August 21, 2015 Usually, I try to accompany my photographs with some sort of narrative. I’m interested in telling stories, after all, and words are the means to that end. Sometimes, however, the pictures just speak for themselves.
August 20, 2015 Before we head to Bayreuth, Katie and I are farm-sitting for friends in Kulmbach–sprawling stone farmhouse, beautiful views, pigs and gardens and physical labor and evenings in front of the fire. For me, it is a chance to get out of my head: I cook in the huge kitchen for hours every day, stack wood for the fire. There’s not much space to overthink things.
Today, we took a break from the work to spend a few hours downtown, along with the two other young ladies who are watching the farm with us.
Kulmbach, like almost every other tiny Dorf in northern Bavaria, is beautiful–not in a touristy, expensive way, but with the sort of effortless charm that reminds me of the villages in Vermont. We drank cappuccinos and then hiked up to the castle outside of town, in the rain, wearing wool sweaters. Autumn is almost here.
June 6, 2015 Today was a city day, a chance to revel in the beauty of Prague itself. It was my first time in a city not destroyed by American or British bombs in the second World War–the wholeness is visible on every street corner. There is a unity to Prague that is lacking, I think, in cities like Dresden or Munich or even Mainz, almost completely leveled during WWII and slowly rebuilt over a period of decades. Even though the cultural landmarks of those cities have been perfectly, meticulously restored, the effects of the bombs can still be felt–a stone-work facade only painted on, ancient buildings next to jarringly new construction, Old Cities shrunk to fit narrow budgets. In Prague, there is very little of that. One really gets a sense of how things were before human stupidity destroyed so many things.
The sheer loveliness of the city, at the same time, made it difficult for me to reconcile it all with the Prague that emerges from Kafka’s works and diaries. Even though I knew that much of the Jewish Quarter had been rebuilt in the early 20th century, I was somehow still expecting something claustrophobic, narrow, dark. And instead, this bright and enlightened European Kulturstadt. It didn’t help that the weather was absolutely lordly, as the expression goes in German–blue skies, hot, the clearest of early June days. No fog in sight. Not that I was complaining, of course.
I first walked up to the castle (THE Castle, say many Kafka critics, though I had a hard time seeing it), with gorgeous views down to the city and the Moldau.
Despite the beauty, though, I found the enormous crowds a bit unnerving. Here at the beginning of summer in one of the top destinations in Europe, the tourism is on a scale I have never seen before, despite having grown up in a state fueled by the money of rich outsiders who want to look at mountains. I think about how my family would always complain if there were 150 people at the local lake when we wanted to swim–in Prague, there are 150 people waiting to take a picture of a single monument at any given time on any given day. Mainz seems like a country Dorf in comparison, and that is a very good thing as far as I am concerned.
That evening, I went boating on the Moldau. I am absolutely fascinated by rivers, and it’s not enough to just stand on a bridge. The Moldau, like the Rhine in Germany, is a force behind the Czech Republic’s mythology and art, bound up with creation and national identity. In all other ways, though, it is the Rhine’s polar opposite–gentle and comforting instead of bracing and wild. More feminine, perhaps, to the Rhine’s towering masculinity (the articles in German, after all, are feminine and masculine, respectively). A row boat on the Rhine would be swept half way to Koblenz in an hour; on the Moldau, you can paddle a bit and drink wine and drift without fearing for your life.
As a side note, it was entirely obvious during the whole process of renting a boat that Prague is NOT America. There were no signs informing prospective rowers that BOATING IS DANGEROUS AND YOU COULD DROWN, no lengthy papers to sign so that nobody would get sued, no confirmation of insurance, no lifejackets, no how-to instructions–just the friendly advice to keep 15 meters between yourself and the locks under the bridge. And so I handed over my 200 Crowns (about 8$) and found myself in possession of a bright blue rowboat with wooden paddles and a lantern hung at the bow.
I rowed all the way to the bridge and back (without falling in the river or crashing into anything, thank you very much, which anyone who knows me will tell you is a feat). The sun set behind the castle and the river faded from pink to gold and out again to blue. The restaurants on the riverside were playing jazz. There are some moments where the awareness of the towering privilege of one’s life comes crashing in all at once.
When I got back to the docks, it was gloaming–blue water, blue air, the stone bridges faded out to gray.
May 24, 2015 This afternoon, a trip down the Rhine to Bacharach, a tiny town in the midst of the Loreley region. There was still and warm air, birdsong, and solitude in the midst of the Sunday tourists. The chance to get out into the green and move and breathe a bit.
The town itself was lovely, of course, full of timber-frame homes and grape vines climbing up stone walls, built up around a 1,000-year-old church. Wine and religion–the two great shaping forces behind the appearance of so many small towns in this region of Germany.
I first hiked up to the castle, high above the town–Burg Stahleck, originally dating back to the 11th century, and now a youth hostel.
….And then back down into the gorge and up the other side, into the vineyards. The air smelled like freshly-cut hay–the smell of a Vermont meadow in high summer, here in May and thousands of miles from home.
Along the Rhine, the vineyards plunge right down to the water’s edge. There are zigzagging paths along the tops of the stone terraces, and one can walk for miles, high above the river and the slate rooftops below.
I stopped at one of the Weinstuben in the town on my way back to the train station to eat a bowl of excellent potato soup and drink a glass of wine grown from the grapes on the slopes behind me. I sat across the table from an older gentleman who was on his yearly bicycle tour, from Stuttgart to the Rhine, and then down river all the way to Koblenz.
“Zum Wohl,” I said, when my wine arrived. “Cheers.”
He spoke about the Rhine as if he was talking about a person. “There is such power there,” he said, “and such violence. You have to accept it, have to give yourself to it heart and soul. It is impossible to do otherwise, especially if you are out on the water itself. Even those great powerful barges you see can’t escape it. Vater Rhein–Father Rhine–there is something to that, I think.” We talked about the Rhine as a creator of art, of Mythos, of music, from the Middle Ages to Wagner and back again. I told him I most likely wouldn’t be in Germany at all without the opening chords of Wagner’s Das Rheingold–E-major swelling into the sun, the Rhine as creator, as Father and Mother and God all at once. “That river is the original Genie,” he said. Yes, exactly.
February 22, 2015 Today it felt almost like spring–clear skies, and a warmth to the sunshine I haven’t felt since sometime in October. I decided to call a momentary halt to the paper-writing, and took the train an hour north up the Rhine to Koblenz. The trip is one of the most beautiful stretches in all of Germany, I think–steep vineyards all the way down to the water, tiny villages on the shores, a dozen 1,500-year-old castles at the top of the cliffs. It is the land of the Lorelei, of Rheinromantik, of all the poets and painters of German Romanticism who found in the area something sublime and exalted.
I visited Castle Stolzenfels, a few minutes outside of Koblenz. It has a long and colorful history: the original fortress was built in the 13th century as a toll station on the Rhine River, was occupied by French and Swedish troops during the Thirty Years’ War, and was partially destroyed by the French army in 1689. In 1823, the ruins were gifted to Prussian Crownprince Frederick William IV, who had the entire structure rebuilt as a summer palace in the most fairy-tale-like of styles–New Gothic, Romanticism, full of gilded lanterns and tiny gardens and heavy silk tapestries.
First, though, there was the walk up to the castle, a good kilometer above the Rhine River valley.
The feeling of space, of clear air, height and movement, far above the city and the trains and the noise–I was giddy. I love Mainz, but one is never really alone there. Here, on a Sunday afternoon in late February, I felt like I had the whole river valley to myself.
And the castle–I think it speaks for itself. One had the feeling of being in some hermetic universe of Romantic loveliness, inside of some charmed scene from an Eichendorf novel. How does Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts end? Birdsong and music, und es war alles, alles gut–all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well. It was that, exactly.
I was utterly enchanted.
23. August, 2014 Yesterday, I walked down into the valley and up the other side, to the castle which is visible from the high fields here. The Plassenburg–on the outside, much more rugged and Medieval than the Festung Marienberg in Würzburg, but quite lovely and elegant within the walls.
Afterwards, I walked back down to the old city. I got entirely lost on the way, and ended up in the maze of narrow alleys and overhanging balconies and stone steps that seem to dominate the quieter parts of every small town in Bavaria.
Below, the town square, which I finally found–complete with mandatory cobblestones, outdoor cafe, fountain, Rathaus with wooden beer barrels in front, view of the castle in the background. I ordered a Milchkaffe and read Siegfried Lenz and looked at the Plassenburg.
17. August, 2014 In Germany, everyone goes walking on Sunday afternoons. Here on the farm, even the animals come–two dogs, two donkeys. We walked through the woods, up to a high field where we could see the whole windswept valley, corn and wheat fields and rows of wind turbines in the distance.
Autumn came all at once last week to Kulmbach–two days of pouring, freezing rain, and now bright sunshine and cold wind. You can tell it’s autumn in Bavaria, we learn one morning at breakfast, when the plums in the garden are no longer warm to the touch. Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß…
When we come out into the field above the farm, there’s a tiny red-roofed dorf on the left, and the local castle, the Plassenburg, on the right. A castle. This constant proximity to 1200-year-old fortresses will never cease to astound me. In Würzburg, the Marienberg was visible from almost any point in the city–no small wonder, to take the bus to the Innenstadt every morning with a castle on the horizon. “Yes, marvelous, but think about everything behind it!” the professor says. “Suppression of the lower classes, cruel feudalism, some prince or other lording it over the masses in the stinking city and hauling up the occasional girl for his enjoyment….” “Sometimes you can think too much,” I say.
In the end, it’s amazing how fast I am falling in love with Bavaria. And not the sort of touristy, there-and-gone in a weekend sort of love, but the sort of love I have for Vermont–deep-seated, rooted in the people, the land, the way of life. I’m almost sorry to be studying in Mainz, all the way over in Rheinland-Pfalz. Still, I am here to learn and see as much as I can, and not to put down roots. In the end, it’s all good.
26. Juli, 2014 One of the most lovely spots in Würzburg is the Alte Mainbrücke, the old stone bridge that connects the city to the Festung Marienberg, the castle on the other side of the river. The first foundations of the bridge date back to the 1100s, and the structure that exists today was completed during the 1400s. Today, there are always street musicians playing, and you can buy a glass of wine from the tiny open-air restaurant at one end and carry it onto the bridge–return the glass when you are finished.
View from the bridge back into the city–the Rathaus (city hall) on the left with the clock tower, the Dom (cathedral) at the end of the street.
The Festung in the distance, above the vineyards. The fact that one can see a thousand-year-old castle from almost any point in the city will never grow old to me. There are statues on both sides of the bridge–the holy family, Wuerzburg’s patron saints, Karl the great. Above St. Kilian.
Also there is hazelnut Gelato, jussayin’.
A couple more Würzburg posts before I get to München….
The whole city here is overlooked by the Festung Marienberg, high above the river and surrounded by wine farmers. The history of the castle dates all the way back to the 700s AD, when a church was built on the sight of an ancient Celtic fortification. It eventually served as the residence of Würzburg’s Fürstbischof until 1719, when it was ditched for the much-more-classy Residenz in the main city.
View of the castle from downtown Würzburg.
The entrance, under the outer wall. Once inside, past two walls, moat, and drawbridge, one had the feeling of complete security. Anna, the whole place was definitely reminiscent of something out of Lord of the Rings…
The moat, now dry, as seen from the bridge.
The main gate.
Before the bridge.
The water cisterns.
Inside the chapel.
The innermost keep, most likely the last place of defense if the castle fell.
The views over the walls of the city were breathtaking and entirely un-transferrable to cheap digital camera.