One Morning in Nuremberg

DSC_1234

The Altstadt was quiet on that late autumn morning. It was a few weeks too early for the Christkindelmarkt, but there was a regular market with stalls, under red and white awnings, selling gingerbread, wild mushrooms and flowers.

It was a cold morning and the customers’ breath fogged in front of their faces at the bratwurst stand as the vendor grilled sausages, stuffed them in buns and slathered them in German mustard. The wind lifted the edge of the awning.

The Pegnitz River slices the old town neatly in half, St Lorenz to the south, St Sebald to the north. Each has a venerable church with twin towers imposing themselves on the skyline of spires and turrets and terracotta roofs.

There is a choice of bridges to cross the river. Several are centuries-old. Museumsbrücke leads directly into the Hauptmarkt – the main market square – and has the best view of them all. To the left, as you walk over it, is the Fleischbrücke, standing since 1598, notwithstanding the Second World War; to the right is the Heilig-Geist-Spital – Holy Spirit Hospital – built in 1339 and beautifully reflected in the river. The low arches beneath it blend into their reflection and form the shape of spectacles.

The cafes around the square across the river had optimistally put out their tables and chairs, but no one was sitting outside that day. A tour group, wrapped up in winter coats, trooped into the square and stopped in front of the Schöner Brunnen, the gilded 14th century fountain. The guide twisted the brass ring in the fence around it with a clank and a squeak and told – I assume – the story I had read in my guidebook about it bringing good luck.

Mention Nuremberg, even now, and many will immediately think of the Nazis; but its history did not begin with Hitler’s bombastic rallies, nor end with the war crimes tribunal.

In its half-timbered heyday, it was the unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire, the centre of the German Renaissance. Albrecht Dürer, was born and died there; his house survives as a museum. It is one of a cluster of timber-framed fachwerkhäuser in the steep cobbled streets in the lee of the castle at the top of the Aldstadt. The shops around it sell antiques, antiquarian books and, one, garden gnomes in bondage gear, as if gnomes were not creepy enough already.

There is evidently more to Nuremberg, behind the lace curtains, than gingerbread and wooden toys.

I found that again when I started walking round the old city walls and came to a sign which purported to bar the way to under-eighteens. I was puzzled, at first; but beyond it, the windows were framed with red tube lights and the street was busy with furtive middle-aged men.

More tourists appeared in the Hauptmarkt in the quarter of an hour leading up to twelve and assembled on the cobbles in front of the Frauenkirche to watch the mechanical clock. On the hour, a bell tinged, drummers mimed drumming, trumpeters jerked up their arms, and miniature electors rotated around a miniature Holy Roman Emperor.

“Oh!”said the crowd in half a dozen languages,“… Is that it?”

© Richard Senior 2015

Another Day in Dresden

DSC_1125editededited

There was a rail strike across Germany and I was stuck in Dresden until after the weekend. It is a lovely city, despite the things it has been in the news for of late; but I thought I had seen as much as I wanted to see.

I borrowed a bike from the hostel and cycled downtown as the lights were flickering on in the stores in the mall which shadows St Petersburger Strasse. Burger King, McDonalds, Ibis, Starbucks, TK Maxx and Fitness First, then across the road an apartment block from another age, another country. Just under the roofline, there is still a trace of the words which used to be there: der socializmus siegt, socialism is winning.

I cycled over the c-c-c-c-c-cobbles in the A-a-a-a-a-lstdat, between the grimly beautiful buildings – towers, spires, domes, statues, blackened sandstone, opaque glass – then crossed the Augustus Bridge and rattled down a flight of steps to the path along the bank of the Elbe, which I followed to see where it went.

DSC_1177

Away from the city, it meandered inland and brought me out in the middle of a suburb and ushered me over a bridge and back onto the opposite bank, where I picked up the path and followed it again. The autumn sun brought out the crowds and I dodged strolling couples and scooting children and overtook giggly teenagers cycling at walking speed. But I was overtaken in turn by serious men on serious bikes with sprayed-on lycra, and others with panniers and maps and more fluorescence than a motorway maintenance team. There were castles high in the hills on the opposite bank. A steamboat chuffed sedately down the river. Here and there were clusters of half-timbered houses, and once a middle-aged couple ballroom dancing alone in an empty car park.

The path undulated through the countryside, past old industrial buildings and through a park, and ended up in Pirna. A Sunday lunch crowd sat outside restaurants with hefty lager glasses; an old man stood on a corner by a bierhaus grilling bratwursts and stuffing them into buns. I cycled up and down the narrow lanes, between pastel-painted buildings with Gothic arches and Baroque spires, in the shadow of the castle at the top of the town. It seemed that neither guidebooks nor town planners had heard of the place.

These are the best days, sometimes: the days which should not have happened, the days when nothing has gone to plan and you are still somewhere you should have left, or are somewhere you should never have been; the days when you have already seen the sights and eaten at the restaurants and done the activities and are just wandering aimlessly to fill the time.

© Richard Senior 2015

Seeing Berlin by Trabant

DSC_1012

A man in the old East Germany went to the showroom to buy a Trabant.

Come back in thirteen years,” the salesman said, “it’ll be ready for you then”.

“Can we make it the afternoon?”

“Certainly, comrade. But why?”

“The plumber’s coming in the morning.”

The VEB Sachsenring Trabant was a gift for anti-communist propaganda. It looked like something from a 1950’s cartoon and had an engine better suited to a lawnmower: 600cc, 26 brake horse, 0-60 on seven day’s notice. It was not really made of cardboard, as rumoured in the West, but some panels were made of a plastic reinforced with old wool and other sweepings-up. It appears in most lists of the worst cars ever built.

I had always wanted to drive one.

I was in Berlin and poking about near Checkpoint Charlie when I happened on an outfit which ran self-drive Trabant tours.

Mine had been pimped up with a soft top conversation, electric windows and a metallic pink paintjob. But it still had the skinny original wheels, and the little engine was standard. It was as Spartan inside as a race car. The speedo went up to 140kph, which was as ambitious as any of the DDR’s production targets.  Next to it was what might have been a rev counter, but did not seem to do very much.

There was a hefty rocker switch for the lights and a few knobs which I think were just there to fill space. A flimsy stalk protruded from the steering column: up and down to indicate and forward for the horn, which worked one time in four. There was a sturdier lever on the other side for the gear change: forward and down for first, then up for second, back and down for third and up for fourth.

DSC_1004

I knew that the engine was two-stroke, but I still laughed when I started it up and it ring-ting-tinged like a moped. Then a cloud of blue smoke engulfed me. The gearbox growled and struggled against me as I tried to wrestle it into first, but I overcame it with the sort of brute force the Stasi might have used on a prisoner.

There were six of us in convoy, following a guide who called out instructions on a one-way radio as we made for Potsdamer Platz. It was the Piccadilly Circus, the Times Square of the Weimar Republic, but was all but levelled in World War II, then bisected by the Wall and left as a vacant plot. Now it is ringed by skyscrapers designed by an aristocracy of architects. It was busy with commuters on their way home when we ring-ting-tinged past; and in my pink Trabant with the roof down and my arm draped over the door, I hammed the self-satisfied look of the bankers you see snarling round in Ferraris. They looked at me as if I was being serious.

We drove on towards the Brandenburg gate, a symbol of partition, then of reunification, now gorgeously lit with video projections for the Festival of Lights.

As we headed towards and over the river, some of the Trabants got stuck at the traffic lights and Audis and Volkswagens slipped in between them, incongruous as bungling spies. “We have some capitalist cars in our convoy,” the guide warned over the radio.

He set off from the lights and turned left across traffic, and I slammed it into first, then second and scuttled across after him and forced a corpulent Mercedes to stop. PARRRRP! went his big bourgeois horn. Neep-neep went mine in response.

DSC_1014

We stopped and got out on Unter den Linden to look at the light shows on the cathedral, university and opera; then set off again, heading deep into the old East Berlin. We screamed through Alexanderplatz, past the TV tower, and on past the East Side Gallery, through Friedrichshain with its legendary nightlife.

I had fought my way up to fourth gear by then, and with my foot flat down and the engine howling, I must have been doing at least 30. Yet I was having more fun than I have had in much faster, pricier cars.

We met another Trabant tour going the other way and everyone waved and cheered and neep-neeped at once. It might have been a scene from a propaganda film in the days of the DDR.

(c) Richard Senior 2014