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Sauntering through Salzwedel

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

What will I discover on my day trip to Salzwedel? It is not a place I have ever heard of, this small town at the north-western edge of Sachsen-Anhalt. Yet, like so many other little and little-known places in this region, it turns out to be full of interesting links to history.

Its name already tells a story. Since antiquity, valuable wares were transported over long distances at great cost and high risk to the merchants, for numerous tolls had to be paid and bands of brigands to be fought off. And so it was that only the most precious goods made such an enterprise worthwhile: silk and spices, for example, amber, silver and salt … In any Northern German place name, the ending ‘-wedel’ is synonymous with ‘ford’ (as in Dartford, Castleford, Stratford and Oxford) and points to locations where a river was fordable. In this case, it is the Jeetze River that was traversed by one of the old salters’ roads, along which the precious commodity of salt  Salz  travelled. It is the place where salt crossed the river: Salzwedel.

Here, a fortress watched over this trade route which extended from the salt mines in Halle to the great cities of the North-West, and undoubtedly levied a toll for the protection it offered. Albrecht the Bear of the House of Askania made this fortress, Burg Salzwedel, his temporary home in the twelfth century. He is regarded as the founder of the town, though an earlier settlement in this location is known to date back to the year 800. The fortress of ‘Soltwidele’ is mentioned in surviving documents as early as 1112, and Salzwedel as a town for the first time in 1233. Thirty years later, it is already a member of the Hanse, that powerful union of German tradesmen. (The Hanseatic League was an early insurance scheme founded to protect the guild by spreading the risks of trade while sharing the profits. It also represented and defended the members’ interests abroad and soon became not only a commercial, but also a political influence of the first order, as well as an important cultural factor.)

New Town, founded 1247

Houses of the ‘New Town’ that was founded in 1247

Medieval Alleys

Medieval alleys, beautifully restored …

Gone are the horse-drawn carriages

… but where are the ox-carts and horse-drawn carriages?

But not all was well, as is usually the case when many souls are living together: Salzwedel’s protective ring wall enclosed a divided town. Old Town and New Town (‘new’ meaning it was founded as late as 1247) indulged in a love-hate relationship at close quarters for nearly five hundred years, their rivalry making two town halls and two mayors necessary, as well as separate churches, schools and town gates. A part of the ring wall and two of the old gates remain, but the division was overcome.

Old Town Gate

Steintor, Old Town Gate

However, it was not until 1713 that these segregated communities became one; not by choice, but by royal decree. Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia ordered – which means forced – the two halves to unite to what became known as Hansestadt Salzwedel.

Half-timbered Houses

Half-timbered Houses

This interesting fact is not apparent to the visitor. Instead, one notices the rows of beautifully restored half-timbered houses, with their delicate colours and variations in the pattern of beams, brickwork and doorways.

Redbrick Patterns

Redbrick Patterns

Timber Frame Patterns

Timber-Frame Patterns

Almost life-sized figures, headed by the date 1600, are carved with artistic energy into the woodwork, while carefully lettered verses run along the main beams of house fronts and remind readers of the temporary nature of life, or beseech the Lord for protection from fire.

Carved Beams

Carved Beams

Some buildings even go back to the 1500s. One is in effect walking through medieval alleys here, but without the filth and stench. All is clean and neat and attractive, and strangely bare of people on this Wednesday afternoon. The population of Salzwedel is clearly not in the habit of strolling or loitering.

'Anno Domini 1566 An Kroger'

‘Anno Domini 1566 An Kroger’

An immaculate stretch of new cobblestones is laid out in a quiet lane, still without the filling. The chunky, square pieces of granite fan out in delicate curves with organic regularity, like a pattern found in nature.

German Roadworks

Traditional Cobblestone Roadworks

In a peaceful square of the former Old Town, partly lined by ancient lime trees, the Marienkirche points its spire at the sky. Its slightly crooked tower is the emblem of Salzwedel. Local legend tells of Jan Kahl, a giant, who lived beyond the forest and was angered when the tower was completed (about 1496) and reached beyond eighty metres in height. He was used to being the tallest landmark around and meant to teach those tiny, impertinent humans a lesson by hurling an erratic boulder. It missed the tower, but the turbulence of air and the tremor of earth as it crashed to the ground caused the spire to quake and lose its former perfect uprightness … Unsurprisingly, though, experts remain convinced that the tower’s crookedness stems from deficient trusses.

Seen from this angle, the spire leans towards the viewer

Seen from this angle, the spire bends slightly towards the viewer

Today, the Marienkirche is a historic monument, a national treasure and a fine example of the Redbrick Gothic style that dominates the North-German Plain, since there has always been a dearth of natural building stones in this area.

Marienkirche

Marienkirche

From around 1200 it was constantly altered and rebuilt for three centuries, finally emerging in 1550 as the gothic basilica with five naves we see today, and remaining essentially unaltered in its architectural substance. A wonderful tripartite altarpiece by an unknown master was put up in 1510. It is the largest in the Altmark and shows scenes from the life and death of Christ in thirty-one panels, intricately carved from wood.

Scenes from the Life of Christ, His Death and Resurrection

The Altarpiece

A Renaissance baptismal font in bronze by Hans von Köln was added in 1522. It was designed so that the water could be heated to a pleasant degree, and infants would not shrink back and cry at the very moment of being received into the holy faith.

Baptismal Font

Baptismal Font

1541 is presumed to be the year the congregation adopted the new Lutheran evangelical faith. Before the Reformation did away with such fripperies, the church had accommodated twenty-eight side altars and services often went on simultaneously in different parts of the huge interior. Large numbers of priests were employed to hold masses in rotation, masses donated by individuals, by families or fraternities; and sometimes processions took place while the townsfolk met and worshipped. This lively usage of a great church I should have liked to witness, as a glimpse of the life of past times … The building, though magnificent, seems incomplete without attenders.

In the mid-seventeen hundreds, the prolific and highly-regarded organ builder Joachim Wagner installed a baroque organ. It was to be his last  he died before it was finished. One of his pupils completed the instrument, but it did not survive into our times. Only the original, baroque organ prospect remains and now fronts a more contemporary instrument.

The Organ

Joachim Wagner’s Organ Prospect

The Marienkirche survived both World Wars without damage, but had to sacrifice its bells to the armaments industry. Never before had I realized that bullets or cannons were sometimes cast from church bells, in a perverse reversal of swords being converted to ploughshares … I also learn that in the Second World War, the melting down of the nation’s church bells slyly served the purpose of silencing the powerful voice of Christian religion with its inopportune commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’ – under the pretext of urgently needed metal reserves. But the speed with which those bells were later replaced shows how important their ringing remained to the people. Here, too, the full set of six bells has long since been restored. More food for thought can be found in the fact that the youngest of these bells is named Shalom – the Hebrew word for peace.

Near the church, I find the house where the noble family von Westphalen welcomed the birth of daughter Jenny in 1814. Her father was the well-connected district administrator of Salzwedel, but she became more widely known as the wife of Karl Marx. At the age of seventeen, Jenny declined a suitable offer of marriage and later became secretly engaged to Marx, who, four years her junior and the son of a provincial lawyer, was not a good match for a baron’s daughter. Their engagement, reluctantly accepted by her family, was to last for seven years (while Marx matured in pursuing his studies abroad) and they were finally married in June 1843, after a decent period of mourning her father’s death. In Jenny, Karl Marx had found a supportive partner in his struggle for a new world order. Despite her pampered childhood and privileged upbringing, she followed him into penury and a restless and self-sacrificing life, faithful to the end.

Jenny Marx's House

Jenny Marx’s Birthplace

To his grief, she predeceased him: “The letters of condolence I have received (…) are all animated with a spirit of truthfulness and profound feeling in honour of Möhmchen, as is seldom the case in such conventional statements. I explain this with the fact that everything about her was natural and truthful, unselfconscious, never artificial; therefore also her impression on others lively, full of light. Even Frau Hess writes: ‘In her, Nature has destroyed her own masterpiece, for in my whole life I have never met with such a brilliant and loving woman.’”

Their youngest daughter, Eleanor Marx, observed, “It is no exaggeration to say that, without Jenny von Westphalen, Karl Marx could never have been what he was. They were perfectly matched and completed each other (…) And I believe that a tie as strong as their commitment to the cause of the working class bound them – their inexhaustible, indestructible humour.”

Friedrich Engels, long-term friend and comrade, also mourned her loss: “What such a woman, with a keen, critical mind, with such political tact, with such energy and passion of character, with such commitment to her comrades, has accomplished in our movement over almost forty years – that has not penetrated into the public awareness; it is not written in the annals of the contemporary press. It had to be witnessed personally. (…) We shall often enough have reason to miss her bold and clever advice – bold without boastfulness, clever without ever being dishonourable.”

Jenny Marx remains, of all the sons and daughters of Salzwedel, undoubtedly the most impressive  yet I had never even heard of her! But there is still more to learn, this time about a local delicacy:

Salzwedel produces a kind of cake that resembles a slice of tree trunk when cut and is therefore called Baumkuchen, ‘tree cake’. Salzwedeler Baumkuchen has been served at banquets of the European nobility for about a hundred and fifty years to date. It is sold in bakeries specializing in its manufacture, for it requires a large spit-like revolving cylinder on which the batter is brushed and baked in those thin, even layers that give the effect of year rings when cut.

Baumkuchen Bakery

Baumkuchen Bakery

Usually, this ‘trunk’ is made up of fifteen to twenty layers of batter and can be three to four feet in length. It tastes blandly sweet, with a hint of vanilla, and is also sold in various cut shapes, glazed with fondant, covered in white or dark chocolate, or as an uncut trunk, sprinkled with decorative sugar flowers for special events.

Imbued with new impressions and the sweet flavour of bakery products, I leave Salzwedel behind. The road towards Bergen soon passes a large sign commemorating its intersection with the line along which Germany, and Europe, had been divided by the Iron Curtain until November 10, 1989, at midnight.

The former Border

The former Border

Salzwedel, in close proximity to this heavily guarded border, served as base for the helicopter squadron of the GDR’s border control force. Yet its location also exposed it to radio waves and TV news from the West, and it easily received those rays of information that poked holes in the dense veil of a dictatorial government’s … ahem … miscommunication.

What an interesting day this has been!

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Leipzig

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Today’s excursion to Leipzig begins with a walk through silent pine woods to the tiny local train station, where a ticket vending machine snatches my twenty-euro bill with unexpected vigour, as if to prevent me from changing my mind. The slogan “GEGEN NAZIS!!!” (against Nazis) catches my eye. The large letters of this forceful statement have been drawn carefully with a broad brush and lime green paint, underscoring the station’s name panels. It is just before nine o’clock, and a peaceful Saturday morning until a scruffy youngster comes along with a device in the pocket of his trousers that are hanging at half-mast, emitting blaring sounds that can be called music only in the loosest sense of the word: they resemble a cacophony of hammers striking metal planks and give the impression that a clanking factory accompanies his strides. All eyes on the platform follow as he huddles in the shelter opposite the tracks.

The train is scheduled for 08.54. Cold wind and the youth’s intrusive machinery-noises make the wait unpleasant, but it is of short duration. At 08.53 precisely, the train from Wittenberg glides into the station. Five people board, and exactly on time we depart, heading for Leipzig, leaving the youngster and his sound factory behind. I study the German passengers – their faces, their dress, their gestures – and my impression is that, unless they speak, they are pretty much indistinguishable from the population of Britain. Each type, every temperament and expression could be matched with an exact counterpart somewhere in the soggy kingdom, I’m sure.

Outside the windows the wide plain flies past, punctuated by marshes, copses of birch and fir woods, fields and raised deer-watching hutches, and also by artificial lakes that filled up the open pits of former brown-coal mines. Glades of wind turbines and acres of solar panels can be seen at times. Run-down and bricked-up station buildings, redundant in this age of ticket machines, are covered in colourful sprayers’ tags. Long, bleached grass grows over abandoned tracks; brick walls crumble. A bleak look of neglect hangs about these small, rural settlements and makes our arrival at the terminus, nearly an hour later, all the more stunning. For Leipzig’s main station is one of the largest in Europe; a magnificent stone edifice dating from the turn of the last century, its interior elegantly modernized. Below the tracks, shopping arcades are lined with international brand names. Spotless public toilets, supervised by a friendly cleaner on duty, stand to attention for one euro.

It is not immediately apparent which exit will take me towards the old town, so I approach a young couple to make enquiries. They interrupt their private conversation willingly and point me in the right direction. It strikes me anew that whenever I have dealings with members of the German public, be they shop assistants, museum staff or strangers in the street, their manner is always a touch more genuinely pleasant than is commonly expected and strictly necessary. Their educated friendliness, their heartfelt desire to be helpful surprises and moves me every time. This is totally unlike the German image as it is commonly portrayed in the Anglophone world.

Now I walk along wide, cobbled city streets into the peaceful pedestrian zone, taking care not to collide with the cyclists that sometimes zoom noiselessly around corners. Leipzig is indeed a grand old town, its inner circle stuffed to the brim with things of historic interest. My first goal is the Nikolaikirche, a Protestant church with several claims to fame: Luther, Bach, the ‘Monday Demonstrations’ …

Church of St Nicholas

I take advantage of the guided tour that is about to begin. A fair-sized group of visitors has come together to learn about this church, and we are fortunate in our guide who has a witty and well-informed mind. From him we learn that Leipzig began around the year 900 as a Slavic settlement on a slight elevation in the difficult and unattractive swampland of three rivers, but owed its quick rise to importance to the fact that two Roman main roads, the Via Regia and the Via Imperii, crossed here and linked the four directions of the compass to a centre of brisk trade. In 1165 Libzi, ‘Place of the Linden Trees’, was granted the state of a free market town, and at the same time the city fathers dedicated their new parish church to St Nicholas, patron saint of traders. This church of the citizenry soon acquired a rival in the Church of St Thomas, built as part of the local Augustinian Monastery, and their uneasy relationship became tenser still during the time of the Reformation, when the Church of St Nicholas welcomed Luther’s ideas and embraced the new Evangelical faith in 1539. The pulpit Luther preached from is preserved and can be seen in a side chapel.

The Church of St Nicholas underwent the same sequence of transformations that characterizes so many important edifices of the times: It grew from Romanesque beginnings and eventually was extended as a Gothic hall church. For the time span of a generation, the citizens of Leipzig only knew their church as a building site, and they worshipped inside a tent-like structure while the church walls around them were removed and remodelled. Almost three thousand people are said to have attended the first mass once renovation was complete. (Our guide points out that Sunday Service in those days lasted from half-past seven to eleven o’clock in the morning.)

Then the 18th century came along, eager to leave its baroque mark. The prosperous and independent-minded citizens of Leipzig wished to demonstrate their high cultural standard and invited their master town architect Dauthe to remodel the entire interior of their church to prove it. From 1784 to 1797 St Nikolai was once again a building site, until the nave emerged as one of the most original creations of German classicism; light and fresh as a piece of exquisite confectionery, richly ornamented with floral motives and decorated in icing sugar colours: white, signifying innocence; pink for the apple blossom; and light green – symbolic of the Garden of Eden. Its double row of pillars was designed to resemble palm trees, with fronds and fruit growing freely from their tops. Nothing Gothic remained.

Church of St Nicholas

Interior of St Nicholas Church

Among churches, St Nikolai is unusual in other ways too, as our guide now explains: The building sits level with the ground, inviting anyone who passes in the street to step inside without making him climb to a symbolically higher level via the habitual series of steps. Inside, one meets the opposite of the hushed atmosphere in catholic churches, dimly illuminated by colourful stained-glass images; for these tall windows let in the clear, rational light of day unaltered, as befits the Age of Enlightenment. No statues of saints, no worship of the Madonna either – only a beautifully crafted candle stand of wrought iron in the central aisle, bearing forty lights. According to our guide, in a biblical context the number forty always points to the difficulties of achieving communication with God: Forty days in the desert, or even forty years … In harmony with Luther’s impulse, it is a building dedicated to the conscious responsibility for one’s faith, to the word of the scripture and to music that elevates the soul, and it had the outrageously good fortune to be the place where several of Bach’s great works were performed for the very first time.

Unusual, however, doesn’t end there: A cycle of thirty large paintings by Adam Friedrich Oeser (town architect Dauthe’s teacher) depicts scenes from the New Testament, showing Christ as teacher of mankind and miracle-working Son of God. Images of this kind are certainly not part of other Evangelical churches. Unusual is also the fact that the altar space is not out of bounds to the public. One may wander freely in this hallowed area, otherwise strictly reserved for the clergy, and view the fine artworks displayed there.

Altar of St Nicholas Church

A roughly fashioned, large wooden cross stands to one side of the altar. Although it is built according to the original Roman pattern for such instruments of torture and looks ancient, we learn that it was commissioned only at the beginning of the 1980s by the pastor and used in his regular meetings with young people. This cross was laid on the floor of the altar space, and everyone sat around it in gatherings that grew steadily over time. Here, the young citizens of the German Democratic Republic – deprived, restricted, patronized and spied on by their one-party state – could for once freely express their thoughts and feelings and not be met with a brusque “Halt’s Maul!” – Shut up! Those same two words were uttered habitually by nearly all their concerned, frightened or subdued parents and teachers, for in the ‘Socialist Paradise of Workers and Farmers’, speaking one’s mind was dangerous and not encouraged. But in the unusual sanctuary of this church (barely tolerated by the state), they could speak out after having placed a lit tea light on the beams of the cross, and here their voices were heard. Darkness fell outside as the evening wore on, but inside the light grew on the beams of the cross in their middle.

All during this decade, the peace prayers in the Nikolaikirche increased in momentum. The congregation was swelled by many who would never normally have attended a service. Yet in the troubled last days of the GDR, this church became the centre of their peaceful protests. Despite blocked access streets, random arrests and vicious brutality by the state police, the Monday Demonstrations continued and grew in size. On October 7, 1989, the GDR celebrated its forty-year anniversary with great pomp. While the ruling party admired a parade of their proud class of workers, TV channels of the West showed crowds of GDR citizens chanting, “Wir wollen raus!” – We want to leave! The Russian president Michail Gorbatchov, attending the celebrations, made it clear that the Red Army would not get involved. The Hungarians had already cut a hole into the Iron Curtain along their border with Austria, and now Germans from the East used it to escape. Hundreds of others were holed up in embassies, demanding the freedom to travel across the barbed-wire border. The eyes of the world were focused on Erich Honecker’s dictatorial regime, and all waited with bated breath for the bloody massacre that was to come. Only five months earlier, the Chinese government had crushed an uprising of its young people on Tiananmen Square, and the images were still in everyone’s mind. But then something unexpected happened. What could have led to a civil war became Die Wende, the turning-point.

A former member of the Central Committee admitted before his death: “We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.” – Although articles in the press had threatened the ruthless use of armed forces to put out this ‘counter-revolution’, more people than ever assembled in the Nikolaikirche on that Monday evening, October 9, 1989. Among them were a thousand party members and state security forces with orders to fill up the church and crowd out the congregation. Thus they too heard the words of the gospel, the message of peace, the Sermon on the Mount … The bishop ended with his blessing and the urgent call for non-violence; written messages of solidarity from the director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra and others were read out. There was an atmosphere of intense calm and focus. In the words of Pastor Christian Führer: “And as we, more than two thousand people, were leaving our church – I shall never forget the sight – there were ten thousands waiting outside in the square. They had candles in their hands. And to carry a candle one needs both hands. One has to shield the light, protect it from extinguishing. One cannot carry a stone or a club at the same time. And the miracle happened. The Spirit of Jesus, of non-violence, took hold of the masses and became a peaceful force. Members of the army, the combat groups and the police became involved, engaged in conversation and withdrew. (…) Not a single shop window was smashed. An incredible experience of the power of non-violence.”

Nobody could have foreseen the speed with which the Socialist One-Party State crumbled, turned to dust and blew away on the winds of history. The most fiercely guarded border in the world was dismantled in record time and Germany became one nation once more. – An exact replica of one of the church’s pillars now stands outside in the square, its startling appearance a fitting reminder of these events.

Memorial Pillar

A short walk takes me to the Church of St Thomas. What does it have to offer, in terms of historical events, to equal its great rival? Quite a bit, it seems: The famed University of Leipzig, second-oldest of German universities after Heidelberg, was founded in 1409 in the Monastery of St Thomas. From 1723 to his death in 1750, Johann Sebastian Bach was Cantor in Leipzig, and though the city fathers employed him chiefly for their Church of St Nicholas, he lived and worked at St Thomas and led the boy’s choir. In 1789, Mozart passed through Leipzig and played the organ in this church; oh, to have been a fly on the wall then!

Church of St Thomas

In the following Napoleonic Wars, St Thomas was used first as an ammunitions store and then as a military hospital. In the meantime, Bach’s music had sunk into oblivion and he was remembered mostly as a great player and teacher of music. But in 1829, the young Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy initiated a revival of Bach’s reputation with a performance of the Passion of St Matthew in Berlin. A performance of the same work was heard in this church in 1841, and the inauguration of a Bach Memorial followed two years later. His coffin had lain in an unmarked grave of the Old St John’s Cemetery for nearly a hundred and fifty years, but was found in 1894 and transferred to a vault inside St John’s. When that church was destroyed in the Second World War, Bach’s remains were moved for a second time.

Bach's Epitaph

They lie under a bronze epitaph in the sanctuary, his name now firmly wedded to the church of St Thomas, while a simple bust of the great composer is all that marks his link to the Church of St Nicholas. In 2008, Mendelssohn’s memorial was restored, the original having been destroyed by the Nazis. (They had also done away with the exceedingly large and prosperous Jewish community of Leipzig, historically connected with the city’s fur trade of international renown and a close rival to that other centre of the fur trade, London.)

I emerge into daylight, holding my quota of research fulfilled. There is still so much to see and study, but one would need more than a brief day-visit to do it all justice. At every crossing, sign posts offer new attractive suggestions, but now I just amble along in the splendid sunshine and view the buildings.

Market Square

City Skyscraper

Bold, modern architecture intermingles with impressive historical styles. On the one hand, there is the opulent Ratshaus, the city hall, a Renaissance castle looking like something out of fairy-tale or legend. On the other, there is a mountain of glass facets, a crystal-like edifice that is in fact the venerable University of Leipzig in its newest incarnation.

Ratshaus, the City Hall

University of Leipzig

Another eye-catching piece of modern architecture, rising phoenix-like from a former bomb site, is the Gewandhaus, home to the orchestra of international renown.

Gewandhaus

In the square a great teacher, cast in bronze, raises his hand in a lecturing pose, and in it some spirited student (I assume) has placed a drinks can which fits perfectly between his fingers and connects him effortlessly to the present day.

Past and Present

This irreverent spirit seems to thrive amongst the august historical monuments of Leipzig. I detect no sign of stuffiness, of careful clinging to the weight of a great past. A double-edged advertising slogan illustrates this: “Für jeden Arsch ‘ne Hose,” it shouts gleefully and concisely – for every bum the right pants!

With tired feet and limbs nipped by the cold wind I make my way to Auerbachs Keller. The subterranean vault is decorated with fresco scenes from Goethe’s ‘Faust’, and in the foyer its story is told across several illustrated pin boards. A hot drink and a piece of ‘Mephisto Torte’ are most welcome at this point.

Auerbachs Keller

I ponder that as tourists we are happy enough with an approximation in the experience of historical events, locations and remains; that names, and the mental image of events linked with them, are usually sufficient to conjure up a feeling of having stepped into a magic circle of the past. It is certainly the case here, in this restaurant that – although it still bears the same name – is not the actual site of the drinking hole the young Goethe frequented as a student and commemorated in his epic play. Nor is it entirely certain that the mortal remains buried in St Thomas’s Church are actually those of Bach himself: the experts are only ‘highly’ certain. But does it matter? It seems to me that these memorial places serve as springboards to their significance, as points of connection charged with an energized interest that remains unmatched by Wikipedia.

Goethe as a Student in Leipzig


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Oranienbaum

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The sky is a dull grey this morning (not ideal for photography) and the wind is chilly. Nevertheless, I am determined to explore the area and set out early, driving on straight roads lined with young Linden trees through seemingly deserted villages and across Sachsen-Anhalt’s countryside that is flat as a pancake. To my relief, I do not once lose my way and find Schloss Oranienbaum without problem. Of course it is closed at this season, but one is free to wander the grounds. Being the only visitor makes me feel like an intruder, a trespasser in a park taken over by quietly burrowing moles. The palace has fallen into disrepair and is in a sorry state: beams are rotting, masonry is crumbling and paint peeling away. But one side has already been restored to perfection and the rest is sure to follow; I notice building machines and scaffolding waiting in the wings.

04_Oranienbaum

06_Oranienbaum

05_Oranienbaum

This palace was built as a summer residence for the Dutch princess Henriette Catherine of Oranje-Nassau after she married Prince Johann Georg II of Anhalt-Dessau in September 1659 and moved to Germany. On an information panel, I read that the bride received this formerly desolate area including the largely abandoned village of Nischwitz as a gift, the year after her wedding. (Did her husband say, “Look here, my darling – do you fancy a chunk of wasteland?”) What did she make of that, one wonders?

But I assume that this totally level countryside must have reminded Henriette Catherine of her homeland and inspired her to recreate its familiar environment. Finding herself married in a foreign country, she commissioned an architect from the Netherlands to transform the run-down hamlet she had been presented with into an attractive little town in the Dutch baroque style, extending the design of park and palace. And so Oranienbaum was built to the rigorously rectangular plan of Dutch settlements and named after the dynasty of its patroness. She also founded a glass factory, and this, together with the ongoing building projects, helped to revive the local economy. To this day, an orange tree fashioned from metal and bearing gilt fruit marks the centre of the market square as a tribute to Henriette Catherine and her family name. (It seems to me that, in keeping with the fruitful theme, the stone nymphs flanking it look decidedly pregnant.)

03_Oranienbaum

Her marriage lasted thirty-four years and seems to have been a happy one, viewed across the centuries, though it had more than its fair share of sorrow: She bore her husband ten children, eight of which were daughters. The first two died soon after birth, and her first boy died before he reached two years of age. It was an age of high infant mortality, as she knew full well: four of Henriette’s eight siblings had not survived childhood. Praying for the children’s good health must have been an even more important part of parenting then … Five more daughters arrived, and lived; but only child number nine turned out to be the required heir: Leopold the first was born in 1676 – to be followed six years later by another girl.

Oranienbaum Palace was completed in 1683. It featured fine leather wall coverings and splendid Delft tiles, and Henriette Catherine, presumably feeling almost at home by now, retired there after the death of her husband, ten years later. Because her son Leopold was still a minor at the time, she assumed regency until he came of age. After her own death in 1708, the place was used only occasionally by her descendants, mainly as a hunting lodge. But after nearly a hundred years had passed, her great-grandson Prince Leopold III Friedrich Franz of Anhalt-Dessau had the park remodelled and added some Chinese touches that were all the rage at the time. I wander around a towering pagoda on a hill, past a tea house accessible by boat and over wooden arch bridges spanning the waterways. How lovely all this must look in the summer sunshine, framed by June’s undarkened green …

08_Oranienbaum

10_Oranienbaum

11_Oranienbaum

Fortunately, the palace has remained unaltered since the seventeenth century, but it deteriorated considerably and emerged from the era of the not-so-Democratic German Republic in a state of sad neglect. Since then much has been repaired, but a lot more needs to be done until the building can once again give visitors a true impression of its splendid baroque style.

In 2004 and 2012 Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, herself a descendant of the house of Oranje-Nassau, paid a visit and inspected the ongoing restoration project. The estate is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and part of the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm, which I plan to visit next.

12_Oranienbaum

After a tour of the hibernating gardens, I wander the streets of the little town for a while. They are cobbled in many different patterns: stones of various sizes, colours and shapes are used for different sections of the road. The effect is attractive to look at but unpleasant to drive on with cars, wheel- and pushchairs. And as for high-heeled shoes …! I recall the rant of an elegant friend who cursed what she called the “protestant-peasant-cobblestones” of our Swiss hometown and compared them unfavourably with the smooth marble pavements of catholic Italy. – Be that as it may, these cobbled streets give the local towns and villages a look steeped in tradition. Thus, owing to the local German ruler’s match with a foreign lady, the principality of Anhalt-Dessau bore a decidedly Dutch stamp for over a century.


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Kommunalfriedhof

Friday, 7 February 2014

A visit to Salzburg’s biggest cemetery, opened in 1879 and called the Kommunalfriedhof, is on the programme today. Situated on the outskirts south of the city, it covers twenty-five hectares and contains some 20,000 graves in which about 160,000 people have so far been laid to rest.

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Only a few people are visiting on this sunny morning; they replace burnt-out candles on family graves and spend some moments in remembrance, their heads bowed in silent prayer. I wander along tree-lined paths past the chapel and the crematory, and visit special areas that can be seen at intervals: a fenced plot dedicated to the Dutch soldiers who fought and fell in the last war, a Muslim section, a place for anonymous urns, for Asian graves and others. Each themed section has a different look as one wanders in a time warp from those impressive graves of the imperial era towards our more modest, democratic age.

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The style of this cemetery is quite unlike those I have seen in England, where simple slabs of engraved stone, often leaning with age, are dotted amongst the lawns and yews surrounding village churches. Here, each headstone rises behind a small garden-like plot containing shrubs, flowers, gravel and candles, and there is a striving for individual design and variety.

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As I walk around the extensive cemetery, I study names and dates carved into stone slabs bearing wrought-iron crosses, sculptures of angels, carved wreaths or the likeness of the dear departed on a ceramic oval. The sun’s rays filter through dark branches of trees growing between the graves, and the singing of birds only enhances the quiet and peaceful mood.

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This cemetery is an attractive recreational area and was intended as such from the beginning. Lawns, shrubs and well over a thousand old trees are assembled to create a park for the living and the dead, an inviting space to visit and remember. Lovers could meet here to wander hand in hand amongst the memories of bygone generations. And if it is already this beautiful in the bleak season, what must it be like in the spring? In early summer? I should like to return then, like the swallows …

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Eventually I approach the arcade that runs the length of one side and discover that here the famous and influential members of local families are commemorated in tombs of honour. There are mayors, bankers, architects and judges, as well as members of the aristocracy. Each segment of the arcade is furnished with an impressively decorated marble slab, a sculpture or occasionally even a large painting.

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Wrought-iron lanterns are suspended from chains that descend from vaulted roofs painted in delicate trompe-l’oeil motifs, and the stone floor bears wreaths, flower arrangements and candle holders. There is a distinctly classical, Italian style expressed in art and architecture, and the sunshine that casts deep shadows today reinforces this impression.

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A huge gate of profuse metal curlicues is set into the main entrance here. It was made in 1885 by the locksmith Karl Fiedler according to designs by one Professor Joseph Salb, and a plaque dedicated to the memory of this “Composer of the great wrought-iron cemetery gate” is set into the wall.

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Later, I read that this cemetery is reputedly one of the most beautiful in the whole of Europe, and – now that I have seen it for myself – I have no trouble believing it. With a splendid view of the Hohensalzburg fortress and framed by snow-dusted mountains, it seems a fit resting place for those fortunate people who were born in Salzburg or concluded their lives here … Wish I were one of them!

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Salzburg

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Today, I wander about Salzburg’s inner city by myself. The morning sun on the buildings adds to their appeal as I soak up the atmosphere of this magical place. At this time of year the usual crowds of visitors from all over the world are still absent.

86_Fussbruecke

62_Bankhaus

50_St Peterskirche

48_St Petersfriedhof

The Getreidegasse, usually choc-a-bloc with tourists, is only loosely populated this morning. Rows of very chic shops in its arcades offer luxury goods; some in keeping with the place, others less so.

14_Kinder Trachten

15_Schmuck

09_Getreidegasse

Artistic signs, suspended above the shops, add a special touch to this long, narrow lane that runs between the river and the rock. At its centre is the house in which Mozart was born on the 27th January 1756. There are no queues at this time of year. After paying ten euros for a ticket, I climb the stairs to the third floor, where Mozart’s family lived at the time. These rooms are fairly large with low ceilings. Their white-washed walls show painted paragraphs in delicate grey lettering that describe the Mozarts’ lives in these quarters. Objects such as music scores, letters and a few personal belongings are displayed in glass-topped cases, and those well-known portraits of family members look down from the walls.

And then one enters the bedroom where he was born. Wooden floorboards, creaking slightly; bare, white walls, and a simple Kachelofen in the corner. Five black, slender pillars are installed along one side of the room, each containing a few relics in a subtly lit Perspex segment: locks of his hair, a ring, mother-of-pearl buttons and his embroidered silk purse amongst others. In the corner by a window, Mozart’s child-size violin is suspended in a glass case, floating above three words engraved in a brass plate below: Liebe, Leben, Licht – love, life, light. There I stand still, close my eyes and listen to his music, to the voices of piano and violin emanating from a hidden sound system and filling this simple chamber with the dimension of heaven.

Never one to participate in active fandom and so far unmoved by relics, shrines and autographs, I am suddenly gripped by a deep reverence – here, in the heart of this wonderful city where he was born. His music is my home on the road, my spiritual haven; and this city would have been my home too, had I been allowed to choose. I live in hope that I shall find my way, after death, to that realm in the universe where his music originates. But here, at this precise moment, I feel connected to it all.

56_Mozarts Geburtshaus

Later, as I look out across the River Salzach from the promenade, I am approached by an elderly lady – very elegantly dressed – who asks, “Sind Sie Salzburgerin?” (Are you from Salzburg?) Shaking my head, I reply, “Leider nicht – zu meinem unendlichen Bedauern!” (Unfortunately not – to my infinite regret!) And so it is.

26_Mozart Denkmal

Crossing the footbridge, I notice hundreds of colourful padlocks of all sizes, clasped to the wire mesh beneath the banister. Why are they here? No clue is given, but upon closer inspection I notice that each padlock bears two names or initials, often with a heart or a message like ‘In love forever’. It seems that couples commemorate their union in this way, in this place, instead of carving their names into the bark of a hapless tree. It is an appealing idea, attractive to look at and full of significance. What a pity that I have no one to share a padlock with! I briefly consider adding one with the name of the city, and mine; but experience has taught me to use ‘forever’ with caution.

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Less pleasing are the beggars seated at intervals along the bridge and in the lanes of the old town. They seem to be from Eastern Europe, possibly Romania, and even to my inexperienced eye it is clear that these are not poor individuals who have fallen on hard times, but members of an organized gang. As so often, the women look a lot unhappier than their male counterparts as they brave the cold, kneeling on the tarmac in various poses of supplication, uttering plaintive words in German, “Bitte schön, schönen Tag, danke schön …” and holding out paper cups in the hope of moving the passers-by to a donation.

However, in six hours of wandering the streets, I do not witness a single instance where their pleading is successful. People avoid looking at them and give them a wide berth. I smile at one of these women and reply, “Einen schönen Tag auch!” without being tempted to fork out money which I know she will have to hand over to the boss. She returns the smile, glad to have been acknowledged, and when I pass her again later, she recognizes and greets me. Dark eyes in a dark face, friendly, and resigned to their fate …

Beggars are a new element in the mix of this city, and I am astonished by their numerous presence. Should such a foreign enterprise, so alien to this country and its culture, really gain a foothold here?

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64_Stations of the Cross

Having crossed the river, I ascend a steep path that leads along the Stations of the Cross to the Kapuzinerberg. A little way past the old monastery, there is a small statue of Mozart. It marks the place where a wooden shack once stood, in which he is said to have composed large parts of ‘The Magic Flute’. On the pedestal are the lines: ‘Jung gross, spät erkannt, nie erreicht’ (early greatness, recognized late, never matched).

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The woodlands up here are a nature reserve, and the view across the city is splendid. I sit on a bench and soak up the sun, squinting at the scenery from this new angle. And I love, love, love being here …

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… revelling in the uplifting effect this place always has on my soul. What is it about this city that pleases me so intensely it comes close to a physical sensation? The beauty of its buildings and the care with which they have been preserved certainly play a part. The eye, with its keen appetite for aesthetic pleasure, is served a banquet of tasteful vistas composed of elements that cannot help but appeal. Akin to Mozart’s music, this architecture speaks a universal language of beauty and heavenly harmony, speaks of a realm to which the soul, mired as it is in the depths of daily concerns, can rise in moments of awe and wonder. Here, in the heart of the city, there reigns a grandeur so far removed from the mundane and purpose-driven style of the suburbs, a historical splendour so steeped in the traditions of an age when beauty in tone, stone and manners was considered to be of supreme importance – it is impossible not to be enchanted.

66_Vom Kapuzinerberg


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Road Trip Stop Chiemsee

Saturday, 25 January 2014

I take the motorway towards the Austrian border and Salzburg, but turn off towards the village of Prien and the Chiemsee, a large lake. The land is covered in a thin layer of snow that fell over night as the temperature dropped towards zero. Driving on the right-hand side of the road with a British car is not a problem, but the lack of winter tyres may soon turn out to be one. So far, luckily, the roads are clear.

How to take a ticket from the machine at the large parking lot near the piers? With the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car, one must lunge through the passenger window to reach the button, taking care not to slip off the pedals in the process.

The next ship tour around the lake begins at noon, leaving ample time to wander along the promenade. There is a lovely winter mood, with gulls perching on snowy piers and the light reflected on the cold, grey water.

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Chiemsee

Then the tour ship Berta arrives and gathers up a surprising number of people braving the cold on this bleak day. She delivers us to the Herreninsel, the largest island in the lake.

A twenty-minute walk along a smoothly tarmacked path through the woods leads to the hidden castle of Herrenchiemsee, a pet project of Ludwig II of Bavaria. This sensitive, creative and introverted king used extravagant building projects to escape from the sordid reality of political intrigue and power games.

Ludwig II felt much more at home in an ideal world of legend, music, art and architecture. In 1873 he acquired the island as a setting for this impressive castle. It was built in homage to Versailles as a miniature copy of that grand chateau and its gardens and was designed to be a temple of glory, dedicated to Ludwig’s idol Louis XIV. Every imaginable luxury was lavished on the building, and King Ludwig paid for everything from his own coffers, thus amassing a huge personal debt.

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Schloss Herrenchiemsee

Work began in 1878 and continued for seven years, yet castle and gardens remain unfinished. King Ludwig’s exhausted funds and sudden, unexplained death (days after his deposition because of alleged insanity) put an end to his dream.

Even so, the completed parts are impressive. The guided tour of about thirty minutes takes us through extensive state rooms, clad in many-coloured marble panels and furnished with massive lead-crystal chandeliers reflected endlessly in huge, gilded mirrors, parquet floors inlaid in intricate patterns with costly, scented tropical woods, colourful frescoes and priceless embroidered draperies, as well as a collection of precious clocks and a table designed to be set near the kitchen below stairs and then hauled up by mechanical magic.

But King Ludwig II also integrated the newest technology in his building projects, like cleverly disguised central heating and running hot and cold water. Furthermore, he was a pioneer of the beginnings of social security. The workers on his castle projects could join a society that would pay a certain sum per day of illness, and carry the costs of the wake and a mass in case of death.

These days, the castles that led to Ludwig’s financial ruin are Bavaria’s main attractions and have paid for themselves many times over, drawing millions of visitors each year from all over the world …

Intrigued by this king’s tragic story, I decide to learn more about his life and visit the museum in one of the castle’s wings. Apparently, Ludwig II envisioned flying machines from an early age and later ordered various engineers to work on this idea, unaware that such a feat was not yet technically possible. Unfortunately, this dream of his was later used as one of the most damning arguments in the report ordered by his ministers to prove Ludwig’s unsound mind. However, when Bismarck was approached by the conspirators, he dismissed the report with the verdict that “the Ministers wish to sacrifice the King, otherwise they have no chance of saving themselves.”

Indeed, Ludwig II was considering replacing them all, for their constant opposition to his projects irritated and frustrated him. So the ministers, preferring to act quickly, commissioned a panel of four eminent psychiatrists with an investigation; and although not one of these doctors had met the king, nor ever examined him, their findings were that the king suffered from paranoia and was no longer fit to rule.

“Suffering from such a disorder, freedom of action can no longer be allowed and Your Majesty is declared incapable of ruling, which incapacity will be not only for a year’s duration, but for the length of Your Majesty’s life.”  

The detailed files of the king’s personal physician, who strove to show that there could be no question of mental illness, were dismissed unread.

It all makes the words of Richard Wagner, who met with Ludwig II in May 1864, seem prophetic:

“Heute wurde ich zu ihm geführt. Er ist leider so schön und geistvoll, seelenvoll und herrlich, dass ich fürchte, sein Leben müsse wie ein flüchtiger Göttertraum in dieser gemeinen Welt zerrinnen … Von dem Zauber seines Auges können Sie sich keinen Begriff machen: wenn er nur leben bleibt; es ist ein zu unerhörtes Wunder!”

(“Today I met with him. Alas, he is so handsome and ingenious, soulful and magnificent, that I fear his life must melt away like an ephemeral divine dream in this vulgar world … You cannot imagine the magic of his eye: if only he remains alive; it is too great a miracle!”)

Ludwig II had found in Wagner’s operatic work the kind of fantasy world that appealed to his imagination, and he became Wagner’s generous patron and the saviour of this obstinate, rebellious and debt-ridden composer’s career. Reports about King Ludwig’s peculiar habits observe reproachfully that the king shunned public shows at the theatre and instead ordered private performances for his solitary enjoyment. But the king himself confided that he could not possibly enjoy a performance and immerse himself in the story while being stared at by the crowds who followed his every expression through their opera glasses – surely perfectly understandable and a sign of normality rather than eccentricity.

That this king was too sensitive to withstand the expectations and duties his role placed upon him is further illustrated by his aversion to war. Nevertheless, he was forced by a treaty with Prussia to do battle against France in 1870. After the victory, Wilhelm the First was proclaimed German Emperor – in Versailles, of all places – and Ludwig considered this an insult to the French people. He refused to take part in the celebration, thus making himself more enemies at home.

He was critically aware of his situation, as shown by another quote where he reflects on the fact that he acceded to the throne at the age of eighteen.

“I became king much too early. I had not learned enough. I had made such a good beginning (…) with the learning of state laws. Suddenly I was snatched away from my books and set on the throne. Well, I am still trying to learn …”

Today it is widely believed that Ludwig was an innocent victim of political intrigue. His cousin Sissy, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, knew him closely and held the view that “The King was not mad; he was just an eccentric living in a world of dreams. They might have treated him more gently, and thus perhaps spared him so terrible an end.”

31_Seepromenade

Winter Mood