My Tour Guide
Our trip has drawn to a close but, as usual, I can’t end without a final nod to my intrepid companion and chief motivator, the person who forces me off the couch and into the world.
Stay well my friends.
We’ve been on a Museum Binge. We happened to buy a couple Museumkarts and have been drunk on art ever since. The Museumkart gives you access to most of the best museums in the Netherlands and is the deal of a lifetime. You don’t even have to wait in the ticket line. In an attempt to squeeze every last drop of goodness out of the card we have attacked this part of Holland with a vengeance and been to 14 museums so far. Here’s just a couple.
Dutch Art 101
In this neck of the woods you are going to see lots of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, a period in Dutch history generally spanning the 17th century that rang in the new Dutch Republic and helped make it the most prosperous nation in Europe. As you can imagine we have managed to see a whole lot of great paintings, but I won’t bore you with all that. Describing images to people is like telling them about your dreams, you really had to be there. I think most people are somewhat familiar with Dutch paintings anyway. If you’ve seen a cigar box, you can probably imagine a Rembrandt. I’ll just talk about two of the big dogs and try to keep it short.
“The Night Watch” is a 1642 oil painting by Rembrandt that hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
To better understand the significance of this Dutch Masterpiece in contemporary terms lets first discuss that iconic TV show “Law & Order”, the longest-running hour-long primetime TV series in history. Created by Dick Wolf, this show ran for 20 seasons and spawned an entire Law & Order franchise. One of the chief successes of the show was it’s distinctive look. This was, in part, achieved by a technique brand new for TV, the “Walk & Talk”. This is done by using a steady cam and backing through the set as the main characters walk down hallways and go room to room discussing their next move. This gets the actors out from behind those boring old desks, propels the story forward by making it look like talking is actually doing something and it keeps the viewer actively engaged. This is so much a part of the show that it’s even in the intro. I thought it was so original until I finally realized this is exactly what Rembrandt did in 1642. Until then these group portraits of prominent citizens and military leaders were pretty staid affairs with everyone lined up like bowling pins or sitting around a table trying to figure out what to do with their hands. In this enormous painting, 142.9″ × 172″ , Rembrandt got them up off their considerable duffs and turned them into giant men of action who just might step right out the painting and do what needs to be done.
In the process Rembrandt cemented his place in art and is generally considered the greatest painter in Dutch history.
“The Young Bull “ is a 1647 oil painting by Paulus Potter that hangs in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
At 92.7” x 133”, this huge painting approaches life-size, allowing space for very detailed realism, including flies, frogs and cow pies, a fact that was much criticized originally. But fortunes changed and by the 18th and 19th centuries the painting had gained much traction and was highly admired. Today it is considered one the Dutch Golden Age’s greatest paintings. Potter was only 22 when he completed this work and died of tuberculosis at the age of 28 having succeeded in producing about 100 paintings by working continuously.
Besides the staggering craftsmanship, what makes this painting so unusual is the sheer scale. Up until then extremely large paintings were reserved for the rich, the royal and the Gods. This is the first time that a farm animal has been afforded such reverence. The life size image forces us to look into the Bull’s penetrating gaze and it becomes almost difficult to perceive it as anything but a sentient being. This painting with its almost heroic treatment of an animal alters our perception of the Bull’s place in the universe and, by extension, our own. Whether he meant to or not Potter moved the art world in fundamental ways and by the 19th century this monumental treatment of virtually the entire animal kingdom would become somewhat commonplace.
Still I find the whole notion that a mere 22 year old, with some paint and a few brushes, has that kind of power utterly remarkable.
Interesting But Useless Facts #289 & #290:
As large as “the Nightwatch” is, 20% was cut off the left hand side in 1715 to make the painting fit its new position at the Amsterdam town hall.
“The Young Bull” was at least 20% smaller when first painted. Potter added extra strips of canvas on both sides and at the top of his original composition, which just included the bull itself.
I’ve wandered through Scandinavia like a bit player in the Norse Sagas, those timeless myths filled with blood, battles and debauchery. Only my voyage consists of beer, buses and bargain basements. Maybe not as dangerous but just as exhausting. At this point in the trip I’m downright tuckered out. I have been trudging around after Wendi as she’s pillaged her way through Iceland, Norway and Sweden for weeks. I’m always a couple steps slow and a few beats behind like a bass player that can’t catch up to the rest of the band. It seems she is always looking back at me with that “will you hurry up” look on her face.
And hats! What’s with the hats? Every silly hat from Reykjavik to Stockholm has magically ended up on her head, coupled with a goofy grin. She doesn’t want to bring them home so, I suppose, that’s good.
Regardless of her proclivity for wacky chapeaus, Wendi’s enthusiasm is undeniable. She is clearly a woman on the move.
She does have quiet moments of self reflection, albeit few and far between and usually after extensive shopping or while jet lagged.
She did take time for a little work.
That’s all for now.
This church is located at Borgund in Lærdal beside the Sognefjord and is the world’s best preserved stave church.
These medieval wooden Christian church buildings were once common in north-western Europe. It is believed, that at one point, there were between 750 and 1000 stave churches in Norway. Today there are only 28 remaining. In the Middle Ages, when people in Europe were building great cathedrals in stone, Norway developed similar construction techniques with timber. Norway had a very long tradition of wood construction for buildings, art and the production of ships. The roof structure is essentially an inverted ship hull.
Come On In
The decoration of stave churches is a fascinating blend of Christianity and Viking era symbols with several runic inscriptions on the church walls and the distinctive “Dragon’s Heads”, similar to those found on Viking ships, jutting out from the gable peaks. The main doorway has vine-scrolls on the pilasters and serpents and dragons on the side panels and lintel.
The timbers used to construct this church were felled in the year 1180. There are two factors that have accounted for the church’s longevity, it is constructed entirely on a stone foundation so that none of the wood touches the ground and also the timbers were “seasoned on the root” which draws the tar to the surface thereby preserving the wood beneath.
More Useless But Interesting Facts
St. Andrew’s Cross:
The diagonal cross-braces are named after St. Andrew who was crucified on a diagonal cross, supposedly at his own request, as he deemed himself unworthy to be crucified on the same type of cross as Jesus had been. Who knows? But one thing is clear, the whole idea captured people’s imagination. The symbol has been used on the flags of Scotland, England, Grenada, Jersey, Logrono, Vitoria, Amsterdam, Breda, Potchefstroom, Kateijk, Valdivia, Tenerife, Galicia, Jamaica, Burgundy, the Imperial Russian Navy, the state flags of Florida and Alabama, as well as, the former Indian princely states of Khairpur, Rajkot, and Jaora, just to name a few. And of course, there is the much debated Confederate flag. Although the original designer, Willian Porcher Miles, insisted he changed it from an upright cross to a saltire so that it would be more a heraldic device then a religious symbol.
The first stop on our swing through southern Bavaria was Munich. It’s a big place, Germany’s third largest city, with a population of around 1.5 million. Although it’s an old city, 1158, it feels very young and is presently undergoing a huge facelift with new construction and restoration everywhere. Munich may be one of the most prosperous and fastest growing cities in Germany but it’s not all business, people are having a pretty good time here.
Marienplatz is the central plaza in the old town and like most everything in central Munich it is overfowing with tourists.
Probably the largest tourist attraction in Munich is the Glockenspiel located on the Rathaus in Marienplatz. Every day at 12 p.m. and 5 p.m in the summer mass crowds of tourists and locals fill the plaza to watch this low-tech marvel chime and re-enact two stories from the 16th century. Consisting of 43 bells and 32 life-sized figures, the whole show lasts somewhere between 12 and 15 minutes. At the end of the show, a very small golden rooster at the top of the Glockenspiel chirps quietly three times, marking the end of the spectacle.
Despite being many hundreds of kilometres from the nearest ocean, Munich has a reputation as a surfing hotspot, offering one of Europe’s best waves. The Bavarian capital is the birthplace of river surfing and has been the center of surfboard riding on a stationary wave since the early 70s. Up to 100 surfers daily hit the Eisbach wave in the city’s Englischer Garten. Munich has produced the best river surfers and has around 1,000 active surfers, while 10,000 people have tried it at some point. An annual surfing competition is held on the standing wave.
Hans der Kunst
Hans der Kunst was constructed from 1933 to 1937 as the Third Reich’s first monumental structure of Nazi architecture and as Nazi propaganda. The museum was opened on July,18 1937 as a showcase for what the Third Reich regarded as Germany’s finest art. The building’s original purpose can still be seen in such guises as the swastika-motif mosaics in the ceiling panels of its front portico.
We were there to see a great exhibition called “Mise en scene” by American photographer and filmmaker Stan Douglas.
The Lenbachhaus is a great museum with outstanding art and a terrific cafe. It was built as a Florentine-style villa for the painter Franz von Lenbach between 1887 and 1891. The building has been remodeled, modernized and expanded many times over the years but some of the rooms of the villa still have kept their original design.
If money is what we use to keep score then Gerhard Richter is an MVP. He held the auction record price for a painting by a living artist at $37.1 million until last November when the Balloon Dog (Orange) by Jeff Koons sold for $58.4 million at Christie’s, and knocked Richter off his perch. The museum has 8 large scale Richter abstracts and up close, they are amazing.
Further south near the Austrian border we stopped by three of Mad King Ludwigs most popular castles.
King Lugwig of Bavaria was an enigma. Even before he died, the king was already somewhat of a legend. He once told his governess, “I want to remain an eternal mystery to myself and others”. With his palaces the king built an ideal fantasy world and refuge from reality. He conducted no matters of state and strangers were barred from his palaces during his lifetime. Called the Moon King, he stayed up all night reading alone and slept during the day. Although engaged twice, Ludwig never married or took a mistress. His hugely expensive and eccentric interpretation of his role as king was ultimately his downfall. From 1885 foreign banks threatened to seize his property. The government viewed Ludwig’s actions as irrational, had him declared insane and deposed him in 1886. The very next day both he and his psychiatrist died under mysterious circumstances at Lake Starnberg. The shy dreamer palaces have been visited by over 60 million people since his death. Due to tourist revenue over the past thirty years these properties are now firmly in the black. It seems that tales of craziness, murder, deception and an obscene amount of money will work every time.
Construction was completed on Ludwig’s Schloss Linderhof in 1878. It is the smallest of the three palaces built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria and the only one which he lived to see completed. We took the tour and enjoyed every minute.
Further south to Reutte, Austria we passed by Plansee, one of the lovelest lakes anywhere.
Spent the night at the Kroll Gasthof – Hotel in Wangle, Austria. A family institution since 1731.
We finished the whole thing off on the top of the Höfener Alpe with apfelstrudel and a small dollop of whipped cream!
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The Great, the SoSo and the Run Like Hell
Before we got to Vienna we purchased lots of books about the city and it’s many attractions. Between these books and the many articles we’re read there have been tons of Top 10 lists. I thought it might be fun, for me at least, to review our most memorable 10. By way of a disclaimer I should point out that there probably isn’t anybody in the world that would agree with me. Even my wife thinks I’m full of malarkey.
The Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) does an annual Liveabilty Survey. With it’s low crime rate, great transportation system, sophisticated culture and architecture, Vienna is considered the second most livable city in the world. A little crowded at times but still nonthreatening, comfortable and easy to get around, it’s packed with great things to see. We loved it.
Completed in 1723 as a summer residence for Prince Eugen of Savoy, this was the most ambitious building project ever undertaking by a private individual. It is now home to some of Austria’s greatest artistic treasures. We are here for the Secessionist Art and this is Ground Zero for that particularly Viennese art movement. This is the home of Gustav Klimt’s most celebrated work, “the Kiss”, and art lovers make pilgrimages here like they do to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Masterpieces by all the great Secessionist artists like Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Richard Gerstl and many more are on display, as well as all the great Impressionist. If you are an art lover this place needs to be on your bucket list.
The Secession Building
This large, white cubic Secessionist building was opened in 1897 to mixed reviewed. Critics called it everything from a warehouse to a public restroom. The quality of the art it contained was never in question, most of which was looted in World War II. The building was finally restored in the 70’s and today is considered one of the finest examples of the Secessionist period. I loved the building, I only wished there was more art. The basement has a room specifically designed to house the completely restored 110’ long fresco of Gustav Klimt’s “Ode To Joy”. With the exception of this masterpiece and a few sparse and pathetic contemporary pieces on the first floor the building was devoid of art, but perhaps one masterpiece and an outstanding building, is enough.
The Hofburg Palace
Have you ever been to Disney World on a holiday weekend? Paid a fortune to get in and then stood shoulder to shoulder in a hoard of humanity barely able to move. Now move the whole thing into an IKEA style rat maze. Replace all the products with a never ending row of glass cases filled with old silver, glassware and plates that you can’t get close enough to see. Then join an endless procession through a series of period rooms equipped with dress displays, dioramas and cut out figures as you try deperately to find the exit. Escape is futile.
If you want you avoid this, save your money and stay outside. The buildings, grounds and setting are magnificent.
These Spanish horses were brought to Austria by Emperor Maximilian II in 1562. Encouraged by their beauty, intelligence and stamina the Hofburg’s Spanish Riding School was established in 1572. In the summer the Riding School does training from 10 to 12 daily in an old arena next to the stables.
Wendi is a Montana girl and as such has an affinity for horses and insisted that we attend so she could see these beautiful animals in action. We stood in a long line at 8:45 am and waited patiently to fork over our 16 Euros each to watch this sold out event. The pictures advertising the event showed peppy horses leaping and prancing and running and rearing back on their haunches and marching in formation. We braced ourselves for the excitement.
All I can say is that between the 1 ¼ hours in line, the two hour “show” and the ¾ hours in the cheap café, there are 4 hours of my life that I will never get back.
There was no show and as far as I could tell and no training unless, of course, watching various horses and riders slowly wandering aimlessly around the arena for 2 hours can be called a show. At least 2/3 of the audience had fled within 45 minutes.
Sure I’m a little cynical, but I didn’t need them to bring out the barrels and the clowns or do any calf roping, just a little something that resembled the advertising would have been nice.
All the pictures you see were shot stealthily as young attendants circled through the crowd informing everyone that picture taking was strictly “verboten”. I can understand why. You would hate to have unauthorized images of this breathtaking extravaganza circulating on the internet. I did a little quick math based on seating capacity and ticket prices and won’t be surprised if this little scam netted over 3 million Euros a year.
On a positive note, the arena was very old and interesting.
Considered Austria’s finest Gothic edifice, “Steffl” suffered severe damage from WWII bombing. It’s rebuilding was a symbol for hope for the country. If you like this sort of thing, it’s an A+.
Naschmarkt is the city’s largest market. The restaurant and food sections are opened everyday, but on Saturday’s local farmers arrive with their produce and a flea market sets up with hundreds of stalls. Needless to say, Wendi was, once again in heaven.
Time For Dessert
Oh yea, we love this stuff. You can’t come to Vienna without trying its most famous cake, the Sachertorte. Franz Sacher is said to have invented this chocolate cake, apricot jam and chocolate frosting concoction in 1832. We tried it twice to be sure, but unfortunately found it a little dry.
But oh, the equally celebrated Apfelstrudel with Whipped Cream was to die for. With a cup of good coffee, this is the stuff dreams are made of.
Located inside the courtyard of the Museumsquartier complex, this limestone cube is one of our favorite museums in the world. We were so intrigued that we spent two days at the Leopold just so we wouldn’t miss a thing. This outstanding building hosts a magnificent collection of Austrian art from the 1870s to the 1950s, including the world’s largest collection of Egon Schiele and a huge group of Gustav Klimt paintings. It is also surrounded by a courtyard filled with great restaurants. How can you go wrong?
Artists Tales of Sex, Betrayal and Untimely Death
In 1911, Schiele met the seventeen-year-old Walburga (Wally) Neuzil. Schiele and Wally wanted to escape what they perceived as a claustrophobic Vienna. They went to the small town of Krumau, the birthplace of Schiele’s mother. Despite Schiele’s family connections in Krumau, he and his lover were driven out of the town by the residents, who strongly disapproved of their lifestyle, including his alleged employment of the town’s teenage girls as models. They moved to Neulengbach where Schiele’s studio became a gathering place for the town’s delinquent children. The artist’s way of life aroused much animosity among the town’s inhabitants, and in April 1912 he was arrested for seducing a young girl below the age of consent.
When they came to his studio to place him under arrest, the police seized more than a hundred drawings which they considered pornographic. Schiele was imprisoned while awaiting his trial. When his case was brought before a judge, the charges of seduction and abduction were dropped, but the artist was found guilty of exhibiting erotic drawings in a place accessible to children. In court, the judge burned one of the offending drawings over a candle flame. The twenty-one days he had already spent in custody were taken into account, and he was sentenced to only three days’ imprisonment. While in prison, Schiele created a series of 12 paintings depicting the difficulties and discomfort of being locked in a jail cell.
In 1914, Schiele glimpsed Edith Harms, who lived with her parents across the street from his studio in Vienna. Schiele chose to marry the more socially acceptable Edith, but had apparently expected to maintain a relationship with Wally. However, when he explained the situation to Wally, she left him immediately and never saw him again. Despite some opposition from the Harms family, Schiele and Edith were married on June 17, 1915, the anniversary of the wedding of Schiele’s parents.
In the autumn of 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic that claimed more than 20,000,000 lives in Europe reached Vienna. Edith, who was six months pregnant, succumbed to the disease on 28 October. Schiele died only three days after his wife. He was 28 years old. During the three days between their deaths, Schiele drew a few sketches of Edith; these were his last works.
In 1906 the 22 year old Richard Gerstl, then an Academy student, met composer Arnold Schonberg and asked him to sit for a portrait. Gerstl admired the older composer and viewed him as somewhat of a father figure. During this time the young Gertl met Schonberg’s wife Mathilde and began to paint portraits of her as well. During the summer of 1907 the relationship developed into love. Schonberg suspected the liaison and during a summer vacation in 1908 caught the lovers “in flagrante”. Mathidle left Schonberg and her children but was soon persuaded to return for the sake of society and her family. The depressed Gerstl was cut of from Schonberg’s social circle and on the night of November 4, 1908 committed suicide. Mathilde became taciturn and shunned her husband’s company from that day on. All of the young artist’s paintings were packed away in boxes and stored in a warehouse. In 1931 art dealer Otto Kallir discovered Gerstl’s work and organized an exhibit in Vienna.
This was the first time Gerstl’s work was ever shown in public.
My wife is flea market crazy. I don’t mean that she likes or is slightly interested in flea markets. Oh no, she’s completely and totally bonkers, nuts, out of her ever lovin’ skull, just can’t get enough of, crazy about flea markets. She has dragged me to the most God awful, disgusting, trashy yard sales, jumble sales, boot sales, garage sales and impromptu street markets in broken down Grange Halls, dilapidated industrial sites, abandoned warehouses, trash strewn vacant lots, very scary dead end streets and deserted parking garages in every city we have ever visited just so I can have the immense pleasure of gazing upon and fondling acres of other people’s useless and discarded junk.
Budapest has proven to be an exception to this otherwise nightmare scenario. Wendi has coerced me into two flea markets here and, I have to admit, they are terrific. Big, sprawling old school Markets, untouched by the tidal wave of cheap third world tshirts and trinkets. These are Markets were you can still find hidden gems and long forgotten items for a bygone era. Exactly the kind of Markets that made them popular to begin with.
Our first stop was at the Szechenyl Market is the middle of the large city park. The smaller of the two, Szechenyl has a bit of a yard sale feel but was still really interesting.
Our last visit was at the Ecseri Market and it is the pièce de résistance. Located in the suburbs southwest of Budapest, getting there required two Metro transfers and a 20 minute bus ride, but was well worth the effort. A truly terrific treasure trove.
Better hurry, this kind of market is rapidly disappearing.
Take my word for it, Secessionist Art is really cool. It was one of the Art Nouveau disciplines that was popular between 1890 and 1910 and slightly predates Art Deco and was huge in Budapest. This modernist artist group included the likes of Gustav Klimt and Karoly Lotz, They were renegades who separated from the support of official academic art and its administrations during this period.
Budapest, like both Berlin and Vienna, was a hot bed for this new and exciting art movement. Some of the country’s most famous architects designed buildings in this style. Some of them were inspired by traditional Hungarian decorative designs, Transylvanian traditions, or Far East (Indian or Syrian) styles.
One of our favorites is the Museum of Applied Arts, designed by Odon Lechner and Gyula Partos from 1893 – 1896. It is the third oldest applied arts museum in the world. It is currently showing a very exciting exhibit of Hungarian Posters from the 1920s called Bolder Than Painting.
More Art Nouveau Architecture
For most Americans, unless of course you happened to work for the CIA or were unfortunate enough to have friends or relatives behind the Iron Curtain, the Cold War always remained a sort of conceptual notion, like the Boogie Man hiding in the closet that could burst forth at any moment and annihilate us all with hundreds of unseen thermonuclear devices, more of a threat then something real and tangible.
Not so for the Hungarians. After the Soviets drove the Nazis out at the end of WWII, the Communists held this place in a grip that was total and absolute and lasted over 40 years. In Hungary the Iron Curtain was not some scary ethereal miasma. Here it was very real, fashioned out of guns, spies, interrogation, propaganda and fear.
Capitalism, with all it’s pluses and minuses, is now the system du jour and virtually all signs of Soviet domination have been eradicated with a few notable exceptions. Flea markets, where the sale of Soviet era paraphernalia, i.e. coats, hats, pins, etc., is an ongoing enterprise, and two museums, the House of Terror Museum and Momento Park, stand as constant reminders of life under the Communist boot.
The House of Terror, located at Andrássy útca 60, is a memorial to the victims of the fascist and communist dictatorial regimes who were detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in this building.
The Nazi’s took possession of this very fashionable location during WWII. When the Soviets and Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party took over, they expanded it to include almost the entire block and converted the basement into a labyrinth of cells and interrogation rooms.
Memento Park is an open air museum about 20 minutes southeast of Budapest. It is filled with monumental statues from Hungary’s Communist period (1949–1989).
Most notably absent are any statues of Stalin. Apparently all of them were destroyed after the Soviets fled in 1989. All that remains are Papa Joe’s boots.
And finally, just for scale.