Hannover and Braunschweig

When I was writing my Bradt guidebook to Dresden I was always surprised that Lower Saxony was so far away from Saxony and how little its capital Hannover had in common with Dresden, apart from both being on the Elbe river. Hannover is a large city that’s known for its trade fairs and for its grand gardens, but not for a cathedral or other historic buildings – I did stumble across a few, but the city centre is pretty bland. It does have a potentially fine museum (see below), but it’s undermined by information being only in German and by the way that staff have loud conversations as if the museum is run for their benefit.

 Hannover was slower to develop than Braunschweig (see below) and the towns on my previous post (Brandenburg and Magdeburg) and my next (Hildesheim), with its main churches and city walls being built only in the fourteenth century, In 1636 George, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, moved his residence here and in 1692 his family became Prince-Electors of the Holy Roman Empire and the dukes became known as Electors of Hannover. In 1714 Elector Georg Ludwig became King George I of Great Britain; as great-grandson of James I he was the nearest Protestant in the line of succession, although the Jacobites of course did not accept him as king. One result was that the armies of Hannover and Braunschweig were the only Germans to consistently resist revolutionary/Napoleonic France, although they had to do it from exile in Great Britain at times. George II, George III and William IV also combined the two realms but Victoria, as a female, was not allowed to succeed in Hannover and the two went their separate ways after 1837, with Hannover being absorbed before long into Prussia and then Germany. The city was heavily bombed in World War II and more than 90% of the city centre was flattened.

 The all-round Enlightenment man Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, philosopher, mathematician and much more, spent much of his life here, from 1676 to 1716. He served three Electors as Privy Counsellor and librarian but actually had a rather distant relationship with them; he was much closer to Electress Sophia and her daughter Sophia Charlotte, Queen of Prussia, who was responsible for Berlin’s Charlottenburg Palace.

 It was Sophia who in 1683 commissioned the French gardener Martin Charbonnier to create one of Europe’s finest Baroque gardens, the Grosser Garten (Great Garden), which is part of the Herrenhausen Gardens, extending northwest from the centre (a glorious excursion on foot or bike). Other components are the Georgengarten and the Welfengarten, both English-style gardens (ie less manicured and more relaxing), and the Berggarten, now a botanical garden that is also home to the royal mausoleum; and some small palaces – the Herrenhausen Palace, in the Grosser Garten, was destroyed by bombing and reopened in 2013 as a museum and congress centre; the Georgengarten Palais is now the WM Busch Museum of cartoons; and the Welfenschloss (built in the 1860s) has been home to the Leibniz University since 1879.

 There’s an excellent little display on Leibniz in the entry foyer of the Welfenschloss, focussing on the calculating and cypher machines that he developed, which are forerunners of modern computers. In addition to working models, there’s the only preserved Leibniz calculating machine, and also panels on his work on politics, economics and philosophy.

 Returning towards the centre, just east of the university I came across the former St Nicholas cemetery (now a park) and on Steintor (a triangular plaza) the ruined chapel of St Nicholas; it was more of a surprise to find on the western side of the square the Anzeiger Hochhaus, a masterpiece of Brick Expressionism built in 1928 that somehow survived the war – see my recent posts on Amsterdam and Hamburg (the Chilehaus) for more on this architectural genre. Georgstrasse (named after one of the Hanoverian Kings of Great Britain) leads to the centre, mostly modern shops now, but bits and pieces of old houses that survived the bombing were brought together and reassembled on Burgstrasse and a couple of other streets; there’s also the red-brick Old Town Hall (1410) with its wonderful gable, and the adjacent Marktkirche. South of the centre, St Aegidius (St Giles) is another bombed-out church that’s been left as a war memorial; immediately south is the New Town Hall (1912), a huge and very impressive edifice on the north side of the Maschpark, a delightful park around a lake.

The New Town Hall

 Finally, on the east side of the park, another imposing pile (built in 1902) houses the LandesMuseum Hannover, which I have mixed feelings about, as I said above, but it does have great coverage of archeology and early medieval history, and then leaps to the New World, with a collection of textiles, ceramics and quipus (counting threads) from Peru, and wood carvings from New Ireland, a gamelan from Indonesia and a good exhibit on Madagascar, thanks to an Austrian anthropologist who spent many years there. On the ground floor there’s a good aquarium, with electric eels, piranhas and deep-sea fish, and coverage of the ecosystems of the nearby Lüneburger Heide. And there’s an art section, including Botticelli, Dürer, Rubens, and Rembrandt, and modern German artists such as Liebermann, Corinth, Slevogt, Paula Modersohn-Becker and others; however it was closed when I visited due to repair work on the glass roof.

 Practicalities 1) – Accommodation

 I was amused by my Rough Guide to Europe, which said ‘Hannover’s location … and its lack of budget accommodation make it a perfect candidate for a pit-stop…’. I’m still struggling with that, but in fact I stayed at the BoxHotel Hannover, where the rooms really are tiny and very cheap, and brilliantly engineered (look for the shower up the stairs to the upper bed) – I wouldn’t settle down to do paperwork there, but it was perfect for a basic overnight stay.

 

2) Transport

Hannover sits at the intersection of northern Germany’s main rail routes, from Berlin west to Köln and Amsterdam and from Hamburg south to Frankfurt am Main and beyond. Construction of the country’s first high-speed railway, from Hannover to Würzburg, began in 1971 and it finally opened in 1991, along with a short cut-off from Mannhein to Stuttgart. Those 1970s high-speed lines are now being closed for lengthy spells for some serious maintenance. (After reunification priorities changed and a second north-south spine was built from Berlin towards München.) The main line from Berlin to Hannover was rebuilt for 250km/h running in 1998, and the journey time is now 102 minutes for 248km; the Berlin-Hamburg line was upgraded for 160km/h in 1997, for 200km/h in 2000 and 230km/h in 2004, bringing the journey time down to 90 minutes for 256km.

 Back in 1982 Switzerland introduced its Taktfahrplan or regular-interval national train (and bus) timetable – this required the three key cities of Basel, Bern and Zürich to be at most 56 minutes away from each other, which was achieved by building high-speed cut-offs and some major tunnels. Now intercity trains run twice an hour giving easy cross-platform connections across the whole country, and passenger numbers have boomed. The Dutch have done something similar since the 1970s, though at even higher frequencies, with fast trains now running every ten minutes from Amsterdam to Schiphol/Rotterdam and to Utrecht/Eindhoven. Now Germany is planning its own Deutschlandtakt, although it will never be as tightly knit as the Swiss one. It depends on various infrastructure projects so won’t fall into place until 2030 at best – to get Berlin-Köln times below four hours, a new 300km/h line will be needed from Hannover southwest to Bielefeld, and this is only now being planned. This will also speed up the Berlin-Hannover-Amsterdam trains, which are surprisingly slow at the moment.

 There’s also an issue with the line south from Hamburg to Hannover (181km by rail, but only 145km by road) – the fastest trains currently take 1 hour 14 minutes, but with some new high-speed line that could easily be cut to under an hour. Unfortunately, the area between the two cities is apparently home to the most intense NIMBYs in Germany and proposals for a high-speed line have been blocked; there’s a fall-back plan for a Y route to link Hannover with both Hamburg and Bremen and to also carry freight, but it seems that the best journey time would be 63 minutes, meaning that Hamburg would not fit into the nodal structure of the Takt.

 However, the new timetable from December 2020 was announced as a taster of the Takt, with a half-hourly service from Berlin to Hamburg (from 46 trains and 30,000 seats a day to 60 and 36,000) and nine more Berlin-Hannover-Köln trains (which will finally carry bikes!). The electrification and upgrading of the Zürich-München line is also complete, so there will now be six trains a day taking four hours (instead of three taking 4 hours 44 minutes) – although this isn’t necessary for the Takt timetable.

 In the interest of fair balance, a few words about cars too, or at least their licence plates – cars from the largest German cities have plates that begin with a single letter – B for Berlin, F for Frankfurt am Main, H for Hannover. Oh, hang on, Hamburg is much bigger than Hannover, what’s going on? The city fathers of Hannover were rather surprised when Hamburg graciously said ‘You can have the H, we don’t want it’. It turned out that Hamburg wanted HH for Hansestadt Hamburg – likewise, Bremen is HB and Lübeck, which was something like the capital of the Hanseatic League, as I noted here, is HL, although at first I wondered why there were so many cars from Holstein in town.

Braunschweig

On my way from Berlin to Hannover, my last stop was in Braunschweig – it’s a larger city than Brandenburg and Magdeburg, and more obviously western, although it has less than half the population of Hannover. Of course, it’s widely known as Brunswick, mainly due to its eighteenth-century links with the Hanoverian monarchy in Britain (see above), but the name does derive authentically from the local dialect name of Bronswiek or Bruno’s place.

 Henry the Lion became Duke of Saxony in 1142 and made Braunschweig his capital; in 1168 he married Matilda, the daughter of King Henry II of England. The city became a major trading centre, joining the Hanseatic League in the thirteenth century and becoming largely autonomous (the dukes moved their capital to Wolfenbüttel, 13km south, in 1432) – something that was repeated in 1918-19 when it was briefly the  Socialist Republic of Braunschweig. The people of Braunschweig had also adopted Lutheranism while the dukes remained staunch Catholics; but in 1753 they moved back to Braunschweig and became genuinely popular benevolent despots as laid out in the enlightenment playbook. Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand (1735–1806) married Princess Augusta, sister of George III of England, and built the charming little Schloss Richmond (1768-9) and its English garden, just south of the centre, to remind her of her home in Richmond Park near London. There’s no connection with Charlotte, Duchess of Richmond, who hosted the famous ball in Brussels on 15 June 1815, the night before the battle of Quatre Bras (and three days before Waterloo) – except that the ‘Black Duke’ of Braunschweig, Friedrich Wilhelm, was killed at Quatre Bras – his father Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand had been killed at the battle of Jena in 1806.

 The city became an industrial centre as part of Prussia and then Germany, and was heavily bombed in 1944, with most of its churches and superb half-timbered houses (Fachwerkhäuse) destroyed – much was rebuilt, but I had to get my fill of half-timbering in the towns to the south (see my next post).

 Heading north from the station, you’ll cross the river and turn right to enter the old city at the Aegidiuskirche or church of St Giles, rebuilt after a fire from 1278 to 1478 – it has the city’s only pure Gothic choir. Oddly, it’s now the city’s main Roman Catholic church, but the former monastery buildings now house a Jewish museum. Just north is the Schloss or Ducal Palace, built in 1830-41, largely destroyed in World War II but only demolished in 1960 and reopened as essentially the façade to a shopping centre in 2007 (although there is a small museum). Immediately to the west, the cathedral is on Burgplatz (Castle Square), with Dankwarderode castle (a replica built in 1887) hidden away behind it, as well as the city hall (1894-1900), the main part of the Braunschweigisches Landesmuseum (the state history museum, in the Neoclassical Vieweghaus, built 1799-1804), some fine half-timbered buildings such as the Gildehaus (Guild House), and in the centre of the square a replica of a bronze lion that is the city’s symbol. The cathedral was founded by Henry the Lion, who is buried there along with Matilda, their son Otto IV and his wife, the Black Duke, and Queen Caroline of Brunswick (1768–1821), daughter of Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand and Augusta, who married King George IV of England, her first cousin – the marriage was a scandalous disaster, and when she died her body was brought back to her native city for burial. Dating from 1173-1226, it’s still a Romanesque basilica, with some interesting murals that were discovered under the whitewash after World War II. The leading Lutheran choir school in Germany is attached to the Dom, which has an active musical scene (in normal times).

 On the western side of the old town, the Altstadtmarkt (Old Town Market) is a lovely Gothic ensemble, with the Old Town Hall, the Gewandhaus (house of the drapers’ guild, by 1268), and the Martinikirche (church of Saint Martin, from 1195, converted to a Gothic hall church between 1250 and 1400, although plenty of the Romanesque structure remains. The Baroque high altar (1728) is being restored at the moment, and there’s a fine Baroque organ (1774) too, and an odd pair of galleries.

 Just south of the Schloss is the Magni Quarter, where most of the remaining half-timbered houses stand around the church of St Magnus, a hall church built after 1252 and rebuilt after World War II in a more modern form than most. It’s quite a contrast with the Happy RIZZI House (2001), somewhat reminiscent of Hundertwasser’s Green Citadel in Magdeburg, but with more graffiti-style décor. And just to the east is the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, which opened in 1754 and is definitely worth the voyage, as the Michelin guide would say. Based on the collections of Duke Anton Ulrich (1633-1714), expanded by his great-nephew Duke Carl I (1713-80), it includes many superb Old Masters but is also very strong on decorative arts from around the world. Starting on the top floor, the sculpture and applied arts collection has been trendily organised into thematic sections such as Power & Lifestyle or Foreign Peoples: Art, Culture & Tourism, but the real problem is just that there’s too much to take in. There’s chinoiserie, Japanese lacquer, Limoges enamel, Italian majolica, coins and portrait medals, and ceramics, from Carl I’s own porcelain manufactory, Wedgwood from England, and from the Moché and Chimú cultures in preColombian Peru. Highlights include the Mantuan Vessel, made of onyx in AD 54, the gilded bronze Kugellaufuhr (rolling-ball clock; 1601), and Giambologna’s Mars Striding (1590).

 Information is mainly in German; upstairs there are room summaries in English, while there’s a useful free booklet describing the art galleries one floor below. The Dutch collection is strong (Anton Ulrich had an estate near Den Haag, and enjoyed the new-fangled Dutch art auctions), with one of the world’s thirty-six Vermeers (Young Woman with a Wineglass – and seemingly a lecherous man), five Rembrandts, others by his friend Jan Lievens and his pupils Flinck, Dou, Bol, Fabritius and Cuyp (I’d seen much more of their work a few weeks before in the Netherlands); there’s also a great Rubens of Judith with the Head of Holofernes (c1618-19), and an astonishingly assured portrait by his pupil van Dyck, aged just nineteen. The German collection consists largely of the predictable (but good, of course) Cranachs and Holbeins, and a Kneller, who was not English but from Lübeck, as I’d discovered a few days before. There’s some fluffy eighteenth-century French art too, Gueuze, Liotard, de Largilliere, lots by Rigaud, and Pesne, who I’d just discovered in Charlottenburg.

 The Italian collection begins with a couple of fifteenth-century works by Bici de Lorenzo, then Lanfranco, Luca Giordano, Orazio Gentileschi, Bassano, Bernardo Strozzi, Giorgione’s  self-portrait as David, a roomful by the Venetians Tintoretto, Veronese, Palma Il Vecchio and Palma Il Giovane; and a classic Grand Tour portrait by Batoni of Duke Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand.

 There are other excellent museums in Braunschweig, notably the State Museum, but they’ll have to wait for another time. I confess I was constantly getting lost as I cycled around Braunschweig, but I did eventually find my way back to the station, which turned out to be celebrating its sixtieth year – it’s a fine piece of modernism, inspired in part by Roma Termini. Interestingly perhaps, for some, it was not a rebuild but a new station, replacing a smaller dead-end station nearer the centre.

Brandenburg and Magdeburg

I made my way from Berlin to Hannover stopping at the four cities strung along the old railway line (the modern high-speed trains run further to the north) – Potsdam, Brandenburg, Magdeburg and Braunschweig. The last (aka Brunswick) was in West Germany, but the others were in the DDR and still had a rather communist feel when I made flying visits in 1995 – and there are still traces of that today, though I don’t find it as quaint as I used to. They’re all relatively small cities that don’t get many foreign visitors, but there’s plenty to see.

 Properly, Brandenburg refers to the state which entirely surrounds Berlin and the city’s full and correct name is Brandenburg an der Havel. The Havel river plays an important rôle – the Altstadt (Old Town) on the northwestern bank was a Slav settlement by the tenth century, but in 1157 the Teutonic Albert the Bear settled on the southeast side, in what is now the Neustadt, and became the first margrave of Brandenburg. However the cathedral was built on the Dominsel, to the east, which was independent from the city until 1928. It was a trading city, joining the Hanseatic League (which I wrote about here) in 1315, and later developed into a centre of the metal-bashing industries. Its historic buildings didn’t do too badly in World War II, and having survived the drab communist period, they’ve been well spruced up. Oddly perhaps, none of the great palaces of the rulers of Brandenburg and its successor state, Prussia, are in or near the city of Brandenburg, but I saw a few in Berlin and Potsdam. There are quite a few churches that are worth visiting, particularly some that are on the European Route of Brick Gothic – I recently mentioned Baltic red-brick Gothic in places like Lübeck and Lund.

 Before the churches, however, I went to the Altstädtisches Rathaus (Old Town town hall, 1450-68), which is unusual for being a non-religious example of fully-fledged Brick Gothic, with its blind tracery and clocktower. In front is a wooden statue of Roland, one of Charlemagne’s heroic paladins, dating from 1474, which was a symbol of the city’s status as a free city within the Holy Roman Empire and of royal protection from the local nobles (I mentioned a similar one in Bremen). Oddly, there’s a houseleek (Sempervivum) plant growing on his head, something I’m more used to seeing at altitude on alpine hiking trails. Nearby, on the northwestern side of the Altstadt, is a pleasant promenade where the city walls once were, linking the Rathenower Torturm, the oldest surviving gate (1290-1320) and the Plauer Torturm (circa 1400).

The Altstädtisches Rathaus and Roland statue

 

 

 

St Gotthardt’s church

 

 

 

 

 

Nearby, St Gotthardt’s, still the parish church of the Altstadt, was founded in 1131 immediately after the canonisation of St Godehard (bishop of nearby Hildesheim from 1022 to 1038); the cathedral was only founded in 1165 (although there was a mission to the Slavs from 948 to 983). The tower of St Gotthardt’s still stands, but the rest of the church was rebuilt in the fifteenth century in the northern German Brick Gothic style. The original Romanesque cathedral was also largely rebuilt in Brick Gothic style from around 1295 to 1460 (and restored in NeoGothic style in the nineteenth century); it’s a fine building, and there are lots of splendid painted wooden altars and memorials, and a famous Baroque organ, built in 1725 and largely unchanged. Just outside the cathedral close, the St Petri church was built in the early thirteenth century as the Margrave of Brandenburg’s own chapel and was then used as a parish church (although its tower was demolished in 1849).

 In the Neustadt, the Katharinenkirche was rebuilt from 1381 to 1427, becoming an impressive example of Brick Gothic architecture – it’s a huge hall church that’s been rebuilt many times and now has an eighteenth-century gallery and a huge organ. On the south edge of the Neustadt, the church of the St Pauli monastery (c.1286) now houses an archeological museum. And I didn’t see this one, but about half a kilometre southwest of the Neustadt is St Jacob’s Chapel, dating from 1320; in 1892 it was in the way of a road-widening scheme and was moved about thirty metres west, and is now used as part of an art college.

 Back in the Altstadt, near the bridge, the monastery church of St Johannis, dating from 1246 and rebuilt in 1411, was almost completely destroyed by a British bomb in March 1945 and rebuilt in 2015 (although the west end is obviously missing). Just west of the Altstadt, St Nikolai was the parish church of Luckenberg, a village which was abandoned in 1295; it was built between the 1180s and 1230, with a tower added in 1467, burnt down in 1945 and rebuilt (the brick east end survives from the twelfth century).

 There’s a massive change of gear when you cross Neuendorfer Strasse from St Nikolai – house no.89A was the local outpost of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, in 1945-6, and  immediately to the east on Nicolaiplatz (yes, they spell it both ways) is the chilling Gedenkort Opfer der Euthanasie-Morde or Memorial Site for the Victims of Euthanasia Murders. The Nazis came to power in 1933 and that same year opened their first concentration camps, including one here; in 1939 this became the Brandenburg Euthanasia Centre where they killed the mentally ill, developing the use of gas chambers that were later scaled up for mass murder at camps such as Auschwitz. Four information pillars stand on the site of the gas chamber and there’s a small museum (closed Mon-Wed, free).

 By the river behind the Memorial Site is the Slawendorf, a reconstruction of an eleventh-century Slav village which opens at weekends and which, intriguingly, offers overnight accommodation in a hut (with, I assume, twentieth-first century toilet facilities). Given that Hitler also despised the Slav races, the location is perhaps not inappropriate.

 But of course, for many people, Brandenburg means Bach concertos, although there’s no direct link with the city – Christian Ludwig (1677-1734), Margrave of Brandenburg, ran the Prussian court orchestra because his brother, King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia, the ‘Soldier King’, had no time for the arts; he heard Bach playing the harpsichord in Berlin in 1719 and asked him for some music. Johann Sebastian didn’t compose anything new but personally copied out the scores of six concerti grossi and dedicated the collection to the margrave. In fact they were not performed, probably because the orchestra wasn’t up to it, and he was not paid; the scores were only rediscovered in the Brandenburg archives in 1849 and published the following year. Mendelssohn, who was essentially responsible for rescuing Bach from obscurity, didn’t perform them, and then the manuscript was almost lost again in World War II when a train taking them to a safe location was attacked by planes. It was probably the recording by the exiled German violinist Adolph Busch in 1935 that brought them to their present position as some of the greatest (and most popular) musical works.

 Magdeburg

Magdeburg is a city I’ve never stayed in overnight, but a couple of times I’ve gone from the station to the Dom (the Lutheran cathedral) and back; it’s still seen as a gritty industrial city that hasn’t changed much since the communist era. The old town is under a kilometre east of the Hauptbahnhof, on the banks of the Elbe river; try to go via the Roman Catholic cathedral in one direction and the Green Citadel in the other. The Catholic cathedral was founded in 1015 as the church of St Sebastian and rebuilt in 1150-70 as a Romanesque basilica (the west end and towers survive) and in the fifteenth century as a Gothic hall church. It was damaged in World War II and has since acquired modern stained glass and a fine pair of bronze doors; there are also some fine painted wooden altars. The Green Citadel was built in 2004-5 to designs by the eccentric Viennese artist/architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser (who died in 2000 on a cruise on the QE2) – it’s a self-consciously wacky block of apartments, shops and a small hotel, wavy-sided and topped with trees and golden balls.

 Just north of the Dom, the Church of Our Lady has not changed much since the eleventh century; it’s part of a Romanesque monastery that now houses the state of Saxony-Anhalt’s main museum of contemporary art; unfortunately it was closed for refurbishment but should (Covid-19 permitting) re-open in March 2021.

 The Dom itself is the oldest Gothic cathedral in all Germany, the largest in eastern Germany and, with one steeple just over 100 metres in height (and one just below 100 metres) one of the tallest in eastern Germany. Construction began in 1209 and was completed in 1520 – just a few years before it was taken over by the Lutherans. It’s the burial place of Otto the Great (the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I 962-973) and his wife Edith, Alfred the Great’s grand-daughter (and isotopic analysis of her bones has proved that she grew up in Wessex).

The cathedral was sacked during the Thirty Years War, and the stained-glass windows were destroyed; it was not too heavily damaged in World War II, except that the replacement windows were also destroyed. There are many fine memorials to local worthies and other valuable sculptures, as well as the Magdeburger Ehrenmal (Magdeburg Cenotaph) by Ernst Barlach (1929), an obviously anti-war war memorial that was controversial when it was installed and was removed during the Nazi period. Running south from the cathedral, Hegelstrasse is lined with grand buildings built between 1880 and 1914, with ornate stucco façades that are worth a glance.

Berlin – a different side

My previous visit to Berlin, three and a half years ago, was mainly in the city centre ie what was East Berlin – this time I spent a couple of nights in Charlottenburg, to the west, and then passed through Potsdam, a small city to the southwest of Berlin – both are known for their massive Baroque and Rococo palaces, which would not ordinarily be my preferred style but which would in fact blow almost anyone away. Berlin (and the surrounding state of Brandenburg) were once full of these over-the-top statements of royal power, but the Royal Palace (the Berliner Schloss) and the City Palace in Potsdam (the Potsdamer Stadtschloss) were destroyed in World War II. There was really no need to rebuild them, but they have been – the Schloss has been recreated to house the Humboldt Forum, due to open in 2021 (as mentioned in my previous post but of course delayed by Covid-19), and the City Palace in Potsdam was rebuilt by 2013 and now houses Brandenburg’s parliament. Some of the historic furniture from both palaces is now in the Charlottenburg Palace.

The Hohenzollern rulers of Prussia wanted to set themselves up as equal to the French monarchs in particular, so they had to out-do Versailles and its satellite palaces; on my previous trip to Germany I was also struck by the row of Versailles-type palaces facing France along what is now the German side of the border, erected by far less powerful princes and bishops in cities such as Baden-Baden, Rastatt and Mannheim, but I never managed to write up a blog post.

In Charlottenburg (as in Potsdam) there are various palaces and annexes to be visited, so the Charlottenburg+ day ticket is a wise investment. Even so, it was a bit of a hassle to get started at the Old Palace, and then it was a stop-start process of waiting for other people’s audioguides to finish in each room (no overtaking, due to Covid-19). This is the central section of the complex, facing you as you enter through ceremonial gates from Spandauer Damm; in the 1690s this was the rural village of Litzow, and the country retreat built for Sophia Charlotte, wife of Friedrich I, Elector of Brandenburg,  was christened Lietzenburg. In 1701 Friedrich proclaimed himself King of Prussia and in 1702 began a massive expansion of the palace, which he renamed after Sophia Charlotte’s death in 1705. His grandson Friedrich II (Frederick the Great), who came to the throne in 1740, added the east wing or New Palace, but also built Sanssouci at Potsdam (see below) and decided he preferred to spend time there; his successors Friedrich Wilhelm II, III and IV did spend much of their time in the New Palace, so many suites of rooms have been repeatedly redesigned, although always to the highest level of luxuriousness. Rococo interiors predictably feature large quantities of complicated white and gold mouldings, but in fact the Berlin-Brandenburg (or Frederician) variant is subtler than some others, with a surprising use of negative space and contrast. The palace was badly damaged in World War II and rebuilt, with furniture and furnishings drawn from other palaces that did not survive.

Highlights of the Old Palace include Sophia Charlotte’s Glass Bedchamber and Porcelain Cabinet, and the chapel, which is decorated in the most over-the-top Counter-Reformation Catholic style and totally unProtestant. The communion table was carved by Charles King, a student of Grinling Gibbons in England who moved to Berlin and died there in 1756 aged almost 100; he was also probably responsible for the oak carvings in the Old Gallery. There’s a lot of art as well, but eighteenth-century French painting is not to my taste – still, there are a lot by Watteau. In Sophia Charlotte’s second apartment, there’s Bathsheba Bathing by the workshop of Rembrandt, and paintings by Bronckhorst and other Dutch artists.


In the New Palace, the White Hall and Golden Gallery are beautiful Rococo confections, and there are rooms in Chinese, Etruscan and Neoclassical styles, the latter including Queen Luisa’s bedchamber, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (see below) in 1810. There’s a wider range of art here, with sculptures by Rauch, Johann Gottfried Schadow (1764-1850, famed for the quadriga chariot on top of the Brandenburg Gate) and his son Rudolf Schadow (1786-1822), and paintings by Gérard, David, Carle Vernet, Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow (1789–1862, also a son of Johann Gottfried) and Karl Blechen (1798-1840). As a travel writer I was pleased to see the great paintings by Friedrich Georg Weistch of Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bompland with a view of Chimborazo in Ecuador (1810), and of Krusenstern in Kamchatka, with remarkably similar volcanoes! Upstairs there’s more fluffy stuff by Watteau, Lancret, Boucher and Rigaud, and also one ‘studio of Rubens’ and others by Antoine Pesne (1683-1757), another Frenchman who was court painter to three successive kings of Prussia between 1711 and 1757, and a fine portraitist.

Behind the palaces (to the north) are large formal gardens that are open to the public (with a fairly poor cycle route along the river); just north of the New Palace is the New Pavilion, built in 1825 by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose Neoclassical architecture largely defines Berlin to this day; there’s a good display here on his work, not only architecture but also interior design and furniture, aiming for a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art (an idea made famous by Wagner from 1849); he was also a self-taught painter, and designed the Iron Cross medal. Also in the park are the Belvedere (1788), a viewpoint tower, and the Mausoleum (1810), a Doric temple designed with Schinkel’s help for the tomb of Queen Luise, who was very popular and died suddenly at just 34; the marble sculpture on her tomb is a masterpiece by Christian Daniel Rauch. Both are closed from November to March, but the Belvedere was in fact already shut in October 2020 due to Covid-19.

Across the Spandauer Damm, the buildings that form a symmetrical counterpoint to the Old Palace gates, now house a couple of fine museums. Known as the Stülerbauten, after the architect FA Stüller, they were built in 1851-9 to house the palace guard; the western block, once the officers’ mess and from 1937 a training centre for Nazi detectives and Gestapo officers (including Klaus Barbie, the ‘Butcher of Lyon’), now houses the Museum Berggruen, a superb collection of modern art (in 2013 it expanded into the former commandant’s house to the west). It’s rightly known for its superb Picassos (mostly pre-World War II) but is also strong on Klee, Matisse and Giacometti, and has works by Braque, Henri Laurens and Cézanne too.

Since 2008 the Eastern Stülerbau has housed the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection, dedicated to surrealist art and the fantastic since the eighteenth century (some brilliant Piranesis and Goyas); mercifully there’s just one small Dalí, but there are weird prints by Charles Méryon, Ensor and Klinge, some very atypical Manet prints of Poe’s The Raven, and four pieces by the writer Victor Hugo. Upstairs there’s a fairly representative collection of Ernst, Picabia, Man Ray, Grosz, de Chirico, Hans Bellmer, Dubuffet, André Masson, Miró, Magritte, Victor Brauner, Schwitters and Hans Arp, sculptures by Henri Laurens, and a room of Klees. In 1967, the stables were taken over by the Egyptian Museum, which moved to Museum Island in 2005; however a couple of huge columns and gateways remain here (the columns from Abusir were stored in the Charlottenburg Palace when it was bombed and cracked due to water from the firehoses, and were only reassembled in the 1980s). Your ticket for the Berggruen Museum is valid here too, so you might as well make time to visit.

Incidentally, Charlottenburg remained independent from Berlin until 1920; from 1862 villas were built here, and it then developed into an important town (an opera house opened in 1912, and from 1918 to 1946 it was the administrative centre of the province of Brandenburg). In the Weimar era the Kurfürstendamm (or Ku’damm) was known for its cafés and cabarets, and after World War II it became the commercial and entertainment district of West Berlin. It is still known for department stores, boutiques and restaurants and is I suppose the Kensington of Berlin.

It’s not too far south, beyond the Westkreuz railway junctions, to Dahlem, another village incorporated into Berlin in 1920 that also became an affluent villa district; the insurance magnate Otto Gerstenberg had a villa in Dahlem, where his grandson Dieter Scharf was born; together they created the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection (see above), and Heinz Berggruen (see above as well) was buried here. There’s an attractive half-timbered U-Bahn station with a thatched roof, and it’s the starting point for a pleasant cycle route to Berlin’s botanic garden and the woods and lakes between Berlin and Potsdam.

After World War II the US Army’s headquarters in Berlin were here, on Clayallee (named after General Lucius D. Clay, the mastermind of the Berlin Airlift); a couple of years ago I met an American whose uncle had stayed in Berlin after World War II, marrying a local woman and becoming fluent in colloquial German, and spent his whole career in US intelligence, handing over bags of cash on bridges in exchange for prisoners, and so on. After 1948 the Free University of Berlin, set up to counter the increasingly communist universities in what became East Berlin, was based in Dahlem (it’s still very active), and some of West Berlin’s most important museums were built here (see my previous post). Since 2016 most of these have been closed, with the collections of the Museum of Asian Art and the Ethnological Museum moving to the new Humboldt Forum in the centre, now due to open in 2021. The Museum of European Cultures will remain in Dahlem.

The modernist red-brick Jesus-Christus-Kirche (dating from 1932) was the base of pastor Martin Niemöller, one of the most outspoken Christian opponents of Nazism (known for his poem that begins First they came for the socialists…); after World War II it became the main rehearsal and recording space of the Berlin Philharmonic, and where they meet in conclave to elect their chief conductors.


Potsdam’s palaces and parks

From Charlottenburg I cycled through the Grunewald woods (and via the grave of the writer Heinrich von Kleist and his lover) to Potsdam (also easily reached by S-Bahn and regional express trains), where the princes of Brandenburg and then Prussia built more grand palaces. A settlement was established in the tenth century (well before Berlin) on the site of a Slavic fortress, and the town on the site of the present Alter Markt followed after about 1200. It became a princely residence in 1660, and from 1685 was home to thousands of French Huguenots (followed in the 1730s and 1740s by Protestants from Austria, Dutch builders and gardeners, Russian soldiers and Jews), and it was a military base from 1713 and then a major manufacturing centre.

Sanssouci (ie Care-free)

Friedrich II (Frederick the Great) rebuilt the centre, creating one of the most beautiful Baroque squares in Europe, a twenty-year process that was concerned entirely with façades and not with what might be behind them. He also created Sanssouci (1744-7), perhaps the finest Rococo palace, although it’s actually tiny, initially with just ten main rooms, followed by the Neues Palais (New Palace; 1763-9) a couple of kilometres away on the western side of the Sanssouci park; this was intended only for occasional use for receptions and state visits but is still absolutely immense and very splendid (it did end up being the preferred residence of Kaiser Bill, Wilhelm II, until 1918). Only a few rooms are open, and be sure to to go to the right from the Shell Grotto to the Marble Gallery and then back, or you’ll miss one (there are no signs, and it’s easy to miss); this is not to be confused with the spectacular Marble Hall above. Facing it symmetrically to the west, the Comuns are two matching buildings linked by a colonnade, that housed kitchens and other services plus accommodation for servants and guards; they were finally linked to the palace by a tunnel in 1896, and are now the headquarters of the new University of Potsdam.

The Neues Palais

Friedrich Wilhelm IV (reigned 1840-61) also had grandiose plans, sketching out a two-kilometre-long Via Triumphalis and aiming, with Schinkel, Ludwig Persius and the landscape architect Peter Joseph Lenné, to turn Potsdam into a Gesamtkunstwerk (see above) with buildings blending seamlessly with the landscape. They built a belvedere and the Temple of Pomona, Roman baths, the Italianate Church of Peace (as a royal mausoleum), a pumping station disguised as a mosque, and most famously the Orangery (1851-64), based on the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, and the Charlottenhof.

Communist Potsdam (and the obelisk of the Neustädter Tor, destroyed in 1945)

I don’t remember much of my first visit, in about 1990, except for the cute and very photographable red squirrels in the park (I enjoyed the urban red squirrels in Berlin on this most recent visit); this time the highlight was the Picture Gallery, next to Sanssouci Palace, built for Friedrich II in 1755-63, essentially one large hall, all white and gold with marble taken from Roman ruins. Two or three rows of paintings hang facing south, with some glare, and organised by schools (ie countries), which was a new idea at the time. There are a lot by Rubens (and school of and workshop of Rubens, and The Battle of Hercules & the Amazons, by Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder), Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas, a striking Lievens (Man in Oriental Costume), and more by Flinck, de Gelder, Jordaens, van Honthorst, van Dyck, and a few Italians such as Procaccini, Bassano and Guido Reni. There are no Rembrandts now, although a couple were removed to the Altes Galerie in 1829. I entered at the top and emerged in the gardens below, although that may be a temporary response to Covid-19.

The rebuilt City Palace, Potsdam (two photos)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The city centre was heavily damaged in the closing days of World War II, and was then subjected to Soviet-style town planning; now they seem to be ‘doing a Dresden’ and trying to rebuild it as it was, at least on the surface. The rebuilt City Palace (built in 1763-9) now houses the state parliament, and the Barberini Palace next door (1771-2) reopened in 2017, putting on temporary art exhibitions, based on the Impressionist collection of Hasso Plattner, co-founder of the software company SAP. In the Old Town Hall (1753-5), the Potsdam Museum offers free entry to its history galleries on the top floor (and paid entry to art exhibitions downstairs) – it’s not entirely clear on the development of the royal palaces and parks, but is strong on the twentieth century in particular (in German and English). There are also film and natural history museums in Potsdam, among others.

The Potsdam Museum

Lübeck – the Hanse, Brick Gothic and Bach

Having spent a few weeks in the Hanseatic ports of Bremen and Hamburg and then on the Danish and Swedish sides of the Øresund and Kattegat, the funnel through which trade between the Baltic and the North Sea has to pass, it was good to get to Lübeck, the closest thing to a capital of the Hanseatic League, and to learn about its history. I wasn’t actually aware of the European Hanse Museum, which opened in 2015, and I’d also forgotten just how lovely the town is and how much more there is to see here – one night was not enough and I shall certainly have to return.


Actually getting in to the museum is quite complicated, even without Covid-19, with their over-reliance on QR codes, a touch pen and earphones, and entries every two minutes via an automated lift – although this was a response to the medieval stonework discovered during construction of the museum, and not part of the original scheme. Once through the first rather dark spaces, there’s an excellent museum that makes good use of the technology to allow you to see lots of added information if you want. Merchants from these towns on the south side of the Baltic began trading from the twelfth century, roving as far as Italy, Malta and Crete, and then eastwards to Novgorod in Russia; from the fourteenth century they were known as the Hanse, with over a hundred towns linked by their use of the Low (Middle) German language, centred on Lübeck. It was also Lübeck’s measures that became standard. By the sixteenth century they’d established kantors or collective trading posts in Novgorod, Bruges, London and Bergen, with smaller ones in Boston, Lynn, Bourgneuf-en-Retz, La Rochelle, Pskov and Kaunas.

The museum has interactive reproductions of trading posts, and focusses particularly on Novgorod, which was immensely important because of the fur trade and also its access to the Silk Route; the trade had been opened up by merchants from the island of Gotland, but from the early fourteenth century it had been taken over by the Hanseatic towns (there’s also good coverage of the developments in shipbuilding that allowed this). Convoys left twice a year from Visby (in Gotland), having elected a leader, and transferred their goods to local lighters for the river passage to Novgorord. The merchants spent either the summer or the winter there (the river being frozen from October to April), bartering cloth, silverware, weapons and other metal products for furs, wax and honey; the kuna or marten pelt was the notional unit of exchange. (The kuna is still the unit of currency of Croatia, as this was on another fur trading route.) Meanwhile the Hudson’s Bay Company was using the ‘Made Beaver’ (dried for a year) as its unit of exchange, so this was quite familiar to a Canadian.


A less exotic but equally profitable trade was in salt to Skåne (Scania, the southern region of what is now Sweden), exchanged for herrings which were in great demand across Europe for Catholic fast days. I’d come across reminders of the herring trade in Denmark and Malmö over the previous couple of weeks. There’s also a room on Bruges, which was the exchange point for spices and exotic fruits coming by ship from the Mediterranean (we think of Bruges as an inland town now, but it was a major port at the time). And there’s coverage of the history of Lübeck itself, and of the museum site – when you finish in the modern museum, you can go up behind to the remains of the Castle Friary, built on the site of what may have originally been a Slav fortress in the eighth century and then a Dominican friary and almshouse from 1227. It was converted to law courts in 1894, and on the lower level you’ll also see the early fourteenth-century chapter house and infirmary (which had underfloor heating, impressively enough).


The old town of Lübeck, famed for the finest Brick Gothic architecture in Germany, is a World Heritage Site; however much of it was destroyed in World War II (the raid of March 1942 was the RAF’s first major success in attacking Germany) and very carefully rebuilt afterwards. The area of the Market Square in particular was heavily damaged and there are now modern buildings on three sides and the superb Rathaus (City Hall) complex on the fourth side; dating from 1230-40, it was expanded in the next two centuries and in the sixteenth century the wooden oriel window and the external stairs were added, along with the splendid Kriegstubenbau or War Office. To the north, the long thin Chancellery extends all the way to Mengstrasse (where the gable façade was added in 1791), past the Marienkirche or church of St Mary, the city’s largest and most dominant although not its cathedral. Built between 1251 and 1350, it was the first church in the Hanse area in the Brick Gothic style and was much copied (for instance in Lund). However none of the copies matched the height of the Marienkirche’s nave, the world’s highest brick vault at 38.5 metres.

The oriel window of the Rathaus
The external stairs of the Rathaus
The gable façade on Mengstrasse


The great organ was built in 1518, destroyed in 1942 and replaced in 1968; Dietrich Buxtehude, who was the organist here for 39 years (and is buried here), was famed as one of Germany’s leading composers. Budding composers such as Telemann and Handel visited him here, and in October 1705 the twenty-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach walked almost 400km from Arnstadt to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude, then 68 years old, play. He took a month’s leave but stayed for three (by the time he’d walked home it was almost four), playing the organ, studying and copying scores – a hugely important experience for him. In 2017 the writer Horatio Clare recreated Bach’s epic walk, producing a wonderfully evocative series of soundscapes for BBC Radio 3, which alas are not currently available online (I’ll see what can be done about that) – but you can read his article in the Guardian, which focuses on the Brocken, the highest point of the Harz Mountains, which I visited a few days after leaving Lübeck, but which I’m sure Bach would have managed to avoid. There’s little doubt that from Lüneburg he would have followed the Old Salt Road to Lübeck, which ties in nicely with the Hanseatic League and the Danish/Swedish herring trade.


The World Heritage site’s Koberg zone, centred on the Jakobikirche (Church of St James) and Heiligen-Geist-Hospital (Holy Ghost Hospital), just north of the Marienkirche, also protects the whole of the eastern half of the old city, with street upon street of beautiful eighteenth-century houses. Three of these now house the Buddenbrooks House Literary Museum, the Günter Grass-House, and the Willy-Brandt-House. The first  is dedicated to the writers Thomas and Heinrich Mann, born here, the second to the writer Günter Grass, who was not born here but lived much of his life here, and the third to the politician Willy Brandt, born here as Herbert Frahm; the Brandt Museum is free, the others not too pricey (and likewise the Marienkirche). It’s pretty astonishing for a fairly small city to have produced three Nobel Prize winners. The Buddenbrooks House is closed for a major refurb until 2023, but there are temporary displays at the Behnhaus (Königstrasse 9) and the Infocenter (Am Markt 15).


The Jakobikirche, consecrated in 1334, was not too badly damaged in World War II, and its organ (dating from 1467/1637) is one of the few in the world with most of its original Gothic and Renaissance pipework – it popped up on Radio 3 just the other day. The Heiligen Geist Hospital, dating from 1260-86, is a fine red-brick structure with beautiful murals – it’s well worth popping in to the main hall (free) even if you don’t want the full tour. Not far south is the Museumskirche St Katherinen (Museum Church of St Catherine), built around 1300 in Brick Gothic style (of course) and now an art museum housing modern sculptures as well as paintings by Tintoretto (The Raising of Lazarus, 1576) and Sir Godfrey Kneller, generally thought of as an English court painter but in fact born Gottfried Kniller in Lübeck in 1646. The two-storey choir and fourteenth-century stalls are worth a look, and on the façade are figures by Ernst Barlach (1930-33) and Gerhard Marcks (1947-48).

The Heiligen Geist Hospital
The Heiligen Geist Hospital


Further south, just beyond the relatively small red-brick Aegidienkirche (church of St Giles), is the St. Anne’s Museum Quarter, formed in 2013 with the merging of a cultural history museum and an art gallery (in the late-Gothic St Anne’s Priory, built in 1502-15), along with a new children’s museum and a café (how they love their museum cafés in northern Europe!).

The St. Anne’s Museum Quarter


The third of the World Heritage site’s zones covers the southwestern corner of the old city, from the Petrikirche (church of St Peter) to the Dom (cathedral) to the south; it also includes the Holstentor, the city’s iconic fifteenth-century gate, to the west of the city moat. The largely Gothic Petrikirche was virtually destroyed during World War II then reconstructed, with a lift added to reach the city’s best viewpoint. The Lutheran cathedral was founded in 1173, consecrated in 1247, and more or less completed in 1341 when the Gothic choir was finished; it’s big and fairly bare, but there are quite a few folding altarpieces on display, although the most famous, by Hans Memling, is now in the St. Anne’s Museum. The Paradise porch (1241-59), on the exterior of the north nave, is a wonderful display of medieval stone carving.

The Paradise porch
The Holstentor

What else?

Marzipan is said to have been invented in Lübeck, although in reality it was just an improvement of an existing (possibly Turkish) product – almonds don’t actually grow anywhere near Lübeck, but the Hanseatic merchants were a reliable source. Lübeck marzipan still contains more almonds and less sugar than is normal elsewhere, and one of the leading manufacturers has a free museum and a café.


There was some interesting news coverage recently in Britain about Anja Thauer, born in Lübeck in 1945, who was a sort of German parallel to Jacqueline du Pré, two exciting young cellists who studied together at the Paris Conservatoire, and whose careers both ended tragically in October 1973, when de Pré was diagnosed with MS and Thauer committed suicide after an affair with a married man was broken off. Now her recordings are being rediscovered, and changing hands for considerable sums – the evidence seems to be that she was good, but not as good, or as exciting, as du Pré.

Bonn – Beethoven, and not being Berlin

The small city of Bonn might have been just another of the little university towns in northern Germany, once the seat of a minor prince or bishop, like Göttingen, Giessen and Marburg, which I’d visited a day or two before, if not for two things. One is that is was chosen to be the capital of West Germany after World War II, when Berlin was temporarily unavailable, the other was Ludwig van Beethoven.


Beethoven was christened in Bonn on 17 December 1770, so it’s assumed that his 250th birthday was on about 16 December 2020, and there was plenty on BBC Radio 3 and elsewhere to mark the occasion. In particular, I’ve enjoyed Donald Macleod’s Composer of the Week series, not just for the week of the anniversary but every second week throughout the year, looking at different aspects of his life and music. The week with the great Sir John Eliot Gardiner discussing his interpretations as a conductor was a highlight. I was particularly happy that he spoke of Beethoven’s odd- and even-numbered symphonies – the odd ones being angular and radical, the even ones smoother and consolidatory – it’s an idea I mentioned to musicians when I was a student, and they looked baffled but then had to agree that I had a point.


There’s plenty more via this page (Tom Service matches Ludwig in turning the enthusiasm up to 11 and may take a bit of getting used to) and this one. Donald Macleod mentioned that he’d been in Bonn in February (2020) and Beethoven’s image was everywhere as the city geared up for BTHVN2020; but by the time I got there in October (delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic) there was little sign of this; the city’s year of anniversary celebrations has been extended to the end of 2021, in the hope of actually getting together for live music at some point.

However the Beethoven House museum, where he was born, was open and I can thoroughly recommend it. Buy your tickets across the road and then cross Bonngasse to the fairly anonymous house, where the permanent display was renewed and enlarged in 2019; I don’t often bother with audioguides, but I wanted to take my time here, and it does give plenty of background information, for instance on the economics of Beethoven’s career. The musical illustrations are also excellent (many played on Beethoven’s own instruments and by musician such as Sir András Schiff). Because of his deafness, Beethoven left a large number of conversation books (although they give questions to him, but usually not his replies); there’s also a huge number of sketches and caricatures of him, as well as a couple of the iconic portraits of the young genius. Next door, across the courtyard, is the music room, where you can listen to Ludwig’s greatest hits while following the music on a digital reproduction of his original scores – although it’s an astonishing scrawl. And he was an astonishing musician, though not quite the greatest (that’s JS Bach).


Elsewhere in Bonn

I cycled up the Rhine from Koblenz, a pleasant riverside route that enters the Bonn conurbation at Bad Godesberg, which was where most of the embassies were when Bonn was the federal capital; it’s green and leafy and is still known as the posh part of town. Across the river is Königswinter, where various hills are topped by castle ruins and grand nineteenth-century resort hotels – the most famous is the Drachenfels (Dragon Rock), where Siegfried killed the dragon Fafner, and Byron’s Childe Harold raved about the view. The young Beethoven was a frequent visitor, and in 2019 a Beethoven hiking trail was created, including the Drachenfels, the Petersburg and the Heisterbach Monastery.


After World War II the grand hotel on the Petersburg served as headquarters of the Allied High Commission for Germany, and then as a guesthouse for the federal government, with many world leaders staying there. It is still government-owned and used for conferences, though open as a hotel at other times (Michael Schumacher was married there). Since 1950 the Königswinter Conference has brought together decision-makers from Britain and Germany every year, starting as a small private initiative and developing into a framework for institutional dialogue between the two countries (despite the best efforts of the French to make it tripartite); however, this was originally held down in the town itself and now takes place in Berlin, Britain and elsewhere.


Bonn was chosen as temporary capital of the temporary state of West Germany because Konrad Adenauer, who became the first federal chancellor, was from nearby Köln and didn’t want the capital to be in Frankfurt am Main, which he feared would resist giving it up when the time came to return to Berlin. Bonn was in the British zone of occupation but not too far from the French and American zones (but a good safe distance from the Soviet zone). The novels of John le Carré (who died a couple of weeks ago) are associated with Cold War Berlin, but he actually wrote The Spy Who Came in From the Cold here in Bonn, where he was attached to the British Embassy (as a spy, obviously).


Turning left (west) after Bad Godesberg and the Rheinaue Park, you’ll come to the area of the UN Campus (repurposing the former federal government buildings) and some major museums. The Haus der Geschichte is a big modern (free) museum that tells the history of Germany (East, West and reunited) since 1945 in considerable detail, with English summaries. I wasn’t aware of Die Todesmühlen (The Death Mills), a film by the Polish-Jewish Billy Wilder (known at that time for Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend, though he went on to direct some of Hollywood’s greatest comedies) that was the first evidence of the Holocaust seen by most Germans. In fact it was largely compiled from film taken by the British forces liberating camps such as Belsen, with added interviews. Powerful stuff, in any case. Originally the plan was to strip Germany of its industry and turn it into an agricultural nation, but the US and UK soon abandoned this idea, pivoting in the Marshall Plan (1948-52) to rebuilding, especially the mining and energy industries; the French and Soviets continued for a while with the de-industrialisation idea, and Stalin blocked Marshall Plan aid for the Soviet zone and Eastern Europe. I was also amazed by how Nazi the DDR (German Democratic Republic) looked in its early days, with jackbooted soldiers and Hitler Youth-style short shorts; eventually they realised that this was not a good look for the future.


Having recently been to the Willy Brandt House in Lübeck, I was interested to learn more about his period in power (after two decades of conservative rule), although it didn’t last as long expected, as one of his closest aides was revealed as an East German spy and he was forced to resign in 1974. Still, he retained his seat in the Bundestag, and also sat in the European Parliament from 1979 to 1983, and continued as chair of the Social Democratic Party until 1987; so the Germany that the conservatives finally took control of again in 1982 was largely his creation (he was also president of the Socialist International from 1976 to 1992).


Just south of the Haus der Geschichte, the Kunstmuseum Bonn is a large and very striking, but rather under-used art museum. It’s mostly contemporary art, but there’s a good collection of the Rhenish Expressionists, notably August Macke, who spent most of his short life in Bonn, as well as Max Ernst, who was born in Brühl, just north of Bonn (there’s a Max Ernst Museum there too). I loved the tear-off pads of pages of information in German and English in each room.


Bonn was the residence of the Archbishops and Prince-electors of Köln from 1597 to 1794; it was heavily damaged by shelling by the army of Brandenburg during the Siege of Bonn in 1689, and revived under the reign of the elector Clemens August (1723–61), who built a series of Baroque buildings which give the historic centre much of its character. A kilometre or so north of the Haus der Geschichte, it’s best entered by the Koblenzer Tor (1757), or through the courtyard of the Kurfürstliches Schloss (Electoral Palace, 1577), just west, which is now the main building of the University of Bonn. Immediately north is the cathedral (built between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries), on the south side of the Münsterplatz, and just northeast the Marktplatz with the pink rococo Old City Hall (1737). Just off the Marktplatz is the Gothic church of St Remigius (completed in 1307); Beethoven was baptised in another nearby church of St Remigius which was burnt down in 1800, after which the parish moved to this former monastery chapel.


The grand chestnut-lined Poppelsdorfer Allee led from the Kurfürstliches Schloss to the Poppelsdorfer Schloss, the prince-electors’ country palace that’s actually less than a kilometre southwest. The grand esplanade is now severed by the railway, but the palace grounds are now a botanical garden (the Botanischer Garten Bonn), which are well worth a visit (and free from Monday to Friday).


I remember arriving at Bonn by train in 1978 as they were rolling out a red carpet – not for me, but for Queen Elizabeth, I was told. ‘Elizabeth..?’, I wondered, ‘Denmark? Sweden? the Netherlands? No. Oh, you mean The Queen!’. Because we never really think of her as Queen Elizabeth the Second – Liz ‘n’ Phil, possibly. This time round I found there were no trains from the Hauptbahnhof to nearby Köln because of engineering work; there is a direct (but very slow) tram right outside, but I chose to cycle across the bridge to Bonn-Beuel on the east bank and catch a train there – scenic rail lines run along both the east and west sides of the Rhine, busy with local, long-distance and freight trains, so even if you chose not to cycle along the river there’s plenty of interest.