Sunday, 26 August 2012
In hunting down Neuschwanstein, we were playing our small part in boosting the German economy, along with a busload of other visitors, all hoping to get the most picturesque photograph of their European vacation. Alas, we would all be seriously disappointed, because as we approached the mountain range, with the famous castle perched high on the ridge, it looked distinctively different. As we moved closer we could see that the highly recognizable towers were disguised by the scourge of all camera-snapping tourists … scaffolding!! There was a collective sigh from the bus as it became obvious to all on board that the facade was clearly going through some rather extensive renovations. Amazingly, our tour guide had not mentioned this at any stage and as we approached she continued to rattle off a range of facts about the castle in the belief that if it wasn’t mentioned then we wouldn’t notice. In our travels over the years, we have been caught out by the ‘scaffolding phenomenon’ a few times (the Guggenheim Museum and the Sistine Chapel spring to mind) and we are philosophical when it happens; appreciating that these things need to be done at some stage and somebody has to be affected. So after the initial disappointment, we approached in the hope that the location and the view would more than compensate for the loss of the idealic castle scene we had sought.
Arriving at the base of the castle we weren’t quite prepared for the chaos that such a major tourist attraction (scaffolded or otherwise) can create in the Bavarian Alps in the height of summer. If you can imagine narrow roadways and peak hour traffic, combined with horse drawn carriages, double decker buses and pedestrians walking in between them all, you may come close to the scene that awaited us. It seemed that we had truly underestimated the attraction of this iconic landmark and the scale of its commercialism. It did in fact have all the popularity of Disneyland, but without the organization.
While surrounding restaurants were doing a roaring trade at the base of the mountain, waves of tourists were making the 30-minute trek up to pay homage to King Ludwigs ‘folly’. Not surprisingly, at the castle itself, there was just as much mayhem as down below, with countless tour groups waiting to storm the interior, while the rest were jockeying to find the best vantage point to get that elusive photograph. We found that with a little selective cropping of the scaffolding and the hordes of people, we could just about, but somewhat dishonestly, manufacture the type of idealic image so often seen on the tourist brochures that had led us here in the first place.
So Neuschwanstein Castle wasn’t quite as we had expected, but thankfully our bus made two other stops along the way that were far less chaotic and infinitely more enjoyable. The first was Linderhof Palace, which was another one of King Ludwig’s little projects. As palaces go, this one is quite livable, as it is on a modest scale yet provides all the opulence befitting an eccentric king. Ludwig was apparently obsessed with the works of Richard Wagner with much of the Rococo design looking as if it had come straight from one of his mythical operas. The grounds were quite magnificent, with multi-level gardens and a golden fountain that regularly shoots a stream of water several storeys high. The other interesting stop was at the picturesque town of Oberammergau, which is famous for the ‘Passion Play’, which has been performed here every 10 years since 1634. When the story of Christ is re-enacted, pilgrims from all over the world descend upon this quaint little village, but at most other times it is relatively quiet, generating its income mostly from the sale of woodcarving and cuckoo clocks. While Neuschwanstein brought in the big bucks for Germany, it would be places like these that would bring back the most pleasant memories of our trip to the Bavarian Alps, not to mention the most photogenic images.
Thursday, 23 August 2012
At this stage I must mention that all this war history is not particularly Jules’ cup of tea. In fact anything war related is strictly banned from television viewing in our household if she is anywhere within earshot. So I was on my own when I joined one of the regular walking tours that focuses upon Hitler and the birth of the Nazi regime in Munich. So along with a small group of aficionados from a wide variety of English speaking countries (including one chap who was so impressed with the tour that this was his third time around), we set out for a few hours to re-live those ‘dark days’ of the 1920’s and 30’s. Our tour guide was Levi, a young American guy who came armed with a folio full of photos and a passion for the pre-war history of this city. As we walked to the various sites, he would relate many detailed stories of the emerging regime with its anti-semetic doctrines and strange but charismatic leader. We visited several locations where Hitler made many of his early speeches (such as the Old Marienplatz Town Hall and Hofbräuhaus), relived the events of the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ and walked around the public squares where large Nazi rallies were later held (Odeonsplatz and Königsplatz). The tour culminated at the Nazi Headquarters building, which remarkably still exists today as a music academy, minus the eagle swastika that used to hang prominently at its entrance. The marble interior remains much as it was when SS officers with knee high boots marched up and down the grand central staircase leading to Hilters office on the first floor.
For many years I taught an art history unit on ‘Art and Politics’ where a significant aspect of the course examined the role of art within the Nazi propaganda machine. One building that had a significant role was ‘The House of German Art’, which was the first architectural commission completed after Hitler obtained political power and became notorious for showcasing works that were in-keeping with Nazi ideology. This is yet another building that somehow remained unscathed following allied bombing and appears much as it was when Hitler opened it in the grand entrance in 1937 with a scathing speech that denounced ‘modernism’. Today it is still used as an art gallery, but its administration now works actively to promote the type of art that had been initially banned then eventually mocked in the infamous ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition, which was held in a ramshackled gallery just around the corner. It is seventy-five years since these events and clearly enough time had passed for an exhibition to be held entitled ‘History in Conflict’. The display looked back at the buildings chequered past that saw it initially celebrated as a high temple of Germanic culture until by the end of the war it was reduced to being used by American forces as an officers mess where basketball was played in its galleries.
In visiting the historical sites of the Third Reich, it was inevitable and certainly necessary to take a trip to Dacchau concentration camp, about half an hour outside of Munich. For this trip Jules had agreed to join me, which I particularly appreciated as I knew it was going to be a very somber place. Yet we both felt that it had to be experienced and in some way it would allow us to pay homage to the thousands of poor souls who had ended their days there. Clearly many others felt the same way as we joined numerous nationalities that respectfully walked through the iron gates emblazoned with the hollow words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work brings freedom). As we walked around, we were encouraged to see so many German citizens seeking to learn more about events that have become so emblazoned upon the conscience of the whole country. This was certainly a place for much reflection and contemplation about the depths of human brutality.
Today it is at times difficult for a visitor to Munich to imagine the tumultuous events that happened here less than a century ago. It is such a vibrant and prosperous city, but events occurred here within living memory that not only shaped Munich but much of the western world. For me, the visit placed much of my historical knowledge in some sort of context. I began to recognise the places I had seen in old photographs and somehow those grainy black and white ‘World at War’ films I had watched as a kid back in Australia seemed just a little more real.
Sunday, 19 August 2012
Walking out from the station, the streets were bustling and we instantly sensed the German economic prosperity that we had heard so much about despite the recent problems with the struggling European currency. It may have been the warm summer weather, but people seemed happy and relaxed, the outdoor cafes were full, the roads were full of late model Mercedes, Audis and BMW’s and the shops appeared to be doing a roaring trade. The devastation of Munich following World War II appeared to be a very distant memory and it was now the most economically buoyant city in the most economically buoyant country in the EU. It was not too long before Jules and I had joined the masses who were leisurely strolling through the picturesque boulevard of Marienplatz, which seems to be the central meeting place from which other major retails areas of Munich are linked. It is dominated by the gothic town hall, which is humorously translates into German as the ‘Rathaus’. This ornately decorated building is the focal point for many visitors; not only for the information centre it provides, but for the regular chiming of bells accompanied by dancing figures below the clock. To be honest this really isn’t our thing, but we were somewhat amused by the amount of people who flocked into the square each day to stand in the hot sun to witness the wooden marionettes doing their regular turn.
We were of course much more interested in visiting ‘Viktualienmarkt’, which is the place to find all things gastronomic. There was certainly a great atmosphere here with plenty of wonderful produce for sale, which could be sampled to the accompaniment of the various ‘umpa-pa’ bands that seemed to be scattered around the open-air market. In the centre was a leafy green canopy of trees where hundreds of people sat on packed tables enjoying cold meats and the obligatory German sausage. Naturally enough this was being washed down with bucket sized glasses of cold beer. This wasn’t totally surprising as we were well aware of Germany’s reputation for beer consumption to the point that it could almost be regarded as part of the staple diet, which is enjoyed daily and in enormous quantities. We were amazed to find that the amber liquid was generally the same price as bottled water and with two complimentary bottles placed in our hotel fridge daily, an afternoon pint quickly became an easy habit for us to slip into. Of course the crowning achievement of Munich’s beer drinking prowess remains the annual ‘Oktoberfest’, attracting millions of visitors and generating a fortune for the local economy. We caught a glimpse of the tents being set up for this year’s event and couldn’t quite believe the sheer scale of the festivities. Spanning over several acres, we were proudly told that over 7 million litres of beer would be drunk here, fueling raucous singing and dancing over the 18 days of the event.
As the days passed, there were many things that we liked about Munich and we could well understand why it had been voted one of the most livable cities in world. As legacy of its days as an Olympic host city, it has a fabulous underground rail network as well as numerous tramlines that weave their way around the busy streets. Despite the wartime bombing, there are still many wonderful buildings and palaces that were originally built by its big spending monarchy. There is a fabulous array of art galleries and an extensive range of parks and gardens that provide a cool and quiet haven from the noise and heat of the big city.
Probably the most impressive is the ‘English Garden’ that spans over 900 acres (one of the worlds largest urban parks) and features a number of impressive buildings and monuments. On a hot summers day, Jules and I took refuge in this lush green oasis only to find thousands of ‘Münchners’ (citizens of Munich) had exactly the same idea. The most popular spot with the younger crowd was the fast flowing river that made its way through the park. Jumping in here could see you traveling several kilometers down stream very quickly, but oddly enough that’s what seemed to be the main attraction. We watched plenty of kids bobbing happily along with the current, only to make the long trek back by foot to do it all over again. An equally popular pastime was river surfing! This was something we had never seen before, but it was extremely popular with wetsuit-donned surfers who queued patiently for their 30 second turn. It seems that at some stage it was realised that near one of the bridges, the rapidly flowing water became compressed resulting in the formation of a small but sustained wave. No sooner than this was discovered that a surfboard was thrown in and a popular pastime was born. Munich was full of such surprises and having the opportunity to spend a few glorious summer days in this impressive city was certainly the best way for us to see it.
Thursday, 16 August 2012
There is of course the famed Juliet balcony in the centre of town that, from what we can gather, has absolutely nothing to do with anything Shakespearian but rather it seems to be an idyllic stone balcony that roughly matches the public’s image of what might be the perfect setting for the lovers’ famed soliloquy. Much hype is placed around this particular location with the heavily graffitied walls at the entrance, suggesting that floods of couples have previously made their way here in order to pledge their enduring love. Even the lovelorn seem to have been catered for, with a post box provided in which they can post messages to ‘Juliet’, seeking advice of the heart. Much like a letter to Santa Claus, I’m not quite sure where these letters actually go or who answers them, but there appeared to be plenty of people regularly pinning their hopes on the consolatory words she provides.
Of course, Verona has much more to offer, not the least being it’s wonderful medieval architecture that in many cases has been cleaned and restored (very little graffiti here). During our stay we spent many hours simply walking around the backstreets, taking photographs and imagining what life must have been like when these buildings were originally built. In the end, Jules acclaimed it as one of the most picturesque Italian cities we had visited, which is particularly high praise indeed as she has quite an extensive list of favourites. With many ‘osterias’ and ‘trattorias’ to be found in the narrow streets, there was also plenty of opportunities for us to sample local food and wine, as well as the popular ‘Spritz’ (prosecco and Aperol with a slice of orange), which seemed to be the aperitif of choice amongst the locals.
The particular weekend we were in Verona, we were lucky enough to experience one of its most popular attractions, the summer opera season. This is held open air in the ancient Roman coliseum in the centre of town. The crumbling structure is impressive enough, but as a setting for some of the world’s greatest opera productions, it is enough to bring droves of opera buffs from far and wide to experience the event in its truly unique setting. Jules was organized as usual and managed to secure our tickets for the Egyptian spectacle of ‘Aida’, directed and conducted by the legendary Placido Domingo. This would be our first experience of live opera and it would be difficult to imagine a more fitting location for our baptism. As expected, the production was truly remarkable visual spectacular, although to be honest, we weren’t too sure what was actually happening most of the time. What we did begin to realise after a while that the production was very, very long (almost 4 hours) and our powers of endurance was certainly going to be tested. Sitting high in the arena, on the same tiered stone steps that toga wearing citizens had once watched gladiators in action centuries ago, it began to eventually take its toll and well after midnight we hobbled out of the arena like a couple of old cowboys, satisfied by what we had experienced, but somewhat worse for wear. While we headed straight back to our room for a well earned rest on our delightfully soft bed, seasoned opera buffs (clearly in the more expensive padded seats) were heading out for their evening (or very early morning) meal and to no doubt recount the wonderful performance they had witnessed well into the early hours of a new day.
Verona would be our final town on this trip to Italy and it had certainly delivered on all fronts. The sights, the language, the food, the vino, the people … all bellisimo! As a taxi driver once reminded us, it isn’t all perfect, but overall it’s pretty good! Our stay had again reminded us what a wonderfully diverse country Italy is and why it continues to have such appeal for those of us from different cultures. No doubt this trip has continued to fuel Jules’ desire to become an officially adopted Italian and we'll take away plenty of great memories, let alone countless photos to continually remind us of our extraordinary experiences of ‘la dolce vita in bella Italia’!
Monday, 13 August 2012
It quickly became apparent that the most unique feature of Bologna was its architecture and particularly its street level porticos that are said to stretch out some 38 kilometres in and around the city. These arched covered walkways were largely built in the middle ages to sensibly protect its citizens from the natural elements as they made their way around. Most of the porticos are beautifully constructed, often with marble flooring and elaborately painted ceilings. With the light streaming in, they would often appear like a scene from a De Chirico painting, while at other times they had an endless quality that perfectly demonstrated the converging lines of perspective drawing. Such was the case during the long walk we undertook to San Luca Basilica. We began by catching a bus to the site of one of the entrances of the ancient wall that had originally surrounded the city centuries ago. From here we wandered along an extensive stretch of porticos that slowly made their way upward into the foothills. With over 600 archways to pass through, strangely the walk had a remarkable similarity to our climb through the Tori Gates in Japan. While the designs were completely different, the scale and endless nature of the arches was in many ways similar. Eventually we took the final steps at the end to reveal a beautiful terracotta coloured church overlooking the city, which incidentally appeared to spread far wider than we had previously thought.
Throughout our stay, we found the Bolognians to be particularly friendly folk; they were happy to go out of their way with help and advise, as if surprised that we had chosen to visit there town rather than more popular destinations. Another surprising quality we discovered was their love of cinema, apparently buying the largest number of movie tickets per head of population in Italy. They hold a number of film festivals throughout the year, with the most popular being the Sotto le Stelle del Cinema, which is held in the summer months in the open-air of the Maggiore Piazza. After dinner one night, we thought we’d take a ‘passagiata’ (an evening stroll) to the piazza to see what was happening. Being a free event, it was absolutely packed, but there was a terrific atmosphere as people were settling in for the evening with a cold glass of vino or a melting gelato in hand. With the huge screen set against a backdrop of buildings from the middle age, I can’t think of a better setting for watching a movie on a warm summers night. Amazingly the movie (‘The Kings Speech’ that particular night) was in English with Italian subtitles, as apparently the film aficionados prefer their films to be presented in their original language.
The next day we woke to another sun drenched day and to find a huge open-air market had set up close to our hotel. Spreading out far and wide, it effectively doubled the already large collection of shops in the central business district and local residents were already up early searching out bargains. If you were looking for cheap shoes, clothing, leather goods or electronics, this was certainly the place to be. Indeed, Bologna generally seemed to be a very affordable city to live, which no doubt suits the large student population who live here. The city has the notoriety of being the location of the one of the oldest universities in the world (University of Bologna, founded in 1088), which further adds to its somewhat understated history. As we continued to discover, there was much about Bologna that could be further promoted to enhance the city and attract more visitors. However, the question is whether that is what is actually wanted or in the end, whether it will ultimately change the cities truly authentic character.
Thursday, 9 August 2012
While Jules and I also undertook our own retail research, we did find time to visit the Triennale Design Museum, which is regarded as Milan’s most significant cultural institution showcasing aspects of its modern design history. While it was interesting, we felt that it didn’t totally capture the full dimension of this city’s creative achievement. For us, this could be seen better by simply looking through the logo branded shop windows of which there are plenty!
As we walked to the Triennale, we passed through the Sforza Castle, which is a 14th century reminder of Milan’s historical past. This magnificent structure is made even more famous due to some of the ceiling decorations by Italy’s greatest artist and designer, Leonardo da Vinci. The Milanese are particularly proud of the influence of the city upon the career of Leonardo, with the ‘great man’ establishing a strong connection with the city by basing himself here for 17 years (1482-1499) and then returning again several years later (1504-1508). He is honored in Piazza Della Scala with an impressive statue by Pietro Magni (1872) that overlooks the world-renowned opera theatre, La Scala. However, Leonardo’s most significant monument would have to be the fresco he painted in the refectory of the Santa Maria della Grazie …’The Last Supper’. Regarded as the most reproduced religious image ever, it is such a popular attraction that today you need to book well in advance in order to view it. Thankfully, Jules did just that as we turned up at our appointed time only to witness a number of disappointed tourists being turned away. Having a ticket however doesn’t mean that you are immediately free to walk in; there are a series of waiting areas that each group (around 25 people) must work their way through before finally proceeding to the 15 minute viewing. Following much anticipation, the glass doors finally slid open and we entered a relatively small room that was sparse and dimly lit. On the far wall under soft light was the iconic fresco, which on first sight stunned our small group into silence, as it must do for virtually every group when they see it for the first time. It is fortunate that the fresco actually still exists at all, after being bombed to near destruction during World War II; yet somehow it survived and it’s restoration has remained an ongoing project ever since. The latest was completed in 1999 and saw years of over-painting being taken back to reveal Leonardo’s original brushwork. The result is less colourful, but with its inconsistencies in condition, it somehow makes the piece far more authentic, revealing the experimentation of early fresco techniques. It is was certainly no less impressive and as we sat on the simple wooden benches, there was a quiet reverence for both the religious subject matter and for the skill of the artist who depicted it.
While our stay in Milan was short, we managed to gain just a small glimpse of its impressive art and design history, both from the past and present. Similar to Paris, there is a certain confidence in this city and it’s citizens based upon a well-established foundation of creative achievement. It is certainly dirty, loud and gritty, which is in stark contrast to the polished and refined items that are produced here. Like the bright red Ferrari’s that are built just outside the city, it continues to provide the world with many of the unmistakable tokens of success and provides the setting from which great designs are launched.
Saturday, 4 August 2012
We boarded the weekly tour bus that leaves from Menaggio to find that many other tourists (mostly Brits) had a similar idea, particularly as the weather forecast promised a clear and sunny day in the Alps. These sort of group tours are not normally our type of thing, but for economy of time and the opportunity to travel on one of the highest (over 2000 metres above sea level) and most picturesque railway journeys of the world, we were prepared to be herded along.
Travelling by coach toward to the northern end of Lake Como, we pass through the little lakeside town of Dongo and are reminded by our tour guide that this was the location for the dramatic capture of Benito Mussolini and his mistress toward the end of World War II. Heading for the neutral Swiss border and with the Alps in sight, ‘il Duce’ must have thought that he was just about safe, until partisans stumbled upon him and swiftly delivered their vengeful justice. In thankfully more peaceful times, this area is now one of Italy’s major wine regions with vineyards stretching high into the slopes of the nearby hills. Arriving at the border town of Tirano, there was time to view the elaborate Basilica of the Madonna, which is said to have been the site of an apparition of the Virgin Mary in the 16th century and continues to attract pilgrims each year in search of divine miracles. However, what is more significant to us is that it is here that we get our first glimpse of the Bernina Express, which literally cuts through the centre of the town.
We cross the Swiss border and in order to save some time, board the train in Poschiavo to begin a slow winding accent toward Bernina Diavolezza. This is a spectacular run that sees us traveling over viaducts toward the extraordinary Bernina Pass with its snow capped peaks, milky blue lakes and ancient glacier. Not surprisingly, the pass and the railway line that threads its way through it are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites and even in summer it is a remarkable landscape that had both ourselves and the Brits continually snapping our cameras. The time passed quickly and we were soon back on the bus for the final run into St.Moritz, a place that has long been regarded as a winter playground of the rich and famous. While the town provided some nice scenic outlooks, a pretty alpine lake and of course the end point for the legendary Cresta Run (a three quarter of a mile toboggan racing track), we felt that as a town it was somewhat of an anti-climax. Similar to cities like Monaco, there is artificiality and a manicured nature to such places that make them somewhat cold and impersonal. As we were warned, the shopping was outrageously expensive and the best we could manage was a vanilla custard slice (quite delicious, I must say) and an ice-cream (not a patch on Italian gelato). No doubt St.Moritz is a winter wonderland when the snow falls and you’re cashed up for the season, but for now, we were just happy to head back to Italy.
On our return however, we had an unexpected surprise when we crossed over the Italian border and made a brief stop in Chiavenna. Nestled in a mountainous valley, this beautiful medieval village exuded all the charm that we have come to expect when venturing outside the major tourists spots. Narrow laneways, picturesque buildings and piazzas complete with water fountains, which can all be summed up in one simple word ... ‘character’! Running through the heart of the town was a rocky stream that flowed with icy clear water of melted snow from the mountains above, which was spanned by an ancient arched bridge. As we looked down, a local man who clearly sensed that we were visitors, came alongside and began to throw bread into the stream, encouraging excitable trout to the surface. Not to be out done, Jules reached into her bag to bring out a bag of dried bread sticks and did the same. At that point we both wished that we had more time to spend in Chiavenna rather than in St. Moritz. While we had thoroughly enjoyed the trip, in particular the wonderful scenery of the Bernina Pass, it had again reminded us about which side of the border we preferred and for us this time there was no simply comparison.