Noilly Prattle: October 2013

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Alien Invasion in Cologne

beam me up Scottie
      An extraordinary thing happened while we were on the right bank of the Rhine River in Cologne, Germany gazing at the left bank skyline. In the overcast sky there appeared a UFO that seemed attracted by the gigantic twin towers of the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) and hovered over them as though it were going to either beam the cathedral up or hoist it up, perhaps to the mother ship and load it into some unimaginably enormous hold and then jump across the parsecs of space at warp speed to their home planet whereupon they would deconstruct the building stone by stone to figure out how it was built. It's one of those questions that inevitably arise when you're looking at a huge pile of stones like a pyramid or a cathedral, to wit, how did they do it? Although you might think that a race of aliens advanced enough to beam up an entire cathedral could intuit how something that primitive was put together, especially if the beam was cohesive enough to prevent the entire cathedral from falling apart while trying to lift it in one piece.

      It might have been a vision or a hallucination or too much science fiction reading or maybe one too many? At any rate the hovering UFO began moving away from the cathedral and heading in our direction while it seemed to decrease in size and a buzzing sound like a mechanical bumble bee increased in volume as it approached the square where we were standing. Turning around I saw man in a yellow shirt and blue jeans holding a remote control unit and focusing on the mechanical monster as it gently approached and hovered in front of him, seemed to bow and settled gracefully to the ground. It turned out to be a remote controlled camera that could peer into the most unexpected and otherwise inaccessible places. Cool as a detached ice floe in Antarctica, I thought.

space ship navigation bridge? --
or high speed train engine controls
       After spending a relaxing 12 days in Amsterdam we took a train to Cologne to look at the big pile of stones known as Cologne Cathedral. The Gothic cathedral is the biggest tourist attraction in Cologne. The second biggest draw is, naturally, the thing that has, with a small c, become a household word for mostly, though not exclusively, mens' fragrance, eau de cologne.

       Cologne, where we rented a car, was the first of a series of one-night-stands as we drove along the Middle Rhine and the Black Forest on through to Zurich, Switzerland. We arrived at Cologne Hauptbahnhof in mid-afternoon and checked into our hotel, which was very conveniently located practically next door to the cathedral and the Hauptbahnhof (main station) where we picked up our rental car the next day. Everything that is to be seen is within walking distance in Cologne. The farthest destination was along the railroad bridge over the Rhine to the right bank to get a long view of the cathedral.

 Cologne Cathedral - south facade
west facade
       After checking in at our hotel it was still mid afternoon so we roamed in and around the cathedral. Massive twin steeples dominate the west end of the building and soar above the pavement. Unless you hover over the cathedral in a helicopter, or use one of those drones referred to in the first paragraph, it is difficult to get a clear overall picture of this incredible pile of stones. Other buildings crowd in on the cathedral on three sides. The least obstructed view is from across the Rhine to the east. In the interior, colossal pillars uphold the soaring Gothic vaulting of the nave, apse and transepts.  The church was designed to house the relics of the three wise men from the East who, according to legend, attended the nativity of the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. The cathedral's greatest work of art, the Shrine of the Three Kings, is a large reliquary purported to contain relics of these three wise men made of gilded bronze and silver and decorated with enamels and gemstones. Notable as all that is, I was most impressed with the exquisite mosaic flooring that adorns parts of the cathedral. 

vault and pillars
medieval statue of St. Christopher

Shrine of the Three Kings

mosaic flooring
mosaic design symbolic of
king, bishop and knight
detail of mosaic on the left

Great Saint Martin's Church showing
two of the three trefoil apses
       I don't consider the overly ornate Gothic Cologne Cathedral an especially attractive building. It rather looms and almost broods darkly over the city. The nearby Romanesque Klosterkirche Groß Sankt Martin (Great St. Martin's Church), however, is another matter. Much smaller in scale and more graceful in outline it, to me, is a really lovely building. Its rounded arches are echoed in the trefoil or triconchos design (resembling a three-leaf clover) of the apses. Seen from the ground they resemble half circles protruding from the north, east and south end of the building. The nave is squared off normally at the western end. 
trefoil 3-leaf clover

       After walking through the clover and around the eastern end of St. Martin's, we then strolled along the Frankenwerft, a park on the left bank of the Rhine where there was a festival in progress. It was some kind of children's day festival and the park was crowded with people, young and old alike. There were food stalls, rides and all kinds of amusements for children—and lots of balloons—very animated and colorful. By then we were hungry and found an outdoor cafe in the park and had some beer and wiener schnitzel.

       The next day we had the entire morning before our scheduled rendezvous with Europcar, the car rental agency at the station. We checked out of the hotel and stored our bags with the reception desk and went off in search of the popular store that sells 4711 Eau de Cologne located at Glockengasse,, No. 4711. The 4711 brand has been in business at this location since the 18th Century and is “one of oldest still produced fragrances in the world.” We bought a small bottle of “4711 Portugal” spray cologne with a hint of orange.

padlocks along walkway sealing eternal love
            With more time before our rental car rendezvous we decided to cross the river to get a more panoramic look at Cologne Cathedral and discovered that the railroad bridge composed of several steel trusses in the form of semi-circular arches also had a pedestrian walkway for foot traffic. There is an interesting custom in Europe that we first encountered in Prague. Couples who are starry eyed in love attach padlocks inscribed with words of enduring and eternal love locked onto a chain link type fence. The bridge was covered from end to end with millions of these padlocks. And, here and there, the thoughts of the disillusioned, whose love proved to be less than 'til the end of time were--well, not exactly--"inscribed". 

And, yes, shit happens!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

a Canterbury tale

Canterbury Cathedral
    Canterbury Cathedral has been a place of pilgrimage since the 12th Century when an infamous murder took place in that holy place. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, a fellow by the name of Thomas Becket, had a little disagreement with the then King of England, Henry II, about, what else, power and money--the usual kind of dispute in high places. It isn't entirely clear whether the King intended to murder Becket but it seems that four of his hit men (knights in less than shining armor) interpreted or misinterpreted an apparently off hand remark of the King's about getting rid of pesky priests and took it upon themselves to confront Becket in his seat of power, Canterbury Cathedral; when he refused to bend to the King's demands they, according to an eyewitness, chopped him up right there in the now sacred spot not too far from the high altar. Seems they sliced open his skull and scattered brain matter and blood all over the floor. Gory, what!

site of Becket's murder
       Becket's murder was soon transformed into a martyrdom issue and canonization and sainthood were conferred with what could be thought of as unseemly haste by Pope Alexander III. Even Henry II had to humble himself publicly and bend knee to Becket's tomb since Becket had become a cause célèbre. Pilgrims soon began to flock to Canterbury so that by the end of the 14th Century the flocking had turned into a flooding when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales  about a group of pilgrims traveling to the shrine of the now Saint Thomas à Becket and entertaining each other by telling their stories. 

skyscraper adjacent to London Bridge Sta.
 - not just perspective, it is pyramidal
       Since we found ourselves in London for a few days we decided to take advantage of a rare beautiful sunny day and make our own little pilgrimage to Canterbury by train from London Bridge Station, a short walk from our rental flat in The City of London. 

London Bridge and the battleship museum in the Thames

pretty as a picture
West Gate, and a church on the left
     The town (city) of Canterbury lies east southeast of London not far from the white cliffs of Dover. I say "town" because the main street leading through the old city gate towards the cathedral feels like a town rather than a city. It is well kept with low houses and shops that seem to have popped out of a glossy travel brochure, with an idyllic bucolic stream right out of the world of Beatrix Potter and loaded with tourists lured, like us, to the place as much by the beautiful weather as the celebrity of Canterbury and its cathedral. 

main street of shops 
wood frame contrasted with red brick
    Our train arrived at Canterbury West Station. From there it is a short 400m. walk to the old West Gate of what was, I presume, a walled town in the Middle Ages (the cathedral dates from the time of St. Augustine in the 6th Century). From the West Gate it is another 400m. along a street of restaurants, pubs and souvenir shops to Guildhall Street; a left turn on Guildhall and another 100m. and through the gate brings you to the SW corner of the cathedral, presenting you with the view in the above photo. You have to buy a ticket [£9.50] to enter the precincts as well as the building unless you are attending services (Canterbury Cathedral is an active house of worship). 

detail of stonework on a church, to the left of West Gate
 in the above photo -- stones have been split
 to show the beauty of the inner rock as in a geode

the only time I had
Fish 'n Chips in England

Fish 'n Chips restaurant

Guildhall St. and the cathedral gate

cloister - the cathedral was once a monastery

high altar at eastern of the cathedral

Gothic arches in the cloister and vault decoration
ruins at the northeast end of the cathedral

centuries of wear and tear on stone steps

"transi" tomb of Henry Chichele
15th Century Archbishop of Canterbury
- the top part of the tomb is his effigy,
the bottom is his rotting corpse

icon of Madonna and Child

tomb of Henry IV, the only English monarch
buried in Canterbury Cathedral

silver candlesticks

cross with inset amethyst stones

and a pub after a busy day -
posed not passed out on the table

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Amsterdam -- remarkable for her age

h amsterdam
      You get a feeling of gentle weariness, of a being that has aged graciously and is tolerant of the vagaries and wonders of human existence; it moves in a gently relaxed yet purposeful dance of urban circulation. I rarely experience this slower pace of urban life, but such places in which I do retain an aura of amiability and welcome. Amsterdam is such a town.

coffee house
not so sure about that if you're a pedestraian
       Life, in fact, seems to whiz by you in the streets and squares, in the stores and restaurants, on the tram or the metro, on bicycles, on foot. But there is a certain, odd, non-frenetic quality in the daily comings and goings in public places. Cars will stop to allow pedestrians to cross. People in the street seem to have a sense of place and purpose, yet seem to convey an impression that says: "Here I am and whatever I'm doing is well and good." It's all the same if I'm off to work, or taking my kid to school, or shopping, or having something to drink in a sidewalk cafe, or going for a walk, or smoking a joint in a coffee house, or ogling the lust trade in de Wallen (the red light district), or checking out van Gogh in his museum, or...or...or,  you get the picture? It's one hell of an accommodating town to stay in for a while.

Amsterdam's 1st pot and  hash  house?
night club and windows
 along a canal in de Wallen
      The main parts of Amsterdam are easily accessible on foot and the town itself with its leafy canals is charming and is easy and fun to walk around in. Language is never a problem. No one I came in contact with wasn't able to understand and speak English--in restaurants, theaters, museums, shops, public transportation, etc. The most impressive thing about Amsterdam is the enlightened policies of the government towards those elements of any city that are usually illegal and pushed underground and out of sight--drugs and prostitution. Put plainly and simply, both are legal and right out in the open (some less sporting types might say blatantly so) here in Amsterdam. Being out in the open, they fit seamlessly into the fabric of the city's life and, to the locals, are simply part of the environment and their lives. What a blissfully elegant solution to integrating openly all aspects of human activities, non-judgmentally and full of acceptance for the endless varieties of human experience.

red lit , curtained and closed windows
of window prostitutes
      One of my favorite writers, John Irving, describes de Wallen through the eyes of three of his characters: a not altogether secure 30-something woman writer, who wants to soak up atmosphere for a novel she is planning by watching a prostitute servicing a customer; the prostitute who agrees to let her watch for a fee; and a cop whose beat is the red light district. The writer hides in the closet  one day and ends up witnessing the murder of the prostitute by her customer thus triggering the interplay of the three characters. Irving treats de Wallen with realism and sympathy and gives the reader a little bit of insight into the life style of the women who work in the windows.

St. Nicholas Church - (Oudekerk) -
      While we were walking along Sint Annenstraat, not far from St. Nicholas Church on the Oudekerksplein one afternoon, there was a small group of silly young Japanese 20-something girls ogling the prostitutes in their windows and giggling and waving and loudly remarking, according to Road Buddy who understood them, about the remarkable size of their mammary glands: "OPPAI GA OOKII, NE" (My, what big tits!). Tactless and tasteless, yes, but it looked and sounded funny nevertheless, and one of the prostitutes good-naturedly laughed and waved back. The working girls showed more class and dignity than these silly day trippers.

      There is, of course, a darker side to the red light district. It comes, however, not from the business of prostitution itself, but from the exploitation of the women who work in the sex trade by organized crime groups, and this is of concern to the city administration which has been attempting to bring it under control while keeping the openness of the de Wallen and other red light districts in Amsterdam. A never ending battle, no doubt.

rush hour traffic
     Another impressive thing about Amsterdam is bicycles, seemingly an endless stream of bicycles flying at you from all directions. A visitor who is not used to dodging bicycles or nonchalantly walks off the kerb is in greater danger of getting hit by a bicycle than a car. I almost got hit two or three times before I finally wised up. There are bicycle lanes that can be just as congested as automobile traffic. It's really fascinating, like a whole motor vehicle traffic pattern with road lanes and signs, transposed to two-wheeled vehicles, complete with rush hour traffic whizzing by.

     A somewhat negatively impressive thing about the coastal Netherlands is the weather. Very changeable from hour to hour even. A good idea to bring an umbrella or a raincoat with you whenever you go out, nuisance though that may be.


Friday night rock concert at
the van Gogh Museum
our rental apartment



        Amsterdam has an abundance of all the services and activities that make for a good traveler destination: hotels in all price ranges from the less expensive to 5-star luxury palaces. For music lovers there is the world famous Concertgebouw. There is even a Friday Night Special at the van Gogh Museum with lectures, special guided tours and even rock concerts in the lobby for no more than the price of ordinary admission--you just have to hang around a little later than the usual closing hours. For visitors who prefer to stay more than a day or two and want to feel more at home you can rent a short term apartment with cooking facilities--or even rent a houseboat. We rented one of the nicest apartments in our experience on the east side of the old town right on a canal for 12 days. It was special because it was the owners' own apartment when they are in Amsterdam (they also have a home, I heard from their son who came to fix the bathtub faucet, somewhere in France) and, thus, quite roomy and well equipped, particularly the kitchen. There are many museums, most notably the Rijks Museum and my favorite, the van Gogh Museum, as well as such well-known spots as the Anne Frank House. Restaurants run the gamut from poor to terrific, and if you have a craving for familiar junk food you can find McDonalds and Burger King restaurants in Amsterdam. In short, something for everybody's taste and pocket book.

kids swimming in the canal near our apartment
    Even if you aren't into dope and/or sex for pay, Amsterdam is well worth a visit. How long you stay depends on what you're interested in. Anyway, it's a great place to relax and have some fun for a couple weeks or just a couple days. There always seems to be something going on.

dancers in Nieuwmarkt

duck swimming the the same canal


Wynand Fockink bar -  300-year old distillery
great flavored liqueurs and a funny name

Vincent van Gogh or Kirk Douglas?

Anne Frank huis

Birdman of Amsterdam

dinner at home

shopping bargains in a flea market

blowing bubbles in Dam Square