Augsburg, Germany

The ancient city of Augsburg was bombed during WWII. Among its losses was an amazing baroque town hall containing a huge golden hall, which was smashed to smithereens. After the war, the people decided to rebuild an exact copy of the building, which represented the wealth and success of their town through the ages. The endeavor took several decades and great skill; the golden hall was finally re-completed in the 1990s. The total price was 9 million euros, and the money came from government, the citizens, and the town’s businesses. Nowadays, the Rathaus’s large wooden doors automatically swing open as you approach them. Inside, off the main entrance hall, there are two small side rooms. One contains a very long list of names; a memorial to the Jewish people from Augsburg who were systematically executed in the holocaust, and the other room has a war memorial to the German soldiers from the city. The new “old” golden hall is up the grand stairs. It is indeed very gold, and very impressive, and requires lots of neck craning to look up into its majestic details.

Augsburg would like to claim Mozart as one of its own, so we went to hunt for evidence of the most brilliant composer of all time. We found the house where his father Leopold was born. We walked around the Fuggerei (the first social housing founded in 1521 by a banker to the popes) where Mozart’s great grandfather lived. We discovered the cathedral where his father’s family went to church. We explored Saint Ulrich’s church, where there is a lock of the genius’s hair (hidden safely away in some secret place); the story goes that a piece got pulled out as Mozart ran up the stairs to play the organ. But we finally found the marvelous maestro’s spirit in a live performance by the Emerson String Quartet as they played Mendelssohn, Bartok, and Dvorak.

Saint Petersburg, Russia

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

After a short flight from Stockholm we are still in Europe, but we feel as though we are on the edge of familiar ground. As we walk the streets of our new destination there are people smoking hookahs, crumbling decaying buildings, strange smells, and the faces in the crowds are different, as well as the churches and their icons. Europe has ended, something new and different is beginning: this truly is the middle ground, a place between Europe and Asia. We have arrived in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

The architecture of this 300 year old city is gorgeous although it looks much neglected in places, and sometimes fallen into deep despair. However, a few monumental buildings are wrapped in scaffolding, so there seems to be some effort at preservation.

Overnight there was a torrential downpour, which lasted for hours. The morning weather made us realize that the wettest winter we ever spent was a summer in Saint Petersburg. We wandered down the main street of this colorful city (the Nevsky Prospect) to every tourist’s first stop, the magnificent Hermitage Museum. It is almost 250 years old and started as Catherine the Great’s personal art collection. It was eventually opened to the public in 1852. The collection has a million items, everything from Ancient Greek gold jewelry, to Picasso’s ceramics, and Auguste Rodin’s hypnotic sculptures. There were millions of tourists at the museum that we mostly managed to beat with our early rising strategy. The great art of the museum was somewhat lost to us as we never managed to figure out its unfathomable map. Eventually, we escaped the throng, and dodging the rain we rushed to the nearest cafe for solace in cappuccinos.

Out on the streets we continually marveled at the many glamorous young women, with slender bodies, long legs, and usually wearing (very tall) high-heeled pumps. These young women seem out of place compared to the older mothers and grandmothers we saw that were, let me say, much shorter and rounder. It is a mystery to us how the various generations of women can be so physically different.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Today, we realized why all the buildings in Saint Petersburg have the biggest drainpipes in the world. There was a lot of water pouring from the sky all day, non-stop, just heavy at first, then very heavy, and then unbelievably heavy. To avoid drowning, we took the second deepest metro in the world to the Peter and Paul Fortress, site of the founding of the city, home to the Tsars’ tombs, prison for their political detainees, and ultimately the penitentiary to some of the nobility. Now it’s a wonderful museum that does a good job to inform the inquisitive tourist about the city’s history from pre-historic humans to 1917 when, according to the museum, history ended for the residents of Saint Petersburg.

We discovered, after attending this great museum, that most of the 19th century in Russia was a time of anti-Tsarist political movements, which were ultimately unsuccessful and the activists were imprisoned, exiled, or executed. We stood in the room were death sentences were given to the leaders of the Decembrists who had tried to equalize things, and wanted to free the serfs, but failed in 1825. We were surprised to discover that nearly every member of the nobility had a Decembrist sympathizer amongst them.

We had no idea what Russian food would be like, but as lovers of beets and cabbage we had some hope. Limiting ourselves to restaurants with either pictures or English translations we discovered great food, and beets galore.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

In 1917, Mathilda Kshesinskaya’s mansion became the Bolshevik party headquarters. We stood in Lenin’s first floor office and looked out of the balcony where he gave speeches to crowds below. Now, the Art Nouveau mansion, which was built for a prima ballerina and royal mistress who became the wife of Grand Prince Andrei Romanov, is the Museum of Political History. Every story in Russia’s past seems incredibly complicated, sad, and thrilling. At each twist in the nation’s saga we kept wondering what might have happened if…. Feeling incredibly sad, we learnt about Stalin’s gruesome policies. The museum’s narrative was definitely critical of the infamous dictator, who left behind a big mess, to say the very least.

Afterwards, we walked to the Aurora, the Naval ship that fired a shot to signal the October revolution in 1917. We discovered the Field of Mars, where many revolutionaries were interred in mass graves. These days the city seemed overflowing with brides rushing about having their photos taken. By the end of the emotional day, we were ready for vodka, borscht, and bed.

Earlier this year, back in San Francisco, we encountered Russian bureaucracy for the first time while obtaining our entry visas to this complicated country. During this encounter we were fined an extra $50 for having commas incorrectly placed (according to the Russian official) in our names on the visa request form. “Oh well,” we thought, “There’s always a tax you must pay when you travel.” However, nothing could have prepared us for our departure experience today. We discovered the full officious and disorganized nature of Russian officialdom. Two security and three passport checks stood between us and our aircraft bound for Berlin. It took four hours at the airport to make a two hour flight. Dasvidanya mother Russia, it was nice knowing you.

Uppsala, Sweden

Monday, August 12, 2013

Summer is over in Sweden. The wind, rain, and thunderous groans of the great god Odin roar over the city as he mourns the loss of sunshine. Still, we decided to visit the quaint university town of Uppsala further north in this land of Norse gods. The university has existed since the 15th century, and we were amazed to see an original musical manuscript by Mozart in the library, as well as some incredibly old maps and 1000 year old religious fiction texts; they are valuable for their age if not for their content.

We forgot that museums are usually closed on Mondays, so we couldn’t go inside Linnaeus’s garden and house, we just peeked through its iron-gate. Linnaeus was a great scientist and classifier of living things into genus and species, which was helpful to Darwin when he was developing his thoughts about natural selection; truth is always more rewarding than fiction.

Stockholm and Tyresta National Park, Sweden

August 8, 9, 10, 2013

Thirty years ago David and friends spent a freezing few days in Stockholm; the river was frozen, everything was white with snow, and it was very cold for the three intrepid Aussies. This time it is summer in the northern city. Everyone is outside, enjoying light and warmth, and the whole city feels like a giant outdoor party. Even in the graveyard (sounds creepy, but looks weirdly lovely) outside our hotel window there are hares bouncing around, feasting on the summer grass! Stockholm is buzzing with life.

We spent our first day in the city by leaving it. Nearby the vibrant metropolis is Tyresta National Park, a piece of pristine primeval Swedish forest we were compelled to explore. We hiked through trees growing out of moss covered granite, and ate our scrumptious cheese sandwiches on the shore of a lake that reflected the clouds and forest in its glassy calm water.

Traditional Swedish food is just what you need after 10 miles of hiking through a primeval forest, and we got it at a restaurant called Tradition. The restaurant’s bread is made to a secret family recipe, and the sticky, almost black bread tastes of licorice and molasses. We ate cabbage pudding, black pudding, homemade mustard, and rhubarb crumble, and the bread, oh the bread.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

“Mamma mia, here I go again My my, how can I resist you?” We couldn’t resist the ABBA museum and the chance for some 1970s fashion and music immersion. ABBA was great, and so was the exhibit. We got to sing along, dance, marvel at the musicians’ talent, determination, hard work, luck, platform shoes, and fabulous costumes.

Next, on to something completely different and the Nobel Museum, where we saw lots about every spectrum of human possibility from the best to the worst. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite. Maybe guilt about the turbulent invention, which spurred on the Age of Anthropocene, and caused massive amounts of death and destruction made him leave so much of his fortune for the Nobel Prizes. Whatever the reason, it is wonderful that he did as so many brave and brilliant people are given recognition and financial reward.

Varnamo and Store Mosse National Park, Sweden

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Today’s weather matched the very wet forecast, but rain did not deter us from hiking in the extremely green and mossy Store Mosse National Park. The park’s wilderness is a mixture of bogs, ancient sand dunes, and forests, all upon antediluvian 3 billion year old Swedish bedrock. After bundling ourselves into waterproofs we set out into the vast marshland. In the boggiest places there were wood planks to walk on, some were (what we referred to as) wobblers and some were flappers because of the way they moved under foot, but we were very happy they were there most of the time.

We walked through an Iron Age burial ground, and sheltered to eat our obligatory cheese sandwiches in an old wooden hut. There are Elk and Eagles in the park, but we saw neither on our trek. Eight miles later, and back at the hotel, we hoped our sodden boots would dry on the windowsill as we listened to more rain pouring and ducks quacking outside; at least Julia said they were ducks.