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 LXIII: Hamburg III: Harbor City

If it looks freezing and stormy, that's because it was.

If it looks freezing and stormy, that’s because it was.

October 3, 2015 Hamburg is Germany’s harbor city, on the confluence of the Elbe, Alster, and Bille rivers and some 60 miles from the North Sea. The official opening of the harbor took place on May 7, 1189, and it is today among the twenty largest in the world. The city lives and breaths sea trade.

On my first morning, I immediately made my way down to the edge of the water, and realized that just standing on a pier and trying to figure out what I was looking at wasn’t enough.

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Warehouses and canals in the Speicherstadt, literally “Warehouse City.” In the late 19th century and continuing until very recently, the quarter was Hamburg’s bustling import and export hub, where goods were unloaded and into the brick storehouses right on the edge of the water.

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Today, it’s a rather quiet and peaceful place, full of offices and museums.

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And so I found myself on a tiny wooden boat in the middle of the Hamburger harbor on a freezing, windy, misty morning in late September.

Our boat had long benches and, in typical non-American style, no life-jackets or any sort of safety guidelines. We were merely told before boarding to hold on tight, “and if you are going to puke, do it downwind!” Our pilot was an old crotchety Hamburger, who spent most of the time smoking cigarettes and/or insulting the single passenger from Bavaria. As it turned out, though, he knew the harbor inside and out. His love of the place was evident. This had been his world for his entire life, and he was dang proud of it.

Despite the cold and the rather-large waves, I was fascinated. There was something intensely theatrical about all of it–these massive bodies entering and exiting before a backdrop of fog and storm-clouds and early morning light. The silent swing of a crane arm, the lines of wake behind the ferries–it was balletic, almost, a dance in slow motion. The industrial and utilitarian became aesthetic. And the way our guide described the twists and turns of harbor life, he may as well have been describing a work of art.

Cutting-edge new architecture in the so-called Harbor City. Apparently the German Schlager-singer Helene Fischer has an apartment there. "With her boy-toy," as the pilot informed us.

Cutting-edge new architecture in the so-called Harbor City. “It looks like a Döner-skewer,” said our pilot helpfully. Apparently the German Schlager-singer Helene Fischer  (“and her boy-toy!”) have an apartment there. 

The harbor isn't just for industrial ships--here, an enormous cruise boat at the dock.

The harbor isn’t just for industrial ships–here, an enormous luxury cruise boat at the dock.

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The introduction of  containers in the 1960s revolutionized the shipping industry. Before that, things looked pretty much as they did 1,000 years ago--wooden barrels and burlap sacks.

The introduction of containers in the 1960s revolutionized the shipping industry. Before that, things looked pretty much as they did 1,000 years ago–wooden barrels and burlap sacks.

A massive ship from Hong Kong being unloaded after the 57-day voyage to Germany.

A massive ship from Hong Kong being unloaded after the 57-day voyage to Germany.

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A tour-boat next to one of the container ships. Yep. Hold on tight. "He's driving too close!" said our pilot. "If one of those containers should fall right now, that's the end of the touring business in the Hamburger Harbor!!"

A tour-boat next to one of the container ships. Yep. Hold on tight. “He’s driving too close!” said our pilot. “If one of those containers should fall right now, you can kiss the touring business in the Hamburger Harbor goodbye!!”

All container ships are required to be dry-docked once every five years.

All container ships are required to be dry-docked once every five years.

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A view of the harbor from the tower of St. Michaelis Church in downtown Hamburg.

A view of the harbor from the tower of St. Michaelis Church in downtown Hamburg.

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 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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Travelogue V: Würzburg Alte Mainbrücke

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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.

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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.

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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.

IMG_0255The river is the Main, here rather sleepy and pleasant. In September, I’ll be moving to the city of Mainz, where it dumps into the Rhein.

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Also there is hazelnut Gelato, jussayin’.