I’ve posted before about two UK cities of culture, Hull and Coventry, and now I’ve just been to two of the European Capitals of Culture for 2023, Veszprém and Timișoara (the third is Elefsina, once known as Eleusis, in Greece, which I don’t know much about). Timișoara, in the southwestern corner of Romania, is a city I’ve known since 1991, but I’m pretty sure I’d never been to Veszprém, southwest of Budapest.
This is one of Hungary’s oldest and most historic cities, having played a key rôle in the establishment of Christianity in the country and thus the consolidation of the state and the royal dynasty. A diocese was established here under Prince Géza, who has been converted to Christianity in 975, and in 997 his son King István (aka St Stephen) defeated a pagan uprising here, with the help of knights sent by Henry II, Duke of Bavaria, father of István’s wife Gisela. She made Veszprém her home, and it has always been known as ‘the Town of Queens’. It was largely destroyed in the sixteenth century and rebuilt after 1711, with many ugly buildings added around the old town during the communist period.
I took a very slow train (hauled by an oversized diesel shunter) from Györ (on the Vienna-Budapest main line), through the Bakony hills and forests, with hikers getting on and off, and eventually arrived at the station a couple of kilometres north of the centre of Veszprém. Having found my bed I headed for the castle area – and found it closed off, with all the buildings along Vár utca (Castle Street), leading up to it, hidden by scaffolding and plastic sheeting. This is a rocky plateau reached from the lower town through the Heroes’ Gate, fairly tastefully built in 1936 to commemorate the dead of the First World War (just before the second one broke out), next to the minaret-like Fire Tower (originally built in the thirteenth century but now largely Baroque). Vár utca winds up the hill between large Baroque buildings, some of which house art galleries, and into the square dominated by the Bishop’s Palace (Érseki Palota), a ponderous edifice (1765-76) built on the site of Gisela’s palace by Jakab Fellner, Hungary’s leading Baroque architect. At the end, beyond the Trinity Column (1750), is the cathedral, which has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, the current incarnation dating from 1907-11 – it’s in a pretty authentic Romanesque style, as far as I could see, although the interior murals are a bit bright. Gisela was beatified in 1911, and one of her forearm bones is preserved as a relic in a shrine by the altar.
The cathedral, and the Trinity Column, seem, externally at least, to be in fine condition. The city’s Capital Culture brochure and website feature lovely pictures of this area, so it seems a bit odd that this is all happening now, with no prospect of being ready by Easter and maybe not even by the summer. Maybe the government was persuaded to hand over a large sum of money and they just went crazy?
Veszprém’s biggest event doesn’t actually require much in the way of infrastructure, refurbished or not – the Street Music Festival takes over the streets every summer, and will be bigger and more international than ever this year. Oddly, Veszprém is already a UNESCO City of Music, although it’s hard to see why – it wasn’t home to the Beatles, or reggae, or flamenco, like other Cities of Music, just the Street Music Festival and a certain Auer Lipót (aka Leopold von Auer, 1845-1930), a violinist, conductor and composer that I had never heard of.
Some exhibits are very very niche – the Tegularium, in the basement of the Dubniczay Palace, is a display of bricks (and of information on brickmaking, to be fair), and the Vass Shoe Gallery commemorates the world-famous shoe brand of László Vass, which, again, I had never heard of, as well as housing Lászlo’s collection of modern art, above all Hungarian abstractionists. The former jail, on the west side of the castle, is now a museum, and probably quite a decent one – there will ‘soon’ be lift access from the Ruttner House (Ruttner ház) down on Jókai Mór utca. The ActiCity cultural centre and events space will open ‘in the spring’ in the old children’s hospital on Hovirag utca, south of the centre.
Otherwise, my sense of Veszprém was that it’s really a bit small for the job of Capital of Culture (yes, it covers the Lake Balaton area too, but Veszprém is its heart) – for instance, the old town restaurants were overwhelmed already (by 6pm on the first Saturday in March). And most of the signage that I saw was only in Hungarian, when English and German will be more important for international visitors.
Anyway, the Veszprém Street Music Festival will take place from 7 to 16 July, overlapping with VeszprémFest (12 to 16 July), with international pop and jazz artists such as Norah Jones. From 13 to 22 August there’s Rose, Riesling and Jazz Days, with food, wine and music in the main square, and from 28 September to 1 October the Balaton Wine & Gourmet Festival, launched last year, brings free wine tastings, dinners with Michelin-starred chefs, demonstrations and workshops.
Meanwhile, Timișoara is a bigger, better organised city and seems to be more prepared for its latest year in the spotlight – of course, the revolution against the Ceaușescu regime started here, and Timișoara has enjoyed its fame since then, while also developing as a business and education centre, benefitting from its position near Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia and even Italy. It’s full of students and has a lively grungey bar scene.
The Timișoara Art Museum is large and excellent even in normal times, but it’s pulling out the stops this year. For me the undoubted highlight is the biggest exhibition of the sculptures of Constantin Brâncuși for the last fifty years, but this won’t open until 30 September (running until 28 January 2024). To keep us going for the time being there’s a show of the surrealist painter Victor Brauner, from 17 February to 28 May.
There’s also an active theatre scene here, with the German and Hungarian State Theatres both working with simultaneous translation (with surtitles or earphones, into Romanian and sometimes English), to show that language can be not an impediment but a unifying force. On the musical side, too, there’s plenty going on, notably the Timişoara Muzicală Festival (classical concerts and opera), JazzTM (jazz) and the Plai (world music).
By chance I looked at the Romanian edition of the Riveter literary magazine, published in September 2020, and found that it focussed specifically on Timișoara, and that a remarkable number of the leading Romanian writers are associated with the city, such as Ana Blandiana, Herta Müller and Mircea Cartarescu.
Also noticed in Romania
In Britain this winter everyone (well, almost) has been wearing bessiments (hats, gloves, scarves etc) in exactly the right tone of mustard yellow, whereas in Romania people are wearing down jackets and so on in slightly off versions of the same yellow – prototypes that didn’t make it in the crucible of the marketplace, or just poor copies?
I’ve always regarded Charles Darwin as one of the truly great figures of history (even though his male-dominated view of breeding behaviour is under intense scrutiny at the moment). Writing guidebooks to Chile and Uruguay, I came across many records of his travels there and included as many quotations from his journals as I could – his descriptions of 1830s South America are still fresh and relevant. I’ve included plenty of books by and about Darwin in the reading lists at the backs of these books, and looking in turn at the references and acknowledgements of Darwin and the Barnacle by Rebecca Stott, it was brought home to me how much Cambridge, where I live, is a global centre of Darwin studies. This is partly because of the letters and archives held in the Cambridge University Library, and partly because two of his sons taught at the university and their families were important figures in local life (and the foundation of Darwin College is part of this). The university’s museums also hold many of his specimens – I particularly like the story about a volunteer at the Museum of Zoology discovering – on Darwin’s 200th birthday – a tinamou egg that he had collected in Uruguay but had been damaged because he packed it in too small a box. It turned out to be the only surviving egg collected by him.
The key text on the Darwins of Cambridge is the much-loved Period Piece (1952 – and supposedly never out of print since) by Gwen Raverat (1885-1957), daughter of Sir George Darwin, Darwin’s son and Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge from 1883. She was a fine artist, marrying fellow artist Jacques Raverat and leading a revival of wood engravings, which became a distinctive feature of twentieth-century British art. I have my grandmother’s copy of Period Piece, a hardback printed in 1954, with Raverat’s charming illustrations, including some of their family home, Newnham Grange, now part of Darwin College (and somewhat changed). Later in her life, in 1946, she moved into The Old Granary, by the river at the end of Newnham Grange’s garden, now also part of Darwin College. This is a graduate-only college, founded in 1965 as a spin-off from Caius, St John’s and Trinity Colleges, incorporating existing houses with modern buildings that fit in perfectly well (and the riverside gardens are lovely). One of the college’s features that I particularly applaud is the DarBar travel grants, three awards a year of £200 and a free pre-departure drink, in return for sending a postcard to the college bar.
Other Darwin houses in Cambridge have also been absorbed into modern colleges – at the south end of the Huntingdon Road, The Grove was home to Charles Darwin’s widow, surrounded by meadows (long gone) where her sons Frank and Horace built homes for their families. Built in 1813, it’s now home to the MCR (graduate common room) of Fitzwilliam College. Horace (who founded the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company and became Mayor of Cambridge) built The Orchard, a smallish Tudor-style house that’s part of Murray Edwards College (formerly New Hall).
One aspect of Period Piece that I especially enjoy is the description of the beginnings of Cambridge’s cycling culture in the 1890s (you may recall that I pondered cycling’s rôle in the development of West Cambridge). ‘My mother had (I believe) the first female tricycle in Cambridge; and I had a little one, and we used to go out on family rides, all together …I found it very hard work, pounding away on my hard tyres; a glorious, but not a pleasurable pastime. Then one day, at lunch, my father said he had just seen a new kind of tyre, filled up with air, and he thought it might be a success. And soon after that everyone had bicycles, ladies and all; and bicycling became the smart thing in Society, and the lords and ladies had their pictures in the papers, riding along in the park, in straw boater hats.’
She also writes about cycling alone down the Backs after dark, coming back from her grandmother’s or uncle’s houses, and the ‘great gulfs of darkness between the faint gas-lamps’, as well as the ‘most unpleasant people’ living in the tumbledown cottages of Mount Pleasant, who knocked her off her bike and pulled her hair. Why she didn’t go via Magdalene Bridge and the city centre I don’t know – maybe the undergraduates were just as boisterous and troublesome?
The Kent connection
I also went recently to visit Charles Darwin’s home, Down House, an easy bike ride from Orpington station in Kent – the village of Down was renamed Downe in the 1840s, but the house remained Down. Charles and Emma moved here in 1842, after four years on Upper Gower Street in London, and lived here for the rest of his life. The image of him living as a bit of a hermit is widespread but wrong – not only was he involved in village life (as a magistrate, among other things) but he also communicated constantly with family and with the wider scientific community, with 14,500 letters surviving to and from him. In 1851 he spent nearly £20 (equivalent to £1000 now) on paper, postage etc, and in 1877 he spent nearly £54.
I’ve wanted to go there for ages, possibly since 2016 when I might have read about the reopening of the main bedroom, along with a collection of prints by Renaissance artists such as Raphael, Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo. Incidentally, there are also now prints by Gwen Raverat on the upstairs landing, although these did not exist when the family lived here. Anyway, it’s all beautifully cared for (thank you, English Heritage) and there’s a real sense of it as a family home – the garden is particularly full of family memories, with the sites of various natural history experiments, not to mention the cold showers that Darwin took in a bid to settle his ‘weak digestion’. There are good factual displays, but I didn’t learn anything that I hadn’t already read in Darwin and the Barnacle – however, I did come away thinking that there really should be a full-on Darwin Museum, to go into his amazing career in more detail. Maybe on a nearby site at Downe – not in Cambridge, thanks all the same.
But I can’t really recommend the café, which tries to be National Trust-y but just can’t manage the same quality of staff, in particular. Never mind, there are two good partly Tudor pubs in the village.
In the autumn of 2020 I was in Goslar, in the northern half of Germany, where the Water Management System of the Rammelsberg mines is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. A year later I was in Augsburg, in southern Germany, where another Water Management System is also on the WHL, and it’s even more impressive. The city itself is also attractive and well worth a stopover.
To begin at the beginning, Augsburg was founded (as Augusta Vindelicorum) by the Romans in 15 BC, making it Germany’s third oldest city, after Neuss and Trier, and became the capital of the province of Raetia (nowadays associated more with southern Switzerland’s Rhaetian Railway). It lay on the Via Claudia Augusta, a major trading route north over the Alps (via the Reschen Pass) to the Danube at Donauwörth (about 30km north of Augsburg). As it happens, in 2021 I also went to Augusta Pretoria (Aosta), Augusta Taurinerum (Torino) and Augustodurum (Bayeux). In late/post-Roman times it was sacked several times by marauding armies but survived as a trading centre and became a Free Imperial City in 1276 – its leading merchants became immensely wealthy as bankers, financing kings and popes as well as their own forestry and mining businesses. The city’s peak came in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when it produced large quantities of textiles and metalwork, notably armour, scientific instruments and fine gold- and silverwork; it was also a major centre of the new printing industry.
As a free city it was able to turn Lutheran, to the displeasure of its bishop, and became a base for Protestant artists such as the Holbein family. Luther was questioned by the papal legate Cardinal Cajetan at the Diet of Augsburg in 1518, and the primary confession of faith of the Lutheran Church was presented to the Holy Roman Emperor at the Diet of 1530, and is thus known as the Augsburg Confession. In 1555 the Peace of Augsburg protected the rights of religious minorities in imperial cities, and a mixed Catholic–Protestant city council then presided over a mainly Protestant population. However during the Thirty Years War the city, occupied by the army of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, was besieged by Catholic troops and in the winter of 1634/5 thousands died from hunger and disease – the city’s population fell from about 70,000 to about 16,000. In 1806 Napoleon dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and attached Augsburg to the Kingdom of Bavaria, which eventually formed part of modern Germany. During the Second World War factories in Augsburg produced Messerschmidt planes and engines for U-boats, and the city was repeatedly bombed. Since then it was developed as an attractive and sustainable city, winning the Entente Florale award for Europe’s greenest and most liveable city in 1997.
And so to the Water Management System – the Augsburg Western Woods (now a 1,175 square kilometre Nature Park) and the River Lech to the east of the city both provide a plentiful supply of fresh water, but the clever thing was that from 1545 (long before there was any real understanding of waterborne diseases) drinking water and process (ie industrial and sewage) water were separated in a complex system of channels that cross over each other in places. These fed the three complexes of water towers (the first dating from 1416), over a hundred fountains, and various power stations that originally drove cotton mills but now produce electricity. Most of these have been well preserved and can be visited from time to time – there isn’t one museum to give an overview, but the website gives an overview of what can be seen. In the city centre, the Augustus, Mercury and Hercules Fountains (1594-1602) still proudly gush forth (although the supply was switched from springs to groundwater from 1879), and there are over 500 bridges in all over the canals that wind through the city. (Not to mention the Eiskanal, some distance south of the centre, which was dug in 1647 to divert ice from the waterworks and was transformed into the world’s first artificial whitewater kayak course for the 1972 Munich Olympics – I have a friend who spent at least one summer camped out there.) And don’t miss the Stadtmetzg (City Butchers), built over a canal that cooled the building and also carried away waste – it was built in 1609 by Elias Holl, the city architect who was responsible for many late Renaissance masterpieces across the city, including the City Hall and the nearby Perlachturm, the Zeughaus (Arsenal) and the Heilig-Geist-Spital.
You should pop in to Elias Holl’s immense City Hall (and pay at a Ticketautomat) to see the Golden Hall, a huge space (32.5 metres by 17.5 metres and 14 metres high) that is covered with breathtakingly ornate decoration (lots of gold). Created from 1615, it was rebuilt by 1955 and refurbished between 1985 (the city’s 2,000th anniversary) and 1996.
Augsburg’s other key sight is the Fuggerei, the world’s first social or charitable housing – it was founded in 1513 (with the first residents moving in from 1519) by Jakob Fugger the Rich, the city’s leading businessman and banker, whose original idea was to give people who fell on hard times but were still able to work the chance to live in dignity and be part of society – the rent was always low, just one Rhenish guilder (now equivalent to just €0.88) plus the obligation to say three (Catholic) prayers daily for the souls of the Fuggers. By 1523 the enclosed enclave consisted of 52 two-storey houses, with a church added in 1582; the Fuggerei was extensively damaged in two air raids in 1944, then rebuilt and extended by a third – by 1973 there were 67 houses with 140 living units (each has its own private door from outside, and its own chimney). In recent years the age profile of residents has changed from about 80% retired people to about two-thirds, with more able to work, as originally intended; there’s also an increasing number of single women, reflecting social changes and the rise in divorces.
Carved sections of stonework from bombed patrician houses elsewhere in the city were incorporated in the rebuilt Seniority Committee Building, near the entrance to the Fuggerei, the seat of the rather patriarchal management, which is still chaired by Gräfin Thun-Fugger and draws its income from the forests owned by the family since medieval times.
It’s well worth visiting (info here), with a museum at Mittlere Gasse 14 (where Franz Mozart, great-grandfather of the composer, lived), as well as a typical apartment at Ochsengasse 51 and in an air-raid bunker. You can also refuel at the Fuggerei-Stube, next to the entrance, and from June to October also outdoors in the Markusplätzle.
The cityscape is delightful, with wide streets and the above-mentioned fountains, canals and water-towers, fine merchants’ houses and many churches – the cathedral is, surprisingly, a little way to the north of the centre and easy to miss (the bombers largely missed it too, happily), but it’s worth a look. Founded in the ninth century, it’s a largely Romanesque structure (1043-65, with two towers added in 1075), with Gothic additions between 1331 and 1431, including the east end and the southern and northern portals. There are lots of altarpieces and, in the cloister, many good memorials; in the southern nave clerestory are five windows with the oldest stained glass in Germany (late eleventh/early twelfth century). Four panels of the life of Mary, on pillars in the nave, were painted by Hans Holbein the Elder in 1493, and there’s a huge fresco of St Christopher in the southern transept, painted in 1491.
At the southern edge of the centre, the combined churches of St Ulrich and St Afra are an oddity – the Roman Catholic basilica of St Ulrich and St Afra is a wonderful Gothic church with three huge Renaissance altars and the Flamboyant Simpertkapelle (with the tomb of St Simpert, bishop of Augsburg, who rebuilt the basilica and died in 807). On its north side, the basilica’s former entrance hall became the Lutheran church of St Ulrich in 1526; closed from 1629 to 1648, it was rebuilt from 1680, finishing in 1710 with a white stucco ceiling and a gallery – it’s a delightful and unusual space. It’s pretty spacious because it was built to hold pilgrims to the tomb of St Afra, martyred in 304.
Founded in 1966, the Roman Museum was housed in the former Dominican church (an unusual twin-naved building, dating from 1513-1515), but structural problems (with the floor, not the roof) led to it being closed in a hurry in December 2012. There’s been a temporary display in the Zeughaus (Arsenal, built by Elias Holl in 1602-7) since 2015, with no indication whether the church will ever be restored or a new museum built. The displays of Roman stonework are absolutely fine as they are and very impressive, and there’s a fine courtyard café-bar too.
The Maximilian Museum displays decorative arts, above all gold- and silverware from the city’s golden age – it’s housed in two sixteenth-century mansions, with a glass roof built in 2000 over the courtyard between them. The city’s fine art museum is in the Schaezler Palace (1765-70), with some beautifully restored Rococco rooms (and a recreated Rococco garden). The first half, the Deutsche Barokgalerie (German Baroque Art Gallery), displays work by Augsburg artists Anton Mozart, Johann Heinrich Schönfeld and Joseph Christ, the better-known Swiss artists Anton Graf, Angelika Kaufmann and Heinrich Fuseli, and others. The former chapel of St Catharine’s monastery houses the more interesting collection of Old German Art, notably works by Thomas and Hans Burgkmair, Holbein the Elder, Cranach the Elder, Christoph Amberger, and a locally iconic portrait of Jakob Fugger the Rich by Dürer, who had been summoned to Augsburg by the Emperor Maximilian I during the Diet of 1518.
North of the centre, near the cathedral, the Fugger-Welser Museum is in the Wiesel Haus, built c.1530 and named after the optician Johann Wiesel, the first to make spectacles tailored to the user’s eyesight, who lived here in 1637-42. It has excellent displays on local history, starting (fittingly) in the basement with the mining industry (mainly in Tyrol, Carinthia and what is now Slovakia) that made the Fugger and Welser families so wealthy. The Fuggers traded with Africa, India and the New World, and also funded the Habsburgs, as well as four popes and the kings of Hungary, England, Portugal and Denmark. The Welsers traded with India and South America, and actually ran the colony of Venezuela from 1528 to 1556 (using slaves, of course) and funded both Charles V and François I in their war against each other, only to go bankrupt in 1614. Incidentally, Luther was opposed to the monopoly power of the Augsburg bankers, but had no problem with slavery or child labour at the time.
Out on a limb contextually, but not geographically, the Brechthaus is the childhood home of Bertolt Brecht; it opened as a museum in 1998 to mark the centenary of his birth. Young Bert had a lively upbringing in Augsburg before moving to München in 1917 (studying medicine to escape the military draft) and then to Berlin, where of course he found fame as a radical playwright. The museum is informative, but only in German – there’s an English tour on the museum’s website but the wi-fi was too weak for me to access it there.
Way back in 2012, my cycling buddy Rob and I had an enjoyable four-day jaunt from Newcastle through Kielder Forest and a smidgen of Scotland to Carlisle and Bowness, and back along Hadrian’s Wall, more or less. (See also my photos.)Recently we returned, so he could write an article about cycle routes around Hexham. I did a couple of rides with him, and also visited a couple of the Roman forts as well as Hexham itself, which Rob didn’t have time to do (apart from the pubs, of course – see below).
The main town between Newcastle and Carlisle, Hexham is a stout market town that has become the main base for visiting Hadrian’s Wall, just a few miles to the north. Historically, it exists because St Wilfrid founded a Benedictine monastery here in about 674; having studied abroad, Wilfrid became abbot of Ripon and achieved fame for his role in the Synod of Whitby in 664, persuading the King of Northumbria to align his church with Rome rather than the Irish church. He was then appointed bishop of Northumbria, ie York, but his time in office was interrupted by several periods of exile (when he usually travelled to Rome to plead for papal help).In 660 the East Anglian princess Æthelthryth (more often known as Etheldreda, or even Audrey), was forced to marry the fifteen-year-old Prince Ecgfrith of Northumbria, despite her vow of virginity and desperation to live as a nun. Wilfrid persuaded Ecgfrith to agree to her wishes for a while, but in about 672 she fled home to Ely and founded a monastery there. The relevance of this is that she gave Wilfrid her dowry, the area known as Hexhamshire, to pay for a new monastery, and he was based here after 705, when John of Beverley took over at York. Built with stone from Hadrian’s Wall, Hexham Abbey was a very grand edifice in the continental style, but was destroyed by the Vikings in 876, after which the Benedictines were replaced by hereditary priests, believe it or not.
In 1113 Augustinian canons arrived to rebuild the church, but work was halted in about 1180 to allow the new Gothic ideas to be properly absorbed. In any case the nave was destroyed by the Scots and left in ruins for 600 years; the priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1537 but continued in use as the parish church. From 1860 the east end was rebuilt, and from 1908 the nave, in classic Victorian-Gothic style – it really is a splendid building now. What’s more, in 2012 the monastic buildings removed by Henry VIII were returned to the church and now house a good (free) exhibition centre and a café. The crypt, with its carved Roman stones, is unfortunately closed due to damp. There are various treasures, but perhaps the most striking are the Passion paintings, a set of wooden panels painted in the early sixteenth century, including a dance of death.
On the far side of Market Place is the Moot Hall, a keep-like structure built around 1400 that was used as a courthouse and, behind it, the Old Gaol, built in 1330-33 as England’s first known purpose-built prison and now a museum. The Archbishops of York held civil as well as ecclesiastical power in Hexhamshire, meaning that eighty per cent of those tried were found innocent, and hardly anyone was executed except for the most heinous crimes – theocracy isn’t always a disaster. However the Market Place did see a bit of a bloodbath after the Battle of Hexham in 1464, when thirty Lancastrian rebels (supporting Henry VI against Edward IV) were beheaded, including the Duke of Somerset. In addition, around 50 died in 1761 in a riot against military conscription. And one of the museum’s major themes is the lawless period of the Border Reivers (see my post on Carlisle), when there was a semi-military regime of March Wardens on both sides of the border – it’s a good display but it uses some specific terms without explanation, particularly talking about ‘loyalty to the Surname’, which was something similar to a Highland clan.
Back on the other side of the abbey is a surprisingly large and pleasant park, combining the gardens of Abbey House (opened to the public in 1911), Hexham House (opened in 1928) and the Sele (opened back in 1753) – it’s all now listed as Grade II, as is the very grand Queen’s Hall across the road, built in 1866 as a town hall and corn exchange – it now houses a splendid library, arts centre and tourist information office.
What have the Romans ever done for us?
Apart from providing a large stock of pre-shaped stone for building churches and houses in the following centuries, of course. However, after that, while people were vaguely aware of Hadrian’s Wall itself, the forts and milecastles were largely lost and forgotten. It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that a couple of local landowners-cum-amateur archeologists began to rediscover and explain the remains. The first forts were built of wood after Agricola’s victory at Mons Graupius (possibly in Aberdeenshire) in about AD 83, and the wall itself came later, between 122 and 128 – the emperor Hadrian made the epochal decision to end the previous policy of steadily expanding the empire and instead to consolidate it along natural geographical borders. His successor Antoninus Pius tried to establish a new border further north at the Antonine Wall, but this was abandoned by Marcus Aurelius, returning the border to Hadrian’s Wall; forts were still being rebuilt in the third century (and the first traces of Christianity appeared c370 AD).
Chesters, the closest Roman fort to Hexham, just four miles north, was inherited in 1832 by John Clayton, who worked as a lawyer and also started excavating in 1843; he also bought Housesteads in 1838 and Vindolanda in 1863, as well as milecastles and other sites along the Wall. His record-keeping was poor, he dumped lots of scraps of bone and ceramics in the river, and when the baths were excavated 33 skeletons were simply lost, but his work was a massive stepping-stone for the professional archeologists who came later. The museum at the site, opened in 1896, has a good collection of inscribed stones, such as altars and milestones, and glass, buckles, jet and shale beads and Samian ware. When Byron writes ‘Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!’ he’s clearly writing about wine from the Greek island of Samos, but it turns out that Samian ware is pottery from Gaul (now France and the Rhineland), made in the 1st to 3rd centuries AD and easy to date due to the potters stamping their name on each piece.
Vindolanda, a dozen miles to the west, is now owned by the Vindolanda Trust – the house that is now the museum, Chesterholm, was owned by the antiquarian the Rev. Anthony Hedley until his death in 1835, and by the Claytons of Chesters from 1863 to 1929; the archeologist Professor Eric Birley owned it from 1929 to 1950, and it remained a private home until 1974 when it was bought by the trust (led by Eric Birley’s son Robin). Rather bizarrely, the adjoining house, with a field that almost cut the Roman site in two, was owned by a family friend of mine until they sold to the trust in 2013.
There’s more to see here than at Chesters, with plenty of stone work, both from the the fort itself (which had at least nine incarnations) and the vicus or civilian village to the west, where visitors enter. The museum is larger and more modern, with lots of leather shoes, wooden clogs, spear and javelin heads, boxing gloves, leather tents, brooches and combs, a chamfron (a ceremonial facemask for a horse), tools, keys, coin and more red Samian ware, although most of the pottery was made on the south coast of England. There are also wooden objects such as tent pegs, buckets and bungs, shovel, baskets, alder pipes and an alder toilet seat. The most important find here (so far) was the Vindolanda Writing Tablets, postcard-sized wooden tablets unearthed since 1973, the first examples of Roman writing in ink. At least 752 have now been found, giving a wonderful picture of everyday life here, starting before the Wall was built – one is an invitation to a birthday party, an almost unique example of writing by a Roman woman to another. They are now held by the British Museum, with a good display here, but there are plans for some to be brought back here.
Excavations continue every summer (with a break in 2020 only), with a display of recent finds in the museum, such as a bowl with Christian symbols (2009), a meat cleaver, cheese press, intaglios and a gaming board and counters (2019), and already in May 2021 (and not yet on display) a stone carving of a naked male figure holding a spear and standing in front of a horse or donkey.
Back in 2012, we also visited Housesteads fort, a couple of miles north-east of Vindolanda (and eight miles west of Chesters), which is managed by English Heritage but can also be entered free by hikers on the Hadrian’s Wall path – the three miles west to Steel Rigg is one of its most dramatic stretches. The lower sections of various buildings survive, notably the commander’s house and the communal latrines. There’s a tiny museum here, but nothing compared to those at Chesters and Vindolanda.
A beer desert
We really struggled to get a decent drink after a day’s cycling – the Station Inn and the Tannery had no cask or real ale at all, nor did the Anchor Inn in Heydon Bridge, which would have been a great place to stop right by the now-pedestrianised bridge. We did stop at the Tannery for pizza, and they were also out of the first wine we tried to order. The Heart of Northumberland is a well-respected free house and did have four real ales on draught, but it’s almost totally set up for dining so we just had one good pint and moved on. We did find some refreshing Deuchars at the Globe, and a decent local pale ale from Twice Brewed at the Grapes, which is a Craft Union free house, seemingly aiming to compete with Wetherspoons at the cheap end of the market – we did also have a Ruddles at ‘Spoons, but it was well past its best.
There are some better prospects a few miles outside Hexham, notably the Dipton Mill Inn two miles south, which is home to the Hexhamshire Brewery – but was, alas, closed for building work. A similar distance to the north-east, the Rat Inn in Anick is clearly a fine gastropub, but I went past at the wrong time of day. I will say that even if beer is a problem, local chutneys are excellent and widely available! And there are some interesting Indian restaurants (which we did not sample) – Zyka has a good line in game curries (pheasant and venison) and there are others right on the station platforms at Hexham and Corbridge so that people from Newcastle can be poured onto the train home after a night out. I had a good light lunch at Hextol Tans, a vegetarian café on the traffic-free St Mary’s Chare (it’s run by the Hextol Foundation, helping the disabled, and tans are gloves, a big local product in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). And we really enjoyed a dinner on the same street at Buongiorno, a Sardinian-owned place that we’d have happily eaten at a second time if we hadn’t left it too late.
In 2016 I visited Hull and published a blog post about its preparations to be the UK’s second City of Culture the next year. The first had been Derry-Londonderry in 2013, and the third is Coventry, in 2021, so I have now (post-lockdown) been there to see how they’re getting on, despite the inevitable pandemic-related delays – it will now run for a year from May 2021. Being UK City of Culture does not mean that the Royal Shakespeare Company and the London Symphony Orchestra move in for the summer, it’s far more about local strengths and community projects – in the case of Coventry, that above all means reliving the Two-Tone and ska era of The Selecter and The Specials (remember Ghost Town? They insist that wasn’t just a description of Coventry in the 1970s). The Two-Tone exhibition at the city’s main museum, the Herbert, opened just after my visit but looks good, and there are gigs and sessions organised by the likes of Terry Hall, Pauline Black and Neville Staple. Another Coventry-born musician getting involved is Clint Mansell, of Pop Will Eat Itself, who has become a very individual and successful composer of film music, and there’s a gig by Pete Doherty, who formed his first band when he was at school in nearby Bedworth.
There’s also some recognition of Delia Derbyshire, the legendary pioneer of electronic music with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s (remembered above all for the freaky theme music for Doctor Who), who was also born in Coventry – and there’s a new permanent display on her at the little Coventry Music Museum, out east on Walsgrave Road. Oddly enough, Philip Larkin, who is generally associated with Hull, was actually born in Coventry; 2022 will mark the centenary of his birth, so the City of Culture will mark this in the first half of next year (though the actual date is in August).
There are some attractive temporary venues, such as the cathedral ruins (see below), the Assembly Festival Garden (on a building site at the north end of Much Park St, with a couple of tents and an outdoor venue) and the canal basin (just across the ring road to the north). The Belgrade Theatre was very important back in the 1960s (it was Britain’s first purpose-built civic theatre, designed and funded by the city council, as in most German cities, for instance), it pioneered theatre in education and had an amazing repertory company that included Ian McKellen, Joan Plowright, Frank Finlay, Leonard Rossiter and Trevor Nunn, who used to hitch-hike regularly to see shows down the road at Stratford-upon-Avon until the RSC begged him to move there and join them. Arnold Wesker’s most famous plays were premiered here, as was Edward Bond’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, which I was briefly obsessed with the idea of directing myself as a teenager. Anyway, the Belgrade is going strong (the Grade II-listed building, a bit like a mini-Royal Festival Hall, was refurbished in 2006-7) , but doesn’t seem to be heavily involved in Coventry2021.
The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum is also in good shape, having been totally turned around in 2008 with a new glass-roofed entry foyer on the cathedral plaza, on its north side, as well as the obligatory café and education spaces (and it’s free). The history gallery does a good job of explaining the city’s development as a major centre of the clothmaking industry – by the fifteenth century it was the largest inland city in England, and was effectively its capital in the late 1450s, during the Wars of the Roses. It did then decline, but developed a specialism in ribbon-weaving from around 1700. Anyone who had name-tapes sewn into their school clothes will remember Cash’s, the only survivor of the city’s ribbon weaving industry. From 1868 the first bikes in Britain were produced here (by the Coventry Sewing Machine Company) and in 1885 James Starley invented the safety bicycle, which superseded the penny-farthing and made cycling a mass pursuit. In 1894 the Lanchester Motor Company produced the first British-built petrol car; George Singer left the Coventry Sewing Machine Company to make bikes, and then began making cars from 1901 – by 1951 a quarter of all cars produced in Britain came from Coventry. In 1888 Alfred Herbert set up a cycle components company, which became one of the world’s biggest machine tool companies, and of course it was he who funded the building of the museum.
You can also see George Eliot’s desk (which she actually used in London); she was born in Nuneaton and went to school in Coventry, coming back when she was 21 and making radical free-thinking friends who encouraged her and published her first articles in the Coventry Herald and Observer. Her great (but to my mind tedious) novel Middlemarch was set in a ribbon-weaving town that is clearly Coventry. She has been channelled for a Coventry2021 event. Another Coventry-born author is the definitely untedious Lee Child, creator of Jack Reacher – he features in a Coventry2021 podcast and in fact passed through back in April to promote his biography, written as it happens by the wife of a friend of mine.
On the art front, there’s a room of European art, with a couple of surprises, notably a big unframed Luca Giordano of Bacchus and Ariadne, as well as a Lawrence of George III, a Morland, a Zoffany, a Holman Hunt (after Rembrandt), and their oldest painting, believed to be Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald by Lucas d’Heere (1573). Elsewhere they have works by Frank Dobson, Gustav Metzger, Hepworth and a couple of Epsteins. A pair of carved stone mural panels depicting Man’s Struggle by Walter Ritchie were created in 1957 for the pedestrian precinct (see below) and moved in 1994 to the outside wall of the Herbert – unfortunately this is now at the rear and is not seen by most visitors. As with Hull four years ago, the Turner Prize award ceremony will be held at the Herbert in September (with an exhibition continuing until 10 January).
Another gallery deals with the various versions of the Lady Godiva story, which arose in the late twelfth century. The historic Godiva (grandmother of King Harold’s wife) died in 1067, having founded a Benedictine abbey in Coventry in 1043 with her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia (they were both buried there, although it is long gone). It’s most unlikely that she was naked as she rode through the town, and Peeping Tom was invented by Tennyson in 1842.
Finally, the Peace and Reconciliation Gallery has photos of the damage from the 41 air raids that hit the city in 1940, killing over 1,200. Until then the city had retained much of its medieval fabric, but most was lost in the Coventry Blitz. The plaques on the remaining half-timbered buildings – ‘Last surviving example of …’ and so on – really bring home just how attractive the pre-war city must have been. Spon Street, on the west of the city centre, survived relatively well, and several medieval buildings that also survived but were now in the way of rebuilding were moved here. One result was that Coventry and Stalingrad became the first twinned cities in 1944, followed after the war by Dresden, and eventually 24 others. Another was that a pre-war plan for redevelopment, inspired by Rotterdam, could be put into effect without too many restraints – despite Coventry’s enduring image as ‘Car City’, it included the first pedestrianised shopping precinct in Britain (along with a ring road, rooftop car parking and a circular multistorey car-park, admittedly), which is still going strong. However, in January this year plans were unveiled to demolish much of the precinct and replace it with an identikit modern shopping centre and flats – which seems perverse just when Covid-19 and online shopping are causing so many similar malls to implode. There have been widespread protests, so it may be possible to revive the (deliberately) neglected parts of the city centre rather than demolishing them. That would be a worthy project for the City of Culture.
Various isolated medieval buildings do survive, giving a glimpse of what pre-blitz Coventry must have been like, and there’s potential to use them more. Nearest the centre, Cheylesmore Manor, or at least its gatehouse, now serves as the city’s registry office; the thirteenth-century manor house was demolished in 1955, but the gatehouse was probably built after 1338 for Edward the Black Prince, who used the manor as a hunting lodge. The Whitefriars(Carmelite) friary was built in 1342-1538, with a 96 metre-long church where the ring road now is; all that remains is a sandstone dormitory that was taken over by the Herbert Museum in the 1960s and opened to the public until the early 1990s, when it was closed due to spending cuts. At the moment it’s only open for the Heritage Open Days every September. Finally, the Charterhouse is now run by the Historic Coventry Trust and is being restored with National Lottery funding, along with the surrounding Heritage Park (and the chapel of London Road cemetery, just across London Road); the Trust is also converting various historic properties (including the gatehouse to Whitefriars) to very distinctive tourist accommodation.
The bombed-out shell of the cathedral has been preserved, with a modern replacement built at right angles to it, unusually. I hadn’t seen it for about thirty years and I’d forgotten just what a superb building it is. The architect Sir Basil Spence brought in fine artists such as Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Hans Coper, Jacob Epstein and Elisabeth Frink to ornament the building, and Britten’s War Requiem was premiered at the new cathedral’s consecration (with English, German and Russian soloists, and on my third birthday, as it happens). There’s also a strong Canadian connection, with the ceiling made of donated Canadian cedar and the organ donated by the Canadian College of Organists; in recognition of this, there’s a large bronze maple leaf in the floor at the west end of the cathedral. In addition, the cathedral’s new Director of Music is the Canadian Rachel Mahon.
I visited Coventry Poly, as it was, for work a few times in the 1980s, but have virtually no memory of it now. The present Coventry University, however, is surprisingly large (with plenty of Chinese students, by the look of it) and seems to be expanding. In fact it was able to announce plans to demolish its main admin block, the Alan Berry Building, built in 1963 immediately opposite the cathedral, in 2022, to open up the vista to the cathedral. They’ve also just refurbished the Ellen Terry Theatre, a striking Deco cinema used by performing arts students (the great actor Dame Ellen Terry was born in Coventry in 1847), and they plan to restore the Grade II-listed former Civic Centre as a teaching block. I also cycled out to the University of Warwick, in the suburbs of Coventry (don’t ask), of which I have stronger memories – its Arts Centre has a very strong reputation but is closed until this summer (‘in time for Coventry2021’), when a new building housing cinemas, an accessible art gallery and a restaurant will be added.
The University of Warwick is also connected to Aurrigo, a Coventry company that is developing autonomous vehicles – I mention this only because two of their shuttles were very recently on trial in Cambridge, and I also saw their delivery pods at work when I was in Milton Keynes. However the city of Coventry is also supporting new transport technologies, aiming first to switch all its buses to electric power, and then from 2025 to open a VLR (Very Light Rail) line from the University of Warwick via the station and city centre to the hospital and the Ricoh Arena – this will use single battery-powered vehicles, running on light track that will not need heavy engineering to install (reducing construction costs by three quarters). The plan is for the vehicles to operate autonomously, but perhaps not at first.
And finally, food and drink
Unusually, given my need for food and remaining lockdown restrictions, I found myself not in pubs with real ale but in craft beer bars where the drink comes in colourful cans and costs rather more than it should. One nice venue is Dhillon’s Spire Bar, in the base of the Christchurch Spire, all that remains of a city-centre church destroyed in the blitz – they actually have their own brewery and taproom out near the Ricoh Arena. The beer’s not bad, but I was more interested in Twisted Barrel Brewery, which makes vegetarian beers without using isinglass (a clearing agent from fish bladders). The tap room is in the rather hipster FarGo Village, a former industrial site on Far Gosford Street, just east of the centre; unfortunately they’re also committed to managing everything via their app, which rules out techno-clumsy old guys like me. I mean, what’s so difficult about using a contactless card?
There are lots of ethnic food options, plus street food at FarGo Village and elsewhere, but the most interesting new option is Forme & Chase in the Telegraph Hotel, which opened in May in the former offices of the Coventry Telegraph newspaper, a classic postwar building nicely restored. There’s also the Generators rooftop bar here, for cocktails and snacks.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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).
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 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.
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.
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.
It only takes 35 minutes on an Øresund train to cross from Copenhagen to the Triangeln station in Malmö (40 minutes if you continue to the ‘Central’ station), but the two cities feel very different. Copenhagen is full of interest and things to do (see my previous two posts) whereas Malmö just seems rather bland, as if it had been bombed and rebuilt as an efficient businesslike city. Obviously I’m being unfair, it’s a fine place to live, and economically dynamic – I was only there for two nights, and spent most of a day visiting the nearby town of Lund, which I have to say I found far more attractive.
My first stop was the Malmöhus or Malmö Castle, just west of the centre, which now houses the city’s history, art and natural history museums. The town was founded in the mid-thirteenth century as a port for the bishopric of Lund, and grew fast due to its strategic location on the Øresund between present-day Denmark and Sweden, and its very profitable herring trade. The first castle was built in 1434 by Erik of Pomerania, king of the Kalmar Union (Denmark, Sweden and Norway), and it was rebuilt a century later (1536-42) by Christian III of Denmark, to serve not just as a fort but also as a residence for the county governor and occasionally for the king. The second half of the sixteenth century was its heyday, when Crown Prince Frederick and then King Christian IV spent a lot of time in their fine renaissance apartments; however from 1658 Sweden took control of this area and the fortifications were extended, resisting a Danish siege in 1767. It then fell into disrepair and served as a prison from 1828 to 1909; then the surrounding area became a park and eventually the northern wing of the castle was restored and opened as a museum in 1932, with more modern buildings on three sides of the courtyard inaugurated in 1937.
You’ll start in the main museum building, facing the entry, where there’s an excellent aquarium,with both local and tropical fish as well as tree-frogs, chameleons and snakes such as the green tree python and the Gaboon viper, as well as dioramas showing boar, bison and elk in their mocked-up habitats; the art galleries were closed when I visited. The history displays (a bit incoherent and mostly in Swedish only) are in the original north wing, where there also a couple of furnished rooms with royal portraits and a Gobelins tapestry (circa 1740); there’s also coverage of the episode just before the end of the Second World War, when volunteers drove white buses (there’s one in a glass box in front of the castle) to Germany to rescue 15,000 concentration camp survivors, of whom 2,000 were housed in the castle for some months. Incidentally, Malmö is likely to become the site of the Swedish Holocaust Museum. You can also wind your way across to the Cannon Tower, part of the seventeenth-century fortifications, with better coverage of the Danish-Swedish wars that ended in 1710.
Immediately to the west are the Kommandanthuset café and the Banérskajen wharf, with herring boats and typical late nineteenth-century wooden houses, used to sell fish; in a modern building just beyond (and covered by the same ticket) is the Museum of Technology and Shipping. This feels like a real museum rather than random displays in a castle; highlights include the interior of the ferry Øresund, a small coastal submarine that you can go inside (in non-Covid times), a Saab Draken jet fighter, a Krauss narrow-gauge tank engine, and various cars and traction engines.
The historic centre consists of two squares, the main Stor Torget, dominated by the Rådhus (City Hall), built in 1546, and just to the the southwest Lilla Torg, livelier with cafés and restaurants, and on its southern side the Form/Design Centre, with galleries that show off the best of Swedish design. Behind the Rådhus, St Petri is Malmö’s oldest church, dating from about 1319-80, and a fine example of Baltic Brick Gothic, perhaps modelled on the Marienkirche in Lübeck, which I’ll be writing about soon. It has a plain white interior with a simple vault and a splendid fifteen-metre-high altarpiece (dating from 1611) and funerary monuments. Don’t miss the murals in the so-called Krämare Chapel (the chapel of the vendors, built for the cloth merchants’ guild) – painted between the 1460s and the 1510s, and covering the ceiling and walls, they’re quite sophisticated and not at all like the naïf murals in the area’s village churches.
I was also quite taken by St Paul’s church, just east of the centre, a hexagonal building built in 1882 that reminded me of Russian Orthodox churches of that period; it’s gay-friendly and swathed in rainbow flags.
There are two fine spaces for exhibitions of contemporary art: the (free) Konsthall just south of the centre, and the Moderna Museet just east of the centre, which was founded in 2009 (in a former power plant dating from 1901) as an outpost of the original Moderna Museet in Stockholm. If you go a little way west beyond the castle to the waterfront, there are good views of the Øresund bridge and the Turning Torso tower, now a symbol of the city, and there’s a sea-bathing pontoon, as in so many Danish cities, but that’s pretty much it for Malmö.
Lovely little Lund
The small city of Lund is known both for its cathedral and its university, and it’s also the home of Tetrapak. It’s just 18km northeast of Malmö, with a direct cycle route that for some reason is not signposted from Malmö, despite being such a short and pleasant ride; in the other direction, there are signs from Lund, which may say something about the two towns’ relative sense of their own importance. Lund dates from the end of the tenth century, when it was defended by an earthen rampart with four gates; the Romanesque cathedral was built between around 1080 and 1145, and became the seat of the Archdiocese of the Nordic countries, founded in 1103. It was taken over by the Danish state in 1636, after the Reformation, and became rather dilapidated; in 1658 the region became part of Sweden, and in 1666 a university was established, to help in the Swedification of Skåne – at first teaching took place in the cathedral, but from 1688 the university took over the King’s House, just north of the cathedral, which had been built by King Frederik II in 1584.
Although it’s been restored, the cathedral retains its Romanesque unity and would be worth a detour anywhere in Europe. Inside, there are some fine Romanesque stone carvings, especially in the crypt, wooden choir stalls (1361-79), and the splendid astronomical clock, installed around 1425, with two carved knights on top who clash their swords at noon and 15.00 daily, after which an organ plays the tune In Dulci Jubilo and the Three Kings and their servants emerge in procession. There’s also a neoByzantine mosaic in the apse, completed in 1927 by the painter Joakim Skovgaard.
To the south of the cathedral is the very modern Cathedral Forum, opened in 2011 to house community facilities, visitor information, exhibitions and a fairtrade café. To the north is a park with the King’s House and, beyond, it, the modern university. Just northeast of the cathedral, the university’s Historical Museum has housed its archeological collections since 1918, and since 2003 it has been transformed and opened up to the public (with an English leaflet and summaries, at least). The finest Iron Age set of horse trappings yet found were excavated at the Sösdala Iron Age burial site, showing that this area had connections to the nomadic cultures of the steppes and the Black Sea area; there are also finds from the nearby Vätteryd and Frederiksberg burial sites and from Uppåkra, the largest Iron Age village in northern Europe. Then you might as well go to the top of the building and make your way down via the skeletons of an aurochs and other animals, casts of classical statues, coins and well displayed medieval carvings of Christ; a bridge leads across to the cathedral museum in the Chapter House, with the usual vestments and so on. There’s also an ethnographic hall, closed for remodelling until 2021.
A few hundred metres further to the northeast is Kulturen, another of the open-air museums of transplanted historic buildings that are common in Scandinavia, such as in Aarhus and the original Skansen in Stockholm. Not too far north are the Skissernas museum (Sketches Museum) or Museum of Artistic Process and Public Art, and the Livets museum (Museum of Life). The first is a unique collection that aims to illustrate the creative process from sketch to finished work, especially in the context of public art. The latter (run by Kulturen) is a museum of medical history, opened in 2012, that studies the human body and its diseases through both historical implements and modern technology.
Just east of the centre, the university’s free Botanic Garden (moved in the 1880s from the park immediately north of the cathedral) is impressive, with beautiful gardens and greenhouses housing flora from nine climatic zones, as well as an attractive café.
Finally, just south of the centre by the Saluhallen market, the Lunds Konsthall is another free space for exhibitions of contemporary art – something they do really well across Scandinavia.
By chance, just a week ago, Lund’s first tram line opened, running from the railway station to the modern university/hospital area north of the city, and nowhere within sight of the historic centre. I left by a less modern form of transport, the ferry from Malmö to Travemünde, which has fairly basic passenger facilities, as it exists mainly for truck traffic; but it’s an interesting trip along a busy shipping lane. Travemünde is almost a suburb of Lübeck, which I’ll write about soon.
The Swedish Covid-19 controversy
Libertarians (probably the same people who used to despise Sweden’s egalitarian high-tax social-democratic governments) seized on Sweden as a great example of the virtues of not locking down against Covid-19. Factually wrong, and with hindsight it didn’t work out at all well. There may not have been a full legal lockdown, but the government was very much relying on people behaving responsibly and not going out to mix in large numbers – and they didn’t go out, by and large, because the Swedes still trust experts and government, unlike other nations that have been led astray by populists and fake news. The major glitch in the initial stages was that care homes were left exposed to the coronavirus, and there was a high rate of infection and deaths there.
In the longer run it turned out that Sweden’s death rate from Covid-19 was indeed higher than in countries that had locked down, and at the same time its economic downturn was greater, although the pay-off for not locking down was supposed to be less economic harm.
When I was in Malmö in October, virtually no-one was wearing masks, even in buses and trains, which was the bare minimum everywhere else I went. Sweden was already a largely cash-free society, but I did absolutely everything by card and didn’t change any cash at all. The second wave of the pandemic arrived in October, soon after I left, and hospitals soon had to postpone non-emergency operations; the Skåne region, including Malmö and Lund, was forced to introduce various measures such as no alcohol being served after 22.00, public gatherings being limited to eight people, and switching to online teaching in schools. People were also urged to avoid public transport, gyms, libraries and busy shops, and to limit social interactions to single households. Much like everywhere else then.
Reports revealed how badly things had gone wrong in the care homes, and in his Christmas message, the King admitted that the country had failed. The advocates of laissez-faire herd immunity are finally having to eat their words.
Copenhagen has a remarkable range of museums, and I only managed to visit half a dozen of the main ones this time. That was before the second wave of Covid-19; they are now all closed until January 2021 at best.
The area known as the Centre or the Cultural Quarter is actually a bit dull, with much less street life than the less touristy shopping areas to the north – but there are some major museums here, as well as the central station and the Tivoli amusement gardens. The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, built by Carl Jacobsen (see my previous post), was extended in 1906, added the superb winter garden (where there’s a café in non-pandemic times), and in 1996 when a modern wing was added. There’s a huge array of sculpture, of course, both classical Greek and Roman, and largely nineteenth-century French and Danish works, including sculptures of the Three Graces by both Canova (c1830) and Bertel Thorvaldsen (1821), and frankly the Danish guy seems to me to have done better than the more famous Italian. There’s lots of Rodin, as well as Maillol, Meunier, Bourdelle and Stephan Sinding (1846-1922). There’s also plenty of paintings from the Danish Golden Age (the nineteenth century – nothing to do with the more illustrious Dutch Golden Age), including works by Jens Juel, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (including a portrait of Thorvaldsen, Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann and her son Harald Jerichau (also a sculptor), as well as the more famous Norwegian JC Dahl. Slightly more modern works by Theodor Philipsen and Karl Isakson lead to the superb collection of French impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces, featuring almost all the great names from Corot and Courbet via Monet, Renoir and Degas through to Picasso (though only a bronze). There’s no Matisse, alas, and no mature Gauguin paintings, although there are lots of his stoneware heads and a wood carving.
A block to the northeast, the Museum of Copenhagen (Københavns Museum) reopened at the start of 2020 in a new location (built as the Public Trustee’s Office in 1894, and inspired by Italian Renaissance palazzi); the displays have been modernised, and reflect new research showing that the city is 150 years older than was thought, dating from the late Viking age – in a previous post I wrote about the former capital Roskilde and how it had been forgotten in Copenhagen.
It was a crowded little city, with ships unloading directly into warehouses, until the first planned extensions were built from the early sixteenth century, starting with Christianshavn, laid out by King Christian IV in a Dutch style. This was followed by Kongens Nytorv, still the city’s largest square, in 1663, and Frederiksstaden, centred on the royal palaces of Amalienborg, from 1747. In fact for me the most interesting displays cover the city’s transformation into a modern capital in the late nineteenth century – its population grew from around 130,000 in 1852 to almost 400,000 in 1902, as the city burst out beyond the old ramparts. The nearby City Hall and its square were laid out from 1892 to 1905, some of the world’s first cycleways were built in 1892, when electric lights first appeared, Parisian boulevards such as Vesterbrogade were laid out around 1900, and the last remains of the ramparts were destroyed in 1914-17 when the railway was extended north from the central station. The meatpacking district, between the central station and the Carlsberg brewery, was established in 1879, to remove the blood and guts from the old city – it’s now the heart of the city’s nighttime economy, with the hottest bars and clubs.
Two new exhibits are due to open early in 2021 – one (Port and Capital) based on a finds from a fifteenth-century ship found during construction of the opera house, and the other (Power of Words) on writers and the book market, including the philosopher Kierkegaard’s personal effects. The Museum of Copenhagen is associated with the Nikolaj Kunsthal and the Thorvaldsens Museum – tickets are valid for all three, and they’re all free on Wednesdays. The first, in the former church of St Nicholas, is a wonderful space for temporary art exhibitions; the second is of course dedicated to the sculptor, but there are also ‘interventions’ by other artists to break the monotony – actually, the sculptures are great, but the style is a bit unfashionable and it will not be a priority for many people. It’s worth noting that Thorvaldsen is sharing his 250th birthday year with Beethoven, although there’s much less fuss about it.
Diagonally opposite the Museum of Copenhagen (although the entrance is on the far side), the National Museum is a huge and very rewarding museum of history and culture. It starts with the Neanderthals, stating that they had no visual art – but one thing I know from my work in the caves of southern France is that this can no longer safely be said. In any case there are no traces of Neanderthal man in Denmark, although it’s assumed that they were here as nomadic hunters; certainly Cro-Magnon reindeer-hunters of the Hamburg Culture arrived by 14,500 years ago. From 9,000 years ago the rising sea levels that flooded Doggerland (in what is now the North Sea) were also dividing Denmark into its present layout of islands; fishing boats and dredgers often bring up implements of bone and antler, with amber jewellery found on beaches. Since then, as it happens, Northern Jutland has risen 12 metres and Southern Jutland has sunk 3 metres. Denmark is covered with ponds and bogs, and the prehistoric peoples here spent a great deal of time and effort ‘sacrificing’ valuables, and indeed horses and human beings, in them, making Denmark a fantastic place to be an archeologist – the museum displays many of these finds, notably bronze ‘lur’ horns and axes, as well as whole ships. There are also graves, rock carvings and so on; the Romans didn’t get this far (apart from exploratory ships) but their coins did, and later the Vikings brought silk from Byzantium and silver from the mines of Central Asia. Runes, incidentally, developed from the second century AD; runestones appeared from the eighth century, but were actually more widespread in the early Christian period (from about 970 AD).
Going up to the first floor, the medieval displays start with lots of winged altarpieces, as well as weaponry and tapestries; it’s a bit more disjointed than the archeological displays (which are very detailed, but do occasionally lose the big picture). Things pick up again from the seventeenth century, with excellent coverage of Denmark’s colonies – Iceland, the Faroes and Greenland, first, but then also in the West Indies, what is now Ghana and a couple of towns in India – not to forget Skåne (or Scania), the southernmost end of Sweden, which was Danish until 1658. In fact, multiple wars with Sweden left Denmark in poverty, and then in the Napoleonic Wars Denmark was twice dragged into conflict with Britain (in 1801 Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye in the Battle of Copenhagen) and was forced to cede Norway to Sweden; and in the mid-nineteenth century the newly created Germany came along to seize Schleswig-Holstein (although northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark in 1920). The ‘organisation years’ began in 1864, when the country adapted to its reduced status by industrialising and establishing, for instance, unions (from 1870) and co-ops (from 1882); there was also mass migration from the countryside to the cities and abroad, with Copenhagen tripling in size from 1840 to 1900 and 10% of the population emigrating between 1860 and 1900.
Now, of course, Denmark is a highly educated and prosperous country with a diverse population (and yet the first three prime ministers of the 21st century shared the same family name – Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen and Lars Løkke Rasmussen).
The museum also has ethnography and antiquities galleries, as well as many other museums and stately homes across Denmark, including the new Museum of the Danish Resistance (near the Little Mermaid), which opened in June 2020, closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and is due to open again in January 2021.
The National Gallery (Statens Museum for Kunst) is just north of the centre, across the road from the Botanic Gardens and the Natural History and Geology Museums. It has a large and world-class collection of art from the fourteenth century to the present day, starting with Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Mantegna, then Filippino Lippi, Bassano, Garofalo, Parmigianino, Titian, Barocci, Tintoretto, Magnasco, Salvator Rosa, Guardi, Tieoplo, ‘Grand Tour’ portraits by Batoni of Peter Beckford and of John Rolle Walter, a copy of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks, and busts by Pisano and Bernini plus a small bronze by Giambologna. Naturally there’s the array of Dutch art to be expected across northern Europe, including a fine Adoration of the Magi by Hugo van der Goes, one Jan Brueghel the Elder, five Rubens, and four big Jordaens, as well as nine Cranachs (notably Venus with Cupid Stealing Honey). There are five ‘studio of Rembrandt’ paintings, an oil sketch, an etching of his mother and a study of an old man, but no actual Rembrandt painting. There’s also a Merry Company by Dirck Hals (see my post on Haarlem for Dirck and his better-known brother) and a painting of St Peter’s in Rome by Swanenburg from Leiden (see the same post).
I wasn’t particularly taken by the trompe l’oeil room, created for Kings Ferdinand III and Christian V in the late seventeenth century, and I’ve never liked eighteenth-century French art, so I wasn’t too sad that most of the 139 French paintings, by Bouchet, Lancret and others, ordered for the new Christiansborg Palace were lost when it burned down in 1794; but there are a few paintings by Poussin and Joseph Vernet (see my post on Avignon). However the collection of French Art 1900-30 is superb, thanks to the engineer Johannes Rump, who collected the works of the Fauves and in particular Matisse, donating them to the museum in 1928. There’s no fewer than eleven Matisse paintings as well as some sculptures, half a dozen Derains, two or three by each of Braque, Gris, Picasso, Dufy, Modigliani, Van Dongen, Vlaminck and Friesz, and others by Metzinger, de la Fresnaye, Soutine, Rouault, Vuillard, Valladon, Marquet, Laurens and Léger, plus sculptures by Maillol and Lipchitz and even plates by Derain and Vlaminck.
The collection of Danish and Nordic art starts with Jens Juel, PC Skovgaard, CA Jensen, Carl Bloch, Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann (see above) and her husband Jens Adolf Jerichau, Michael Ancher, Kristian Zahrtmann (Julie and the Nurse is of course a scene from Romeo and Juliet), the Swedes CG Pilo and August Strindberg (yes, better known for his plays), the Norwegian JC Dahl and three big Munchs. There are whole rooms dedicated to Christen Købke, his teacher CW Eckersberg, Bertel Thorvaldsen, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Laurits Andersen Ring and JF Willemsen, all excellent.
Finally, a striking modern extension (reached by bridges over what is now the sculpture street) displays twentieth-century art, starting with Munch, Nolde, Jens Søndergaard, Harald Giersing, Edvard Weie, Jens Adolf Jerichau (again) and, post-1945, Richard Mortensen and Robert Jacobsen, Asger Jorn, the ’60s Fluxus and COBRA groups, the landscapes of Per Kirkeby, who died in 2018, and new acquisitions.
Scandinavian art galleries all make a big deal of having a classy café-restaurant, and this is no exception – it’s decorated by Danh Vo, a Vietnamese-Danish conceptual artist, whose family fled as Boat People and were rescued by a Danish container ship.
In the park at the rear of the National Gallery, the Hirschsprung Collection displays a good collection of nineteenth-century Danish art, both Golden Age artists and the later Skagen School, who were drawn to the northern tip of Jutland by its pure light, much as British artists were drawn to Lamorna and St Ives.
Near the south end of the Kongens Have (King’s Garden), back towards the city centre, the Davids Samling was created by the lawyer and businessman CL David (1878-1960) and is probably the best collection of Islamic art in Scandinavia (it was in the news recently for allegedly holding works stolen from the Ottoman empire, which it refuses to return). The building was closed for refurbishment from 2005 to 2009 (incorporating the house next door too) and the displays are dark but very professional; captions are only in Danish but there are information panels in English and Danish. You’ll finish in some rooms with original early-nineteenth-century décor and paintings from the Danish Golden Age and by Jens Ferdinand Willumsen and the brothers Joakim and Niels Skovgaard.