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. 



Like Emily Abroad on Facebook!

Travelogue XLIII: Rheinromantik

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMay 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.


The only way one can get up to the castle was by climbing steps.

Lots of steps.

Lots of steps.

So. many. effing. steps.

So. many. effing. steps.

The top step. My poor calves.

The top step. My poor calves.


But the castle was lovely–very rustic, partially carved out of the mountain side.  It serves as a youth hostel today, so you can actually come and spend the night.


There was also an abandoned Gothic cathedral on the way up.

….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.




The views down into the town were lovely.


Vineyards--plunging down to the Rhine, almost impossible steep. Here, Riesling and Scheurebe....

Vineyards–all the way down to the Rhine, almost impossibly steep. Here, Riesling and Scheurebe….

Teeny tiny grapes!

Teeny tiny grapes!


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.

Lorch on the left, Bacharach on the right. Father Rhine, indeed.

Lorch on the left, Bacharach on the right. Father Rhine, indeed.

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.

Travelogue XXIII: Marc Chagall, Stephanskirche

IMG_11216. January, 2015. Just another lovely spot in Mainz–the Stephanskirche. I’ve been wanting to write about it for weeks, but held off to wait for clear skies. The sunlight makes the windows come alive.

The Church of St. Stephan was originally built in 990, on the highest point of land in the city. It was almost entirely destroyed on February 27, 1954 during an American air raid, and has slowly been rebuilt over the course of several decades. Today, the church is renowned for its nine stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall, one of the greatest Jewish artists of the 20th century.

Chagall’s story is one that can be told by dozens of European artists of his time–early renown in Europe, displacement by war, flight to America, observation of Europe’s self-destruction from afar, rebirth and recreation. He was a leading figure of early modernism and heavily involved in the Surrealist and Symbolist movements in Paris. Today, his large-scale paintings and stained glass can be seen in a Jerusalem synagogue, on the ceiling of the Paris Opera, in cathedrals in England, in the United Nations building, and on the stage of the New York City ballet.

The windows in Mainz are the only such pieces he created for a German church, and the last stained glass he created before his death in 1985. When he began work, he was 91 years old. He intended, he wrote, for the finished windows to serve as a symbol of Christian-Jewish unification, a gesture of rebirth after the ravages of World War II.

Today, some 200,000 visitors a year come to the Stephanskirche to see his work.

Mainz_Stiftskirche_StStephan_2810_RET_1024x768The windows turn the light in the church deep blue, with highlights of rainbow. One almost has the feeling of being under water and looking up at the sun.





For me a stained glass window is a transparent partition between my heart and the heart of the world. Stained glass has to be serious and passionate. It is something elevating and exhilarating. It has to live through the perception of light. To read the Bible is to perceive a certain light, and the window has to make this obvious through its simplicity and grace…

Marc Chagall



Details from two of the dozens of scenes from the Bible painted on the three windows behind the altar.

The Stephanskirche is in the Oberstadt (literally, the over-city), the part of town up on the hill and a little apart from the bustle of the center. It’s my favorite area in Mainz, full of slanty pathways and stone stair steps. Below, the walk back into the city.


Travelogue XXII: Worms–Martin Luther, Richard Wagner

IMG_107129. December, 2014 Yesterday there was real Vermont weather in Mainz–clear blue skies, snow on the ground, bracing cold. I was restless and giddy from the sun, and decided to take the train to Worms, a small city about half an hour to the south.

Worms is, along with Wittenberg, a city of Martin Luther, one of the great players in the Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century. In 1521, the city hosted the Diet of Worms, the council at which Luther was ordered to first claim authorship of and then recant his theological works. He refused, and an edict was issued several weeks later condemning him as a heretic and enemy of the Church.

Today, the city is home to the largest monument to the Reformation in the world. It was completed in 1868, and features statues and carvings of Martin Luther along with some twenty other figures involved in the movement.


Philipp Melanchthon, professor in Wittenberg and friend of Martin Luther’s.


John Wyclef, English theologian and an important early reformer.


The city of Speyer represented as a woman, here protesting against the Diet of Speyer in 1529, which condemned the spread of the Reformation.


Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, 31 October 1517.


The stone under the statues is inset with the coat-of-arms of the 27 cities who took part in the reformation. Above, Wittenberg, Martin Luther’s city.


Johann Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, with excerpts from Martin Luther’s works above them. Below, Luther himself, the statue at the center of the monument. At the base are inscribed his famous words from the Diet of Worms in 1521: Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders, Gott helfe mir, amen–Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God, amen. 


So much for Luther–Worms’ other great narrative stands in almost comic opposition to the stringent, overtly Christian story of the Reformation. Worms is the Nibelungenstadt, City of the Nibelunglied, the anonymous epic poem at the root of German myth. The work is a sweeping re-working of pagan Norse legend, spanning generations and playing out against a backdrop of gods and men, giants and dragons, swords and treasure.

Worms serves as the setting for much of the story. Brunhild and Kriemhild fought on the steps of the cathedral; Siegfried himself is buried before the old wall; part of the great Rhine hoard is supposedly hidden somewhere deep under the city. Today, there’s a museum and a yearly festival and a dozen monuments dedicated to the original epic and its countless reworkings over the past millennium. The boundaries between history and legend are not clear in Worms, and the myth is still very much alive.


One of the many monuments in the city. Here, Siegfried’s death at the hands of Hagen.

For me, it is all especially close to home. The Nibelungen saga, and more specifically Richard Wagner’s operatic rendition of it, was the story that drew me to German. The figures in the monument above have a great deal of power over me.

There is a flexibility and strength to this myth, to all myths. Over the past thousand years, the story has served as a study of Medieval courtly love, of Jungian psychology, of German nationalism, of Gesamtkunstwerk, of Western politics. The events of the narrative are big enough to contain the entire world, yet small enough to fit within a single human psyche.


The Nibelungenlied in the Renaissance: courtly love and Medieval customs. 


Fritz Lang’s silent film from the 1920s: ground-breaking artistry, unfortunate overtones of German nationalism.


Arthur Rackham’s illustrations: Nibelungenlied as romance and fairytale. 



Achim Freyer’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, which premiered in Los Angeles and is now playing in Mannheim, Germany. Jungian psychology, modern politics. Mythology for the 21st century.

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 XIX: Würzburg Kreuzweg


24. November, 2014 On the way back from the farm in Kulmbach, we stopped in Würzburg, the half-way point on the Autobahn between eastern Bavaria and Mainz. It’s still the city I know best in Germany–my first introduction to the country, and a place I will always feel a bit homesick for. On the last evening I spent there, I drank wine on the bridge and bid farewell to a dear friend–hot July night, street musicians playing klezmer, the castle all lit up on the hill behind us. It’s been four months since then. Tempus fugit. 

We only had a couple hours, so we decided to walk up the Kreuzweg (stations of the cross) to the beautiful Käppele, high above the vineyards outside of the city.  The path–247 steps!–dates from the 1760s and leads up to the chapel and a tiny cloister.


The almost-bare branches, the stone steps, the clear light–it all had a fairy-tale-like feel to it. Märchenhaft. 





Inside the chapel–baroque, one of the few buildings in Würzburg not destroyed during World War II. It’s never been restored, which means the interior has a hazy-dusty-dreamlike feel to it.


Looking back into the city, and then across to the Festung Marienberg.


The sky was the bluest of blues, for what seems like the first time in weeks. I love the Rhine, but living on its banks means that Nebel (fog) is an unavoidable fact of existence during the winter months. And sure enough, the clear skies in Bayern turned overcast as soon as we took the exit towards Mainz.


I think, though, that the afternoon of sun in Würzburg will be enough to keep me going for awhile yet.

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 VIII: Plassenburg, Kulmbach


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.



IMG_0489…back on track!


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.




And best of all, on the long treck back to the farm there was a cat.

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.