Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Empress's Palace

While waiting for the clouds to clear over Innsbruck (they never did), David and I went sightseeing The city is haunted by ghosts of the Hapsburgs.

In 1740, Charles VI, King of Germany, Emperor of Austria and Hungary, and Holy Roman emperor, died without a male heir. His daughter, Maria Theresa, declared herself Holy Roman Empress. She let her husband, Frances I of Lorraine, and later her son Joseph, be called Holy Roman Emperors, but she was the real ruler.

While Americans fought England for their independence and adopted our Constitution, Maria Theresa played power politics in Europe, fighting with Frederick the Great of Prussia and forming alliances with France and Russia. According to Wikipedia, she is “considered one of (the) most capable rulers” in 18th Century Europe.

Maria Theresa lived most of the time in Vienna, where she had two palaces, the Hofburg in the city and the summer palace, Schonbrunn, which rivals Versailles. Tourists flock to see the wonders of Schonbrunn. Most don’t know she also had a palace in Innsbruck.

What I remember most about the Innsbruck palace was a huge ballroom. At one end was a giant painting of the three babies floating on clouds to Heaven, representing Maria Theresa’s children who died in infancy. This remarkable woman, who managed the Austro-Hungarian Empire like a capable man, had 16 children. Around the room were larger-than-life-size portraits of the 13 survivors.

The last portrait was of a little teenage girl, Maria Theresa’s youngest child “Maria”, who was shipped off to France at the age of 13 to become Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. She lost her head.

The Hapsburgs were a prolific bunch. I once saw a chart naming 12 or 14 children in every generation in every branch. Yet the family was marked for tragedy. During our Civil War, the Emperor of Austria sent his brother, Maximilian, to be Emperor of Mexico. He was executed.

Rudolph, only son of Emperor Franz Joseph, committed suicide with his young mistress. I saw a made-for-tv movie called “Meyerling” after the name of the hunting lodge where the double suicides took place. A romantic story. I wonder what really happened. Movies are not expected to be historically accurate.

After Rudolph’s suicide, Franz Joseph’s heir, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, were assassinated in Sarajevo, sparking World War I. After that war the Hapsburgs vanished from History and from the news. Sic transit gloria.

I met a man whose last name was von Hapsburg. He was manager of a hotel in Albuquerque.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Austrian Alps

From Neushwanstein, I headed south through the Tyrol mountains into Austria. My goal was Innsbruck. That’s where the Winter Olympics were held in 1976.

In 1976 my family was living in Woodridge, Illinois. I was entranced by the Olympics. As soon as supper was over and the dishes sloshing away in the dishwasher, I sat on the old brown couch in the den, my eyes focused on the television. I grew up in Texas, where little hummocks are called hills, and lived in Illinois, which does not even have hummocks. On television each program of the Olympics began with the camera gliding over the snow-capped tops of the Austrian Alps. So beautiful!

I longed to see those mountains. At that time it seemed an impossible dream. I was enmeshed in taking care of house and children, working to pay Martha’s college tuition, and trying in every way I could to please my husband. I could not foresee any change in my life as a suburban housewife. Yet only two years later here I was, putt-putting that little Opal through the mountains from Germany and into Austria.

A heavy blanket of fog hung over Innsbruck. David and I spent several days waiting for the fog to lift. It never did. We could not glimpse of a single mountain peak.

On our final day I looked at the map and realized that the city was at the base of the Brenner Pass, which separates Austria from Italy. I drove up the mountain to the border at the top of the pass. At the border our little car was waved through the barriers, but I was surprised to see on the other side of the highway a long line of huge trucks, stretching all down the mountainside on the Italian side, waiting for approval to cross into Austria. Since then the Euro Zone has simplified things, and trucks can drive all over Western Europe without being stopped at a border crossing.
As we started down the mountainside, the sun came out. Before me the Italian Alps were a panorama of snow-capped mountains, as beautiful as the pictures I’d seen of the Olympics. I cried out, “David! Look at the mountains!”

He said, “Oh, yeah.”

David grew up in Illinois where he sloshed through a foot of snow walking to school in long, bitter cold, Northern winters. Snow-capped mountains did not excite him. Now he lives in Southern California.

Coming down from the Brenner, we drove into a little Italian town, where everything was closed up tight. David and I could not find a place to get a cup of tea or a Coke. So much for my first visit to Italy. We returned to Innsbruck in time for supper.

A few years later I moved to New Mexico. From the patio of my little house on Albuquerque’s West Mesa, I had a view of mountains. At 10,600 feet, Sandia Mountain is higher than any peak in Germany. When houses were built behind me, obstructing my view, and the kidney doctor said I had to go on dialysis, I returned to Texas after a hiatus of over 50 years.

I still miss New Mexico – and those beautiful mountains.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Visiting a Fairytale Castle

Traveling through Germany with David, I bypassed to castle after castle – there seemed to be one on every hilltop. We stopped at “The most famous castle in the World.” The one pictured on posters and advertisements promoting all things German. The one that Disney replicated as his one symbol of Disneyland. Its German name is Neushwanstein.

Most German castles were built in the 13th Century, or earlier, when every village was the enemy of every other village. Most are now in ruins, except for a few which have been “restored” as hotels, where rich Americans stay. They come home to brag about “sleeping in a castle.” As if these hotels, with all the modern amenities, were anything like original drafty, cold, dark castles.

Unlike 13th Century ruins, Neushwanstein is not ancient. It was begun in 1869 by Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, when Germany was still a patchwork of small, independent kingdoms. He had two palaces in his capital city, Munich, one in the center of the city and a nearby “summer palace”, the delightful Baroque “Nymphenberg”, where he was born to parents who hated each other. Ludwig fled the city to be alone in the Bavarian Alps.

Ludwig II is known as “the Mad King.” He certainly was a strange bird, fascinated by swans and Wagner’s music, particularly the opera “Lohengrin” whose hero comes on stage in a swan boat.

As soon as he ascended the throne, at age 22, Ludwig started to build castles, four of them, all at a distance from Munich. When I returned to Germany in 1983 without David, I visited Ludwig’s Linderhof, a miniature neo-classic Versailles, where I entered a fake cave and saw where the king sat in solitude gazing at a swan boat while his private orchestra played Wagner.

To build Neushwanstein, Ludwig hired a set designer to draw up designs for a fairytale castle to be built on top of a mountain with a great hall where operas could be performed. He then hired and fired three engineer-architects to transform this fantasy into stone.

The castle was incomplete in 1884 when Ludwig drowned, probably a suicide, in Schwansee, or Swan Lake. Shortly before his death, the king spent 12 nights in Neushwanstein, the only time he stayed there. Today thousands of strangers climb the mountain every day to gawk at Ludwig’s dream castle.

David and I were among the mob that made that climb. The castle is truly amazing, decorated with swan statues and murals of imaginary knights, as impressive as any Hollywood movie set. Ludwig must have been crazy to build such a place, but I thoroughly enjoyed its brightly-lit, colorful rooms.

As we left this dream world, I looked across the valley. On the opposite side of the gorge was a 13th Century castle, also part of Ludwig’s inheritance. It was a gray stone fortress, as forbidding and gloomy as all old castles. Tourists do not visit that one. Neither did David and I.

All of us prefer to believe in a bright, fantasy world, rather than confront the truth of a dark, tragic past.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Lodging for the Night

You can travel “on your own”, as David and I did, or you can take a tour, as I also did as I grew older and didn’t want to struggle with my luggage or try to communicate with hotel keepers who don’t speak English. There are advantages for both ways of traveling. .

One night, after a day of sightseeing in Bavaria, David and I drove from village to village without finding a “zimmer frei” (room for rent). I went into a bar and asked for help. A man stepped forward and assured me he could find a room for us. In the Opal I followed his Mercedes on narrow, dark, winding roads all over Bavaria, going back to all the places where David and I stopped before. Finally he found a private home which was willing to take us in.

This time it was a room with old-fashioned furniture and a bed covered with another warm comforter. The Germans, like the Scandinavians, have not discovered quilts and blankets. You sleep either without any cover or are smothered by a feather comforter.

The next morning, when we went down for breakfast, I was surprised to find the hallway crowded with eight or ten husky men in heavy coats and workmen’s boots.

After they left, David and I breakfasted in the kitchen with our hosts, a middle-aged couple. This man was the right age to have served in Hitler’s army. When I mentioned World War II, the man dismissed it with a wave of his hand, saying, “All in the past. Forgotten.” He and his wife were pleasant and kind to David and me.

Over thick slices of heavenly bread and jam, the man, who spoke a little English, explained about the men in the hallway. Construction of a pipe line from Russia to Germany had reached this neighborhood. Workmen occupied every available room for miles around.

When I went on a tour, a fine hotel provided a place to sleep every night. But on tours I never had an opportunity to talk to local people. And I never found a lobby full of Russian pipe-line workers.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Exploring Germany

After spending several days and nights in Frankfurt, my teenage son David and I went careening about Europe in that sputtering little rented Opal. The ultimate destination was Paris, which is in France, southwest of Germany, but as we left Frankfurt, I headed the car due east. As long as we were in Germany, I thought we might as well see more of that country.

I explained Romanesque architecture to David at Bamberg’s cathedral. We then saw Baroque in its most extravagance at a church dedicated to fourteen saints, whose German name I can neither spell nor pronounce. We found a tiny chapel with a handsome Tilman Riemenschneider altar piece. We traveled through beautiful country with a castle on every hill.

As night fell, I turned off the foggy autobahn and followed a narrow local road. Over an arched stone bridge I drove through the gates in a stone wall into an ancient village. At a small hotel (maybe ten rooms) a slim, neat woman who didn’t speak English, took out a slip of paper out of her apron pocket and penciled the price in Deutschmark. As I remember, for about $15 we rented a room, as clean, neat, and austere as our hostess, with two narrow, blonde wood beds. I neither saw nor heard any other guests in the place as David and I slept soundly under fluffy eiderdown comforters.

The next morning we explored the town. We wandered around narrow, cobble-stoned streets between incredibly old houses. Windows with bright-colored shutters had flower boxes overflowing with geraniums, as pretty as in a Disney movie. David found a place to climb up and ran around the top of the wall enclosing the entire village

The little town had a magical quality. We saw few local residents and no other tourists. It was as if the town had been there waiting for us for four hundred years. I called it my “German Brigadoon”.

We drove back over the little bridge (just the kind Gene Kelly danced over in the movie Brigadoon) and on to Rothenberg ober Tauber. My spell checker can’t find proper names, so you’ll just have to trust that this is a famous place. Rothenberg is called “best well-preserved” Medieval town in Germany with another wall for David to run around. We found the cathedral with another Reimanschneither altar piece with its many little carved wooden figures illustrating the story of Jesus’s life from birth to ascension. .

The big difference between my “Brigadoon” and Rothenberg was that Rothenberg was swarming with tourists. Twenty years later on a river cruise I was with a group of 80 who added to Rothenberg’s crowded streets, going in and out the many little shops selling little wooden figurines and other colorful nick-knacks.

I alone of our group revisited Tilmon Reimanschneider’s many-figured triptych in the cathedral. Perhaps I was the only one who knew it was there. Tour guides cater to people who are more interested in shopping rather than in looking at art or architecture. They seldom mention fine art, even if a masterpiece is hidden just around the corner.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Hello 2012

The year is a week old, and I’ve yet to post a blog.

What have I been doing? Everybody is busy during the holidays. I went to all the usual programs, including one at the First Baptist Church in Garland, where my friend Lois sings in the choir. Nice music, but I was put off by one segment where an angel appeared offering “peace” in this troubled World. The inference was that the only way to have peace of mind was to join the Baptist Church

I showed surprising restraint. I did NOT stand up and say, “I achieved peace of mind when I quit being a Baptist.” My New Year’s resolution is not to get upset when people do or say things with which I disagree. Old people need the comfort of their beliefs.

After Christmas my daughter Martha flew down from Chicago and spent a week with me. In the dining room, when I introduced her to residents at this retirement home, several said, “Don’t you want to move to Texas?”

Texans believe Texas is the best place on Earth. You can not convince them otherwise.

Martha politely said, “My job is in Chicago.”

I reminded her, “Also your husband and children.”

She likes living in Naperville, a pleasant Chicago suburb, and she has no desire to move to Texas. When I moved to Chicago as a bride, people told me repeatedly, “Aren’t you lucky to live in Chicago?” People always believe the place where they grew up is the best place in the World.

Texans accuse me of being “un-American” when I tell them my friends in Western Europe have a better quality of life than average people living in the U.S. They say, “Why do they all want to come here?” They are mistaken. Today’s immigrants come from Mexico, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia, not from England, France, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries, all those “Socialist” countries which the politicians warn us against.

The only way to find out what life is like outside our own neighborhood is to get out and really talk to people who live in other places. I learned a lot in my travels. My goal for 2012 is to complete telling about traveling with David when he was 13 years old.

But first, I am detouring again, with several stories about other things I did not getting around to writing about in 2011. I wish this were a kinder, gentler World. Things are in a mess both at home and abroad. But there are good individuals everywhere. And when the situation seems impossible, how do we cope? By seeing the ridiculous side of situations and laughing.

Here’s to seeing the brighter side of life in 2012!