Noilly Prattle: September 2013

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Rhein

      I've seemingly always heard about the "castles on the Rhine".

at the Globe
leaning towers of Amsterdam?
      After several months of intensive rehab for a broken femur I felt the irresistible urge to get away and test out the resilience and endurance of my broken leg of recent memory. Our son was living in London and we wanted to see the start of the new season of opera at the Zurich Opernhaus. I wanted to visit Amsterdam and see the castles (called "Burg" in German) on the Rhine. Road buddy and I worked out a one-month's itinerary to cover the things we wanted to do. We decided to stop off first in London to meet our son for a few days, do some sightseeing (around London and Canterbury) and attend a Shakespeare performance at the Globe Theater.

        Unfortunately, our son was transferred back to Tokyo shortly before we were scheduled to leave Japan and we were not able to meet up, but we stayed a few nights in The City, visited Canterbury and did attend a performance of Henry IV at the Globe Theater. Flew to The Netherlands and spent a relaxing couple weeks in a great rented apartment in laid-back Amsterdam and sampled some of its delights. Since we were so close to the Middle Rhein (that's how the Germans spell it) we took a train to Cologne, rented a car there and drove down to Zurich to attend three operas on three consecutive nights before returning to Japan.

Kölner Dom (Cathedral of Cologne, Germany)

Burg Shoenburg - wall shot
from parking lot
Rhein view from
room window
      We spent the second night of our four-day drive in Oberwesel at the Burg Shoenburg, a restored castle now used as a hotel. Parking is a big problem in the small towns along the Rhein. We wanted to leave our car parked somewhere, take a train upriver to Bingen and board a Rhine River boat there and sail back downriver, view the castles on the Rhein and disembark at Oberwesel. Accordingly, we drove up to the castle around 10 o'clock in the morning and parked in their on-site parking lot and asked if we could leave the car there until check in time, to which they graciously replied "of course". The hitch was that we had to climb down to the town on a mountainous foot path and climb back up the same path on our return. I wondered if my bum leg could handle it but thought: What the hell, nothing ventured nothing gained.

footpath from the castle to the town of Oberwesel
great views from our seat
       We took the train to Bingen and had to wait around for about an hour and a half to board the boat. Got a great seat one deck up from the bow of the boat on a warm almost cloudless day. The boat, going downriver with the current, took about an hour to arrive at Oberwesel. My pictorial impressions follow below. Regarding the path to the castle, coming down was relatively easy on my leg; going back up was more difficult, but proved to be reasonably doable. I felt reassured that my leg was mending well and I would be able to keep on traveling well into my 80s--in shallah.

Ehrenfels Castle Ruin


Burg Rheinstein


Burg Reichenstein

Burg Sooneck

Burg Stahleck

Hotel Kronen - 15th Century
one of the oldest restaurants in the region

Burg Gutenfels

last but not least Burg Shoenburg - our castle hotel 

      We were pretty worn out (me especially) when we finally climbed back up to the castle and checked in. Burg Shoenburg is a really top class hotel and, although we looked a little worse for the wear and tear and I had only a backpack, we were treated like visiting royalty with the utmost courtesy and personally escorted to a lovely room with a view of the Rhein through real leaded glass windows. The windows are in a small alcove which has two narrow window seats and a small table. There was a carafe of sherry and two glasses on the table--complementary. There were real bound volumes of books (not a paperback in sight) in a bookcase in the room and in the beautifully restored castle library. They were all, however, in German...but the carafe of sherry was glinting redly in the setting sun and beckoning us to partake.

the castle library which can be used
      The rest, as they say, is history. 

 the complimentary sherry--about halfway through

window seat and table w/ wine carafe in background

Saturday, September 28, 2013


     I sing the praises of modern electronic marvels, useful gadgets in a sea of often techno-junk. Specifically, I'm talking about the automobile electronic navigation device known as the Global Positioning System .

        Driving a car in Europe can be a daunting experience, especially in the maze-like streets of old cities that were never intended for cars. A couple years back I rented a car, for the first time in Europe, in Spain to drive from Seville to Granada through Carmona and Cordoba. The highways were not particularly troublesome, well marked and well maintained. But the cities, that's another story. We got thoroughly screwed up in Cordoba where a major road into the city that I had planned to use was blocked off, under construction. It took a long time, wrong turns, 180 degree flip arounds and a lot of body language to finally find our hotel near the Mezquita. Same story in Granada, missed the exit from the motorway and with more time, wrong turns and body language finally got to our destination.

        Fast forward to the present road trip from Cologne, Germany to Zurich, Switzerland. With the memory of driving in Spain, it was with some trepidation that I ventured to rent a car in Cologne, but we wanted to see the castles of the Middle Rhine River region and take a boat trip on part of the river as well as visit a couple other sites: Kloster Eberbach (where they filmed part of the movie "The Name of the Rose" based on the Umberto Eco novel of the same name); road buddy wanted to see the town of Eberbach which has some relation to one of her favorite manga authors; Hohenzolern Castle and the lovely old town of Tübingen. I hope to have more to say on these places with photos later.

        I hadn't planned on opting for a GPS since I wasn't familiar with how to use it, and I also didn't know if it could do English (really behind the times where electronics and information technology are concerned), plus I'm a Google Maps true believer (I had planned the whole route and printed out the driving directions). But the Europcar agent said I could have the GPS without additional charge since it was in the car anyway. I talked to the man who took us to the car and he programmed the GPS for our first destination, Boppard, Germany. He didn't show me how to program it myself. I should have asked.

        It was such a marvelous device, got me right to our hotel in Boppard, which had no private parking. Had to circle around again until I found an available public parking space. At any rate, I was kicking my ass for not having asked the rental car attendant to show me how to program the GPS, because I had fallen hopelessly in love with it. To make a long story short, we screwed up our courage and figured out how to program the device, which turned out to be absurdly simple.

       It took all the guesswork and anxiety out of driving the rest of the way to Zurich and was, for me, a revelation. Now, I wouldn't hesitate to drive anywhere in Europe with a GPS in the car. The extra cost is well worth eliminating the wear and tear of driving with uncertainty and fear of missing turns and getting lost in a strange place. That is truly one of the pitfalls and the pits of driving in Europe.

     One word on the German highways known as autobahn. The Germans are speed freaks and there are no speed limits on the autobahns. I would be going 130kph and other cars whizzed by me as if I were standing still. I estimated they must be doing 150 or 160+kph.

      The car has been returned and I had to part with my new love. We are in Zurich for four days to attend the opera and are back on foot and using public transportation. Nice!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

long night at the opera -- Wagner's "Siegfried"

     I went to the opera last night in what turned out to be an exquisite endurance test. Road buddy doesn't like Wagner, but I like some of his work so I attended a performance of Siegfried, the third opera in the Ring of the Nibelungen cycle, alone. This is a work of mythology based in the Nordic pantheon of gods and heroes that so enchanted Wagner. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings fantasy novels also carry echoes of these Nordic legends. The four operas in the Ring cycle: Das Rheingold, die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung.

      This production was staged at The Amsterdam Music Theater, which is only a five minute walk from our rental apartment. The show began at 17.30, rather early, I thought, for an evening at the opera. But I didn't leave the theater until 23.00. Road buddy was still awake as I walked in the door. She wondered where I had been as it was so late. She said she was getting ready to call the police, anxious that something nefarious had happened to me. I laughed and said: "What could possible happen between here and the theater. It's just down the street?" "Well, I don't know, you could have had a heart attack, stumbled into a canal and drowned, hit by a bicycle, gotten mugged..." So, I gave her a little pat, and said: "No, nothing happened. I'm fine. I just now left the theater. There were three long acts (it's Wagner, after all) and two long breaks in between. I enjoyed the show, by the way."

stage set composition
in planes and angles
Prudenskaya as Erda
     The theater is not a traditional opera house, but a modern auditorium type theater. The stage set was extended right up to the front row, so that the orchestra was integrated into the very abstract set composed of planes and angles. The set was very versatile and effective for a story of mythology as it takes you immediately out of the world of everyday life and puts you into an undefinable space. The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Hartmut Haenchen gave a very good interpretation of Wagner's evocative music and the cast was overall excellent with the possible exception of Marina Prudenskaya, whose beautiful voice was sometimes difficult to hear over the music. But she looked terrific in a black and white costume divided down the middle with a similarly parted black and white wig. The rest of the cast:

Siegfried   Stephen Gould
Mime   Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Der Wanderer   Thomas Johannes Mayer
Alberich   Werner Van Mechelen
Fafner   Jan-Hendrik Rootering
Erda   Marina Prudenskaya
Brünnhilde   Catherine Naglestad

the most delightful little bird I ever saw
      All the characters were well rehearsed in their moves and acting and sang with gusto and elan. The pacing was great and the long Acts moved right along without leaving one bored with dead spaces in the ongoing drama. One particular character, who is not mentioned in the cast, stopped the show for my money. This was a very young boy soprano, whose name I do not know, who played the role of a little bird whose language becomes understood by Siegfried when his sword is bloodied by the blood of the dragon, Fafner, that he has just slain. The boy is an accomplished thespian although he can't be more than 9 or 10-years old. He was really cute miming a little bird, but when he opened his mouth to sing--that was revelation. I've usually seen the little bird done with a puppet and the voice of a coloratura soprano singing from the wings, unseen. Wagner originally called for a boy soprano in this role, and seeing it the way it's supposed to be was an eye opener. Something new, for me, under the sun.

video screen grab of one of the colorful scenes

Siegfried and Brünnhilde

main characters in Act 2

characters in Act 3 and conductor

      After a long dry spell, I was delighted to be able to attend this wonderful performance and
renew my acquaintance with the theater. Looking forward to three shows in Zurich at the end of the month.

Monday, September 16, 2013


       I guess many people know Duke Ellington's jazz song Take the A-Train. The piece is about the New York City subway's A train that goes through Harlem. But, I wonder how many people know that New York's Harlem is named after Haarlem, a city that lies about 15 kilometers on A train from Amsterdam Centraal station up to Haarlem and beyond. For the non-History buff, New York was known as New Amsterdam before the British took it over and the name of Harlem (only one 'a') stuck. For those people who've asked me what and where is Haarlem, I've already answered the where and here are a few pictures to show a little of what Haarlem, an old Medieval city, looks like. We took a day trip on a partly sunny partly cloudy morning with big white cotton clouds floating across the sky to go and have a look and walkabout of what turned out to be a rather charming town. 

      There was some kind of festival going on in the town square with lots of people strolling and sitting around sidewalk cafes. There was a carousel set up in the middle of the square and a huge carpet or tapestry made of flowers nearby. The crowd was mostly locals out for a Sunday afternoon. Haarlem is not as big a tourist draw as Amsterdam and the feel of a local crowd is quite different from that of the tourist crowds ambling around the Amsterdam red-light district ogling the scantily clad working girls sitting in their windows and displaying their wares; and looking at some of the odd window displays. 

      Without further adieu, here are a few impressions of our little day excursion to Haarlem and back to Amsterdam today, Sunday, September 15, 2013.

Haarlem Station
rather rusty but photogenic canal boat

windmill and excursion boat

lamppost and steeple


laid back lady
old man and a carousel
unusual design feature -
two sailing ship type masts
with yardarms 
on the drawbridge

penguin chess pieces on a chessboard?

floral carpet with cathedral and carousel
windmill and canal

Thursday, September 12, 2013

things you see when you usually don't have a camera...but wish you did

A picture's worth 1000 words I am told. 

Here are a few oddities that caught my eye recently,
 and while strolling around Amsterdam today.

Outside London

I imagined her as a battered
woman escaping from her tormentor

milling around aircraft during
a fire alarm emergency


this house is actually
leaning like the Leaning
Tower of Piza, Italy

this oddly named (in English
anyway) shop makes a kind
of gin

speaks for itself

so does this

red light district

workplaces of the window prostitutes for
which Amsterdam is world famous
leaky boat on the canal
coffee shops sell soft drugs like weed and hashish
this one is aptly named

this coffee shop sells weed for take out..
1.4 grams of "Lemon Haze" goes for 12.50 Euros...
they have a menu on the second floor

recycled (maybe) shoes for all occasions