Travelogue LXXI: Weinbergen

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFebruary 28, 2016 Yesterday, the sun shone in Germany–really shone, with a strength and warmth that have been absent for months. And when the sun shines in Germany in the winter, you leave the libraries at the university behind and you get out and you do something.

So we packed a picnic lunch and tea and tools into the back of a rattly rainbow Volkswagen and drove into the Weinbergen (vineyards; literally “wine mountains,” which I think is much more poetic). In the late winter the vintners begin the process of pruning the grape vines in preparation for the next growing season, and I was lucky enough to be invited by one particular vine-pruner to tag along.

And it was marvelous.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe vineyards of the Rheingau are almost ridiculously steep, falling straight down to the banks of the river. The slopes are covered in slippery silver-blue or red slate. Standing upright requires strong legs and a good sense of balance; actually doing something at any level of efficiency while standing upright requires genuine skill.

In these vineyards, the steepness means that all of the work is still done by hand, using techniques that have been in place for centuries. Pruners now use battery-powered clippers, but the process is still the same: cutting away old or unwanted growth from each plant and training selected shoots to grow in the proper directions. It all sounds simple enough, but is in fact anything but–every plant is a decision, a tiny work of art, shaped and re-shaped over a period of decades by dozens of hands.

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Stone steps are built into the walls to access lower terraces.

And so we worked. Or rather, J. pruned like a professional while I took pictures, did not fall off any walls, tried not to cut off the wrong things, and generally enjoyed myself more than I have in a long time.

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Hands down the most excellent vine-pruner in the Rheingau.

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Different types of slate.

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Battery-powered clippers.

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Yes, that’s me cutting grape vines in a flannel shirt from Vermont in a vineyard on the Rhine. With thousand-year-old-castle ruins in the background. Sometimes it is possible to get the miraculousness of existence into a photograph. 

I think the rest of the pictures speak for themselves. Even from the most distant of perspectives, the Rheingau in late February, perched on the dividing line between winter and spring, is pretty dang gorgeous.

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I’ve never been one for meditation in any traditional form. But this, I thought, sitting on a bench and looking at the mountains and not being alone, this comes pretty close.

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A gazebo at the very top of the mountain, with a self-service shelf of wine and glasses for hikers.

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Gloaming. Dämmerung.

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Sunset. Sonnenuntergang.

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Travelogue XLVII: City, Moldau

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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.

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The Charles Bridge

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The cathedral inside the castle walls.

The cathedral inside the castle walls.

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.

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We all had the same idea….!

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I love the streetcars here.

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Jan Hus memorial.

Jan Hus memorial.

The astronomical clock on the town square, a minute from the house Kafka was born in.

The astronomical clock on the town square, a minute from the house Kafka was born in.

In front of the Charles Bridge.

In front of the Charles Bridge.

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.

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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.

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Fare thee well, Prague…

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The views down into the town were lovely.

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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!

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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 XXXVIII: Sonnenuntergang in Mainz

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19. April, 2015 It is officially spring in Germany, and not in the tentative way of a few weeks ago, half-way between warmth and cold, but full-on and confident and heady. I had forgotten what a beautiful color green is. The sunshine changes the entire feel of the city–people sit on the steps of the Staatstheater and eat ice-cream, the side-walk cafes are full, you can buy wine and drink it on the bank of the Rhine river. After six months of rain and cold, you can feel the lightness and the euphoria in the air.

I walked across the bridge to the Wiesbaden side of the Rhine the other night, to sit on the pier and read and watch the sun set over Mainz.

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The summer mixed drinks are back…

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Germans love putting locks on bridges.

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Travelogue XXXIV: Sonnenaufgang in Mainz

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March 24, 2015 I arrived back in Mainz at the crack of dawn this morning–street sweepers, crowds of pigeons at the train station, too early for church bells. I dragged my luggage down the cobblestone street and up two flights of stairs, waking up approximately the entire neighborhood in the process, threw it all in the apartment, and walked down to the Rhine for the sunrise.

It was wonderful being home, back in Vermont for the first time since last June. My family is amazing. I doted on the cats and lit fires in the fireplaces and ate my mother’s phenomenal cooking. I missed Germany, though, more than I miss Vermont when I am here.

I mean, there were actual swans on the effing Rhine River, and as the sun was rising all the bells in Wiesbaden started ringing. WHAT. 

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Guten Morgen, Mainz!

Also, spring came to Germany while I was gone. When I left Vermont yesterday morning, it was -3 degrees (-19 Celcius) without the windchill, hard-packed, dust-gray snow on the ground that hadn’t melted since it fell last November. Here in Mainz, the almond trees are blooming and there are daffodils everywhere. I went down to the water in a light jacket and scarf, and there was a real heat to the sun’s light. A pair of mourning doves have started making a nest above the gabled window across from mine.

As I walked back to my apartment, the bells in the Mainzer cathedral started ringing. It’s almost Easter. Sie feiern die Auferstehung des Herrn, denn sie sind selber auferstanden…

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I shall spy on Beauty as none has spied on it yet. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

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Travelogue XXIX: Und es war alles alles gut

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFebruary 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.

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Not Stolzenfels–another smaller castle halfway up the mountain.

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.

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Footpath: To the Castle.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe 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.

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Inside the chapel–stained glass and red velvet and a gold ceiling.

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Gargoyles on the chapel spires.

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On to the gardens…

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Travelogue XVII: Bonn and Beethoven

bonn_beethovenBeethoven statue on the town square.

2. November, 2014 So many cities here are defined by their connection to specific artists and thinkers in Germany’s past. Mainz, for instance, is the Johannes Gutenberg city–Bayreuth is Richard Wagner’s–Frankfurt (along with Weimar, of course) belongs to Goethe. One has the feeling that these figures are still very much present, as much a part of local rhythms as the marketplace, theater, Rathaus. There are streets and universities and drugstores named after them, statues on every square, museums and memorial associations that hold lectures and concert series in their honor. The past is exceedingly alive.

Bonn, where I was last weekend after the DAAD Conference in Cologne, is the city of Beethoven–he was born there, and spent the first 22 years of his life in the city before moving to Vienna. I was able to visit his house, which was converted to an archival museum in his honor over a century ago.

Surreal, to see Beethoven’s pianos arranged side-by-side, his reading glasses, his viola, the organ he played on as a boy. On his desk, there was a hand-written copy of a poem by Schiller, who had himself taken it from some ancient inscription in Egypt:

Ich Bin, was da ist
Ich Bin alles, was ist,
was war und was sein wird
Kein sterblicher Mensch
hat meinen Schleier
aufgehoben.

I am what is there.
I am everything that is
that was and that will be.
No mortal man
has lifted my veil.

Beethoven had written it out on a slip of paper and it sat on his desk for years. A sort of life-motto, according to the elderly gentleman who worked in the museum.

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Downstairs, there were newsreels from 1945, showing American soldiers entering the house, half-destroyed, and removing furniture and instruments covered in ashes. And there were pages from a guestbook dating back to 1890, containing the signatures and notes of the hundreds of famous men and women who had been there–Heinrich Böll, the Clintons, Isaac Stern, Indira Ghandi, Claudio Abbado, Joachim Gauck, the Dalai Llama. They were humbled, they wrote, and inspired, and grateful. Strange, to be sharing an experience with so many luminaries.

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So there it was: standing in the house of yet another giant.

Beethoven aside, Bonn is a fascinating city. It was the de facto capital of West Germany until the fall of the Berlin wall, and remained the seat of government until 1999. Today, over twenty years later, the main evidence of its former position is the excessively extensive public transportation system–S-Bahn, buses, and subways galore, and a huge Autobahn that cuts right through the middle of the city.

Even during Bonn’s time as capital, the city’s position did not go unquestioned: due to its relatively small size it was referred to, more or less jokingly, as the Bundeshauptstadt ohne nennenswertes Nachtleben (Federal capital without nightlife worthy of the name) or the Bundesdorf (Federal Village). To me, it didn’t seem to fit: after having visited Berlin, the current capital of Germany, it’s hard for me to imagine Germany’s government anywhere else. That restless and crazy city, as I have written about before, seems to me to be supremely suited for the capital of a country like Germany. Bonn just doesn’t make one think in the way that Berlin does.

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All the same, though, it’s a lovely place, especially at this time of year. It’s foliage season in Germany, which is automatically noteworthy to me, since I grew up in the one spot on earth known perhaps above all others for its autumns. Here, the colors are more muted than anything in Vermont, but still grand, especially in the vineyards along the Rhine. In Bonn, the yellow-gold-orange color scheme of many of the buildings complemented the leaves perfectly.

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Of course, though, on the way back to Mainz a fog bank rolled in, and it’s been damp, drippy, and freezing ever since. Welcome to winter in the Pfalz!

Travelogue XI: Rheinufer in Mainz

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 16. September, 2014 I’ve never been much of a water person, but living ten minutes from the bank of one of the most iconic rivers in the western world is pretty dang cool. Mainz is built at the confluence of the Main and Rhine rivers, and the banks of the Rhine are lined with parks, walking paths, and restaurants on the water. In the evenings when the weather is nice, it seems like half the city is out riding bikes, drinking wine, walking dogs, having picnics on the cement steps that go right down to the river’s edge.

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IMG_0566The high-rent district is on the other side of the street.

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IMG_0580And my own tiny picnic, with Bergkäse and fresh bread from the farmers’ market and spacey German literature.

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