable. A side trip from Dusseldorf to nearby Essen takes only a half hour by train, so friend Helena and I planned a full day excursion there.
At the positive assertion of a fellow architect and German student, we spent the afternoon exploring the massive Zollverein, a coal mine converted to a museum for explaining the extraction, production and transport of black gold. As a UNESCO world site, this was the heart of the famous Ruhr Valley.
Like the African-Americans who migrated from the Deep South to the San Francisco Bay Area after World War II, many migrants came from Poland at the end of the 19th Century to this rapidly developing industrialized area. In the 1950’s and 1980’s, many new migrants from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Russia and Romania arrived in this area and other parts of Germany to search for a better life.
The museum had a you-name it-we have it approach to anything and everything to do with coal and beyond. The plant area was so extensive, it could be a quarry for humanity. Integrated with the coal production factory itself, the collections included dinosaurs, Roman ruins, Greek urns, geological rock samples, and memorabilia. It felt a bit like the Tate Gallery and the High-Line concept in New York City thrown into one gigantic area, but it tries very hard to not be a theme park.
I amused myself by looking for the oldest fossil and located coral imprints that were 600 million years old!! My favorite though, was just a tender young fish print checking in at a measly 60 million years.
In addition to the actual production lines, scaled models were used to demonstrate the work flow. The tidiness and efficient Bauhaus-designed buildings didn’t reduce the cast of sadness and grueling work that must have taken place there. Work conditions were so poor that many workers did not live long. Below is a short clip of one of the videos presented (unfortunately in German only) that shows how the coal could be delivered from the shaft to the ground in 30 seconds:
In the evening, Helena and I saw Romeo and Juliet, the ballet by Prokofiev. The music was stirring and the performers expressive. We experienced a rare standing ovation by a primarily local crowd (i.e., no tourists), so it was definitely worth seeing. Recognition by the audience in such a warm way has been a rarity in my experience in Germany, but when it happens, you know you have seen something amazing.
The ballet was performed in the famous theater designed by Finland’s namesake architect, Alvar Alto. The flat panels of granite covering the building seemed strange on curved surfaces. He didn’t seem to think that poured-in-place concrete would be acceptable for such a noble building.
I couldn’t resist sharing this photogenic shot of Helena, my friend and traveling companion from Switzerland. Every year, we attend music festivals in Germany or Switzerland. Some of you may remember seeing her in previous posts in Dresden. We keep threatening to tackle Salzburg together, or maybe a music festival near where she lives next. She prefers ballet over opera, but we compromise and go to both as well as concerts.
As a physician and therapist, she has traveled the world and lived in many places. She has an admirable life, from moving to Switzerland in high school from the States, to studying in China (where she and Gee Kin met), building a hospital in Mozambique, and working at a sleep clinic in Switzerland! She also has an amazing outlook on life that is energetic and contagious. She kept me on my toes (literally, trying to keep up with her pace), and fit enough for a queen.
At the end of the weekend Helena and I went to another local event at Düsseldorf’s Oper am Rhein with a joint Russian and German concert. The program included arias from many popular operas, including Eugene Onegin, Don Giovanni, and Puccini. If that weren’t enough, we were in for another standing ovation.
The warm crowd (maybe a lot of passionate Russians?) clearly loved the performers and the music. We did too. But two in a row? If I don’t watch out, I will have to amend my comments on the rarity of standing ovations among German audiences. I could swear I didn’t detect any over-enthusiastic Americans or their accents prompting or provoking the crowd. In any event, it was a very satisfying weekend of walking, talking, listening, watching and enjoying life.
This may seem like a long way from the Silk Road, but for the next few weeks, we will be indulging in Germany. Europe was in the end, the major destination point for many products imported from China and the rest of Asia. They no longer relied on the overland route to transport food and goods, but developed sea routes to bring goods to market faster. We are revisiting all the countries I traveled through in the past six years, not in order, but in a line from Mongolia to the UK, end to end.
Since I have spent more than a month each year learning German in different cities, I am devoting one post per city, from Munich to Schwabisch Hall, Dusseldorf, Dresden, and Berlin. These posts are culled from multiple entries to give you the highlights from each city.
Nazis, Rings and the Blue Rider
In order to provide an overview each city, general sights I visited will be provided. They are not intended to cover all sights popular to tourists. My interests in architecture, art museums, opera, and food and people are featured. Tours sponsored by the Goethe Institute, where I took German classes, are the background for much of the historical information and hidden gems of each city.
National Socialism Museum
The National Socialism Tour by Dr. Christoph Engels, an expert in the history of the Nazi era, gave us fascinating insight on Hitler and how Munich became a central control and rallying point for the Nazi Party.
Using emblems for the flag, logo, and uniforms, Hitler combined propaganda and design to seduce the populace with fanfare and drama. Frequent marches down the main thoroughfare from Marienplatz to the Odeonsplatz were displays of might and staging trials for the military.
The monumental boulevards and parks reminiscent of Paris contributed to the public parades of the military. Billions of dollars were donated to the Nazi Party by private citizens, who saw the salvation of Germany led by Hitler. The original headquarters of the Nazi Party still exists, and while not open to the public, it continues to host activities of the Neo-Nazi Party members.
There were three phases of recovery by the German people after the devastating reign of terror. First, there were those who experienced it, followed by the children of the war survivors. They experienced a long period of “Scham und Schuld”, or Shame and Guilt. After 1968, the third generation began to ask the grandparents what role they had in the war. These questions were difficult discussions that needed to be answered by each family.
When the official statistics about the Holocaust victims at 6,000,000 people were mentioned, a couple of my classmates from Russia and the Ukraine noted that there were many more Russians killed by Stalin before and after WWII. They wanted to put history in perspective with their experience and knowledge. They also noted that the war itself spared many Russians from starvation and death caused by Stalin.
The Ludwig-Maximilians University Quarter tour began with some historical elements of WWII. Sophie Scholl, who protested the dealings of the Nazi Party, attended this university, known as the University of Munich at the time. She was a Philosophy major there.
In 1943, she, her brother, and their friend Christoph Probst were found guilty of treason and beheaded in February 1943. The White Rose represented their movement. Live roses are still posted in memoriam at the entrance to the University and inside the main lobby. It gave me goose bumps after walking through the spaces. You can read more about her here:
Shops around the University area included antiquarian bookshops and quirky cafes like Verruckt. This ice cream shop, translated as “Crazy” in German, features beer flavored ice cream and breakfast ice cream. A storefront cooking school allows you to peek in and see all the action and after-effects of food being consumed. And a specialty bike shop has custom colors for hand made bike frames (see slide show below).
Many of the Altbaus, or old buildings, were built during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Inner courtyards or “hofs” hide renovated or jazzy new buildings and green areas with retail spaces are tucked into the ground floor. Craftsman-quality cabinet shops and made-to-order items are plentiful and enough to delight the eye and microwave the credit card.
The Alte and Neue Pinotheks
For the past three years, Very Good Friend Helena from Brunnen (near Lucerne) Switzerland has joined me each year in Germany. In Munich, we tackled the Museums of the Alte and Neue Pinotheks together. The Masters and Impressionists of European art, respectively, reside at these museums.
We concentrated only on the Vermeer Woman in Blue Special Exhibition at the Alte Pinothek, and the French Impressionists at the Neue.
It was delightful to hear the German guide’s commentary on the Vermeer painting. Her clear and inspiring comments reminded me why I’m in Germany. The clarity and forthrightness of her explanation about the form, structure, color, and subject of the painting made it engaging and easy to understand.
Many of these genre paintings with exquisite light were symbolic connections to the Dutch military and its world explorations, that included Asia and the Dutch East Indies. I had never connected these dots before.
The woman’s place in society is symbolized in this painting. Women represented the Republic and their noble public image. Men, who often were sailing or serving as soldiers, represented the dark and negative side of humanity. When at port, they often headed to the brothels and represented bad behavior.
This was certainly a new spin on the exquisite Dutch, light-filled genre paintings that I came to admire. I couldn’t help but to compare the intimate, home-bound intimate interiors with the bawdy red light district in contemporary Amsterdam.
A few other notable artists’ works in the Neue Pinothek included these impressionists from the 19th Century:
On Sunday we rolled down the hill and across the swift flowing Isar River to the Deutsches Museum. The river not only has a surfing spot, but also a decent sandy beach down down the street from where I live in the middle of town!!
The Museum is one of the foremost science museums in the world. It’s a full scale playout of The Way Things Work and more. We focussed on the Planetarium and Astronomy sections of the museum. The English translations are excellent. The featured image above is from a diorama replica of the Challenger Expedition in 1872.
Helena had suggested going to the Lenbach Museum during her visit here. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to fit everything in. She has pretty good taste in choosing museums, so I decided to venture there on a free morning. I combined a trip to load up on German sketch books at an art supply store near the museum area with a visit to the Lenbach.
I could only remember that Helena had told me about something Blue that was on display there. After all, Helena and I had just seen Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter the week before, right? At first, I thought it was the Blue Wonder, then I remembered, no, that’s a bridge in Dresden. After I ripped through a gaggle of galleries searching for the missing identity, I finally asked the guide where the Blue Rider was located. His answer: they’re everywhere! I was perplexed at first, then realized that its…a movement.
The collection generated a lively FaceTime conversation with my German language partner in the Bay Area. Being an art history aficionado, he set me straight. The text may be hard to read, but if you are interested, you can view it on a monitor.
Munich Opera Festival
The Ring by Richard Wagner is a 17-hour epic, presented in a series over four days. The 2.5 hour, no-break opera in German subtitles was a challenge. I had prepared myself for the “real thing” after seeing my first Ring at the SF Opera the previous month.
The difference between the two? San Francisco spent alot more effort in the production, the acting, the stage sets, but the singing was weak. Munich was the opposite. The stage sets were minimal, but Munich delivered some of the best singing I have ever heard. The opera house is smaller than San Francisco’s, and the singers must have their voices perfectly calibrated to the acoustical capabilities of the house. It didn’t hurt to have estatically beautiful music for both, thanks to Wagner.
And here’s a clip of how it looked from the audience during the curtain call. You would have to turn your sound up to full volume (but don’t do it!) to capture the thunderous foot stomping that Germans do in addition to clapping. The gesture is highly successful because: 1. you don’t have to stand up and drop the program in the process while still being able to respond spontaneously; 2. you don’t block others behind you who don’t want to stand or have a different opinion; and 3. It gets your entire body stimulated and the blood flowing so you can remember to get up to leave!
International Evening at the Goethe Institute
At the Goethe Institute’s International Dinner, I taught my Turkish classmate how to use chopsticks. She was a natural. Despite her gesture of pulling both eyes to indicate being slanted at me, I calmly used the teachable moment to explain that it is rude to make such an expression to Asians. She quickly got the message.
We went shopping in the Asian market together, and after that her boyfriend and another Turkish classmate helped prepare Turkish mini-ravioli with a sauce that was delicious!
And as a parting bonus video: a clip of the evening performance of the organ concert at the Asam Kirche is below.
Here’s VGF Helena at lunch next to the museum and an irresistible baby at the next table:
Next week: On to Schwabisch Hall, a charming city tucked between Stuttgart and Frankfurt!
Okay, this is going to be a fast landing. I am uploading a cache of pictures from the Goethe Institute’s class tours for the second week: Vienna’s Insider Walking Tour of its oldest area from the Middle Ages; the collections from the Decorative Art Museum; and the Friedhof, or Cemetery outside Vienna, where many prominent and famous people of Vienna are buried.
As these posts are compiled from more than one post, they tend to be long. Apologies in advance if it rambles. Due to COVID travel restrictions, revisiting these past trips is a way for me to share and enjoy travel virtually for the time being together.
At the end of this post, I am including outer reaches of Vienna: Baden bei Wien, a resort area an hour’s drive from Vienna where Beethoven lived for a period of time, and Sankt Florian, a hidden monastery and delight outside of Linz, Austria, where composer Bruckner is buried under his sacred organ.
As mentioned in the last post, I am using slide shows for photos to conserve room. Don’t forget to click or swish on the images to scroll through each series.
Back Streets of Vienna
I had dismissed Vienna as being pretty dry and uneventful until the second week. The language class outings picked up the pace and delivered pretty juicy stories about the history of Vienna. In three prior visits, I was completely unaware of the medieval section of the city. After starting at the edge of the old harbor to the Donau, we wound our way through crooked alleys and a labyrinthine course, passing many exclusive cafes, shops and historic businesses. We emerged by the end of the tour at the doorstep to St. Stephan’s Church in the heart of town.
Decorative Arts Museum (Museum für Angewandte Kunst)
The applied arts museum offers an extensive collection of Baroque, Rococo, and Art Nouveau era furniture, household items, and special exhibitions..
The Greek Orthodox Church in the area was a reminder of the waves of immigrants who had populated Vienna and contributed to its growth and success.
Vienna Central Cemetery
Established in 1874, this cemetery reminded me of the one in Montparnasse, Paris. The loess soil in the outskirts of town was considered a better site for interment, especially after the cemetery had to be moved a couple of times. The first location inside the walls of the original city was bulging at the seams before long, so districts outside the city walls began to create cemeteries for specific ethnic and religious groups.
With so many people dying from the plague and pestilence in the 13th C, plots became scarce. Dogs were digging up the bones of those who had been laid in shallow graves and reintroducing body parts and diseases into areas occupied by those still alive. Soon these local cemeteries became too crowded. (2020 update: a grim lesson for us in COVID-challenged times!)
This time the cemetery was centralized. Cemeteries from individual churches were combined, but it created new challenges. Being nearly an hour outside the city, it was difficult for relatives to attend to their dearly departed. Administrators found clever ways to encourage people to buy and maintain plots in the new location.
They provided a grand church for services, leased and subleased unused plots, and offered a park-like setting with a cafe to enhance visits. There were strict rules to maintain supply and demand. A “Famous Composers” section with the remains of famous composers like Beethoven, Johann Strauss, Brahms and Mozart was created to attract tourists. The wealthy built artistic monuments and used expensive materials to flaunt their prestige and wealth.
It’s a pretty good guess that one of the Hapsburgs had a hand in creating nearly every institution in Vienna, and this cemetery is no exception.
Thanks to the Alps, there are plenty of resorts in Europe endowed with natural spring waters. The Europeans love to indulge in the purported therapeutic value. The Austrians are no less dedicated to magical wonders. Just one hour outside of Vienna lies a hidden gem known as Baden bei Wien (Bad is not bad, but good, for “Bath”).
That is, if you count having a casino as a gem. It’s a package deal, with a free music performance nearly every day in the summer in a toned-down version of Las Vegas or in a Riviera Wanna-Be. There are also miles of garden paths for “wandering” (a German-speaking country’s favorite past time), pedestrian-free shopping streets, and Baroque-era historical buildings. I even discovered one advertised as: “Beethoven slept here”.
Aside from the cutesiness, this little town is an easy escape from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. Vienna is alot like Paris–overwhelmingly huge boulevards, huge art collections, and huge burning heat waves.
After a week communicating exclusively in German and starved by little or no English, my brain has had trouble with the cultural shift. Scrambling for a translation within whatever comes closest, glue exuding from my eyelids when I didn’t comprehend answers to questions, and the flippant responses emitting from my ignorance definitely caused Angst (a German word). Try a week of this and you will understand how I felt.
The planned mini-getaway with and from myself helped me to recover. Since there were no performances at the Vienna Opera House during the month of July, I searched my trusted operabase.com website and learned that the nearest opera performances were listed in Baden bei Wien.
The “operas” were more like musicals, but the underemployed opera performers were very highly skilled and talented. This was a performance of “The Vogelhandler”, or the “Bird Trader”.
(2020 update: this was to be a year of celebrating the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth, but unfortunately travel and performance restrictions have dashed the grand displays of Austria and Germany’s claims to Beethoven’s fame)
The small town, not unlike Bath, England, yielded an unexpected find. Beethoven had spent many holidays in Bad bei Wien during his residency in Vienna. The museum provided interesting facts about Beethoven’s life, health, and companions.
Beethoven’s deafness was well-known, but he also suffered from various ailments. (See the diagram showing his various sicknesses.) His moving journal notes, posted on music stands, indicated how much pain he endured and how he tried to find doctors and remedies, to little or no avail.
Despite these illnesses while he was in Baden bei Wien during the latter part of his life, Beethoven managed to write some of his best work. The Ninth Symphony, the Eroica Symphony, and Missa Solemnis were among some of the pieces written while he lived here. A summary of his arrival in Baden and a sample of the various voices and instruments he wrote in his music are shown below. (Click on images to increase for easier viewing).
A video showed the individual instruments or voices presented during a performance of the NInth Symphony, with Daniel Barenboim conducting at the BBC Prom. The complicated nature and integration of pieces are demonstrated. Watch the colors on the left screen as they coordinate to the music graphically, while the voices and instruments are shown on the right screen below.
Although I didn’t expect to be coming to Baden bei Wien to learn about Beethoven, I found this tiny museum packed with moving and compassionate information about purportedly the world’s best classical composer. It made up for the operas that I had come to see.
I also managed to get a few sketches in!
St. Florian, Anton Bruckner’s Sacred Burial under the Chapel
As a contrast to my onslaught of cultural cities, I decided to take a different path and stay at a monastery in Linz, Austria.
My first glimpse of the monastery was breathtaking, after a short but determined path uphill through a winding path. The landscape in the area is exquisite, with rolling hills and tenderly groomed patches of yellow and green plots. You would never leave here if you were from this area, I thought.
The monastery has rooms for visitors at a reasonable price, and has daily performances of one of the most magnificent organs in Europe. The highlight will be another (gulp) mass in the evening with an organ performance.
Anton Bruckner, who was an organist and composer, is a native son of the area. There is now a trail connecting Ansfelden, where Bruckner was born, and the Augustinian cathedral at St. Florian, where he was a choir boy. You can read about him: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton_Bruckner
A billboard advertising the Bruckner Way is located on a path outside the monastery. It lights up each path you select among several different paths. You can view the Google image below. “Wanderers” can choose from the more mild “running shoes” paths and those for more advanced “hikers”. Trips run any where from 5-20 km.
The walk even has an MP3 player for hire that has all 12 Bruckner symphonies on it, so you can listen to it while you are on the trail. You can also arrange for a taxi to take you back if you only want to do a one-way trip. I thought that this was a clever idea and wished it was available in the U.S.
This path forms part of the “Jacob’s Way” and leads a pedestrian all the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I googled it and you can do it in a mere 19 days from here. If you “boots are made for walking” here’s a place to use them. This walk was one I had always contemplated doing, until I realized why they advised carrying a poncho.
St. Florian Upshot
Time to reflect on St. Florian, the Augustinian monastery outside Linz, Austria, where I spent my last three days. At first it seemed very grim and austere, but by the time I left I felt the urge to return. (Which I subsequently did with friends in 2018). It has its undeniable charm, and the offerings in the area were far beyond my expectations. The biggest draw, although I did not do it, was the Bruckner Weg, or Symphonie Weg. I described it earlier, but it’s hard to describe how excited I was by it. It combines my love of walking and music!
It’s a great way to learn about the music of a composer, who was so dedicated to organ music, that he wanted to be buried under the church of St. Florian. And indeed, here’s a picture of his crypt in the basement!
I was able to discover this grand old monastery and its historical treasures that are now under-appreciated and forgotten. The library holds over 140,000 volumes and about 4,000 are original books before the printing press was invented.
Other treasures were the performances in the cathedral itself. I took many videos of the two daily performances and the mass at six just to record the music. I guess it wasn’t really a mass because the monks all came out and chanted for about 20 minutes and there was very little audience participation. I got really curious about the Augustinians. Here’s a description of what I read in Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustinians
The interesting aspect is the psyche of monks. Apparently, monks here were high on the masculine scale but also had a very high preponderance towards female qualities of neuroticism and detail. Wow. What a combination. I wondered if I was material for monkhood??
In any event, that minor piece of information got me to thinking what could have motivated these men to join the order. I was surprised to learn that Martin Luther was an Augustinian before he protested against the Catholic order and the papal Bulls. Eventually, he got married.☺️ Others like him must have suffered some hardship or divine inspiration. The Augustinians also have hermits too, so their monastery is a perfect place to try out the lifestyle. Could this be how Herman’s Hermits picked their name?
As the monks left the cathedral, I studied each face. Hmm, older, tall, and pretty handsome for their age. Is that where all the men have gone? I’m still on the lookout for my single lady friends.
It all starts to come together. All the glorious trimmings at the expense of the people. But it was interesting to see the development of the environment and understand the conflicts that were subsequently caused by it.
I mentioned some of the wonderful paths and “wanderings” available throughout Austria and Germany earlier. Switzerland probably has an awesome offering, but I haven’t heard about them yet. Although I was unable to do Jacob’s Way to Santiago de Compostela (my 19 days were already numbered), the Bruckner Way or the Symphonie Way (the museum at the far end was closed for the month of August), I took a short walk a mile away to the Hohenbrunn Schloss. It was blazing saddles, so I had to shade-spot along the path. Before arriving, I stopped to enjoy looking back at St. Florian in the distance beyond the road (pictured in the header).
Hohenbrunn, shown below, is some version of a hunting lodge built between 1722 and 1732. No one was there except me, and for a few quid I could see the entire place to myself, unaccompanied. At first it seemed a little creepy, as it felt like someone had just occupied it and left the water running somewhere. And all those guns. The one I took the picture of was one-of-a-kind. It actually is used for shooting ducks on a boat, so the boat supports the long barrel. I’ve captioned a few of the other photos that struck my fancy as I pranced through.
The up close and personal with the animals got a little weird. They all seemed to be having Gary Larson conversations with each other, wondering where all the human pets had disappeared to. I felt like Ben Stiller in “A Night at the Museum.”
Despite my digs at the culture in and around St. Florian, it was really pretty sweet. It took a bit of courage and good faith to come here on my own, but I stayed in contact with my support staff. Many of you know, it is not about the destination but the process of getting there.
At times I wondered what I was doing. When I finally played my on-line music appreciation class that I brought along with me, I realized that this is real-time learning. I can hear and relate to music that is being performed. Ironically, I was at the point of learning about “Baroque” as in Bach, vs. “Classical” music by Beethoven. That was awesome!
I hope I can convince any of you to come back with me to St. Florian (as I did with friends in 2018!) The surrounding area is luscious and vibrant, and you feel the freedom to explore at your own pace. It’s heavenly to hear the organ and Bruckner here. And yes, I am a little sad to leave.
These posts are from travels to Austria in July 2019 and to St. Florian in 2015.
Future Posts: Continuing the string of cities connecting the Silk Road from Beijing, we will visit Germany next and highlight cities of Munich, Schwabisch Hall, Dusseldorf, Dresden and Berlin.
For those of you just joining, my travels around the world included many UNESCO World Heritage sites in Uzbekistan, Russia, China, Mongolia; Morocco, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. Each year, I traveled to Germany to study German language for about a month. I continued to or traveled from China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam before finally returning home to San Francisco.
Many posts from these countries have been reposted since the advent of the COVID pandemic over the past four months since March under SILK ROAD ADVENTURES. Now, I am including European countries I visited as an extension to the Silk Road travels. These posts are compilations of multiple posts, so please beware: they are long!! You can find original posts by doing a search or looking in the monthly index.
I have condensed the photographs into slide shows, so be sure to click on the forward button to the right of each image to see more.
The Cultural Program at Vienna’s Goethe Institute
The Vienna Goethe Institute has an excellent cultural program, perhaps the best of any educational program I have joined. We started with a general city tour that gave us a good orientation to the center of town. Intriguing alleyways and amazing historic buildings are tucked behind major thoroughfares, so a guide is helpful to finding these hidden gems.
Fourteen students, most of whom are German language teachers, come from Ireland, China (Souzhou and Hangzhou), France, Belgium, England, Russia and Norway. I am the only American in the class and I am very happy that it turned out that way.
We have spent most of our time getting accustomed to the class environment. A full program of free guided tours of the city, museums, historic sights, and concerts are offered before and after classes. I am glad that I chose Vienna to study German! My only problem is that I am exhausted at the end of each day and have not had any time to sketch.
A word about my German C level class for my German language buddies. I don’t know how I did it but I was put in an advanced class. I figured the director got a promotion for enrolling more students in advanced levels. If nothing else, I got to experience what an advanced level class is like!
Accommodations, in true Viennese style, are generous and adequately stocked. You can see the view of the modern studio apartment below, that costs about $33 a day. It’s a great deal including the cultural program provided in the course.
There aren’t as many tourists, thankfully, as in Lisbon. We were only spared for a short time in the morning until we hit the center of town at noon. The St. Stephan’s church was the crowning glory and has been completely renovated for googling eyes and ears. Concerts are held on a regular basis here for eager tourists who take in the musical history of famous composers like Mozart, Schubert and Mahler.
Vienna’s history is shrouded in the Hapsburg reign from about the 13th C.-1918. Thirty Years’ War, religious battles between Protestants and Catholics, Napoleon, and the plague set the backdrop for a violent past. Marriages between royal families in Europe sealed the Hapsburg rule for nearly 800 years, one of the longest standing regimes in history.
The main history of Vienna is focused near the Royal residences and the churches in the area. In addition, the Spanish Riding School where the famous Lippizaner Horses are trained, and the National Library with its fabulous collection, are located in the same vicinity.
An excellent introduction to three historic and beautiful churches on the second day was even more fascinating and helped us to understand the extent of power controlled by church and state. Austria was primarily Protestant in the countryside but Vienna was controlled by the Catholics and the royalty. The powerful relationship prevailed at the expense of the majority. It seemed to be another sad lesson to today’s world politics and the division between the haves and the have nots.
According to tradition, many of the Hapsburg family have buried parts of their bodies in three separate locations. Hearts in Budapest, innards and bones in two other locations in Vienna. The family followed this creepy ritual. The guide savored telling the English pun: “May the emperor rest in pieces”. You can read more about the Royal family’s whereabouts here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_Crypt.
You would be completely missing out on Vienna if you only saw St. Stephan’s in the center of town, the Opera House, and Mariahilferstrasse, the main shopping street. Just like we scoff at tourists in San Francisco who only go to Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s not what locals do. However, the center of town is useful in getting one’s bearings for the rest of the city’s bright and newly minted cultural activities.
Kunst Historisches Museum
This huge repository for the Italian and Flemish masters is an incredible collection of European art. The slide show includes the following in order of appearance below (but not chronicalogically): Breughel, Vermeer, Durer, Raphael, and Rembrandt
If you were wondering where all the artifacts from early Mediterranean civilizations had gone, you could probably find many of them here, like those in the “mummy” room:
Of course, no visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum would be complete without a visit to the cafe for Viennese coffee and Apfelstrudel.
The Museum Quartier
The Museum Quartier, tucked behind the Volks Theater, was an eye opener and inspiration for a visitor to this historic city. It’s alive with young people enjoying the balmy summer evening, amidst theater, dance, art, spontaneous outdoor performers, and of course, food establishments galore.
Originally a series of small villages, the district has been tranformed into a string of happening event spaces. Outdoor dining seems to be the order of the day. What’s amazing is that these are primarily locals enjoying their new-found urban spaces, with perhaps a dose of savvy tourists to keep the economy thriving.
My last-minute museum fix was to the Leopold Museum. Leopold was a private philanthropist who decided to collect art after he saw the collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and became a patron of the arts.
I was swept away by the entire collection. The “Modern” section told the story of the Vienna Werkstatt. Architects, artists, literary figures, and designers all gathered together to form the “Vienna Werkstatt”, that preceded the Bauhaus. Here are some of the exquisite design pieces from the period around 1900, in the Jugendstil:
Primarily led by Klimt, the group seceeded from the conservative Vienna Kunsthaus. The group then later became fragmented and Klimt and others left the Secessionists. He was also embroiled with the University of Vienna’s administration over the paintings, “Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence“.
We read and discussed this argument in our German class. Klimt was criticizing his benefactors. The faculty considered the nude figures pornographic and removed them from the ceiling where they were located.
This would not be so earth-shaking today, as many artists push their boundaries. Names like Ai-Wei-Wei came up. It was interesting to note, that while most of the European studentswere familiar with his name, none of the Chinese students knew of him.
Egon Schiele was an artist unbeknownst to me. He donated his collection to the Museum, so it may explain his prominence here.
I was drawn to the graphic nature of his work, powerful compositions, and emotional content. Being an aspiring artist, I studied his choice of color, figure drawing skill, and architectural themes intently. If you are interested you can read more about him here: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egon_Schiele
Salzburg Music Festival
You may remember the Salzburg Music Festival from the film, “the Sound of Music”, where the Von Trapp Family made their debut. This weekend escape served as a finale of sorts for my travels. The ultimate purpose was to see “Adriana Lecouvreur” starring Anna Netrebko, Yuri Eyvazov (her husband), and Anita Rachvelishvili.
These are superstars in their prime in the opera world. I don’t know if there ever will be such a dynamic combination of singers performing such a highly dramatic opera.
The story takes place in 1730 and is about a theater actress, who became involved in a three-way triangle. There are many twists and turns about actresses playing their roles so well that they forget about their own lives and vulnerabilities.
This was Anna Netrebko’s greatest artistic challenge, not only as a singer but as an actress. You could only imagine what she is feeling after her own marital tribulations, on top of singing to her current spouse!!
Anna Netrebko, who did not respond to immediate audience approval at the end, was just recovering from her own performance. She was so immersed in the role, that she had forgotten that she was only performing! I could see how audience applause nearly destroyed the moment she was feeling. To jolt her out of one intense emotion of dying over spurned love (she won the battle but lost the war), the instant accolades were at first irrelevant. I could only imagine that feeling as it took some time for me to recover myself (from the performance, not spurned love!)
Earlier in the morning. I attended a Mozart concert. It was the usual Mozart fare offered by the Mozarteum Orchestra (who coincidentally played “Adriana Lecouvreur” at the Salzburg Festival.
I flashed back to one of my favorite movies, “Amadeus”. This came up in our class and was dismissed as “Hollywood”, implying that it wasn’t an authentic interpretation of Mozart. I defended the industry by indicating that the film launched the career of Milos Forman, a Czech.
As for differences between Europeans and Americans, awareness of the environment is one of the biggest contrasts to me. Europeans are more advanced in using public transportation and relying less on cars. They seem to live more modestly within their means, and are less focussed on themselves. I can still recall eavesdropped conversations between bratty entitled Americans that would make you regret being American.
On the other hand, the European food markets demand perfect quality produce. An article in the NY Times last year reported on food waste in Europe. It was evident here, pristine and among the most beautiful, even in run of the mill supermarkets. Perhaps their denial of GMO’s has to do with the cost, supply and demand.
Institutionalized Ethnic Food
The Currywurst in Germany started the downhill spiral, and now every immigrant dreams about his or her own ethnic take-away. Yesterday I bought my Japanese-style chicken teriyaki and rice from a hawker, who spoke in broken English but actually was Chinese. The fast food the vender was selling gave a mixed message—sell processed ethnic food that is predictable and a reasonable facsimile of food imagined from 50 years ago. Don’t worry about authenticity.
It wasn’t cheap—10 Euros. I can rationalize the overhead needed by families to make up for sacrifices in education, income and risk to reestablish in a new country. Perhaps gradually, authentic ethnic food will be appreciated as customers become more sophisticated.
This material was excerpted from two posts in July, 2019.
(Note: Apologies for this lengthy post, a compilation of three earlier ones.)
As part of the European extension to the Silk Road, we are revisiting a trip to Switzerland taken in 2015, at a time when life was COVID-free. Zurich, Basel, and Sierre were the highlights. It took awhile to decipher the dual French-German place names, but eventually it was fun guessing on top of a heavy Swiss-German dialect.
A street parade was taking place, and there were floods of tourists, mostly young, clad in costumes and wigs, and ready to tackle hundreds of music venues spread throughout the city. Many of the party-goers appeared to be from within Europe–Italians, Dutch, and Eastern Europeans.
A curious contingent of Asians were in one of the small squares with yellow T-shirts promoting democracy. I thought that was a bit strange but learned afterwards that they were Malaysian students and residents, protesting against their prime minister and demanding for his resignation. He apparently was dictatorial and had mis-managed funds. Another group in yellow T-shirts were just getting out ahead of the parade and entertaining tourists on the street.
Switzerland is frightfully expensive, so I am staying on the outskirts of town. The location feels like the South Peninsula, with many new internet and bio-tech firms concentrated in the area among spanking new housing. I noticed that the housing includes heavy metal louvers over each window as a standard. (even on my hotel window). It definitely helps provide shading from the strong sun as well as good riot protection if ever needed.
There was also a playroom in this new housing development. American architects have studied ideal housing in Europe consistently, yet I still do not see this level of integration for children in public or private housing in the U.S. It would be perfect if housing can incorporate activities for seniors such as a mutual support system for day care within the same development. Time to consider this approach and how we can get it to happen.
My do-it-yourself city tour of Zurich on Saturday morning had me breaking a sweat by 2pm–it was well over 90 degrees. At the end of the day, I had to beat it to the supermarket before it closed on Sunday. Americans look like a bunch of workaholics who can’t get their lives together to avoid food shopping on Sundays. Or else we just eat so much we run out of food every day.
The next few days, I traveled by train through the beautiful countryside from Brunnen on the shore of the Vierwaldstättersee near Lucerne to the French speaking area of Valais near Sion.
A car train took us through a deep tunnel in the mountains and emerged into the spectacular views of the valley. Also known as Wallis in German, Valais is a serious wine growing region with a patchwork of vineyards etching the south-facing sides of the valley and with flatter terraces facing the north side. It was in the middle of the Autumn harvest, and the vineyards provided a lush green carpet for the eyes and infinite pleasure for the palette.
I spent a much appreciated day “at home” at my friend’s house built with 2′ thick haybale walls for natural insulation. No air conditioning or heating is required inside, and it is built like a bunker to withstand any natural or man-made disasters.
The next day, I met Marie, who was working in the French speaking area. Marie’s friend was visiting from Der Wolf in Belgium, so the three of us went to the medieval castle on the hilltop in Sion. Afterwards, we had a delicious late lunch al fresco at Restaurant L’Enclos de Valère. At the end of the afternoon, I took the bus back to Sierre, then halfway up the hill near the resort area of Montana to Helena and Hans’ home.
Later that evening, Hans, Helena and I drove two hours by car to Gstaad, to attend a performance by world-famous opera diva Cecilia Bartolli. The tiny church was maxxed out for two hundred guests. Cecilia sang some beautiful music by Vivaldi and others. It was performed by I Barocchisti, an orchestra specializing in baroque music and original instruments from that period.
Basel, a Center for Architecture
On a day trip from Lucerne, Helena and I took the architectural tour of the city. Many of the buildings were designed by Swiss architects Herzog and Meuron. Basel has bragging rights to a number of world-famous architects, including Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Tadao Ando and another of their own native sons, Mario Botta.
Both Botta and Herzog and De Meuron designed museums in San Francisco. They are known in Switzerland for many other building types. Many of the buildings featured on the architectural guide housed biotech companies such as Roche and Novartis. American architects may have become known in Europe by partnering with biotech firms to create research hubs in this area.
The vertical extension of the Basel Museum of Culture was designed by Herzog and De Meuron. The textural pattern of hexagons reflected the irregular shape of the plaza facing the museum. They were in both convex and concave shapes. The gently swaying giant hanging plants at the entrance reminded me of the seaweed forest at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The De Young Museum in San Francisco, also designed by Herzog and De Meuron, is one of my favorite buildings. The mottled effect of the exterior copper panels cast on the inside of the building imitates the light coming through trees in Golden Gate Park. The huge canopy at the entrance also reminds visitors of the deep shadows in the park. I love this firm’s bold conceptual thinking and superior design execution that makes them one of the world’s most eminent and respected architects.
The Basel museum featured an exhibit on opium that sparked a lively conversation with Helena. My grandfather had died in China in 1925 from an addiction to this deadly plant. The museum collection included the history of opium, plant production, and implements used for taking opium. A section featured famous figures influenced by opium. I was surprised to find Lin Biao mentioned–of my relatives!
The saddest part was that opium was grown in India, transported to China, and then sold illegally to force free trade in China. It caused two wars, between 1839-42 and from 1856-60. The exhibition was very thought-provoking and a moving educational experience for me.
Our final evening was topped by the famous Swiss specialty “Raclette”, a fondue-like dish of Swiss cheese toasted with onion and spices on a grill, then spread with a miniature wooden scraper onto the top of sliced potatoes.
Next Week: We’re on to Austria, the land of Viennese Coffee, Waltzes, and Freud. Don’t forget to let me know how you are finding these visits to European cities–a bit off the beaten Silk Road track but nevertheless the eventual drivers and benefactors of intercontinental trade between Asia and Europe!
We have been traveling through the Caucasus —with stops in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and now Armenia.
The Haghartsin Monastery and Churches range from the 10th-13th Centuries, and are a fascinating example of early medieval/late Byzantine architecture. The heavy basalt walls protected the churches from earthquakes, but a considerable amount of renovation and restoration work was still needed.
The thick walls supported small chapels with heavy domes made of stone. Nevertheless, the simplicity of the structures provided a timeless quality and soothing relief to the 90+ degree weather. The main church is dedicated to St. Gregory. You can read more about it here: https://www.advantour.com/armenia/tavush/agartsin-monastery.htm
Along Lake Sevan, one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, the Sevanarank Monastery was built in 874. It’s surprising to find these early examples of Christian architecture that never made it into the art history lectures. Our Eurocentric focus has neglected the early beginnings of ecumenical architecture.
I am now customizing my own studies of architectural history and history. By visiting the trans-Caucasus countries, I realize how little we have learned about these countries and the significant roles they played during the “Dark Ages” in feudal and medieval Europe. We could have been learning about what was developing in other parts of the world, especially where it was not “dark”.
Followers have noted that my photos are strangely absent of people. I’m not sure whether it is a blessing or a curse, but I do tend to avoid inadvertent passers-by to preserve my architectural shots. It takes some patience but basically a stealth-bomber approach as soon as the coast is clear. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get distracted by interesting people who are the subject matter themselves. And don’t be misled. There are plenty of tourists wandering around everywhere, so I may in fact be distorting the scene. The good news: we have run into very few Americans along our route.
You will notice in one of the above photos our guide, Agii, from Mongolia. This was three years later and an unplanned encounter! Agii was visiting the Caucasus with her S. African husband to investigate potential countries for a permanent residence. They chose this part of the world over the U.S. or Europe, so it says alot about the stability, inexpensive living, and relatively reasonable standard of living. We found their mission for visiting the Caucasus fascinating, and even more enthralling that we met them completely by accident!
Food for Thought
With a bit of effort, delicious healthy food such as vegetable plates with presentation flair are inexpensive and available.
Cafesjian Center for the Arts
As part of the “Cascade”, an outdoor stairway system that ascends halfway up a steep hill in the middle of the city, an art museum is located adjacent to the escalator system serving the stairs. Sculpture is placed in layers as one moves along the escalators and views artwork at an enjoyable pace. The Cascade Monument was erected to commemorate the 2780th anniversary of the founding of Yerevan with an equal number of stairs.
Genocide Museum, Yerevan, Armenia
No visit would be complete without learning about the Armenian Genocide in 1915-20. An estim 600,000 and 1.5 million people were systemmatically killed by Turks in three phases: first by forcing men into labor groups without means of survival; next, by decapitating intellectuals and leaders of Armenia; and third, by rounding up women and children and sending them into the desert. The Turkish government has yet to acknowledge its responsibility in causing so many deaths.
All Armenians (3 million) and the Armenian diaspora (approx. 8 million) know about this tragedy. Funds for public and private projects such as the Cafesjian Center are sponsored by Armenians living outside of Armenia to help support the country today.
Armenia was the first countries to adopt Christianity as a state religion. Unless you majored in Religion or Theological Studies, you probably would not be familiar with the numerous stories fron the Old and New Testament quoted when visiting the early Armenian Christian churches. They helped to shed light on the activities of about 1100 years between the 3rd C CE and the 13th C. CE of devout Christian belief and that continues today.
Coincidentally, Gregory “the Illuminator” had a lot to do with the designating of sites or inspiring a number of them.
The Holy See of Armenia was the residence of the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, a monastery, and cathedral. It contained a museum in which the hierarchical aspects of the Catholica, archbishop and bishop, such as vestments, decorative items and tapestries were preserved. One of the most interesting was a reliquary covered by a piece of petrified wood purported to be from Noah’s ark.
What appeared from a distance to look like a version of Stonehenge, the ruins of this round cathedral served as the holy see, until an earthquake collapsed the stone dome above it. Only the arches and columns remain, as well as remains of the dormitories for monks and communal spaces.
This UNESCO listed monastery and church complex was started in the 3rd C CE and was partly carved into the mountain. Many small caves behind the monastery were used by the monks for individual meditation.
We’re very sad to leave this part of the world behind. The wealth of UNESCO world sites speak for its significance in the development of mankind and societies. Politics reign above all and challenge our knowledge of these misunderstood countries. While we were only able to digest a few statistics and a small portion of its legacy, we are inspired to pursue further studies about the Caucasus.
Our next and final stop along the Silk Road will be Turkey. Although it is not normally thought of as part of the Silk Road, it certainly has over various stages in time been a destination point at the end of a very long journey westward from China.