New walking tour: Beyond the Anne Frank House

Meeting point for the tour: Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue.

After two test runs with American and German guests, I’m happy to announce my new walking tour: Amsterdam beyond the Anne Frank House.

More details can be found here.

Happy Kaisersgeburtstag from Vienna!

Statue of Franz Joseph I, an 1898 gift from the Austro-Hungarian armed forces, at the Albertina Museum
In 1916, the Austrian-Hungarian double monarchy, composed of many peoples speaking many different languages, had been in decline for a long time. The only symbol that still united it was, in fact, its “double monarch”, Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. When he died in 1916, after an incredibly long reign that started in the revolutionary year of 1848, the last vestiges of unity disappeared from the nation and it was to no-one’s surprise that when World War I ended in an Allied victory, Austria-Hungary disintegrated into states that more or less mirrored their ethnic composition.

Urania, an observatory in art-nouveau style, opened by FJ in 1910.
The famous Vienna Staatsoper, on the Ring, also bears an inscription honouring the “Eternal Emperor”.
But in Austria, and especially in Vienna, you might be forgiven for thinking that Emperor Franz Joseph, and his incredibly popular consort Empress Elisabeth, better know as Sissi, passed away only recently. There are inscriptions in his memory everywhere, his statues dot the city’s avenues and Kaisersgeburtstag, “the Emperor’s Birthday” (August 18th) is still a thing. To draw a rough comparison – his German and British more-or-less contemporaries, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Queen Victoria, are definitely not as fondly and widely remembered as old Franz Joseph. 

Emperors Franz Joseph I and Wilhelm II, shortly before WW I. By this time, FJ’s motto ‘With joined forces’ was taken to allude to the strong bond between Germany and Austra-Hungary.
His likeness, with the martial moustache, was famous already during his reign (he widely used portraiture and later photography in an effort to spread some kind of presence through his vast empire) and is still instantly recognizable today.

The popularity of the long-dead Imperial couple shows from the fresh flowers that are often found at Empress Elisabeth’s tomb in the Imperial Burial Vaults.
This Kaiser’s Birthday, in the year that is also the 100th anniversary of his death, I happened to be in Vienna and visited the Kaisergruft (Imperial burial vault), and an exhibition at the Austrian National Library called ‘the Eternal Emperor’ (der ewige Kaiser). As you can imagine, for the Dead Emperor’s Society, things can’t get much better!

Spanish Siglo de Oro and Dutch Gouden Eeuw: Golden Ages of Art in Countries at War

A temporary exhibition at one of my favourite Berlin museums, the Gemäldegalerie, introduced me to the Spanish Golden Age. The phrase “Siglo de Oro” didn’t ring any bells, even though as a Dutch history buff I know all about the Golden Age – the one in Holland, of course, not the Spanish one. It turns out that both countries’ Golden Ages coincided, both covering the late 1500s until the late 1600s.

Interestingly, during most of these two countries’ Golden Ages, they were actually fighting an (at times) bloody war: in the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648), the Protestant Northern Netherlands, under the aegis of the Orange-Nassau dynasty that still rules today, sought to gain independence from Roman Catholic Habsburg Spain.

Rembrandt van Rhijn – The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis – Nationalmuseum (Stockholm) – wiki commons

Another parallel between the Dutch and the Spanish Golden Ages is how they manifested themselves in painting. The Dutch Gouden Eeuw gave us the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer, the Spanish Siglo de Oro Velásquez and El Greco, to name a few important representatives. Here are some pictures that shed some light on the religious and political conflict between north and south, Protestant and Catholic, and republic and monarchy.

The Rembrandt picture, originally even larger than The Night Watch but later cut down by the artist, shows Claudius Civilis, a Germanic fighter of the Batavian tribe, who lived on the lower Rhine. He led an uprising against the occupying Romans in 69 CE. It is, of course, an allegory of the Dutch revolt against the Spanish.

Johannes Vermeer, Allegory of the Catholic Faith, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, wiki commons

Vermeer, who converted to Catholicism upon marriage, spent the last years of his life living next door to a clandestine Jesuit church in Delft. His story reinforces the fact that the northern Netherlands, to this day, never became fully protestant, but that large groups of Roman Catholics remained.

Diego Velásquez – The Surrender of Breda. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wiki commons

This picture, one of Velásquez’ most famous, shows one of Spain’s rare military victories in the second half of the Eighty Years’ War. General Spinola, a friend of the painter, conquered Breda, a frontier city between the Northern and Southern Netherlands and a Nassau stronghold, but is said to have shown mercy on the besieged.

El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, Iglesia de Santo Tomé (Toledo), wiki commons

Finally, El Greco, “the Greek”, who may have carried Byzantine influences to his Toledo workshop, worked almost exclusively on church commissions and did not include political themes in his works. However, he was probably the catalyst that triggered the Spanish Golden Age of painting.

El Siglo de Oro at the Gemäldegalerie

The Berlin exhibition, showing some famous masterpieces of the era, does give a fine impression of the importance of the arts in 17th century Spain. Many works, especially from Seville and Valencia, were commissioned by the Church, such as these statues of two Jesuits.

Juan Martines Montañés and Francisco Pacheco: Ignatius of Loyola (r.) and Francisco de Borja, polychrome wood and cloth. Pic: Robin Oomkes

They show Ignatius de Loyola and Francisco de Borja, first and third Superior General respectively of the famous and powerful religious order at the heart of the Counter Reformation.

But my favourite picture must be “Mars resting”, created by Diego Velásquez while court painter to King Philip IV (1605-1665). Mars, the God of warfare, is shown in a rather despondent state. His weapons lie at his feet, and his drooping posture seems to say that he is weary of war. Would its assorted enemies, the Netherlands included, finally have gotten the better of Spain?

Gemäldegalerie, Kulturforum Berlin, until 30 October 2016.

Google please note: Potsdam’s Mercure hotel is *not* getting torn down!

Potsdam’s Mercure hotel. In the background there’s the City Palace, the polytechnic and the Nikolaikirche

In newspaper articles, Michael Bauer, the manager of Potsdam city centre’s Mercure hotel, has complained that Google and the city council are killing his business. By continuously floating plans to have the hotel torn down  (for which the council neither has the money, nor the necessary majority), the first thing that travellers find when they google the hotel, apart from the usual booking engines, is lots of links about its imminent demolition. Which isn’t good for business.

So where does the political controversy come from? Of course, any planning initiative in Germany can count on a, let’s say, lively public debate. Especially where ex-GDR architecture is concerned. Let’s take a look at the Mercure’s surroundings.

IMG_7523 (1)
“Ceci n’est pas un château” – this is not a castle (but, indeed, a modern reconstruction housing the State Parliament). Polytechnic (and church dome) behind.

The city centre of Potsdam, Berlin’s smaller neighbour but the capital of the Land of Brandenburg nonetheless, is a curious mix of spectacular original classicist, fake baroque, and authentic brutalist GDR architecture.

The Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas’ Church)

Potsdam’s Nikolaikirche, by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, seen from the Stadtschloss.

First, and the most original, is Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Nikolaikirche (1837) – which looks new but isn’t (at least not completely). Heavily damaged, like most of central Potsdam, in April 1945, it was first restored in the GDR era, and then again in 2010. Hence the bright sandstone colour, which combined with the giant copper-green dome mean that the church is visible from miles away.

The Stadtschloss (City Palace)

Potsdam’s City Palace in a 1773 painting by Johann Friedrich Meyer (image: wikipedia)

Second is the Landtag – or State Parliament. It’s a reconstruction (completed in 2014) of Potsdam’s former City Palace – the Potsdam winter residence of the Hohenzollern kings. Exactly like its counterpart Stadtschloss in Berlin, it was heavily damaged in the last stages of the Second World War, and then torn down by the communist regime. Also like Berlin’s city palace, it was reconstructed to the outside looks of the old palace, but with a modern interior. On weekdays, you can walk in to see the businesslike insides – and even have lunch in the parliamentary canteen.

The Fachhochschule (Polytechnic)

Potsdam’s brutalist Fachhochschule

Third, authentic GDR architecture. A prime example in the centre is the Fachhochschule, which rubs shoulders with both parliament and church.

The Fachhochschule was a teachers’ training college in the GDR years and now teaches sociology, architecture and city planning (sic). Three storeys high, it was completed in the early 1970s, and has a rectangular shape with three courtyards. (Bizarrely, the polytechnic’s other Potsdam site is the former “Adolf Hitler” military barracks.)

Fachhochschule, Stadtschloss and Nikolaikirche. Between the buildings you can make out the 18th century obelisk and behind that, the Old City Hall.

The ramshackle building is one more obstacle to the plans of the city council (and the Land government) to recreate the classical look of Potsdam’s city centre. Last news is that it will be torn down in 2017. Not because the building itself is considered to be ugly (probably a sop to the “Ewiggestrigen”, GDR nostalgists) but simply “because it is in the wrong place”.

Mercure Hotel

View from the Mercure Hotel towards Potsdam’s old city centre.

The Mercure, a 17-story Plattenbau prefab building, was built as an Interhotel on direct orders of then GDR president Walter Ulbricht, to represent the ‘socialist crown of the city’. It opened in 1969 and also has its Berlin counterpart – the current Park Inn at Alexanderplatz (which was completed in 1970, also as an Interhotel). The hotel was completely refurbished after the fall of the Wall in 1989 and today is pleasant enough – certainly on the inside, where some corridors have a wonderful view of the new Landtag and the Nikolaikirche. If you ask nicely at reception, you can take a lift up to one of the hotel floors and take some pictures.

Potsdam, Interhotel, Kolonaden
The Interhotel when it opened in 1969. In the foreground, the classical colonnades, still there today, that linked the Stadtschloss with the Royal Stables. Pic: Bundesarchiv

Meanwhile, the discussion about the hotel’s future continues. Prominent Potsdam residents, such as fashionista Wolfgang Joop and talkshow host Günter Jauch, have been running a campaign for its demise. Plans to replace it range from an art gallery (since withdrawn) to a recreation of the former Lustgarten (palace park) that used to occupy the site.

But, as stated above, objections are fierce. There’s the large representation of ex-communists on the city council, who view the hotel’s demolition as another affront to the GDR’s cultural heritage (to which one prominent Potsdamer answered: “It’s nothing to do with the GDR. Anyone can see it’s just ugly”). But there are also financial reasons why an attempt for the city to acquire and destroy the hotel could end in tears. Buying and demolishing it could cost some 15 million Euros, and the city would lose its only large central hotel  – leading to a loss of tourist income.

And, finally, there’s the hotel manager, who has just signed another ten year franchise deal with the Mercure chain, and assures anyone who wants to hear that he intends to fully complete the course.