I arrived in Pisa a little before noon. I was already hungry, so I sat down on a bench outside the airport, took out my exquisitely prepared salami sandwich, and dug in. This time I had remembered the mustard, which was a considerable improvement. It was a sunny February day and my feet had just touched Tuscan soil for the first time.
I had excellent luck with my Airbnb: I could check in early, I had a big room with a big comfortable bed, coffee was included, and best of all the place was a ten minute walk from the airport. This meant no fuss with airport shuttles or trams, no worrying about transfers or ticket machines, just a peaceful walk through the suburbs of Pisa. As I was quickly learning, Tuscany is a land of comfort.
My bags deposited, the mustard wiped from my chin, I was ready to explore Pisa.
Pisa is a fair sized city of around 90,000 souls, gathered around the river Arno, the same river that passes through Florence. The city is home to far more than an angled tower. In the Middle Ages Pisa was, like Venice, a wealthy maritime republic; and examples of her former riches and glory abound. Even a brief walk along the riverside or a view from the bridge—with churches, historic apartments, old castle walls—is enough to convince the visitor that Pisa has a great deal to offer.
My first stop was Knights’ Square (Piazza dei Cavalieri), one of the old city’s most important and most attractive squares. Its name derives from the Knights of Saint Stephen, a religious military order who had their headquarters in this piazza. Nowadays it is home to a branch of the University of Pisa, a historic university that was founded back in 1343, and which is still within the top 10 universities in Italy. I walked into one of the university buildings (it was open), to see if I could find anything worthy of admiration. And I did. On the ground, walking in a little line, was a group of tiny ants. I found this rather exciting since it was February and the insects normally do not appear until May in Madrid.
There is also the attractive church Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri, with a pretty facade designed by Giorgio Vasari, the famous art historian, who also contributed a painting for the interior. It was Vasari, too, who designed the attractive Palazzo della Carovana, which originally housed the Knights of Saint Stephen, but which now is the central building of the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa (a part of the university). In the center of the piazza, standing before the Palazzo della Caravona, is a statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519 –1574), the first Grand Duke of Tuscany.
I did not stay very long to admire this fine square, however, since I was eager to see the iconic tower. A few minutes of walking, a few twists and turns, and the inclined cylinder came into view. It is always strange seeing something in reality that we have seen a thousand times in pictures. It produces the oddest mixture of excitement and boredom—the first because it is so iconic, the second because it does not look like anything new. It was, however, novel to see the tower from the city, at the end of a row of apartment buildings, as I did. The drooping building is almost always photographed from the grassy cathedral square. Seen like this, the tower looked charmingly out of place.
Soon I entered the cathedral square, formally called the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles), and formerly the Piazza del Duomo (Square of the Dome). This is where all of the major monuments of Pisa are concentrated, including the infamously misaligned edifice. To enter any of these monuments one must buy a ticket at the ticket office. There are various ticket options, each of which includes different places that can be visited. As usual, I bought the most basic one. It did not seem worth it to pay an extra 20 euros (if memory serves) to ascend steep spiral staircase of the notorious shaft.
But I did take a moment to admire the Leaning Tower from the outside. The myths are true: the tower does leave the ground at an angle other than 90 degrees. To be precise, the tower is now 3.9 degrees off—which may not sound like a lot but which, as you will gather, is quite noticeable. And this is an improvement from the tower’s maximum inclination, which was 5.5 degrees. An international team of scientists worked between 1990 to 2001 to reduce the tilt—which had been gradually growing over the centuries—in order to prevent instability. (By the by, Pisa’s tower is not the most uneven edifice in Europe. The prize goes to the crooked church tower of Suurhusen, in Germany.)
The crooked protuberance of Pisa was not, of course, originally designed to be a tourist attraction. It is the campanile—an unattached belltower—of the cathedral. Even were it perfectly straight, the tower would be worth admiring for its elegant rows of columns and arches. Indeed, I think we are apt to overlook how pretty is its Romanesque form. I have seen few belltowers comparable in loveliness. As we are told, the tower’s gradient is the result of uneven firmness of ground, causing one side of the structure to sink. Fixing this was clearly beyond the technologies of the time; to the architects had little recourse but to cross their fingers and keep going.
As expected, the square was full of people taking pictures of themselves with the tower. A visit to Pisa is certainly not complete without the generic photo of oneself holding the tower up. As venerable as this pastime is, I confess that I found the dozens of people holding out their hands likes mimes, with exaggerated expressions on their faces, to be a ridiculous sight.
I cannot finish my description of Pisa’s most famous building without making mention of Pisa’s most famous son. Everybody knows the tale of Galileo dropping differently sized cannonballs from the tower, in order to prove that objects of different mass fall at the same velocity. (This went against the Aristotelian physics of the times.) This story is, unfortunately, poorly corroborated and thus—like Newton and his apple—likely a myth made up after his death. Rarely does reality live up to our romantic notions.
The 12th century tower is only the third-oldest building in the square. The oldest is Pisa Cathedral. Like the campanile, this is a truly splendid building in the Pisa Romanesque style. Just as in the Leaning Tower, the facade of the cathedral is covered in false columns, which give it a dignified air. The white marble of the building is also agreeably reminiscent of a Greek temple, adding to the cathedral’s impressive demeanor; and darker shades of marble have been used to add faint patterns on the walls. Closer inspection reveals that the exterior is covered in decorative friezes and mosaics. I particularly admired the monumental bronze doors, covered in scenes from the New Testament.
The inside of the cathedral appeared in less than its full splendor. Due to conservation work being done, two large sections were obscured by colossals tarps. Nevertheless, I was still able to admire the beautiful wooden coffered ceiling, covered in gold leaf, as well as the mosaic of Christ surrounded by Mary and Saint John, the only unambiguously attributable work of Cimabue. One can see that this artist (who Vasari believed taught Giotto) was still working very much in the Greek tradition of stylized figures against a gold background. The walls reveal that taste for lush decoration, so characteristic of Italian churches.
Unfortunately much of the cathedral’s finest works were lost in a fire in 1595. As the period of Pisa’s greatest splendor occured long before this, it follows that what we see now in the cathedral is but a faint afterglow left by the embers. Luckily one masterpiece did survive the flames: the pulpit by Giovanni Pisano. It is an incredible work. Every inch of the piece bursts with figures; and each has a symbolic significance. We have personifications of the cardinal virtues, and of the subjects of the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy); we also find angels, prophets, and sybils. Figures support the pulpit as caryatids; they adorn the bases, corbels, and the capitals. On the curving walls of the pulpit are extraordinary scenes from the life of Christ. And all of this is carefully arranged to create an intelligible whole, a summary in stone of the medieval worldview. All in all, this pulpit very well may be, as the sign says, “the most organised illustration of the Christian doctrine of salvation and redemption ever provided by sculpture.”
Standing face to face with the cathedral is Pisa’s baptistry. This is the largest baptistry in all of Italy, a colossal dome that shows a transitional style between the Romanesque and the Gothic. (The lower half has rounded arches, the upper half pointed ones.) The inside is cavernous and mostly empty. One wonders why so much space was needed to dunk newborns into water. The most famous babe who was ever initiated into the Christian faith in this building was Galileo Galilei, who made his way into the world in 1564 and was dipped soon thereafter. It is amusing to think of our intellectual heroes as little squirming babes. Little did the priest known that the child he was anointing with water, while he spoke the holy words, would one day help to undermine the faith of half of Europe. Even the biggest baptistry in Italy was not enough to contain Galileo.
My last stop in the square was the Campo Santo (“holy field”). According to legend, it was built around soil brought back from Golgotha (where Christ was crucified) during the Third Crusade, thus making it undeniably sacred ground. On this holy soil the Pisanos built a monumental cemetery for their notables. From the outside it does not look like much—just a grey wall with blind arches carved into it, though there is a nice gothic shrine above the doorway. From the inside, however, it is lovely: an exquisite cloister, with finely sculpted window traceries, and a dome crowning one end. Populating this rectangular arena are sculpted tombs and sarcophagi, some of them dating back to the Romans and Etruscans.
More attractive than any of the statues or sarcophagi are the frescoes. Many of these were, unfortunately, damaged or destroyed during the Second World War when an allied bomb ignited the roof. What survives is tantalizing, and makes one regret that bombs were ever invented. I was particularly entranced by a glorious rendering of the Last Judgment, whose image of Satan and Hell is wonderfully gruesome.
Now I had seen all the sites on my ticket. I thought of going back to my Airbnb, but the excellent weather tempted me beyond resistance. It was a cloudless day, remarkably warm for winter; so I sat down on the grass to breathe and take in the scene. It was nearing evening but the temperature was still mild enough so that I could take off my jacket in the shade and be perfectly comfortable. I shudder to think what the city is like in the summer.
This half hour of lounging on the grass was the capstone of my day. Pisa had already impressed me beyond all my hopes. Whereas I had expected little more than the off-center campanile, I had found a city full of beautiful monuments and a lovely historic center. Now I had a moment to stop—something I too seldom do when I travel alone—and to reflect. I was in a city that I had heard of since I was a kid; up until the year before, I had assumed that I would never see Pisa; and here I was, and it was better than I expected. The air was delicious, the breeze gentle, the sun mild, the sky everywhere.
Finally I decided to go. I walked back slowly, still savoring the evening, taking a detour to stroll along the riverside and admire the many historic buildings—forts, churches, apartments—arrayed there. The water was still and clear as glass. I crossed a bridge, and in the distance I could see the brown hills of Tuscany. No wonder the Renaissance started here. The atmosphere is so clear, the sun so bright, that every color is magnified and every form defined. The painters merely had to copy what they saw.
Though I am normally too shy to do this when I travel alone, this day I decided to sit down at a nice restaurant by myself. I chose the Ristorante alle Bandierine, and did not regret it. The pasta was magnificent and the wine went down very easily. I left stuffed and happy—my belly, my mind, my soul all satisfied. Italy is a charmed place, and Tuscany perhaps most of all.
After seeing everything I wanted to see in Prague, I still had a day to spare before moving on to Nuremberg. Luckily there are some excellent day trips from the Czech capital. There is Karlovy Vary, an attractive town near Prague with famous hot springs, which several people had recommended to me. There is also the Sedlec Ostuary—a world heritage site—a chapel decorated with thousands of human bones in a church in the town of Kutná Hora. But after looking over these and more options, the beer lover in me won out: I had to go to Plzeň.
With a population of about 170,000, Plzeň is the fourth-largest city in the Czech Republic. For much of its history Plzeň was significant as a trade post near the German border. But in the 19th century the city’s importance considerably grew. First, in 1842 the city’s iconic export was invented: Pilsner beer. Shortly later, the city underwent rapid industrialization, turning Plzeň from a rural outpost into a city of factories and breweries.
Getting to Plzeň from Prague is straightforward. I boarded a commuter train from the central train station, Praha hnlavní nádraží, which took me to Plzeň in around an hour. I did not give myself enough time to buy my ticket, however (there are no machines, so you need to wait in line to buy from a person), so I had to rush to catch the train. The only way up from the station to the platforms was on a slow-moving automatic walkway, which was so full of infuriatingly relaxed and immobile people that I had to wait, biting my lip, as the walkway took me forward at around 2 mph, while the train was on the verge of leaving. When I finally reached the end I bolted up the stairs to the platform, running and jumping onto the train just as the doors were closing. Indeed, I had gotten on so fast that I was not even sure it was the right train. But I was in luck.
Unfortunately for me, however, by the time I pulled my stunt all the seats in the train were taken. I had no choice but to stand. So I made my way to the dining car, ordered a coffee, and got out my Kindle to read. I was trying to get through Rousseau’s Emile, but the Romantic philosopher was quickly getting on my nerves and I had trouble paying attention. Time passed this way until, feeling peckish and needing a distraction, I decided I would try the train’s goulash. This is a type of strew, originally from Hungary but now popular throughout Central Europe, made with meat, veggies, and flavored with paprika. It was my first goulash experience; and—contrary to what you might expect from a dining car—it was actually quite good.
Once arrived, I wasted no time in going to Plzeň’s biggest attraction: the Urquell brewery. The word “Urquell” can be roughly translated as “the source,” and it is appropriate: for it is this company that invented the iconic pale lager, or pilsner beer, which has proven immensely influential. It is said that two-thirds of the beer produced in the world is an adaptation of this Czech invention. And, indeed, every country seems to have its own version of a pale lager: China’s Tsingtao, Japan’s Sapporo, Kenya’s Tusker, Mexico’s Pacífico, America’s Budweiser, Spain’s Mahou. The world cannot seem to get enough of this sour beverage.
To enter the brewery one must pass through the festive main gate, designed to look like a triumphal arch. In the ticket office there is a large display of antique brewing methods, complete with life-sized sets and dummies. I queued up and bought a ticket for the next English tour—for which, luckily, there was still a spot remaining. Soon I was in a tour group, ready to explore the birthplace of pale lager.
Our tour commenced with some elaborate ceremonial glasses, made on the occasions of visits by European monarchs to the brewery. Then, after explaining something of the history of the place, our guide took us to see some antique carts, train cars, and trucks used to transport Urquell beer back in yonder days. A bus then picked us up and drove us to the bottling plant.
I am always impressed by industrial processes like this. I think of Adam Smith and his pin factory, and marvel how such marvelously complex solutions can arise for such simple challenges. In this case the challenge is to put beer into a bottle or a can. The solution is a massive facility—noisy with mechanical racket, steamy with sweat and spillage, buzzing with electricity and life. We watched the action from an elevated platform. People in waterproof suits marches around the factory floor, while giant conveyor belts swept hundreds of bottles into metal apparatuses—rinsers, inspectors, vacuums, palletizer, depalletizers, feeders, inspectors, packets, dispatchers—each of which performs one specialized function at lightning-fast speed. To put this into numbers, the bottling line can church out 120,000 bottles per hour, and the canning line 37,000 cans per hour. We have come a long way.
From here we were transported back on the bus, herded into a large elevator—the largest in the Czech Republic, they said—and then shown a film about Pilsner Urquell’s origins, which was projected on a semicircular screen while we sat on a rotating platform. In this film we were informed that the inventor of pilsner beer, Josef Gross (a German), created the beer in response to growing dissatisfaction among the populace with the top-fermented beer. (The yeast rises to the top during fermentation, which occurs at a relatively high temperature.) In response to this, Gross developed a bottom-fermenting beer, which uses a different sort of yeast that requires a lower temperature. And so, pilsner beer was born.
Then we were shown an exhibit about the four ingredients of beer: malt, water, hops, and yeast—with examples of each. I did not know that malt is not a specific type of grain, but is instead any cereal grain (usually barley) which has been made to germinate by soaking in water, and then dried. I tried chewing on a piece of malt; it’s rather hard. But I particularly enjoyed the chance to sniff and taste the hops. As you may know, beer hops are made from crushing up the flowers of the hop plant. The final product looks an awful lot like marijuana, but smells delightful—the floral, bitter, and richly complex flavor that is most notable in strong indian pale ales, though less apparent in pale lagers.
Then we were led into the old factory, no longer in use. The brewing process, however, remains the same; and so the guide (with the help of a video) took us through the steps to make pilsner beer. First, after being mashed, the malt is put into these big copper kettles filled with water; the resultant mixture is called a ‘wort.’ The wort is gradually heated, which converts the malt’s starch into sugar. Then, to kill off unwanted bacteria, the wort is boiled through a process of siphoning off thirds, heating the portion, and then reintroducing it into the main kettle for it to be repeated.
Then this wort is siphoned off into stainless-steel drums—to filter out the solid bits of barley, I believe—and then on to the hopping kettles. Hops are put in and removed three times in 90 minutes, while the liquid is boiling. After that the liquid goes on to a fermentation tank, which is stored outside, where the yeast is finally added. (This is that “bottom-fermenting” yeast I mentioned earlier.) To achieve the right flavor, the temperature of this container must be kept within fairly strict boundaries. And controlling the temperature during fermentation is tricky, since fermentation itself generates heat. The fermentation process takes some few days, if memory serves, and the final product contains both alcohol and carbonation.
This isn’t the end of the process, however, since then yeast must be filtered out, the beer left to age in barrels, and then the final product is pasteurized to ensure longevity. All this was explained to us as we explored the old and then the current factories, both of which are impressive places. I especially liked the futuristic look of the new factory, with shiny copper kettles in a tiled room. But this wasn’t the end of the tour.
Finally we were led down into the cellars. Underneath the complex, you see, is a massive network of tunnels carved into the ground—miles and miles of them. These were used to keep the beer at a controlled temperature as it aged in barrels. Apparently a rather cool temperature is needed, so ice would be dumped into a massive room at the end of the hall, whose proximity would cool the rest of the network. It must have been chilly indeed, since even without the ice the tunnels were many degrees cooler than outside. (Nowadays the beer is aged in another way, and the tunnels are unused.)
This is where our tour ended. But not without a tasting, of course. Two bearded gentlemen poured each of us (there were around 30 on the tour) a glass of pilsner beer. It was unfiltered, meaning that the yeast was still in the beer, which gives it a cloudy look. Now, here I have to admit that I am not particularly fond of lagers, and I especially dislike pilsner beer. To me its defining flavor is sourness—lacking the sweetness of wheat beer, the bitterness of ales, and the smoothness of dark beers. But I will drink a pilsner and enjoy it, of course, since any beer is better than none.
The tour was over, having taken about 2 hours. I highly recommend it to anyone with even a slight interest in beer and brewing.
I had some time before my return train to Prague. First I ate lunch at a place called the PUB Plzeň, which has great hamburgers. Then I went to see Plzeň’s cathedral, St. Bartholomew. The church has only had cathedral status since 1993, and underwent major renovations and expansions at around that time. As it stands now, the cathedral is an attractive building, both inside and out. But the best part of the visit was ascending the hundreds of steps up to its bell-tower. One must pay a special price to do this, of course, and undergo some claustrophobia, vertigo, and exhaustion on the twisting and narrow stairs. But the view of the surrounding city and countryside is worth it. I particularly admired Plzeň’s main square, which is extremely pretty, full of brightly painted old apartment buildings and futuristic fountains.
Now it was time for me to go. Unfortunately I did not have time to see Plzeň’s Great Synagogue, the second-largest in Europe (though nowadays only about 70 Jews live in Plzeň). But at least this time I got a seat on the train, from which I could appreciate the rolling grassy countryside of the Czech Republic. It is a beautiful country.
When I arrived in Prague I wasn’t feeling too good. Flights from Madrid to Prague are normally expensive; but I had gotten lucky and had found one for quite cheap. The only problem was that it left Madrid at an inhumane hour in the morning; and since I have trouble sleeping either before or during flights, I was not exactly at my best. Sleep-deprivation, besides making me delirious, also makes me more prone to stress. I feel as though I cannot calm down; every little obstacle provokes a feeling of panic. Keep in mind that, when you buy cheap plane tickets, you pay for the flight in other ways.
Admittedly I did have two additional things to worry about this trip. The first was money. The Czech Republic does not use the euro, but the koruna (or “crown”). This alone produced in my exhausted mind a feeling of disorientation, since now I had to perform a conversion to understand how expensive something was, and my mind was in no condition for arithmetic. More stressing was my new camera. Just days before I had impulsively ordered a Canon 1300D (Rebel T6 in America) and I had hardly any idea how to use it, care for it, or store it. Fresh from the financial sting of purchasing the device, I was terrified of losing, breaking, or having it stolen. This was my state as I entered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
There are many options for getting from the airport to the center of Prague. I took a local bus and transferred to the metro, which took me to Prague’s central train station, Praha hnlavní nádraží, where I deposited my things in a luggage locker. Prague’s metro system is conspicuously attractive and efficient. There are only three metro lines (A, B, and C); but they have been planned so well and go so quickly that I felt that I could zip around the city. Many stations also feature appealing, even futuristic designs. It made a good first impression. Though the city of Prague has only around 1.3 million inhabitants, the metro carries 1.6 million riders a day, which gives you an idea of the level of tourism in the city.
As I emerged into the daylight from the train station—confused, panicked, disoriented—I was at a loss for where to go first. After some aimless wandering I emerged on the Václavské Náměstí (Wenceslas Square), which is more of a long open avenue than a plaza. Its name comes from St. Wenceslas, patron saint of Bohemia; and a monumental equestrian statue of the saint stands at the top of the square. Behind the statue, bookending the space, is the palatial building of the National Museum—which houses a large collection of both natural and cultural history, but which nevertheless is not a popular attraction (I didn’t go).
From there I made my way to the Old Town. (The aforementioned Wenceslas Square is in the New Town, an expansion of the city planned under Charles IV in the 14th century—very new indeed.) This led me through one of the old city gates, the Powder Tower, an attractive gothic edifice built of smoky grey stone and covered with decorative work.
Soon I found myself in the center of the city: Old Town Square. It is a very pretty place, lined with square apartment buildings painted in bright colors. Beyond them is the Church of Our Lady before Týn, whose tall, jagged gothic spires provide one of Prague’s most distinguishing sights. Tycho Brahe, the astronomer who taught Johannes Kepler, is buried here. In the center of the square is a statue of Jan Hus, an important religious reformer and predecessor of the Protestant Reformation, who believed that mass should be given in the vulgar tongue and the Bible translated into Czech—for which he was very reasonably burned as a heretic. This kicked off the Hussite Wars, in which an armed and mobilized Czech population repelled crusade after crusade sent by the Pope to squelch the heresy, an important event in Czech nationalism.
On the other side of the square is St. Nicholas Church, decorated in a pretty Baroque. Yet the most famous landmark is the extraordinary astronomical clock, or Prague orloj, affixed to the Old Town Hall. Unfortunately for me, however, the clock was under restoration when I visited, and was hidden underneath a tarp.
Standing in that expansive square, I was already beginning to see why Norman Davies, who wrote a history of Europe, named Prague the continent’s most beautiful city. But why is one of Europe’s most attractive places and most popular tourist destinations located in the Czech Republic, a country about which most Americans (myself included) know close to nothing?
It goes back to Prague’s previous title as the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia—at first an independent kingdom, and then a central part of the Holy Roman Empire. The kings of Bohemia ruled over a vast land that extended far beyond the borders of the current Czech Republic; and some were even elected to become the Holy Roman Emperor (that is, until the Habsburgs had their way). Indeed, during the high points of the Austrian power Prague played a role nearly as important as Vienna in central Europe. So the city’s great beauty is no coincidence. And luckily the city was not bombed nearly as heavily as other Nazi-controlled cities during the Second World War, so its beauty has survived intact.
My next stop was the city’s Jewish Quarter, located in a corner of the Old Town. My original plan was just to visit one synagogue; but to visit any of the landmarks of this neighborhood one must buy a combination ticket, which is certainly worth it. My first stop was the famous Spanish Synagogue. This is the newest synagogue in the Jewish Quarter; it was completed in 1868, built over what was the oldest synagogue in Prague, which had become too small for the congregation. The synagogue is called “Spanish” because of its Neo-Mudéjar interior decoration, built in imitation of the Moorish-influenced style developed by the Sephardic Jews of Spain. It is beautiful to behold. Every inch of the space is covered in geometric designs painted in a shimmering gold.
Outside the synagogue is a monument to one of Prague’s most famous sons: Franz Kafka. Born to a Jewish family (though not exactly religious himself), Kafka spent most of his unhappy life in Prague. The statue, by Jaroslav Róna, shows the sharp-featured, diminutive writer pointing his finger (at what?) while riding on the back of a faceless and armless man—a fittingly absurd image for the great poet of the absurd. Apparently it is considered good luck to rub Kafka’s feet; but I kept my distance, since luck and Kafka do not go together. There is a Kafka Museum elsewhere in the city, which I have heard is not very impressive. But in front there is a fountain worth seeing, featuring two men urinating into a little pool of water as sections of their bodies spin around. I don’t know if the image is particularly Kafkaesque, but it is memorable.
The next synagogue on my combined ticket was the Pinkas Synagogue. This synagogue is not nearly as visually striking as the Spanish Synagogue; its interest lies, rather, in the memorials within. On the lower level of the synagogue, the name, birthdate, and date of death of every Jewish victim of the Holocaust in the Czech Republic are inscribed on the walls. On the upper floor is an even more moving tribute: drawings made by the children sent to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. These survived because the children’s drawing teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, hid them in Theresienstadt before her deportation to Auschwitz, where she was killed. Most of the children suffered the same fate. The drawings are an extraordinary testimony of the humanity, individuality, and creativity of the children caught up in the catastrophe.
Right next to the Pinkas Synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery. Since Jewish custom forbids removing graves or markers once they are laid down, and since new land was difficult to acquire, the community was forced to put several graves on top of each other. As a result the cemetery is a forest of tombstones, many of them pushed to odd angles or otherwise falling down; and the ground level is higher than the surrounding streets. The graves span from the 14th to the 18th centuries, at which time Josef II (of Austria) decreed that no more burials were to take place within city walls, in order to reduce disease. Most of the markers are tombstones, though some of the more important personages have tumbas, or sarcophagi (though the body is not inside these). In some of these tumbas I observed little pieces of paper, folded up and tucked inside the nooks of the stone; and in front of one tumba—perhaps of rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel—I observed some people praying.
There were still more sites included on my ticket. One was the Ceremonial Hall of the Jewish Burial Society. A burial society (chevra kadisha in Hebrew) is a voluntary organization that helps to prepare the body of a deceased member of the community and prevent desecration. Nowadays the building is an exhibition space, with panels of information about the role of burial societies (of which I was entirely ignorant) as well as some ritual items on display. Nextdoor is the Old-New Synagogue, a gothic building that is the oldest active synagogue in Europe (it became the oldest when the older synagogue was knocked down to make the Spanish Synagogue). A legend tells that a golem—created by none other than the above-mentioned Judah Loew ben Bezalel, to protect the Jews of Prague from antisemites—inhabits the attic of this building. Nowadays the synagogue is filled with symbolic objects on display and explanations of Jewish customs. The last stop on this ticket was the Maisel Synagogue, an attractive neo-gothic building that houses an exposition on the history of the Jews in Prague. All of these spaces are administered by the Jewish Museum.
As all of these monuments demonstrate, Prague has long had a sizable Jewish community, which would seem to indicate that the city was relatively tolerant compared to other major European capitals. This may be true. However, even here the Jews faced serious persecution. In 1389, for example, following an accusation that Jews had desecrated the host—a common anti-semitic accusation during the Middle Ages—the city’s population was incited to fury and massacred almost every Jew in the city. In the previous century, aside from the infamous Nazi persecutions, the Jewish religion was repressed under the communists. It is, therefore, very heartening to see that a sizable community still exists in the city.
Now it was time to visit one of Prague’s most iconic monuments: the Charles Bridge. This medieval bridge is named for Charles IV (1316 – 1376), perhaps the most influential ruler in Czech history. Originally king of Bohemia, he was elected to become Holy Roman Emperor; and during his reign he oversaw several important expansions of the city, such as the aforementioned Wenceslas Square. Charles IV was also responsible for the so-called Golden Bull of 1356, which he proclaimed from the castle in Nuremberg, and which established clear procedures for electing the Holy Roman Emperor. This was important, since it helped to prevent controversies of legitimacy and succession, which threatened the continuance of the empire.
The bridge spans the river Vltava (sometimes called by its German name, the Moldau), the iconic waterway of the Czech Republic. From its opening in 1402 until 1841, the Charles Bridge was the river’s only crossing, connecting the Old City with Prague Castle. In design the bridge is not very different from Roman bridges I have seen: a relatively flat span (2,000 ft. in length) lying close to the water, suspended on a series of stone arches resting on stone foundations. Towers guard both sides of the bridge—an important defensive feature back in those days—which are not only intimidating but pleasing to the eye. The bridge is covered with statues, 30 of them, in a Baroque style depicting religious subjects.
Yet it is difficult to appreciate the statues, the bridge, the water, or the views with the huge crush of people inevitably walking across. Prague is hardly behind Venice as a European tourist destination; and so major attractions, like the bridge, attract suffocating crowds. And where tourists go, so does the rubbish—street performers, sketch artists, souvenir vendors, and all the rest. It is the bane of traveling.
Having squeezed across the bridge, it was time to ascend to Prague Castle. This is a whole building complex rather than a specific edifice. The castle sits atop a hill far above the level of the river, so getting there can be slightly exhausting if you are, like myself, not athletically inclined. The exertion is compensated, however, by lovely views of the river and the city beyond. To get inside the complex one must wait in a line and pass through security. Then one must buy a ticket at the office. There are multiple types of tickets, with different numbers of sites which can be visited, depending on the price. (True to form, I bought the cheapest one.)
Prague castle has been a seat of governance since the 9th century, making it far older than most other European capital buildings. And due to its very long tenure as a seat of power, the castle has an abundance of architectural styles on display. Having served Bohemian Kings and Holy Roman Emperors, the place retains its function as a seat of power, being the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic. Even the crown jewels are still kept here (though, unlike in Vienna, they cannot be visited). It is, in short, an important spot.
Yet the most famous building inside the castle complex is neither a palace nor a castle, but Prague’s cathedral: St. Vitus. This is one of the finest gothic cathedrals in the world, a blend of typical French gothic and special innovations particular to this church. The original head architect of the cathedral was Matthias of Arras, a Frenchman who designed a building in the prevalent French gothic. But after his death he was succeeded by Peter Parler, one of the great craftsmen of the Middle Ages. A sculptor rather than an architect, a German rather than a Frenchman, Parler introduced several idiosyncratic elements into the design of the cathedral, such as his characteristic net-vaulting, which both improve strength and create an attractive criss-crossing design on the ceiling.
I admit that, when I visited, I was mostly unable to appreciate any of these technical subtleties. Nevertheless I found the building hypnotic. From both without and within, the cathedral is pleasing to the eye—harmonious in its proportions, tasteful in its ornament, and unmistakable for any other cathedral. (It is worth noting, by the way, that Peter Parler was appointed by the unavoidable Charles VI; and it was this same architect who designed the Charles Bridge. In the history of Prague these two are unavoidable.)
The cathedral presents a striking view from every angle—inside or outside, back or front, from up close or far away, and so on. Its beauty consists in the design of the building itself rather (as in Toledo) in the artwork contained within. However, there is one chapel that stands out for special mention: the one dedicated to St. Wenceslas (which you may remember as the patron saint of the Czechs). The visitor cannot enter the room, but must be content with peering in through the doorway. The lower walls are dedicated with semi-precious stones and gothic painting depicting the passion, while the upper portion shows Renaissance-era frescos showing the life of the titular saint.
After I was finished admiring this glorious piece of religious architecture, I visited the Old Royal Palace, which was built in the 12th century. It is most notable for its Vladislav Hall, a massive ceremonial hall with an intricately vaulted ceiling that undulates like an ocean wave. It was also in this palace that the infamous Second Defenestration of Prague took place in 1618, when Czech protestants threw the catholic representatives of the Holy Roman Empire out a window, an event which helped to trigger the horrific Thirty Years’ War. (Somehow the catholics survived the 70-foot drop, which they naturally attributed to angels, and which the protestants attributed to a dunghill underneath them.) Since this event was the only thing I remembered about Prague from my AP European History class, I was elated to find this legendary window.
My next stop in the cathedral complex was the Basilica of St. George, a church with a cheerful Baroque façade that conceals a somber Romanesque interior. It was founded all the way back in 920 and preserves that ancient atmosphere even now. Then I made my way to the Golden Lane, a row of colorfully painted houses, pretty and quaint, that were originally built to house guards, and which later served as a home for goldsmiths (hence its name). Nowadays it is a row of overpriced souvenir shops. And it must be said that this progression, from guards to gold to gimmicks, encapsulates European history quite well.
Right next to Prague Castle is the Petřín Hill, an elevation covered with parks, which rises above the Vltava River. This is one of the loveliest green spaces in Prague and is a welcome respite from the crowded streets. Walking up the hill is not terribly strenuous; for the enemies of inclination, however, there is a funicular available. On top of the hill is the Petřín Lookout Tower, which was made in imitation of the Eiffel Tower. Indeed, it looks as though the top bit of the Parisian edifice had been lopped off and transported here. With the height of the hill (130 meters) added to the height of the tower (64 meters), it still falls short of the Eiffel Tower’s height (300 meters). Even so, it is the highest point for miles around. (I did not go up, since I was not in the mood for climbing stairs.) Also to be seen is the Hunger Wall, a defensive structure built during the reign of (guess who) Charles IV. Its name comes from the myth that the wall’s primary purpose was simply to provide work and food for the poor.
Nearby is the Strahov Monastery. Founded in the 12th century, it is an abbey of the Premonstratensians (the Order of the Prémontré), which means that it is inhabited, not by monks, but by Canons Regular who fulfil priestly duties. The building complex is impressive and lovely, especially the basilica (which, unfortunately, was closed to visitors when I arrived). Most famous are the monastery’s libraries. Visitors cannot enter inside, but must be content with peering in through the doorways. In the hall outside is an old cabinet of curiosities, featuring shimmering seashells, a stuffed alligator, and ancient Persian (?) armor—the sort of exotic mishmash one would expect from a curious European mind of centuries past. The two library rooms are magnificent. The Philosophical Hall is a grandiose neoclassical room filled with wooden shelves. The Theological Hall is perhaps even more impressive, featuring an elaborate stucco ceiling whose designs incorporate religious paintings. I love seeing such care lavished on libraries. Our books deserve it.
I descended from the monastery to the riverside, and found myself in Malá Strana. Literally this name means “Lesser District”—though, as my Airbnb host said, “There’s nothing ‘lesser’ about it.” This is one of the oldest parts of the city, dating back to the Middle Ages; but wars and fires largely destroyed the original town. What stands now mainly owes its origin to the Baroque era. As a result the buildings have a more uniform look, all around the same height with the same orange tiled roofs; and the streets are wider and straighter than in the Old City It is a pleasant place to walk around, if only because it is far less crowded than Prague’s center. There are some notable buildings to be seen, such as the Wallenstein Palace, an extensive mansion originally built for a general, and which now houses the Czech Senate. And there is the monumental St. Nicholas Church, an excellent example of Baroque architecture.
After a stroll through Malá Strana I squeezed over the Charles Bridge back into the Old City. This is what Prague is famous for. I have heard this part of the city described as “Disneyland for adults,” which is not far from the truth. For the Old City is swarming with people and full of restaurants and shops catering to foreign visitors. There is everything on sale between cheap junk and expensive trinkets, everything to eat from take-away pizza to pricey sit-down establishments. All this is crammed into the narrow, winding streets of the medieval city. It would be a beautiful place to walk around in if everyone else didn’t think so, too.
Feeling peckish myself, I ducked into a kebab place, hopeful that it would offer the highest ratio of foot-to-money. But I found, after calculating the conversion (which I unwisely did post-meal), that the kebab was three times more expensive than it would have been in Madrid—and didn’t taste any better. I had a much more positive experience at Naše maso, a butcher and delicatessen with great meat dishes at low prices. I had a meatloaf sandwich that was fantastic.
Next I walked down the river. (Just to be clear, I am putting multiple days together to streamline the narrative. This would be too much for one day.) The area beside the river is picturesque on either side. On the Malá Strana side I found a dock with a series of yellow penguins walking atop it. Nearby are three giant statues of faceless babies by the Czech sculptor David Černý, who was also responsible for the urination fountain outside the Kafka museum. Similar baby statues by Černý can be found crawling up and down Prague’s massive broadcasting tower, the Zikov TV Tower. Incidentally, there is a famous work of Černý’s that I missed on my visit to Vienna: a statue of Freud hanging from a roof. No Michelangelo, perhaps; but his work is memorable.
On the Old City side of the river the walk is just as lovely, taking me on a gentle curving road with the river on my right and a row of pretty, colorful building on my left. Walking along this way, I came upon the famous Dancing House of Prague. This is a modernistic (“deconstructivist,” as the designers call it) building designed by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić. The name is well-chosen, since the building does give the unmistakable impression of two figures in a waltz. A tower of glass swirls up next to the concrete body of the building, whose form is equally unstable. Irregular concrete panels and pop-out windows give the edifice a funhouse effect, as if it had been squished in a trick mirror. It makes for quite a sight next to the staid forms of the baroque apartments next door. For my part, I think the apartment provides a welcome moment of contrast with the rest of the city.
Nearby is the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, which is the principal Orthodox church in the Czech Republic. The church itself is an attractive place; but its fame does not rest on its architecture, but its history. Now, as you may know, Czechoslovakia, despite possessing formidable defenses, did not get a chance to defend itself from Nazi aggression during the Second World War. This is because Neville Chamberlain, as part of his appeasement strategy, ceded Czechoslovakia (without input from the Czechs) to Hitler in the hopes of satisfying the dictator’s expansionist threats. Thus the country was simply annexed without a fight. After the war broke out the Czechs set up a government-in-exile in England; and to establish its legitimacy and contribute towards the war effort, this government (in participation with England) planned and carried out Operation Anthropoid.
The idea was to kill Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany. A ruthless and vicious man—commander of internal security forces (such as the Gestapo), head of the Final Solution, and administrator of Nazi-controlled Bohemia—Heydrich soon earned the universal hatred he deserved. To be rid of him, seven Czech soldiers were parachuted into the country under cover of darkness on British planes. Two of these soldiers attacked Heydrich’s relatively unprotected car on his commute from his house to his office in Prague Castle. After a submachine gun jammed, the assassins threw a tank grenade which inflicted fatal wounds on the Nazi official. The assassins then made their escape and joined the rest of their team.
After the assassination, the Czech soldiers retreated to the church, a hideout for the resistance. But the betrayal of a Czech resistance fighter, Karel Čurda, led to their discovery. A huge team of SS soldiers descended on the church, determined to take the assassins alive. The soldiers defended themselves with pistols until three were killed, and the rest driven to the church’s basement, where they eventually committed suicide to avoid capture. This was not the end of the grizzly tale. On the very day of the assassination, Hitler ordered reprisals. Over 13,000 Czechs were arrested and sent to concentration camps, where 5,000 of them died. And this isn’t all. Based on false intelligence that the assassins had a connection to the small village of Lice, the Germans sent soldiers to commit a complete massacre. All the men were shot; the women and children were sent to the concentration camps, where most of them were killed. (After the war, Čurda the betrayer was hanged.)
In the basement of this church is now a permanent exposition and memorial to these soldiers. In a large circular room there are artifacts, such as weapons and parachute gear, on display; and panels of information tell the story of Operation Anthropoid. In the crypt—appropriately gloomy and grey—are busts of each of the seven soldiers, with plaques telling of their lives. Operation Anthropoid is a fascinating episode from the Second World War, equal parts uplifting and depressing; and standing before the graves of these young men who shook the world is a moving experience.
My last stop was further south along the river: Vyšehrad. The name literally means “upper castle,” and refers to the hill’s previous use as a fortress. Like Petřín Hill, Vyšehrad is an elevated green space that provides excellent views of the city. Crowning the hill is the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, an imposing neo-gothic structure. I wanted to go inside but, unfortunately, they were having mass. (Isn’t it irritating when people pray in churches?) It was late in the day when I arrived, so the attractive Vyšehrad cemetery was also closed—which is a shame, since Antonín Dvořák, the most famous of Czech composers, is buried here.
The sun was setting. Without anything to do, I walked to the front of the hillside and looked out at Prague—the shimmering blue river, crossed by iron and stone bridges; the orange rooftops and pink façades of the apartments; and in the distance Prague Castle, with the grey towers of its cathedral silhouetted against a rosy sky. I can see why people like this place.
Admittedly, I am not sure if I can concur with Norman Davies in calling Prague the most beautiful city in Europe—though it is certainly in the running. For my part there is too much tourism for it to be entirely comfortable; and it must be said that the city suffers from the lack of a really top-notch museum. Even so, nobody can deny that Prague is one of the jewels of this continent. There is something for everyone here—for the history buffs, for the art-lovers, and, yes, for the aficionados of knick-knacks and beer.
The train from Munich crawled through the city’s surroundings towards the central train station. We were entering Vienna. I gazed eagerly through the window, but could discern nothing save for the usual nondescript buildings, the industrial wreckage, and the bleak tracks and power cables that surrounds every modern city like a cage. Nevertheless I was excited. I had just finished Stefan Zweig’s absorbing autobiography, The World of Yesterday, which portrays the Vienna of the pre-War years (before World War I, that is), in loving detail. But I hardly needed Zweig’s description to know that I was entering one of Europe’s cultural capitals, where great artists, writers, and especially musicians lived and worked.
Thus I felt a little disoriented when I stepped off the train and found myself on a city street. I don’t know what I was expecting—a giant opera house or a city-sized museum—but certainly not an ordinary street, full of ordinary people, doing ordinary things. Indeed, the scene that confronted me was rather ugly, full of glass office buildings surrounded by yellow cranes (no doubt busy erecting more glass office buildings). Yet the disillusion quickly passed, since, after storing my bags in a luggage locker, I went straight to the Belvedere Palace Museum, a quick ten-minute walk away. Thus before I could even glimpse the city I was plunged into its art.
The Belvedere Palace consists of two buildings, an upper and a lower, both built during the Baroque period. They are separated by a lovely orangerie, a French-style garden full of neoclassical statues, carefully pruned ferns, decorous fountains, and artificial ponds. From the Upper Belvedere (where the museum’s most famous art is located), the visitor can see Vienna’s center looming beyond, with its cathedral’s dark spire splitting the skyline. It is a lovely place, worth visiting even if it were not full of famous works of art; and its design, by Johann Lukas von Hildebrant, proved stylistically influential. But I am no connoisseur of palaces or their deadening pomp. So after a quick walk around the gardens, I queued up and passed through the ornate lobby into the museum.
The Upper Belvedere’s collection focuses on art from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The highlight of its collection, and the reason why so many tourists bother visiting, is its extensive collection of Klimt’s work. For my part I knew close to nothing about Gustav Klimt before my visit; thus I felt somewhat out of place in such a horde of gaping spectators. Klimt is much more famous than I had suspected. There was a frenetic energy in the Klimt rooms, much like the atmosphere in the Louvre around the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, with tour groups jostling for photos (which are inevitably ruined by other jostling tourists). What was all the fuss about?
The first works I encountered were of plants, trees, and other natural scenes. Klimt’s style immediately struck me for its resemblance to wallpaper. An eye for pattern and design transforms everything into an ornament: the colors decorate rather than delineate, and any sense of depth is flattened into the scheme. As I gazed into the swarming mass of greens, pinks, reds, blues, and yellows, I felt a tingling sense of pleasure, like that of drinking cool soda water on a hot day. Every element of the paintings was subservient to a sense of texture, an almost tactile use of color. I would not call them beautiful, but they are very pretty.
But Klimt’s most famous works are not of nature, but of women. These combine his taste for the ornate with a surprisingly frank sensuality; and the combination has proven popular.
Judith and the Head of Holofernes illustrates this perfectly. Klimt takes the original story from the Book of Judith—about a widow visiting an enemy force and decapitating its general, Holofernes, traditionally interpreted as an act of pious devotion—and turns it into one of the most iconic images of the femme fatale. The disrobed Judith looks at the viewer with an extraordinary expression, a perfect mixture of scorn and invitation, of seduction and triumph. Her carefully realistic skin contrasts sharply with the abstract two-dimensional background, made from gold-leaf, which makes her seem to pop out from a graphic design. Though the painting celebrates the triumph of woman over man, to me it represents the double poles of fear and desire of the male gaze—the sex drive tinged with castration anxiety, to use a Freudian expression (as we must, in his home city).
Even more famous than this painting is The Kiss. Indeed, it is so famous it can hardly be properly seen, which is the irony of so many famous painting. The crowds they attract make it impossible for the visitor to observe closely, to ponder, to become completely absorbed in the work. To give the museum credit, they have set up a printed copy of the work in an adjoining room, marked “Kiss Selfie Point,” in the hopes that selfie-seekers would go there and leave the original unmolested. But it did not work. Dozens of people were gathered around, all busy taking pictures of each other and of themselves, and seemingly none actually looking at the painting.
All this notwithstanding, I can see why the painting has become so iconic. The woman kneels on a flowery meadow, her lover bending down to kiss her cheek. The poses are exaggerated and unnatural, reminding me of Mannerism; the man’s neck in particular seems painfully bent. Yet all the attention is focused on the woman’s face, which wears a look of rapturous joy. They are both wrapped in golden clokes, the man’s with a stiff vertical design, the woman’s with swirling spirals, which serve to obscure their bodies into one amorphous whole. The composition of the figures, situated at the top of the canvass, makes it seem as if all nature—the earth, the flowers, the stars—are swelling and concentrating themselves on this one blissful moment.
Having said all this in Klimt’s praise, I must admit that I am not particularly fond of his work. At best the strike me as excellent graphic designs, absorbing and attractive, but failing to touch any strong emotional or intellectual keys in me.
The Upper Belvedere has more to offer besides the world’s best collection of Klimt. One painting which stands out in my memory is a pentaptych (consisting of five separate panels) by Hans Makart, portraying the five senses in allegorical form, as female nudes engaged in symbolic poses—looking at a mirror, cupping an ear, smelling a flower, reaching for an apple, or resting a hand on a cloth. The painting is saved from its potentially trite theme and shallow symbolism by excellent technique and tasteful execution; the result is an ode to sensuality, which artfully represents Makart’s own views on ‘Total Art’ (art that appeals to all the senses). As you may know this idea is mostly associated with Wagner, and indeed the two of them were friends in life. The sensuality of Makart’s work was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a notable influence on Klimt, who is said to have worshipped him.
Another famous painting on display is Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. This is one of five surviving versions by the painter, the others scattered around Europe. The original painting, which hangs in Malmaison, was commissioned by Napoleon to send to Charles IV of Spain after the two countries’ rapprochement following the strife of the Revolution. (Charles sent Napoleon a portrait of himself by Goya.) The painting is executed in David’s characteristic neoclassical style, turning Napoleon into a second Alexander the Great. Though the heroic ethos of David’s paintings is ethically questionable at best—the worship of warriors and conquerors is something I have trouble understanding—his works are undeniably visually striking and impressive, and this one is no exception.
The only other work I will mention (though there are many more deserving of note, ranging stylistically from neoclassicism to romanticism to impressionism) is the collection of busts by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. These are hard to miss: they cover an entire wall in the museum and, besides, are unlike any other busts in the world. Rather than sculpt images of calm dignity, Messerschmidt made a collection of extreme expressions and distorted features. Apparently he achieved this by pinching himself and observing his reactions in the mirror. They must have been awfully painful pinches, since many of the busts portray horrendous grimaces. But pain is not all he captured; some are smiling maniacally, some have their lips pursed like an old lecher, some are engaged in a terrific yawn, and so on, covering everything from delirium to disgust. It strikes one as a little silly at first; but given how often we tense up our faces—from pain, from pleasure, from a curious odor—we may rank Messerschmidt as a more accurate chronicler of the human soul than many more famous sculptors.
After taking in my fill of art, I returned to the train station, picked up my bags, and went off to check in to my Airbnb. The gap between my arrival in a city and the check-in time of my accomodations, by the way, is something that had been troubling me. For how can I take advantage of arriving early if I have to drag my bags around until the afternoon? The luggage lockers in train stations have proven to be the best way to solve this problem; and I recommend their use to any similarly beset travelers.
Now it was time to see the old city center. The first thing I noticed is that Vienna is very flat. Everything seemed situated on a level plain, which somehow made distances seem longer. Little deviations in angle help to make one feel progression; without that, one feels as though one is on a treadmill. The wide and long avenues also contributed to this impression: I felt small in the openness of the city’s streets, trying to traverse a space too expansive for my puny legs. But what most struck me about Vienna was the city’s unified aesthetic. Everything is built in a grand, stately style, in a noble marble-white. Walking around the center, you do indeed get the impression that you are wandering around a massive palace or museum or opera house, or rather some combination of all of the above. And this is not very far from the truth.
Vienna is sometimes called the “City of Music,” and the city will not let you forget it. Concerts are everywhere. Salesmen sporting white wigs and dressed in fluffy satin suits walk the streets selling tickets to see performances of Mozart and Beethoven. It is no wonder that the city is known for music, considering that not only Mozart and Beethoven, but also Haydn, Brahms, Mahler, and Schoenberg have worked here. Nevertheless I find it somewhat depressing that the genuine cultural vibrancy that made the city so famous—the universal love of art that Zweig lovingly describes in his autobiography, in which the theater and the opera were universal obsessions—have been turned into a kind of parody of what it was, a tourist industry, in which cookie-cutter performances of canonical works are sold to tourists, the majority of whom have only a very limited interested in classical music. I suppose this is only to be expected, considering that the profit motive of the vendors harmonizes with the desire of the tourist for iconic experiences.
All this being said, it is no doubt true that Vienna still has a thriving performance scene. This is evidenced by the city’s several opera houses, the most famous of which being the Staatsoper, or State Opera House. This is a monumental and dignified building, built in the nineteenth century, in which Gustav Mahler worked as a conductor. Though I unfortunately did not take this opportunity (since I didn’t know at the time), it is possible to buy cheap standing-room tickets 80 minutes before a show. Another notable venue in Vienna is the Burgtheater, a elegantly decorated circular building near the Town Hall. I did not venture within, but from the outside I observed busts of Goethe, Schiller, and Lessing hovering above me, the gods of German theater. This theater, still popular, has historically been important in the German-speaking world for its trend-setting style.
From there I walked to Vienna’s lovely neo-gothic city hall, situated at the end of a large plaza. Opened in 1883, the building bears a strong resemblance to Munich’s neo-gothic town hall (built around the same time). I suppose this resemblance is due to both structures owing much to Brussels’ authentically gothic city hall. On the day I visited there was an outdoor fair set up, and the square was full of trailers and tents selling appetizing food. Though I was tempted by Indian curry and Turkish kebab, I decided that, since I was in Vienna, I had better have a sausage. It was spicy, filled with cheese, and came with warm potato salad. The Austrians, like the Germans, certainly know how to accompany a beer.
Near the City Hall (or Rathaus, in the teutonic speech) is Universität Wien’s central building. It does not look especially interesting from the street; but after wandering inside I found myself in a lovely courtyard, whose shaded walk enclosed busts of the notable Austrian intellectuals that have been associated with the university. There I found Freud’s scowling face, whose enormous forehead and glowering eyes reveal a man who sought dark secrets. Much more cheerful is Karl Popper, who looks eminently professorial and harmless, even avuncular—though I think the real Popper was not so mild. Erwin Schrödinger looks completely abstracted, as if lost in an uncomfortable dream (presumably featuring a cat); his bust has his famous equation—used to calculate quantum effects—written beneath his name. Vienna is certainly not short on intellectuals.
Klimt was famously commissioned to decorate the Great Hall of this university in 1894. When he finally revealed his designs for Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, the university reacted with shock and alarm, declaiming the works as pornographic and refusing to install them. The originals no longer survive, since the Nazis reportedly destroyed them during their retreat, though this is not confirmed. Judging from the surviving photographs, the works are quite impressive allegorical designs—both deeply original and visually striking. That being said, the profusion of nude women is hardly in keeping with the sober dignity of an old university. But when they commissioned Klimt, what did they expect?
Next to the university is the Sigmund Freud Park, where I observed college students in their native habitat—bent over cheap takeout noodles, their heads buried in books. This park is presided over by the Votivkirche, an excellent example of neo-gothic architecture, comparable even to St. Patrick’s in New York City. Its name (“Votive Church”) alludes to its construction: it was built to give thanks to God after a failed assassination attempt on Emperor Franz Joseph in 1853, for saving the emperor’s life. God may have not been so pleased, seeing as Franz Joseph lived to see the death of his brother, his wife, and his son (Archduke Franz Ferdinand), and to witness the beginning of the Great War which would end his empire for good. Lovely as the church is, I could not properly appreciate its form, since it was being restored when I visited; and so its façade was covered with scaffolding, which in turn was covered with a giant advertisement. Nowadays even churches are billboards.
Vienna’s most famous church may be the Peterskirche. This was remodeled by Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt, who you may remember as the same man who designed the Belvedere Palace. Though the outside of the church is, in my opinion, unremarkable, its inside is quite impressive, decorated from top to bottom in a florid yet tasteful Baroque. Outside the church’s front entrance is the Pestsäule, or Plague Column, a memorial to the Great Plague epidemic of 1679. The column is bursting with forms and figures, using a complex iconography to represent the victory of faith over the threatening disease (in those days thought to be caused by sin). Though full of angels, the bulbous form of the column manages to be quite grotesque, which I think is appropriate given what it commemorates.
One more church deserves mention. On one of my walks back to my Airbnb I stumbled upon the Karlskirche, which unfortunately was closed when I found it. Yet, even from the outside, the church leaves an impression for its monumental size and for the spiral columns (inspired by Trajan’s column) that flank its entrance. The Karlskirche is only a five-minute walk from another of Vienna’s treasures: the Naschmarkt. This is a street market that has existed since the sixteenth century. Now, I am no foodie, nor do I enjoy shopping for exotic products. Nevertheless I was impressed by the vast display of fresh fruits and vegetables, of spices and herbs, of candies and baked goods, all of which seem to go on forever—indeed, it was almost unbearable to witness, since I visited on an empty stomach (but didn’t leave that way).
Yet dwarfing even the finest of these churches in size and splendor is Vienna’s Cathedral, the Stephansdom. Its profile is unmistakable. The front entrance of the cathedral (to the west) is flanked by two Romanesque towers, rising up in grandiose dignity. To the back is the cathedral’s famous southern bell tower, a massive gothic spire that can be seen from many corners of the city, a feature as characteristic of Vienna’s skyline as is the Duomo in Florence. Yet the Cathedral’s most striking feature is not its towers nor its profile, but its colorful roof. The Stephansdom’s slanted roof is decorated with glazed tiles; on the southern side these are arranged into a bright diagonal pattern; and on the north the tiles create Vienna’s and Austria’s coats of arms. The inside of the cathedral is decorated in a high gothic style and contains the tomb of Emperor Frederick III, who was responsible for obtaining cathedral-status for the church from Pope Paul II.
I feel that I am rambling on about Vienna, and yet failing to capture the flavor of the city—a city which for so long was one of the great cultural and political centers of the continent. “Center” is the operative word here, since the city leaves no doubt that it was the seat of power and the ultimate arbiter of artistic taste. Yet I am cataloguing buildings as if they were a random assemblage, while Vienna seldom feels haphazard or fortuitous; rather the city feels planned down the last centimeter, like one giant palatial complex. Indeed, you might say that the city seems to grow out of the labyrinthine Hofburg Palace in the city center. This palace served as the winter residence of the omnipotent Habsburgs for generations; and it is still occupied by the President of Austria.
The most iconic view of the palace is from the Heldenplatz, or Heroes’ Square, a crushingly vast, open space that features two heroic equestrian statues: of Archduke Charles of Austria, and of Prince Eugene of Savoy, two of Austria’s greatest generals. Facing this plaza are the arching wings of the Neue Burg, the newer section of the palace (built in the 1800s), whose arms sweep out like a giant embrace. This is only a fraction of the palace, however, which expands chaotically through the area. Built over a span of centuries, the Hofburg lacks the unified grandeur of, say, Versailles or the Schönbrunn. Indeed, when I visited I could not tell where it begun or ended.
Nowadays the gargantuan complex, in addition to being the official residence of Austria’s leader, is the home of several institutions. One wonders how any emperor, however egotistical and vain, could ever have used so much space. The aforementioned Neue Burg, for example, is home to an ethnology museum, a museum of arms and armor, and a museum of musical instruments. Elsewhere in the complex is Vienna’s famous Spanish Riding School, which puts on horse shows that are a popular attraction. (I didn’t go.) The Imperial Treasure is also on display—with its bejewelled crowns and scepters and other ornaments of power—though no doubt well guarded. What attracted me most was the Court Library (now part of the Austrian National Library), famous for its gorgeously decorated Punksaal (“State Hall”). And this is only a taste of the behemoth.
Right next door to the Neue Burg of the Hofburg is the Maria-Theresien-Platz, an attractive square named for the statue of Empress Maria Theresa in its center. Two of Vienna’s most famous museums face each other from across the square: the Kunsthistorisches Museum (the Museum of the History of Art) and the Naturhistorisches Museum (the Museum of Natural History). These are housed in matching grand, palatial buildings, topped with a dome, which creates a satisfying symmetry across the square. The two buildings were built under the reign of the unhappy Franz Joseph in order to make the imperial art and science collections public—for which we may heartily thank him. Though both museums are popular attractions, the art museum is indisputably the more so. Being in all things a follower, I visited this one.
The museum building itself is attractive. A mock-palace decorated in a neoclassical style, each room is well-tailored to the art it displays: providing a charming but not distracting background. The exception to this is the central stairwell, which is adorned with statues of heroes and lions, and whose ceiling and walls are covered in paintings. Klimt is responsible for a few of these paintings, such as a nude Cleopatra that occupies a nook. Not only is the building itself impressive, but the exhibitions are expertly arranged and displayed. It is an excellent institution.
Despite the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s name, the museum is not an attempt to portray the whole history of art. The collection is, rather, the result of the tastes of Emperors and the periods of their glory. Thus we begin with antiquities—Egyptian and Greco-Roman—for the Empire funded and commissioned many excavations in the years when it was easier to simply take artifacts from their native lands. I admit that it was difficult for me to pay proper attention to these collections, since I was in Austria to learn about Austria, not Egypt or Greece. This is a shame, however, as the collections are undeniably impressive, well-organized and displayed, and featuring thousands of items—many of them beautiful and all of them instructive. Of particular note is the Cult Chamber of Ka-ni-nisut (a section of an Old Egyptian Temple) and marvelous Gemma Augusta, a delicately carved inscribed gem from a Roman workman.
From these relics of ancient peoples the collection jumps to the high point of Habsburg in the Kunstkammer rooms. A Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer (normally translated as “chamber of curiosities”) originated during the Renaissance as a kind of private a museum, a collection of strange and rare objects to stimulate the mind (and sometimes thought to have occult properties). The other examples I have seen contained fossils (not understood at the time), stuffed exotic animals, and foreign artifacts. But the Kunstkammer in the Kunsthistorisches Museum is full to the brim of luxury items, the most striking of which are delicate creations in gold. Far from the product of intellectual curiosity, this collection seems more to be a display of wealth.
The most notable item in this section is the salt cellar by Benvenuto Cellini. I was especially keen to see this, since I had read and loved Cellini’s roguish autobiography—possibly my favorite example of the genre—in which he repeatedly boasts that he is the best goldsmith in the world, even of all time. So I was curious to see whether his boasting was justified. It was. I find it depressing to think that this man, who wrote one of the great books of the Italian Renaissance, was also an extremely accomplished artist. Some people can do everything. The cellar contains two reclining figures: a man representing the sea, and a woman representing the earth. Each is seated next to decorous boxes, one to contain salt, the other pepper. The craftsmanship is exquisite in every detail: the bodies lithe and expressive, the ornamentation sumptuous. Imagine having something like that at your dinner table.
Though the Cellini Salt Cellar is without doubt the highlight of the Kunstkammer rooms for its artistry, it is only a small part of the extraordinary display of craftsmanship and wealth. A succession of Habsburgs used their combination of resources and connections to assemble a vast collection of scientific instruments, statuettes, models, clocks, lamps, and decorative plates, trays, and cutlery, all of it made with the finest craftsmanship out of the most expensive materials. And yet, aside from Cellini’s cellar, the display produced in me little more than an admiration for the fine skill required, and a mixture of awe and disgust at the flaunting of riches.
After exploring the Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and Habsburg rooms, I thought there could be little more to see in the museum. But I was blissfully wrong. The second floor of the museum is a world-class painting gallery, comparable to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum or even Madrid’s Prado. The collection mainly contains works by Germanic, Dutch, and Flemish artists, though there are some notable exceptions. One of these is Raphael’s Madonna in the Meadow, with the rosy-faced Virgin Mary watching over the infant John the Baptist and Jesus, playing in a field. The painting exhibits the Renaissance master’s smooth forms, agreeable colors, and harmonious compositions. Also notable are the several works by Velazquez on display, which were originally given as a gift by the Spanish to the Austrian Habsburgs.
Other paintings call out for attention: several excellent portraits by Jan Van Eyck, self-portraits by Peter Paul Rubens (looking resplendent) and Rembrandt (looking rather shabby), and one of Vermeer’s masterpieces, The Art of Painting, which portrays a painter (himself, presumably) engaged in painting a woman dressed in blue (possibly his daughter). As is usual with Vermeer, an expert composition is matched with exquisite realism, blending the iconic and the intimate. On the one hand, the painting looks like a snapshot of an ordinary day; you can almost guess the time of day from the shadowing on the crickled map on the far wall. And yet, once examined, the painting reveals itself to be anything but casual, but even more carefully composed than the painting which is being painted in the painting.
All of these wonderful works notwithstanding, the highlight of the gallery is indisputably its collection of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The acknowledged master of the Flemish Renaissance, Bruegel began his career as an engraver of prints, and only took up the brush comparatively late in his short life (he died at around the age of 40). Even so, he left us with a treasury of paintings, which combine the engraver’s eye for detail with an earthy humor and an ironic sensibility, making him one of Europe’s great artists.
Perhaps I enjoyed Bruegel’s work so much because there were influenced by another of my favorite artists, Hieronymus Bosch. This is most apparent in Bruegel’s Fight Between Carnival and Lent, which tackles the typical Boschian theme of the combat between sin and piety in the typical Boschian manner of a vast panorama. In the lower-left of the large town square the people boisterously celebrate Carnival, with all the hilarity, mirth, and drunkenness expected; and in the upper right, robed figures and well-behaved children carry out the abstemious rituals of Lent. The riot of detail is too much for the eye to take in at a glance, or even several; and no central narrative emerges from the busy activity of the town. The closest thing to a central action is the joust between the figure of Carnival, a fat man seated on a barrel, being pushed by drunkards, wielding a skewer, and Lent, a skinny, miserably figure in religious vestments, being pulled by a monk and a nun. Both of these figures are pure Bosch in their exaggerated ghastliness, down to the odd objects sitting on their heads.
Another remarkable panorama by Bruegel is his painting, Children’s Games, which shows hundreds of kids engaged in dozens of sorts of play—with masks, with dolls, in groups, by themselves, climbing, rolling, play acting, and so on—creating a veritable anthology of childhood. But Bruegel’s artistry is not confined to these social summaries. He was also deeply sensitive to the beauties of nature, as is shown in his winter landscape, Hunters in the Snow. I do not think that I am the only one to feel a peaceful sense of sublimity in this work. Somehow Bruegel has captured the feeling of the hours after snowfall, when the world is frozen still and silent, and the works of human hands are humbled in the anonymous white of winter. When I visited there was a guest artist busy making a copy of the work, which I admire, for there is much to learn in this work.
Yet my favorite work in the Bruegel collection is his Tower of Babel, the most convincing representation of that mythical tower I know of. I admit I am predisposed to like the painting because the story is among my favorits of the Bible. It shows how much we humans, individually weak, can accomplish if we unite together—a power so great as to even make God in heaven tremble, since He decided that He had better scatter us and confuse our speech if He was to defend his astral territory. The story seems so prescient, too, considering that we have succeeded in leaving earth and entered the heavens, and with the help of two universal languages: English and mathematics, the international languages of science. Though the story has traditionally been interpreted as an allegory for humanity’s presumption, I tend to see it as an allegory for the potential of cooperation. Thus I feel a strange pathos when I look at Bruegel’s image of the unfinished—never to be finished—tower, dominating the landscape and brushing away the clouds.
This does it for my tour of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. But one museum remains: the Sigmund Freud Museum.
This is located in the apartment were the psychoanalyst lived and worked for over 40 years, on Berggasse 19. I believe the rest of the apartments in the building are still residencial. To enter I had to queue up on the stairwell, since only a limited number of visitors can be admitted at any one time, due to the limited space. I admit that I was somewhat disappointed by the museum. You see, when Freud fled the Nazis and moved to London, he was able to take all of his furniture (such as the famous couch) with him; so the museum in Vienna is largely bereft of its original furnishings. (There is a Freud Museum in London in which you can see what his house and office looked like.) Instead, the exhibition mainly consists of information and photographs, with a few antique items on display.
Even though I did not learn very much about Freud—since I already knew a fair amount about the psychoanalyst before my visit—it was still special to know that I was standing in the apartment of somebody whose thoughts had changed the world. For even if Freud’s ideas are bunk as science and questionable as therapy, he undoubtedly contributed to our concept of the human condition, helping to erode the old Platonic idea in rational beings, and instead accustoming us to the now-common notion of unconscious, unreasonable, and ugly motivations. Since Freud, we have not been able to trust so blithely in the logic of our thoughts or the purity of our actions; and I think this is ultimately a good thing: since blindness to the animal within makes us unable to restrain it.
Evening was falling now, and I was going to leave the next day. I was tired and sore from having walked all day for days on end; but there was one more place to visit: the Schönbrunn Palace.
Sometimes called the “Versailles of Vienna” (which is somewhat Francocentric, I think), the Schönbrunn (literally, “Beautiful Fountain”) is the marvelous palace that, for hundreds of years, was used by the Habsburgs as a summer residence. As such, it stands in the center of Austrian history. Franz Joseph, Austria’s aforementioned last emperor, was born, lived, and died within these walls. Located about an hour’s walk from the center, the palace is accessible by metro, tram, and bus for the foot-weary, and is easily worth the detour.
As it stands today, the Schönbrunn mainly owes its monumental, neoclassical form to that remarkable empress, Maria Theresa. It is painted a cheerful yellow color, which helps to humanize the inhuman proportions of the building. The visitor entering from the street passes two imperial eagles, elevated on columns, which lead into a stone courtyard. By the time I arrived the palace was closed (which did not much bother me, since I prefer gardens anyhow). So I walked around the monumental pile to the other side, which opens up into the palace’s orangerie.
The gardens are arranged in the orderly French style, with rows of ferns adorned with classicalizing statues of heroes and gods. These lead up a gentle hill to the famous Gloriette, a kind of ceremonial structure, vaguely reminiscent of a triumphal arch, built to celebrate Habsburg power. I slowly ascended the slope until I reached its modest peak. The grass swells like an ocean wave on its way down the hill; and at the bottom, flower patches lead up to the palace, which does not look so presumptuously big from up here, and whose yellow façade grows agreeably in the sunset light. Vienna is stretched out in the distance, almost completely flat, save for the dark spire of a church silhouetted against the pink sky. I wrote in my diary: “The clouds look painted. I can almost see the brushstrokes.”
I made my way back down through a side path, which took me through a more wooded area and passed near the palace’s zoo. Some large animal—a lion, a bear, or even an elephant—was growling powerfully in its enclosure. The deep and throaty roar made my hair stand on end; the sound was so deep it even seemed to shake the leaves on the trees. A panic momentarily came over me; and this instinctual fear quickened my senses and snapped me out of my fatigue. I was here, I was in Vienna, listening to an elephant in the palace gardens.
Finally I reached the bottom of the hill and passed by the palace on my way back to my apartment. As I passed, strains of music caught my ears. A concert of chamber music was being held in the palace; and by standing nearby, I could hear the players quite well. It was Mozart, whose composition accompanied my final moments of wonder in the City of Music.
The next day, as I waited for my train to take me to the airport, I wrote these concluding thoughts in my diary:
Every day I ingest Culture, sometimes so much I can hardly swallow it all without feeling ill. What effect does all the art-viewing and book-reading have on me? Does the sophisticated, elegant, finely crafted decorations of, say, an Egyptian sarcophagus create any reflected, echoed, imprinted form in my mind? Do I gain something from visually processing the forms of brilliant men and women? My mind has its limits, which I feel all the more keenly when I measure myself against these artists.
If you wish to see a German Altstadt (historic center) that escaped the fire and the bombs of the Second World War, you will need to go to a smaller city than Munich and Nuremberg. For this I took a day trip to Bamberg, a city about 60 kilometers north of Nuremberg, an hour away by train. The city of 75,000 souls is wrapped around the winding river Regnitz. Like Rome the city is built upon seven hills, each one topped with a church. Thus it is a city of sweeping views and picturesque quays by the riverside.
The historic center of Bamberg has been a designated UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993, not only for its excellent preservation, but also for its historical importance. The ecclesiastical architecture and the town’s layout proved influential throughout the rest of Germany (or at least that is what the UNESCO website says); and Bamberg also played an important part in the German Enlightenment, being where the philosopher G.F. Hegel and the writer E.T.A. Hoffman spent many years. For my part, I arrived in Bamberg completely ignorant of its history and I have improved very little since then. I just wanted to take some nice photos.
The most iconic image of Bamberg is the Altes Rathaus, or the old town hall. It is built on a little island in the middle of the river, with part of the structure hanging over the water. A bridge goes through the building and out the other side, connecting the island with both sides of the land, making it look like a man holding hands with two partners. Since it proved too small for the intricate bureaucracy of the current age, the building is no longer used as a town hall, but now houses the Museum of the City of Bamberg. No doubt the town hall erected to replace this one has no charming façade or bright colors, since we have grown out of such quaint customs.
On a nearby bridge you can see Igor Mitoraj’s sculpture, Centurion, an attractive fragment of a sharp Roman visage. From here Bamberg’s “Little Venice” comes into view, a colorful row of fisherman’s houses along the riverside. They don’t have gondolas but they do have ducks. I walked a short circuit along the south side of the river, returning on the north. At this time the coffee from this morning had hit my bladder, which is one of the traveler’s most persistent distractions. Luckily I found a public restroom along the river’s northern edge. Yet like seemingly all the restrooms in Central Europe it cost 50 cents to use, which I think is rather steep for a bodily function—though in fairness, the bathroom was quite clean.
Now it was time to ascend one of Bamberg’s famous hills, for I wanted to see the city’s cathedral. After the Altes Rathaus, this is Bamberg’s most recognizable structure, with the cathedral’s four spires topping a hill like an iron crown. It is a late Romanesque edifice that reminded me somewhat of Toulouse’s Basilica of Saint-Sernin; the cathedral’s massive form lacks that ebullient pointiness of later gothic structures, instead preserving a sort of grand dignity with its symmetrical mass. The cathedral is noteworthy for being one of the few places outside of Italy where a pope is buried—in this case, Pope Clement II (1005-47). A more attractive grave is reserved for Heinrich II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1014 to 1024. The sarcophagi, which shows scenes from the emperor’s life, was carved several hundred years after his death by the German Renaissance sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider. Standing watch nearby is the famous Bamberger Reiter, an equine sculpture portraying a dashing man of uncertain identity.
By now I was hungry, so I walked to some food stands I had seen earlier in the Grüner Markt square. There I indulged in a modern classic of German cuisine, Currywurst: a pork sausage drenched in ketchup spiced with curry. It may sound strange but tastes exactly how you would expect—though for my part the curry flavor is always too mild. In any case, it is filling, sweet, and salty, and does not leave me feeling particularly well. To complete the experience I had a Bavarian Weißbier, which literally means “white beer” but is really wheat beer. It is a rather sweet and light brew, with hardly any bitterness (since few hops are used) or sourness (since more wheat than malt is used). I much prefer them to pilsners. Having topped all this off with another coffee, you can imagine that I was soon paying for the bathrooms once again.
Having got my fill of grease, alcohol, and caffeine, I went off once again to see Bamberg. As I walked aimlessly on, I happened upon a building with a commemorative plaque on the side, which announced that Hegel stayed here while writing his famous Phänomenologie des Geistes, which I had painfully read the year before. I reached out my hand and touched the building with all the reverence due to Teutonic obscurity. From there I went to see the Hoffman house, which has since been converted into a museum about the polymath’s life. I went inside but everything on the walls was written in German, and I did not feel like fighting a battle.
Next I went to the top of another hill, to see the Michaelsberg Abbey. This is no longer an abbey, but a retirement home; but the abbey church is still open—at least, it normally is. When I arrived the building was covered in a thick mass of scaffolding; the church is undergoing substantial repairs and has been closed since 2016. But the abbey is surrounded by attractive gardens; and the patio still offers a wonderful view of Bamberg. On the day I went there were several gliders floating around in the air, their long white wings difficult to see against the clouds. I imagine it would be peaceful to be in one of those, sailing around the sky.
After walking along some more, enjoying the tree-lines streets that wind up and down the hills, examining the charming stone and wood-framed buildings that make the town feel so idyllically rustic, I came upon the Alte Hofhaltung and the Neue Residenz. The former is a lovely building with a steep roof and timber balconies that acted as a sort of palace for the bishops until the seventeenth century, when they moved to the Neue Residenz, a bigger, grander, but somewhat lifeless neoclassical structure nearby. Drunk with the scenery, I continued walking up the hill away from the river, until I came upon the Jacobskirche. This church, dedicated to St. James, was located outside of the now-demolished city walls, and acted as an important stop on the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage that terminates in Spain. I was surprised and delighted to see signs of the Camino in a distant land, and I enjoyed the peacefulness of the church’s Romanesque interior.
From there it isn’t far to leave the city altogether, entering some of the lush forests that surround Bamberg. On my offline map—I was using the application maps.me to get around—I found a lookout point in a grassy field. Though much of the city center was hidden from view, I could see the whole surrounding valley, with wind turbines on a distant hillside, and the town’s industrial sector off to my left, with freight trains rumbling by. Bavaria is an astonishingly lovely place—at least in summer. The town is surrounded by an extensive system of trails, something which the residents themselves—the Germans are an outdoorsy people—amply take advantage of.
Now the hour of my return train to Nuremberg was approaching. So I walked back into town and back towards the train station. On my way I stopped at the Obere Pfarrekirche, or Upper Parish Church, also called the Church of Our Lady. This is the only purely gothic church in the city; and its altar and ceiling frescos are lovely to behold. Sadly, I missed the opportunity to visit one of Bamberg’s many breweries. In the finest Bavarian tradition, the city has its own local brews and is spotted with beer cellars. Truly, Bamberg is a garden of delights, bucolic and picturesque, and I wish I could have spent more time there.
If there is one city more strongly associated with National Socialism than Munich, it is Nuremberg. For it was here that the Nazis had their infamous rallies, and also here that the Nazi leaders were tried and convicted after the war. But even without these epochal events, the city would be worth visiting, for it has the same charming combination of an attractive city center and a Bavarian beer culture that makes Munich so popular. And as the second-biggest city in Bavaria, after Munich itself, Nuremberg has quite a lot to see.
When I arrived in Nuremberg I was in a sour mood. I was coming to the city from Prague (a place for another post), and had very thoughtfully planned the trip by buying a bus ticket beforehand. But I failed to take into account that the metro runs more slowly on Sundays; and so my trip took ten fatal minutes more than planned, and I arrived at the station just as the bus was pulling away. Thus I had to buy a ticket for the next bus, which cost twice as much as the one I already had and which lost me two precious hours in Nuremberg. Admittedly this is not very important; but I hate wasting money and I felt like a fool for not giving myself more time to get to the bus.
But my ill temper was soon alleviated as I walked around the center of Nuremberg. This was my first trip with my new camera, a Canon Rebel T6—all my photography before having been with my phone—so I eagerly marched through the city, snapping photos like a maniac of anything and everything that caught my eye. And this was quite a lot of things, since the old center of Nuremberg is a handsome place.
Like Munich, Berlin, and so many German cities, Nuremberg’s original old center was sadly bombed out of existence during the Second World War. The ability to aim bombs back then was rudimentary at best; and in any case I do not think the Allied bombers were apt to be very careful, since one of their goals was to demoralize the population. I do not know whether or not it would have significantly impeded the war effort to have tried to avoid destroying these historic cities, but still I find it sad that so much great architecture went up in flames and was reduced to rubble. War and art are perpetual enemies. Lucky for us, however, the people of Nuremberg reconstructed their historic city after the war; and if not perfectly replicated, the result is still very fine.
Nuremberg has historically been a walled city; and the old center still stands behind high walls, lookout towers, and an old moat that has been converted into a park. Nuremberg’s central square is the Hauptmarkt, which in December is home of a Christmas market, and all year long has stalls selling fruits, vegetables, sweets, preserves, and other delicacies. The square is presided over by the noble Frauenkirche (“Church of Our Lady”), a brick gothic structure whose stepping roof leads up to a central clock, under which the Holy Roman Emperor sits enthroned in a golden robe, surrounded by counselors. The church is rather unusual in having a balcony above its front portal. This was originally because the Holy Roman Emperors wanted to use the church for ceremonial functions. Nowadays it is used to give the opening speech of the Christkindlesmarkt.
In the center of the Hauptmarkt is the Schöner Brunnen (“beautiful fountain”), whose tall, golden, gothic spire juts into the air, decorated with statues representing the liberal arts, the church fathers, and other political and religious figures important to the Holy Roman Empire. The fountain is aptly named.
Right next to this central square is the river Pegnitz, which runs right through the center of the city, and whose calm surface is never free of a couple loafing ducks. From the city’s well-preserved Fleishbrücke (literally, “meat bridge”)—a lovely Renaissance bridge that escaped the bombs—you can see the Heilig-Geist-Spital (Holy Ghost Hospital), a pretty building that extends out into the river, supported by two arches. Built in 1399, it long served its medical function, in addition to being a kind of old folks’ home and, from 1424 to 1796, the depository of the imperial jewels. Originally there was a church attached to the building, but the bombs destroyed it in 1945 and it wasn’t rebuilt. But there is a nice restaurant there nowadays, apparently.
The most magnificent church in Nuremberg is, without doubt, the Lorenzkirche, or St. Lorenz Church. This is a Lutheran church which was another casualty of the world war, not destroyed but badly damaged. But it has been restored magnificently. The imposing gothic façade gives way to an equally impressive interior, whose vaulting, statues, and stained glass form a harmoniously somber whole. Standing on the other side of the old town is the almost equally majestic Sebalduskirche, which has the same curiously hunchbacked profile as the Lorenzkirche. This distinctive shape resulted, I believe, from converting an older cruciform church into a larger gothic building, raising the side aisles and adding an ambulatory in the back. In any case, it is another damaged and well-restored structure, which preserves the original shrine of St. Sebaldus, Nuremberg’s patron saint. (I was under the impression that Lutherans don’t have shrines to saints, but apparently I was wrong.)
Presiding over the northern edge of the old city, perched like an enormous eagle on a hill that overlooks the town, is the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg (Kaiserburg Nürnberg). This castle was extensively used by the Holy Roman Emperors, making Nuremberg a sort of unofficial capital of the empire. (This association with the Holy Roman Empire, which Hitler retroactively named the “First Reich,” is one reason why he chose to have his rallies here.) Like everything else, the castle was badly damaged during the war, but has been repaired beautifully; its brown buildings and rust-colored roofs fit in perfectly with the city’s aesthetic.
Walking towards the castle, you may come upon the attractive Tiergärtnerplatz, a plaza surrounded by pretty buildings and, in good weather, full of beer drinkers sitting on the pavement. Nearby is the historic Albrecht Dürer Haus, where the famous painter lived from 1509 until his death. It is a typical municipal dwelling, with a sandstone bottom and a timber-framed top, and houses a museum dedicated to the artist. If you continue from this square up the hill into the castle, you will be rewarded with an excellent view of the city, spread out before you like a dinner table.
Feeling ravenous at this point, I went off to find dinner. For this I went to Som Tam Siam Food, a Thai restaurant in the north of the city that I found online. You may think it’s silly to eat Thai food on a trip to Germany, but it was delicious and cheap, and I didn’t regret a thing. To be fair, the next day I tried the culinary specialty of Nuremberg, which are its bratwurst—greasy, juicy, meaty, delicious sausage. I also treated myself to a German pretzel, which are buttery and rich, much better than the pretzels that are sold on the streets of New York. But I have to admit the Thai food was my favorite; I went back the next day.
It is worth taking a stroll from the city center to one of Nuremberg’s cemeteries, the Johannisfriedhof. In my travels I have discovered that there is a great variety in cemetery design. In Spain, France, Ireland, the United States, and Germany, they all have a distinctive look. The Johannisfriedhof is a lovely open space filled with stone sarcophagi, filled with flowers, ferns, and trees. Like many cemeteries, it is a solemn and silent place, mostly empty, and full of benches to sit and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. Its most famous inhabitant is Nuremberg’s most famous son, Albrecht Dürer, widely regarded as the greatest of German artists, in a league with the best Renaissance painters for his brilliance. I sadly missed the opportunity to see his iconic Self-Portait at 28, which is in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, yet another of my traveler’s regrets. The artist’s grave is modest and plain, blending in with those surrounding him. His best friend, Willibald Pirckheimer, of whom Dürer made many portraits, is also buried in this cemetery.
My last stop in the city center was the Germanisches Nationalmuseum. It was founded during the eighteenth-century upsurge in cultural interest, and has since grown into a massive institution—Germany’s largest museum of cultural history. I visited on my last day in Nuremberg, when I only had a few hours to explore before going to the airport. This was not nearly enough time to properly see everything—or anything—but how much time is enough will depend, of course, on the visitor’s tastes.
The museum building itself is a sort of artifact, having been converted from an old monastery, like the Musée des Augustines in Toulouse. The lovely old cloisters and church are preserved and stocked with statues, most notably by the local gothic sculptor Adam Kraft. From there the museum seems to expand in every direction. There is a sizable collection of prehistoric and ancient artifacts, including Roman military equipment. One large hall is dedicated to fashion—and walking past so many oddly-dressed mannequins is a little creepy. Directly below is the museum’s impressive exhibition of antique instruments, showing viol de gambas, ornate pianos, obsolete reed instruments, and much more.
In five minutes you can go from the pious passion of gothic painting to the stylish precision of scientific instruments. Among these, the most famous is Martin Behaim’s Erdapfel (“earth apple”), the earliest surviving globe. The map is difficult to read now, discolored and faded with age; but it is obvious that the Americas are not included, since it was made in 1490-92, before Christopher Columbus returned from his voyage in 1493. (This, by the way, is yet another proof that people back then already knew the earth was round.) Leaving no stone unturned, the museum also has a substantial collection of paintings from the Renaissance, Baroque, and Enlightenment periods. This includes Dürer’s imaginary portrait of Charlemagne, a famous miniature portrait of Martin Luther, and several works by Rembrandt. But the museum is impressive for the range and depth of its collections rather than outstanding specimens, though it has its fair number of these too. The place is worth as much time as you care to spend in it.
As everybody knows, Nuremberg’s reputation as a seat of imperial power and the home of the German Renaissance’s most famous representative, Albrecht Dürer, was considerably darkened in the twentieth century. Nowadays it is nearly impossible for most outsiders to think of Nuremberg without immediately thinking of the Nazis. Far from trying to cover up this association, the people of Nuremberg have admirably opened two excellent exhibitions about this dark era, the first at the former rally grounds, the second at the courthouse where the Nazi leaders were put on trial. Because both are on site, they are situated a little far from the center; but they are well worth visiting.
The documentation center at the rally grounds has been built into its largest preserved structure, the Congress Hall. This is a semicircular arena, loosely based on the Coliseum, that could hold 50,000 party members. The documentation center’s metallic exterior seems to spear through the older stone building, creating a visual pun on the name of Albert Speer, the chief Nazi architect. Opened in 2001, the center is designed to explain the rise of Hitler’s party and the part that the Nuremberg rallies played in that story. The ticket automatically comes with an audioguide, which is good, since all of the text in the museum is in German so you have little choice but to listen. The exhibitions are organized by chronology and theme, taking the visitor through the early days of National Socialism, the Beer Hall Putsch and the writing of Mein Kampf, and on to their rise to power—including much else along the way: their ideology and rituals, their organization and methods of control, their use of propaganda and pageantry, and so on. Though there are plenty of photos, the main substance of the exhibit consists in this self-guided tour, making the experience of visit somewhat like listening to an audiobook—though a very good one.
Since I had recently read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a lot of the information was not new to me. The explanations of the actual rituals were, however, new and fascinating. As in my visit to Berlin’sTopography of Terror, what most struck me about the Nazi party was the degree to which its organization, rituals, and ethos of manliness were reminiscent of the Boy Scouts. By this I do not intend to insult boy scouts; rather, mean that, in its rituals and architecture, these rallies were like nightmare versions of boyish fantasies. Propaganda films show grown men roughhousing, partaking in good clean fun, exercising with their mates, laughing and singing songs together, and demonstrating their manly martial prowess in mock battles. The melodramatic gravity of the rituals reminds me of a children’s game, aping the movements and motions of real solemnity while missing their substance. The architecture consists of shallow imitations of classical structures or medieval fortresses; and you get the impression that, like so many boys, they were imagining themselves in an ancient time, in an epoch of emperors and knights and Crusades.
But clearly the rallies were effective. Indeed, during their tenure in power the Nazis proved themselves to be geniuses of propaganda. The rallies’ tight choreography and grand orchestration showcased the dazzling efficiency of the German army. Their massive marches and endless parades reinforced the image of German might. The mixture of military and religious rituals created an effective blend of awe and aggression. The free use of symbols from the past—the ancient Romans, the church, the Holy Roman Empire—impressed on the German people the idea that they were following in the footsteps of illustrious ancestors and fulfilling their destiny. The total coordination of myth, pageantry, rhetoric, and spectacle created a hermetically sealed whole, a cultural space where beauty, truth, and goodness were the party line, and the attendee just a passionate part of a glorious movement. The ability to inspire had never been so abused.
These were the lessons I learned from my visit to the documentation center and a short walk around the remaining buildings. It is a sobering experience.
Somewhat more uplifting is a visit to the Nuremberg Trial courtroom. The room is in the monumental Palace of Justice, Nuremberg’s court building on the other side of town from the Documentation Center. Nuremberg was chosen as the site of the trials partly for the city’s association with Nazism, and also because the Palace of Justice has a sizable adjoining prison. After entering through a side door of the building, paying the entrance fee, and ascending some stairs, the visitor is confronted with Courtroom 600, where the trial actually took place. My first impression was that it was much smaller than I expected, indeed hardly bigger than a civil courtroom I had seen in New York. Admittedly the courtroom is now significantly smaller than it was during the trial, since the back wall was at that time removed to allow for a double-decker gallery of onlookers and reporters.
Even so, it was a small stage on which to create history. For into this modest room there presided judges from the four allied powers (one main and one alternative for each, making eight); a bank of interpreters simultaneously translated between the four official languages (Russian, French, German, and English); prosecutors from every Allied power; defense attorneys for all the 24 accused; the accused themselves; a witness stand; guards, clerks, and amanuenses; and then the press, with cameras and notepads. It must have been very crowded. Standing in that room, I felt that strange mixture of disappointment and awe that historical places create—in this case, disappointment that it is an ordinary courtroom, awe that such normal surroundings could have been host to such a world-changing event. But history does not always leave an obvious mark; and the courtroom—which is still occasionally used—looks clean and polished.
Up another flight of stairs is the main exhibition, which has only been open since 2010. As in the rally grounds, here the visit consists of an audioguide and lots of panels. Really, the amount of information on display is overwhelming; to listen to all of it, one would need two hours at least. But it is good information, giving some idea of the leadup and consequences of the trial, but mainly focusing on the trial itself—its legal bases, its personalities, its progress. The audioguide takes an uncompromising pro-trial stance, which is somewhat surprising, given that they were often seen within Germany as an example of “victor’s justice.” For it hardly seems like a recipe for fairness that the victors to put the leaders of an enemy country on trial. And anyone must admit that the victor’s hands were hardly clean. The most extreme case are the Soviets, who had their own mass killings, invasions, and wars of aggression; but none of the Allies were beyond reproach: many French collaborated, the English appeasement strategy aided Germany’s rise, and America’s bombing of Dresden is nefarious.
Even granting all this, I still think that the Nuremberg Trials were a step forward in the bumbling progress of our species. The victorious powers could simply have shot the Nazis without due process, or have submitted them to a shallow show-trial. It is rather remarkable that we didn’t. As Robert H. Jackson said in his opening speech: “That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.” The trial set new precedents for international law—defining war crimes and crimes against humanity—which served as a model for similar trials ever since, such as those in the wake of the Rwandan massacre or the Balkan Wars. And the trials were instrumental in uncovering the horrible truth of the Nazi atrocities and the full extent of their culpability, since the prosecutors were determined to convict the defendants using their own documents.
If the Nuremberg trials were a victory for Reason, that the city most associated with Nazism could be home to two thorough and honest exhibitions about the history of their crimes is yet another.
Bavaria is a special place. Though this southern German state is full of traditions that are not shared with the rest of Germany, the image of Bavaria has, ironically enough, come to symbolize all of German culture. Giant goblets of beer, yodelling and schuhplattler dancing, jaunty brass bands and lederhosen—all this is mainly found in Bavaria. This phenomenon mirrors the situation in Spain, which is known for flamenco and bullfighting, two traditions mainly found within its distinctive southern province, Andalusia, and largely absent from its north. Many of America’s stereotypes come from the south, too, such as our fried food and cowboy culture. I suppose a country is doomed to be identified by its most outlandish customs.
Though the image of Bavaria is often ridiculed—somewhat unfairly, since its silliest aspects are now mainly for the tourists—it has proven very seductive. Millions flock to Munich ever year for its annual Oktoberfest, to be served liters of beer by blonde waitresses in tight-fitting Dirndl dresses. And many millions more celebrate this extravaganza of beer and sausage in replicated festivals all across the world. Beer culture more generally owes much to Bavaria, as microbrewers set up Biergarten style establishments and serve artisanal baked potatoes. So the Bavarians have at least done some things right.
I myself am drawn to this idyllic image of jolly inebriation, which has led me to visit the region twice: First to Munich, and then to Nuremberg and Bamberg.
I was here, finally here, in the Englischer Garten of Munich.
One of my favorite stories is Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which opens with the novelist Gustave von Aschenbach, strained and fatigued from his writing, taking a stroll in the English Gardens to revive his spirits. And here I was, standing in the same place where that imaginary man strode, melancholy and weary from his struggle to create beauty. More than likely, Thomas Mann himself stood here, too, as he lived in Munich for forty years.
Yet I was as far as it was possible to be from those literary heroes, imaginary or real. I was carrying a bright orange backpack, dressed in a grey hoodie, feeling sleep-deprived, achy, and lightheaded from hunger. Reality often falls short of fiction—and even fact. I had some time to kill before I could check into my Airbnb, and so decided to walk here, in the gardens of my fantasy.
The English Gardens take their name from the style of landscape architecture common in eighteenth-century England, wherein whole landscapes were reshaped to create pleasing compositions. The Munich park was designed by Sir Benjamin Thompson, one of those remarkable Eighteenth century Renaissance men; he was a physicist, inventor, and an official in the Bavarian military, in addition to a prolific designer of everything from parks to battleships. You know you have led an eventful life when designing a world-famous park is only a minor episode.
As I walked through the park, feeling heavy and sweaty, I passed by a man in a wetsuit carrying a surfboard, who obviously stuck out among the tourists clad in shorts, sandals, and sunglasses. I did not know what to make of this. Then, five minutes later, an American asked me if I knew where the surfers are. Surfers in a park? It turns out that, yes, there is surfing in the Englischer Garten, at a point in the artificial river where it narrows, creating a perpetual wave, known as the Eisbach Wave.
Extreme sport aside, the most popular activities in the English Gardens are strolling and sunbathing. To my surprise, it is even legal to sunbathe nude in the Englischer Garten, specifically in the Schönfeldwiese (lit. “beautiful field meadow”), as I saw for myself while walking past. This was the second time in my life that I had come upon naked sunbathers, the first being in the Tiergarten in Berlin; and both times I was equally shocked. Public nudity in the center of a municipal park is something unheard of in the United States and in Spain. The Germans seem far more accepting of the human body—in all its hairy, flabby, and sunburned varieties—which I suppose is a good thing, though it does spoil the view a little.
Unsolicited flesh notwithstanding, the English Gardens are a delightful place to walk around. As much as I love Madrid, its dry climate makes even its parks seem sandy and bare. A boy from New York cannot help missing dark loamy soil, lush verdure, deep greens, and thick foliage, which Munich has in abundance—at least in summer. Walking paths wind under towering linden trees, which open up to reveal beautiful views, such as the distant Munich skyline or the glasslike surface of the Kleinhesseloher Lake. A massive Biergarten, the second-largest in the city, sits at the center of the park; and as I walked by I admired the giant pieces of roast pork being greedily devoured by the clients. Now here is some flesh I can appreciate.
Feeling hungry myself, I saw down to eat the lunch I had brought with me from Madrid: a salami sandwich. Life is less romantic when you’re on a budget.
Munich is both the capital and the largest city of Bavaria. And with a population of about 1.5 million, it is only behind Berlin and Hamburg within Germany for size. Though now one of the quintessentially Germany cities, many of Munich’s most prosperous years occured when the city was not a part of Germany. The region’s Catholic majority has always put it somewhat at odds with the Protestant north of Germany, making it a stronghold for the Counter-Reformation rather than Luther’s Reformation. After suffering Swedish and Habsburg domination, Bavaria emerged once again as an independent kingdom in 1805, with Munich as its capital. And even after Bismark unified the German states, in 1871, Bavaria retained its kingdom and special privileges. It was only the defeat of Germany in World War I that put an end to the rule of the Wittelsbach dynasty.
In the aftermath of the Great War, during the unstable Weimar Republic, Munich became the base of the rising Nazi movement. It was in this city where Hitler attempted his infamous Beer Hall Putsch of 1923—so-called because it began with the storming the Bürgerbräukeller, a beer cellar—in which the Nazis attempted to take control of Bavaria by force. The putsch was a fiasco, poorly planned and quickly put down, and it resulted in Hitler being sent to jail—though he was given an extremely light sentence by sympathetic judges. The experience taught Hitler to seek power through official channels rather than by a coup, which he did successfully ten years later. Once in power, Hitler turned the ridiculous putsch into a national myth, treating the fallen Nazi roughnecks as martyrs. History is invented by the victors. Munich played another infamous role during the leadup to World War II, being the place where Neville Chamberlain, in 1938, officially agreed to cede parts of Czechoslovakia (without consulting the Czechoslovaks) to Nazi Germany, in an attempt to appease Germany.
One of my regrets from my Munich visit was not visiting the Documentation Center, which presents this ugly history to the public. The center opened quite recently, on April 30th of 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the city’s capture by the Allies; and it looks excellent.
After wandering around the English Gardens for a few hours, it was time to check into my Airbnb. I was staying with a German family in the suburbs of the city. They were nothing but kind and helpful, and I had an excellent stay. But I was amused at how many rules there were in the house—when to take a shower, where to leave your shoes, what do you can on the Wifi (I had to sign a contract for the internet). The bathroom was like a museum, covered in little laminated signs that gave directions from everything from the shower to the toilet. It all struck me as very “German.” But I did not have time to be indulging in stereotypes. I had a city to explore.
Perhaps the most iconic spot in Munich is neither a palace nor a church, neither a museum nor a monument, but a brewery and beer hall: the Staatliches Hofbräuhaus. This was my first stop. As its name indicates (“Public Court Brewery”), the beer hall is state-owned and traces its origin to Bavarian nobility—specifically, to Wilhelm V, Duke of Bavaria, all the way back in 1589. Owning your own brewery is convenient, since you can brew to your taste and use legislation to create a profitable monopoly, which is exactly what the Dukes of Bavaria did. Even before the Hofbräuhaus was opened the Bavarians instituted their famous purity laws, restricting the ingredients that could be used in beer to three: water, barley, and hops. They did not know about yeast back then, so they didn’t include it; but obviously without yeast beer wouldn’t have any alcohol.
The brewery is enormous and still very successful, despite losing its lordly masters. From the outside it doesn’t look like much; but walking through the door, one finds an enormous series of rooms, filled with wooden benches and tables, with waiters running right and left and families and friends lifting enormous mugs to their mouths. In English these are mistakenly called “steins,” which properly only refers to stone mugs, and that only in English. (“Stein” means “stone” in German and doesn’t refer to mugs.) In German it is called a Maßkrug, or simply a Maß. It contains a full liter of beer, as your wrist and then stomach and then bladder will testify to.
Although I felt uncomfortable since I was traveling alone, I decided to walk in and try the famous Germanic liquid. As I made my way to the back room to find a seat, I passed the house band, an ensemble of brass instruments playing jaunty Bavarian music with polka rhythms. It suites the atmosphere. I found a seat at a bench with an older couple—it’s common to share tables. Service was surprisingly prompt, and soon I was faced with my own liter of beer. Gingerly, I sipped it, and then had a gulp: it was good but not exceptional. Feeling somewhat awkward and out of place, I did the responsible thing and downed the beer as quickly as possible in order to leave. Fortified and dizzy, I was ready to explore Munich.
The city center of Munich, like nearly all major German cities, was largely blown to smithereens during the Second World War by British and American bombs. Its reconstruction, however, was both carefully complete and faithful to the destroyed city, following the old medieval city streets. As a result Munich maintains the look and feel of a pristinely historic city. This is especially true of the Marienplatz, Munich’s central square, which is easily one of the most attractive plazas I have seen in Europe. It takes its name from the Virgin Mary, who stands on a column in the center of the square, as a shimmering golden statue. Presiding over this square is the Neues Rathaus, or New Town Hall, built in the 1870s because the old one was too small. Constructed in a glorious neo-gothic style, it is easily among the finest town-halls I have seen in Europe, only rivalled by the ones in Brussels and Vienna—which, not coincidentally, served as its inspiration.
It is a short walk from this square to the Asamkirche, the most beautiful church in the city. It takes its name from the brothers who built it as their private chapel: Egid Quirin Asam, a sculptor, and Cosmas Damian Asam, a painter. The church is wedged between their apartments; indeed Egid could look through his window at the altar. Built by themselves for their own pleasure and salvation, and with their own resources, the two brother artists had considerable creative freedom. The result was a masterpiece of design. The church is gorgeous—sumptuously decorated, harmoniously composed. Pictures do not do justice to the feeling of sitting inside the church, getting deeply absorbed in the Baroque decoration, enjoying the play of color and form that covers every surface.
The oldest church in the city is the Peterskirche, or St. Peter’s Church. Its fairly unassuming exterior gives way to a harmonious interior, with whitewashed walls and gilded statues, pleasingly pure and sweet. After being rebuffed from the church once—they were having mass—I returned to find that there was a free organ concert going on. This was the first trip in which I kept a diary, so I will include an excerpt of what I wrote as I sat there and listened to the performance:
The organ is overpowering when at full blast. Is this what it would have been like to listen to Bach? … I think I heard a tritone. Blasphemy! The organ has such a wide variety of timbres. Subdued, muted, to ringing, reedy, piercing, to clear, flutelike, to rumbling, to screeching.
The piece was the “Salve Regina” by Olivier Latry, a fairly unknown work that, nevertheless, I found to be powerfully enchanting and even otherworldly.
Munich’s Catholic cathedral is the Frauenkirche, and its two towers, topped with distinctive domes, are visible from far and wide because of the city’s regulation restricting height limits. Like the Peterskirche, the cathedral has whitewashed walls and is even more plainly decorated. The most striking object on display is the marvelous cenotaph of Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor from 1328 to 1347, which is defended by statues of soldiers and knights. Many other members of the Wittelsbach dynasty are buried here, too—including Ludwig III, the last king of Bavaria—though their graves are not as eye-catching.
Germany, in general, is not terribly expensive. Indeed it is only slightly pricier, on average, than easygoing Spain. But Munich is an exception to this; it is a wealthy city, with a high standard of life, and so visitors must pay their tribute to the Bavarian gods. One testament to the city’s affluence are the cars on the street. Now, I am not particularly fond of cars; I don’t even like driving; so you know that the roads must have been striking for me to take notice. There were high-quality cars—mostly of German make, though not exclusively—everywhere I turned. Stranger still, 90% of these cars were either white, grey, or black—very few were an actual color. When I first noticed this, I waved it away as mere coincidence; but the more I looked, the more I became convinced that Münchners have a marked preference for grayscale locomotion.
It does make sense that Munich would have an eye-catching automobile population, considering that it is the home of one of Germany’s iconic car brands, BMW. There is even a BMW museum in Munich, near the glass tower that houses the company’s headquarters. Again, not being particularly interested in cars, I didn’t go. But you are welcome to.
Munich in general struck me—according to my diary—as a very “European city,” at times reminding me of Pisa, at times of Toulouse, at times of Avila. Old city centers all come to resemble one another after a while. But that does not mean they become any less attractive; and Munich is quite lovely to stroll around, with its medieval layout providing enough variation, and its rows of buildings tall and tasteful, with old and new styles coexisting peacefully. I saw quite a few bachelor and bachelorette parties on the streets—wearing matching hats and shirts, with the bride- or groom-to-be in a silly costume—whose presence inevitably means that you are in a major tourist center. Yet the city has a life of its own, not succumbing completely to tourist bric a brac, but maintaining a strong identity in spite of its cosmopolitan orientation.
One spot stands out for special mention as a walking area, and that is the Königplatz. It is an open green space surrounded by fine neoclassical buildings, very convincing imitations of Greco-Roman structures. Originally built by Ludwig I to house his Greco-Roman statues, this attractive group of classical structures in a big open space proved ideally suited to Hitler’s purposes, which is why he used the Königplatz to hold mass rallies, and even added two more neoclassical buildings to house the remains of the Beer Hall Putsch “martyrs.” The American army tastefully blew these up in 1947. Nearby is the Lenbachhaus, Munich’s most famous art gallery, which has an excellent collection of Der Blaue Reiter (“The Blue Rider”), Munich’s influential expressionist group of artists formed in 1911.
Munich’s role as the capital of the kingdom of Bavaria explains why the city has three palaces (of which I visited two, missing the Schleissheim). The Schloss Nymphenburg is situated somewhat outside the city, but can be gotten to easily with the tram. It was used as a summer residence by the Bavarian royals; and, indeed, the current head of House Wittelsbach, Franz, sometimes lives in this castle—though nowadays he has no power, ceremonial or otherwise. Currently 84 years old, he survived imprisonment in two Nazi concentration camps (the Wittelsbachs were anti-Nazi), and is technically a claimant to the throne of the United Kingdom, though he prefers not to talk about that.
From the outside the palace is ample though not imposing, sweeping across a wide area though not rising to any considerable height. Since I am normally not fond of palaces—all showiness and no substance—I skipped the interior and went straight to the gardens, which are vast and charming. The garden was first of Italian design, then French, and finally English. The Italian style emphasizes symmetry and order; the French style is similarly orderly, but expanded to a monumental scale and filled with ornate fountains. The English style, by contrast, is Romantic: striving to keep some of the ruggedness of nature. This last modification was planned by Friedrich Ludwig von Sckell, who also did much of the work on Munich’s English Gardens. The man was clearly brilliant, since the Nymphenburg gardens are just as enjoyable to walk around, with its long central canal flanked by forest, through which paths wend their way. It is a successful combination of planned and spontaneous design.
A significantly larger palace can be found right in the center of Munich itself: the Munich Residence. Like nearly everything in this city, the palace was badly damaged during World War II, but has been reconstructed—for the most part faithfully, though at times in simplified form. This might account for the strange sterility I sensed when I visited, feeling that the place seemed unused. Added to this, the audioguide was mainly descriptive—explaining a room’s form and function—without providing any historical context. So I toured the palace without knowing who used it, or when. But in its heyday, under the Wittelsbachs, the palace certainly was used, as even the reconstructed version proves.
Right upon entry I came upon a marvelous fountain made of shells, wonderfully bizarre and ornate. Also memorable was the hall of ancestors, with rococo decorations surroundings portraits of all the Wittelsbach heads, tracing the family back all the way back to Charlemagne himself. (Claiming to be descended from important people is an easy way to seem special.) Even grander is the Renaissance Antiquarium, whose ceiling is decorated with allegories of the seven virtues, surrounded by grotesque decorations inspired by the discoveries at Pompeii. This room was created for the very important purpose of storing and displaying classical busts, and it performs that function marvelously. I also remember a beautiful little chapel, with a blue gilded roof, and a floor and walls of the finest marble. There is also a famous theater, apparently, which I somehow missed. As for the rest, I will let my diary speak:
The royal apartments themselves, with the antechambers, dressing rooms, throne room, bed room, and so on, were exquisite, and yet produced the now-familiar feeling of disgust with so much wealth.
This is not to say that the palace is not worth visiting. To the contrary, I enjoyed the visit far more than I expected. You even get to see some of the royal jewels and treasury, and some of the ceramics produced for the royal family. The seashell fountain alone is worth the price of admission.
Although I didn’t visit it, I would be negligent if I did not mention the Neuschwanstein Castle. An almost painfully picturesque palace, sitting atop a hill and looking straight out of a children’s book, the Neuschwanstein Castle is about two hours by car from Munich and a very popular day trip.
The story of the castle’s creation is wonderful. Rather than serving any military or governmental function, the castle was the pet project of Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, who was overly fond of Wagner’s operas, and so sought to create a building that embodied the mythical world of Wagner’s heroes and vikings. Unfortunately for him, he did not have the money to see his project to completion, and so used the very convenient recourse of getting heavily into debt. This naturally upset his ministers—who also would have preferred to see him govern rather than indulge in architectural fantasies—who ultimately had the king declared insane and unfit to govern, and then arrested. Shortly after being apprehended, the deposed king took a walk with his psychologist; minutes later the two of them were found dead, floating in shallow water. It is still unclear what happened. He is buried in Munich, in St. Michael’s Church. When it is not horrifying, German history can be quite whimsical.
The train from Vigo left the station, traveled around the bay’s edge, and then turned south on its voyage to Oporto. I was vainly trying to read Hegel. Through the window I could see the Galician landscape, green and woody; then the tracks took us along the ocean shore, showing us the waves lapping the sand. It was not a high speed train and so the relatively short voyage took three hours.
The border between Portugal and Spain is almost imperceptible. In the north it follows the path of the River Miño, a relatively small waterway that could never have been a serious impediment to travel. In the south, there isn’t even a river. It makes me wonder how such a notable contrast in culture and language arose in the first place.
Immediately across the border is the Portuguese town of Valença, which is known for its baroque fortress overlooking the river, bulwarked by polygonal walls and trenches. Further on we passed by the town of Barcelos, which has a well-preserved medieval center and bridge. Finally the train creaked to a halt in its final destination:
With around 300,000 inhabitants, Oporto is the second-largest city in Portugal and the urban center of the country’s northern half. Its real name in Portuguese is Porto. “O” is the Portuguese word for “the,” and “porto” means “port,” so that the name “Oporto” is just “the port” mistakenly transcribed. In any case, the name is appropriate, considering the city’s maritime orientation. Situated along the banks of the River Douro, the fishing and shipping industry have been important to the city since Roman times.
The most beautiful views of the city are to be found along this river, as the banks slope steeply down to the water, and the city follows like tumbling dice. Across this divide the two halves of the city are connected with a series of towering bridges. Among the newer bridges is the Arrábida Bridge, which had the biggest concrete arch in the world when it opened in 1963 (I don’t know what has surpassed it); and there is the sleekly modern São João railroad bridge, which eschews the arch for a wavy line suspended on two pillars.
But the most beautiful bridge in Oporto is the Ponte Dom Luis I. This bridge is sometimes confused with the nearby Maria Pia Bridge—a railroad bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel—and for good reason, since the two look very similar. This is not accidental, of course, since the Ponte Dom Luis I was designed by the engineer Théophile Seyrig, one of Eiffel’s disciples. The main difference between Seyrig’s bridge and Eiffel’s is the former’s lower deck; and this feature is extremely convenient, since it means that pedestrians and drivers near the river don’t have to ascend the banks to use the bridge. This was the second innovative bridge I have seen by one of Eiffel’s disciples, the first being the Vizcaya Bridge near Bilbao. Both of these, as well as Eiffel’s own bridge, are models of elegant design, combining function and style.
At the time the bridge was completed, it was the largest of its type in the world; and still today it is an impressive structure, standing 85 meters (279 feet) tall. Nowadays cars (and people) can cross the Ponte Dom Luis I on the lower deck, while the upper deck is reserved for pedestrians and the tram. The top of the bridge offers, without a doubt, the best view of the city, showing the antique city center crowded along the riverbanks, their orange roofs glowing in the sunlight, while ships cruise by in the sparkling water below. On one side of the river, a medieval wall still clings to hillside; and beyond one can see the tower of Oporto’s cathedral, and the still more impressive Clérigos Tower in the distance. The courtyard of Serra do Pilar monastery presides over the bridge’s other end, creating a satisfying symmetry.
Oporto has much to offer in the way of churches. The city’s cathedral is a sparse but elegant Romanesque structure, with a narrow nave supported by a barrel vault. Not far from here is the Church of Santo Ildefonso, with a façade of the blue tiles that are such a pleasing aspect of Portuguese architecture. The aforementioned Clérigos Church sits on a narrow block; and though its ornate Baroque decoration is impressive, it is hard to pay attention to anything but its massive bell tower on its back end, so tall as to be visible from many points of the city. But any list of churches is bound to come up short; every time I walked to a new part of town, I was surprised to find stately and grand church buildings.
One church does stick out in my memory, however, and that is the Church of São Francisco. From the outside it does not look like much: a sliver of gothic windows can be seen from the back, while the entrances of the building complex are all crowded around a little square. Nevertheless, this modest structure is the best-preserved gothic building in the city, which is one of the reasons it was designated as UNESCO World Heritage.
The church’s somewhat unassuming exterior gives way to a detonation of art once the pilgrim passes through the door. Here Baroque is triumphant, covering every surface with intricate designs and elaborate sculptures, flowering forth like spring trees. Every altar showcases a cacophony of forms, overwhelming the viewer with fine details; my favorite is the magnificent altar showing the Tree of Jesse, the family tree extending from the father of King David down to the Virgin. I can understand why some may be put off by the richness of the decoration; but I am always impressed by such excess. The eye struggles in vain to take it all in; and finally I turn away, defeated.
Another unforgettable section of the church are its crypts. Wealthy patrons of the Franciscan Order (to whom this church belonged) chose to be buried here, in catacombs accessible through an adjacent building. It is an eerie space, shadowy and cold, illuminated by fiery yellow lights. Most hair-raising are the piles of human bones visible through openings in the floor. These are the common graves of the Franciscan brothers, I believe, accumulated over hundreds of years.
The Church of São Francisco was originally part of a convent, complete with an adjoining cloisters; but during Portugal’s Liberal Wars (1828-34), a fire destroyed most of the convent. This unfortunate destruction at least allowed space for the city’s Commercial Association to build their lovely Palácio da Bolsa, or Stock Exchange Palace, in its place.
The neoclassical building that now stands is a veritable church of finance. To visit one must join a guided tour, which is no bad thing; my guide did an excellent job explaining the history and art of the structure. We began in the Patio das Nações, or the Courtyard of Nations, so-called because of the paintings of the coats-of-arms of various countries with which Portugal does business. On one wall I even spotted the eagle of the United States. As in a real palace, every room, even the stairwell, is lavishly decorated; yet unlike a palace, the iconography is calculated to glorify commercial exploits. Here we can see, manifested in stucco and stone, the wealthy bourgeois usurping royalty as the dominant force in the country.
I particularly remember the Sala das Assembleias, the merchant equivalent of the throne room, all of it decorated in fake lacquered wood (actually the “wood” is painted on) and filled with elegant furniture. Yet the most marvelous room in the building is without doubt the Arab Room, an enormous space whose walls are decorated in a Neo-Mudéjar style, imitating the stucco patterns of the Alhambra, yet adding ostentatious colors to the mix. If the Commercial Association wanted to impress visitors with their splendor, they did an excellent job.
If you have even a passing taste for wine, it is criminal to visit Oporto without going to at least one winery. The city is, of course, the home and namesake of Port wine; and there are several well-known wineries located across the river. In case you are not familiar with Port, this is a dark, red, and sweet fortified wine—about 20% alcohol by volume—that is normally drunk with dessert.
This wine has historically been very popular in England, largely thanks to the Methuen Treaty of 1703, which lowered import tariffs on Portuguese products while war with France made French vintages an impossibility across the channel. For this reason, too, some of the most prominent Port companies are owned by British families, such as the one I visited, Taylor’s. The visit consisted of a self-guided tour, with a tasting at the end. What most sticks out in my memory were the photographs of the terraced banks of the River Douro, the mighty river whose misty climate provides the home for the grapes.
The most famous dish of Oporto is the francesihna, which must be seen to be believed. Though its name means “little Frenchie” in Portuguese, it is neither little nor French. It is a double-decker sandwich, whose bread struggles to contain ham, sausages, and roast pork. Smothered with melted cheese, and perhaps a fried egg for good measure, the sandwich is then bathed in a tomato-beer sauce and placed in a bed of French fries, where it awaits its fate. By happenstance I stumbled upon a small restaurant called Bufeta Fase, which has great reviews and correspondingly great francesihnas. When I went the place was full of Portuguese people, which is a good sign.
My belly full of port and francesihna, I felt that I had better take a long walk. I decided that I would try to go all the way from the city center to the ocean port, following the course of the river. This course led me through the most attractive neighborhood in the city, the Ribeira, full of colorful houses arranged in a jumble along the river. On the other side of the river you can see some of the old boats that were used to transport the wine in the days before technology made our lives easier and less romantic. Nowadays the main cargo transported on the River Douro are tourists on ferries.
The walk to the port is long and passes through some nondescript areas, until gradually the city simmers down into town, and the ocean begins to take shape before you. Eventually I was walking past small houses and docks full of personal fishing boats. The other side of the port is dominated by an attractive sandy bay, now a natural park. I arrived at the Carneiro beach just as the sun was dipping below the horizon, lighting up the ocean a fiery red. I walked to the lighthouse, which sits on a boardwalk that extends like a concrete arm into the water, and then turned wearily back home. Now I had to do it all in reverse.
This concluded my time in Oporto. As an afterthought, I would also like to include a note on the Portuguese language. Etymologically and grammatically, it is the closest Romance language to Spanish. For this reason any Spaniard can read basic Portuguese with little trouble. But spoken Portuguese—at least in Portugal—could hardly be more distinct. Indeed, to an untrained ear it hardly sounds like a Romance language at all, but rather Slavic, not only in its consonants and vowels, but even its spoken rhythm.
Apparently one reason for this perceived difference is because the Portuguese spoken in Portugal (as opposed to that spoken in Brazil) is stress-timed, which means that unstressed syllables are deemphasized to preserve a fairly constant gap between stressed syllables; whereas Spanish is a syllable-timed language, so every syllable, stressed or unstressed, takes up roughly the same amount of time. English is a stress-timed language, too, which perhaps helps to explain why Portuguese people are notably better than the Spanish at speaking English. I have had no trouble getting by in Portugal using English; even in small shops outside the city center people have spoken remarkably well. I have also been told that, unlike the Spanish, who often dub movies and shows, the Portuguese watch everything with the original audio—which would help explain the performance gap.
I also must note that, as soon as the you get out of the tourist center, you can still see signs of Portugal’s economic crisis. Buildings are in poor repair or entirely in ruins, and the streets are seldom buzzing with life. The recovery has been slow indeed. And when you see that, behind the numbers and charts, there are ordinary people who have suffered from the downturn, you can get a sense of the anger and despair that the institutional status quo can engender.
Having some extra time in Oporto I decided that I would venture out and explore a smaller town. This led me to Oporto’s central train station, São Bento, which is itself worth visiting for the tile-work in the main lobby depicting scenes from Portuguese history. My destination was Aveiro, recommended to me by a Spanish teacher.
The city of Aveiro is largely famous for its canals, which is why it has been nicknamed the “Venice of Portugal.” These waterways are a pretty sight, with colorful gondolas cruising by, each of them filled with tourists covered in baseball caps and sunglasses, snapping photo after photo. Even without the canals, the town would be attractive for its many colorful tiled building—a style called “azulejo,” which combined form and function, since the tiles decorate while helping to keep the building cool.
With a busy and beautiful port, and a thriving tourist industry, Aveiro is one of the most affluent areas in the country. The economy is quite diversified, as many locals work in salt extraction plants; and the city also contains one of Portugal’s more important universities. In many ways the city is an oasis.
Nevertheless I managed to get into a sour mood shortly after I arrived. Though I love to travel, the sight of shops selling tourist knickknacks, the sound of American families bickering as they walk by, the overpriced and inauthentic restaurants with gaudy décor, the attractions that entertain but do not instruct—in short, travel conceived of alternately as a resort or as an amusement park—makes me feel bitter and out of place. Unless I am learning something, then it is hard for me to justify going to another country; if I want fun, I might as well stay at home and have a beer.
I cannot say that this sour mood is either fair or rational; nor is it pleasant. To escape from the crowds and clear my head, I walked out towards the port. This has been divided with a series of narrow land-bridges, making the area into a kind of marsh, with pockets of water divided like fields of wheat. Frankly I don’t know the purpose of this arrangement; but the result is fascinating and beautiful.
I kept walking and walking, until I lost myself in the labyrinths of land and water. There were little buildings out in these marshes, and a few old boats floating in the water; yet nobody seemed to be around. Soon I was so far out that I could forget about Aveiro. A peaceful silence hung in the atmosphere. The air was clear, except for swarms of tiny, harmless gnats that buzzed in circles to no apparent purpose. As I rounded a bend I was surprised to find a flock of flamingos lounging in the water. They were no less surprised to find me, and soon took off, flapping their enormous wings with impressive alacrity, disappearing from sight in a matter of seconds. They are magnificent beasts.
The further out I went, the more elated I felt, savoring the joy of being alone with nature. Yet my joy turned to anxiety as I began to worry that I couldn’t find my way back. A few wrong turns led me to dead ends, where the land bridges terminated in water, forcing me to retrace my steps through the tall grass. A couple times I missed my footing and almost slipped into the water. I imagined what the news would say if I drowned in the marshes of Aveiro: “Dumb American Tourist Gets Lost in Portuguese Bay.”
After three or four moments of fear, despair, and self-reproach, I successfully retraced my own steps and found my way back to solid land. Refreshed, rejuvenated, and greatly relieved, I walked back to the train station to get back to Oporto. Do not let my sour mood dissuade you. Aveiro is a beautiful place, both the town itself and the surrounding area.
This was my final day of Holy Week vacation. The next day I flew back to Madrid, and to work, feeling more at peace than I have ever felt before or since.
I went to Toulouse because the flight was cheap. I had a long weekend in mid-May—thanks to the local fiesta—and nothing planned; so I checked Skyscanner for the cheapest flights available. Toulouse was the clear winner. Off to France I went.
One reason the flight was cheap is because Toulouse is so close to Spain, about two hours by car from the Pyrenees. Perhaps another reason is that the city is the center of Europe’s aerospace industry. Why this should be, I cannot say, but Toulouse hosts the headquarters of several prominent companies and is at the center of the so-called Aerospace Valley in southern France. The fourth-largest city in the country, Toulouse is also an administrative center, being the capital of Occitanie. This region of France has historically been quite linguistically diverse, incorporating French speakers, Catalan speakers, and also Occitan speakers (sometimes called langue d’oc). It is a city with a past and a future.
A metro helpfully connects the airport to the city center, making the journey into town painless and even pleasant. Getting to and from the airport can sometimes be a headache—either expensive, convoluted, or both—so it is a relief when the authorities remove this obstacle. From there I still had quite a walk, however, since in the interest of cheapness—my guiding angel—I booked an Airbnb far outside of the center. Admittedly, I could have taken a bus; but the weather was nice and I felt like seeing the town.
The walk led me up an attractive avenue, under a triumphal arch, and into a little park, where there is a charming fountain featuring the dashing Pèire Godolin, an Occitan poet from the sixteenth century. From here I still had a long ways to go, passing through the city center, over the lovely Garonne River, and then over a little canal. Proceeding on this way, I could see why Toulouse is called “The Pink City” by the French, since so many buildings use distinctive, pinkish bricks.
Upon arrival, I discovered that my host did not speak a word of English. As my French is similarly nonexistent, I expected conversation to be pretty stale. But with the aid of Google translate he invited me to have dinner with him and his sister. I accepted, and spent the meal eating, drinking, and smiling, while the two of them talked. It was surprisingly enjoyable. He even invited me for dinner the next day, which proceeded in a similar fashion. My initial discomfort from being unable to communicate turned into real delight in the food and company, and shame for not being able to properly express my thanks for such generosity.
When I woke up the next day, my host was in the living room watching TV. Emmanuel Macron was taking part in the inauguration ceremonies. To the world’s relief, he had just beaten Marine Le Pen and her National Front party, stemming the tide of right-wing populism. Though ignorant of his politics, I was happy to see the young man stepping up to France’s highest office. My host seemed ambivalent; he did not like Le Pen, but he wasn’t too keen on Macron either.
I first visited the city’s most iconic monument, the Basilica of Saint-Sernin. This is a massive hulk of a building; indeed it is the biggest Romanesque building in the world. For many reasons, Romanesque architectural methods are not as conducive to tall buildings as Gothic techniques. The barrel vault and the rounded arch do not distribute weight as efficiently as their Gothic counterparts; and no flying buttresses help to support the weight of the walls. Nevertheless, the Basilica of Saint-Sernin rivals any gothic cathedral in its dimensions. The bell-tower is especially impressive, standing 64 meters (over 200 feet) above the ground, on five levels of arches. Perhaps the church was built on such a large scale is because of the many pilgrims who stopped here on the Camino de Santiago, of which Toulouse was an important stop; indeed its historic connection with that pilgrimage is why the basilica was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Toulouse’s cathedral is a far less majestic structure. Formed from the unification of two incomplete churches, everything about the structure is irregular. The floorplan does not follow the usual cruciform since the two axes are out of alignment. Styles juxtapose, sometimes discordantly, both inside and outside the cathedral; and the visitor is left a little puzzled. Much more pleasing is the Church of the Jacobites. Its influential design uses brick walls and central columns, which branch out like palm trees into the ribbed vaulting, to support the tall roof. Its gaping stained-glass windows provide the space with an ethereal glow. For a price the visitor can visit the peaceful cloisters next door. Though I did not know it at the time, the relics of St. Thomas Aquinas, the famous theologian, are located here.
One thing I soon noticed—and then cursed—is that food in France is notably more expensive than it is in Spain. This is true in Toulouse, even though it is so close to the border, and even though many of the ingredients in the supermarkets come from Spain. I suppose taxes must be the explanation. Indeed, it was not very far from here, at Le Boulou, where angry French vinters (perhaps inspired after having read A Tale of Two Cities) stopped trucks transporting Spanish wine and spilled it onto the highway. Spain has very low taxes on wine, and fewer restrictions regarding the production of it, which is why it is so much cheaper. The Gallic wine makers considered the competition unfair, and did what all oppressed French people do: make the streets run red. In any case, for those looking for an affordable but elegant French meal, the Restaurant Le May is the best choice that I found in Toulouse.
If you have not eaten too much, you can pass the time by walking through the Jardin des Plantes, the city’s attractive central park. Another pleasant walk is along the city’s Canal de Brienne, attractively shaded with rows of trees.
Perhaps the nicest walking area along the Garonne River, observing the pretty brick buildings and their watery reflections. I spent some time sitting on the park by the water, trying to get through Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History; and I am happy to report that the pleasant surroundings helped to offset the boredom induced by the book’s dry tone. From the riverside you can also observe the city’s attractive Pont Neuf, or “new bridge”—which is not very new, considering it was built 500 years ago. One thing from the riverside that particularly sticks out in my memory is a public toilet that completely washed itself after every use. Once the door was shut, it would lock, and swishing and spraying sounds could be heard on the other side. After about three minutes it would unlock, and the visitor could step into a sterilized and slightly wet bathroom. The future is here.
The benefits of visiting a city that is not a major tourist destination is that you see more snatches of daily life. Walking along one day, I stumbled upon a kind of public exercises routine, with a woman on stage guiding a crowd of people through calisthenics. Such things remind me of those silly eighties dancercise videos—either that, or the scene in 1984 when Wilson has to do coordinated exercises with the telescreen. Later that day, as I walked in a park along the river, I noticed that someone had set up loudspeakers and couples were engaged in ballroom dance. Without a partner, I did not join in. At dinner with my host, as he was in the kitchen preparing lasagna, one of his friends started on a passionate declaration of her love of electronic music, and promptly turned on her music to full volume. This was fine with me, since I could barely understand what anyone said anyway.
Though I had plenty of time in Toulouse, I did not exhaust everything there is to see. My major regret is not going to the Hôtel d’Assézat, a beautiful Renaissance palace that houses the Bemberg Foundation. This is an art gallery formed from the private collection of Georges Bemberg, a wealthy so-and-so who had a fine eye in addition to a deep purse. Among the works on display are some by Titian, Tintoretto, Picasso, Braque, and Signac. If I am ever in the neighborhood again I will be sure to visit.
But I did visit one museum that far exceeded my expectations: the Musée des Augustins. Its name comes from the building’s history as an Augustine monastery. The secularizing turmoils of the French Revolution put an end to that; and shortly thereafter, in 1801, it became a museum, displaying a collection that mostly came from confiscated monasteries. While this was undoubtedly unfortunate for the monks, it has benefitted the tourist, since now there is a large museum in a historical building in the heart of the city.
The museum itself is attractive for its gothic architecture and its cloisters wrapping around green gardens. Its extensive collection consists of both sculpture and painting. Personally I found the former to be more impressive, especially the Romanesque works on display. Indeed, I would rank the Musée des Augustins along with the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, in Barcelona, for the quality and quantity of Romanesque sculpture. The Occitan and Catalan region is particularly rich in this style, it seems.
My favorite room in the museum is the one exhibiting Romanesque capitals. Each one stands on a pillar, at eye level; and over each a glass light hangs down. I spent about twenty minutes in the room, examining each one, savoring the powerful simplicity of the sculptures. Western art most closely approached Mesopotamian during this time, with stylized figures and symbolic poses, each one a blend of decoration, poetry, and architecture. There are intricate patterns made from vegetable and animal motifs; there are religious figures, like the apostles and the Virgin; and there are scenes from life—people eating, playing instruments, rowing a boat. On these capitals an entire way of life and worldview seems to be inscribed.
There are some fine gothic sculptures on display as well. My favorite is the long row of gargoyle dogs, standing along a hallway, who seem to be howling into infinity. In another room is a collection of surprisingly lifelike figures, who are dressed in typical Medieval European clothes, even though they are supposed to represent Biblical personages. In a wide room, which I believe used to hold a church, there are dozens of works on display—tombs, busts, and bronze casts. Here the Virgin sits with Christ, there St. Michael is smiting Satan, and over here Mercury is delivering a message.
After such an embarrassment of riches, I hardly expected to find such an enormous painting gallery. As in the Louvre, the paintings cover the walls up the ceilings, meaning that many are far above eye-level. This makes for an impressive first-glance, but detracts from the experience of the art. Though the collection is extensive, and includes works from Dutch, Italian, and Spanish painters, what most sticks out in my memory are the many neoclassical French paintings to be found. Typically I find these paintings charming but forgettable; though some rise beyond this, such as Jean-André Rixens’s Death of Cleopatra.
This wraps up my visit to Toulouse. The next day I woke up very early, walked through town—over the canal, through the park, down the lane—back to the metro stop to take me back to the airport. As I watched the French countryside recede from the plane window, feeling happy and satisfied, I decided that Toulouse would still be worth visiting even if the flights weren’t quite so cheap.
A train trip brought me from A Coruña, at Galicia’s northern tip, to the region’s southwestern edge: Vigo. The city sits on the southern side of a sizable estuary, the Ría de Vigo, which makes for an excellent port. This, and the city’s advantageous position on the Atlantic, has rendered it the commercial hub of Galicia.
The city’s name comes from Latin, vicus spacorum, or “small village,” as the Romans had a fortress here. A legend tells that Isabel the Catholic, after winning a battle against the Galician nobility, ordered all the olive trees in the region to be uprooted; but one stubborn tree in Vigo resisted. Thus the city’s nickname is La ciudad olívica, or “The Olive City” (though I don’t remember seeing any olive trees); and the city’s coat of arms features the famously resistant plant.
As I had just left A Coruña, that city of glass balconies and open parks, Vigo could not help but strike me as grey and industrial by comparison. The biggest city in Galicia by population, Vigo has a busy port and a thriving shipping business. It is a city of working people, with the architecture to match. Even its historic center gives the impression of being somewhat run-down and neglected.
Nevertheless, a walk through the city was not without its visual pleasures. In one traffic circle, a column of metal horses ascended into the air. Empty factory buildings—the windows smashed, the walls vandalized—foregrounded a splendid ocean view. As I walked along the port I observed the slumbering ships and the skeletal cranes standing by, the gateway to an ocean world I barely know.
I want to pause to single out the Bar Carballo for special praise. I ate there twice, and both times was totally satisfied. The tortilla de patata is perfectly creamy, and the empanadillas—meat-filled pastries—are easily the tastiest I have ever tried. Best of all, the food is extremely filling and cheap. If I lived in Vigo I would be a regular.
Eventually my walk along the port led me out of the city center. Soon I found myself surrounded by a tree-filled park, which then opened up to reveal Vigo’s massive beach, the Praia de Samil. The sand extends 1,115 meters, or almost a mile; and on the day I went, in mid-April, it was totally covered with people.
I must admit that beaches inspire mixed feeling in me. On the one hand there is the natural beauty—conspicuous in the Praia de Samil, with its views of the Cíes Islands. There is also the human spectacle of beachgoers, which cannot but tickle the fancy of anyone with anthropological curiosity. On the other hand I feel uncomfortable in the face of so much exposed flesh, frying in the sun. And the sublimity of the winds and the waves is, for me, disturbed by the legions of people yelling, running, splashing, and playing games. In sum, I like to observe beaches but I do not like being on them. This is in marked contrast to most Spaniards, of course, who generally love beach holidays. And thank heavens they do, since their country has some of the finest beaches in the world.
Speaking of fine beaches, Vigo is home to a beach even lovelier than the Praia de Samil: the Praia das Rodas. Indeed, in 2007 The Guardian even proclaimed this beach the best in the world. But to get there you must take a ferry, since it is on the Cíes Islands that sit in the estuary a few kilometers off shore. These three islands are Monteadugo (“sharp mountain”), Montefaro (“lighthouse mountain”), and San Martiño (“Saint Martin”). The first two essentially form one continuous island, since they are connected by their shared beach.
With an area of 4.4 square km, and an official population of three (the guards), the islands have never been important human settlements. But it is an important seagull settlement—in fact providing a home for the largest colony of seagulls in the world. Aside from the beaches, the surface of the island is mostly covered with eucalyptus and pine trees, blowing in the strong ocean winds. And I have read that the whales and sharks enjoy prowling in the water surrounding the islands—though I did not see any gargantuan backs or ominous fins emerging from the waves on my trip.
Due to the islands’ small size and status as a nature reserve, the number of visitors per day is strictly limited to 2,200 people. Thus I recommend booking a spot on a ferry in advance. (I should also note that these ferry companies only operate during Holy Week, when I went, or in the summer months.) But do yourself a favor and give yourself more time on the islands than I did. Thinking that they were small enough to see in a couple of hours, I only gave myself a short window with which to explore the islands; and the ferry company did not let me change my return time. I did have enough time to see everything, but no time to simply sit and enjoy the justly famous beach.
I arrived at the port, picked up my ticket from the booth, and boarded the ferry. The trip lasted about fifteen minutes, which was enough time to give half of everyone on board a sunburn. As we approached the islands, the Praia das Rodas came into view. It was almost as lovely as The Guardian’s rapturous description: “a perfect crescent of soft, pale sand backed by small dunes sheltering a calm lagoon of crystal-clear sea.”
The lagoon referred to is a feature of the beach’s location between two islands: Water laps the shore on both sides of the sand, the one open to the ocean, the other sheltered with a stone walkway that breaks the waves. I would think that this situation could easily lead to erosion, moving or even destroying the beach; but what do I know about these matters?
Aside from its terrific natural beauty—the water as blue as a postcard, the sand pretty enough to star in a movie—the beach benefits from the limited number of visitors. Visitors are sprinkled at wide intervals over the beach, allowing for calm enjoyment of the scene.
The visitor can explore the two islands, Monteadugo and Montefaro, using walking paths that lead up and into the interior. At times it is easy to forget that one is on an island, so completely do the trees close out the sea. But then the trees give way to reveal a commanding view of the surrounding ocean. Monteadugo is the larger island, and thus has more ample walking space. Yet Montefaro is also worth exploring, if only for the winding, stair-like path that leads up to the commanding lighthouse at its highest point.
By the time I had walked the distance of these two islands, the hour of my departure was nearing, and I had to rush back to the ferry. I was sad to go. Every inch of the islands is attractive; and the relative lack of people makes it possible to enjoy the scenery without disturbance.
The ferry deposited my back in Vigo, where I had dinner and went to sleep. The next day I was taking the train to Oporto, just a hundred miles or so south of Vigo. But that is for another post.