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

Tuesday 19 January 2016

Weimar reflections

I'm with Alain de Botton when he says that "we're missing a trick always wanting destinations [on our travels] to be 'lovely'; it narrows where we go to an astonishing and unhelpful degree".

Visiting Weimar recently brought this point home to me - not because it is unlovely (actually it has loads of physical beauty, set in densely forested hills of eastern Bavaria), but because of the deeply uncomfortable ways in which culture and history collide here.

Goethe and Schiller outside the National Theatre

Weimar is in many ways Germany's cultural heart and pride: it's been home to many of its greatest writers, musicians and artistic movements; the place where Luther (in nearby Wartburg castle) translated the bible and sparked the Reformation.

Goethe and Schiller both lived and wrote here, as did Nietszche. 
Liszt, Wagner, Strauss, Bach and Carl Maria von Weber lived, composed and performed here. Artists from Cranach to Kandinsky painted in Weimar, and Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus school here. A pretty exceptional cultural repository then.

Schiller's home

The Anna Amalia library, with one of the biggest collections of German literature

The literary connections are heavily exploited in kaufhauser, delis and rooftop quotes

The town is small and lovely, a world heritage site - mostly due to the fact that it escaped major destruction in the war and afterwards became a kind of showcase of cultural heritage for the DDR, located deep in East Germany. 

It's full of outdoor cafés, bookshops, street music

 In Ilm park we walked across to Goethe's garden house, his retreat a short walk from his main home in the town, where he wrote and received his mistresses.

Goethe's secluded gartenhaus in the distance between trees

 Reflections in the Ilm river

An uglier, disturbing side of the place is very much here to be seen too, though. Weimar has been the site of some of some of Germany's most painful history. As the birthplace of the Weimar Republic, Hitler understood its symbolic value and made it a central meeting place for his party.

Here on the Marktplatz, the main town square ...

is the famous Elephant Hotel where Hitler commandeered mass rallies in the square from this balcony (below, designed for the purpose by his architect Hermann Giesler who he had rebuild the hotel) and plotted the Third Reich from the Keller in the basement.

The Elephant itself has a pretty extraordinary history, like the town itself, with a dizzying guest-list that includes (in random order) Goethe, Schiller, Tolstoy, Gunther Grass, Bach, Liszt, Schumann, Wagner, Mendelssohn,  Pink Floyd, Kandinsky, Klee, Walter Gropius, Hitler and Putin! After Thomas Mann stayed here he immortalised it as the setting for Lotte in Weimar. The interiors are fabulous examples of Art Deco and Bauhaus, with a huge collection of modern art.

And then, just a short drive outside of the town in jarringly-incongruent surroundings of beautiful woods (buchwald means beech forest), there is Buchenwald, concentration camp and slave labour site where 43,000 died. 

The sights and history offered inside (and there is no shying away from the facts) are literally unspeakable, so I leave with just a picture taken as we drove out, of the remains of the railway stop, the end of the line for trains.

Weimar, Germany, November 2015

Thursday 14 January 2016

Taking the waters in Baden Baden

I've always loved the sound of that phrase, evoking 19th century European spa/casino glamour (and somehow mixed up in my mind with a young, sexy Glenda Jackson and Helmut Berger in the Romantic Englishwoman). But I never imagined I would write those words from personal experience - until I visited Baden-Baden in autumn last year.

It can be disappointing seeing a place you have only vague, glamourised associations with, but Baden-Baden fully lived up to expectations for me. In the foothills of the Black Forest (the Schwarzwaldhochstrasse, the scenic route through the Schwarzwald from Baden-Baden to Freudenstadt begins here), this is a seriously and solidly wealthy, immaculate town with a timeless feel.

I walked around in the early evening,  overwhelmed by the art nouveau villas, colonnades, grand casinos and chic boutiques

all threaded through by the gentle Oos river, its banks lined with grandiose hotels and private mansions

and the gardens of the Lichtentaler Allee park and arboretum

where Richard Meier's stunning modern design of the Frieder Burda museum (containing one of the best modern art collections in Europe) is a complete contrast but fits perfectly into the park surroundings.

the Frieder Burda Museum of modern art, Lichtentaler Allee

But the main attraction is obviously the baden, the ancient baths built by the Romans on hot mineral springs, where Dostoyevsky lost his shirt at the casino and wrote The Gambler, where Berlioz found relief from his irritable bowel syndrome by taking the waters, along with Wagner, Offenbach, Gounod and Brahms. Mark Twain swore he left his rheumatism behind here, and even David Hockney claimed 'I can go in on my knees and come away dancing'.

And yes, I took the waters - not in the palatial Friederichsbad where Glenda and Helmut lazed beside the Roman pool, but in the equally impressive Caracalla Therme where the waters flow from inside to the open air.

Friedrichsbad left, Caracalla Therme right. Photo source:

Though I have no photos to prove it. Germans take their spas very seriously (state-subsidised spa treatments are a mainstay of the health system), though in a reassuringly pragmatic and down to earth way (nudity being a great leveller) - but photographing the experience would be a serious no-no. Instead, my last shot before nightfall, after café tables had been deserted for warmer interiors.

Baden-Baden, Germany, September 2015

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