Saturday, July 7, 2018

On the Road: Berlin (Waiting in Dresden, June 7, 2018)

The Reichstag from Berlin Hauptbahnhof
I must say, I'm not at all impressed with public transportation in Germany. The systems are good enough: the buses are frequent, the trams are frequent and fast, and you can buy a wide range of tickets that are a good value, such as one-day unlimited tickets or one-week tickets, and a single ticket allows you to use buses, trams, or trains both above and under ground. However, the signage is appalling. Typically, there will be an extremely detailed map of the entire transit system of the city, offering far too much information with nothing pertinent readily apparent. It can be very hard to understand which direction the trains are going because the next stop is never shown at the stops. There are very few announcements (or often none). I left 45 minutes today to get from the famous Green Vault to the Hauptbahnhof, which should have been about three times more time than necessary, and I still missed my train to Prague because it was impossible to efficiently find the right tram. I had similar experiences in Berlin and Leipzig. Munich was simpler for some reason, with bus and tram stops generally right next to each other.

On my train run from Berlin to Dresden, the cars were marked each with two different numbers, one an LED display on the side of the train, another printed on paper and attached to each of the car doors. I was lucky to have chosen the information on the paper. I was correctly in my reserved seat while cars full of confused passengers spent the first 45 minutes of the ride moving to another car, towing heavy luggage through the aisles. I thought the Germans were supposed to be good at this sort of thing. Germany makes the subway systems of Paris and Tokyo, for example, seem dazzlingly well thought out and clearly marked. [I had similar troubles later in the trip, going from Prague to Munich again: somebody else had the same seat reservation as me and the train was more than an hour late because, for some reason, what was supposed to be direct run terminated early and we had to make two transfers to slow local trains]. When I complained about the double reservation at Munich, the man at the window said flatly that a double booking was impossible (until I showed him the other person's ticket, which I had photographed) and then he blamed it on the Czechs). He grudgingly refunded my reservation fee of €4.5. There was no apology.]

It was a simple process to get my ticket validated for the next train to Prague, but I ended up with 90 minutes to wait and thus with a little time to get caught up. I found not only Berlin's transportation system a disappointment. Much of the central part of the city is under construction (a new tunnel is going in under Unter den Linden, for instance) and every public space was set up with giant video screens and bleachers in anticipation of Germany doing well in the World Cup soccer matches now going on. The view was obscured virtually anywhere you looked. Unter den Linden had rather small lindens, I thought. I wonder why? It wasn't the luxuriant tree-shaded avenue I imagined. Were the trees destroyed in the war and only recently replanted?

Graffiti in Berlin
There is much scarring still evident from the war and from the Soviet period. Old, blackened stone buildings are side by side with simple modern buildings put up quickly right after the end of the hostilities or with something quite new and bland in style. Here and there very old buildings that have been restored stand out. It seems common here to rebuild significant buildings using the old stones where possible, new stone where not (a pale sandstone mostly), leaving the old stone uncleaned, making the restoration obvious, perhaps as a reminder. I saw this in Leipzig and here in Dresden, too, the starkest example being the Frauenkirche, which was left a pile of rubble from the day of its destruction in 1945 until after the reunification of the two Germanys.

Despite my complaining, Berlin was not without its attractions. Jonathan, my old friend from my time in Tokyo, came from Britain to spend a few days with me. We had trouble getting into the AirBnB apartment, but stopped for a drink at a nearby cafe while sorting things out. We walked along the River Spree and had dinner at a nearby Russian restaurant with decent borscht, kebabs, and lamb (the Turkish influence is everywhere). At breakfast the next morning, House Sparrows, well accustomed to croissant crumbs, ate from my hand. We went to look at the Brandenburg Gate, which was obscured by both construction and World Cup bleachers (which everywhere had a slightly forlorn look, as Germany has already been eliminated from the finals).

Performer being filmed on
Unter den Linden
We attempted to visit the Reichstag and Bundestag but found advance reservations were required. We had a quick look in the Willy Brandt Center, which we happened to pass, and stopped at the Neue Wache, a recently restored neo-classical building along Unter den Linden built originally as a guardhouse for troops of the crown prince of Prussia. Today it is described as Germany's "Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship."

In front of  Humboldt University, there was a large book market, and, a little incongruously, a small film crew photographing a woman with a dyed red mohawk haircut, stack heels, fishnet stockings, a corset, and a whip, strutting about, cracking the whip. We were on our way to the Gendarmenmarkt—again a disappointment as the entire square was filled with a giant screen and more soccer seating. I got to see the churches at either end, but it was impossible to get a real feel for the square the buildings are bookends to. One consolation was a surprisingly good lunch. I had a cold asparagus and lime soup and grilled mackerel.

The organ in Berlin Cathedral
Later we visited the Berlin Cathedral, another building badly destroyed during the war and rebuilt. The crypt below the church has a rather startlingly complete collection of sarcophagi of local royalty—a history of centuries of royal burial styles in one underground chamber. I was reminded of the cathedral at St. Denis, just north of Paris with a similar collection (although no bones, as the royals there were dumped from their resting places during the French Revolution). Some below the Berlin Cathedral were simple and made of wood. Most were elaborately carved stone. Among the many notables are King Frederick I and Queen Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, grandparents of Frederick the Great. They must have been very popular, as large memorial sarcophagi for the two are up in the cathedral as well.

Tagliolini with black truffles and pine nuts
at Focaccino, Berlin
Good food provided another consolation later. We had dinner at a Sicilian restaurant called Focaccino, having chosen Italian cuisine for a break from the meat and potatoes so often on offer. I had caponata as a starter and then tagliolini with black truffles and pine nuts, washed down with sparkling water and a Vermentino from Sardinia. The pasta was perfect. It was so good, in fact, that I went back the following night, after Jonathan had headed back to England, and had the pasta again.

Lion from the Ishtar Gate reconstruction in the Pergamon Museum
In the morning we had visited the Pergamon Museum, which, like just about every museum I've visited in Germany, was half closed, but the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, the main attraction, was in the section open to the public. It is much larger than I imagined and less complete. I hadn't known that it was mostly crated and sent to Germany in fragments and painstakingly rebuilt, much of it from modern tiles made for the restoration. It's mostly the animals and the lower friezes that are original. Still, it is impressive. Many other artifacts were from Miletus, in Turkey, a site I visited in 1983.

After parting with Jonathan at the Hauptbahnhof, I went back to the Museuminsel (The Museum Island, an island in the Spree where many of the major museums in Berlin are) to see the national collection of paintings and then the Neues Museum, which famously houses the bust of Nefertiti. The museums hold a vast collection of artifacts from all over the ancient world. Having seen them all, I'm confused about what I saw in which museum, but a few favorites follow.

Böcklin The Isle of the Dead (1883)
Among the paintings, it was fun to see one of the several versions of The Isle of the Dead  Böcklin painted (I believe the third of five, this one from 1883), having just seen his odd painting of the mermaid and fauns or centaurs in Munich. I haven't seen the other versions he painted, so I can't compare them, but the Isle in this one is conceived as a very small island surround on three sides by high cliffs that make it look like a stadium. A grove of tall cypresses are a backdrop to a low wall with an opening and a shallow flight of stairs leading in from where a small boat will soon land, the boat carrying a white-clad figure. Above in the rocks on either side are ruins, pale spots, like the standing figure in the boat. The island is a portal.

Edouard Manet In the Conservatory (1879)
I hadn't known that Manet's In the Conservatory (1879) is here. It's a painting I know well from reproductions. It's alway a pleasure to see in person these paintings that are new to me but seem like old friends. There was a special exhibition going on called Wanderlust, the theme being figures in the landscape broadly interpreted. It included works from all over the world and from various periods. Some of the paintings were depictions of actual wanderers, others more wanderers in the sense of seekers after knowledge, but sometimes figures that might be considered both. Many of the paintings were minor works of genre painting that didn't interest me much, but included were Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1817), on loan from its home in Hamburg—perhaps the epitome of romantic longing after something other—as well as his Monk by the Sea (1808/10). Monk by the Sea shows a lone figure on a dark stretch of coast looking out at a nearly black sea, dark clouds above. The waves are barely visible. I rather liked these two paintings.

Mythical creature in relief of King Ashurnasirpal II 
In the Pergamon Museum, stelae and stone reliefs from Assyria and elsewhere, much like those in the British Museum, were perhaps the highlight. I particularly liked a relief of King Ashurnasirpal II (reigned 883 to 859 BC) involved in a ritual flanked by winged divine beings. In this and similar reliefs the main figures frequently hold pine cones, but I don't know what their significance is. According to the wall labels, there are traces of color on many of the reliefs, suggesting they may originally have been brightly painted, which seems to have been common in antiquity, even if we are used to seeing bare stone.

Relief of King Ashurnasirpal II 
Bust of Nefertiti
The famed Nefertiti bust is what most people go to the Neues Museum in Berlin to see. It's the one thing in the museum you aren't allowed to photograph, except from a distance, from the adjoining rooms (if you care to try). It's another very familiar piece of art I'd never seen in person. I'd never understood its fame. It never seemed that extraordinary to me. Seeing it in person has changed my view. It is, indeed, beautiful.

It's astounding that it has survived so long in such good condition, despite the damage that's evident here and there (Nefertiti is missing an eye, for instance). I'd never noticed the subtle wrinkling under her eyes before. She seems alive and imperfectly perfect. As I have a very long lens on my camera, I had comparatively little trouble photographing her even though she was a good 30 feet away. The bust is stucco-coated limestone that has then been painted. Nefertiti was the wife of Akhenaten. According to Wikipedia, the bust is believed to have been made in 1345 BC by Thutmose, as it was found in his workshop in Amarna, Egypt, but little more seems to be known about its origins.

The Berlin Golden Hat
The museum goes out of the way to highlight where the Nefertiti bust is displayed but also provides extra help in finding one other item, The Berlin Golden Hat. I had never heard of it, but it appears to be considered the museum's second most important treasure. It's described as "one of the most significant creations of Bronze Age goldsmithing." Its exact origins are unknown. It appears to have been purchased in 1996 from an antique dealer, but three other Bronze Age gold hats are known to exist, all from north of the Alps—two from southern Germany, one from France. It's a ceremonial hat, believed to have been worn in rituals, but encoded in its decorations is also a system of calculating the 19-year cycle of the sun and the moon.

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