Pardon my French. Actually, not my French. Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait a beau voyage is a line from a sonnet by French poet Joachim du Bellay (1522-1560). I recently came across it in the prologue to Rebecca West’s lengthy Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the best travel book ever written according to our favorite travel author, Robert D. Kaplan. It recounts a journey that West and her husband made through the Balkans in 1937. The spirit of du Bellay’s line resonates with me. I like to think there is still something, if not heroic on the scale of brave Ulysses, at least important about choosing to expose oneself to the vicissitudes of personal travel. Although the mechanics of travel have probably never been easier, its industrialization, by which I mean mass tourism, tends to diminish our experience of it. As people conscious of the sense of adventure and discovery that the tourism industry tries to remove from travel, we struggle to regain these things. Fortunately, we have our imaginations for this.
As an example, I’ll mention a trip Kay and I took to Vienna last fall in the company of Turkish friends. Now, we had never been to Vienna before and we don’t speak German, yet because of our love of art, music and literature, we felt perfectly at home there. It was a thrill to stroll by the Burgtheater, imagining the excitement surrounding the premiere performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
A city’s architecture is a public record of its history, available to anyone who knows how to read it. A hundred years ago when Otto Wagner designed an apartment building . . .
. . . and Joseph Maria Olbrich, a structure known as the Secession Building, they started a revolution in architecture that spread to every country in Europe. Meanwhile, their counterparts in painting, design, literature, psychiatry and music were doing revolutionary things as well. It must have been an exciting time to have lived in Vienna.
Vienna’s Belvedere is a grand baroque palace with magnificent gardens. It had special interest for us because of its Turkish connection. It was built as a gift to honor Prince Eugene of Savoy whose brilliant military leadership saved Vienna and Western Europe from Turkish domination. The Ottomans, always trying to extend their empire, twice laid siege to Vienna, the second time in 1683. For some reason, at a crucial moment, they delayed their assault and were defeated. Otherwise parts of Western Europe’s heritage today might be Muslim. This happened a long time ago, yet the Viennese haven’t forgotten. As I remember, it was only a year or so ago that some artist-provocateur in Vienna wrapped an entire building in Turkish flags. This caused great consternation among the Viennese, and the story made international news.
In Vienna, we were lucky to be able to reconnect with Hildegard Schandl, a friend from our days of Italian study in Lecce. Hildegard lives in the Danube valley in the medieval town of Krems but also keeps a pied à terre in Vienna. We spent a lovely autumn afternoon in her company, viewing art and enjoying local specialties at the Wild Gasthaus, Hildegard’s favorite neighborhood restaurant.
Another restaurant experience to savor, our final one in Vienna, was quite different. The Café Swarzenberg, on Kärtner Ring near the opera house, is one of Vienna’s famous coffee houses. With its marble-top tables, mirrored walls and black-and-white clothed waiters it recalls another age, that of fin-de-siècle glamour when Franz Joseph ruled the empire, society moved in waltz time, and the sole heir to the throne killed himself at Mayerling. Keeping with tradition we went to the Swarzenberg for a late-night supper after a performance of Mozart’s music at the Konzerthaus. At 11 PM in this old, old restaurant the scene was as lively as it would be in any trendy new night spot. In Europe, the past is always present.
We had traveled to Vienna by train from Munich, accompanying our Turkish friends, Ismail and Semin, who wanted a final holiday together before the birth of their daughter. (As an aside, I can report that Arya Basaran was born on January 3, and that she is a healthy and beautiful baby.)
Kay and I had gone to Munich 17 years ago and wondered if we would find the city much changed. Arriving after dark, passing through the bright lights of the city center on the way to our pension, it took us only moments to conclude that city was even more appealing than we remembered.
There was a convention in town, so the only lodgings we were able to find were in the garret of a walk-up pension close to the Viktualienmarkt. However, what the pension lacked in amenities was made up for by its location. The Viktualienmarkt is built around an expanse of outdoor tables where one can drink a beer while relishing a range of prepared foods for sale at nearby stalls. In the good weather that we enjoyed, the market felt like an urban oasis. Every big city should have one.
After the suffering and destruction of the 20th century’s first half, the countries of Western Europe have prospered and splendidly rebuilt themselves. Their cities have modern infrastructures, treasuries of classic and contemporary architecture, and a cosmopolitan atmosphere that makes them feel wonderfully civilized. From Helsinki to Vienna, Amsterdam to Munich people cycle along well-groomed paths separated from motor traffic. Their metros are frequent, clean and free of graffiti. Even smaller cities have opera companies, symphony orchestras, theatres and world-class art museums. For lovers of urban life these cities can seem magical.
Magic, the thrill of discovery and cultural well being, is what we prize most when we travel, and if we can share it with friends, so much the better. All this happened for us on our next trip during the first week of this year on a trip to the Rhineland.
We timed this trip to coincide with Islam’s Holiday of Sacrifice, when teaching in Istanbul is suspended for a week and we had some free time. We chose the Rhineland to visit this year because Frankfurt is home to our friends Conny and Joachim whom we hadn’t seen since Conny ran the New York Marathon in 2003. Putting Frankfort at the end of our itinerary for reasons of our friends’ convenience, we began our week in Cologne, a city whose famous cathedral I’d long wanted to see.
I must admit that compared to other great Gothic cathedrals I’ve visited – Norte Dame, Chartres, Rouen – the sight of Cologne’s Dom, as it’s called, was somewhat disappointing. Partly, this may have been the result of the prevailing conditions. The weather was exceedingly cloudy and dark, and without direct sunlight, the church’s exterior features had no relief. Also, the cathedral desperately needs cleaning as centuries of grime have blackened it. Inside, there were crowds to contend with.
At one point, I fought my way up a narrow, two-way circular staircase to the top of the South Tower (about 550 steps) only to end up on an observation platform so enclosed that I felt as if I were looking at the city below through a keyhole.
More interesting than the Dom to Kay and I were Cologne’s Romanesque churches, built between the end of the 10th and the middle of the 13th centuries. The most striking of these is Gross St. Martin, whose massive central tower and surrounding four smaller towers is close to the river and, along with the spires of the Dom, has been a city emblem since the High Middle Ages.
It was the Christmas season, and the Germans, at least those of the Rhineland, seem to love their nativity scenes.
In each church we visited we found some kind of display featuring the figures of the Holy Family, the Magi, etc. The most impressive of these was in Gross St. Martin where the figures were of bronze and artfully arranged against the Romanesque elements of the apse.
Cologne has at least two extraordinary museums. First, there is the Ludwig, for us, an unexpected, joyful discovery. It’s a modern art museum whose principal donor helped found it with a gift of more than 700 works by Picasso, many of which are on display. In addition to these, the Ludwig contains a lot of other great stuff. There is a large collection of paintings by the German Expressionists — Beckmann, Kirchner, Groz, Dix et al. Otto Dix was a discovery for me. He was an extraordinary draftsman. His large canvas of a huge, bearded art critic sitting sideways on a chair is stunning. At the time of our visit, the museum was hosting a temporary show devoted to Balthus’ older brother, Pierre Klossowski, a weird guy whose work was inspired by the Marquis de Sade. Kay spent a lot of time in another special exhibit of Paul Klee’s works.
The second museum that really impressed us was the Romisch-Germanisches, a treasure house of Roman antiquities whose artifacts were all gathered from tombs and excavations in the neighborhood. It appears that Cologne was a very important outpost under the Roman Empire. The museum’s collection is wonderfully well-installed and interpreted.
Among the highlights is a giant reconstructed funerary monument that a former Roman soldier in retirement built for himself. As far as we could tell, Lucius Poblicius had no particular claim to fame other than that he survived to old age, yet his monument is 15 meters tall and so impressively decorated that it might be mistaken for an emperor’s .
Besides boasting the world’s largest collection of Roman glass, the Romisch-Germanisches has a number of smaller funerary stones. One in particular struck me as unusually intimate and moving. It was commissioned by a female Roman slave to honor her life’s companion. (The museum card explains that slaves in ancient Roman couldn’t be officially married.) Its Latin inscription reads May the earth rest lightly on you.
A short, half-hour’s train ride down the Rhine from Cologne brought us to Düsseldorf, Germany’s richest city according to our Frommer’s guidebook. It certainly has the look of wealth.
To walk around Düsseldorf with its banks, its signature skyscrapers, and its elegant shops along the Königsallee or King’s Avenue, is to never be at a loss for some sign of Germany’s economic power.
An especially pleasant walk is along the Rhine Promenade which leads to a stunning array of contemporary commercial buildings that house much of Düsseldorf’s advertising and media industry.
The most famous of these buildings are a set of three designed by Frank O. Gehry and known as Der Neuer Zollhof. Similar in form and volume, done in Gehry’s distinctive curvilinear style, the three buildings are most interesting in the way their surfaces interplay. The first building is sheathed in white plaster, the second in reflective metal, while the third is done in red brick (P). Because the forms of the two end buildings are reflected differently in the mirrored surface of the middle one depending upon the weather, the time of day, and the position of the viewer, the ensemble is constantly changing its appearance.
Lest you get the idea that Düsseldorf ‘s points of interest are all modern, let me add that it, like its upriver rival Cologne, has its Altstadt or Old Town. Düsseldorf’s Altstadt is a maze of restored streets and buildings whose origins date from the Middle Ages. With its 200 bars and beer taverns the Altstadt really comes alive after dark.
One might mistakenly believe that Cologne and Düsseldorf are alike. They’re both medium-size, Rhine River cities with ancient origins, and they’re situated close together. Each has its traditional restaurants, museums, opera house and concert halls, yet each has an individual character. Cologne has its cathedral and many churches, Düsseldorf, far fewer. Düsseldorf is a business center, Cologne, a center for art and artists. In Cologne we came across several good bookstores, in Düsseldorf, not a single one. However, it is in their traditional beers that their difference is most clear.
In Cologne the local brew is called Kolsch and is a light beer served in small, 21 centiliter glasses. In Düsseldorf they use the same glasses, but the beer is dark. It’s called Alt Bier (Old Beer) which paradoxically is drunk while very young. In both cities waiters carry many of these glasses at a time in a kind of suspended tray called a beer ring. There is a strong beer rivalry between the two cities, and it won’t do to ask for one city’s beer in the other city.
Leaving Düsseldorf on a Saturday morning, we had a lovely train ride along the Rhine up to Frankfurt. We passed through the cities of Bonn, much quieter now that Germany’s government has returned to Berlin, and Koblenz which looked like a town it might be fun to visit someday.
In Frankfurt we were met by Conny and Joachim who drove us to their home in the village of Hofheim just outside the city. We had been there before, yet we were still pleasantly surprised at how orderly everything is, in the neighborhood and in their house. So began a weekend of conversation, music listening, eating and drinking. In short, a weekend well spent.
Though Frankfurt is not a river town, the Rhine is not far away, and to reach it you drive through progressively denser plantings of grapevines. This really is wine country, and the local Rieslings we tasted were delicious.
Having left her corporate job a few months ago, Conny has started a new business as a party and event planner. She wanted to check out a few possible venues along the Rhine, so on Sunday the four of us took a drive. As luck would have it, that was our only day of sunshine all week, and it was welcome.
We visited several interesting locations, but the standout was an ancient Cistercian monastery called Eberbach. In its heyday the Monastery housed 150 monks and 450 lay brothers who together developed the indigenous wine industry. The vines are still there, growing right up to the monastery’s walls, and the restored complex of buildings is huge and now serves as a hotel and conference center.
On our final day of the visit, we all went into the city to shop, dine and visit the Goethe Haus. This is the house that the von Goethe family owned and where young Wolfgang grew up. He was a lucky boy because his educated family was quite well to do. He nourished himself with the large library that his father maintained. Some of the books that Goethe read are still in the house. So are many of the family’s furnishings which makes the house interesting in itself. It really gives a sense of how wealthy Germans lived in the 18th century.
I’ll end this overlong installment with a reference to one of my favorite topics: food. Our friends took us to a delightful indoor food market. In a stall specializing in Asian food products we came across a large tin of soda crackers imported from the Philippines. Now, soda crackers or saltines, as I knew them back home in the States, are a favorite comfort food that have been missing from my life for a long time. Naturally, I bought the tin and carried it back to Istanbul where Kay and I enjoy the contents with cheese, peanut butter or just crumbled over the chili con carne that I make occasionally.
Our late evening flight back to Istanbul was as smooth as could be. Fortunately, we got home before the recent snow and windstorms hit the Frankfurt area and shut down the airport.