The Pearl Girl is grounded for good

Pearl girl on the move

After a dizzying two year blockbuster tour to Japan, the US and Italy, Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring is returning home to the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague. The painting was allowed to go on tour while the Mauritshuis was undergoing renovations. Now that the construction has been completed, she has been hung back into the same small room she was before. During her tour, people lined up to the tune of 10,500 a day to see her, so it will nice for her to be back in her quiet home again. And now that she is back, the museum has decided she will not be lent out again.

This decision is not a unique, since there are many masterpieces that are not allowed to travel. Some are considered too fragile like Degas’ Little Dancer wax sculpture. Others are just too big like Guernica, while some are just too valuable like the Louvre’s Mona Lisa to travel. No matter, the Girl with the Pearl Earring will just be a homebody from now on. Tourists just have to remember that she’s not in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, rather a half hour train ride away to the Hague’s Maurtishuis.

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A Rogue Vermeer

300px-Vermeer_saint_praxedisUp to now, I’ve referred to the number of Vermeer’s oeuvre still in existence at 36.  I’ve travelled the world to see all three dozen of them, but it seems there’s still one more.  St. Praxedis is supposedly an early painting by Vermeer.  It features the woman, St. Praxedis, dressed in rich crimson robes kneeling as she squeezes a sponge filled with the blood of a martyred saint into an ewer.  Fun stuff.  This painting is almost identical another work by the Florentine Felice Ficherelli which Vermeer is thought to have cut his artistic teeth by the age-old technique of copying.  When I started my Vermeer project four years ago, this work’s authenticity was still in question.  I decided not to pursue it for a number of reasons: first because it had not been available to the public, secondly it was a copy, and lastly it was a rather gory-Catholic subject of which I wasn’t interested in seeing (no pearls).  


This work was also rejected by the art world back in 1969 when it was first attributed to Vermeer.  It remained in ‘art’ purgatory until 1986 when it some art experts accepted it. St. Praxedis was tentatively included in the Vermeer catalogue which raised some controversy.  Shortly afterwards, a wealthy American Barbara Piasecka Johnson bought the painting and then debuted it with other Vermeers in exhibitions held at the National Gallery of Art, the Maurithuis and most recently in Rome.  

In the end science tipped the scales in the painting’s favour.   Recently technical analysis by the Rijksmuseum showed that the painting was Dutch and the lead white paint used belonged to the same batch as those of Vermeer’s early work Diane and her Companions.  These scientific conclusions made this Vermeer a new addition to the rare oeuvre, and only one of two Vermeer works owned privately.  Signed and dated 1655, this painting is now the earliest painting Vermeer is thought to have done at around age 22. The buzz this news caused in the art world obviously pleased Barbara. But she had a life that has long attracted buzz.  

This Polish immigrant, named ‘Basia’ had the ultimate rags to riches story. Arriving in the US in 1968 with only an MA in art history from Wroclaw University and $200.00 in her pocket, she managed to get herself hired at a wealthy family’s New Jersey house as a cook. The family’s patriarch, John Seaward Johnson was one of the founding members of the Johnson & Johnson Company (the one that supplies much of the contents of every household’s medicine cabinet).  Apparently her cooking wasn’t up to snuff, so she was transferred to a chambermaid position where she became acquainted with John.  She quickly demonstrated her knowledge of art and he eventually arranged to have her help curate his collection.   They discovered they shared a passion for art and soon after for each other.  

The septuagenarian divorced his then second wife in 1971 to marry his 34 years-young bride and for the next dozen years they spent money together on art until his death in 1983.  In his will John Seward Johnson denied all but one of his children (from a first marriage) any more of his estate. The ensuing probate battle became legendary with the six step children fighting for their piece of the $500 million to the tune of $24 million in lawyer fees.   It was an epic three year, 17 week court case battle complete with character assassinations which were flung from both sides. The probate fight made the celebrity news buzz and prenupts a new word among the rich.   In the end, the children settled for a paltry $40 million while Barbara settled with the rest of the estate overseas.  Back in Europe, she continued her philanthropic activities and art collecting.

Of Barbara’s collection, many works reflect her Catholic faith.  Along with her artistic interests, she also established a charity organization under her name.  After her death at age 76, the charity was given permission to sell some of her works including this Vermeer, banking on the recent Rijksmuseum conclusions.  Alas, according to the latest news out of Christies, it is rumoured that an Asian buyer made the winning bid July 8.  I hate to see private collectors get such rare pieces since it often means that they lay shut away from the public eye – gory or not.

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I take a bus tour from Munich to see two of most famous castles in the world, the product of King Ludwig II. I share the giant two-story bus with both Canadians and American tourists. Together we leave Munich and drive towards to the Alps where King Ludwig II played, planning and building a series of fantasy luxury estates. The passing villages are all clean and orderly with large chalet farm houses, their railings lined with geraniums and yards filled with cords of wood stacked in obsessive piles.



Our first stop is Linderhof Palace, a mini Versailles Ludwig dreamed up high in a far valley. It must have irked the poor government officers as they made the strenuous two-day journey from Munich to the king’s residence where the royal recluse played king. Ludwig spent a goodly number of years fantasizing his regal world, but never had visitors other than the government bureaucrats who came to pester him.

Our tourguide gives us our marching orders and then drops us off. She is friendly, but the syntax of her directions are vague which keeps us, the tour group relying on each other to figure out what she meant. A tall Linden tree dominates the estate on a terraced vista, inspiring the name of the place. Being a fan of the French absolute ruler Louis XIV, Ludwig created an embarrassment of riches. The palace itself is relatively small, but expresses the ultimate classical symmetry. There is too much gilded ornament to take in, each room representing an obsessive attention to outdated ceremony. Outside the surrounding gardens are filled with the requisite grottos, pools, stairs and mythological statues which includes lots of big-bottomed women.


We are hustled through the palace, most of us hurrying back as soon as the tour finishes since we are worried about being left behind. We load up and then the big bus bumps along the narrow road to a mountain pass. The land is high and the winter snows must be deep. We arrive at a small village which has a typically descriptive German name – Oberammergau which means a town spanning the Ammer creek in the upper area of Bayern. It has the traditional German village markers – the May Pole, wall frescoes, lots of Catholic churches and pretty chalets. This village’s main industries are surprising, involving both wood carving and passion plays. Over half of the residences are wood carvers while once a decade the entire community presents a full live passion play complete with farm animals. This tradition stems from the 17th century when the village made this vow in thanks for being spared from the plague. This Christian production runs for months and attracts audiences internationally. Certainly a unique business plan.


We stop in a gift shop which is lined with cuckoo clocks and gridlocked with tourists. Soon we are back on the bus and driving towards a high plain surrounded by mountains. I see lots of bicyclists and wish I could do a riding trip here. The land is dramatic with green fields and mountains which are disturbingly bare for this time of year. Climate change has made its mark here. We pass a beautiful lake that has purposely been left undeveloped by the locals to maintain the wildness. An astounding feat in this commercial age.

Finally we turn a corner and see the tall white palace of Neuschwanstein looming up on a high hill beside a mountain range.


Neuschwanstein’s name was derived from the Schwanstein castle ruins that once stood on the same site. Ludwig started designing his dream castle here in 1868, contracting an architect and stage designer to realize his Wagner-inspired residence. Amazing what one can do with imagination, lots of money and a touch of insanity. Over the next 20 years, his building frenzy emptied the coffers and drove his ministers to declare him insane and to lock him up which lead to his mysterious death in 1886. Ironically, his spending spree paid off since only weeks after his death, the government opened up both of his houses to the public, creating one of the first destination tourist attractions. With 13 years it had paid itself off, and since then became one of the primary income sources in Bavarian. Today, Neuschwanstein is the most visited places in Europe with over 1.3 million visitors per year. No wonder Walt Disney copied it.

Neuschwanstein has more significance for me than a Euro-Disneyesque attraction. It has a connection to Vermeer reaching back to the Second World War. Part of Hitler’s megalomaniacal plans for the world involved culture, so as soon as he began to invade other countries, he began collecting masterpieces. Some of his largest plunder came from France where he emptied the coffers of country’s wealthy Jewish families. Hitler’s henchmen plucked the Vermeer painting the Astronomer from the wall of the Rothschild’s Paris apartment. This work, along with thousands of others, ended up at the Jeu de Palme Museum where it was carefully catalogued before being sent away to the Fatherland to become part of the Fuhrer’s collection for a future world museum in Linz. As the war turned against Hitler, these art works were secreted into the Austrian mountains for safekeeping. The records, however, were sent to Neuschwanstein. As the Monuments Men from the US Army tracked down the art trail, they discovered this precious cache of records that would be essential in tracing the looted art works back to their original owners.


Our tour bus winds up some narrow roads towards a group of buildings which becomes obvious is Schwan-central. After a century of tourism, a full industry has flourished here. The place is congested and noisy with tourists and buses. Our guide gives us some confusing orders and we all gather to translate. What did she mean by the meeting time? Two-twenty, two and two zero, twenty-twenty two? We stop for lunch but don’t dare stray too far from the bus which is our meeting place for the shuttle which will take us up to the castle ridge. A van pulls up and a burly man gets out, crams us inside and then demands money for the ride. Thus comes the hidden extra costs. Once up top, we clutch our tickets and wander around, happy to have a written-down hour for our appointment. I walk down to a high bridge that overlooks the castle. It’s a beautiful view, but jammed with people.


The mixture of heights and crowds too much for me. I manage only a few minutes before I retreat and chat with a Hurdy Gurdy player who entertains the passing crowds with songs and tunes.

hurdy gurdy

The young soft-spoken man is wearing a brown felt hat with a large wilting brim. Turns out he is a historian who was laid off from a local museum – tough all around. Apparently his position here is now in jeopardy as well. I wish him luck and make my way down to the castle where I meet my colleagues and we take bets as to how many of our tour will get lost.

German precision has us meet at a specific time. Soon we are crammed into a group inside where we are informed that no photo taking. Part of the growing copyright trend I see in more museums these days. The tour is quick and we are pushed through each room to keep the crush of people going. It’s hard to describe the unfinished folly since like Linderhof, there is too much detailing to take in. Ludwig went for a pastiche of styles from Byzantine to Gothic and Romanesque, all steeped with a Romantic fairy tale mood depicted in painted murals everywhere. Ludwig eschewed electricity in his fantasy home, but ironically included one of the first telephones and water closets (both carefully hidden). As I walk about, I imagine the rooms and hallways filled not only with gilded furniture, but filing cabinets containing the records of all the art looted from France’s Jewish families. The fantasy palace held some dark secrets. Strangely enough, the tour guide makes no mention of this.

The goofiest element included in the palace in the new grotto he included in one hallway which one stumbles upon when rounding a corner – like a film set. Tacky begins to come to mind and it’s all a bit sad when you think about the disconnect life it represented. Despite all that, Ludwig got it right with the vistas which overlook the Alps and that beautiful lake now dotted with sailboats. The day is clear and we all enjoy the breeze from the narrow balcony despite jostling each other for photos.

Becky at Neuschwanstein We finish the tour in the music hall, one that never saw an audience since Ludwig was too shy. Concerts are held here now regularly to take advantage of the good acoustics. I notice a woman carefully dusting one of the ornate chairs lining the hall. It looks dreary and time consuming work. The place is a duster’s nightmare since Ludwig’s bedroom has a bed canopy with a forest of Gothic carved – wooden spires that took 40 wood carvers four years to create. At least Ludwig paid all his workers well, according to historical reports (unlike many other aristocrats). There isn’t time to relax since we must make our way down the hill back to Schwanville.

downtoschwanvilleWe meet at the bottom back with the convoy of buses and wait in the hot sunshine. To our surprise, no one goes missing. Once loaded up, the bus takes us back to Munich, passing solar power farms, a new crop in Germany which accounts for over half the power generation here.

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Tracking down the Munich Collecting Point


I have a leisurely morning of packing and breakfasting before I leave for the train station to catch a train to Munich. This is the last leg of my trip which follows the journey of the Vermeers at the end of the Second World War. The trip to Munich is only a 1.5 hour direct trip by train, so I arrive in the early afternoon at the Hauptbahnhof. Munich is a large bustling city brimming with historical and cultural buildings, the likes of which I will only have a short time to explore. Once again I play ‘Let’s try and orient myself out of the train station game’ which is one of the most frustrating elements of travel since few streets are marked at the station’s exists. I finally ask a few people for directions and find my hotel which is just around the corner. The Europaisch Hotel a newish building, retaining the name of the original which stood in the same spot but was destroyed during the war. As I settle into my room, the weather degrades into showers. By the time I set out for an afternoon visit to a museum, it’s a steady rain. Pulling my jacket hood closer over my head, I hunker down into a fast pace. I am walking north towards Kunstareal area which houses many museums and other cultural institutions. Among these buildings is the Müncher Haus der Kulturalinstitute, a neoclassical structure linked to the Vermeers. This building was once called the Führerbau which was Hitler’s headquarters in Munich. After the Allies took Munich (June 1945), the Führerbau was appropriated by the Monuments Men to be used as a collecting point for all the art uncovered in that area of Germany.

munich collecting point

Craig Hugh Smyth, a Monuments Man with experience working at Washington DC’s National Gallery, was charged with remediating the damaged building in less than two weeks. This meant scrounging up the supplies, equipment and people to prepare the site for what would be thousands of pieces of art looted by the German ERR. This collecting point became the ad hoc art museum triage centre where artworks would be accepted, assessed, catalogued and then stored for the interim. Within two weeks of setting up, trucks bearing thousands artworks began to arrive from the Altaussee salt mine 150 km away. Many of these priceless masterpieces were wrapped in German sheepskin coats –improvised packing material discovered in another mine by one of the key Monuments Men, George Stout.

I wander around Königsplatz, squinting in the rain, looking for the former collecting point. My google earth map is vague and I can’t find it. I walk into what looks like a music school to try and get advice by locals. No one seems to be available, so I return outside. Twenty paces along, I glance behind me and realize that it’s familiar. Disguised underneath some construction material, I recognize the white neoclassical façade of the Führerbau. Here is where the Vermeers and other famous works were stored.


I continue on with my soggy journey to the Alte Pinakothek, an art museum famous for its collection of medieval to Baroque masterworks. The oversized 19th-century building has the tallest doors I’ve ever seen and I have to throw my weight fully when gaining entrance.
alte pinokothek
Once inside, I discover many of the museum’s galleries have been closed for renovations. This is part of rolling 3 year closures needed to update the lighting and windows in order to save energy. Once the largest and most technically modern of museums, it’s become a costly elephant. Even museums are having to face their carbon footprint. As a result, the floor plan is broken up and confusing with some works missing. I see Dürer’s famous Jesus-inspired self-portrait and some great Hieronymus Bosch spooky landscapes. Most notable are the Flemish, Dutch and early German altarpieces, many are large while all have that incredible details. Gold embroidery, shining metals and even eyelashes are all described with magnified skill. These bright paintings look as if they were created just yesterday. Sadly the Valasquez works are missing.

After being museumed out, I go explore Munich’s city monuments. By the grandeur of the buildings, Munich was the seat of a very powerful city state in the 19th century. The Rathaus (city hall) fills an entire city block and has an elaborate façade and tower complete with an intricate glockenspiele and mechanical figurines.
Munchen Rathaus The Frauenkirch’s tall two-towered church is rivalled only by the massive Munich Residenz which is stuffed with even more museums. I realize I would need at least week to begin to explore this interesting city, so I must satisfy myself by just touring its streets and the nearby Viktualien Markt (market). I stop and eat at an American-Thai inspired restaurant – happy to order a vegetarian dish to counter all the meat I have eaten. By then, evening is falling, so I turn back towards my hotel. As expected I get lost and then found, navigating my way through the angling streets. Tomorrow I will be going to the most famous castle in the world – Neuschwanstein.

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Of Salt, Composers and Water


Today I explored Salzburg, an ancient city that straddles the Salzach River and over- shadowed by tall cliffs. I woke early due to the light and street construction noise that burst into my room at 7 AM. Apparently the Salzburg city workers do not warn locals where they will be beginning their street work. I walked over to the old part of the city just as it was waking up. I enjoyed seeing the day’s activities just starting before the onslaught of tourists.
horses salzburg
I decided not to wait for the funicular and instead walk up the 200-plus steps to the massive medieval fortress Hohensalzburg which as the name suggests looms over the city. A good morning workout. I had most of the place to myself as I enjoyed the amazing views of the city and on the other side, a spectacular view of the ranks of mountains to the south.
hohesalzburg The fortress was a sprawling place with many buildings that house museums, restaurants and even a chamber concert hall. Classes of kids arrived behind me, most looking flushed from the stairmaster walk up.
fountain Salzburg The city below is filled with the spires of countless Catholic churches, garnering the name of Rome of the North. As the name Salzburg connotes, the town’s wealth and power came from salt which at one time was worth nearly as much as gold. Salt seems to pervade every aspect of life here, even the food–which though good– is very salty.
me at hohesalzburg
I enjoy the view and then head back down to the Mozartplatz where I have arranged to take a city tour. Soon after, a van picks me up and starts driving around the crowded streets. I join a Canadian family from the Toronto area and soon we are chatting away. Three generations of their family are taking a Euro tour which includes a visit to John’s –the patriarch – home town located in a once German-speaking part of Hungary. Once on our way, we find Salzburg filled with construction and essentially gridlocked. The driver is charming and patient, but it’s obvious that even he’s finding it impossible. While we wait in traffic, we learn about the Bishops who ruled the city for a millennium, building and indulging themselves. One palace we pass in town was built for the Bishop’s mistress who bore him 15 children. The Catholic church really looked the other way in those days. Like so many cities, Salzburg suffers from lack of land, being set between the river and the surrounding cliffs. One block of apartments were literally built into the soft local cliffs. Finally after being caught in the traffic we escape out through the city’s famous tunnel –one of the oldest street tunnels built in 18th century – that took us out into the country. Once there, we crossed a canal that was built centuries earlier to bring fresh water to the city. Also like so many other cities, it was established in a very unhealthy swampy place which had to be addressed later on.
We approach the beautiful Hellbrunn Schloss, a descriptive name (‘clear spring’) once again. This 18th-century summer palace was constructed by the jokester Prince Archbishop Markus Sittikus von Hohenems . The summer residence is just a day house – meaning no bedrooms, but lots of salons and halls where the aristocrats could amuse themselves. Outside is a collection of grottoes and fountains called the Wasserspiele , so popular with the aristocracy, all established by the Renaissance Italians with a nod to the ancient Romans. I take the water fountain tour whereby the guide shows us all the Bishop’s tricks he used to play on his guests.
wasserspieleThe children in the tour group are besides themselves with excitement and scream with delight as they get wet. Sprays of water appear from everywhere, from statues, deer antlers, sidewalks and even under benches. Thankfully the day is warm and the misting feels nice. The children in their enthusiasm get thoroughly soaked.
Afterwards, I enjoy a lunch with the Canadian family where we discuss the grandfather’s visit to his home village in Hungary. John, the patriarch, walks like a rancher, his hardened body revealing the years of hard work he did as gardener working in Canada where he emigrated. He discovered his village was essentially destroyed. Only the church remained where he met the mayor who was trying to rebuild it. Like so many German speakers, John and his family was evicted after the war and subsequent Communist takeover. Those who remained were allowed to buy their land back – if they had the money to pay the inflated price. He spoke sadly about the vineyard his father carved himself meter by meter in Hungary, only to have it neglected and destroyed after they left. Even two generations after the war, the scars remain.
We decide to return to Salzburg by bus and then track down the Mozart museums. Other than salt, this is the town’s greatest export. Mozart is everywhere and there are a number of museums dedicated to him. We tour two and find the first – the Wohnhaus – to have interesting items like the family’s jewelry, music, paintings and instruments, but the displays are very disjointed and provide no real narrative.
mozart geburtsbauThe second, the house he was born in, is better. It features more stories, including some interesting information about his wife and sister. Both seem to have been active individuals who actually helped disseminate Mozart’s music after his death. I particularly liked Mozart’s sister, Nannerl’s portrait which seemed to show spunky she was. The other main impressions I gather was that the composer had a hard life of constant touring, performances and fickle aristocratic employers. His success came only later with hard work, which by his frenetic letters, he had the energy to do. No wonder he died so young.
Finally everyone is worn out, the grandmother having bought a cane to help her sore knee. We indulge in an iced drink and then I say my goodbyes. I’ve really enjoyed all the people I’ve met along the way. I head off to eat at a local pub which epitomizes the typical Gemütlichkeit spirit of Austrians. The place is set in a cellar constructed with large heavy-hewn wooden beams. The woodwork is beautiful which makes me wonder where they source new wood. I order a Weinersnitzel which thankfully is not too salty, and a house red wine, then settle in to watch yet another World Cup game. The Germans are doing well, but they are worried about the upcoming match with the strong French team. It’s all about sudden death now in the matches, and everyone is emotional. Strange to see grown men weeping and praying openly on TV. Then it’s back to my hotel room where I drop into bed exhausted.

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A ‘Bad’ Day


I woke up to a world that was still wet with showers – not a good sign since I am to spend the day travelling west into the mountains. I am heading to a place called AltAussee which is a salt mine in an isolated valley. Transportation into backwaters is hands down the trickiest, and anticipating this, I have spent a great deal of time studying and printing off the Bynzantine schedules and maps (thanks to my German friend, Ulli!). To get there will be a difficult set of connections from trains, busses and fuss! (feet) To be honest, I’d take a Berlin busy any day. I pack some extra clothes, anticipating that the mine will be chilly – not to mention an extra pair of socks for the wet feet. Just steps outside the hotel, the rain has already made inroads into my shoes. I now wish I’d packed that umbrella or asked at the desk to borrow one. I soldier on through the rain, until I notice that somehow in my distraction I’ve gone the wrong way. Grrr… I stop in at a gas station and the attendant points me in the right direction. Travelling requires the brain to be constantly aware. During my art safari, I must act like a hunter and look behind me to make note of my surroundings for my return journey.

I manage to arrive at the Bahnhof in time for the train despite my mistake, though I’m now soaked. Once on the train, I enjoy the passing landscape which becomes more mountainous and picturesque the further we go. The train traces through a valley and arrives along a lake, revealing beautiful vistas with chalets reflected in waters only momentarily before it plunges into a tunnel to exit into yet another fairy view. A group of students pile on the wagon, all excited to be going off to camp. We pass the famous saltmine town of Hallstratt and arrive at a place called Badaussee. Bad refers to the baths, not anything untoward.
HallstattOnce off the train, I search for the Bus stop which I find behind the station. A bus 955 arrives as planned. When I ask about the Salt mine, he states that I will have to walk the last five km. I nod, my spirits sinking. I knew that the connections would be tricky, but I hadn’t counted on this. It will tighten my window of time to return. According to the online bus schedule, there appears to be only one return bus at 15:46. As I sit down a class of students jump on and the bus begins to wind its way through the narrow Austrian burbs. More chalets flash by, many sporting beautiful wood carving, porch boxes brimming with flowers and antler trophies.

Badaussee chalets

As we approach the final bus stop, the teacher mentions that his class is going to JUFA, the youth hostel I recall stands opposite the mine’s entrance. Suddenly the bus makes a sharp turn up a road marked with the Salt Mine sign and the driver announces that he is taking us directly to the mine.
salt mine sign It seems that local bus drivers can follow their whims. We cheer. Luck is with us.

salt mine exterior

Once inside, I catch the 1:15 tour which starts with everyone donning canvas jackets and hosen to wear in the mine.
Altaussee portraitThe tour opens with a rather goofy video whereby an Austrian comedian explains the geological origins of salt mines, using jokes and references to Jesus and Austrian cooking. Then we pass through a door and head down a shaft. The darkened passage is only a two-armed stretch wide and underfoot is a narrow train track which the feet suddenly become aware of in the darkness. The way is lit only by dim lights which reveal walls alternately lined with wood, stone and then salt. I had naively expected the salt to be white, when it fact it is striped in the colours of black white and orange – sort of like a tiger icecream. The air is cool and moist, the faint smell of damp wood filling the nose. The way is direct and slowly tilts up; our guide leads us forward at a good pace, considering that there are children in the group. But everyone follows without comment until we arrive at a big underground room.

In the first chamber, he speaks about salt and the mining techniques, the second he shows us is the underground chapel. This mine has been worked for centuries, the workers offering their prayers to St. Barbara.
altaussee chapel Finally we take another tunnel to reach a second room where the guide speaks about how Hitler had most of his looted treasure brought here as the war turned against him. This collection was part of his Linz Museum, a dream to build the greatest art museum in the world. In the end, it all ended up here – a place that was secret, hard to get to, and relatively stable environmentally for fragile works of art. I can imagine the difficulties, they must have had transporting the work up the snow-choked narrow roads in winter and then down this shaft. The mine stretches like a warren for kilometers in all directions, with artwork hidden in various chambers. Among these 6500 works were two Vermeers, the Art of Painting, and the Rothschild’s Astronomer.

altaussee astronomer
Autaussee Art of Painting

As things became desperate for the Third Reich, Hitler ordered everything in his realm be destroyed rather than taken by the enemy. In the end, Hitler sent a contradictory message about his beloved art. Despite the absolute destruction order, he bequeathed his collection to the German people. This left the henchmen under him in a difficult position as to what to do. Ultimately, Gauleiter Eigruber, the commander in Austria chose destruction, so he ordered a large stockpile of bombs be wired in the mine and made ready to blow. The fate of the world’s greatest collection of art hung by a thread.
Altaussee bombs
Local workers noted the situation, and they quietly acted, not so much wanting to preserve art as they were to maintain their own livelihood. A few undid the wiring and removed the giant bombs which had been placed in boxes labelled “Fragile Marble.” By the time the American Officers called the Monuments Men arrived, they found a mine with only its entrance destroyed. Once inside, they discovered shelving stuffed with unbelievable masterpieces. As I look about, I imagine the scene – something out of King Tut’s tomb. Instead of being able to savour the moment, the Monument’s Men were informed that they had only days to remove the art since the Russians are to take control of the area. Somehow these resourceful men managed to organize, pack and arrange transport for these paintings in the midst of 16 hour days of working with dicey lighting, little food and driving rain. Having wet feet during this tour, I can identify with the one usually stoic Monument Man, George Stout who wrote in his journal “All hands grumbling’ to describe the art evacuation. Seeing the place in person, I’m even more impressed.

We finish up the tour by zooming down two wooden slides and then seeing a light show by an underground lake. It’s beautiful, but the Enya-like music involves a strange and modern take on Yodeling. Once back out into the lobby and de-costumed, I head immediate outside to make my way back towards Badaussee to catch that one bus. Fortunately, the Fates are on my side and the rain has stopped. I break into a light jog down the long switchbacks. The air is crisp and cool with deep green forests surrounding the road. Wild strawberries peep out from the undergrowth and I spot a few wildflowers. I have to keep an eye for approaching cars on the narrow road as well as the large slugs underfoot. I arrive at the designated bus stop some 45 minutes later, thankful that my feet held up. Who says researching art can’t be a workout? After a nail-biting wait while both doubt clouds my mind and the sky above. The bus arrives just on time as big raindrops start to fall. The bus drops me off as the train arrives – dependable Teutonic transit as always. I have learned to trust it just as I have to learn to read their complex schedules. Once on board, I collapse into a seat and eat my picnic lunch. My feet are still damp, but I’m happy to have gone through all the obstacles to get here.

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Betwixt Between Day

Today is a day of in-betweens and hurry up and wait. I take it easy in the morning to make up for the less than-restful night of snorers. I look forward to moving on from dorm life (as nice as the people have been) and onto hotel rooms. I wander around my Berlin neighbourhood and discover a nearby street which suffered the first of the barriers built in 1961. It’s hard to imagine living through such insanity. Just beyond it this street, I find a local weekend market. I love seeing what goods, knickknacks and junk people from other parts of the world sell.
Berlin Markt.jpg
Once back in the hostel I pack and take the S-Bahn to the Schoenfeld airport which is the centre all the discount airlines. This meant that the place is overcrowded with people since most of the space is taken up by duty free stores. There are almost no seats available so people were forced to wander the halls or visit the stores to kill time. I fear this will be the future of flying.

Finally my flight gate is called and I joined the throng as we all pile down a barren corridor to wait. No chairs once again and so we use the railings like medieval misericords to lean against. Then it’s a cattle car rush to the plane which takes off into a cloudy sky. The flight is short and soon we are dropping down into the bucolic hills near Salzburg. After a scramble among the locals to claim my bag, it’s an easy bus ride into town. At first glance, Salzburg looks to be a very traditional sleepy place – especially on a Sunday. Steep-roofed houses with little railings speak of snowy winters and little antlers decorating the porches hint at a love for hunting. The rain has settled in so it is a wet walk to my hotel. The Hotel Cicuba is a small but clean establishment set at the edge of a steep forested hill. An older English woman greets me from the desk and helps me get settled in.

I unpack and after a needed nap, I get up and wander the neighbourhood in search of food. I know that Sunday means most places will be closed, but following the hotel concierge’s advice I go to the Alter Fuschs Kellar.
Alter fuchsThis basement eating establishment is a warm place filled with lots of people sitting on wooden stools, enjoying the hearty fair. I try their noodle soup and bread which is delicious. Everyone loves eating in Europe, but I never see really obese people. Considering how many stairs I’ve taken while touring, I’m not surprised. A world cup match between Greece and Costa Rica starts so I stay and watch the first half. Next to me is an American family who is here to celebrate their son’s graduation from a history degree from St. Andrew’s in Scotland. Lucky duck. Then I’m off homewards since it’s late and tomorrow I will be searching for a salt mine which promises to take all day. Unfortunately the weather looks to be just as soggy.

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