Friday, 24 June 2016

To Europe with love

Because I'm bloody gutted and angry and heartbroken that today my right and privilege to be European has been taken away from me ...

I'm compelled to post on a little city in Europe's heart, and close to its capital.

The fact that it's called Ghent, and also Gent, and Gand, depending on whether you are speaking English or Dutch/Flemish or German or French expresses to me perfectly the whole point and beauty of the European Union - that it is possible to maintain our uniqueness while appreciating and benefiting from our combined value.

As everywhere in Belgium there's no shortage of high-end fine dining here

Vrijmoed Restaurant, Gent

but there's just as much concern with the quality of ordinary, everyday food 

Belgian beer and frites

Belgian waffles, of course

Sole with garnaaltjes (crevettes), the small grey shrimps from the North Sea, with ... frites, obviously

And less traditionally, the new vegan venture of Alain Coumont, founder of the world-wide Le Pain Quotidien - one of my most favourite places in London to stop in for a bowl of decent coffee and good Belgian bread and patisserie.  

It's called Le Botaniste, and the combination of old apothecary interior and delicious organic vegan food has been replicated in a second opening in New York recently. (Will he want to bring it to London now?)

I'm sorry, Europe, that we've forgotten the lessons of history and fractured our union

forested suburb of Gent

that we've allowed a discourse of 'us versus them' to blind us to the fact that we can celebrate what's uniquely ours while enjoying our differences

that mistrust and fear and stupid politicking have prevailed over solidarity and sharing of  resources and languages and culture.

the beach at Ostend

But most of all I'm sorry that we've diminished ourselves.

Sunday, 21 February 2016


Bayreuth will forever be associated with Wagner. But the driving force behind the beauty and cultural reputation of this town was actually a pretty extraordinary woman who lived a century before him

 Markgräfliches Opera House, Bayreuth. 

... the Margravine (Marquess) Wilhelmine, daughter of the King of Prussia, who survived appalling physical abuse as a child to become a composer, writer and painter of apparently enormous energy. She also transformed Bayreuth from an ordinary town to an intellectual and cultural centre of Germany, founding a university, constructing buildings and rebuilding its opera house (above), all before dying at only 49.

The architecture, palaces and parks of Bayreuth are mostly Wilhelmine's design, and even on a grey winter's day the place is undeniably impressive.

Wilhelmine's Neues Schloss, front and back views above and below.

The Hofgarten next to the palace is a peaceful place of ordered trees and lakes.

It was Wilhelmine's opera house, the Markgräfliche Opernhaus (in the first photograph), all rococo red, gold and blue with frescoed ceilings, that she commissioned the Italian architects of her day to construct, that drew Wagner to Bayreuth. He had his sights set on it as the most impressive venue in Germany to stage his work.

As it turned out, Wagner decided that the 500 seat interior was too small for his operatic creations, so he built his own Festspielhaus on the edge of town which 100 plus years later is the centre of the annual summer festival.

And he built his own house, Wahnfried, peace from madness or delusions, on the edge of the wooded Hofgarten ...

a grand neoclassical house in golden coloured stone at the end of a line of trees, where he and his wife Cosima, Franz Liszt's daughter, lived until they died and were buried in the garden.

A bust of mad king Ludwig graces the entrance - appropriately enough, since Ludwig bankrolled Wagner through many financial crises ...

Beside the house is the Richard Wagner Museum, which had only just reopened after a long renovation when I was there.

No need to be a Wagner fan to appreciate this fantastically well designed and presented museum built in contemporary style with interactive scores and multimedia displays

Bayreuth, Germany, November 2015

Monday, 25 January 2016

Getting elegiac about Marienbad

No doubt that the prize for the most interesting place I visited in 2015 goes to the town of Mariánské Lázně (just hearing the name pronounced in a gravelly eastern European accent gives me the goosebumps) ...

... otherwise known by its German name of Marienbad ... in the Czech Republic.

Everything about this place, especially out of season and semi-deserted in November, has a palpable sense of nostalgia, past glory and faded beauty.

Almost all its buildings date to the town's golden era in the 19th century when Czech spas were for a while the salons of Europe and this was the place to be seen: regulars were Tsar Nicholas of Russia, England's King Edward VII and Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, besides Goethe, Kafka, Chopin, Mahler, Dvořák, Wagner and Freud, who all came to take the curative waters of the natural carbon dioxide springs in the surroundings of the green mountains of west Bohemia.

 The Krizovy Pramen, site of one of the springs

Here in the colonnade spa-goers would go to promenade and be seen 

Maxim Gorky colonnade, 19thC image (image source

The Colonnade today, with Singing Fountains (in the summer every 2 hours the fountains dance to a choreography of musical compositions)

or wander in the parks surrounded by stately pavilions and mansions, faded and gently peeling now from neglect.

Goethe is celebrated here too - in part for his late-life love obsession with the 17-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow who he met here in Marienbad in his seventies. Her mother sensibly intervened, putting an end to his thoughts of marriage, and the spurned Goethe retreated inspired to write some of his best love poetry: the Marienbad Elegy.

A statue remains in the park to commemorate Goethe and Ulrike

Another abrupt ending came with the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, when the country became sealed off from most foreign visitors. It was only after 1989 and its exit from the soviet bloc that big efforts were made to restore the town as a spa resort with a unique history.

Most visitors when I was there seemed to be from eastern Europe or Russia. And I discovered quickly that English gets you nowhere. For local people, besides Russian, the second language or lingua franca with visitors is German. I had to stretch my very poor German skills very far.

The yellow-painted spa hotels, in grand style, are all at the top end of town, alongside a patchwork of parks with statues, lakes and fountains, and bordering a mass of pine forests behind.

At the Nové Lázňe spa the atmosphere was clinical and utilitarian, certainly more soviet-bloc than western pamper-style. I was booked for an alarming-sounding 'gas bath' as part of a room deal - which turned out to involve no water, just dry CO2 from one of the local springs. A sturdy woman in clinical whites instructed me in German to remove my clothes and step into what looked like an oversized bin-bag (or body bag, as my over-active imagination decided). I then lay on a bed while she tied the bag tightly around my ribs, then poked a thin pipe into it which pumped gas into the bag until it blew up around me.  Alarm turned to mild hysterics when she left me in the room like an inflated humpty dumpty, unable to move.

Much more relaxing was a leisurely float in the Roman baths. I also had one of the most spartan and functional but seriously effective massages of my life. And later on the serious-looking men and women I'd seen filing in and out of clinical treatment rooms in their white dressing gowns turned up in the cavernous dining room piling their plates with potato dumplings and apfelstrudel. So all round a pretty memorable spa experience. 

Marienbad / Mariánské Lázně, Czech Republic, November 2015

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