The Solo Traveller's View


David Garrett’s Beauty

An attempted Analysis of a Musical Phenomenon – Part 15

Early on in your life you recognized beauty in all its forms as an expression of the divine, like truth and goodness. You admired beauty in the natural world, where it is easily found. You searched for beauty in man-made artefacts and the many guises of culture. But what touched you most of all was human beauty in appearance and character; and you became aware that, in people, true beauty is a rare and precious thing.

Though you have long searched for human beauty and encountered it before, even in the faces of men, not one ever showed such a high degree of perfection. This, a quiet voice sings in the depths of your mind – this is the face you have been waiting to see, without knowing. Now it has appeared within the radius of your awareness, its existence cannot be ignored. Like a temple that housed the ancient gods of Greece it must be built upon the pleasing proportions of the golden ratio, where every point, line and plane adds to the harmonious beauty of the whole and there is no angle that lessens its appeal.


“Este hombre es una de las cosas más hermosas que he visto.” – “The most beautiful and talented man in the universe. ” – “You are the most beautiful thing in the world when you are playing.” – “Tant de beauté … simplement extatique!” – “What beauty – without words.” – “Esse homem ilumina minha vida!” – “Quelle merveille de la nature, ce garçon!” – “In my eyes he’s perfection!”  – “Aquí está el hombre más hermoso del mundo!” – “He is absolutely beautiful.”

Helen of Sparta (and later of Troy) must have had such an effect on men as the most beautiful woman of her time. Is it any wonder that similar archetypal beauty in a man should put females of all nations and ages into a spin? Well, at least they will not be starting a ten-year war on the pretext of his abduction …

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Although David Garrett comes in the guise of a very contemporary, very likeable boyish man, you sometimes perceive in him a quality reminiscent of the heroes of history and legend. Yes, thankfully he is a musician and not a warrior – but, seeing him, you understand what moved Homer to sing in praise of Achilles. And is there not a touch of that same strong, personal appeal that must have compelled homesick and footsore soldiers to follow the great Alexander beyond the boundaries of the known world? Is it not what J. R. R. Tolkien describes so exquisitely when he tells us of Aragorn’s death: an impression that we are seeing something that goes a long way beyond the ordinary? And Tolkien tells us this in a sequence of words as beautiful as a perfect piece of music:

Then a great beauty was revealed in him, so that all who after came there looked on him with wonder; for they saw the grace of his youth, and the valour of his manhood, and the wisdom and majesty of his age were all blended together. And long there he lay, an image of the splendour of the Kings of Men, in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world.”

A great longing for noble beauty in men (removed from mere sexual allure) runs like a golden thread through Tolkien’s writing. He may have been driven to invent the striking beauty of his heroes because he could not find it in real life. And because the longing for such beauty is echoed in all human souls, his work had such tremendous impact and still means so much to so many.

So does David Garrett, it seems. Yet his beauty is not invented. He lives his life encased in an appearance that, we may assume, can be both helpful and a hindrance at times. Helpful, because such beauty opens doors and hearts and makes him a welcome guest, friend, lover and companion. A hindrance, because it may get in the way of what lies beneath, of what he wants to express, maybe even of being taken seriously at times. And of course it gives rise to jealousy and hate as well as admiration and love.

2013 3 Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel 12

Few faces are as well documented as David Garrett’s, and with good reason. Do you know which German personage has been most often portrayed in history? No, it is not the evil leader. It is Martin Luther, who, although not beautiful, was a great inspiration to his times and to those that followed. Yet in this age of photography and film it seems likely that David will soon take over Luther’s leading position – if he has not already done so. But who is counting?

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Whatever situation David finds himself in, his beauty is there with him like a presence in itself. It sets him apart. And though he might like to disregard it and just be, be like other people, few will be able to pretend that he is. Because, whichever way you look at David, ordinary just isn’t part of his makeup.

It must be quite a task to come to terms with such an extraordinary condition; not unlike the very rich, who cannot know whether they are liked for their own sake or for their wealth. Experiencing himself from the inside only, David Garrett will probably never fully understand how his appearance affects the viewer, will never quite realize the devastation he may be causing unwittingly. Because to others, being a witness of such beauty can at times be painful. Why this pain, you ask yourself. Where does it stem from? Here’s a question not easily answered, yet Homer’s famous statement in the Iliad, “Beauty! Terrible Beauty! A deathless goddess – so she strikes our eyes …” proves that, however rare, it is not an unprecedented experience.

David Garrett’s face has been captured in many different looks as it matures through the years, and its changeable quality shows a surprising variety of aspects. After that first impact which took your breath away has faded, you notice with relief that one can, in time, grow more accustomed to his looks. Yet unexpectedly there will come a moment, an angle, a turn of his head, a portrayed smile that will stop you cold – and once again you will be catching your breath, wide-eyed and wondering. And no, this isn’t a matter of choice. Because it hurts. As that terrible goddess strikes your eyes, you find your awareness pierced with pain. But it is the pain that digs the well which joy fills, as a Middle Eastern saying tells us.

“Then a woman said, ‘Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.’ 
And he answered: Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow, that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy. Only when you are empty are you at a standstill and balanced. When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.” – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

This beautiful paragraph may yet be the best answer to the question why the beauty that delights us also causes pain and sorrow. But David will not be aware of it, and it is surely best this way. Such an awareness would be too uncomfortable a burden to bear, and we want him to remain lighthearted and untroubled, doing what he does best: his MUSIC. Because, first and foremost, he is a source of shared delight; the joy that fills the well of those very souls touched by and aching with his beauty.


David Garrett has been gifted with an unusual degree of personal appeal, with a happy disposition and prodigious talent. But to turn that natural disposition into a good person, and to develop this talent to skill of the highest level – that is his own achievement. And, by way of fair exchange, the gift he returns to the world is his music: beauty for beauty.


We, looking on in admiration, feel gratitude for the fact that we may witness this beauty, feel this sorrow and this joy, and be moved by this music; for it reminds us of the grace of being alive, and of having good things to live for.


Moving on to other projects, I decided not to keep this domain going; and so it is goodbye, dear readers – this blog and all its content will soon disappear.


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Holidays in Bergwitz

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the German federal state of Sachsen-Anhalt, the little village of Bergwitz pursues, in contemplative fashion, its daily business. Traditional, cobbled streets are lined by rows of large trees and low houses, a typical brickwork church raises its square spire, and a smattering of shops tentatively explores individual entrepreneurship. Annexed to the Eastern Bloc, this part of the country lived the socialist dream behind the Iron Curtain for forty years, and therefore these rural areas remain still largely free from the blight of commercialism; though much catching up has been done in all urban centres since Germany’s reunification. It is an unusual place to choose for a holiday, and certainly one even your most widely-travelled friends will not be familiar with. Yet there is much to recommend a visit:

The nearest town, a short drive of fifteen minutes away, is Lutherstadt Wittenberg, famous for being the cradle of the Reformation. (See my related blog post ‘Wittenberg’ for a brief summary of this dramatic twist in history.) The first-rate museum in the former Augustinian Monastery where Martin Luther worked with friends and lived with his family is definitely worth a visit. The Castle Church with Luther’s tomb, the Town Church and other buildings are at present being spruced up for the approaching 500-year anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

Wittenberg's Flower Festival in May

Wittenberg’s Flower Festival in May

Horse Carriage Tours in Wittenberg

Horse Carriage Tours in Wittenberg

Along the old high street of Wittenberg, strung out between the two churches and Luther’s house, there are restaurants and shops, as well as all kinds of Luther merchandise. Haus der Geschichte is a museum dedicated to daily life in the German Democratic Republic and the lifestyle of the mid-twentieth century in general – a treasure trove for sociologists. Melanchthon House tells the story of Luther’s friend and main supporter, the Antiquariat will delight lovers of old books, and the Cranach House has a historic Druckerstube (print shop) in its beautifully restored yard. The craftsman who set up his workshop here has gorgeous prints and cards for sale, traditional tools and typefaces on display, and interesting tales to tell of the painters Lucas Cranach and son and their commercial enterprises in print-making.

Traditional Print Workshop

Traditional Print Workshop

The bustling city of Leipzig is about an hour distant and of world-class distinction. Its cultural, historical and commercial palette is thrilling to explore (see also my blog post ‘Leipzig’). For those keen to venture further afield, Dresden and Berlin are also within easy reach, as well as the Dutch baroque castle of Oranienbaum and the World Heritage Site Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm (see my blog posts describing the last two).

Wood-Carving Artists

Wood-Carving Artists

A pleasing mix of the delights of both culture (as mentioned above) and nature (as described below) is available to those who spend their holidays in Bergwitz:

In this floodplain of the River Elbe, open-pit mining for brown coal marred the landscape during the first half of the twentieth century, pockmarking its flat surface with deep craters and heaps of slag that were dug up and moved on conveyor belts to form low hills. But in the end, irrepressible Mother Nature won game, set and match by drowning the pits in quickly rising groundwater. Abandoned, their ugly craters transformed themselves into lovely lakes, their shining surfaces mirroring the changing light and fringes of reeds growing around their rim. The little lake of Bergwitz is one of them, and its clear water is of excellent quality for swimming. Light woodlands of acorn, birch and fir spread over the hillocks of heaped-up earth, and this appealing habitat attracts much wildlife.

Regatta, Lake Bergwitz

Regatta, Lake Bergwitz

These days, it also attracts people who seek rest and recreation in a simple, down-to-earth style, away from noisy nightlife and drunken crowds. The flat land is criss-crossed by a net of traffic-free cycling paths (easy on the legs and ideal for children) that skirt these lakes and lead through those light woodlands.

Bicycle Path from Woerlitz to Dessau

Bicycle Path from Woerlitz to Dessau

Swimming, paddling, rowing, sailing, hiking and bird-watching are other typical pursuits for those in search of peaceful summer holidays. A secluded campsite on the shores of Bergwitz Lake is popular and comes alive in the summer months.

More comfortable than camping is, of course, a holiday flat. Zechenhaus on the shore of Bergwitz Lake offers accommodation to families in a private setting. Its idyllic location and amiable hosts make it an excellent choice for visitors who are looking for a fully equipped home base from which to explore the area. Click to see pictures of two self-contained flats, the garden area and details of accommodation, rates and booking information. Looking ahead to the year 2017, when Wittenberg will be overrun with visitors for the anniversary of the Reformation, it may be worthwhile to consider a stay in the peaceful countryside nearby, and to dip into events in town from a distance.

Zechenhaus in February

Zechenhaus in February

Garden Area of Holiday Flat

Garden Area of Holiday Flat

I have been staying as a Workaway volunteer with Michael and Annette at their home in the Zechenhaus and can recommend this location and its friendly hosts. As members of the free evangelical Jesusgemeinde Wittenberg, they are active Christians and would be especially happy to welcome like-minded visitors. Annette is always keen to improve her already fluent English and will be pleased to chat with you. She will also advise you on anything you may need help with in a foreign country, such as public transport for example. Michael has compiled an interesting folder of aerial photographs of the region and can help with directions to places worth visiting.

Annette and Michael, your friendly hosts

Annette and Michael, your friendly hosts

My stay in the winter season did not allow me to make the most of the lake, but long walks along the shore path were refreshing even in February. The sky was overcast and the water shimmered in bands of grey, some light, some dark. Bare trees wove a filigree of dark branches over the water’s surface; a flock of sparrows pecked at seed pods and fluttered in a twittering cloud. The sun pushed through the haze and cast a sheen over the mirroring lake, caught in the reeds along the edge … For those who like to sketch or paint landscapes, this wonderful little lake certainly makes a captivating subject.

Lake Bergwitz in February

Lake Bergwitz in February

Sunrise on the Lake

Sunrise on the Lake

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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.


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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Dessau-Woerlitz Gardens

Saturday, 15 February 2014

A short drive of only six kilometres takes me from Oranienbaum to the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm, Germany’s oldest landscaped park. Because it is a cloudy and cold day in February there are hardly any visitors about, though several extensive parking lots offer a clue to the numbers of people visiting in the warmer seasons. But at this time of year it is possible to wander lonely as a cloud along paths that meander through the grounds, follow waterways, cross bridges, loop around little hills and traverse woodlands. Following these unknown, silent and solitary trails, I find myself once again in my true element.

13_Woerlitzer Park

Created in the late eighteenth century by a great if little known ruler, this garden realm is now a Unesco World Heritage site and one of the loveliest man-made sceneries. Prince Leopold III Friedrich Franz von Anhalt-Dessau, head of a tiny principality and the youngest of Germany’s rulers under King Frederick the Great, had been much impressed on his travels by England’s naturalistic, informal gardens. Inspired by their departure from the symmetry of the baroque garden of the times, the prince introduced this novel concept to his homeland. From the start he also intended his grounds to be accessible to the public as a place of recreation, as well as an educational site where his subjects could inform themselves, refine their cultural taste and learn about new methods of gardening, agriculture and architecture – all in the rational spirit of the Age of Enlightenment.

Between 1765 and 1773 his gardens were laid out – in flat and formerly unattractive land – with the help of the garden architect Eyserbeck, whereas the buildings were designed by his friend von Erdmannsdorff. And while Europe was shaken by the turmoil of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Prince Leopold was busy creating his own version of Eden on roughly one hundred and fifty square kilometres in the floodplain of the River Elbe.

03_Woerlitzer Park

Earlier, at the tender and impressionable age of seventeen, the prince – descendant of a line of highly-regarded military leaders – was serving in the Prussian army while the Seven Years’ War pitched Prussia against the Austrian empire. Leopold experienced his first battle and was horrified by the reality of warfare. He became seriously ill, resigned forthwith from the military and declared the neutrality of his little realm. King Frederick, outraged, laid a heavy financial penalty upon him for such unheard-of action; but the young prince, instead of raising taxes, sold the family silver and other valuables from his private assets to meet this crushing demand. Then he set about improving the living conditions in his land, making use of all he had learnt on his Grand Tour. Dams were built to keep the recurring floods at bay, marshy grounds were drained, fields reclaimed and agriculture revived. The prince set up a flourishing tree nursery, encouraged the breeding of cattle and sheep, and – himself an excellent horseman – initiated the breeding of fine horses for export. Thus the economy recovered and supported Leopold’s wide-ranging improvements in the social realm. In the considered opinion of a historian, “Leopold III can be regarded as a pioneer of sustainability. Here, the magic triangle of sustainable economy, ecology and social affairs had been achieved in an exemplary manner.” 

Wikipedia features the following heartwarming summary of Prince Leopold’s interests and mission: “An Anglophile and strong supporter of the Enlightenment, Leopold took special interest in the education of the population of his principality in science and nature. His numerous reforms in the areas of education, health care, social services, roads, agriculture, forestry, and industry made Anhalt-Dessau one of the most modern and prosperous of the small German states. The most conspicuous of his improvements included planting fruit trees along dykes and the construction of beautiful buildings. However his reforms included public works programs repairing dykes destroyed by flooding, providing social housing, education, sanitation, the first public parks, burial grounds irrespective of social rank, as well as liberal policies towards the Jewish community, including allowing for the founding of a Jewish school and the first Jewish newspaper in Germany.”

By those familiar with his achievements, Leopold III of Anhalt-Dessau is regarded as one of the three most exemplary rulers of German lands at the time (and, it seems fair to say, probably of all lands at all times). His subjects referred to him as their father, as ‘Vater Franz’; and Napoleon himself, impressed by Leopold’s reputation (if not his pacifist stance), invited him to Paris.

“Ich glaubte, den äußeren Menschen und seine Verhältnisse müsse man erst verändern, dann werde der innere Mensch wohl von selbst sich bessern,” was his opinion. (“I believed that one had to begin by improving people’s external circumstances, then their inner nature would follow suit of itself.”) His last words are reported as “Man muss für Arbeit sorgen. Darauf kommt alles an.” (“One has to provide work. That is all-important.”) It makes me wonder why this admirable man is so little known and talked about. Surely, governments and heads of state ought to look to him and learn from his example.

15_Woerlitzer Park

As one wanders among the trees, attractive, historic buildings come into view every once in a while. First and foremost among these is the prince’s Wörlitz Palace, modelled on an English mansion and finished in 1773, with the high steeple of St Peter’s Church beside it reflected in the water amongst floating swans and flocks of ducks.

26_Woerlitzer Schloss

At this time of year, the park is reduced to the bare bones of its layout. Trees without foliage allow for vistas that will be veiled by green later on. The water surface, still unbroken by leaves of water lilies and gondolas, reflects the light like burnished pewter. Swans are grazing in adjacent fields. One feels one has strayed into a painting; the living portrait of a nobler age. 


Set in a small, Grecian temple are two marble tablets. Their chiselled inscriptions quote the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, describing a walk in these gardens in a letter to Charlotte von Stein on May 14th 1778, at a season when they looked their best:

“Hier ist’s jetzt unendlich schön. Mich hat’s gestern Abend, wie wir durch die Seen, Kanäle und Wäldchen schlichen, sehr gerührt, wie die Götter dem Fürsten erlaubt haben, einen Traum um sich herum zu schaffen. Es ist, wenn man so durchzieht, wie ein Märchen, das einem vorgetragen wird, und hat ganz den Charakter der Elysischen Felder. In der sachtesten Mannigfaltigkeit fliesst eins in das andere, keine Höhe zieht das Aug’ und das Verlangen auf einen einzigen Punkt, man streicht herum ohne zu fragen wo man ausgegangen ist und hinkommt. Das Buschwerk ist in seiner schönsten Jugend, und das ganze hat die reinste Lieblichkeit.”

(“Here it’s infinitely beautiful at this time. Yesterday evening, as we wandered about the lakes, canals and woodlands, I was much moved that the Gods granted the Prince to create such a dream all about him. Ambling through it all, it is as if one were presented a fairy-tale, and it has fully the nature of the Elysian fields. In the gentlest variety one view flows into the next, no height attracts one’s eye and desire to a single point, one roams without asking where one started or means to arrive. The bushes are in their most splendid youth, and the whole is of the purest loveliness.”)

He too walked these same paths, took in these same views … and his description helps me to picture the scenery in summertime.

11_Woerlitzer Park

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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.




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.)


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 …




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.


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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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.


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.





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.


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.


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 …


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.


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.




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.



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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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.



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



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.


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?


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).

70_Kleines Mozartdenkmal

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 …


… 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