Mr Karl-Heinrich Muller is now my favourite German real estate agent. Who else buys a NATO missile base and turns it into an art museum? Continue reading
Category Archives: Germany
The Sydney Morning Herald recently published my article about our epic ride around Lake Constance on Europe’s most popular cycling route, so now I can release the full story on the blog…
I’m regularly reminded that my wife is smarter than I am. She doesn’t need to do the reminding personally; usually it’s only too obvious. On this trip she’s riding an electric bike. Continue reading
If the Dutch Keukenhof is the most photographed place on the planet, Insel Mainau is the German equivalent.
Maybe what’s left of the Berlin Wall or Neuschwanstein Castle narrowly pip it as subjects for German holiday snaps, though even that is doubtful. Continue reading
Of course not everybody likes it. It’s disgusting, pornographic, offensive and historically inaccurate.
Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore the public art of sculptor Peter Lenk, when it’s given pride of place by the harbours of Konstanz, Meersburg and Uberlingen. Continue reading
What a difference a bit of sun makes! Nearly seventeen degrees today, so off came the Goretex jackets (though they were kept handy, just in case.)
It was a day for a leisurely 38km on the flat, with vineyards on one side and the Bodensee on the other. It was a day for a long lunch with a generous glass of local wine, without getting too schlossed. It was a day for browsing a couple of museums and a compulsory gloomy castle. And finally it was a day for sitting by the water with a Greek dinner (‘my cousin live in Brisbane’) with a Zeppelin buzzing lazily overhead. Continue reading
I’m sure I’m not the first tourist to suffer cathedral fatigue. I’ve heard about the ‘ABC’ of travel – ‘another bloody city – another bloody cathedral.’ I’ve never taken any interest in gothic architecture, so why should I suddenly find it fascinating just because I’m in Cologne?
But a tour of Cologne’s biggest attraction quickly becomes fascinating, because guide Franz’s stories help us reflect on the beliefs, endurance, ingenuity, and sometimes gullibility of those who constructed and used this cathedral through the centuries. Cologne Cathedral is not just about architecture, or Goths for that matter – it’s about people.
Secret church services were held on this site in the second or third centuries, when Christians were still persecuted, but things only really got going in 1164, when the bodies of the three Magi were transferred here from Milan. Pilgrims flocked to Cologne to see them, and still do.
It was St Helena who originally brought the Magi to Europe, along with other ‘holy’ relics she found conveniently lying around when she made her trip to the holy lands. She may not have been the first gullible tourist to be sold fake artefacts by local shysters, but Helena was Constantine the Great’s mum, so when she returned with her souvenirs, few dared challenge their authenticity.
The Magi were relabelled ‘Three Wise Kings’ to avoid any confusion with street magicians, and in 1248 the Cologners started work on a cathedral to accommodate them. The kings now lie in a gold, jewel-encrusted sarcophagus, behind bullet-proof glass, ‘to protect the jewels,’ says Franz, ‘rather than to preserve the relics.’
Once a year at Epiphany, the casket is opened and visitors can peer inside. The kings have been enhanced over the years. Crowns have been added to make the bones look more royal, but since they couldn’t be fitted on the recumbent skeletons, authorities removed the skulls for the coronation.
Scientific examination established that the bones belonged to gentlemen who died aged about 55, 35 and 15. No problem, said the cathedral authorities quickly; it’s perfectly possible that one of the kings could have been a boy.
Once the Kings were interred there, other customers wanted to RIP close to them, hoping it would somehow speed their passage to heaven. The honour was reserved for archbishops only, but in 1371 Duke Gottfried of Alsberg paid a fortune to get his place by the Kings. He was an unpopular inclusion, so his supine statue is covered with an iron cage to deter vandals.
Despite financial contributions from the likes of Gottfried, the money ran out in the sixteenth century, and the builders ran out soon afterwards. The ancient crane that had been used to haul stone to the tops of columns creaked to a halt, perhaps to the relief of the six convicts who’d had the unenviable job of operating it, running on a treadmill like human hamsters.
The crane stayed motionless for the next three hundred years. For centuries Cologne was known as the ‘city of the crane’. Then in 1824 more funds were found and work resumed on the twin towers. Thanks to the new technology, the spires and the cathedral façade were completed in a mere 38 years and the cathedral became the tallest building in the world.
The cathedral’s mosaic floor is also a 19th century addition. Prior to that, the floor was covered with the graves of noblemen. Unfortunately the stones covering them made imperfect seals, so recently buried bodies tended to emit an unpleasant odour, which according to Franz gave rise to the phrase ‘stinking rich’. I thought it could have given rise to the phrase ‘odour Cologne’, but I wisely kept that pun to myself. Until now.
Masochists can pay a small extra fee to climb the 509 steps up the south tower. Yes, of course I did it, and without oxygen too. The narrow spiral staircase is not recommended for the claustrophobic. It was a relief to pause halfway up to admire Fat Peter, the world’s biggest suspended bell, who is seldom rung and is naturally closed for Lent. Any more fun could be dangerous to us.
I used to know the Latin for, inter alia, ‘The Roman army marched over the hill and conquered the Gauls,’ but such topics seldom came up in conversation, so I forgot most of that language. Now I’ve just used my high school Latin to order a meal, and can proudly report that I passed the test, cum laude.
I’ve been dining in Zum Domstein restaurant in Trier, which claims to be Germany’s oldest town, and is particularly proud of its Roman heritage. The restaurant’s menu is taken from a 2000-year-old recipe book by Marcus Gavius Apicius, the Jamie Oliver of his day. Excellent fare was on offer, in Zum Domstein and in Trier itself, and I can now give you, pro bono, my assessments of both.
Aperitif: Mulsum – white wine with spices and a dash of honey, served chilled in a terracotta beaker. Verdict – interesting, sweet but not sickly.
My foretaste of Trier was a train ride from Frankfurt, heading northwest along the Rhine, brown and choppy on a winter’s day. Steep hills on both sides of the river were covered with vineyard terraces. Fairytale castles perched on every crag, and half-timbered villages with pink and white churches clung to the riverbanks, watching barges plying back and forth in front of their windows.
At Koblenz I changed trains and headed southwest down the Moselle through more vineyards. Verdict – as above; interesting, sweet but not sickly. The Rhine leg in particular must be even lovelier when the vines are in leaf.
Tisana – hearty barley soup, with a squeeze of lemon, garnished with dill.
Lucanicae cum fabiacie virides – warm sausages of pine nuts, accompanied by green beans in fish sauce.
Cardui – artichoke hearts, drizzled with creamy vinaigrette.
Verdict: Splendid variety here. Most promising.
Clutching a walking map provided by Trier Information Centre, I headed into the Hauptmarkt, as colourful and charming as any market square in Germany, and although shops and cafes were unashamedly modern, the McDonalds and Subway signs were restrained enough not to spoil the appeal.
A 16th century statue of St Peter stared down at us from a tall fountain, and peeping over the buildings were the towers of neighbouring churches. The spire of St Gangolf’s was cute enough to remind me of the Disney logo, but it can hardly be blamed for that. The tower was built in the 16th century, before the invention of kitsch. My guidebook offered me ad hoc viewings of palaces, cathedrals, gardens and a toy museum. Verdict – ditto; splendid variety here, very promising.
Mensa Prima (first course) – Perna cum caricis – ham slices with a sweet brown sauce of figs, flavoured with myrtle leaf.
Verdict – a little tough and dry in parts, but with a fascinating flavour.
The main dish for visitors to Trier is Roman history. Chartered by Caesar Augustus in 16BC, Trier came of age in 393 anno domini, when Emperor Constantine made the town his HQ. He built Trier to a size and grandeur rivalling Rome’s and erected UNESCO World Heritage Sites all over the place.
The Rheinische Landesmuseum (Municipal Museum) gave me a brief English rundown of the town’s history and displayed the statuary, mosaic tiles, household paraphernalia et cetera, that apparently still get unearthed whenever anyone sticks a spade into Trier. Thousands of coins have been retrieved from the Moselle mud under the Roman Bridge, since it was the custom to throw a coin into the river when leaving town.
On the walls in the massive Konstantin Basilika, the largest surviving single room from the ancient world, I read the curriculum vitae of Constantine the Great. Depending on your interpretation, he was either the saint who spread Christianity through Europe, or a cynical opportunist, pragmatically tolerating a new religion in order to bring harmony to his empire.
Under Constantine, Trier became a city of over 40,000 people, with an amphitheatre seating 25,000, and huge bathhouses for washing gladiators and crowds after the fun. The ruins are open to the public and in the warmer months, Roman shows, in German, are staged in the amphitheatre.
Verdict: Yes, the history is fascinating and important, but some of the presentation is a little tough and dry.
Mensa secunda (second course)
Patina de piris –soufflé of pears, topped with custard and peppercorns.
Verdict: Surprising and spicy.
For dessert, Trier had an unexpected treat for me. Karl Marx was born in the Bruckenstrasse in 1818, and lived in Trier until he was seventeen. The old house is now a museum. In eras when Marx was persona non grata, memorabilia from his life here were destroyed, so there’s nothing to show how the family lived. However, my audio guide gave a detailed account of Marx’s life, work and influence. I shared my visit with a group of Chinese gentlemen, queuing to take photos of each other next to the celebrated bust. Verdict: See ‘patina de piris’ above.
Summary: Those Romans must certainly have tasted the dolce vita, and a visit to Trier is highly recommended. Do it soon. Carpe diem!
GETTING THERE: The fast ICE train from Frankfurt to Trier costs EUR50 for a reserved second-class seat on the three-hour trip via Koblenz.
STAYING THERE: Hotel-Restaurant Constantin has single rooms from EUR44 per night http://www.hotel-constantin.de
EATING THERE: Restaurant Zum Domstein is in the Hauptmarkt. http://www.domstein.de
FURTHER INFORMATION: Walking tour map of Trier costs EUR2.90 at the visitor information centre. Combined entry to the Porta Nigra, amphitheatre and baths is EUR6.20. Rheinische Landesmuseum entry is EUR5. Karl Marx Haus entry costs EUR3. See also http://www.trier.de
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney