Thursday, October 31, 2013


I took a morning train, and spent the ride alternately loving the views of quaint villages against the backdrop of rolling hills and willing myself not to throw things at the two children screaming at their mother a few seats away. I am generally very easy going and understanding when it comes to kid-meltdowns, but something about this one (and the intermittent-3-hour nature of it) set my nerves on edge. Good thing I had snacks, because reading was out. Plus I was in a seat facing backwards, so reading was out anyway…

Once here, I walked around the town stopping in at various places, including a church ruin, a bridge much like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence where the bridge is lined with shops and houses and whatnot, and a church tower (Methodist!) which I climbed to get a good overview of the town and to take some nice photos. (See, I learned from Heidelberg, where I got up on the philosophenweg and thought “oh, I should have come up here first so I could get a sense of the layout.” duh.) Then I wound my way to the Augustinerklocher (the Augustinian monastery). And when I say “wound my way to,” I mean “walked a few minutes.” This town is not very big. Maybe 15 minutes from the train station to the monastery, if you walk more directly than I did. As it is, I did all that other random stuff and made it in less than an hour.

At the monastery I discovered that the tours are only in German, but they’re also the only way to get access to the Luther exhibit. So I went on a tour of which I understood zero words. Thankfully, they gave me a little handout that talks about a few of the major features of the building, so at least when I looked around while the guide was talking, I kind of knew what I was looking at. Of course, most monasteries are laid out similarly, so having lived in one before I knew what was going on. Church, chapterhouse, cloister, refectory, cells, library, guesthouse, etc. It was pretty cool to be in the place where Luther became a monk, to see the spaces he lived and worked, and to get a sense of the town and atmosphere in which he laid the foundations for a radical shift.

Particularly ironic, I think, is that right in front of the altar in the monastery church is the tomb of a previous prior, Johann Zacharias. He’s famous for being the judge that condemned Jan Hus, one of the first reformers, who had tried to translate the Bible into a common language (among other things). It amuses me to think of Luther, remembering his consecration as a monk laying in front of that tomb as he sat a few miles away translating the Bible less than 100 years after Hus was condemned…

I also visited the Cathedral, where Luther was ordained as a priest, and the neighboring (literally, less than one minute walk from one door to the next) St. Severus church. The ornate altar pieces in both churches were simultaneously beautiful and cringe-worthy. The raised pulpit in the Severikirch has no stairs, which led me to think uncharitable thoughts about the Roman church. (It didn’t help that in the Cathedral a few moments before, one of the last things I saw was a reliquary containing some remnant of St. Martin of Tours, patron saint of Erfurt. Martin is known for seeing a poor man freezing and so cutting his big military cloak in half to give to him…and this reliquary was one of the most ostentatious tacky reliquaries I’ve seen—which is saying something because a week ago I was at the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris! So I was already in the give-me-a-reformation-now mindset…) But while I was there, I discovered (by accident!) that tonight there would be a concert—chamber music, mostly brass, as a benefit for something. I have no idea what the fundraiser was for, but I do know that classical brass in a gothic cathedral sounds fabulous. Naturally I went to find dinner and came immediately back to the church…and the concert was so fabulous! There’s nothing quite like hearing brass choir and wind quintet arrangements of Bach, Mozart, Ibert, and even Paul McCartney. I’m pretty sure they were a military band of some kind, and the benefit seemed to involve some church organization that goes camping. So…great. I had a wonderful 90 minutes listening there. The acoustics of that space are indescribably amazing. The concert was so gorgeous that for a moment I was sad I had sold my clarinets to come on this trip. And then I remembered that even if I hadn’t sold them (and was therefore not hearing this concert, because I’d be stay-cationing instead!), I wouldn’t be playing music like that in spaces like this. I’d be looking at the case and feeling guilty. So I’m glad that someone else is making music with those instruments, and I am listening to incredible music made by people who love to practice. :-)

though again, I wish I spoke German! Instead of a printed program, one of the guys (yes, all guys, in uniforms) announced each piece of music and talked about it a bit. Most of the time (not every time) I could catch the composer’s name, and several times I recognized the piece when it began. But I’d love to know what he said, and what some of the ones where I couldn’t pick out the name or title might be.

450 years of our only comfort....

On the train on the way to Heidelberg on Sunday afternoon, I tried to remember more than just the first question of the 450-year old Heidelberg Catechism. At one point I knew lots of things, I really did. But the only thing I could pull up in mid-train-trip was question one: “what is your only comfort in life and in death? That I belong, body and soul, not to myself but to my faithful Savior...”

Anyway, Heidelberg is charming. Super charming. It has a long pedestrian zone, two—TWO—cafes that serve 60-75 flavors of hot chocolate, and an amazing set of trails to hike up for great views. PLUS a castle ruin! And churches! and the oldest university! (Unless you ask Erfurt, which also claims to have the oldest university, so that’s confusing.) I decided to rent an audio guide for the old town, and it was adorable. The tour is supposedly guided by a 17th century princess. Yeah. It was cute. But I did learn many things! Of course, I did the tour out of order (because I could, obv), so parts were a touch confusing, but I caught it all up in the end. So I got to sit in the Heiliggeist church (the Holy Ghost Church), formerly the University Church, where the professors who wrote the Catechism went. I walked much of the Philosophenweg, the terraced trails where theologians, philosophers, and poets walked and talked and got inspired. I did a wine-and-cheese tasting in the wine cellar of the castle, sitting next to the largest wine barrel ever to hold wine. I rode a funicular railway! I drank hot chocolate, ate at a vegetarian buffet, and peeked around the Jesuits’ museum of liturgical stuff. And I discovered that Monday may not be the best day to visit Heidelberg, because a few of the things I wished to do (2 museums, and a restaurant) were closed. Though if I’d actually gone to those, I wouldn’t have had time anyway—as it was I ran out of time, and I got a relatively early start on the day! Note to self: 2 days for Heidelberg next time.

The big question is: having walked where some amazingly brilliant people (Goethe, Twain, major theologians, Luther, etc) have walked, will I be any more inspired? does brilliance rub off from a chronological distance? Don’t know. I do know that the town is lovely and I look forward to spending more time there next time around.

I also know that I’m going to need to learn German. While most of the people I’ve encountered speak English and are very gracious about it, the reading is killing me. I could get by in France at museums and other sites, and at restaurants, because my reading comprehension is much higher than my auditory comprehension or my speaking ability (though both of those improved as the week went on! just need to practice…). But in Germany I got nothin’. I would like to be able to read the exhibit on the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism, but it’s all in German. I’d like to be able to read the signs on churches or at museums, to understand menus, to follow guide-cards…but reading German gets me nowhere. sigh. Time to ponder: Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur? And can I learn German in 8 months? Surely enough to get by, if I practice, right?

every street is cute like this. I have a dozen photos that look like this, lol.

"the old bridge"

that middle section is real live medieval city gate.

this isn't even the biggest one.

wine and cheese tasting in the castle wine cellar, looking over at the biggest wine barrel ever.

the eternal question: up? or down?

hot chocolate spoons! genius.

these aren't what I expected, but they are delicious.

postcard from paris

yes, I’ve been away from Paris since Friday. but that’s how long postcards take, isn’t it? ;)

I landed in Paris with distinct ideas about what I should do—I’d had advice that spanned “see all the museums!” to “you don’t have time for museums, just walk around and eat and look and sit in cafes.” Add in that I landed there on my birthday, and was going to spend the night in Versailles the first day, and all kinds of other travel realities (for instance: I landed at 9am…).

John the beloved. check out his curly golden locks.

medieval choir stalls with little benches on the folded up seats, so monks could rest discreetly while standing. lol.

a cell at the Conciergerie


honestly, I don't even remember now what this was. I'm sure it's important though.

So, day 1, I dropped my luggage at what may be the best place ever: City Locker. I love the people of City Locker, though I’ve never interacted with any of them. What a fantastic idea, to create video surveilled locker spaces in different parts of the city, accessed with a code sent to you when you reserve—and you can reserve in advance on the web or from your phone while standing outside. So great. I dropped my luggage off in locker number 1 and headed out for an unencumbered day of sightseeing.
I wandered a bit, visited the Cluny (the Museum of the Middle Ages) (because I’m a dork and I like that stuff), but the unicorn tapestries are away on tour while the room is renovated. Good thing I saw them (or were they replicas?) at the Met’s Cloister a few years ago. I wandered some more, grabbed lunch from a tiny crepe-and-panini place, (3.50!), and found my way to the Conciergerie—the prison where 2,800 people (including Marie Antoinette) were held and beheaded during the Revolution and subsequent Reign of Terror. And yet they don’t even have a guillotine on display. Really? What an opportunity! But alas…no. Just cells and exhibits and a whole floor of really weird art. Like wax-statues-of-old-men-in-automated-wheelchairs-rolling-randomly-around-the-space weird.
Next door is St. Chappelle, a chapel with some of the most gorgeous stained glass, and tons of it. The whole place is filled with color, because the windows are practically floor to ceiling and wall to wall. Nice.
After some more wandering about, it seemed like time to get the train to Versailles. Where, it turned out, I was staying basically in a palace with a view of the palace. seriously. And I had dinner in the restaurant there (not the original plan, but it had started to rain so I got over the idea that I would walk around and find something…). I have this to say about my birthday dinner and specially ordered (in advance) birthday dessert:


it's a meringue outside with three flavors of ice cream inside. with little bits of edible gold leaf. seriously. #versailles

not only were the staff incredible, bringing me all kinds of things and wishing me a happy birthday about every five minutes, the atmosphere was beautiful and the food was incredible. Seriously, so much goodness. Roasted, braised, mashed…every bite was amazing.

Almost immediately on entering the room I knew I should have stayed two nights. Not only because the place was so amazing, but because there’s something about the first stop on a long trip being for only one night that was exhausting to think about. So note to self: always try to stay two nights at the first place.

My day at the Chateau de Versailles was pretty incredible. There’s art, gilding, decadence, beauty, and bizarreness practically in the air. I took a guided tour of some parts of the palace you can’t see without a tour, and also wandered the public areas, the gardens, and the two Trianon palaces and their gardens. Because, you know, every queen needs two extra palace (“Grand” and “Petite”—hahahahha) in addition to the palace she actually lives in. Think of it as a way to keep the locals employed. Or something.

this whole place is covered in gold leaf. not paint, not some replica: actual gold. all over, inside and out.

I can just picture Marie Antoinette: "I'm tired of the gold leaf palace...I want another one, in pink marble."

Back in Paris for two days, I made judicious use of 10 metro tickets: visited the Basilica of St. Denis (where the kings of France are buried)—that’s right, I’m practically stalking Stuff You Missed in History Class, and I got to see the tomb of Catherine d’Medici. Because, as previously noted, I’m a dork. Went to the Monet museum, where I saw 45 paintings that were the collection of Monet’s youngest son—he left them all to the museum when he died in the 60s. Yes, the 1960s. They were AMAZING. I know that sophisticated people are supposed to think impressionism is lame. But seriously, I love it. So I guess I’m not a sophisticated art viewer. Oh well. Give me Monet any day. I went to the Pantheon and saw the tomb of Madame Curie (and a bunch of men who were important, like Victor Hugo and revolutionaries and blah blah blah). The lantern is being worked on so Foucault’s pendulum is down until 2015 or 2016. sigh. I used the stairs to climb the Eiffel tower (well, to the second floor), then went to the top and had champagne while watching sunset. I visited Notre Dame but the towers were closed that day (sad). I tried to visit Eglise St. Etienne du Mont, with the only surviving rood screen in Paris (again—dork), but it was inexplicably closed. I looked at the Louvre and the Pompidou from the outside. I ate cheese. I drank wine. I ate chocolate. And ice cream. I bought scarves. I wandered neighborhoods. I looked around old churches and took pictures of stained glass. I ate crepes! I saw adorable city parks. I got told I’m beautiful by people not related to me and who were not selling anything. I practiced my French (which is in a terrible state).

eglise st. eustache

this one's a little hard to see...that would be the graves of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI (or what's left of them...)

Catherine d'Medici in front, Henri II next to her...

I may have a little bit of a d'Medici obsession.

at Places des Vosges

my one (accidental) nod to what's in the background of my whole trip (life)...

do you hear the people sing? 
I saw a fashion photo shoot. When you see this chick in a magazine, you saw it here first...


this was every bit as amazingly delicious as it looks...

and this was even more delicious than it looks. Crepe with salted caramel sauce and pears. omg.

I enjoyed Paris. I’d love to go back. But I wouldn’t say it captured my heart or imagination the way Glasgow or Edinburgh do. The spirit of Paris is different…something about those Scottish cities just…I don’t know. I can’t even describe it (in fact, I’m tempted to say something like “Paris is just missing something…some little je ne sais quoi.”) It could be because I didn’t have much time, or because I’m traveling alone, or because I didn’t speak the language well enough. Or maybe my expectations were too romantic or idealized. Whatever the case—it was nice, but…
So, next time, Paris, I’ll be practicing my French before I go, taking a friend, and spending more time. We’ll see. :-)