Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Germany Day Seven

Day Seven - Museums and churches and opera house, oh my!

What a difference great pillows makes! Having ordered off the pillow menu, I picked two pillows for neck support and haven’t felt so good on waking as I did this morning in I don’t know how long. Unfortunately, something I ate yesterday wreaked havoc on me overnight, so I was a bit hesitant to eat a humongous breakfast. I was bummed about that because breakfast is my favorite meal to splurge on (no, really!) and Swissotel has a massive buffet. In the end, I settled on scrambled eggs, a yogurt, a couple links of sausage and a small apple Danish (for carbs, you know, have to balance out the protein). That lasted me well into mid-afternoon.

I had a 10:00 reservation for the Green Vault, and I had literally a 15 second walk across the street and into the courtyard of the castle. That was easy. The tricky part was having to check everything I brought with me. Apparently nothing but your person is allowed into the Green Vault. I wish I’d know that or I would have left everything in my own personal bag check known as my hotel room, which was free and not 50 cents to use. Understandably, once I got inside it made sense, as some of the objects are (unwisely) not behind glass, so one idiot with an oversized backpack could turn and knock something. But poor layout if that’s the case. But they didn’t ask me.

So in order to keep all these precious antiquities in tip top condition, only 100 people are let in every hour (I think it’s hour…) and those 100 people have to go through some hermetically sealed snuffer that blows all spare dust off of them before they go in. It was sort of a cross between having Scotty beam me up and getting the full body scan at the airport. It wasn’t intrusive but it did take a year and a day to get 25 people through it, as you have to go through individually. Sigh.

The Historic Green Vault is, essentially, all the cool presents and treasures that Augustus the Strong and his descendants collected, sans the paintings and most sculpture. The reason it is called the Green Vault is that the rooms that originally held all this royal collection were painted a medium green. The layout of the collection is such that each room is a theme: amber cabinet, jewel room, bronze room, gilded room, ivory/pearl/shell room. You get the picture. For me, the amber cabinet was interesting because of what I learned and like about amber from going to Russia. I also love the jewel room because it’s not often you can see crazy amounts of gemstones in different mounts and just plain old raw. But among the collection was just about anything you can think of made in some precious material. Silverware, jewelry boxes, cups, bowls, jewelry, bric a brac. Actually that is really what it was: royal bric a brac. I took the audio tour and every so often the narrator would say something like “this knife was not meant to be for every day use, it would never withstand the wear and tear.” So they had knives and things that were never used, just looked at.

One thing that just blew me away was this Augustus Colossus, that was an obelisk created for Augustus that had just about every type of bric a brac in or on or surrounding it. It was overwhelming. But the whole exhibit was overwhelming. It was like a visual overindulgence candy-corn style. Room after room after room…there were 9 rooms in total, and I’ll tell you, by room 7 I wasn’t listening to any more of the optional audio tracks. I just wanted air. Except….

Upstairs was the “New Green Vault”. New as opposed to Historic. Basically it was everything else in the collection that didn’t fit downstairs. I skipped through this, looking only for the one and only green diamond. The story behind this is interesting in that no one knows exactly how this diamond made its way from India to Germany, but they DO know exactly how much it cost. Something smells funny there. It was a very fine diamond though. At a whopping 41 karats, I’d probably have it reset into a pendant. I don’t need the 411 diamondettes surrounding it.

I got outside, got some fresh air and did a bit of retail therapy at a shop near my hotel. Dropping my purchases back at the hotel, I headed to the Zwinger to the Semper museum, which houses the Gemaldegalerie Old Masters Painting Gallery, where I promptly had to unload all my belongings YET AGAIN for another 50 cents. Believe me, I did plenty of research on these museums and none of them said anything about this. It’s a hassle to carry my wallet and a guidebook along with the audio guide I always get. Serious PITA. But I digress.

This gallery is spread out amongst 2 floors and arranged by region. From the name of the museum, it should be no surprise that all the work is old, like 1200-1700. All the big names are here, but my eye was for Rembrandt and two resident Vermeers, both of which chose not to run from me to the Tokyo exhibition like that one in Berlin did. But alas, like a good museum-goer eager to learn, I followed the Baedeker’s Dresden guide suggestions and found all the works of note. First was the Sistine Madonna by Raphael (named such after Pope Sixtus, not the Sistine Chapel), and like any really good Raphael, it got me swooning early on.

I really liked Giorgione’s languid Sleeping Venus and appreciated how the audio guide pointed out the artistic differences between that and another Sleeping Venus in the same room.

But I won’t kid you here, it took a lot of control to walk through Italian and French masters before getting to the Dutch. I wondered who I would come upon first, and it turned out it was Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. At first I wasn’t terribly moved either way, but the more I looked at it, the more I thought about it, the more attracted to it I became. The mossy green of her dress and the curtain that is pulled back between us and her is different from Vermeers I’ve seen before and I liked it. For the uninitiated, Vermeer is know for his mundane, daily life interiors. Usually though, the painting is loaded with symbolism or hints as to what it’s about. I couldn’t come up with any of those hints myself, and it was tough judging from the girl’s face how she was reacting to what she was reading. Flipping through the guide in the gift shop, I learned that this would be considered ordinary daily living as folks in Holland then had a penchant for letter writing. But the guide also pointed out that x-ray had revealed that Vermeer had painted over a painting behind her on the wall that would have clearly symbolized that the letter was all about love. I sort of liked wondering myself.

And only those with a serious interest would want to know that on either side of the Vermeer were four Metsus, and a Dou. Interesting choice. Seeing Metsu and Vermeer side by side was interesting because as much as they say they are cut from the same cloth, the excellence of Vermeer really stands out when it’s the jewel in the crown

The other Vermeer was hard for me to swallow that it was a Vermeer. I think experts may have gone back and forth over whether it is or not. There are only 35 known Vermeers, and the majority are the daily life scenes, so this Procuress (basically a whore being bought) seems unlike him. And the visages and staging of it don’t seem like him. And it is HUGE. I think maybe only the larger paintings of his in the Hague may be equal or bigger. So I’m not convinced.

So after all that with Vermeer, I rounded the next corner to find myself in the Rembrandt room. Ten in all. None of them struck me like the Rape of Persephone did back in Berlin, but there’s no such thing as a bad Rembrandt. There were two portraits of Saskia, and again I noticed how tenderly he always seemed to paint her. One though, I’d been looking forward to seeing was a painting of Rembrandt with Saskia on his lap. It appears to be them in roles from the Return of the Prodigal Son, but it just felt all wrong. The positions were anatomically impossible (unless Saskia could spin her head 180) and the faces looked more Frans Hals than they did Rembrandt. The audio guide said that the painting was originally horizontal and parts of the canvas got lopped off and other parts of the scene painted over, so who knows what he really meant to do with this.

I also sought out the Spanish masters there, as I am a sucker for Velazquez and El Greco. Neither were breathtaking, but I did look.

Needing a bit of a break from museums, I stopped into Frauenkirche. This is the large church that was destroyed in a bombing raid on February 13, 1944. Well, basically all of historic Dresden was destroyed in the bombing raid. Some of the buildings though weren’t destroyed by the bombs as much as by the intense heat from the fires that burned long after. There is a large chunk of the original church outside the rebuilt one. The loss and rebuilding of the church is really a testament to the will of the citizens. In the 60s the DDR declared the ruins a national memorial and the attempts to rebuild needed to wait until the wall fell. In 1990 funding began and in 1994 building began. 43% of the church now is from the remains of the first church. In a somewhat fitting tribute, the cross on the top was a gift from England and made by the son of one of the English bomber pilots from that raid. The church wasn’t dedicated until 2005, so what I see today is so relatively new, even by US standards.

The interior was beautiful, with a Baroque alter and lots of gilt everywhere. It was like being in a jewel box, almost. I’m glad I visited and got to appreciate what Dresden did by pulling together and remembering what is important. Their pride in the church is obvious. I feel blessed to have been able to visit it, and I don’t say things like that often.

By now you’d think I’d be hungry but breakfast was holding me over well, so I decided to go to the Albertinum, another art museum, this one focusing on more recent art. I had my eye on the French Impressionism room, but was fully aware that there was a whole lot of modern and contemporary art there too. Not that that’s bad, but it’s just not my thing. I managed to make it through a lot of rooms’ worth of it, and even picked a Klimt off a wall from a room away. So I’m getting somewhat better.

One very strange part of this museum were these cabinet rooms, which were essentially just cases of shelves of all sorts of sculpture that didn’t have a home anywhere else in the museum. Essentially, public storage. It was disconcerting to see a shelf chock full and then notice one’s a Rodin, one’s a Canova. It was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like that.anywhere else. There were some Rodins on view off the lobby, as well as one Canova, but I would consider them lesser works or plaster copies of originals (The Thinker, for one).

I can’t say that for the one Monet and one Van Gogh (still life of pears) that the trip was worth it. There was, however, a Degas of two ballerinas that I swooned over. It was very similar to the one at the Pushkin in Moscow that I loved. This one was done all in vibrant orange with his jewel tone blue highlights. Must look that one up at home, it is frame worthy.

About now I was just starting to feel peckish, but there was a 3:00 English tour of the opera house and I have 15 minutes to buy tickets and make it there. I grabbed a Berliner pretzel (a sugar coated donut twisted in the form of a pretzel) and a piece of apple kuchen, just to see if it’s at all like Mom’s. It’s not and I hardly ate half of it.

Back to the opera house I went, which is just a few blocks from where I’d been near the Albertinum.

The tour was pretty good. The guide explained that this was actually the third opera house on or near this site. The first burned down in the late 1800s. Workers cleaning left perfume scented candles going to take care of the smell from cleaning and managed to burn the place down. But opera is such an important part of German life that they rebuilt it in just 6 weeks (granted, it looked like Noah’s ark). That’s the one that was destroyed by the firestorm in 1944. I wouldn’t expect a wooden structure like that to withstand much of anything, let alone a firestorm.

The guide explained that opera in Germany is still very accessible and not yet overpriced like it is in other cities. This house has 300 performances a year and a full, diverse program. Stauss debuted 15 operas in this building (well, not THIS building but one of the opera houses on this site).

The tour took us through the halls and the guide explained that almost all the materials in there are cheaper, man-made materials rather than real granite or marble. Finally we got to see the venue itself and it was pretty. It is not exquisite like Paris’ is, but it is pretty. The stage is grand and the theater itself holds 3300 people, I believe he said.

Right across the street is the Hofkirche and I decided to stop in there on my way back to the hotel. This is the only Catholic church in Dresden. When it was first built, the Protestant majority wouldn’t even let it ring its bells. This church was also burned out and left a wreck for some time. The interior of this church was much more simple and not as ornate.

Having been on my feet non-stop since 10 a.m. I decided to go to the hotel and put my feet up around 4:45. The location of this hotel is a dream and really allows me to do things like that without even thinking about it. After a bit of a rest, I went window shopping at the shopping arcade at Altmarkt just past where that outdoor market of stalls is. I didn’t buy anything other than chocolate gifts for people at home and olive oil hand cream for me, but it was interesting to see the fashions and especially the prices. Workout gear like I’d buy at home was easily 15-20% more even before the exchange rate.

Dinner tonight was at Augustiner anu de Frauenkirche, another restaurant right on the square around the church. This was decorated like a beer cellar and the wait staff again in traditional dress. I have to say I think I liked this meal better (and will like it better still if it doesn’t wake me up at midnight). Tonight I had for a starter the sausage salad. This was thinly sliced sausage with chopped red onion and gherkin pickles. I think it was in the brine of the pickles, if I’m not mistaken. To die for. It’d be a fabulous cookout side dish! My main course was Munich style schnitzel, which meant it was stuffed with ham and cheese, cordon bleu style! The side was potato cucumber (which really meant pickle) salad. I had a glass of German white (Elbling, I remembered to write it down tonight) with it.

I was totally stuffed and couldn’t finish the entrĂ©e, so I skipped dessert and walked around and took a few more photos. By the time I got back to my hotel, I had room for a small dish of white chocolate ice cream at the chocolate specialist next to the hotel. Now I’m all packed and ready to roll back to Berlin tomorrow.

Dresden has been beautiful. If I did this trip over, Dresden would get one more full day in the itinerary. I don’t know how people “do” this as a day trip from Berlin. I still had the new town on the other side of the river to get to, and easily 6 more restaurants to try! And it will be damn sad to say goodbye to Swissotel. Sniff.

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