Thursday, January 30, 2020

A Guided Tour of Berlin State Opera

I've spent a lot of time as a kid attending opera performances, but my preferences in this musical area are very limited and I highly appreciate very modern - revolutionary I dare to say - interpretations. Since moving to Germany I haven't been to too many performances, unfortunately, but my latest visit to the world capital of opera, Bayreuth, is about to change this situation. As usually in my case, in order to be convinced of something I need a wise combination of culture, history and architecture. It's the only way it keeps me interested. 
After visiting the impressive Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth, I wanted to continue with more similar encounters. Next on my list was the recently renovated Berlin State Opera on Unter den Linden/Bebelplatz.


The best way for me to get a better feeling of a place is through a guided tour, therefore I embarked on a 90-minute behind the scene tour in German - tours in English are also available, you can find more about it here. The guide seems to be an opera lover too, therefore recommendations about the upcoming performances were more than welcomed. For one hour and a half, the ancient temple looking like building whose renovation costed 20% of Berlin's budget was a welcoming home of cultural findings that got me even closer to my culturally-filled childhood.


I am ready for 250 years of German music history. Inaugurated in the first half of the 18 century, and renovated several times Berlin Staatsoper is a historical institution as well. Destroyed by fire and the WWII bombs, it come back to life successful every time, attracting high profile music names across centuries, such as Leo Blech, Richard Strauss, Giacomo Meyerbeer or Herbert von Karajan.


Staatsoper's first architect was Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff who also designed the Sanssouci  in Potsdam and the enlargement of Charlottenburg Palace. He's mission was to put into practice Frederick the Great's plan of transforming Berlin and he partially succeeded: at the time of its inauguration, Staatsoper was the largest in Europe and Germany's first free-standing opera. 
All the architects that remodelled the Opera tried to leave their own traces too, but the details of von Knobelsdorff's work are still present.


A short walk across the foyer reveals a good mixture between classical simplicity outlined by glamorous lights. A serious ambiance, indeed, which prepares the visitor for the solemn performance.


The cafe - closed at the time of the visit - is another elegant stop during our guided tour. Unfortunately, there is no way to check the delicious pastry that apparently is available here during the regular performances' program.


One of the latest architects that influenced the visual development of the opera was Richard Paulick. He previously worked with Gropius and overseen the massive post-war  renovations starting with 1951, during which the representations were mostly relocated to Admiralpalast. Paulick, who was involved in the building of Stalinallee in Friedrichschain - currently Karl Marx Allee, was not so impressed by the flamboyant rococo fancied by its predecessors which tried to tempered with his preference for classical lines.


His efforts are visible in the festive space of Apollosaal. The only outstanding piece here is the candelabra which spread its glows over the otherwise austere interior.


The golden details still remind of Sanssouci though.


And the extensive potato representations on the floor remind of what?


Until I am considering the various options, our group moved to the opera hall. Part of the extensive 2009-2017 renovations, the roof was raised and the acoustics was significantly improved.


There technical teams are preparing the evening performance but there are no actual rehearsals therefore no way to check the sound quality right now.


The opera hall as such does not look impressive at all, but it has a kind of simple grandor that promises qualiy.


During the DDR times, the former Royal Opera House (Hofoper) become the State Opera of East Germany. The golden plaquette representing a proletarian revolutionary scene is there as a reminder of those times.


As our guided tour advances, we feel the business of the preparations for the performances. Everything is set many hours in advance, including the costumes.


One of the many advantages of taking such a guided tour is of being reminded of the tremendous work behind every single show, and it includes not only the artists, but especially the members of the technical teams, in charge with setting the decor or doing those simple things as the make-up, for instance.


The super sound-proofed rehearsal rooms are waiting to be filled soon with the sound of the classical music.


The 90-minute journey behind the scene was extremely informative, but also an encouragement to see a couple of performances this season. For the English-speakers, there are some good news: many representations do offer English-German translations.

Disclaimer: I was offered the opportunity of a free guided tour, but the opinions are, as usual, my own.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Kassel Slow Travel Tips

One of the things I've acknowledged in four years of intensive travel with a little child is that the planning of a trip rarely works. There are so many constraints and unexpected things happening - tantrum, anyone ? - that you better keep being realistic and relaxed and get the best of everything, even it is only a very small amount of what do you wanted to achieve.
I wanted to visit Kassel for a long time, lured by the idea of checking the Brothers Grimm Museum, the traces of documenta art happenings and various places  of local history and arts. I finally booked a trip at the end of November, with an ambitious to-do-list and one full day to see them all. Which was not necessarily what my little travel companion wanted too. On both sides, we had to accommodate and the journey ended up as a pleasant slow travel experience. Unusual for me, but the compromise guaranteed a smooth trip and the chance to focus on the quality of an experience, instead of the quantity. Almost two months after, I am still thinking how to practically do this more often during my trips.


The train left us in Wilhelmshöhe area, highly recommended by travel experts and friends of friends living there, for the old charm and the healthy concentration of both natural and cultural sightseeings. My perfect kind of travel match.
From the train station, we took directly the tram that left us opposite the park entry.
Among the many new things you learn while being on the road with a small child and not owning a car is how to use the local public transportation network. It saves from a lot of complains but can be also considered a fast way to move from a point to another. As I had a long list of places, I purchased a weekend multi-ticket for just 6 Euro. I mostly used the trams which were in time and fast, and with good connections.  


The autumn day started good, and the Bergpark area was entincing. Together with locals of all ages and sometimes their dogs too, we slowly follow the beaten path leading to the top of the hill. An easy hike during which I kept filling my lungs with the fresh crispy air.


Spectacular tree shapes looking derelict also kept a good company, showing how many unexpected turns nature can take.


After more than half an hour of walking, the simple neoclassical figure of the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe revealed its majesty. Built in the late 18th century, it was used as a summer residence, and nowadays it houses an extensive art collection. Since 2013, it is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe.


You need more than two hours to carefully admire the international art collection which includes, works by among others Caravaggio, Rubens and Rembrandt. From the third floor, you can have an extended panorama of Kassel, which was for me the only was as for now to see the city in perspective. 


You can easily spend one full day exploring this park covering 2.4 sq. km, which makes it Europe's largest hillside park. But due to time constraints, I had to skip the pleasure of seeing the massive Hercules and explore the many romantic corners. As for now, as I bet it makes it a gorgeous outdoors destination for the summer.


I have just another look at the details of the palace, snap a picture and hurry up to take the tram to the center of the city.


Which center, compared to the middle class feeling of the Wilhelmshöhe area, was an aesthetic disappointment. Most of the buildings are new, from a time when the building materials were expensive enough and cheap variants were chosen instead. 
The main shopping areas are crowded with people trying to have their holidays presents, while the rest of the public space is taken by the boots of the Christmas market to be inaugurated in a couple of days.
The only presence worth a picture is the historical building of the city hall, in the front of which soon  a protest for human rights in Iran will be held. As the protesters showed in significant number I couldn't stop hoping that maybe there is a good Persian restaurant around, which apparently was not. This is now I ended up eating some bland food at the Karstadt food courts on the other side of the road. What a shame...


The side streets are less packed and you may even find some remnants of the past, like the 15th century tower, Druselturm


And, as just another travel dream, the time has come to return to the train station to get back home. As we arrived early, used the extra time and for 5 EUR. visited the Caricatura gallery, just at theWilhelmshöhe station. It exhibits cartoons on contemporary topics - politics, environment etc. Some did have a drop of humour but more of them did not resonate particularly with my standards in this respect. A matter of taste, of course,


While slowly moving towards a bench to rest, the empty train station halls resonated with the piano sounds. There were different hands, and techniques and styles and music. The source was a real piano where the passers by were able to practice and play. For the next hour, I've watched idly people coming and going in the front of the piano, playing their loneliness and hopes.
The perfect ending to a trip that left so many open doors for a return. 

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Discovering the Mysteries of Body Worlds

My parents wanted for me to be a doctor and having spent time a good amount of time as a child in hospitals and various medical facilities for my own medical reasons or just keeping company to various relatives made my familiar with the world of science and medicine. Although I made my own career choice - and proud of it - I was left with a sense of respect for the medical profession and with no fear of needles and blood and anything that has to do with medical proceedings in general.


Therefore, I was really excited to finally have the chance to visit KÖRPERWELTEN exhibition, a couple of steps away from the iconic TV Tower. I've read a lot about the exhibition that started in 1995 in Japan, including about the opposition to it, as it displays the interior human bodies, a view for some might be controversial. Visiting it is a matter of personal choice, after all and no one should tell other people what to think and where to go - or not - whatever the reason. 


Besides offering a throughout view of human bodies, the exhibition offers also valuable information about physiology and health. Many sensations and emotions we experience during our lifetime may have a scientific explanation. Take, for instance, the broken hearts, explained at the exhibition: 'Their symptoms are like that of a heart attack: shortness of breath, chest pain, anxiety and fear of dying'. A physical examination will not reveal any physical findings, as in fact the shock of a breakup or the lost of a dear one triggers 'an avalanche of stress hormones that flood the body and paralyze and permanently weaken the heart muscle'.


But more than various explanations I read, the view of the body in various contexts of movements is what fascinates me. The display of muscles and arteries, the complex structures hidden under the fine layer of skin is humbling. It shows both our fragility and strength.


Another outstanding piece of the exhibition is the Fisherman: The anatomical structures of the body are opened up and shifted apart. The spaces left in between allow to see the specific organs of what is described as a seated fisherman.


The details covered by the exhibition are extraordinary, going through the smallest details of the human body structure. I've found it very important the contemporary touch of the exhibition, which warns of the harm and changes to human physiology brought by the pressure we are under in our busy world, especially the daily stress. 


The process of turning the human bodies - offered in this aim by body donors that expressed their wish during their life - is called plastination is lasts around one year. 


It is a rich and thoughful amount of information one is processing after the visit at this exhibition. You can learn here more than in any classroom and it makes you take your body more serious. Body and mind are very well connected. Ignoring the signals sent by one or the other are a dangerous self-destructive move. The dynamism of our body shows in fact that we are made for life, but it is up to us to strive to keep ourself alive and healthy.

Disclaimer: I was offered free entrance at the exhibition, but the opinions are, as usual, my own

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Tasting Village Life in Germany: Weekend Day in Coppenbrügge

Over one year ago, I've seen some beautiful pictures of half-timbered red houses featured in a glamorous Instagram post tagging Coppenbrügge. I added the name to my list of places to see in Germany and this autumn I booked a train ticket there. However, a couple of days before the trip, while doing the documentation of places to see, I was surprised to not find anything. Asked on Twitter and none of my 5,000+ followers were able to give me any hint. 'Well', I said to myself, there will be a surprise trip, I suppose. It was too late to cancel my ticket and unless high emergency, I refuse to cancel a trip only because I haven't found any online or print resources on it.
Reaching Coppenbrügge is not so easy. From Hanover, I had to change twice, but listening to the names of the station, was not feeling a complete stranger, as it is close to both Hameln and Bad Pyrmont that I visited a couple of years ago. 


Shortly upon arrival I realized that everything around looked exactly as my documentation about this trip: a quiet village - actually, Coppenbrügge I was visiting is a village part of a municipality with the same name covering other 11 villages. For a second, the thought of just taking the train back to Hanover, that I knew pretty well - as I also wrote a travel guide on it - passed my mind, but why go back to the predictable when I given myself the chance of one full day exploring the Germany village life in Low Saxony/Niedersachsen? 


And, for the next hour, I kept exploring slowly - carefully to not finish walking the streets at least once before the time of my train back - scanning the details of the wooden-roof half-timbered houses.


Or deciphering the signs in the front of stores and parlours that were closed for the weekend.


Or trying to figure out the life behind the cute homemade white curtains covering the street windows of the ground floor of an old house.


If on the streets I've met no more than two wandering souls - one of them twice, after I resumed my walking - the family restaurant Bulut serving Mediterranean dishes seemed more appropriate for meeting the locals. Surrounded by a very simple background, there were over 10 people having their lunch or even celebrating a birthday. Even if it looked like a bigger fast food precinct, it has a friendlier customer service than many elegant venues in Berlin, children-friendly portions and accepts card payments. Prices were also good and my döner in pepper sauce with French fries was simply delicious. 


The delicious lunch asked for more movement. This time, I am reaching the borders near the forest hills, passing near people walking their dogs. Another popular activity in the municipality is Nordic Walking done for groups on the surrounding hills, covering a length from 4 to 12 km. 
In this part of the village, I am passing elegant villas with simple design, in the middle of green spaces, parking places for a car or two and open entries. I even found a small clean playground tucked between close rows of houses. 
This is how village life looks like in Western Europe: slow life, clean streets, high-safety and predictable neighbourhoods. People may know each other for generations or just decide to settle for commuting to work in the cities, but nevertheless they know each other and are there to stay. 
The inhabitants seem to be very much into hunting, as proven by the  huge pair of antlers proudly displayed on the outer walls of a kindergarten (which made me wonder if they have some similar samples overviewing the children sleep or play areas inside), which is a popular hobby in this part of Germany. 


Returning to the center, I am having a look at the old fountain, connected to the traditional healing waters of Bad Pyrmont.


The entertainment options in the village are relatively limited. There is Woodstore offering live music and cultural gatherings and a small bookstore where you can find the latest local and international titles. 
There is also the Burg, a citadel hosting a small museum, a café and sometimes open air concerts. Earlier, a newly married couple was taking pictures in the front of the gates, while some families with children were slowly walking in the park around. (Indeed, everything happening during this day trip is on slow motion).


Although small the park is a beautiful natural venue, populated with spectacular old trees. After a little rain, the humidity soaking the yellow autumn leaves gave a certain feeling of loneliness and quietness that added more details to the meaning of village life I was trying to understand.


Although very old school in terms of presentation of information, the local history presented at the Burg added some content to the lack of details about this place (the entire museum information is in German). Besides presentations of local trades, I've also discovered that Coppenbrügge was a stop of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great during his 1697 European trip. Obviously, his trip was not only to discover the beauty of Europe, but also to settle some alliances and find some inspiration for his cultural plans.


The inner yard of the Burg was more interesting for its old touch of the stones and the layers of local histories added across centuries.


Outside, I wanted to take more chances of light hours to tour the streets and get more photo shots of the houses, which displayed a pretty diverse architectural style.


There were also small details that reminded me of the beautiful wooden doors and decorations from the Harz Mountains or Celle.


True is that part of the good impression was due to the late autumn leaves shades turning every facade into a colourful display of natural impressions.


Besides some classical chain supermarkets all the local stores were closed, which stole my chance of having a look at the local consumer patterns. With some time to kill before the trip back, I offered myself a long stop at the Eiscafé Camilo, where besides meeting a younger audience, I enjoyed some fresh waffles with fruits and icecream.


Not all my trips are spectacular, leading to fantastic discoveries and unforgettable human connections. Some are just like this trip to Coppenbrügge, involving turning round and round the same streets, taking pictures of houses and walking small compounds of houses whose inhabitants will instantly look at me suspicious because from the first and second sight I am clearly no local. Plus, I am visibly wearing a professional camera.
Such trips though, give me a grasp of humans and places better than any of my popular or glamorous choices of destinations. Booking my trip to Coppenbrügge was based on a mistake, but it was one of those mistakes I've learned a lot about.