Coventry – a city of culture, not a ghost town

In 2016 I visited Hull and published a blog post about its preparations to be the UK’s second City of Culture the next year. The first had been Derry-Londonderry in 2013, and the third is Coventry, in 2021, so I have now (post-lockdown) been there to see how they’re getting on, despite the inevitable pandemic-related delays – it will now run for a year from May 2021. Being UK City of Culture does not mean that the Royal Shakespeare Company and the London Symphony Orchestra move in for the summer, it’s far more about local strengths and community projects – in the case of Coventry, that above all means reliving the Two-Tone and ska era of The Selecter and The Specials (remember Ghost Town? They insist that wasn’t just a description of Coventry in the 1970s). The Two-Tone exhibition at the city’s main museum, the Herbert, opened just after my visit but looks good, and there are gigs and sessions organised by the likes of Terry Hall, Pauline Black and Neville Staple. Another Coventry-born musician getting involved is Clint Mansell, of Pop Will Eat Itself, who has become a very individual and successful composer of film music, and there’s a gig by Pete Doherty, who formed his first band when he was at school in nearby Bedworth.

 There’s also some recognition of Delia Derbyshire, the legendary pioneer of electronic music with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s (remembered above all for the freaky theme music for Doctor Who), who was also born in Coventry – and there’s a new permanent display on her at the little Coventry Music Museum, out east on Walsgrave Road. Oddly enough, Philip Larkin, who is generally associated with Hull, was actually born in Coventry; 2022 will mark the centenary of his birth, so the City of Culture will mark this in the first half of next year (though the actual date is in August).

 There are some attractive temporary venues, such as the cathedral ruins (see below), the Assembly Festival Garden (on a building site at the north end of Much Park St, with a couple of tents and an outdoor venue) and the canal basin (just across the ring road to the north). The Belgrade Theatre was very important back in the 1960s (it was Britain’s first purpose-built civic theatre, designed and funded by the city council, as in most German cities, for instance), it pioneered theatre in education and had an amazing repertory company that included Ian McKellen, Joan Plowright, Frank Finlay, Leonard Rossiter and Trevor Nunn, who used to hitch-hike regularly to see shows down the road at Stratford-upon-Avon until the RSC begged him to move there and join them. Arnold Wesker’s most famous plays were premiered here, as was Edward Bond’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, which I was briefly obsessed with the idea of directing myself as a teenager. Anyway, the Belgrade is going strong (the Grade II-listed building, a bit like a mini-Royal Festival Hall, was refurbished in 2006-7) , but doesn’t seem to be heavily involved in Coventry2021.

 The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum is also in good shape, having been totally turned around in 2008 with a new glass-roofed entry foyer on the cathedral plaza, on its north side, as well as the obligatory café and education spaces (and it’s free). The history gallery does a good job of explaining the city’s development as a major centre of the clothmaking industry – by the fifteenth century it was the largest inland city in England, and was effectively its capital in the late 1450s, during the Wars of the Roses. It did then decline, but developed a specialism in ribbon-weaving from around 1700. Anyone who had name-tapes sewn into their school clothes will remember Cash’s, the only survivor of the city’s ribbon weaving industry. From 1868 the first bikes in Britain were produced here (by the Coventry Sewing Machine Company) and in 1885 James Starley invented the safety bicycle, which superseded the penny-farthing and made cycling a mass pursuit. In 1894 the Lanchester Motor Company produced the first British-built petrol car; George Singer left the Coventry Sewing Machine Company to make bikes, and then began making cars from 1901 – by 1951 a quarter of all cars produced in Britain came from Coventry. In 1888 Alfred Herbert set up a cycle components company, which became one of the world’s biggest machine tool companies, and of course it was he who funded the building of the museum.

 You can also see George Eliot’s desk (which she actually used in London); she was born in Nuneaton and went to school in Coventry, coming back when she was 21 and making radical free-thinking friends who encouraged her and published her first articles in the Coventry Herald and Observer. Her great (but to my mind tedious) novel Middlemarch was set in a ribbon-weaving town that is clearly Coventry. She has been channelled for a Coventry2021 event. Another Coventry-born author is the definitely untedious Lee Child, creator of Jack Reacher – he features in a Coventry2021 podcast and in fact passed through back in April to promote his biography, written as it happens by the wife of a friend of mine.

 On the art front, there’s a room of European art, with a couple of surprises, notably a big unframed Luca Giordano of Bacchus and Ariadne, as well as a Lawrence of George III, a Morland, a Zoffany, a Holman Hunt (after Rembrandt), and their oldest painting, believed to be Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald by Lucas d’Heere (1573). Elsewhere they have works by Frank Dobson, Gustav Metzger, Hepworth and a couple of Epsteins. A pair of carved stone mural panels depicting Man’s Struggle by Walter Ritchie were created in 1957 for the pedestrian precinct (see below) and moved in 1994 to the outside wall of the Herbert – unfortunately this is now at the rear and is not seen by most visitors. As with Hull four years ago, the Turner Prize award ceremony will be held at the Herbert in September (with an exhibition continuing until 10 January).

 Another gallery deals with the various versions of the Lady Godiva story, which arose in the late twelfth century. The historic Godiva (grandmother of King Harold’s wife) died in 1067, having founded a Benedictine abbey in Coventry in 1043 with her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia (they were both buried there, although it is long gone). It’s most unlikely that she was naked as she rode through the town, and Peeping Tom was invented by Tennyson in 1842.

 Finally, the Peace and Reconciliation Gallery has photos of the damage from the 41 air raids that hit the city in 1940, killing over 1,200. Until then the city had retained much of its medieval fabric, but most was lost in the Coventry Blitz. The plaques on the remaining half-timbered buildings – ‘Last surviving example of …’ and so on – really bring home just how attractive the pre-war city must have been. Spon Street, on the west of the city centre, survived relatively well, and several medieval buildings that also survived but were now in the way of rebuilding were moved here. One result was that Coventry and Stalingrad became the first twinned cities in 1944, followed after the war by Dresden, and eventually 24 others. Another was that a pre-war plan for redevelopment, inspired by Rotterdam, could be put into effect without too many restraints – despite Coventry’s enduring image as ‘Car City’, it included the first pedestrianised shopping precinct in Britain (along with a ring road, rooftop car parking and a circular multistorey car-park, admittedly), which is still going strong. However, in January this year plans were unveiled to demolish much of the precinct and replace it with an identikit modern shopping centre and flats – which seems perverse just when Covid-19 and online shopping are causing so many similar malls to implode. There have been widespread protests, so it may be possible to revive the (deliberately) neglected parts of the city centre rather than demolishing them. That would be a worthy project for the City of Culture.

 Various isolated medieval buildings do survive, giving a glimpse of what pre-blitz Coventry must have been like, and there’s potential to use them more. Nearest the centre, Cheylesmore Manor, or at least its gatehouse, now serves as the city’s registry office; the thirteenth-century manor house was demolished in 1955, but the gatehouse was probably built after 1338 for Edward the Black Prince, who used the manor as a hunting lodge. The Whitefriars (Carmelite) friary was built in 1342-1538, with a 96 metre-long church where the ring road now is; all that remains is a sandstone dormitory that was taken over by the Herbert Museum in the 1960s and opened to the public until the early 1990s, when it was closed due to spending cuts. At the moment it’s only open for the Heritage Open Days every September. Finally, the Charterhouse is now run by the Historic Coventry Trust and is being restored with National Lottery funding, along with the surrounding Heritage Park (and the chapel of London Road cemetery, just across London Road); the Trust is also converting various historic properties (including the gatehouse to Whitefriars) to very distinctive tourist accommodation.

 The bombed-out shell of the cathedral has been preserved, with a modern replacement built at right angles to it, unusually. I hadn’t seen it for about thirty years and I’d forgotten just what a superb building it is. The architect Sir Basil Spence brought in fine artists such as Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Hans Coper, Jacob Epstein and Elisabeth Frink to ornament the building, and Britten’s War Requiem was premiered at the new cathedral’s consecration (with English, German and Russian soloists, and on my third birthday, as it happens). There’s also a strong Canadian connection, with the ceiling made of donated Canadian cedar and the organ donated by the Canadian College of Organists; in recognition of this, there’s a large bronze maple leaf in the floor at the west end of the cathedral. In addition, the cathedral’s new Director of Music is the Canadian Rachel Mahon.

 

 

  I visited Coventry Poly, as it was, for work a few times in the 1980s, but have virtually no memory of it now. The present Coventry University, however, is surprisingly large (with plenty of Chinese students, by the look of it) and seems to be expanding. In fact it was able to announce plans to demolish its main admin block, the Alan Berry Building, built in 1963 immediately opposite the cathedral, in 2022, to open up the vista to the cathedral. They’ve also just refurbished the Ellen Terry Theatre, a striking Deco cinema used by performing arts students (the great actor Dame Ellen Terry was born in Coventry in 1847), and they plan to restore the Grade II-listed former Civic Centre as a teaching block. I also cycled out to the University of Warwick, in the suburbs of Coventry (don’t ask), of which I have stronger memories – its Arts Centre has a very strong reputation but is closed until this summer (‘in time for Coventry2021’), when a new building housing cinemas, an accessible art gallery and a restaurant will be added.

 The University of Warwick is also connected to Aurrigo, a Coventry company that is developing autonomous vehicles – I mention this only because two of their shuttles were very recently on trial in Cambridge, and I also saw their delivery pods at work when I was in Milton Keynes. However the city of Coventry is also supporting new transport technologies, aiming first to switch all its buses to electric power, and then from 2025 to open a VLR (Very Light Rail) line from the University of Warwick via the station and city centre to the hospital and the Ricoh Arena – this will use single battery-powered vehicles, running on light track that will not need heavy engineering to install (reducing construction costs by three quarters). The plan is for the vehicles to operate autonomously, but perhaps not at first.

Coventry comes to West Cambridge
And finally, food and drink

Unusually, given my need for food and remaining lockdown restrictions, I found myself not in pubs with real ale but in craft beer bars where the drink comes in colourful cans and costs rather more than it should. One nice venue is Dhillon’s Spire Bar, in the base of the Christchurch Spire, all that remains of a city-centre church destroyed in the blitz – they actually have their own brewery and taproom out near the Ricoh Arena. The beer’s not bad, but I was more interested in Twisted Barrel Brewery, which makes vegetarian beers without using isinglass (a clearing agent from fish bladders). The tap room is in the rather hipster FarGo Village, a former industrial site on Far Gosford Street, just east of the centre; unfortunately they’re also committed to managing everything via their app, which rules out techno-clumsy old guys like me. I mean, what’s so difficult about using a contactless card?

 There are lots of ethnic food options, plus street food at FarGo Village and elsewhere, but the most interesting new option is Forme & Chase in the Telegraph Hotel, which opened in May in the former offices of the Coventry Telegraph newspaper, a classic postwar building nicely restored. There’s also the Generators rooftop bar here, for cocktails and snacks.

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.

 

[ I’ve just read Duff Cooper’s Old Men Forget (obscure, I know, and dated), and he describes his generation of young men who wanted to join the Foreign Office spending time in Hannover to learn German (just before World War I) – supposedly the best (ie least accented, I think) German was spoken there, although this may just be a tradition from the time of the Hanoverian monarchy. Anyway, ‘I am sure that Hanover in those days was the least entertaining city in the world, and its inhabitants the plainest. It is without architectural or historical interest.’ ]

 

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.

A flying visit to Sweden

It only takes 35 minutes on an Øresund train to cross from Copenhagen to the Triangeln station in Malmö (40 minutes if you continue to the ‘Central’ station), but the two cities feel very different. Copenhagen is full of interest and things to do (see my previous two posts) whereas Malmö just seems rather bland, as if it had been bombed and rebuilt as an efficient businesslike city. Obviously I’m being unfair, it’s a fine place to live, and economically dynamic – I was only there for two nights, and spent most of a day visiting the nearby town of Lund, which I have to say I found far more attractive.

 My first stop was the Malmöhus or Malmö Castle, just west of the centre, which now houses the city’s history, art and natural history museums. The town was founded in the mid-thirteenth century as a port for the bishopric of Lund, and grew fast due to its strategic location on the Øresund between present-day Denmark and Sweden, and its very profitable herring trade. The first castle was built in 1434 by Erik of Pomerania, king of the Kalmar Union (Denmark, Sweden and Norway), and it was rebuilt a century later (1536-42) by Christian III of Denmark, to serve not just as a fort but also as a residence for the county governor and occasionally for the king. The second half of the sixteenth century was its heyday, when Crown Prince Frederick and then King Christian IV spent a lot of time in their fine renaissance apartments; however from 1658 Sweden took control of this area and the fortifications were extended, resisting a Danish siege in 1767. It then fell into disrepair and served as a prison from 1828 to 1909; then the surrounding area became a park and eventually the northern wing of the castle was restored and opened as a museum in 1932, with more modern buildings on three sides of the courtyard inaugurated in 1937.

 You’ll start in the main museum building, facing the entry, where there’s an excellent aquarium,  with both local and tropical fish as well as tree-frogs, chameleons and snakes such as the green tree python and the Gaboon viper, as well as dioramas showing boar, bison and elk in their mocked-up habitats; the art galleries were closed when I visited. The history displays (a bit incoherent and mostly in Swedish only) are in the original north wing, where there also a couple of furnished rooms with royal portraits and a Gobelins tapestry (circa 1740); there’s also coverage of the episode just before the end of the Second World War, when volunteers drove white buses (there’s one in a glass box in front of the castle) to Germany to rescue 15,000 concentration camp survivors, of whom 2,000 were housed in the castle for some months. Incidentally, Malmö is likely to become the site of the Swedish Holocaust Museum. You can also wind your way across to the Cannon Tower, part of the seventeenth-century fortifications, with better coverage of the Danish-Swedish wars that ended in 1710.

 Immediately to the west are the Kommandanthuset café and the Banérskajen wharf, with herring boats and typical late nineteenth-century wooden houses, used to sell fish; in a modern building just beyond (and covered by the same ticket) is the Museum of Technology and Shipping. This feels like a real museum rather than random displays in a castle; highlights include the interior of the ferry Øresund, a small coastal submarine that you can go inside (in non-Covid times), a Saab Draken jet fighter, a Krauss narrow-gauge tank engine, and various cars and traction engines.

 The historic centre consists of two squares, the main Stor Torget, dominated by the Rådhus (City Hall), built in 1546, and just to the the southwest Lilla Torg, livelier with cafés and restaurants, and on its southern side the Form/Design Centre, with galleries that show off the best of Swedish design. Behind the Rådhus, St Petri is Malmö’s oldest church, dating from about 1319-80, and a fine example of Baltic Brick Gothic, perhaps modelled on the Marienkirche in Lübeck, which I’ll be writing about soon. It has a plain white interior with a simple vault and a splendid fifteen-metre-high altarpiece (dating from 1611) and funerary monuments. Don’t miss the murals in the so-called Krämare Chapel (the chapel of the vendors, built for the cloth merchants’ guild) – painted between the 1460s and the 1510s, and covering the ceiling and walls, they’re quite sophisticated and not at all like the naïf murals in the area’s village churches.

 I was also quite taken by St Paul’s church, just east of the centre, a hexagonal building built in 1882 that reminded me of Russian Orthodox churches of that period; it’s gay-friendly and swathed in rainbow flags.

There are two fine spaces for exhibitions of contemporary art: the (free) Konsthall just south of the centre, and the Moderna Museet just east of the centre, which was founded in 2009 (in a former power plant dating from 1901) as an outpost of the original Moderna Museet in Stockholm. If you go a little way west beyond the castle to the waterfront, there are good views of the Øresund bridge and the Turning Torso tower, now a symbol of the city, and there’s a sea-bathing pontoon, as in so many Danish cities, but that’s pretty much it for Malmö.

 Lovely little Lund

The small city of Lund is known both for its cathedral and its university, and it’s also the home of Tetrapak. It’s just 18km northeast of Malmö, with a direct cycle route that for some reason is not signposted from Malmö, despite being such a short and pleasant ride; in the other direction, there are signs from Lund, which may say something about the two towns’ relative sense of their own importance. Lund dates from the end of the tenth century, when it was defended by an earthen rampart with four gates; the Romanesque cathedral was built between around 1080 and 1145, and became the seat of the Archdiocese of the Nordic countries, founded in 1103. It was taken over by the Danish state in 1636, after the Reformation, and became rather dilapidated; in 1658 the region became part of Sweden, and in 1666 a university was established, to help in the Swedification of Skåne – at first teaching took place in the cathedral, but from 1688 the university took over the King’s House, just north of the cathedral, which had been built by King Frederik II in 1584.

 Although it’s been restored, the cathedral retains its Romanesque unity and would be worth a detour anywhere in Europe. Inside, there are some fine Romanesque stone carvings, especially in the crypt, wooden choir stalls (1361-79), and the splendid astronomical clock, installed around 1425, with two carved knights on top who clash their swords at noon and 15.00 daily, after which an organ plays the tune In Dulci Jubilo and the Three Kings and their servants emerge in procession. There’s also a neoByzantine mosaic in the apse, completed in 1927 by the painter Joakim Skovgaard.

 To the south of the cathedral is the very modern Cathedral Forum, opened in 2011 to house community facilities, visitor information, exhibitions and a fairtrade café. To the north is a park with the King’s House and, beyond, it, the modern university. Just northeast of the cathedral, the university’s Historical Museum has housed its archeological collections since 1918, and since 2003 it has been transformed and opened up to the public (with an English leaflet and summaries, at least). The finest Iron Age set of horse trappings yet found were excavated at the Sösdala Iron Age burial site, showing that this area had connections to the nomadic cultures of the steppes and the Black Sea area; there are also finds from the nearby Vätteryd and Frederiksberg burial sites and from Uppåkra, the largest Iron Age village in northern Europe. Then you might as well go to the top of the building and make your way down via the skeletons of an aurochs and other animals, casts of classical statues, coins and well displayed medieval carvings of Christ; a bridge leads across to the cathedral museum in the Chapter House, with the usual vestments and so on. There’s also an ethnographic hall, closed for remodelling until 2021.

The main building of Lund University

 A few hundred metres further to the northeast is Kulturen, another of the open-air museums of transplanted historic buildings that are common in Scandinavia, such as in Aarhus and the original Skansen in Stockholm. Not too far north are the Skissernas museum (Sketches Museum) or Museum of Artistic Process and Public Art, and the Livets museum (Museum of Life). The first is a unique collection that aims to illustrate the creative process from sketch to finished work, especially in the context of public art. The latter (run by Kulturen) is a museum of medical history, opened in 2012, that studies the human body and its diseases through both historical implements and modern technology.

 Just east of the centre, the university’s free Botanic Garden (moved in the 1880s from the park immediately north of the cathedral) is impressive, with beautiful gardens and greenhouses housing flora from nine climatic zones, as well as an attractive café.

 Finally, just south of the centre by the Saluhallen market, the Lunds Konsthall is another free space for exhibitions of contemporary art – something they do really well across Scandinavia.

 By chance, just a week ago, Lund’s first tram line opened, running from the railway station to the modern university/hospital area north of the city, and nowhere within sight of the historic centre. I left by a less modern form of transport, the ferry from Malmö to Travemünde, which has fairly basic passenger facilities, as it exists mainly for truck traffic; but it’s an interesting trip along a busy shipping lane. Travemünde is almost a suburb of Lübeck, which I’ll write about soon.

 The Swedish Covid-19 controversy

Libertarians (probably the same people who used to despise Sweden’s egalitarian high-tax social-democratic governments) seized on Sweden as a great example of the virtues of not locking down against Covid-19. Factually wrong, and with hindsight it didn’t work out at all well. There may not have been a full legal lockdown, but the government was very much relying on people behaving responsibly and not going out to mix in large numbers – and they didn’t go out, by and large, because the Swedes still trust experts and government, unlike other nations that have been led astray by populists and fake news. The major glitch in the initial stages was that care homes were left exposed to the coronavirus, and there was a high rate of infection and deaths there.

 In the longer run it turned out that Sweden’s death rate from Covid-19 was indeed higher than in countries that had locked down, and at the same time its economic downturn was greater, although the pay-off for not locking down was supposed to be less economic harm.

 When I was in Malmö in October, virtually no-one was wearing masks, even in buses and trains, which was the bare minimum everywhere else I went. Sweden was already a largely cash-free society, but I did absolutely everything by card and didn’t change any cash at all. The second wave of the pandemic arrived in October, soon after I left, and hospitals soon had to postpone non-emergency operations; the Skåne region, including Malmö and Lund, was forced to introduce various measures such as no alcohol being served after 22.00, public gatherings being limited to eight people, and switching to online teaching in schools. People were also urged to avoid public transport, gyms, libraries and busy shops, and to limit social interactions to single households. Much like everywhere else then.

 Reports revealed how badly things had gone wrong in the care homes, and in his Christmas message, the King admitted that the country had failed. The advocates of laissez-faire herd immunity are finally having to eat their words.

Copenhagen – the museums

Copenhagen has a remarkable range of museums, and I only managed to visit half a dozen of the main ones this time. That was before the second wave of Covid-19; they are now all closed until January 2021 at best.

 The area known as the Centre or the Cultural Quarter is actually a bit dull, with much less street life than the less touristy shopping areas to the north – but there are some major museums here, as well as the central station and the Tivoli amusement gardens. The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, built by Carl Jacobsen (see my previous post), was extended in 1906, added the superb winter garden (where there’s a café in non-pandemic times), and in 1996 when a modern wing was added. There’s a huge array of sculpture, of course, both classical Greek and Roman, and largely nineteenth-century French and Danish works, including sculptures of the Three Graces by both Canova (c1830) and Bertel Thorvaldsen (1821), and frankly the Danish guy seems to me to have done better than the more famous Italian. There’s lots of Rodin, as well as Maillol, Meunier, Bourdelle and Stephan Sinding (1846-1922). There’s also plenty of paintings from the Danish Golden Age (the nineteenth century – nothing to do with the more illustrious Dutch Golden Age), including works by Jens Juel, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (including a portrait of Thorvaldsen, Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann and her son Harald Jerichau (also a sculptor), as well as the more famous Norwegian JC Dahl. Slightly more modern works by Theodor Philipsen and Karl Isakson lead to the superb collection of French impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces, featuring almost all the great names from Corot and Courbet via Monet, Renoir and Degas through to Picasso (though only a bronze). There’s no Matisse, alas, and no mature Gauguin paintings, although there are lots of his stoneware heads and a wood carving.

 A block to the northeast, the Museum of Copenhagen (Københavns Museum) reopened at the start of 2020 in a new location (built as the Public Trustee’s Office in 1894, and inspired by Italian Renaissance palazzi); the displays have been modernised, and reflect new research showing that the city is 150 years older than was thought, dating from the late Viking age – in a previous post I wrote about the former capital Roskilde and how it had been forgotten in Copenhagen. 

It was a crowded little city, with ships unloading directly into warehouses, until the first planned extensions were built from the early sixteenth century, starting with Christianshavn, laid out by King Christian IV in a Dutch style. This was followed by Kongens Nytorv, still the city’s largest square, in 1663, and Frederiksstaden, centred on the royal palaces of Amalienborg, from 1747. In fact for me the most interesting displays cover the city’s transformation into a modern capital in the late nineteenth century – its population grew from around 130,000 in 1852 to almost 400,000 in 1902, as the city burst out beyond the old ramparts. The nearby City Hall and its square were laid out from 1892 to 1905, some of the world’s first cycleways were built in 1892, when electric lights first appeared, Parisian boulevards such as Vesterbrogade were laid out around 1900, and the last remains of the ramparts were destroyed in 1914-17 when the railway was extended north from the central station. The meatpacking district, between the central station and the Carlsberg brewery, was established in 1879, to remove the blood and guts from the old city – it’s now the heart of the city’s nighttime economy, with the hottest bars and clubs.

 Two new exhibits are due to open early in 2021 – one (Port and Capital) based on a finds from a fifteenth-century ship found during construction of the opera house, and the other (Power of Words) on writers and the book market, including the philosopher Kierkegaard’s personal effects. The Museum of Copenhagen is associated with the Nikolaj Kunsthal and the Thorvaldsens Museum – tickets are valid for all three, and they’re all free on Wednesdays. The first, in the former church of St Nicholas, is a wonderful space for temporary art exhibitions; the second is of course dedicated to the sculptor, but there are also ‘interventions’ by other artists to break the monotony – actually, the sculptures are great, but the style is a bit unfashionable and it will not be a priority for many people. It’s worth noting that Thorvaldsen is sharing his 250th birthday year with Beethoven, although there’s much less fuss about it.

 Diagonally opposite the Museum of Copenhagen (although the entrance is on the far side), the National Museum is a huge and very rewarding museum of history and culture. It starts with the Neanderthals, stating that they had no visual art – but one thing I know from my work in the caves of southern France is that this can no longer safely be said. In any case there are no traces of Neanderthal man in Denmark, although it’s assumed that they were here as nomadic hunters; certainly Cro-Magnon reindeer-hunters of the Hamburg Culture arrived by 14,500 years ago. From 9,000 years ago the rising sea levels that flooded Doggerland (in what is now the North Sea) were also dividing Denmark into its present layout of islands; fishing boats and dredgers often bring up implements of bone and antler, with amber jewellery found on beaches. Since then, as it happens, Northern Jutland has risen 12 metres and Southern Jutland has sunk 3 metres. Denmark is covered with ponds and bogs, and the prehistoric peoples here spent a great deal of time and effort ‘sacrificing’ valuables, and indeed horses and human beings, in them, making Denmark a fantastic place to be an archeologist – the museum displays many of these finds, notably bronze ‘lur’ horns and axes, as well as whole ships. There are also graves, rock carvings and so on; the Romans didn’t get this far (apart from exploratory ships) but their coins did, and later the Vikings brought silk from Byzantium and silver from the mines of Central Asia. Runes, incidentally, developed from the second century AD; runestones appeared from the eighth century, but were actually more widespread in the early Christian period (from about 970 AD).

 Going up to the first floor, the medieval displays start with lots of winged altarpieces, as well as weaponry and tapestries; it’s a bit more disjointed than the archeological displays (which are very detailed, but do occasionally lose the big picture). Things pick up again from the seventeenth century, with excellent coverage of Denmark’s colonies – Iceland, the Faroes and Greenland, first, but then also in the West Indies, what is now Ghana and a couple of towns in India – not to forget Skåne (or Scania), the southernmost end of Sweden, which was Danish until 1658. In fact, multiple wars with Sweden left Denmark in poverty, and then in the Napoleonic Wars Denmark was twice dragged into conflict with Britain (in 1801 Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye in the Battle of Copenhagen) and was forced to cede Norway to Sweden; and in the mid-nineteenth century the newly created Germany came along to seize Schleswig-Holstein (although northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark in 1920). The ‘organisation years’ began in 1864, when the country adapted to its reduced status by industrialising and establishing, for instance, unions (from 1870) and co-ops (from 1882); there was also mass migration from the countryside to the cities and abroad, with Copenhagen tripling in size from 1840 to 1900 and 10% of the population emigrating between 1860 and 1900.

 Now, of course, Denmark is a highly educated and prosperous country with a diverse population (and yet the first three prime ministers of the 21st century shared the same family name – Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen and Lars Løkke Rasmussen).

 The museum also has ethnography and antiquities galleries, as well as many other museums and stately homes across Denmark, including the new Museum of the Danish Resistance (near the Little Mermaid), which opened in June 2020, closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and is due to open again in January 2021.

 The National Gallery (Statens Museum for Kunst) is just north of the centre, across the road from the Botanic Gardens and the Natural History and Geology Museums. It has a large and world-class collection of art from the fourteenth century to the present day, starting with Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Mantegna, then Filippino Lippi, Bassano, Garofalo, Parmigianino, Titian, Barocci, Tintoretto, Magnasco, Salvator Rosa, Guardi, Tieoplo, ‘Grand Tour’ portraits by Batoni of Peter Beckford and of John Rolle Walter, a copy of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks, and busts by Pisano and Bernini plus a small bronze by Giambologna. Naturally there’s the array of Dutch art to be expected across northern Europe, including a fine Adoration of the Magi by Hugo van der Goes, one Jan Brueghel the Elder, five Rubens, and four big Jordaens, as well as nine Cranachs (notably Venus with Cupid Stealing Honey). There are five ‘studio of Rembrandt’ paintings, an oil sketch, an etching of his mother and a study of an old man, but no actual Rembrandt painting. There’s also a Merry Company by Dirck Hals (see my post on Haarlem for Dirck and his better-known brother) and a painting of St Peter’s in Rome by Swanenburg from Leiden (see the same post).

 I wasn’t particularly taken by the trompe l’oeil room, created for Kings Ferdinand III and Christian V in the late seventeenth century, and I’ve never liked eighteenth-century French art, so I wasn’t too sad that most of the 139 French paintings, by Bouchet, Lancret and others, ordered for the new Christiansborg Palace were lost when it burned down in 1794; but there are a few paintings by Poussin and Joseph Vernet (see my post on Avignon). However the collection of French Art 1900-30 is superb, thanks to the engineer Johannes Rump, who collected the works of the Fauves and in particular Matisse, donating them to the museum in 1928. There’s no fewer than eleven Matisse paintings as well as some sculptures, half a dozen Derains, two or three by each of Braque, Gris, Picasso, Dufy, Modigliani, Van Dongen, Vlaminck and Friesz, and others by Metzinger, de la Fresnaye, Soutine, Rouault, Vuillard, Valladon, Marquet, Laurens and Léger, plus sculptures by Maillol and Lipchitz and even plates by Derain and Vlaminck.

A Mountain Climber (1912) by JF Willemsen

 The collection of Danish and Nordic art starts with Jens Juel, PC Skovgaard, CA Jensen, Carl Bloch, Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann (see above) and her husband Jens Adolf Jerichau, Michael Ancher, Kristian Zahrtmann (Julie and the Nurse is of course a scene from Romeo and Juliet), the Swedes CG Pilo and August Strindberg (yes, better known for his plays), the Norwegian JC Dahl and three big Munchs. There are whole rooms dedicated to Christen Købke, his teacher CW Eckersberg, Bertel Thorvaldsen, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Laurits Andersen Ring and JF Willemsen, all excellent.

 Finally, a striking modern extension (reached by bridges over what is now the sculpture street) displays twentieth-century art, starting with Munch, Nolde, Jens Søndergaard, Harald Giersing, Edvard Weie, Jens Adolf Jerichau (again) and, post-1945, Richard Mortensen and Robert Jacobsen, Asger Jorn, the ’60s Fluxus and COBRA groups, the landscapes of Per Kirkeby, who died in 2018, and new acquisitions.

 Scandinavian art galleries all make a big deal of having a classy café-restaurant, and this is no exception – it’s decorated by Danh Vo, a Vietnamese-Danish conceptual artist, whose family fled as Boat People and were rescued by a Danish container ship.

 In the park at the rear of the National Gallery, the Hirschsprung Collection displays a good collection of nineteenth-century Danish art, both Golden Age artists and the later Skagen School, who were drawn to the northern tip of Jutland by its pure light, much as British artists were drawn to Lamorna and St Ives.

 Near the south end of the Kongens Have (King’s Garden), back towards the city centre, the Davids Samling was created by the lawyer and businessman CL David (1878-1960) and is probably the best collection of Islamic art in Scandinavia (it was in the news recently for allegedly holding works stolen from the Ottoman empire, which it refuses to return). The building was closed for refurbishment from 2005 to 2009 (incorporating the house next door too) and the displays are dark but very professional; captions are only in Danish but there are information panels in English and Danish. You’ll finish in some rooms with original early-nineteenth-century décor and paintings from the Danish Golden Age and by Jens Ferdinand Willumsen and the brothers Joakim and Niels Skovgaard.

 It’s worth mentioning that the Design Museum is closed until early 2022 (due to renovation, not Covid-19) – founded by Carl Jacobsen (see my previous post on Copenhagen) as the Danish Museum of Art and Design, it includes the exhibit on the Danish Chair that I moaned about in my post on Amsterdam.

Bremen and Hamburg

I thought Bremen was a bit dull at first (and coming from the Netherlands, very car-dominated, with two road overpasses in front of the railway station), but I changed my mind when I found the pretty small historic area near the cathedral. I thought Hamburg was unpleasant at first and I didn’t really change my mind, although I did find quite a few positive features, notably the excellent art collection in the Kunsthalle. They’re Germany’s two main ports, both with estuary access to the North Sea, and have been since the time of the Hanseatic League, but I’ll say more about the Hanse when I get to Lübeck. 

 The historic centre of Bremen is Marktplatz, where the Old Town Hall (1405-10) looks out over the statue of Roland, one of Charlemagne’s heroic paladins, which was raised in 1404 as a symbol of the city’s status as a free city within the Holy Roman Empire (I saw another one in Brandenburg a few weeks later). Immediately adjacent are two fine Gothic churches, the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of the Virgin) and the Petri Dom (St Peter’s cathedral) – the bishopric was established by Charlemagne in 789, and the present building was built after a fire in 1041. 

 It’s hard to see that this small area really justifies its World Heritage listing, especially as it’s partly fake, with façades brought from elsewhere in the city when the square was rebuilt after Word War II – but an alley immediately to the southwest is the real surprise. The medieval Böttcherstrasse (Coopers’ Street) was rebuilt in 1922-31 by Ludwig Roselius, coffee merchant and inventor of HAG decaff, with a heavy dose of expressionist features and unusual external decorative features, notably a golden relief of the Archangel Michael, and a carillon of 30 Meissen porcelain bells. Roselius was a Nazi sympathiser but his applications to join the party were rejected and Hitler tried to have the street demolished. The Roselius Museum houses his art collection, from medieval Madonnas to Picassos via Cranach, and he also built the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum here to show her works (see below).

 

 

 

 

 

The Free Hanseatic City of Bremen, the smallest of Germany’s federal states, consists of Bremen itself and the exclave of Bremerhaven (a new port founded in 1827 at the mouth of the Weser). I’d not actually heard of the Grimm Brothers’ story The Musicians of Bremen, but it’s commemorated by a sculpture at the western end of the Town Hall – it’s about four animals who set out for the city that they saw as standing for real freedom (sorry, spoiler alert – they never actually reached Bremen).

 Just south of the cathedral the Schnoorviertel consists of a few moderately quaint streets with cute cafés, restaurants and boutiques; just to the east, on the site of the old city walls, the Kunsthalle is not as big as Hamburg’s but still has a pretty decent art collection.

In the nineteenth century the burghers of Bremen mainly collected Dutch art, donating works by Pieter Claesz, Jan van Goyen, van der Velde the younger, Salomon van Ruysdael, Jacob Jordaens, Rubens, van Dyck, Jan Brueghel the younger, Isenbrandt, Lievens, Aert van der Neer, van Ostade, Dou, Jacob de Wet (yet another Haarlem painter I didn’t know about) and Rachel Ruysch (qv). The museum also acquired a few old German Masters (by Altdorfer, a couple of Dürers and some Cranachs) and some minor (but superb) Italian Gothic paintings – they’re in Room 1 which is appropriate but not an easy place to start your circuit.

 The museum’s first director Gustav Paoli then started buying French art, which was controversial but has proved a smart move – the collection ranges from Vigée-Lebrun, Corot, Delacroix, Horace Vernet (see my post on Avignon) and Géricault to Pascin, Gris, Léger, Metzinger and Picasso, by way of Boudin, Courbet, Manet, Monet, five Renoirs, Pissarro, Cézanne, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, Vallotton, Bonnard, Maurice Dennis, Bernard, Serusier and a whole room of Derain, not to mention sculptures by Gauguin, Rodin and Maillol. He also bought German art, of course, with quite a few paintings by the Nazarenes (who had similar ideas to the Pre-Raphaelites) and the Impressionists Max Liebermann, Max Slevogt, and Lovis Corinth. There’s Expressionism too, with plenty by Kirchner and Beckmann, as well as Schmift-Rotluff, von Jawlensky, Gabriele Münter, Campendonck, Marc, Nolde and Heckel, as well as sculptures by Ernst Barlach.

 But what you won’t see much of elsewhere is work from the artists’ colony of Werpswede, just north of Bremen, established in the 1890s by Fritz Mackensen, Otto Modersohn, Heinrich Vogeler and Carl Vinner. Mackensen’s pupil Paula Becker married Modersohn, and – in addition to the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum mentioned above – there’s a whole room of her paintings here, showing how she increasingly went her own way independently of the Werpswede group, eventually being hailed as ‘Germany’s Picasso’- a bit overcooked, but she was good. Incidentally, her friend the sculptor Clara Westhoff married Rainer Maria Rilke, a sort of German T S Eliot who I mentioned in my post on Trieste. Finally, contemporary artists include Olafur Eliasson and Kehinde Wiley, as well as a room of works by Nam June Paik, who was big in Amsterdam too, although he spent a lot of time in Germany from 1956 on.

Hamburg

An art centre in Schanze. Obviously.

I arrived in Hamburg mid-afternoon on a Friday (during the Covid-19 pandemic, but that didn’t seem to matter) and the roads and the Hauptbahnhof had seized up due to the number of people trying to get in and out of the city. Outside the station there was a stink of stale tobacco and a wail of sirens, people were raiding the rubbish bins for who knows what, and the taxi-drivers were all convinced that red lights, speed limits and basic good manners didn’t apply to them. The supposedly hippest areas of the city are plastered with graffiti (some of which might qualify as street art), which I usually see as a bad sign. Schanze is a bit like London’s Camden with more graffiti and lots of cafés, none special; the Karoviertel (Karolinenviertel in full) is marginally classier – it’s been well traffic-calmed, but is surrounded by the Messe trade fair complex and former abattoirs, and yes, there’s graffiti everywhere. So I have my doubts about Hamburg, but it’s one of Germany’s half-dozen main cities and there’s lots to see and do.

 Anyway, that’s the old Hamburg, which has the same problems as big cities across the world – there’s also a new Hamburg, which may show ways to make these cities more liveable. In particular I was interested to revisit the Victorian warehouses of the Speicherstadt or ‘warehouse city’ (like Shad Thames, if we’re going to keep up the comparisons with London, but with wider streets), and see the HafenCity, currently the largest urban development project in Europe, where 157 hectares of former docks will become housing (one third social housing), shops and cultural venues, expanding the downtown area by 40%. Sustainability and energy-efficiency are key, and fully 25% of the area is to be open space.

 

I was particularly keen to see the Elbphilharmonie, the prestigious concert hall by Herzog & de Meuron which finally opened in 2017, seven years late (and costing €870 million instead of €200 million). It’s a glass box with a wave-like top set on a 1960s warehouse, but although I’m sure it would be fantastic to go to a concert there, I found the exterior underwhelming. The rest of HafenCity seemed to me to be mostly generic modern architecture (although the earlier phase is less corporate and more interesting). As usual, I find modern European architecture rather too constrained compared to what I see in the Americas, particularly (you may be surprised to know) in Uruguay. Plans are being developed for an extension to the southeast in the Grasbrook and Veddel areas, including a 245m-high tower designed by David Chipperfield, so maybe this will look more distinctive.

 

 

 

 

 

In any case, the Speicherstadt is still very impressive and worthy of its World Heritage status;  there must be some fabulous loft apartments up there, and the Wasserschloss café’s terrace has a wonderful location. The HafenCity’s information centre is actually in the Speicherstadt (in an 1887 boiler house) and is worth a visit – they have an English-language booklet on the buildings and a café and free toilets.

 Following the waterfront a little way west, you’ll come to the main ferry docks and the Sankt Pauli-Elbtunnel, opened in 1911 (after three construction workers died from the bends); it seems similar to the foot tunnels in London, Newcastle, Antwerp and elsewhere, but this one also takes cars (which come down by lift), although not at the moment thanks to refurbishment work. So it’s a great ride by bike, and you can continue south into Wilhelmsburg, which was a poor immigrant neighbourhood that was hit by a serious flood in 1962; more recently it has been transformed into a model of sustainable living. The centrepiece is the Energy Bunker, a World War II anti-aircraft gun tower converted into a solar power plant, alongside a biogas combined heat and power station.

 Not far northwest of the tunnel is the notorious Reeperbahn (see below) and beyond it the middle-class Altona district, with a station where many intercity trains terminate, mainly so that they don’t occupy platforms at the Hauptbahnhof for too long – but now DB (German Rail) has sold the station site and will build a smaller terminus just to the north. After 2024 the present station site will become another green development, with housing (half subsidised or co-operative), shops, a school and for some reason four day-care centres, as well as a park. Also in Altona, the A7 motorway (heading north to Denmark) will be covered for about two kilometres, creating a new linear park leading down to the Elbe.

 A couple of kilometres further west, the waterfront cycle route ends at a pontoon and ferry dock (a great ride, especially if getting close to container ships is your thing) also known as the Övelgönne Hafenmuseum, where roughly twenty historic vessels are moored – the pontoon is open 24/7 but the boats can be visited less predictably. In 2008 the International Maritime Museum of Hamburg opened in a Speicherstadt warehouse (though it too claims to be in HafenCity), and there are some full-size ships moored nearby that can also be visited – at least a couple offer Escape Room experiences.

 There’s plenty of art here too, and the Kunsthalle is a major collection by any standards. As with the one in Bremen, it’s hard to find the chronological starting-point – go upstairs and to the left, through a small room of Klee and Ernst to start the Rundgang with a few Italian Old Masters (notably Pietro de Rimini) and altarpieces by the fifteenth-century Hamburg artists Bertram von Minden and Meister Francke. It’s more natural to start with the central room, currently dominated by the immense Entry of Charles V into Antwerp by Hans Makart (1878), which was very controversial because of the naked women rather improbably taking part in a welcome pageant. As in Bremen, there’s plenty of art from the Dutch Golden Age, including Jan Gossaert, Jan Massys, Cornelis Corneliszoon van Haarlem, Willem van der Velde, Jacob van Ruisdael, Joos de Momper, Jan van Goyen, Aert van der Neer, David Teniers the Younger, Jan Steen, Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Gerard van Honthorst, and still lives by Rachel Ruysch and Willem Claesz Heda (both of whom I mentioned here), Rubens and van Dyck. There’s Rembrandt, of course, in the form of Simeon and Hannah in the Temple (1627), which is the story of the Nunc Dimittis.

 But maybe you’re here for the German art, which continues with a small room of Cranach the Elder, Holbein the Elder (a big but not particularly good Presentation in the Temple), eighteenth-century portraits by the Tischbeins (uncle and nephew) and Graff, Romantic paintings by Philipp Otto Runge, Carl Gustav Carus, Ludwig Richter, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg and Caspar David Friedrich (notably THE famous one of The Wanderer above a Sea of Fog), more by the Nazarenes (see above), Realists such as Adolf Menzel, Wilhelm Leibl, Hans Thoma, and Anselm Feuerbach, then Max Liebermann, who began as a Barbizon-style realist, then became an impressionist and leader of the Berlin Secession. 

 Incidentally, the Hamburg School seems to refer both to artists such as Georg Haeselich (1806-94), Jacob Gensler (1808-45), Adolph Friedrich Vollmer (1806-75) and Valentin Ruths (1825-1905), and then to the more interesting group led by Arthur Siebelist, Arthur Illies, Ernst Eitner and Thomas Herbst who formed the Hamburgische Künstlerclub (Hamburg Artists Club) in 1897. Paula Modersohn-Becker (see above) and Max Beckmann are here too. It’s also worth mentioning the Norwegians Johan Christian Dahl (a close friend of Friedrich) and Edvard Munch who tend to get lost among the Germans.

Someone enjoying Arthur Siebelist’s Meine Schüler und ich (1902) (not my photo, of course)

 There’s plenty of French art, from Lorrain, Delacroix, Courbet, Daubigny, Corot, Diaz de la Peña and Millet, via Manet, Monet, Renoir (including an instantly recognisable sculpture), Degas, Sisley, Pissarro, Boudin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, Gauguin and Jongkind to Chagall, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Picasso, Feininger, Vlaminck, Derain, Gris, Vallotton and Léger (although the only Matisse is a bronze sculpture).

 Modern German art begins with a room of Corinth paintings, two by Hodler and one by Ensor (I don’t see enough of Hodler outside Switzerland, but I see too much of Ensor), a Brâncuși sculpture and then the Expressionists – Macke, Schmidt-Rottluff, Pechstein, Kirchner, Otto Mueller, Heckel, von Jawlensky, Marc, Gabriele Münter, Kandinsky and Nolde, as well as Dorothea Maetzel-Johannsen (a local artist who was new to me) and sculptures by Ernst Barlach. From the 1920s come hyperrealistic paintings by Franz Radziwill then Anita Rée (another interesting local artist), Grosz, Dix, the Constructivists, De Stijl and the Bauhaus (including Willi Baumeister, Sophie Tauber-Arp, Hans Arp, Klee and Ernst). Then you should go down to the basement level and across to a modern extension for the contemporary art collection, which includes German names such as Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Hamburg-born Gustav Kluge and a room of Baselitz; plus David Hockney, Mona Hatoum, Dan Flavin, Jeff Wall, Marina Abramovic & Ulay, Ian Hamilton-Finlay, Giacometti, Bacon, Serra, Nauman, Fontana, Twombly and much more.

 There are a few more bits and pieces hidden away – from the café you can get to The Transparent Museum, offering behind-the-scenes insights into identifying forgeries, framing, and restitution of art stolen from Jewish families, as well as another gallery dedicated to the Hamburg Artists Club, and the Sculpture Agora.

And finally

I was happy to see that the cut-out silhouettes at Beatles Plaza on the Reeperbahn (at Grosse-Freiheit) show five figures (although the Rough Guide refers to the Fab Four) – Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Best and Sutcliffe, of course, and not Ringo. It’s well documented that they were tough rock’n’rollers living in sordid conditions (washing in water taken from the club’s urinals) in the most sordid part of town, playing in clubs crowded with hookers, pimps and drunken sailors – but this was where Stu Sutcliffe met the photographer Astrid Kirchherr (who died a few months ago, in May 2020) and and was soon living with her. As well as taking iconic photos of the band, she persuaded them to copy her Juliette Gréco-style bob and to swap their leather jackets for black polo-necks, a less macho look that showed the way ahead for pop culture. When the Beatles returned to Liverpool, Sutcliffe stayed here to study art (one of his tutors was Eduardo Paolozzi, who later said he was one of his best students) – but he died in April 1962 from a brain haemorrhage, possibly caused by a fight outside a club in Liverpool.

The Chilehaus – mentioned in my Amsterdam post.

Amsterdam

I’ve been to Amsterdam a few times before, mainly to see the art (and the cycling provision), and I rather assumed that this visit would be similar – and yes, I did visit the main museums and galleries, but I was also sidetracked a bit by architecture and design. But first – continuing the theme of my recent visits to Oxford and Leiden – Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum. One of the world’s greatest art collections, the Rijksmuseum was famously closed for a whole decade (2003-13), twice as long as planned, to modernise the building and reorganise the displays to give more historical perspective (as at the Lakenhal) – only Rembrandt’s The Night Watch still hangs in its historic position at one end of the Gallery of Honour, the grand top-floor space where the finest works of the Golden Age hang, including more Rembrandts, and three of the world’s 34 Vermeers. One of the Rembrandts is of the Syndics of the Amsterdam Draper’s Guild, who were responsible for checking the standards of dyed cloth, just as in the Lakenhal in Leiden. The Night Watch, incidentally, was cut down on three sides (mainly the left) in 1715 when it was moved from Kloveniersdoelen (the civic guard’s shooting range) to the City Hall – the original is known from a copy by Gerrit Lundens (c1642-55), currently on loan from the National Gallery in London.

 They’ve also produced excellent audioguides and apps – there’s an infuriating photo that pops up on Facebook from time to time, of a school group looking at phones instead of The Night Watch, posted by people who don’t actually have any understanding of how smartphones are used – they’re not texting their friends, you idiots, they’re using the Rijksmuseum educational app. And of course I like the cycleway that cuts right through the building too.

 I also came across quite a few more painters from Haarlem that I didn’t mention in my previous post (Gaertgen tot Sint-Jans, Jan Jansz Mostaert, Jan van Scorel, Floris van Dyck, Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck), as well as maritime paintings, Italian drawings, dolls houses and model ships (with good coverage of Dutch colonialism and slavery). Finally, from the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, there are largely realist paintings from the Den Haag School (notably Hendrik Mesdag), Dutch Impressionists such as Johan Jongkind, George Breitner and Isaac Israels, as well as Jan Toorop, who started as an Impressionist but moved on to Symbolism and Art Nouveau, a couple of Van Goghs and an early Mondrian (and early Mondrian is /very/ different from the famous abstract Mondrian). There’s also some French art, by Courbet, Monet, Emile Bernard and Monticelli, and a Whistler.

 Of course, there’s also the Rembrandt House, where he lived from 1639 to 1656, which features a recreation of a period interior and paintings by Rembrandt’s contemporaries – there are etchings by the man himself, but no paintings.

 Just south of the Rijksmuseum on Museumplein, the Stedelijk Museum continues the story with modern and contemporary art – it was also closed for the best part of a decade (2004-12), having failed a fire inspection, and an extension like a huge white bathtub was added in front of the original 1895 building. The extension houses a superb display of the permanent collection – where the Lakenhal and the Rijksmuseum integrate  art with history, here it’s art and design that are integrated, with furniture and in particular chairs displayed alongside contemporaneous paintings and sculpture. When I got to Copenhagen a couple of weeks later, I was amused to read about the Design Museum’s gallery on ‘The Danish Chair’ – yes, of course, Danish design is iconic, but the concept of the minimalist chair made of modern materials originated in the Netherlands in 1917 with Gerrit Rietveld and De Stijl, followed by Marcel Breuer and Mies van de Rohe at the Bauhaus in Germany. In fact the technology to make bentwood chairs was developed in Vienna as early as 1842 and adopted by the Wiener Werkstätte group, who were inspired by Ruskin, Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement.

 The art starts with Cézanne, Matisse, Braque and Chagall, as well as photography by Paul Strand, and both early (figurative) and mature (abstract) paintings by Mondrian. Charley Toorop, a friend of Mondrian’s, was every bit as good and interesting as her father, but was not attached to any particular school or movement. The Russian avant-garde is well represented, especially Malevich, as well as a Dutch version of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and the COBRA (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam) group. Postwar art is mainly American (Elsworth Kelly, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, George Segal, Richard Serra), as well as de Kooning, who moved from the Netherlands to New Amsterdam, sorry, New York. There are appearances from non-Americans such as Yves Klein, Tinguely, Bacon, Agnes Martin, Christo, Gordon Matta-Clark (Land of Milk & Honey – made of… you guessed it), and a very atypical Nikki de St-Phalle (and Gilbert and George famously spent a day on the stairs here as living sculptures in 1969). Upstairs the art is more contemporary and less familiar to me (but for once I don’t feel that this is contemporary art with the stress on ‘con’) – Nan Goldin and Grayson Perry are names I know, and Nam June Paik, whose TV Buddha, created back in 1974, was the first item in the Stedelijk’s ‘time-based video’ collection (which apparently now accounts for no less than half of the museum’s holdings); Dara Birnbaum was new to me but is another interesting video artist. The original building now houses temporary shows of generally high quality.

 Next door, the Van Gogh Museum also has a modern addition, with a ticket hall and shop added in 2015 from which you pass through a tunnel and up into the older building. In a fairly short career, van Gogh really did produce a lot of great work, including, of course, searching self-portraits, which provide another link to Rembrandt. It struck me that, although loosely categorised as a Postimpressionist, Vincent was one of those figures who always sticks out – rather like Baudelaire, I thought – and doesn’t fit tidily into any group. In addition to masterpieces such as Sunflowers, The Yellow House, Wheatfield with Crows, and Almond Blossom, the museum holds half of his almost 1100 drawings, and you’ll also see paintings by Monet (Tulip Fields near Den Haag), Denis and Vlaminck, as well as Vuillard, Van Dongen, Munch and Gabriele Münter, all influenced by van Gogh.

 I also visited, for the first time I think, the Amsterdam Museum, which gives a great overview of the city’s history but also includes more art – no Rembrandts, and only a copy of Hals’s famous portrait of Descartes, but others by Rachel Ruysch (the city’s leading female artist in the seventeenth century, who I wasn’t aware of but came across again in Bremen and Hamburg), van der Helst, Flinck, Bol and Van Honthorst, and from more recent times George Hendrik Breitner and (early) Mondrian. Their estimate is that three million paintings were produced in Amsterdam during the Golden Age (essentially, the seventeenth century).

Flammekueche with a Thai Thai Tripel from Oedipus Brewing, at the Tolhuistuin – all recommended.

 There was also a temporary exhibition on beer and brewing in Amsterdam, which (as in Leiden) had been very important back in the days when the cloth industry was polluting the waterways, and plenty of brewers were also mayors of Amsterdam. From the late nineteenth century, however, nothing but mass-produced pilsner was available, and the Dutch seemed pretty happy with this until very recently, despite the totally different and far more interesting beer culture just south in Belgium. The first speciality beer bar, Gollem, opened in 1974, and the first microbrewery, Brouwerij ‘t IJ, in 1985 – both now have a couple of branches. There are now at least forty breweries and almost 800 beer cafés in Amsterdam, producing a fantastic range of both Belgian-style and British/American beers; personally I enjoyed the local IPAs, which were sharpish but not too floral or citrusy. With roots in the 1980s squatting scene (which was and is very influential), many of them are socially and environmentally committed, employing the disadvantaged and, in the case of De Prael, making beer from rainwater (1200 litres of water produces 1000 litres of Code Blond). Troost uses their spent grain to make bread, while all other waste gets transformed into energy. The ‘ginaissance’ is, naturally, occurring here too, and bars that specialise in jenever, the ancestor of gin, are doing well.

 The museum also pointed me towards various interesting housing developments and other urban design projects which were world-leading at the time and are still visually striking. The population of Amsterdam doubled between 1870 and 1900 and there was an urgent need for affordable and hygienic housing – grandiose plans were drawn up for Haussmannesque boulevards, but meanwhile slumlords started throwing up cheap overcrowded tenements. The one exception (until the Housing Act of 1902) was the De Pijp district (The Pipe, perhaps named after a ditch that was drained in 1891), which has been the city’s hippest district since the ’60s. Its southern extension, the Nieuwe Pijp (1921-29), was part of the Plan Zuid urban expansion plan drawn up in 1917 by Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934), known as ‘the father of modern Dutch architecture’. In the 1890s he designed the Beurs van Berlage (Commodities Exchange) and what is now the Swissôtel, both on Damrak, but later moved to broader urban planning, inspiring the younger architects of the Amsterdam School (roughly 1910-30) to fill in the details. Their style is hard to pin down but it draws on Jugendstil (Art Nouveau), the English Arts and Crafts movement (along with Charles Rennie Macintosh from Scotland) and Art Deco to produce a kind of brick expressionism, using sculptural brick and stonework to decorate inside and out, creating something like a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), including designing furniture and lighting. It’s linked to the Chilehaus and similar buildings in Hamburg, which I saw a few days later.

 I started by viewing the Scheepvaarthuis or Shipping House (1913-6,

Scheepvaarthuis, Amsterdam

built as headquarters for six shipping companies and now the Grand Hotel Amrâth), which is renowned as the first major building produced by the Amsterdam School; then I cycled east to the Indische Buurt, so called because the streets are named after places in Indonesia. This area was built on a former polder between 1900 and 1930, with five apartment blocks on the south side of Javaplein designed by Berlage in 1915-6; also on Javaplein is a striking public bathhouse built in 1941 and now a restaurant. There was a citywide programme to build bathhouses from 1919 to 1931, but in fact this one was not built until 1941. For me the most attractive social housing was on the other side of the city, to the west on Spaarndammerplantsoen, where a museum in Het Schip (known as The Workers’ Palace, built in 1919), gives insights into the Amsterdam School’s work. Similar movements occurred in Vienna and Berlin (and of course London), where industrialisation brought huge numbers of people to the city, but the Amsterdam version does have its own charm.

 Nowadays industry has given way to a process of regeneration, partly of course in the docklands, as in every similar city around the world, but also the Western Gasworks, via which I arrived in the city, and various sites across the IJ river in Amsterdam-Noord, such as the NDSM shipyard – here there are an abandoned submarine, a lightship and trams, all adapted to new uses (vegan street-food cafés, craft ale bars and spaces for music and theatre), and a hotel in a giant crane. Using shipping containers for cafés or accommodation is of course a given.

 And naturally there’s graffiti, or street art as we should call it – in October, just after my visit, the STRAAT museum opened in one of the NDSM hangars – but surely if street art is displayed indoors in a gallery it ceases to be street art?

A ferry dock

 I should finish by stressing that there are frequent free ferries from Amsterdam Centraal station and elsewhere to NDSM – at busy times these are swamped by cyclists, along with vehicles for the disabled and a few mopeds, and there’s now talk of a tunnel under the IJ, with spiral ramps and pedestrian escalators.

Ferry and cycleway at Centraal station

 

 

 

 

Sweets ‘dispersed hotel’, with rooms in about 30 bridge houses.

The A’DAM tower and The Eye film museum

 

Dundee, Perth and around

 

Although there’s plenty of culture and so on in Dundee (but see below for an update), we were actually there to cycle. First stop was Perth, which might have made a better base if only it had a backpacker’s hostel (there’s a hostel at Perth College which is only open from mid-June until the end of August). It seems a sort of Scottish Truro, with an old-money feel to it and a high-brow cultural profile – in particular at the Perth Concert Hall and Perth Theatre. I was especially struck by the line-up of performers in the Perth Piano Sundays series – the likes of Peter Donohoe, Jeremy Denk, Viktoria Postnikova – nae bad! Just a few days after getting home, a Radio 3 announcer praised the wood-panelled Perth Concert Hall as one of the great spaces for chamber music in the UK. Neither Perth nor Truro is forced by the presence of a university to be cool and relevant. You could argue that Dundee is to Perth as Glasgow is to Edinburgh – a brasher younger sibling that’s trying to cast off an industrial past and become a cultural hub, largely through riverside regeneration – and it’s doing fine, of course, but with a more street/youth profile.

The Perth Museum is fairly small but well presented, covering geology, natural history, prehistory and actual history. Perthshire has a rich store of prehistoric remains, with about 70 stone circles and later henges and hillforts. There’s also the Carpow longboat, about 3000 years old, so not as ancient as the Ferriby Boats. I had no idea that the Romans had made it up here and even started building Rome’s earliest frontier system (before the Antonine and Hadrian’s Walls further south in Scotland, and also the Limes Danubianus past Bratislava) along the Gask Ridge southwest from Perth – I must try to retrace it some time.

Nor did I know that William the Conqueror (Billy the Conk, as he’s known on The History of England podcast) came to Forteviot, near Perth, in 1072, when King Malcolm accepted him as his overlord – but he must have had his fingers crossed, because within a decade he was raiding England again. Perth became known as ‘a capital’ of Scotland, due to the royal court frequently staying here and the presence of Scone Abbey, where the King of Scots was crowned, just across the river; like Dundee, it became a Royal Burgh in the early 12th century. After this local history went a bit quiet until the nineteenth century, when the railway arrived and hotels started serving local drinks – Arthur Bell, John Dewar, and Matthew Gloag became known for their whiskies, and Sandemans imported port. In 1819 there were 44 distilleries here, the last closing in 2016. General Accident was founded here in 1885 and had its headquarters here for 113 years – it evolved into Aviva, which is based, inevitably, in London, but reintroduced the General Accident brand in 2013.

There’s also a bit of art here, notably two sculpture rotundas and two big Lawrence portraits and a Raeburn of the fiddler Niel Gow. There was also a temporary show about Margaret Morris (1891-1980), who created modern dance (a la Isadora Duncan) in Britain – she married the Scottish Colourist painter John Duncan Fergusson, whose parents were from Perthshire and who regarded the Perthshire Highlands as his spiritual home – many of his works and also her archive are held at the Fergusson Gallery, a former watertower nearby at the corner of Tay St and Marshall Place – this apparently sees few visitors, so there’s talk of relocating the collection.

Incidentally, we did have a scone in Scone, and a cuppa in Cupar.

Saint Andrews

I’ve been to St Andrews a couple of times before and didn’t linger this time – but I couldn’t help noticing that there are a lot of ruined churches, that the golf obsession is under control and largely confined to the west side of town near the Royal & Ancient, and that even though there are plenty of visitors there are quite a lot of cafés (and all the bike shops) which don’t open on a Sunday. It has more museums than I remembered, but the nicely named MUSA (Museum of the University of St Andrews) is closed for a refurb. There also seemed to be rather a lot of visible lesbians around this time, which was definitely not the case in Dundee or Perth (and was news to my friends who studied there a couple of decades ago).

Broughty Ferry

There’s a pleasant cycle route up the coast northeast from Dundee (now that they’ve sorted out the section past the docks) to Broughty Ferry and on (between railway and golf links) to Carnoustie, where I stayed on my last visit. Broughty Ferry is a more salubrious suburb of Dundee, with decent pubs (see below) and cafés, including (since 1897) the excellent Goodfellow & Steven bakery and tea rooms. Broughty Ferry castle was closed for toilet refurbishment when we passed through, but houses a free museum; guarding the mouth of the Tay since 1496, it sticks out like a rotten tooth from far away.

Problematic pubs

A really good pub takes a bit of finding in Dundee, I’m sorry to say. The Dundonians do like a drink, and there are plenty of pubs in the centre that are always full and noisy, but the main problem is that they’re not interested in live (real) ale – there are rows of gas-pressure dispensers promising IPAs and so on, as well as regular lagers, and frankly they taste much the same – pretty flat. The range of malt whiskies was fairly generic, too. Early in 2018 a real ale pub, the Copper Still, opened in the centre, but by the end of the year it had closed. As you’d expect, the university area, just west of the centre, has some more interesting options, notably the Speedwell, known mainly for its fabulous 1903 interior (there’s an interesting partition with a swinging door between two bar areas) – it has just three well-hidden real ales among a forest of gas dispensers, but the Deuchars was fine and the company was cheery.

Tickety Boo’s, at 51 Commercial St, has a fine interior too, with original stained glass, and is one of the nicest options in the centre, although it’s a bit small and short of seating. Even more than elsewhere, many of the pubs in the centre of Dundee are former banks – there’s the Bank Bar, a former TSB branch at 7 Union St (which usually has four real ales on tap as well as gins and food), not to be confused with the Old Bank Bar at 34 Reform St, The Trades House at 40 Nethergate (with wonderful stained glass and an engraved mirror) or The Counting House at 67 Reform St (once a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland, opened in 1856). The last is a Wetherspoons, run by a Europhobic nutter, but it’s attractively restored and has decent enough (and cheap) beers, notably from Stewart’s in Edinburgh. Wetherspoons also run Jolly’s Hotel in Broughty Ferry and the Capital Asset in Perth (neither of which we sampled).

The best option in Broughty Ferry is the Fisherman’s Tavern, which has been in the Good Beer Guide since 1975 (except for 2013, whoops) – like The Trades House, it’s owned by Belhaven, which generally means a better than average pub.

In Perth, the Green Room (good for live music too), the Greyfriars Bar and the Kirkside Bar are the best real ale pubs, but actually the ideal would be to go a little way north to Moulin, a suburb of Pitlochry, where the Moulin Brewery has been building a great reputation since 1995 (Inveralmond isn’t bad either, but they’ve only been going since 1997, so what would they know?). The multinational craft beer monster that is Brewdog (founded in Aberdeen) also has pubs (or ‘bars’) in Dundee and Perth, if that’s your thing. I just noticed yesterday that Brewdog will be opening a pub here in Cambridge soon – good news, if you take the view that any new pub expands the market for real ale and good beer.

Update

As promised at the start – an update on Dundee’s cultural offering – the West Ward Works on Guthrie Street, where the Beano and Dandy annuals were printed, is to be redeveloped into a hub for designers, artists and other creative workers and companies, and will house a comic museum and spaces for live performances and exhibitions.
And it seems that an e-bike sharing scheme will open in July (2019) – presumably using charging stations rather than the dockless model that has become so popular recently for non-electric bike-sharing schemes.