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.

North Norfolk

I originally wrote about North Norfolk (mainly the area around Burnham Market) as an addendum to my post on King’s Lynn, but I’ve been back and it probably deserves a post of its own.

May 2018 – From King’s Lynn it’s not far (a couple of hours by bike, an hour and 20 minutes by the twice-hourly Coasthopper bus) to Burnham Market, centre of a group of villages on the North Norfolk coast that are all associated with the childhood of Admiral Lord Nelson, and all have pubs named after him (the Nelson, the Hero) or one of his protegés, such as William Hoste. Burnham Market has become known as Chelsea-on-Sea (though it’s not actually on the coast) and is totally clogged with visiting SUVs in summer; the other Burnhams (Thorpe, Overy etc) are as lovely but don’t have the Humble Pie deli, the Tuscan Farm Shop, Gun Hill Clothing Co. or Gurney’s fish shop. Fortunately, a new 186-space village car park was opened in 2016, which should help. At the attractive little (largely 14th-century) church of St Mary the Virgin I found that Nelson’s daughter Horatia, who lived here with her widowed uncle, was engaged to one curate but ended up marrying his replacement in this church in 1822 – so Jane Austen wasn’t making this stuff up!

 The coastal wetlands are very popular with birdwatchers and others who like bracing walks to welcoming pubs, but this area always reminds me of one of my favourite films, Never Let Me Go. Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the equally fab original novel, studied creative writing at UEA in Norwich, and it’s to Cromer that they go on a day trip (though it’s Clevedon pier in the film). At the end the doomed lovers go to a stranded boat, which is on Holkham beach, rather more famous for the closing scene of Shakespeare in Love.

June 2021 – Burnham Market is still cluttered with footway-blocking SUVs, and as most of Norfolk’s lanes are wide enough for a bike and a car to pass, but not a bike and a SUV, it’s easy to get very fed up with them. However, the lanes are actually very quiet, and immediately east of the Burnhams is Holkham Hall, where pedestrians and cyclists have free access to enjoy the estate (you can rent bikes there too). Holkham is also known for its sustainable approach to farming (information panels by the fields mention a long-term contract to supply barley to Adnams, mentioned in my previous post), and for its classy catering – I’ve eaten at both the Victoria Inn (outside the North Gates) and at the Courtyard Café, and both are great.

 The progressive attitude to farming is appropriate, as ‘Coke of Norfolk’ (Thomas William Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, who inherited Holkham in 1776) was a great agricultural improver, following in the footsteps of the legendary ‘Turnip Townsend’, who devised the Norfolk four-course system, involving rotation of turnips, barley, clover, and wheat crops, on his estate just to the south near Great Massingham.

 I cycled a bit beyond the park, to Walsingham (site of strange Anglo-Catholic – and Roman Catholic – shrines and nowadays Russian Orthodox chapels too) and Binham Priory, far more religiously straightforward and absolutely lovely inside, with three storeys of Romanesque arches. If you can’t get in (it’s open for about five hours a day at the moment), the western façade is very important to architectural historians as possibly the first use of bar tracery in Britain (it also appeared at Westminster Abbey, Lincoln and Windsor in the early 1240s), but the window is largely bricked up now so it’s not very attractive.

Binham Priory (interior)
Binham Priory (exterior)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I returned via Creake Abbey, near Burnham Market, which is ruined but still attractive, and always open. When I left I cycled down the Peddars Way, a dead-straight (well, the surviving parts, anyway) track which probably dates from Roman times, though it seems similar to far older routes such as the Icknield Way. On the way from King’s Lynn to Burnham Market I had passed through Castle Rising, on the Peddars Way I passed through Castle Acre. Both have the remains of relatively small twelfth-century castles with splendid earthworks; Castle Rising has not reopened after lockdown, but Castle Acre (or Castle 0.4 Hectare, as my metric friend calls it) is free and always open – it boasts the biggest bailey in England. There’s a fine church, and the ruins of Castle Acre Priory are  also worth a visit, although you do have to pay.

Through Suffolk with WG Sebald

I recently re-read The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald, partly because my housemate is from Suffolk and the book claims to be about walking through Suffolk. It isn’t really (it’s much more than that), and it starts and ends in Norwich, in the adjacent county of Norfolk, where Sebald taught at the University of East Anglia. I’ve previously written about Norwich, and also about Bury St Edmunds and Lavenham, which are in Suffolk but nowhere near Sebald’s route. And now I’ve just cycled down the Suffolk coast (loosely speaking), from Lowestoft to Woodbridge – because it’s marshy in places and eroding fast in others, there isn’t a road or cycle route along the coast, but there is often a path.

 Sebald begins by discussing Sir Thomas Browne, who was a doctor in Norwich from 1637 until his death in 1682 and is occasionally remembered as the author of some remarkably eccentric books. The most relevant is Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial, supposedly an account of some Anglo-Saxon pots then recently excavated in Norfolk, which veers off, in majestic but melancholic Baroque prose, to discuss human burial customs and thus mortality itself. Sebald’s first chapter is written in similarly dense prose, and although he loosens up a bit in subsequent chapters, The Rings of Saturn is also largely about death and the futility of human life (Saturn was the god of melancholy, of course). Considering that it was actually written in German and translated into English,  the parody of Browne’s style is remarkably good, although there are a few clunky bits (the Shakespeare quotes were easier to put back into English, though). His trip through Suffolk was just a starting point for huge and eccentric digressions on all sorts of topics (often literary), which seem random and confusing but add up to present a coherently pessimistic worldview in which the Holocaust and other disasters are always waiting in the wings. Sebald was also notable for embedding pseudo-documentary photos in his books. The Rings of Saturn is hard work but darkly fascinating – it’s interesting just how many writers and artists revere Sebald and how much influence he’s had (see below).

 Sebald was a great believer in buried correspondences and random connections, and I often pick up on similar links in my own posts. In The Rings of Saturn there are lots of references to Rembrandt and the Netherlands, where I was in September, but also to the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, which played a rôle in the previous book I read, Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallet; he also mentions the 1987 ‘hurricane’ which also appears in Peculiar Ground, although moved to 1989; there’s mention of Borges’ connections with Uruguay, which I explore in my Bradt Travel Guide to Uruguay (which I’m updating at the moment); and I recently read Darwin and the Barnacle by Rebecca Stott, who is a professor in the same university department as Sebald, along with the poet George Szirtes, whose work has referred to Sebald.

 Anyway, I started by taking a rather more modern train to Lowestoft than the one Sebald took; the easternmost town in England, it’s a port that is run-down in parts but nowhere near as bad as Sebald makes out – I get that he was a professional miserabilist, but claiming that the economic collapse caused by Thatcherism was somehow making previously literate people illiterate, and that a third of the Dogger Bank’s fish are now born with deformities caused by heavy metal pollution, is a bit much. The slow-burn approach he took elsewhere works far better. Sebald (or his narrator, who is not quite the same person) stayed at the drab Albion Hotel, which is presumably the Victoria, now warmly recommended by a friend of mine, as it happens.

 After passing Benacre Broad, where the trees were all dying (it’s now Benacre Nature Reserve, and seems pretty healthy to me) and Covehithe (see below), he reached Southwold, a lovely town which I’ll say more about in my next post. For some reason this stretch of coast is known as Sole Bay, but Sebald (or his translator) also refers to the German Ocean. The battle of Sole Bay in 1672 is largely forgotten now because there was no clear winner, but it involved no less than 168 ships in the Dutch and Anglo-French fleets and between 35,000 and 50,000 men, of whom around 4,100 died. Another classic Sebald digression involves twenty pages on Joseph Conrad’s early years (interleaved with Roger Casement, the Belgian Congo and the Battle of Waterloo) – it turns out that Conrad’s first English landfall was in Lowestoft, where he began learning English by studying newspapers in pubs – and the pub opposite Lowestoft station is today called the Joseph Conrad. It’s a Wetherspoon pub and I didn’t stop (well, it was barely lunchtime).

 Like Sebald, I crossed the Bailey Bridge from Southwold to Walberswick – this is not the original bridge (Sebald got this wrong), but is on the route of the narrow-gauge railway that linked Halesworth and Southwold from 1879 to 1929. One of his less plausible digressions concerns the railway’s carriages, allegedly built for the Emperor of China’s private railway; it seems that the six-wheeled carriages did have rather exotic balconies at either end (removed after the First World War), but that’s as far as it goes. But this leads him to the topic of silkworms, forced to become a metaphor for not just inevitable death but also the Holocaust and other genocides in general. He didn’t mention either Walberswick or Aldeburgh, clearly far too nice and genteel to fit his theme, but I will look at them too in my next post. Dunwich, on the other hand, famously a major port until the thirteenth century which was then abandoned and largely washed away, is perfect for his theme of decay and disaster. In Anglo-Saxon times it was capital of the East Angles and then rivalled London as England’s chief port on the North Sea (too early for it to have figured in the European Hanse Museum in Lübeck) – but storms in 1286 and 1287 wiped this out and its churches and other buildings disappeared as the cliffs eroded over the following centuries. Now there are a few houses, a tiny museum (next to The Ship, a fine pub known for its food) and the ruins of the Greyfriars priory, as well as a few bits of rescued masonry next to the Victorian church of St James.

 Incidentally, Dunwich is also known to some of my friends as the destination of the Dunwich Dynamo, an all-night cycle ride from London on the Saturday night closest to the July full moon. Once a loose post-pub tradition among London cycle couriers, it became semi-formalised from 1993, and in recent years over two thousand cyclists have tackled the 112-mile ride, with hot food and drink available at village halls, before collapsing on the beach at dawn.

 I also stopped in Clayhithe, a few miles north of Southwold, which Sebald only mentions in passing – this was also a port, though far smaller than Dunwich, and has also been lost to the sea. The coast here has retreated at least 500 metres in the last two centuries, a process which is clearly not going to stop. The wrecks of wooden ships are increasingly being discovered along this coast – in 2018 and again in February 2021 one dating from the eighteenth or nineteenth century was revealed by the shifting sands here, and in March 2021 another appeared at Thorpeness, further south, which may possibly be a collier like Captain Cook’s Endeavour. The church of St Andrew is now a small thatched building (quite common for churches in this area) within the ruins of a much larger one – on top of which a pair of kestrels were nesting.

 Continuing south, I pushed my bike along a short stretch of shingle beach, from the National Trust’s Dunwich Heath property to the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve – this is one of their flagship sites, known for its reed beds where large numbers of ducks and geese overwinter, and rarities such as avocets, marsh harriers and bitterns breed (I heard a bittern booming further down the coast, which was a first), but there’s also plenty of sandy heath where stone curlew, wood larks, Dartford warblers and nightjars can be found. I was also surprised to see three groups of red deer in this area, as well as lots of single muntjac deer, which are something of a plague across the region. As in many places along this coast, there are signs warning of adders, and there are various unusual butterflies here too.

 After Minsmere, I cycled through Leiston and Thorpeness (avoiding Sizewell, although you can’t avoid the sight of the nuclear power station) – Leiston Abbey is free and open daylight hours, and there’s rather more of it than at the ruined churches just north. A Premonstratensian monastery was founded in 1182 at Minsmere, and moved here in about 1363 when flooding made the original site untenable. After the Reformation it was used as a farm and a residential music school now occupies the main building. Thorpeness is an oddity, a holiday village created just before the First World War by the local landowners, the Ogilvies (who also owned Minsmere); it didn’t really take off but there are some very attractive Tudor Revival houses as well as a charming lake and golf course. As it turns out it’s ideal for the age of AirBnB, one of the most prized rentals being The House in the Clouds, converted from a water tower in 1923.

 Continuing south from Thorpeness you’ll soon pick up a decent cyclepath along the promenade that leads in to Aldeburgh, a delightful town that I look at in more detail here. Sebald actually skipped Aldeburgh in The Rings of Saturn (it’s far too nice to fit his theme); he got a lift from Southwold to Woodbridge and, after walking north to investigate the home of Edward Fitzgerald (eccentric translator of Omar Khayyam and starting-point for stories about the Anglo-Irish (my people) and their decaying country homes), walked to Orford. There’s a fine castle and church to be seen here, but the main attraction is Orford Ness, a rather ghostly shingle spit (only accessible by boat) which was closed off as a testing ground for weaponry for eighty years and is now preserved by the National Trust. I haven’t taken the boat to the ness yet, but Sebald found it ideal for musing on post-apocalyptic ruins.

 Sebald then returned north inland, with other weird encounters and digressions (such as a visit to his friend, the post and translator Michael Hamburger) – but I was slightly surprised that he didn’t mention Akenfield, Ronald Blythe’s portrait of an English village was actually a compilation of several villages just north of Woodbridge in the 1960s (but still largely untouched by the huge changes in rural life and farming that were lurking just a few years into the future) – perhaps it was too bucolic for his purpose, but recent research by the University of East Anglia has looked at the utter transformation of the countryside since Blythe’s time, with results that might have given Sebald food for thought.

 As for me, I cycled to Orford via Butley and Iken (each with another attractive little church), and then along the south side of Rendlesham Forest (known for UFO sightings, supposedly) to Woodbridge, and caught a train home. This is an area known as the Sandlings, which I’d not heard of but which certainly lives up to its name, with sand blown across the back lanes and some bridleways that were so soft and loose that I had to push my bike. The light sandy soil was used only for grazing sheep until the Victorians fell in love with blasting birds out of the sky in the name of sport – it turned out that breeding pheasants was an ideal use of the land. Just before reaching Woodbridge I called in at Sutton Hoo, the Anglo-Saxon ship burial site currently enjoying a moment thanks to the film The Dig (with Suffolk-born Ralph Fiennes) – thanks to the lockdown the indoor exhibits and viewing tower were all closed, so all I could actually do is look at some mounds, but the café was open, which was what I needed.

 Woodbridge is a pleasant little town that’s known mainly for still having a high street lined with independent shops; there’s also a nice church further up the hill, and on the waterfront (still active so not over-prettified) a white weatherboarded tidal mill (usually open to visitors, but also closed due to Covid-19). The Whistlestop Café at the station is also a highlight for some.

 So, what to make of all this? Is there any good reason to follow Sebald through Suffolk? Well, no, it doesn’t really work, given all his digressions through time and space. Robert Macfarlane (who has also written beautifully about Orford Ness) said in 2012 that he was  planning to follow in Sebald’s footsteps to produce an ‘unconventional biography’ which will be fascinating, but as far as I can see this has not yet emerged. Film director Grant Gee (who has worked with Joy Division, Radiohead, Blur and Nick Cave) has produced a short film retracing Sebald’s journey which seems interesting, and writers and artists such as Iain Sinclair, Marina Warner and Tacita Dean have written about Sebald – these are all rather more worthwhile, I would expect, than just walking down the coast. There are also various blogs attempting to pay stylistic homage with varying degrees of success (but getting basic facts wrong, which offends me as a real working travel writer). In any case, and partly because hotels are still closed due to the Covid-19 lockdown, I chose to cycle, with one night camping in Dunwich Forest, rather than follow the actual walk.

 The artist Ali Pretty (who I knew at school) is leading the Beach of Dreams project, a 500-mile walk from Lowestoft along the coast to Tilbury this summer (starting on 27 June 2021 and finishing on 1 August) – it’s a community project asking the question “How can we creatively reimagine our future?”. Now that does sound worthwhile.

Southwold, Walberswick and Aldeburgh

It’s generally acknowledged that Southwold is the queen of the Suffolk coast, and it is lovely, but in some ways I prefer Aldeburgh, a cultured and more laidback place – not that Southwold is the least bit Kiss Me Quick, but it is busier and more commercial. Southwold does have a pier, but it’s not what you might think – built in 1900, it was destroyed by storms in 1934 and 1979 (and in the Second World War, to a certain extent), then rebuilt in 1999-2001, and is now a family business. There are the usual cafés and gift shops, but the unmissable attraction is the Under The Pier Show, a beyond quirky arcade of weird slot machines (now expanding into virtual reality).

 For some of us, the great attraction in Southwold is Adnam’s brewery, a local success story that stands as a telling contrast to Greene King in Bury St Edmunds, which has set out to become as big a second-tier brewery and pub company as it can, by buying up rivals and closing them down. Adnams, however, prides itself on good community relations and a sustainable approach to its business, exemplified by the beautiful grass-roofed distribution centre opened in 2006 three miles out of town. Unfortunately this brought to an end their tradition of delivering beer around Southwold with a horse-powered dray. The brewery is still in the town (tours are available), and has been totally rebuilt internally – they thought of moving to their Reydon site but in the end they decided to stick to their roots in town and built the distribution centre there instead. They can now produce lots of one-off craft beers and also lager, and have built a great reputation for their balancing act between classic cask standards and trendy innovations. They are keen to cooperate with other brewers, and in 2010 they also started a distillery to produce Suffolk gin, vodka and whisky. 

 And of course they have pubs – the Sole Bay Inn, the Lord Nelson and the Red Lion are all good, as well as the Swan and Crown hotels. There’s also the Adnams Store and Café just off the High St (they also have stores in Aldeburgh, Woodbridge, Bury St Edmunds, Norwich, Saffron Walden and elsewhere). Their key beers are Southwold Bitter, a 3.7% session beer, Ghost Ship, a 4.5% pale ale with Citra hops (and an alcohol-free version) and Broadside, a 4.7% premium bitter (bottled Broadside is 6.3%). The chestnut-brown Bitter is a fine example of the classic English style, along the lines of Harvey’s Sussex Best (and it’s interesting that Harvey’s is one of the few other breweries still to be brewing in a town centre, Lewes to be precise).

 It’s only in the last decade or so that the town has come to terms with the fact that George Orwell wrote his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, here, in his parents’ retirement home, Montague House, on the High Street. It’s now available as a holiday let, and an Orwell mural now faces people leaving the pier.

 

 Speaking of places to stay, the writer WG Sebald was apparently a fan of the Crown Hotel, but ‘the Sailors’ Reading Room is by far my favourite haunt’, as it is for many others – next to the Lord Nelson, it was built in 1864 as an alternative to the town’s pubs for its sailors and fishermen, and still serves that purpose, but has also developed into a sort of museum, with historic pictures of ships and sailors, model ships and glass cabinets of maritime bits and pieces. Another historic relic of sorts is the Electric Picture Palace, created only in 2002 in disused stables on Blackmill Road; as you go in, you’ll pass a uniformed commissionaire, a dinner-jacketed manager and an usherette. There’ll be an interval when a ‘Tiny Wurlitzer’ organ will appear, and at the end you will of course wait for the National Anthem before leaving. They show a lot of classic films as well.

 A couple of miles away on the far side of the Blyth river is Walberswick, reached by a foot ferry or the bailey bridge, built to replace the bridge of the narrow-gauge railway that I mentioned here (it’s going to be closed for repairs this summer, which is causing some debate – it’s exactly when most people will be affected, but apparently the tides dictate it). I asked my friends in Walberswick if this rather formless little village felt overwhelmed by lively prosperous Southwold, but they said ‘No! We feel superior’, and what’s more my friends felt superior (in a nice way, I

The Bridge at Walberswick, by Philip Wilson Steer

think) to other people in Walberswick because they’d been coming there since the 1950s, long before the various Freuds (and partners such as Richard Curtis) who have to a certain extent put it on the map. It was in fact known at the end of the nineteenth century, when artistic types such as Philip Wilson Steer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald summered here.

 Incidentally, there may not be much in Walberswick, but there are two good pubs, the Bell and the Anchor, the second of which has been run since 2006 by Mark Dorber. For about twenty-five years he ran the White Horse on Parson’s Green in London, which had a moment in the mid-80s when it was known as the Sloaney Pony and was at the heart of the Sloane Ranger phenomenon – but he also played a huge rôle in bringing about the revival of the classic IPA style, and in pushing the idea of pairing food with specific beers. I only once went in to the White Horse, where the England Number 8, Dean Richards, was towering over the crowd – he was not in the least sloaney.

 The other thing Walberswick is known for is crabbing, indeed the British Championships were held there until they fell victim to their own success – and in an age of social distancing it’s not possible for kids to line up on the Kissing Bridge as they used to. The aim is to catch the largest crab possible (bacon is the bait of choice) and release it, so it’s utterly pointless and just another of the weird ways in which humans torment other animals.

 

 Both Southwold and Walberswick have fine churches – St Edmund in Southwold was built in the 1430s to 1490s, after an earlier church burnt down, and so has an unusually unified style, with a continuous roof over nave and chancel. It’s known for its very fine rood screen with painted figures of saints, and the carved angels looking down from the ceiling. The glass is plain, due to the combined efforts of the Puritans and the Luftwaffe, so it’s even more full of light than other churches built at this time from the profits of the wool trade, such as in Lavenham. 

 St. Andrew’s in Walberswick is striking because (as in Covehithe), it’s set in the ruins of the previous church. This was built in 1473-93, but just a few years later, after the Reformation, congregation numbers plummeted for some reason and most of the church fell into disuse. Finally, at the end of the seventeenth century, most of it was demolished and a smaller church fashioned out of the south aisle. The tower also had to remain, as an aid to navigation. The pulpit and altar screen also survive from the older church, and there’s an interesting mosaic made of stained glass from its windows.

 But the best church in the area (listed Grade I and all that) is at Blythburgh, a few miles inland and reached by a nice walk along the former railway. This also gives access to the reedbeds at the heart of the Suffolk Coast National Nature Reserve, which also includes a lot of sandy heathland – both habitats are very important for birdlife (around 300 species), butterflies and moths (500 species), as well as over 100 species of cranefly (who knew?), otters, natterjack toads and five species of deer.

 Aldeburgh

As I mentioned in my previous post, I cycled on to Aldeburgh, a charming little town that’s quieter and less commercial than Southwold (it has a stoney beach whereas Southwold’s is sandy) – it’s known above all as the home of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, who were rather forward-thinking when they founded a music festival in 1948, with performances in many local churches. It was even more forward-thinking to take over the industrial site of Snape Maltings, five miles inland, which now houses not only a beautiful concert hall and the Britten-Pears music school but also a gallery, café, pub, self-catering accommodation and posh shops – I mean, how did BB know that lifestyle shopping was going to be such a big thing? It’s a surprisingly large and attractive complex, with scope for further development.

 Aldeburgh itself has suffered from coastal erosion, although it’s less obvious than at Dunwich, Orford and other former ports along this coast; even so, few pre-nineteenth-century buildings remain and the historic Moot Hall (c1529, now housing the town museum) was in the town centre and is now on the promenade. In the nineteenth century Aldeburgh revived as a bathing resort (and the railway arrived in 1860); the delightful shopfronts on the present surprisingly wide High Street date from the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and are key to its Conservation Area status with their fanlights, pilasters and decorative ironwork.

 Other architectural oddities on the seafront include the two look-out towers, built by two rival pilotage groups to spot ships heading south towards the Thames, the modernist lifeboat station (built in 1994), and a Martello tower (half a mile south), the northernmost of the chain built to defend against a Napoleonic invasion (now available as holiday accommodation). The South Lookout Tower is where Laurens van der Post wrote in his later years, and is now part of an artists’ residence.

 Aldeburgh church is a little north of the centre, and has a largely nineteenth-century interior, so it doesn’t get as many visitors as Southwold’s fabulous church; but there’s a fine stained-glass window by John Piper in memory of Britten, with scenes from his church parables, and a memorial to the 1899 lifeboat disaster. The large churchyard contains not only the graves of Britten and Pears, alongside each other, but also nearby those of Imogen Holst (daughter of Gustav), Britten’s assistant and also a composer, musical educator and conductor in her own right, and the soprano Joan Cross, who created rôles such as Ellen Orford and Mrs Grose in Britten’s operas.

Maggi Hambling’s Scallop, on Aldeburgh beach, with a quotation from Peter Grimes

 Britten and Pears’ home, The Red House, is near the golf course on the way to Snape; I saw a flip remark that the historic Sailor’s Path to Snape (recently refurbished with solid wooden boardwalks) was ‘Britten’s walk to work’, but I don’t believe it for a moment – he always loved travelling by car and bought a Rolls-Royce as soon as he could. Anyway, the Red House is well worth a visit; in addition to the house and lovely gardens, the library and composition studio were built in former barns (where the Roller also lived) and there’s a modern gallery over Britten’s open-air swimming pool (which is still there beneath the floor).

 Among more modern musicians, Peter Sinfield (of King Crimson) and Isabella Summers (of Florence and the Machine) both live here – but I was more surprised to learn that Gerry Fiennes (1906–85), author of I Tried to Run a Railway, was mayor of Aldeburgh in 1976 – he has something of a cultish following, having introduced both the Deltic diesel locomotives (for sustained 100mph running on the London-Edinburgh route) and the merry-go-round trains (for moving coal in bulk); but publication of his wickedly humorous book in 1967 led to his being sacked by British Rail. In fact I shouldn’t have been so surprised, as I already knew that his cousin Ralph Fiennes was born in Suffolk, and puts on a very creditable local accent in The Dig (about Sutton Hoo). Another mayor of Aldeburgh (in 1908) was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, whose family owned the Snape maltings; she was not only Britain’s first female doctor, but also its first female mayor, and she also lies in the churchyard.

 Food-wise, the emphasis here is totally on fish, and smoking fish is big here and along the coast to Orford and into Essex. Aldeburgh Smokehouse (also known as Ash Smoked Fishes, though I think that should be ash-smoked fish) is a hut on the beach just north of the centre. Aldeburgh Fish & Chip Shop is the most famous chippie on the Suffolk coast, and The Lighthouse on the High Street is also a fine seafood restaurant. Aldeburgh was also famed for Lawson’s Deli (also on the High Street), which became Slate Cheese in 2017 and is still excellent (the best Suffolk cheese is Baron Bigod, the only British raw milk Brie-style cheese). Slate Cheese also has a branch in Southwold, and other trendy outlets such as Two Magpies Bakery, Quba and Joules (for clothing and furnishings) also have branches in each town. It’s also noticeable that there are good bookshops in both towns and in nearby villages too (though these are mostly internet/mail-order operations); the Southwold Bookshop is now owned by Waterstones but that’s not at all obvious.

University Towns – Göttingen, Marburg and Giessen (and Kassel)

Between Goslar and Bonn, I passed through a set of small university towns in central Germany that were once the seats of minor dukes and princes – indeed, if Bonn had not become the capital of West Germany it too would have been one of these small university towns. They’re all pleasant, but I found Marburg particularly lovely.

 The first I came to was Göttingen, on the main rail line south from Hannover to Frankfurt – there’s no bypass and virtually every ICE high-speed train stops here, so it must be one of the best-served stations for its size anywhere. It was almost unscathed in World War II, but even so there’s not a lot of medieval architecture here. But there are lots of bookshops and fly-parked bikes, and more young people smoking than elsewhere – a typical university town.

Kurze Strasse, with the Roman Catholic church of St Michael

 The university has an interesting history – it was founded in 1734 by King George II of Britain (also Duke of Hannover, of course) to be a centre of the Enlightenment, and the first students arrived in 1737. Great mathematicians such as Carl Friedrich Gauss, Bernhard Riemann, Hermann Minkowski and David Hilbert taught here, and a group of poets that had studied here in the 1770s were known as the Göttinger Dichterbund (Circle of Poets), studying folksong and paving the way for Romanticism. The poets Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano met as students in Göttingen, and in 1811 Achim married Clemens’s sister Bettina, who became the leading muse of the German Romantic movement; she knew everyone, from Goethe to Beethoven, but it was Antonie Brentano, wife of their half-brother Franz, who is perhaps the leading contender to be Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved (a couple of days later I was at Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn and investigated this).

 Then in 1837, the Göttingen Seven were seven professors who protested against Ernst August I’s suspension of the Hannoverian constitution, and were fired – they included the brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, famous for publishing collections of fairy tales, as well as teaching the new discipline of German Studies (Jacob was also the university’s head librarian).

 A century later, the Göttingen Eight were among the world’s finest mathematicians and physicists, including Leó Szilárd, Edward Teller, Max Born and Eugene Wigner, but being mostly Jewish they were driven out in 1933 in a Nazi crackdown on ‘Jewish physics’; having emigrated to the United States they played crucial rôles in the development of the atomic bomb (the great mathematician John von Neumann had already left). Göttingen was a very Nazi town, so I dare say they reconciled themselves with having to move away. There are also eight Nobel Prize winners in the city cemetery, including Otto Hahn, Max Planck and Max Born. Hahn’s collaborator Lise Meitner was nominated no fewer than 48 times for a Nobel Prize, but was always ignored. The modern university currently houses five of the eighty Max Planck Institutes.

 Göttingen was also known for its law faculty, which in the nineteenth century accounted for over half of its students – future chancellors Otto von Bismarck and Gerhard Schröder studied law here, as well as Prince Metternich, Chancellor of Austria, and the poet Heinrich Heine. The philosophers Wilhelm von Humboldt and Arthur Schopenhauer also studied here briefly.

 There are a lot of plaques on buildings commemorating other notables who passed through, including Alexander von Humboldt, Bunsen, Goethe, Franklin, Coleridge, Brahms and Joachim, and Sándor Kőrösi Csoma, a Székely from Transylvania who produced the first Tibetan–English dictionary and grammar. It’s a hard-working university, without distractions such as duelling, which used to cause a lot of trouble in Heidelberg (which I visited in 2016, but didn’t manage to blog about) – here the most exciting tradition is just climbing up to kiss the Gänseliesel (Goose Girl) statue after successfully defending a PhD.

 The university has half a dozen museums and botanic gardens, and there’s also the Städtisches Museum Göttingen (City Museum); but I didn’t manage to visit any, partly because it was a Monday and partly because of various refurbishment projects. The main building of the City Museum is closed, but there may be something to see in the Hardenberger Hof building around the corner on the Ritterplan. The University Ethnographic Collection is closed for refurbishment (a shame – it houses the Cook/Forster collection, brought from the Pacific islands by Georg Forster, who sailed with Cook and became a professor at Kassel, not far to the south), but it looks as if the Zoological Museum, which closed in 2018, has reopened. You can (pandemic permitting) visit the Museum for Sepulchral Culture, which sounds fascinating, but it will close for renovation from 2022 – it covers death, burial, mourning and remembrance across the world’s cultures, and will also look at suicide, euthanasia and organ donation, for instance.

 

St Jacobi
St Albani

 There are some attractive churches: the most important is St Johannis, on the market square (rebuilt as a Gothic hall church between 1290 and 1350, with its choir extended in 1792), which has two mismatched towers, but St Jacobi has a massive 72 metre-high tower that dominates the old town. St Michael has been the city’s Roman Catholic church since 1789; it was designed to be anonymous, but in 1893 the present façade and tower were built; and in 2014 the interior was reworked in a beautifully minimalist white style (there’s a modern memorial to Edith Stein, the first saint of Jewish origin, who studied in Göttingen in 1913-5). There’s another couple of nice Gothic hall churches, St Albani (if you can catch it open) and St Nikolai, which is the university church but is only open on Saturdays. On the art front, there are both university and public museums, which should be worth checking out too.

Kassel

From Göttingen it was a short hop (just eighteen minutes) on an ICE high-speed train to Kassel – but this stretch of the NBS high-speed railway will be closed for repairs from 24 April to 16 July 2021, as outlined here. Kassel Hauptbahnhof, the original main terminal station, has been superseded by Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe, a concrete box on the through lines in the western suburbs. Regional trains still run through to the Hauptbahnhof, but not the long-distance trains. Steam train enthusiasts will know Kassel as the site of the Henschel locomotive works, Germany’s largest.

 In fact, one of Kassel’s main attractions, the Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, is a bit further west from the new station – it’s a landscape park, laid out by the Landgraves of Hesse from 1689, which is now on the World Heritage List. Initially in the Baroque style, it was later adapted to the less formal English style, finishing with the Great Waterfall being added in 1826.

 At the foot of the hill, towards the city and the station, the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe is a large Neoclassical pile (built in 1786-98) that was Kaiser Wilhelm II’s summer residence; heavily damaged in World War II, it reopened in 1974 as an art museum (there are quite a few Rembrandts, as well as Dürer, Rubens, Hals and Van Dyck – I shall have to return). In the city centre, the Museum Fridericianum, founded in 1779 in another neoclassical palace, is claimed by Wikipedia to be Europe’s first public museum, but as any good Oxonian knows, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford was founded in 1677. It hosts contemporary art exhibitions, and in particular the documenta festival, held every five years (next in the summer of 2022). Art works from previous documenta festivals are dotted around the city, notably ‘7000 Oaks’, a piece of land art by Joseph Beuys. There’s also the Caricatura cartoon museum, in the Hauptbahnhof.

 Kassel was heavily bombed in World War II and then captured in vicious house-to-house fighting in April 1945, and rebuilt with modern buildings, so there’s little else to see that’s historic, and I didn’t stop this time.

Marburg
The Rathaus

With a regional train it took an hour and a quarter to get from Kassel to Marburg, which I found quite delightful. Having spent a month in the flatlands of northern Europe, finding a town on a hill with a castle at the top was a rare treat. It’s quite a steep climb up (stop in the market place to look at the Rathaus, built in 1512, and other half-timbered houses), but the views are worth it.

 St Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-31) moved here after her husband Ludwig IV of Thuringia died on crusade when she was just 20; she was known for her charity, following the teachings of Francis of Assisi, and setting up hospitals for the poor in Eisenach and Marburg. She was strictly controlled by her sadistic confessor, Konrad von Marburg, who was a ferocious persecutor of anyone accused of heresy; she died at just 24, and he was murdered two years later. The Order of Teutonic Knights adopted her as a patron and built the Elisabethkirche (see below) to house her tomb, which became a major pilgrimage centre until the Reformation, at which point her relics were removed by the protestant Landgrave.

 Marburg was the residence of the Landgraves of Hesse until 1567; the university was founded in 1527 and still dominates life here, so it’s fitting that it occupies the castle that dominates the view. It’s the oldest university still operating that was founded as a Protestant institution (though now secular, of course); in 1529 there was an important meeting of Luther, Zwingli and other reformers here. Marburg then became a backwater, escaping development for a couple of centuries, and was then rediscovered by the Romantics in the nineteenth century, since when it has been treasured for its medieval townscapes. It was a designated hospital town in World War II so escaped bombing. The university was always important however – Otto Hahn and the Brothers Grimm, whom we met in Göttingen (above) studied here, as did Hannah Arendt – she was taught by Martin Heidegger, an important thinker but also a Nazi, which may have helped her explain Nazism (‘the banality of evil’) after the war.

 There are six university museums, of which the Museum der Kulturgeschichte (Museum of Art and Cultural History) in the castle is the most interesting, covering local archeology and history and the urban and rural lifestyles. There are medieval frescoes in the chapel, and the Fürstensaal is a beautiful Gothic hall. There’s some religious art here, but the main art museum is down in town at Biegenstrasse 11, in a large purpose-built building mainly displaying German art since the sixteenth century. Nearby is the modern Marburger Kunstverein, with temporary shows by contemporary artists. The main church is the Elisabethkirche (1235-83, with towers finished in 1340), one of the earliest pure Gothic churches in Germany (along with the Church of the Virgin in Trier, which I’ve written about here) and a precursor of the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral), which as usual I visited as I changed trains on my way home – it’s amazing, and huge. It was the burial church of the Landgraves of Hesse until the Reformation, and after World War II General Paul von Hindenburg, the president of Germany who brought Hitler to power, and his wife were buried here, in a gloomy corner. The golden shrine of St Elizabeth can be seen here, as well as some fine polychrome wooden altars.

Giessen

From Marburg a very scenic railway follows the Lahn valley to Koblenz, passing through Giessen, another small university town which was heavily bombed in 1944, with most of its historic buildings destroyed. It also has an old university, founded in 1607 as a Lutheran alternative to the Calvinist University of Marburg; the playwright Georg Büchner studied here and Justus von Liebig, one of the founders of organic chemistry, taught here from 1824 to 1852 (and the university is now named after him). He transformed the teaching of chemistry and pioneered the chemical study of foods and fertilisers; he was familiar to me as the scientific director of the Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company, established in 1865 in Fray Bentos, Uruguay, which I know well. The militaristic Prussian state was also largely responsible for creating the modern scientific research university, and Giessen expanded from 1880 (and admitted women from 1900); the most important figure from this period was Wilhelm Röntgen, Professor of Physics from 1879 to 1888, who won the first Nobel Prize for Physics in 1901 for the discovery of X-rays.

 The city centre is pretty bland nowadays, but the old and new castles have been well reconstructed. The Altes Schloss was built in the first half of the fourteenth century and became the Museum of Upper Hesse in 1905; it was destroyed by bombing in 1944 and didn’t reopen until 1980; the half-timbered Neues Schloss was built in 1533-9 and it and the adjacent Zeughaus are now used by the university. The museum also uses two rebuilt houses on the west side of Kirchenplatz, the half-timbered Leib’sche Haus, which was built in 1350, largely destroyed in 1944 and reopened in 1978, and the eighteenth-century Wallenfels’schen Haus; they’re now linked by a bridge, but in theory you want the Leib’sche Haus for local history and folklore (with costumes, tobacco pipes, a loom and models of half-timbered structures) and the Wallenfels’schen Haus for archeology and ethnology (from Greek and Roman artefacts to Buddhist bronzes, thangkas and a mandala). The Altes Schloss displays arts and crafts and some historical paintings; the museums are free, but information is only in German. The university’s botanical garden, the oldest in Germany still in its original locations, is also free and open daily (not in winter, at least during the pandemic). There’s also a Liebig Museum, in the former guard house, which seems to be well worth visiting.

The Altes Schloss

Hildesheim, half-timbering and the Harz

Heading southeast from Hannover, I visited Hildesheim, an historic city full of half-timbered houses (Fachwerkhäuse), then Wernigerode and Goslar, also known for their half-timbering, and the Harz mountains (hey, enough of the halliteration. Ed). It was my first time in this area and it was something of a revelation. Half-timbering here is not the cosy black-and-white of Cotswold cottages but a multicoloured riot up to six storeys high – most of those in Hildesheim were rebuilt after World War II, but Goslar and Wernigerode were pretty much untouched. (I found Hildesheim too easily confused with Helmstedt, not too far to the east, which used to be of passing interest as the last stop in West Germany on the rail and road routes towards West Berlin.)

 Hildesheim is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, not because of the half-timbered houses on its beautifully reconstituted marketplace, but because of two fabulous Romanesque churches, the cathedral and the even more impressive St Michael’s. A bishopric was established here in 815 by the Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, and the cathedral was built in 852- 872 and rebuilt in 1010-20, after a fire in 1046, and after 1950. The wonderful cast bronze doors, depicting scenes of Adam and Eve (the Fall of Man) and the Life of Christ (the Salvation of Man), were added in about 1015 by Bishop Bernward. There’s also a very unusual bronze column, with a spiral relief depicting the life of Christ – this was made for Bernward in about 1000, but for St Michael’s, and was moved to the cathedral in 1810 after the parish of St Michael’s was dissolved. In the crypt beneath the altar you can see the beautifully decorated St Godehard reliquary, but there are many more treasures in the Cathedral Museum on the south side of the cathedral and the cloister. In fact, for many the most famous treasure is the Thousand-Year-Old Rose (now over 1,200 years old), which seemed to have been destroyed in the air raid of 22 March 1945 but was flowering again by 1947. Now it covers the full height of the outside of the east-end apse; signs seem to indicate that you need to go via the museum (and pay) to see it, but in fact there’s a perfectly legitimate way into the cloister near Bernward’s Column. In the centre of the cloister is the chapel of St Anne, the first Gothic building in Hildesheim (c.1320), which is bare and thus usually open.

Despite all its treasures, the cathedral’s interior is not especially striking,
whereas St Michael’s should knock you over with its superb ceiling painted with the Tree of Jesse (Christ’s family tree). Built in 1010-33 on the site of a monastery founded by Bernward (who was buried in the crypt), it’s a great example of Ottonian Romanesque architecture, named after the Emperor Otto III, whose tutor Bernward was. Even after the Reformation, the Benedictines were allowed to continue worshipping in the crypt; this remains the case today, although in the nineteenth century the church was used as a hay store and then as part of a mental hospital housed in the monastery. It was almost derelict, and then was burnt down in the 1945 air raid (the ceiling and other treasures had been removed); the postwar reconstruction followed Bernward’s original design as far as possible.

 Between the two churches, the Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Muzeum is a leading museum of global archeology and antiquities, with a particularly good collection of Egyptian relics, brought back by a banker who spent much of his career in Cairo, as well as Chinese porcelain and Peruvian artefacts. Another branch is the City Museum in the Knochenhauer-Amtshaus (the Butchers’ Guildhall), the largest of the rebuilt half-timbered houses on the Markt – you have to walk through a restaurant and go upstairs. There are good displays on the city’s history; captions are in German only (I did notice that the Hanseatic cities, and Berlin, are far more likely to have bilingual information), but nothing could be clearer than the construction of the Spitzboden or attic at the top.

  There are many more rebuilt houses, some with elaborately decorated stone windows, in the centre, and other attractive churches; but the most authentic houses, untouched in the war, are to the south on Brühl, Godehardsplatz and Kesslerstrasse, finishing at the charming Masonic Hall (built in 1663, expanded in 1822, and restored in 2011). Also to the south is the basilica of St Godehard, also built in Romanesque style in 1133-72, which has a striking setting but a fairly plain interior, apart from a nineteenth-century fresco in the choir; however there’s talk of it being added to the World Heritage List.

 Moving on to the Harz Mountains, my jumping-off point was Wernigerode, a small town in Saxony-Anhalt (just over the border into what was the German Democratic Republic) which is also known for its half-timbered houses. To be honest I didn’t much like it – it was very crowded, on a Saturday, seemingly with coach parties from Berlin, and it felt a bit tacky to me. Having said that, there are some quieter, unspoilt corners with half-timbered houses from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

 It’s the northern end of the Harzer Schmalspur Bahnen or Harz Narrow-gauge Railways, which run through the mountains linking the towns of Wernigerode, Nordhausen and Quedlinburg with 140km of metre-gauge track. Some new links have been built to create a functional public-transport system, but it’s best known abroad for the branch to the top of the Brocken (1141m), the highest peak of the Harz, and for the surprisingly powerful steam locomotives that operate many of its trains. These are mostly 2-10-2T tank engines, built in the 1950s, although pre-war steam locomotives and indeed diesel railcars can appear for special events; there’s plenty of specialist rail-fan coverage of the trains, so suffice to say that I had no problem taking my folding bike up  to the Brocken. It did seem odd that because of the pandemic the HSB was not taking online bookings, which is surely the wrong way round. The ride up through the beech forest was great, but at higher levels, the conifer forests have seen a lot of logging; the summit is above the tree line and lived up to its reputation for bad weather, with fog and a cold wind.

 The Brocken has also long had a reputation as the meeting place of witches (as in Goethe’s Faust), and Goethe and the poet Heinrich Heine came here (as well as Peter the Great of Russia, supposedly) and have trails named after them. Another aspect of the local folklore is the Brocken spectre, the huge shadow of a person cast on a cloud, with the head often ringed by a rainbow halo, which was first described here in 1780. After World War II, the border between East and West Germany ended up about two kilometres to the west, the entire border strip became a closed area which has turned out to be a great boon for wildlife, and the summit of the Brocken was a base for electronic spying on the West. Since the fall of communism, and the reopening of the Brockenbahn in 1991, it has become a popular tourist destination again. I cycled down, on a concrete track at first, but then on paths that were too rough to ride on (first with stone, then with roots) as I came around the Eckertal reservoir to the dam, straddling the former border. From here it was a quick run down to the attractive spa town of Bad Harzburg, and then across to Goslar.

 Goslar caught my attention because it was on the Germany map of my Rough Guide to Europe, supposedly stranded at the end of a railway southeast from Hannover – but the matching text had been cut. With my experience of brutal cutting by the Rough Guides editors, I was fairly sure that it would actually be a nice place and well worth a visit. And so it proved. I don’t know if it’s true or fair, but in Wernigerode I had a sense that I was only seeing Ossies from the former East Berlin visiting the same places they’d visited when it was East Germany, much like people who only ever go to Blackpool; there was none of that in Goslar, which felt more open.

 It’s another place that’s on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, not just because of the historic townscape, with perhaps 1800 historic houses, but also for the Rammelsberg mine and the Upper Harz Water Management System, in the hills to the south – created by medieval monks, this was massively expanded from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries to hold water and channel to the mines (see below).

 Metal ores were mined in the Harz from the third century AD, and in about 968 the Emperor Otto the Great opened a silver mine at Rammelsberg; the settlement of Goslar, a couple of kilometres north, was first mentioned in 979. In 1005, Henry II built an Imperial Palace (Kaiserpfalz), rebuilt by Conrad II from 1025, which became one of the main power bases of the Saxon rulers until 1250. After this, Goslar became a Free Imperial City, a member of the Hanseatic League, and immensely wealthy thanks to its mines (Gose, a sour wheat beer, was also developed here, although it’s been associated with Leipzig for the last couple of centuries). The town then became a bit of a backwater as part of Prussia; hunkered down here in the cold winter of 1798 Wordsworth began writing The Prelude, and the cathedral was demolished in 1820 (only the north porch survives, as the chapel of St. Simon and St. Jude, across the park from the Kaiserpfalz). Goslar escaped bombing in World War II, so many half-timbered wooden houses survive here, along with several attractive churches.

 The main church now is the Marktkirche, just off the market square; built in 1151 as a Romanesque basilica with three naves, a smaller version of the cathedral; a Gothic choir was added in 1295, and it was widened to five naves in 1334-6. Inside, it’s worth seeing the stained-glass windows, the remains of a mural (circa 1440) , a bronze font (1573) and a pulpit carved with biblical scenes (1659); and there are great views from the north tower. The market square is also lovely, with the Rathaus on the west side of the square worth visiting to see the stained-glass windows and the frescoes in the Huldigungssaal (Hall of Homage); when I was there it was closed while a new World Heritage information centre was being fitted out for opening in spring 2021 (pandemic permitting) – at which point the tourist information centre on the east side of the square will presumably close.

 The Rammelsberg mine closed in 1988, after about 1,020 years of activity – initially copper ore was the main output, followed by lead, zinc and above all silver. The buildings were saved from demolition and turned into a museum, and it became part of the World Heritage Site created in 1992. The mine had been expanded by the Nazis and most of the surface buildings date from this period; as well as technical exhibits, there are displays on the mine’s cultural history and a modern art gallery, plus a range of underground tours, including a twelfth-century gallery and one on a mine train.

 In the mountains to the south, the Clausthal ponds were created in about 1318 to provide water to drive waterwheels and pumps for these and other mines; sixty of the original 107 are still managed, as part of the Upper Harz Water Management System sector of the World Heritage Site (added in 2010). Walking routes have been created along many of the water channels, and tours can be arranged from the Upper Harz Mining Museum in Clausthal-Zellerfeld. This sector also includes the Walkenried monastery, which dates from 1127, when Cistercian monks came from France, bringing the Gothic style of building to northern Europe; the abbey church itself, dating from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, is in ruins, but other buildings can be visited, including a museum and the chapter house, now used as a parish church.

 This is another place where I have unfinished business, to enjoy the towns of Hildesheim and Goslar in non-pandemic times, and to spend more time hiking and cycling in the Harz.

A bit Cornish? slate-fronted houses in Goslar

‘The Border’ – a review

I’ve never been to Russia, which may seem strange in someone who has at times specialised in Eastern Europe and formerly Soviet countries, but I’ve met more than enough Russians in the neighbouring countries. They talk a lot about the Russian soul, which in practice seems to mean wanting me to join them in a vodka-based search for oblivion, rather than good cheer. But when I heard that Erica Fatland had written a book about Russia as seen from its neighbouring countries I was interested! It soon turned out that, unlike me, she spoke Russian and had spent time there, writing a book on the Beslan massacre as well as Sovietistan, about the Central Asian ‘Stans (including Uzbekistan, which I have also written about in my way.

 She spent 259 days (over a two-year span) making a virtually complete loop through all fourteen countries that currently border Russia, including a cruise along its Arctic frontier; I have only been to China (in 1983), Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, Finland and Norway, as well as the formerly Soviet states of Armenia, Moldova and Uzbekistan, which don’t actually border Russia.

 The first chapter of her tour was actually the last to be undertaken, when she finally managed to find an affordable cruise through the Northeast Passage, from Anadyr to Murmansk. This also touched on the Russian involvement with Alaska, another place that I’ve had plenty to do with, having spent two winters there and updated several editions of the Rough Guide to Alaska and the Alaska chapter of the Rough Guide to the USA. This is very different to the rest of the book, and both interesting, covering a part of the world that few of us have been to, and entertaining, with its account of her fellow passengers. It’s also the most environmentally engaged part of the book – even two decades ago it was clear that the poles were warming up far faster than the equator, and of course it’s the lack of sea ice that now makes it easy for ships to travel through the Northeast Passage. And there’s the regular mention of the rusty oil drums that were left everywhere by the Soviets.

 The next section, on North Korea, is a bit too similar to other accounts of organised tours of the paranoid dictatorship – she does it very well, but for the most part we’re drifting away from the Russian theme here. Chapters on China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, similarly, are very well-done history lessons with lots of detail of wars with Russia, but they don’t reveal much about Russian character or culture.

 Then we get to Georgia, which Fatland has said is one of her favourite countries – and it’s one of mine, too, for the same reasons – food, wine, scenery, and above all the sheer joie de vivre of the Georgians. The food on much of her journey must have been hard going for a vegetarian, but here Fatland would have been able to live off the fat of the land… But I don’t think Georgians dislike Russians as much as she says they do – yes, they loathe Putin and his régime, but they will almost all say that they have no problem at all with Russians themselves – partly because Russian tourism is very important economically. I also disagree about ‘the most famous monastery in Georgia’ – surely that’s Davit-Gareja (ok, a group of monasteries) rather than Gergeti, which is certainly the most iconic church in Georgia, but not much of a monastery.

The Gergeti Trinity Church, by Mary Holzer

 The Ukraine section is excellent, with interesting visits to the remnant of the Swedish community and to the secessionist Donetsk People’s Republic; her account of Crimea is based on a visit nine years earlier, before its annexation by Russia – I was there back in 1991, but again I agree with her that, like Georgia, ‘Crimea had everything’, scenery, culture, beaches and beer. On the other hand, there’s only fleeting coverage of lovely Lviv.

 As for Belarus, she finds some interest in the dullest of countries – I was interested that Lukashenko once dragged out his annual speech to seven hours and twenty minutes, because Fidel Castro had famously set a record by droning on for seven hours and ten minutes (although Fatland doesn’t mention this). The Chagall museum in Vitbesk was closed, as was the Rothko museum in Daugavpils, Latvia – I feel her pain. The three Baltic states are also familiar ground well covered, and she makes a brief detour into Poland because it surrounds the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Another detour via the Åland islands, between Finland and Sweden, is new and interesting.

 It’s easy to forget how close to the Soviet Union Finland once was (politically and economically), and how carefully they walked that tightrope between keeping some independence and not offending the bear next door – there was a huge Soviet military base west of Helsinki until 1995, the year that Finland joined the EU and began to remodel itself as a modern Scandinavian social democracy. Finland has not joined NATO, but in 1996 it began to participate in peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and then Afghanistan. And from Finland Fatland actually crossed the border into Russia, with a visa-free cruise to Vyborg, once Finland’s second city and now ‘sad and worn’.

 Norway is the only one of Russia’s neighbours that it has never been at war with – in other words her home country, the last one described in this book, is the one with the best relations with Russia. Even so, the paranoid deportations of the Stalinist era affected the Norwegians on the Kola peninsula too; and this area of Russia bordering Norway is, by her account, the most polluted place in the world, due to a filthy nickel refinery and dumped fuel from nuclear submarines – this is now being cleared up, but by NATO countries, not by Russia.

 One could argue that she should also have gone to Iran, as it faces Russia across the Caspian Sea (and Alaska and Sweden do get mentioned), but I think we can give her a pass on that. But I just finished reading Fifty Miles Wide, by Julian Sayerer, about cycling in Israel and Palestine, and Israel is a country that has been heavily influenced by Russians – more or less anyone in Omsk or Tomsk or indeed Donetsk who feels that his or her life is a dead-end can claim to be Jewish, and these people have little interest in sharing Israel with Arabs.

 Fatland quotes the father of Norwegian social anthropology, Fredrik Barth, who said that you can only see yourself, your people and your culture in relation to “the other”. It is at the border with the unknown that identity and cultural differences arise. Perhaps the people of the countries that Fatland travelled through had a clearer sense of themselves by comparing their history and culture with those of Russia, and maybe she does too, but for me this was largely a history lesson – most of it was fairly familiar to me, but most readers will find a lot here that is new and interesting. Of course there’s the endless litany of Stalinist atrocities, but if it’s any comfort, it’s clear that the very worst of all were carried out by the Nazis. In any case this is an entertaining and perceptive account of these countries in their own right.

The Border by Erika Fatland, Quercus Books, 2020, translated by Kari Dickson (first published in Norwegian as Grensen by Kagge Forlag in 2017).

Details details

There was clearly a bit of a delay between the first publication in Norwegian and the translation into English – footnotes have been added to bring it up to date, although they don’t cover the recent election and protests in Belarus. Fatland or her editors do have a bit of an issue with big numbers 

on p.106 ‘The unification of East and West Germany … is estimated to have cost between one and a half and an eye-watering two billion euros.’ In fact it’s estimated at 2 trillion euros. Two billion seems like NOTHING at all in our Covid-19 world, where Joe Biden’s relief package is worth US$1.9 trillion and Apple is worth US$2 trillion.

on p.119 ‘Two and a half million passengers travel on Chinese trains every year’ – it’s more like 2.5 billion.

on p.273 ‘on February 25 million people marched’ – one million, I think, on February 25.

and on p.381 ‘Nikishyne, between seven and eight hundred kilometres north of Donetsk’ – in fact it’s between seventy and eighty kilometres.

 and some editing/ translation issues –

on p.226 ‘By the end of the 1950s, Russians were in the majority in Kazakhstan and accounted for more than forty per cent of the population.’ – no, that’s a plurality, not a majority.

on p.291 ‘there’s a clear view from Shusha to Stepanakert’ – so she obviously means that the Azerbaijanis were shelling the city, not bombing it.

on p.370 ‘winter 1942’ and on p.527 ‘winter 1943’ seems to mean early in the year, whereas I’d expect it to mean the end of the year.

on p.392 ‘strike camp’ should be ‘set up camp’ or similar.

on p.518 it was Turkey, not Italy, that was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I!

And just a couple of typos that I noticed – ‘Kakazhstan’ (p.227) and ‘A dead solider’ (p.381).

Also available

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.’ ]

 

Brandenburg and Magdeburg

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

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

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

The Altstädtisches Rathaus and Roland statue

 

 

 

St Gotthardt’s church

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Magdeburg

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

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

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

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

Berlin – a different side

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Potsdam’s palaces and parks

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

Sanssouci (ie Care-free)

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

The Neues Palais

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

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

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

The rebuilt City Palace, Potsdam (two photos)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

The Potsdam Museum