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

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

Lübeck – the Hanse, Brick Gothic and Bach

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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

The Heiligen Geist Hospital
The Heiligen Geist Hospital


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

The St. Anne’s Museum Quarter


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

The Paradise porch
The Holstentor

What else?

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


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

Bonn – Beethoven, and not being Berlin

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


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


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

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


Elsewhere in Bonn

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Bremen and Hamburg

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Hamburg

An art centre in Schanze. Obviously.

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally

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

The Chilehaus – mentioned in my Amsterdam post.

Trier – we have the best Roman baths

A couple of months ago I found myself by chance at the Welwyn Roman Bath, which just consists of a few low walls and is of relatively little interest except for the fact that it’s in a vault like an air-raid shelter directly beneath the A1(M) motorway (which is totally inaudible). But it reminded me that I wanted to write about Trier, a small town in Germany which was once the capital of the Roman Empire. It’s not that well known today, probably because few of the Roman remains could be excavated until after World War II, and also perhaps because of its position on the far westernmost side of Germany, close to Luxembourg.

The history of Trier

A small Celtic town was conquered by the Romans in the late 1st century (and still claims to be the oldest town in Germany). It was just a local administrative centre (capital of the Civitas Treveroum) until AD 269, when it became capital of the Gallic Empire (not recognised by Rome), governing Gaul, Britannia and parts of Hispania, Germania and Raetia. This lasted just five years before being re-integrated into the Roman Empire, and in 275/6 and 287 Trier was destroyed by Germanic (barbarian) invasions. In 286 the Emperor Diocletian created Maximinian his co-regent, then appointed two more to form a tetrarchy, and Trier became capital of Gaul and an imperial residence (and Trevorum became Augusta Treverorum, meaning The City of Augustus among the Treveri). A palace district, including the Imperial Baths, was created in the eastern part of the present-day city, but work stopped as Constantine the Great (who had spent a lot of time here from 306 to 316) switched his attention to the Eastern Empire. From 328 Constantine II (son of Constantine the Great) was based in Trier; he was Emperor of the West from 337 to 340, followed by his brothers Constans I until 350 and Constantius II until 353. This was a time of revolts, but after 364 there was peace, and Trier saw its heyday under the emperors Valentinian I (who continued building the palace district, completing the baths in 375 – although they were used as barracks) and his son Gratian. Its population may have been as high as 100,000, the same as today. Valentinian II was the last emperor to occasionally reside in Trier, and after 395 Trier lost its importance, as the imperial court moved to Milan and the provincial administration to Arles.

In about 460-470 it was taken over by the Franks and developed steadily as part of the Holy Roman Empire, its bishops becoming archbishops and prince-electors, responsible for choosing the next emperor. One amusing footnote concerns the Synod of Trier (1147) which went a bit wrong when some of the bishops went to Troyes in France instead – it was reconvened in 1148 as the Council of Reims.

France attempted to seize Trier during the Thirty Years’ War, the War of the Grand Alliance, the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Polish Succession, and the French Revolutionary Wars – it was captured by France in 1794 and the electoral archbishopric was dissolved, along with the Holy Roman Empire itself, in 1806. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Trier passed to the Kingdom of Prussia, and continued to develop, with industrialisation to go along with the well-established wine industry.

The sights

So what can be seen now? Lots – there are plenty of Roman ruins (and a lot more still to be excavated) and some fantastic churches, which mostly have Roman origins anyway. They’re all part of UNESCO’s Roman Monuments, Cathedral of St. Peter and Church of Our Lady in Trier World Heritage Site, created in 1986 – details are here. The most famous Roman remains are probably the Imperial Baths (Kaiserthermen), which cover a wide expanse just south of the city centre, with atmospheric underground passages; there’s a good little museum here. Near the Imperial Baths, a little way southeast of the centre off Spotzmühle, is the amphitheatre – built to seat around 18,000 in the second century, this mostly staged bloody fights, animals against animals, gladiators against animals, and no doubt gladiators against gladiators too.

I was particularly taken by the St Barbara Baths (Barbara-thermen), southwest of the Altstadt on Bäderstrasse, which were built in the 2nd century outside the city walls in the suburb later named after the abbey of St Barbara. Covering an area 172m by 240m, they were the second largest baths in the Roman Empire, and the largest north of the Alps. Abandoned from the 5th century, a church and houses were built inside their walls, and then destroyed in the 17th century, when the Roman stones were taken to build a Jesuit college. Now only the foundations remain, along with various tunnels below, but a modern (free) walkway across the site allows you to see the layout of the whole complex, including pools and furnaces and the heating and sewerage systems.

More or less in the city centre, the Forum Baths were discovered only in 1987, when an underground car park was being built – the remains of the two hot-water baths, a cold-water bath, under-floor heating systems and sewers are now roofed over and can be visited from 9am to 5pm except on Mondays. Most of the other sites are open daily from 9am to 4, 5, or 6pm according to the season, and typically cost €4.

In addition, don’t miss the Porta Nigra (Black Gate), on the north side of the Altstadt, towards the station, a massive Roman city gate in which the Greek monk Simeon had himself walled

The Porta Nigra nowadays

The Porta Nigra as it was in the Middle Age

up as a hermit, dying there in 1034 or 1035. He was made a saint and two churches were built into the gate, one above the other – these were removed, along with the upper story of the eastern tower, in 1804-19, but you can see a model of this rather bizarre hybrid construction in the city history museum next door in the Simeonstift, a former monastery. In addition to a series of plans explaining the city’s development (only in German), there’s a display of sculptures by Ferdinand Tietz (1707-77) around the upper level of the cloister. Anyway, you can walk through and around the gate, while the interior is open in the same way as the other Roman sights.

There are also a couple of quite stunning churches to be seen here. First, the huge Basilica of Constantine, at the east end of Konstanstinstrasse, has an ugly red-brick exterior but a stunning bare interior, no less than 67m long by 26m wide and 33m high – it was built in c310 as the imperial throne room; it was left roofless by the Germanic tribes when they sacked the city, and they built a settlement inside the ruin. It later became a church and the administrative centre of the bishop of Trier, with the apse converted into his residence, until a new palace was built alongside from 1614. In the mid-19th century it was restored to its original condition and has been a Lutheran church since 1856 – the usual Protestant lack of internal decoration is ideal to show off the building’s Roman bones. There’s also an optical illusion that emphasises the building’s depth, as the apse’s windows and the niches below them become progressively smaller towards the middle.

The city’s cathedral or Dom is also superb – the oldest cathedral in Germany, it’s built on the ruins of a much bigger Roman church complex and incorporates some walls from a 4th-century church, still up to 26m in height. It was rebuilt in Romanesque style at the end of the 10th and 12th centuries, with Gothic vaults added later. There’s also the Baroque Chapel of the Holy Robe, built to house the Seamless Robe (or Chiton) of Jesus, the one which the soldiers who crucified Jesus cast lots for (rather than ripping it apart), because it was made of one seamless piece of cloth. The Emperor Constantine’s mother, St Helena, supposedly found it in about AD 327 on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and donated it to the church that Constantine had started building in Trier in 326 (he founded St Peter’s Basilica in Rome the same year, to mark the twentieth anniversary of his reign). The robe was certainly here by 1196, when it was sealed in a new altar, and only removed in 1512; since then it has been displayed to the faithful every few decades, attracting up to a million pilgrims. Normally the robe is hidden away in a reliquary in this chapel, which can merely be glimpsed by processing up behind the high altar of the cathedral – it gives great views down the nave, but is a waste of time in terms of seeing the robe or the chapel of the robe.

Entering through the cloister, you have the Dom on your right, and the Church of the Virgin (the Liebfrauen) on your left – this was built in Early Gothic style around 1200, and is totally different in atmosphere to the rather hectic Dom. It’s much darker (due to the stained glass) and there’s quiet choral music playing, so that tourists and others sit quietly and meditatively.

Changing gear totally, Karl Marx was born in Trier in 1818, and the family house at Brückenstraße 10 is now a museum about his life and writings as well as the history of communism; I’ve seen enough of communism and I didn’t get here. But Roman baths do seem to be a bit of a theme at the moment – in addition to Trier and Welwyn, I recently saw one in Cimiez (in Nice, next to the Matisse museum), and most years I lead a hiking group to the Roman bath house at Ravenglass, which boasts the highest Roman walls in northern Britain, no less than 4m high (I’m being ironic). It was built in about AD c130, as part of a fort guarding the supply line from the port here to the central part of Hadrian’s Wall.

This is what Roman ruins look like in northern England.

A very few practicalities

I stayed at the youth hostel, which is typically German and efficient; there are some pleasant riverside restaurants nearby, next to the Roman bridge over the Mosel river. Built around 144-152 AD, this is the oldest bridge in Germany, although in fact only the pilings are original and the arches and roadway date from the 18th century. The German army planned to demolish the bridge in March 1945, but a lightning advance by General Patton’s tanks led to its being captured before they had the chance to do so. It now leads to the delightful pedestrian and cycle route along the far bank of the Mosel.

Berlin – new museums for the cultural powerhouse of Europe

Berlin is positioning itself as the capital of post-Brexit Europe, in case you hadn’t noticed, the most culturally dynamic city at the heart of the continent’s most powerful economy. Huge amounts of money are being spent over long timescales to take the already wonderful cultural assets of two cities, East and West Berlin, and make them into a global powerhouse. The key to this is the Museumsinsel (Museum Island, just inside the former East Berlin), where a huge extension to the legendary Pergamon Gallery is being built in five phases between 2012 and 2025, including a fourth wing to the west as in Alfred Messel’s original plan. In 2017-9 visitor services are being transferred to the new James Simon Gallery, named after the Jewish businessman who gave huge and very important donations to the museum in 1904 and 1918. Designed by the British architect David Chipperfield, this will be a combined visitor centre for all the Museumsinsel museums. The new entrance will be on the south side, not far from the new U-Bahn station (on line U5, opening in mid-2019) at the west end of the Schlossbrücke (and next to the German History Museum). It will also give access to the Neues Museum, the second world-class archeology museum on the island – this was beautifully refurbished in 2003-9 by David Chipperfield, who has incorporated the damage caused in World War II rather than trying to remove or hide it.

 

There’s nowhere else like the Pergamon, with its full-size reconstructions of the Ishtar Gate of Nebuchadnezzar II and Processional Way of Babylon and the Market Gate of Miletus in the south wing, and the altar hall of Pergamon in the north wing, although this is closed for refurbishment from 2014 until 2019. It really will knock you sideways. Meanwhile the Neues Museum has beautifully presented displays of Heinrich Schliemann’s finds from the site of Troy (which he secretly removed from Turkey, having to pay a fine afterwards – it doesn’t seem so unfair that much of the collection was then seized by the Soviet Union in 1945, although it is about time that it was returned), as well as the iconic long-necked bust of Nefertiti and the Golden Hat of a Bronze Age Celtic priest, with a 19-year sun/moon cycle encoded on it.

 

Also here are the Altes Museum, the first museum built on the island (by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1823-30), housing classical antiquities; the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery, displaying a wonderful collection of 19th-century German and French art) and the Bode Museum, home to Byzantine art and sculpture, including what is in my opinion a wonderful collection of Italian Renaissance altars by virtually unknown artists. Anywhere else these museums would be huge cultural draws, but here they tend to be overshadowed.

All this money being poured into the former East Berlin has left the former cultural hotspots of West Berlin looking rather sorry for themselves – the Kulturforum, around the Philharmonie concert hall (and near the horribly over-rated Potsdamer Platz), seems very uncared for, with lots of long grass and no signage. The Neues Nationalgalerie, one of Mies van der Rohe’s finest buildings, is closed for refurbishment (by the ubiquitous David Chipperfield) and won’t re-open before 2019; by 2027 it will be linked by a tunnel to the Museum of the 20th Century, a new museum of 20th-century art by Herzog & de Meuron. Yet the Gemälde Galerie probably has the most complete and wide-ranging collection of all Berlin’s art galleries, covering all of European painting from the 13th to the 18th centuries. All the Italian, Flemish and German masters of the Renaissance are here, followed by a superb group of 16 Rembrandts and a couple of Vermeers, as well as other 17th-century Dutch works; it’s pleasing to see a group of fine 18th-century British works, by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Raeburn, Lawrence and Hoppner, too. Allow plenty of time – a full tour will cover 2km, taking in 72 main galleries and lots of side rooms, with around 1,000 works on display, as well as 400 more in the lower-level study gallery (open Friday to Sunday only). It’s definitely one of Europe’s great galleries.
While you’re at the Gemälde Galerie, see what’s on at the Kupferstichkabinett (the Cabinet of Engravings), in the same building – for conservation reasons they only put on temporary shows, but they have an excellent collection to draw on.
For 20th- and 21st-century art, the place to go is the Berlinische Galerie, which has interesting temporary exhibits downstairs and its permanent collection upstairs (running up to 1980, not 1989 as one might have expected) – it’s a good representative overview, with one painting by just about everyone who should be represented, but it doesn’t really get excited and go into depth about anything in particular, especially not Expressionism, Germany’s main contribution to modern art.
I didn’t go back to Dahlem, in the southwestern suburbs, site of West Berlin’s other main grouping of museums, but I assume it has a similar uncared-for feel, as it’s intended to move the Museum of European Culture to the Kulturforum, and the Museums of Ethnography and Asian art to the Berliner Schloss, now being built immediately south of the Museumsinsel. This is a very controversial project to recreate the largely 18th-century palace of the Electors of Prussia, which was heavily damaged in World War II and demolished in 1950 by communist East Germany. They created the huge Marx-Engels Platz and the Palace of the Republic (1976), which was itself demolished in 2008, supposedly due to the presence of asbestos. There’s a strong feeling that this historic building, where German reunification was agreed and where East Germany’s first free parliament met, should have been preserved rather than being demolished for petty political point-scoring. Certainly the plan to rebuild the Schloss is backwards-looking and reeks of imperial bombast; nevertheless the concrete shell has been completed and a new north-south pedestrian axis created, from the Lustgarten to Breite Strasse, and it only remains to deck it out with Baroque features and to move the museums in, by 2019. One good sign is that the project is led by Neil MacGregor, the very successful director of the British Museum until 2015. It’s run by the private Humboldt Forum, which commemorates Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the explorer and biologist, rather than his brother Wilhelm (1776-1835), politician, linguist and founder of the university now named after him, who is probably better known in Berlin; the temporary Humboldt Cube, on the north side, houses a general exhibition on the project and tasters of what’s to come (for instance ‘Frog Trading in Africa – the ecological effects’ – looking at the spread of malaria).
The historic centre of Berlin, from the 13th century, was the Nikolaiviertel, to the east of the Schloss near the Rathaus, and it was only after 1688 as the city expanded to the west that the area of the Schloss became central; in the 1730s Friedrichstrasse and Wilhelmstrasse were extended to Mehringplatz and Leipziger Platz, and in 1788 the Brandenburg Gate was erected. The Nikolaiviertel has been pedestrianised and prettified, with fairly generic new bars and terraces, as well as August Kiss’s statue of St George and the Dragon, and four museums, mostly remembering bourgeois life in the area.

Katy says the next bit is very boring (except the news of the new cycle scheme) unless you are a transport buff….so you have been warned!!

Berlin’s public transport system is of course also being unified and integrated – the huge Hauptbahnhof (Central Station), opened in 2006 where the city’s North-South and East-West lines cross, is just the latest stage in its evolution. The Lehrter Bahnhof, opened in 1871, was the terminus of the railway from Hannover, and from 1884 from Hamburg – this route was extended eastwards through the city and is now a four-track elevated line with one pair of tracks for long-distance trains and one pair for the Stadtbahn, carrying local S-Bahn services. The North-South line was created when various terminals north and south of the centre were closed (some architectural traces can still be identified) and mainly carries S-Bahn services. Meanwhile the city’s Ring line was completed by the DDR (to allow its trains to avoid West Berlin) and carries another useful range of S-Bahn services.

Construction of the U-Bahn (underground railway) began before World War I, but it took its present shape when the city was divided and West Berlin had to create new routes to avoid East Berlin; new routes into the East are now under construction (see above), but very slowly due to spending constraints.
   Trams, traditionally a feature of East Berlin, are slowly being extended into the West, with routes M5, M8 and M10 being extended to the Hauptbahnhof in 2014 and 2015. But cycling really is the best way to get around Berlin, with 620km of cycle tracks and 13% of journeys made by bike. In spring 2017 Germany’s largest bike-sharing scheme is due to go live here, with thousands of bikes at 700 rental stations, roughly 150m apart.

[Update – Well, the U5 underground line extension to Museuminsel and Alexanderplatz finally opened in December 2020, not mid-2019 as I said above – it was originally due to open in 2017. The short stub known as U55 has finally been absorbed into U5, which now runs from Hauptbahnhof to Hönow. Don’t even mention the delays to the new Berlin airport, which finally opened a month or two earlier…. ]

The ruins of the Anhalter Bahnhof, abandoned when the rail tracks were put underground to link the north and south of Berlin