Travelogue LXI: Gotland III: Landscape

Yoga under a sea stack on Fårö Island.

Yoga under a sea stack on Fårö Island. As far north as I’ve ever been in my life. 

September 24, 2015 One final post on Gotland–I’ve written about the people and the farms, but nothing about the natural landscape itself, which is, after all, the backdrop to and shaper of everything that goes on on the Island.

Gotland makes Mainz seem tame and domesticated, civilized to the point of complete docility. In Germany, the pre-Christian, pre-modern past is hidden behind layers of growth and technology and gorgeous Baroque cathedrals. You can almost fool yourself into thinking it never existed–that Germany has always been this post-Enlightenment land driven by progress and the Church. On Gotland, however, it all feels very close–the Vikings, the wooden ships, Odin and Valhalla and all the rest. Portrayals of Mary are more similar to Freia than to anything Christian. On Fårö, the tiny island to the north of Gotland, farmers still raise their livestock in thatched barns and behind stone walls.

One of the 92 (!!) churches still in weekly use on the island. They were built between the 11th and 12th centuries--Romanesque or Gothic architecture, sometimes with a defense tower in front.

One of the 92 (!!) nearly-identical churches still in weekly use on the island. Nearly all were built between the 11th and 12th centuries–Romanesque or Gothic architecture, sometimes with a defense tower in front.

Cathedral ruins in Visby. Many catholic churches on the island were abandoned after the Reformation.

Cathedral ruins in Visby. Many catholic churches on the island were abandoned after the Reformation.

The museum in Visby had a fascinating collection of engraved stones, both pre- and post-Christianity. Here, a woman holds a snake as part of a pagan ritual.

The museum in Visby had a fascinating collection of engraved stones, both pre- and post-Christianity. Here, a woman holds a snake as part of a pagan ritual.

Christian and pagan imagery combine.

Christian and pagan imagery combine.

Boats outside of a small fishing village.

Boats outside of a small fishing village.

Fishing huts with stakes driven into the ground for drying the nets.

Fishing huts with stakes driven into the ground for drying the nets.

Thatched barn on Fårö Island.

Thatched barn and windmill on Fårö Island.


Another fishing village on  Fårö.

Another fishing village on Fårö, only accessible by a winding track along the edge of the ocean. The rental car took a bit of a beating, there.  

White limestone beaches.

White limestone beaches.

The northernmost point of  Fårö is lined with Sea Stacks, limestone towers formed over millennia by wind and water.

The northernmost point of Fårö is lined with Sea Stacks, limestone towers formed over millennia by wind and water.

Lilla Karlsö Island off the eastern coast of Gotland, where one farmer we talked to grazes several hundred sheep.

Lilla Karlsö Island off the eastern coast of Gotland, where one farmer we talked to grazes several hundred sheep. There were dozens of white swans swimming in the Baltic along this stretch of the coast. 



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Travelogue XXXVI: Ostern

April 5, 2015 I went to the Easter Vigil Mass at the cathedral in Mainz. It was the first time I had ever seen the place full: every seat taken, people standing in the isles, kneeling in the side chapels. I sat high up on the steps at the back of the nave–the only free spot I could find. Some two thousand people around me, I calculated. And I thought, If this really was the people of God, if these all were really men and women seeking to live each day in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ, all the complications of organized religion aside, what a power that would have. But Germany is a secular country, and even the believers are fallen.

The service began in blackness. How is it possible that such a crowd can be so silent? Even in the darkness, you can feel the vastness of the cathedral around you. Great stone buttresses like the trunks of trees, high gothic arches receding into black. It’s an eerie and pregnant space. I think of all the scenes in German literature that play out against such a backdrop–the sermon and the single light in Kafka’s Trial, the organ music in Hesse’s Demian.

Here, suddenly, a voice in the darkness: Tonight, death dies. Darkness falls away before the power of Light. Behold the Lamb who was slain, behold the King, the Redeemer of the world who comes clothed in light as in a robe. And the procession begins–the Mädchenchor (Girls’ Choir), altar boys, the Kardinal flanked by officiants bearing the insignia of church and city. At the front, a single candle lit from the fire in the courtyard outside. Light slowly spreading–first to the candles in the archways, then on to the steps leading up to the altar, then to the thousands of candles in the audience. From where I am sitting, from above, it looks as if the congregation is lit from within. Verklärung. Transfiguration.

Mädchenchor and organ–pure, uncanny music. But when the congregation sings, the entire building resounds. They can hear us in the streets. Two thousand voices: Do you deny Satan and the powers of Darkness? I deny. Do you believe in Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, who in this night conquered Death and Darkness and who sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty? I believe. Amen. 

The service lasts for three hours. The feeling of release, of lightness, when the mass is dismissed is immense. The bells are ringing midnight; it’s clear and cold. Christus ist auferstanden. Christ is risen.

On Easter morning, the sun is shining. Aesthetically, the mass in the cathedral is the carbon-copy of last night’s–sunshine through stained glass, undisturbed joy, incense rising to the heavens. The officiants are wearing embroidered robes of pale gold. No more eerie Mädchenchor–there’s a full choir and orchestra, rows of trumpets.

Oh death, where is your victory? Oh grave, where is your sting? Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth. Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua. Holy Holy Holy Lord God of hosts. The heavens and the earth are full of your glory. 

The service closes with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

Afterwards, I think: This is why, no matter how far I may yet turn from traditional piety in my life, I will never, ever be able to denounce Religion fully, to wish it away, to pretend that it never existed and has no power. There is such beauty and wonder in this, such majesty, and the world needs more of that. Now the earth was formless and empty and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the deep; what was dead will now live; the Kingdom and the Glory and the Power forever and ever, amen–there is such a majesty and power in those words, and in the Story behind them. Religion as a maker of Myth, of beauty and reverence and art–there will always, always be a place for that.

After the service in Mainz, the streets are full of people. I walk back home along the Rhine Promenade, and there are children everywhere and picnics and champagne. Wir feiern die Auferstehung des Herrn, denn wir sind selber auferstanden. We celebrate the resurrection of the Lord because we ourselves have arisen. Goethe, Faust.

Frohe Weihnachten!

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

Hamlet, Act I Scene I

IMG_1022Church of St. Ignaz, Mainz, fourth Sunday of advent.

IMG_1005Wooden nativity scene at the Weihnachtsmarkt in Mainz.


Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht!
Alles schläft, einsam wacht
Nur das traute, hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh.

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Die der Welt Heil gebracht,
Aus des Himmels goldenen Höh’n
Uns der Gnade Fülle läßt seh’n
Jesum in Menschengestalt!
Jesum in Menschengestalt!

IMG_1024 Schwibbogen–a traditional Christmas decoration, hand carved from wood from the Erzgebirge region in Germany.

IMG_1033Apfelkuchen–apple cake, made by my host-sister’s father.

IMG_1031And miracle of all miracles, on Christmas morning the sun came out.


Travelogue XII: Mainzer Dom

640px-Gotisches_MaßwerkfensterIt’s no secret that I have some pretty significant ideological problems with the Catholic Church. But when it comes to aesthetics, I find it completely inescapable. No other religious tradition of my personal acquaintance does beauty so well. I’ve been in dozens of catholic churches across Germany, and the sheer power and loveliness of it all always takes me by surprise.

At the same time, though, I find the physical beauty of the buildings themselves deeply unnerving. This splendor, decadence, theatricality–it blurs the line between art and religion, between aesthetic and spiritual experience. I grew up in protestant New England, going to Sunday services in tiny white clapboard churches–functional, lovely in their own way, but entirely lacking in anything that might be described as gorgeous. There were no candles burning, no stained glass windows, no towering organ, no gothic vaults hazy with incense. Just straight-backed wooden pews, a piano, a plain pulpit–stark perhaps, but refreshingly straightforward, not plagued with questions about the role of decadence and art in religion. And somehow honest: the congregation is not wooed into belief by the power of beauty.

How different it is here in Germany, where I go to a mass in the Frauenkirche in Munich and think, This is as good as a Wagner opera. 



The cathedral in Mainz is one of the most stunning I have seen, and therefore also one of the most unnerving. It is sprawling, visible from almost anywhere in the old city, and dates originally back to 975AD. The building has been restored and rebuilt dozens of times since them, and features architectural components from nearly every Western stylistic period of the past millennium. Outside, there’s the marketplace and dozens of cafes and a really good H&M–inside, a whole separate, echo-y world of vaulted ceilings and stained glass.

I stand inside the main sanctuary, and I think, Who built this thing? Who paid for it all, who mined all that red stone and brought it here? So many centuries ago, in a tiny town of just a few thousand residents, what motivated those in power to dedicate so many lives and so much money to the Church? These cathedrals are the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerke, really–equal parts piety and hubris, reverence and power, shaped by aesthetics, politics, Zeitgeist, music. As much celebrations of human creativity as places of worship.

Below, two of the entrances to the Mainzer Dom (Dom=cathedral).


IMG_0608Inside. The main sanctuary. The painted side panels tell the story of the life of Jesus, with Latin descriptions underneath.


IMG_0611Below, two of the many side chapels. The second chapel, with the very modern stained glass window, gate, and painting together with the traditional architecture, is a very common sight in Germany: after World War II, many churches were restored only partly to their original appearances, and thus feature this striking combination of old and new. 


IMG_0597The amount of detail is staggering. 


IMG_0600Alongside the focus on heaven and the Living God, the presence of death is heavily felt in the cathedrals I have been in. Skulls and skeletons are carved into many of the altarpieces and stone relief-work, and there is always a personified statue of Death somewhere. 

IMG_0605…But when the sun is out, the whole building is full of light. 



Travelogue X: Farmers’ Market in Mainz


9. September, 2014 It’s strange, to finally be in the place I’ve been trying to get to for the past two years. Strange and wonderful–to be able to unpack my suitcase for the first time in two months, to have a post-office box and a rental contract and a bicycle, to be able to go food shopping without having to ask for directions. What’s the line from John Denver? Coming home to a place you’ve never been before….

I’ve been slowly exploring the city, with the help of an old bike I bought last week and a free map from the bookstore. So far, the experience has been totally different from my various escapades in Berlin, Munich, even Kulmbach–no rush to see everything, to hit the touristy high-points, to get in and get out. This is where I’m going to be living, people. In Germany. I’m living in Germany.

That last sentence makes the most mundane of tasks–buying stamps, standing in line at the supermarket–seem somehow exceedingly adventurous and thrilling.

Expect a regular post on the city very soon. In the meantime, here’s the local farmers’ market, which takes place three times a week on the square in front of the cathedral.

IMG_0552Looking towards the market. The whole Old City is a Fußgängerzone–no cars allowed, just bikes. Also riding a bike on cobblestones takes skill, as I have quickly discovered….





So many flowers…


Travelogue II: Rothenburg ob der Tauber


15 Juli, 2014 We took the slow train today to Rothenburg, my Hermann Hesse city. Real Herrgottswetter (Lord God’s weather) the entire afternoon–blue sky, clear sunshine, warm breeze. French Flammkuchen and Silvaner at a table on the cobblestones, someone playing a horn a few streets away.

Anyway, I wrote a lengthy post about the city here, which I won’t repeat. But I must re-post the pictures* of Tilman Riemenschneider’s Holy Blood Alter, which remains possibly the single most beautiful thing I have ever seen. “I’ve been taking students here for 28 years, and it never gets old,” said the professor. It’s amazing how a thing of carved wood can be so moving.











You look at this work of art and think, if this should ever be destroyed one day, through crime or accident or time or war, what a loss that would be. If it is possible to pray anywhere on this earth, then in front of this masterpiece would be the place. But then wouldn’t you be praying to art, to human creation, and not to God at all? 


*Pictures by Tim Coobac, who had an awesome camera. 


Germany is full of beautiful churches.

I am not sure if “beautiful” is the correct adjective. The actuality is both more sublime and more disturbing. Centuries ago, in towns of just a few thousand people–what prompted those in command to dedicate so many lives and fortunes to these buildings? They seem to me to be the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerke (Total Works of Art), equal parts piety and hubris, reverence and power, shaped in turn by religion, music, politics, Zeitgeist. As much celebrations of human creativity as places of worship.

Here is the Marienkapelle in the center of Würzberg, surrounded, oddly enough, by the local farmers’ market. The inside, as in all the churches we have visited, is ever cool and still, a forest or a whole universe of stone, light, and glass.

Many of the churches have an odd mixture of old and new artwork, as many original structures were destroyed in World War II. For instance, the windows here below date from the restoration after the war. They are stunning, but look somehow out of place with the old architecture.

Neumünster, also in Würzburg.

Below, one of the many gorgeous organs. In München, we found a cathedral where someone was playing Bach high above our heads, far behind us. When I went to the mass in the Frauen Kirche, the choir and organ sent vibrations through the stone floor and wooden pews. Such music is somehow more than tone, more than sound–something one can feel in the air, almost touch.

Frauenkirche, München.

Michaelskirche, München, where we heard the Bach.

Asamkirche, München. This one was truly insane, as Rococo as they come–all fine metal work, dense murals, gilt, and twisted stone columns of some sort of red polished marble. The effect was ultimately one of claustrophobia, of the walls closing in above one’s head. The building dates from 1746, when the Baroque movement was in its last and most extreme stages.

This last church, especially, raises interesting questions. I know people (ahem…Dr.G…) who dislike various late-Romantic artists and composers because they are too bombastic. But isn’t this, dating from the early 1700s, just as “bombastic”  as, say, Wagner? Or even Thomas Mann, whose novels aren’t exactly examples of restraint and minimalism?  Isn’t this earlier artistic spirit just as over-the-top, though of course very different aesthetically?
And if we are discussing music, check out the marvelously insane Cecilia Bartoli below, singing a piece from roughly the same Baroque/Rococo period. It sounds like the Asamkirche.

Bombast? Beauty? The sublime? Or all together?