Woke up today tired after another night of broken sleep. I’ve enjoyed the communal living, but it comes with a price. A female roommate turned out to be a snorer – and no degree of earplugs could block out the rumble. I’d also had a cup of Chai tea earlier with my hostel family at the Indian restaurant which was more caffeinated than I’d realized. The upshot was that I didn’t get much sleep and woke up late. No matter, I took it easy and eventually headed off to the Museum Island to visit the Altes Museum which was supposed to have the bust of Nefertiti. There are so many museums in Berlin it’s hard to keep track what is where. The weather was turning out pretty nice considering that the forecast had promised rain, so I was happy to walk some of the way. Once arriving at the museum and scanning the map, I realized that my information was out of date. It seems that the ‘pretty queen’ as she is called in German, has been moved to the Neues Museum. Considering her age I don’t think that the ‘new museum’ is the best name for a place holding antiquities. Berlin is still moving its vast collection around as they renovate and improve the spaces all cobbled together after the city’s reunification. It seems every discussion about Berlin leads to a reference of the Second World War. I dutifully went through the Altes Museum, enjoying the beautiful drawings on the Greek amphorae, and the Greco-Roman sculptures – all acquired from a time when archeology was really a form of pillaging. By the time I am finished, I’m arted out. I find I can only do one museum per day.
I hesitate outside by the Neus museum where a violinist busker is playing some Bach. The street musicians are really good here and I have enjoyed taking in the multisensory moments of music and monuments. I decide to leave Nefertiti for now – I need an excuse to come back to Berlin. Instead I opt to enjoy the outdoors and visit the wooded Tiergarten. I take a bus around to the towering Prussian monument which stands in the large park’s centre.
Like so many things here, it was almost destroyed in the war, a part of its frieze taken back to Paris by the French soldiers in 1945. I take the 282 stairs to the top and jostle with all the other tourists to take some photos. Afterwards, I visit an art market next to the Lustgarten until the fatigue from my shortened night sets in. I decide to return to the hostel to rest.
On the way home, something very strange happens. I am walking up some stairs from the U-bahn when I see a newspaper open to the arts page. On it is an article about Vermeer’s 37th painting, a work still hotly contested. I had decided not to include it in my Vermeer project since most experts don’t agree that it’s genuine, it is owned privately and has not been shown, and most importantly – it’s a rather ugly copy of another artist’s painting. Having said this however, I wonder if I’m meant to see it. At this point, Vermeer has made a number of surprise appearances – I mean, what’s the chance of me stumbling across this open newspaper in Berlin…? Anyway, I will investigate it.
I go home and enjoy a relaxing hour until I need to get ready to go to the opera. Tonight is to be Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte at the Oper Comische. I get dressed up and head out to the neighbourhood between the Lustgarten and the Brandenburg Gate. By the time I arrive, a crowd has gathered around, people dressed in a wide range of garb. There are the ball gowns to men’s dress shorts (only Italians can pull that one off), to tourist wear. One rough looking man is dressed in jeans that I swear have an 18 inch long tear in the seat. People around me glance at him and the shrug it off. This art form is not limited to the elite. A few short rings of a bell and we head inside. My seat is at the back underneath the balcony, but the view is quite good for the budget price I ordered.
Once the opera starts, I’m hooked. The singers and orchestra are good, but it’s the staging that is so effective. It’s set in modern times at an art restoration lab. There are Baroque paintings everywhere including the stage sides where a silent cast of people work on two paintings for the duration. As the opera proceeds, more Baroque paintings (mainly of lovely ladies) are shone on a screen, many times the image reflecting the scene’s emotions. Characters climb up and down scaffolding, or lean over the office balcony. When the two gentlemen begin their charade, they then don Baroque clothing which is later followed by the ladies. It adds so many layers to the production and creates a really dynamic backdrop. Attending all of these art institutions makes me wish I could come back regularly to Berlin.
Friday While staying in Berlin I have met an Australian family. They are a lovely couple who are travelling with their two grown children. Their daughter has just finished a stint of working in Denmark, so she is showing them around Germany before they make the long trek back home. They are very gregarious and I’ve enjoyed some good conversations. During breakfast, the mother and daughter decide to shop while John the father wishes to visit the wall and the open air museum the Topography of Terror. I know the way so I offer to take him there. We take the Ubahn back to Potsdamerplatz and then walk to the ruined foundations of the SS headquarters that serve as the space to display the history of the Third Reich. I stay a while and read through the displays, but then head next door to the Hans Gropius Museum to see the V&A David Bowie Museum exhibit. Always a fan of David Bowie, I find the multimedia exhibit to be amazing. They feature his many crazy costumes on display as well as his instruments, videos, music notation, torn notebook pages with lyrics scrawled on them. I enjoy singing along with the familiar hits while reading along with some of his scores – especially Space Oddity. It‘s a really engaging survey of the artist’s career that show the incredibly wide range of his styles and influences. It is fun seeing everyone around me getting into the tunes with tapping feet or bobbing heads. I’m hitting all ends of the cultural spectrum here in Berlin since tomorrow I will be attending Mozart’s opera Cosi fan Tutte. By the end of the afternoon, my feet are getting a little tired so I decide to take a boat tour along the Spree River which winds through the heart of Berlin. As the boat glides along, I notice that construction is still taking place to knit the divided city. The most recent and ambitious is the rebuilding of the Berlin Royal Palace which was destroyed by the East German government in the 50’s. This recreated historical palace will replace the ugly and asbestos-ridden Palast der Republik building. This 600 million euro building will be filled with many cultural institutions which seem to flourish in this amazing city. It will be interesting to see if the city’s art including the Vermeers end up in the end. I return a little dazed to the hostel where I meet up with John and the Australian family. We go out to eat at a local Indian restaurant which is a nice break from the meat/bread/cheese triumvirate found here. Afterwards the adult kids return to the hostel to do their electronic oblations while the rest of us go explore the theatre district. We are immensely pleased with ourselves to successfully navigate the many starburst-oriented streets to Alexanderplatz which is dominated by the very ugly iconic TV tower. From there we wander along the Unter den Linden in the softening light of dusk. The street is lined with those beautiful fragrant Linden trees that I know so well from Vancouver. Our destination is the Humboldt University which has a monument dedicated to the books burned by the Nazis. In the middle of the Bebelplatz is a window set in the ground that looks down into a lit room that is lined with empty bookshelves. Very moving. We finally turn homeward, our feet tired, but our memories filled with the scents of a warm summer evening.
After my Vermeer visit, I wander back to Potsdamer Platz which is dominated by the new powers in town – that of Sony.
Shiny edifices glint all around the famous square and tourists gather around a section of the wall which has been transported there to act as an outdoor ad hoc museum. 20th-century history is everywhere here. I head for the holocaust monument which is just up the way, across the street from the empty parking lot that once held Hitler’s bunker. No marker notes this infamous place. I walk through the holocaust monument which features endless rows of concrete slabs that vary in height.
It’s an oppressive feeling passing among the monoliths which eventually lead you to the museum itself set at the back. Walking through the displays is moving and disturbing, the museum offering a mixture of horrifying stats and personal connection to specific holocaust victims and families. Both the presentation and the underlying design is really effective. The coffin-rectangle shapes of the monument above are reflected in every aspect of the displays below in the underground museum. A tour de force in terms of museum design.
Afterwards I find myself weak with hunger so I cross the street to a pub to eat my first currywurst. The crowds have been thick at the nearby Tiergarten and I discover that the German team is facing USA in a World Cup match. A cheer goes up as I sit down to watch the game’s start. I meet a fellow traveller from Kentucky who is finishing up a language course. His name is Ziggy which is short for Sigfried (his father is of German descent) and he is happy to actually be in a country where his name is respected and pronounced correctly. Soon we are joined by two Chinese girls who have just finished their PHD in Chemistry (smart cookies). The clouds come frowning in for the usual evening rain shower. The winds rise, hail, heavy rain and lightning descends, making me feel sorry for the 60,000 plus people nearby watching the game at the Brandenburg Gate. The Germans pull ahead and a few less-patriotic Germans head home looking drenched. The Currywurst is tasty and I enjoy the game with the crowd. The sky lightens as the game ends and I hightail it to the UBahn before the hordes follow. Back at the hostel, I enjoy a tea downstairs and chat with a trio of Canadians who are playing monopoly. It’s been a good but long day in Berlin and I look forward to relaxing a bit tomorrow.
I wake up at an early hour – one of the strange side effects with the 9 hour difference in Berlin. My dorm mates all are solidly asleep and remained so as I creep about. I enjoy a breakfast with an Aussie family who were visiting Berlin for the first time. After a bit of map consultation I strike out towards the culture forum which is the museum/concert hall neighbourhood in what was once the west side of Berlin. Approaching the Gamaldgalerie, I am struck again at how ugly it is – a cantilevered chunk of cement completely devoid of even a stick of foliage and seemingly lacking in any human spaces.
I keep thinking it is the product of the 1960’s which prized itself in producing such monstrosities. But no, this slab of a cultural institution was built within the last decade. Entering the building, I find it to be as empty as the last time I visited. I wonder if it is because of the architecture or the location – so removed from the museum island. Nevertheless, the scope of the treasures inside still astound me. Beautiful medieval, Renaissance and Baroque paintings are everywhere – many any of them inhabiting the major places in art history.
I hold my breath as I wind my way through the many rooms to the far end. Rembrandts, de Hooches and other Dutch artists flash by. The place is too quiet – almost making me long for the chaos of the Louvre. Finally through the far doorway I spot her – she’s here! The Girl with the Pearl Necklace.
I exhale and settle into my seat and start looking. As I write my comments in my little book, people drift by, many recognizing the painting with surprise in a plethora of languages.
She looks cooler in colour than I expected, but not otherwise greatly changed as I can see. This is my MIA painting which I missed last time I visited Berlin since it had been removed for cleaning. According to what I’ve read, paintings need to have their varnish refreshed every generation since the protective layer yellows over time. I’ve found that most museums aren’t always that forthright about the restorations they do. Anyway, looking closer, I can’t see much improvement in the foreground which is still very dark and hard to read. Perhaps the passing years and previous bad treatment have damaged the surface permanently, so I am left filling in the details with my imagination.
As I write, I notice someone out of the corner of my eye. A young man with short-cropped sandy hair and John Lennon glasses appears to be wearing a long black coat – I think – until I sneak a glance and notice that he is dressed in religious garb. He is a novice priest – of what Christian order – I’m unsure. He keeps hovering around the Vermeer. We each take turns stepping in close, until finally I smile his way. He then asks shyly in German if he could borrow my pencil. I comply and watch him take some notes. Could he be on a Vermeer pilgrimage? I ask him and he smiles and explained that he saw the film ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’ and was fascinated. These are his first two paintings, he explains. I tell him about the location of the other paintings. Then being so happy about the completion of my art pilgrimage, I tell him about my own project. His smile widens and he laughs. His German is quick and he speaks in whispers since the museum is so quiet. I can only catch some of what he says, but it seems that he has sown the first seeds of his own Vermeer journey. I write down for him the Vermeer website that I have found indispensable for tracking Vermeer paintings. He nods and after we share a few more comments about Vermeer, he thanks me and heartily shakes my hand.
As I watch him leave, I wonder once again what it is about Vermeer that continues to fascinate people of such different walks of life. I admit I’ve loved the fact that after all this time I haven’t really found the answer. This journey has had me meet so many wonderful people – a journey which has taken me so far both physically and personally.
The flight overseas never gets easier, but I managed it with as much grace as I could, wedged in a small space eating dodgy food for 10 hours. Upside: I scored an empty seat next to me. Downside, Mother with baby in the seat directly ahead – but upside: Baby was entirely content. Once landed it was the usual journey to the train station. The landscape and signage was familiar so I managed to navigate my way fairly easily, feeling particularly pleased with myself as I lifted my light suitcase onto the bus. After all of these trips, I’ve learned how to whittle clothing down to a minimum.
Then it was the long train ride to Frankfurt which had an Umsteigen (transfer) which meant no napping for fear I’ll miss it. In Hannover there was a confusing last minute change of platforms which seemed to bother even the Germans. Finally we reach the big city which has just been bathed in a rain shower.
The streets were shiny as I took the U2 to my stop Senenfelden in what was the east side of Berlin. Fortunately my journey to the hostel was easy, just a block away. Once there I checked in and then trudged up the 3.5 floors (yes, in Berlin, many of the older buildings have this halfers design) to my dorm room. It’s a co-ed space filled with an international selection of friendly young people. We chat as I settle in. I like to do a mix of hostels and hotels when I travel since I meet far more people at the former. Mind you, it makes me feel a little old, but at this point of 16 plus hours of travel, I am grateful to clamber into my upper bunkbed. I block out the world with the requisite ear plugs and eye cover, and sink into the comfortable foam mattress. With the hardest part done, I can now start to enjoy Berlin. Tomorrow I hope will be my final Vermeer viewing day.
I was walking along a street and noticed the name on this piece of equipment. It seems Vermeer is to be found in the strangest places. When I was in Paris, I ran into a Vermeer print hanging on the wall of an Irish pub! I like to think of it as visits from my Artist guide. I expect to run into him any time.
Just two days before I leave for Berlin. The suitcase is packed and I’ve been studying maps and brushing up on my German. The final adventure begins…
Here it is. My last trip overseas. I realized that as of July it will have been four years since I started this whole seemingly impulsive project to visit all of Vermeer’s paintings. I never would have believed that it would take this long – in fact I had anticipated completing it last year when I went to Berlin. But like so many things in life, things didn’t work out the way I expected. The last painting – Woman with a Pearl Necklace – was missing. It was off being cleaned, no mention of its absence included in the Vermeer website. No matter, it gives me the opportunity to visit the exciting city of Berlin again. Last time I had regretted leaving the city so soon, so now I will be able to explore it more. The first time I saw Berlin (almost 20 years ago), I was young, not unlike the freshly unified city, still bristling with building cranes as developers filled in the scars of the cold war. I will be staying in a northern neighbourhood near the Hauptbahnhof in what I hope will be a quiet hostel. After visiting my Vermeer, I will make pilgrimages to other things I have missed – there’s the Nefertiti bust or Bunde Königin as the Germans call her – or a Mozart Opera (Cosi fan Tutte). There is so much to see since the once-divided city has two of everything.
After a few days of Berlin, I will head up into the Alps (cue the Sound of Music) to Salzburg. I searched for some hostels, but found most to be full – which was a relief since they all boasted that they showed the Sound of Music every night. That seems a carefully-designed hell if you ask me. My goal is not so much to be Van Trapped as it is to track down the Altaussee Salt mine. At the end of WWII, this isolated mine was the final stop for Hitler’s looted treasures. As is well known, Hitler gathered incredible amounts of art from those lands he conquered – all part of his megalomaniacal dream of creating a world class museum complex in his hometown of Linz. As the war turned against him, Hitler decided to stow his treasures in the Altaussee– the salt mine was the perfect environment for a repository for the delicate old masterworks. Later however, the masterpieces were threatened by Hitler’s own decree that stated everything be destroyed. Orders were given by Hitler’s henchmen and the mine was wired with explosives. In a nail-biter series of events, the mine’s destruction was averted at the last minute, most likely by the local workers whose families had worked in the salt mine for centuries. When the Monuments Men arrived (American art historians sent by the US army), they found over 6500 works of art which they had to frenetically pack and ship out of the mine since news had arrived that the Russians were soon arriving to occupy that territory.
To this day, the mine is still open as a working mine and tourist site. According to the Altaussee website, it has regular tours. Happy black ducks with miner’s hats festoon the website, one page mentioning that some of the shelving used to store Hitler’s art works still remains. I hope to walk these darkened mine shafts and imagine rows upon rows of paintings stored here, some Vermeers (The Astronomer and Art of Painting) among them. Getting there will be tricky since it’s nestled in an isolated corner of the Alps – the reason Hitler picked it. I will be traipsing by train, bus and maybe even hitchhiking to get there. Perhaps I should bring my Lederhosen…