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germany trip report part 2: the ghosts of mainz and wiesbaden

2006-01-20 - 7:55 a.m.

This is part two of my Germany trip report. To start with part one, Heidelberg and the Philosopher's Path, click right here.

all photos © 2006 by Elaine Radford
dom in mainz, germany

Friday, January 13

I don't think I have ever traveled on a Friday the 13th before. Fortified by the breakfast buffet, I headed back into Heidelberg to find the old witch's tower. For some reason, it was built into the 1930s-era university building. As soon as I stepped into the right courtyard, I experienced an unpleasant feeling of pressure on the brain. Urgh. Maybe you get used to it if you're actually attending school there, but I certainly wasn't compelled to linger in the presence of these unquiet spirits.

I took a rapid train to Mainz. Not far outside Heidelberg, I saw a raptor with a white rump flying away from the tracks. A harrier? Not sure. We sped past vineyards and agricultural desert without encountering any others.

At Mainz I quickly found another hotel where I could be the crazy lady in the attic for a reduced price, and I dropped off my backpack to stroll around the town. There are a buttload of old churches and cathedrals, and the first one I walked toward wasn't the one I was looking for. Eventually I found the river, the Dom, the Marktplatz, and various other landmarks.

I'm convinced the guidebook writer spent most of his time in the bars and restaurants, because everything he describes that involves steps or climbing is described wrongly. Here I discovered that ascending the stairs up the small hill to St. Stephanskirche did not, in fact, give a "fine" view of the city, or indeed any view of the city, since the five story or so buildings nearby came too close to allow you to get any kind of wide view. Maybe if they let you climb up in the spire...but they did have the beautiful blue 70s-era Chagall stained-glass windows, just as advertised.

I've noticed that if you look around, the churches and many other public buildings in Germany will have photographs posted that show the destruction from World War II, so that you can see what a terrific job they did of rebuilding. I wonder why it is that we're accused of wanting to turn New Orleans into Disneyland if we want to clean up and rebuild, but Germany is perfectly authentic even though absolutely everything there is a reconstruction and often a multiple reconstruction. Did anyone stand in the way and try to stop the bulldozers from cleaning up the mess in Germany? I highly doubt it. Even the Heidelberg castle is having work done to keep it at the precise level of romantic shabby chic-ness that apparently so impressed the Romantic poets.

Anyway, I actually photographed some of the photographs of war destruction on display at St. Stephanskirche. I thought I photographed the date that Mainz was firebombed, but I can't find it right now in my 645 photographs (think twice before buying extra memory cards next time) but if I recall correctly it happened in February of 1945. It seems rather a war crime, all this bombing of churches and cathedrals, and in fact, the city has left one church in the middle of town unrepaired in remembrance of the dead. but one hopes the Allies had an actual military target in mind and maybe just missed. The war had to be fought, hell, we were attacked, and plenty of other countries were invaded too, but I guess no one really behaves well in time of war.

I stopped by one of the little pubs in the evening for a glass of wine. I'm sorry, Rhine Valley or no Rhine Valley, it was freaking awful. However, a German who wanted to practice his English bought me a second glass, so I guess I'd better not complain. My tongue was numb by then, so the second one went down more easily, although I still had to repress my evil thoughts about rotwein. He and his friend were the original odd couple -- one a perfectly straight-looking guy, the other a semi-Boy George-style Goth who was still living in the 80s wardrobe-wise even though he was going bald on top. Either Goth Guy's English wasn't as good or he just wasn't as talkative, but I think he was more up on his current events, because he knew that there were two hurricanes and that it was quite a large disaster. The other guy was thinking of seeing Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but I gently suggested that perhaps this year wasn't the year to go. Yeah, yeah, we need tourists, but Mardi Gras is also apparently a huge deal in Mainz -- they have a Mardi Gras museum and fountain in one of the elegant old town squares -- and I think the guy might have been disappointed with the size of this year's celebration.

I went Italian for dinner -- terrific minestrone soup, followed up by a delicious pork with mushroom sauce. Despite the fine dinner, the ghosts of the past, whether war or witches, must have had their effect, because a Jim Carroll song I haven't thought of years popped into mind. Apparently we're not supposed to quote lyrics on the internet any more, but I'll throw out a couple of lines and if you ever heard it, you'll remember the rest:

Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

One day the 70s will be as far away as the 40s. Maybe they already are.

detail, mardi gras fountain, mainz

Saturday, January 14

I wanted to go to Wiesbaden, but first I wanted to photograph the farmer's market in the Marktplatz in front of the Dom. It was a colorful scene, but I don't think I really captured it. I tried to get a photo showing the real Germany -- the huge Romanesque Cathedral, the inevitable repair work being done on the facade, the bustling little stalls of fresh eggs and vegetables -- but really I just didn't have the right equipment. It's a job for a fish-eye lens. I noted that chicken was high and that local wines were cheap, and at a booth offering all sorts of bizarre lozenges made from various herbs, I found some echinacea hard candy. I almost bought some for J. but I didn't know whether she'd be pleased or horrified. I did buy a steaming hot cup of some sort of drink made from apple and banana.

I encountered a procession of high schoolish age kids dressed as, I suppose, the three kings. They only had one black kid, so they had two other kids in blackface. I think they're the three kings, anyway, although obviously each king was represented multiple times -- and sometimes by young ladies as well as young men. I guess I don't really know what or who they're supposed to be, but they were going into the Dom for whatever purpose and they all wore crowns. Of course, my conures all wear crowns, so what does that prove?

On the way back to the train station, I stopped by the mall and ducked down the stairs where they had the Temple of Isis from Roman times that they'd discovered when they were building the mall. There wasn't much left of it. The walls were worn down enough that they could just slide them under glass and you could walk right over.

Perhaps you have heard that German trains always run on time. Well, don't believe the hype. After about a half an hour delay, I did get to Wiesbaden, though. The graffiti along the tracks from Mainz to Wiesbaden was the best I'd seen, by a lot. There was even an old tower near Wiesbaden which was completely graffiti'd in all kinds of vibrant colors. It would have made a great photo if I could have persuaded them to stop the train just for me.

In the town itself, I encountered another historic old town, another farmer's market in the shadow of another romantic old cathedral, and, oddly enough, a painted cow on somebody's balcony in an otherwise foofy neighborhood full of decorative old homes. I still don't know how I found the art museum. They didn't allow photos; in fact, they had lockers where you had to lock up your camera before you could go inside. When I came up to buy a ticket, the ticket seller said, "We have only modern art here. This is our brochure. See? Only modern art here." That's fairly defensive. Hell, how many crumbling old paintings of madonnas and pietás do I need to see anyway? Anyway, having convinced the dude of my sincere interest in modern art, I was finally admitted onto the premises.

They have a large collection of Alexej von Jawlensky paintings, notable for their energy and color. Further back in the permanent collection, they had a room full of black and white photographs of grave stones, boxed in boxy black frames, with dirt in the bottom of each picture. A step away, in the next room, this artist, Jochen Gerz, had created a sort of train station waiting room with empty chairs, called "Der Transsib-Prospekt." Doesn't sound like much, but trust me, in person it was a supremely creepy work.

I forgot to note down the name of the artist in the rotating exhibition area. It was a play of light thing, including a lot of work with old photographs of sunspots and solar eclipses. There were some fake old brochures made up on aged paper with various sketches but there were also very modern and sleek new photographs, including some of beams of light cutting into a cornea or what looked like a cornea from a variety of different angles. Makes you wonder if the dude had Lasik. Seriously, though, my brain started to tick over and I had a few ideas of what I might do, if I ever do actually make a handmade book. There's a lot you can do with old-looking, spotty black-and-white photos if you have the right attitude. Of course I've got to scan said photographs -- which are really slides -- before I can do anything.

Knowing me, I was unable to leave town without getting lost. I ended up well into some neighborhood, where I encountered the one young man in Germany who doesn't know any English. (Yeah, they all modestly deny that they speak English unless they have, like, a 50,000 word vocabulary, but you quickly notice that if you're fumbling too badly, they switch to English with ease.) Fortunately, I recognized the word geradeaus (straight ahead), so I continued onward with confidence that I probably wasn't completely lost forever. Then I saw a long-tailed flash, thought magpie, thought that don't sound like no magpie, and a trio of Rose-Ringed Parakeets came screeching to a halt in the tree in front of me. I even snapped a picture of one of them, although the camera apparently focused on the branches instead of the bird, since she came out a little fuzzy. I don't care. It's a moral victory just to see wild parrots. I've got them on my Netherlands and now on my Germany list, but not for France or England. Maybe Psittacula just likes the colder weather.

Despite all the walking, I wasn't terribly hungry after my breakfast of at least five different kinds of cheese. There was a tapas bar across from the train station, and they had a chalkboard scribble boasting of their happy hour, so what the hell. I only ordered two tapas, the raw mariscos and the gambas in garlic sauce, but they were plenty for my appetite. I also tried their Sangria, but it was mostly fruit juice, so then I ordered the so-called Besito Fuego. The Fiery Kiss was a huge-ass rum punch big enough to beat up the other drinks on the block.

wiesbaden cathedral, graffiti, wild parakeet, witch's tower

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