Category Archives: 2018 Winter Tours

Wintery Holiday: Part III

RIGA

Wednesday, December 20 – Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Hopefully I haven’t lost you in my Baltic history. because the medieval beauty of the two capital cities we explored–Riga in Latvia and Tallinn in Estonia–offer a respite from the reality of today’s world.

And, for anyone interested below are some quirky factoids about Latvia from a November 27 article a British newspaper, THE DAILY TELEGRAPH:

  • a tailor who emigrated from Riga, Jākobs Jufess, co-patented the first pair of Levis with Levi Strauss in 1872…
  • Latvian Uljana Semjonova (6′ 11″) became the first, non-American woman inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame…
  • the country offers one of the world’s fastest Internet speeds (average 13.8 MB/s vs. USA’s 11.9)…
  • and for any crossword fanatics, it’s capital is one of the 14 in the world spelled with four letters*
*FYI:  Max just fact-checked this fact only to discover there are three more 4-letter capitals…

Okay, back to our trip… :)

During our ride from the airport to our hotel in Riga’s Old Town we passed all the trimmings you’d expect in a 2018 city:  large shopping mall, four-lane highways, and concrete-and-steel construction. Yet, once we wound our way through cobblestone streets framed by medieval buildings, time slid backwards. Within 20 minutes we had stashed our bags and headed out to begin our exploration of this city.

With snow on the ground and more falling every day, we knew we’d found exactly what we had searched for:  a new destination decorated with the holiday spirit. Known for its Christmas Markets we soon found one we would frequent often (notice the apples embedded in frozen ice in the sculpture) …

enjoying the festive stalls and, of course, market fare with the obligatory gluewein.

The Daugava River borders the west side of the Old Town, and a prior fortress moat the east. Art Nouveau buildings are to the north with the bus and train stations to the south. We learned via a visit to the Riga Museum of History and Navigation (an excellent timeline of Riga beginning with the prehistoric era) how trade dominated the early economy.

The German Hanseatic League used this as a prime trading center and established permanent roots. The leaders of the city came from these German traders who formed the Great Guild. Eventually a lesser guild came into being composed of craftsmen – lesser because trade was deemed more important than crafts. The Riga’s history museum showcased a few of these crafts and the production, a bone comb being one example.

The museum was chock-a-block full of artifacts, some fascinating, some not so much. But, one I found interesting was a mechanical drummer

which also offered a photo-op using my favorite poser.

 

One of the most impressive buildings in the Old Town is the Blackheads House on the Town Square. The brotherhood of the Blackheads originated in the 1300s as a group of single guys who worked in the banquet catering industry. So, partying heartily was a natural for this society of unmarried, wealthy merchants. The name comes from Saint Maurice, a black African, Roman commander martyred over his refusal to kill Christians. Germans comprised the majority of the membership (evidence of their dominance of Baltic trading) and their exuberant parties enticed even Royals to partake of the festivities.

In the mid1400s, the Blackheads first rented this 14th century structure pictured below, then purchased it in the mid-1700s. Destroyed during WWII, it was rebuilt 1995-99. We missed seeing the interior but gazed in awe at the frothy pink facade.

Tallinn, which we visited after Riga, also features a Blackheads house. It’s the only remaining Renaissance structure in that city. And, it’s in Tallinn where the first mention of raising a Christmas tree occurred, in 1441. Riga, who claims they raised it first, has it documented in 1510. Whoever began the tradition, Riga’s setting provided a splendid backdrop for the Winter Solstice celebration we joined on the 21st.

A blazing fire,

 

conga-line dancing,

 

and posing pagans reinforced our decision to spend the Christmas season in these two post-Soviet countries.

One of the refreshing aspects of this holiday was the fantastical mix of paganism with Christianity. Not surprising since the Baltic countries are some of the least religious ones in the world, ranking #3 for Estonia, #8 for Latvia, and #10 for Lithuania  out of 150 (‘The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050′ and published by the Pew Research Center 2015). This also may account for the very few creches we spotted during our entire visit (none in Riga and just one or two in Tallinn).

We continued celebrating a pagan Winter Solstice by dining at Folkklubs Ala pagrabs (or cellar, situated in a medieval wine cellar), which offered more music and dance

 

along with typical meat-and-potatoes dishes and a huge variety of beer, wine and liquors…

We did try the notorious Black Balsam liquor. Our waitress said of the three varieties, the best is the black current. What I swallowed was akin to sickly sweet cough syrup but Max thought it quite tasty.

Often our day began with a tour of a site and ended with strolling the streets. And, if we look cold in the photos, it was frigid. At one point I whined to Max that I felt and looked like a puffball where he quickly responded but ‘you’re my puffball’. Not quite the reassurance I was looking for. He definitely has a way with words…

In spite of the cold we managed to cover the Old Town (fairly small) and part of the surrounding area. Equipped with a tourist map, which we referenced frequently,

we followed a self-guiding tour through the narrowest street…

past the three brothers house reflecting three centuries’ of architecture (from R to L, 1490, 1646, and the 1700s) and the oldest residence in Riga still standing…

stopping at a pagan sculpture, probably some god’s head that if you painted it orange, added a toupee, and squinted the eyes it could be someone else’s head…

Close by was the so-called Cat House (c. 1909) whose owner originally had the tail facing the Great Guild House, which was a symbolic raising of a middle finger, I believe.

Christmas markets dotted squares and parks,

and during our walks we posed for more portraits.

Wanting to explore further, we bought tickets to a hop-on-hop-off bus, which took us by the National Library of Latvia, called Castle of Light, located on the opposite side of the river from the Old Town.

I wish we’d been here when it opened in January 2014. We’d have joined the 14,000 people who mimicked the 1989 Baltic Way and symbolically moved 2,000 books 1.2 Km from the old library to the new along a human chain.

To celebrate the Christmas spirit we attended a Nutcracker performance at the National Opera and Ballet

where we played musical chairs to give mothers and their children better seats.

We even rented opera glasses that were more decorative than functional.

It was a lovely performance in spite of not featuring one of Riga’s native sons, Mikhail Baryshnikov.

The Central Market, housed in WW I zeppelin hangers, seemed worth exploring.

It was fascinating to see the range (and expense) of caviar,

yet, after walking past aisles of fishy-smelling stalls

and raw meat featuring a pigs head

we both wanted to exit pretty quickly.

Fortunately, Riga’s restaurants offer other options. And, we enjoyed a range of medieval fare

including Max’s bowl of gray peas, an ancient traditional dish which you’re suppose to eat at Christmas so no tears will be shed in the New Year.

But, we both preferred a more traditional fare for Christmas Eve dinner:  a hamburger.

Christmas Day we trekked to the modern cinema just across the train tracks to see a recommended movie:  ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.  And, what great entertainment that was!

A wine bar served as our Christmas dinner where you could sample a range of wines with the swipe of a pre-loaded card. And, the food, primarily served as tapas, was filling, too :)

So, now you’ve gotten a taste of our Christmas in Riga. We highly recommend it. And, if you do go, don’t forget to grab a spoonful of gray peas. They’re not bad (says Lynnie who sampled two solitary peas while Max finished his entire dish – editor)

Next, New Year’s in Tallinn!

 

Wintery Holiday: Part II

Baltic States (continued)

December 20, 2018 – January 2, 2019

 

Tallinn’s VABAMU MUSEUM OF OCCUPATION

Estonia shares a similar history with Latvia, one we saw at the recently expanded and rebranded Vabamu Museum of Occupation. (Vabamu is comprised of the Estonian words for freedom, ‘vadabus’, and museum, ‘muuseum’)

Being high-tech, the museum offered audio guides cued to automatically begin when standing in front of each display; yet, similar to Riga’s museums, excellent English signage practically eliminated the need for it with the exception of four videos describing life during the Soviet rule.

Several rooms highlighted the deportations and life in the camps with artifacts, such as the prisoners’ desire to create a semblance of normal life by making greeting cards out of any scraps they could find…

and a jacket worn by a young boy who worked in a camp’s production shop (the left side of the jacket was worn away by his leaning against his worktable)….

One startling item was a small poison tab appearing in the resistance exhibit covering the partisans forces.

These were used by infiltrators who would slip these into fellow partisans’ drinks in order to subdue them for capture by the Soviets. A survivor explained it best (I apologize for the blurriness): 

Having spent time in Riga’s Museum of Occupation we already had a pretty good idea of the fifty years of misery in these Baltic countries, so it was a relief to read some dark humor shared by Estonians during this period, two of which are below:

“What are the three kinds of victories of advanced socialism? Food is kind of scarce, Queues are kind of long, Life is kind of shitty.”   –   “Who is a communist? The one who has read Marx and Lenin. Who is an anticomunist? The one who has read Marx and Lenin and actually understood them.”

1991

After spending an hour learning about the terror of Soviet rule, we walked into the area covering “The Singing Revolution.”

The name reflects Estonia’s love of song, a trait shared by Latvia and Lithuania. In Estonia the first Song Festival was held in 1869 arising out of the growing sense of patriotism. It was the only cultural activity conducted in the Estonian language (Russia forbade use of the country’s native language during this time). And, if the official program didn’t feature Estonia’s national anthem, the audience would often sing it anyway. 

With Gorbachev’s easing of restrictions in the 1980s Estonians become more vocal in their push for independence. The Estonian National Independence Party is established in 1988. At the Song Festival the same year, special patriotic songs are composed, sung and broadcast live on radio.

In 1989 the ‘Baltic Way’ occurs, a peaceful protest involving all three Baltic countries.

By 1990 the Estonians are negotiating with the USSR to transition to independence. With no solution reached as of January 1991 protests occur throughout the three Baltic countries, with deaths and injuries in Riga and Vilinus (capital of Lithuania) yet none in Tallin. Negotiations begin anew, with Gorbachev holding a referendum asking Estonians what they want. 77.8% vote for independence.

On August 19 a coup begins in Moscow to prevent Gorbachev from signing a union treaty that would make Russia a confederation. Soviet hard-liners thought it would break the USSR into independent states, hence, the attempt to stop the signing. The coup extends to Estonia with Soviets trying to seize power there. The local authorities call for resistance by asking people to gather at symbolic and strategic locations–Toompea (Tallinn’s castle), the TV tower, the radio station:

People! Come to the defense of the TV and radio Building! Leave women and children at home! No pointed tools or uniforms!”

Estonia claims independence on August 20. The next day Soviet troops, without using force, try to take the TV tower but are unsuccessful.

Independence is declared by Estonia on August 21, 1991. Called The Singing Revolution due to the use of patriotic songs during the 1980s in defiance of Soviet rule, all three of the Baltic countries managed to obtain their revolution through non-violent means. By 1994 all Soviet troops had withdrawn from the country.

 

VIRU HOTEL and the KGB

Although this museum as well as Riga’s provided excellent information regarding the occupations between 1940 and 1991, nothing beats the power of a first-hand account. Which is what we received during our tour of KGB Offices in Tallinn’s Viru Hotel.

Constructed by Finnish engineers in 1972, this Tallinn hotel served as a showcase of USSR to all foreign visitors (the only ones allowed to stay there) and a convenient way to capture foreign currency. It also had a top floor, the 23rd, of which no one spoke but which everyone knew was the KGB’s office for monitoring everything that happened on the premises.

We joined a small tour group led by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide. She escorted us to the top floor where we entered two rooms.

The first was the hotel manager’s office with all of the contents relocated from a lower floor and placed exactly as it had been the day he left in 1991. He had a direct line to the KGB office (the faceless one on the desk) which shouldn’t have been surprising considering anyone in that position would be a puppet of the Soviets.

She then ushered us into the actual room used by the KGB. Like the manager’s office, this room remains in the state in which it was hurriedly left.

One exception was a glass case displaying tools of the trade, such as a cufflink microphone.

But, the hotel seemed to be built for microphones as they had been placed in lamps, vases, ashtrays, even inside dinner plates (!). And, of course, the walls had cameras and the floors had hall monitors. In short, the guide’s description matches exactly what you’d find in any Russian spy thriller.

In some instances, the hotel visitors playfully acknowledged the spying. The guide mentioned how one guest checked in, went to his room, then loudly said ‘One, two, three… I’m just giving you a sound test.’ Needless to say, short conversations were the rule.

To work here provided benefits for the locals. Of the 1,000 employees for the 839 guests, the floor monitors made out the best. They managed to trade with the guests and received ‘gifts’ to look the other way. Yet, an atmosphere of fear pervaded the hotel. Which is expected considering the unmentioned occupants of the 23rd floor.

But, what truly made this tour exceptional were the anecdotes shared by our guide. She told us how her grandmother as a young mother was arrested for singing a song and sentenced to 15 years forced labor in Siberia (the family was relieved it was ‘only’ 15 and not the the typical 25 years). With the death of Stalin she along with others received amnesty and eventually was able to return to Estonia.

Another example of Soviet rule was the story of a young girl who wore white socks with blue and black stripes, the three colors of the Estonian flag. The school sent the girl home and called the mother into a meeting to be interrogated about why she let her child wear those socks. They questioned the mother’s ability to properly raise a child; and, since all children belonged to the state, she easily could have lost her daughter. And, this occurred when our guide was attending school in the 1970s.

We asked our guide afterwards if she had been able to participate in the Baltic Way, the human chain of 2 million people that ran from Tallinn to Villinius via Riga. She said she had had a unique opportunity to travel to Helsinki and was unaware of the plan, but her parents did manage to join the line. Wondering how 2 million people knew about this plan, the guide said work places spread the word and assigned groups to specific locations. People without an assigned location travelled the line until they found a gap to fill.

When we asked if anyone was afraid to participate in these demonstrations, our guide said by then the Soviet reins were loosening, emboldening people to speak out. 

We wish we had been able to take her out for a drink because we had other questions we wanted to ask. One being was she worried about Putin annexing parts of Estonia like he did the Crimea in Ukraine. We felt she would have given us an honest and unfiltered answer. Something she couldn’t have done 35 years ago.

Tallinn’s KGB CELLS

We decided to do a quick visit to the cells where Tallinn’s KGB held its prisoners 1941-50 opposite its headquarters.

Located in the basement to muffle sounds of interrogation (i.e., torture), five or so cells including some isolation ones served as a temporary prison where those incarcerated were either executed or sent to Siberia.

Very little information was presented, although I was fascinated by a video with a sand painter depicting Soviet imprisonment.

If short on time, I wouldn’t recommend this site due to the scarcity of information.

VICTIMS OF COMMUNISM Memorial 

One we would definitely add to anyone’s visit to Tallinn is the two-part Memorial to the victims of Soviet occupation. ‘The Journey’ represented by a long corridor banked by brutally stark walls listing the over 22,000 who died under the communist regime.

‘The Garden’ places you in a peaceful setting surrounded by apple trees and bees, the latter referenced in an inscribed poem on the wall referring to Estonians returning like bees to their hives.

Ironically the new memorial is located right next to anther one, part of it pictured at the beginning of this post: the  Memorial  to the Fighters for Soviet Power raised during the Soviet Occupation and now left to deteriorate.*

*Tallinn may not incur the expense to remove it. In 2007 a night of rioting occurred with the removal of another Soviet memorial (the Bronze Solider depicting a Soviet Warrior with 13 Red Army graves). Erected in 1947 it commemorated Russia’s victory over the Nazis. With over 25% of Estonians being of Russian ethnicity, it became a rallying point for youths to protest. 

NARVA

To complete our immersion into Estonia under the USSR, we travelled to Narva, the most northern and easterly Estonian city that faces Russia across a narrow river.

The cold weather and gray day made a perfect backdrop to view this city. Being a Sunday most places were shuttered, which only added to the gloomy atmosphere. As we traipsed block after block of stark buildings, the city lived up to its reputation as a ‘good’ example of Soviet architecture.

Our one tourist attraction was the castle built by the Danes in the 1370s.

Narva’s fortress faces Russia’s Ivangorod Fortress across a narrow stretch of the Narva River. Gazing across Max mentioned this may be the closest we’ll ever be to Russia.

We paid the small entrance fee then dutifully checked the few rooms of exhibits, one featuring huge cannon balls…

another, casts of Peter the Great’s face (the white one being his death mask), which actually appear to make some of his protraits accurate depictions…

and climbed the 51-meter tower where we saw views of the Estonia-Russia border crossing and Russia in the distance.

Completing our tour of the fortress we began making our way back to the train station. The cold only enhanced the depressing feeling when walking in this city.

The one feeling of warmth was our welcome at the Tourist Information Office. Other than that and a few smiles from some of the employees at the fort, Narva was a destination we were looking forward to leaving.

The grim train station reinforced this feeling. I wish I had snapped some shots but I didn’t, so here’s one grabbed off the Internet:

As the third largest city in Estonia one would assume the station would be manned on a Sunday  and have a semblance of comfort. Wrong. The only people at the station were either dour passengers or family/friends of passengers. And, in spite of being a gray day, no lights were on in the one waiting room. Furthermore, the short hallway into the restroom had been haphazardly boarded off with a half-sheet of plywood. Welcome to Narva.

Adding to my level of concern was the atmosphere in the waiting room as more and more people began to position themselves to be the first to run out on the platform as soon as the train arrived. Not having return tickets with any guarantee of seats and now knowing the only way to get one is on the train itself created a bit of anxiety as neither of us relished the idea of a night spent in Narva.

Some brisk, impersonal shoving began as the doors opened as we joined the dash to the train. Yet, once aboard we looked around and saw plenty of free seats, which only made us wonder what the rush was all about?

And, that was a perfect ending to our exploring how life during the Soviet Occupation had affected Estonia.

Coming up… holiday festivities begin…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wintery Holiday: Part 1

The Baltic States

December 20, 2018 – January 2, 2019

Searching for a wintery location to celebrate the Christmas holidays we found two cities:  Riga in Latvia and Tallinn in Estonia, two of the three Baltic capitals just west of Russia. Each one claims the birth of the Christmas tree tradition and both offered notable holiday markets, promising a taste of gluewien and new places to explore.

These two countries, along with the third, Lithuania, line the east coast of the Baltic Sea situated between Russia to the northeast and Poland to the southwest (with Kalingrad, a small Russian enclave stuck between Poland and Lithuania and one we can’t sail to or enter without a visa).

We had considered cruising to this area last summer but time ran out; yet, we had kept this on our radar for future travel based on other cruisers’ descriptions of the lovely old towns encapsulated within these two, now-modern cities. And, when reading about the region’s history, familiar names and places cropped up, such as the Hanseatic League (a German alliance of trading guilds that dominated this part of the world from the 12th to the 16th century). As you may know by now, we love connecting the historical dots, and these two capitals offered more opportunities to do just that.

And, if you’re like me, my knowledge of the area was minimal, which meant, what else, delving into the background of this region. Similar to a lot of European countries, tracing the history of Riga and Tallinn became a convoluted journey over many centuries…  here goes a recap:

Importance of Trade

Access to the Baltic Sea and a network of rivers fostered trading routes, including the Amber (‘gold of the north’) Road (Baltic to the Mediterranean)

with the Old Silk Road* bringing goods to the Mediterranean that found their way to Northern Europe.

*Now termed the ‘Silk Routes’ due to other roads connecting the East and the West. What’s really interesting is China’s plan to develop a New Silk Route, part of President Xi Jinping’s 2015 ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative to create an economic trade link using land routes (‘Belts’) and sea routes (‘Roads’).

 

Trade drew many to the shores of this Baltic region. Scandinavian Vikings started frequenting the Baltic people’s land in the 8th century, and German merchants began settling here in the 12th century, eventually becoming part of the Hansa League (14th-17th CE). Crusaders soon followed. In the same century the Danish King Valdemar II (1170-1241) introduced Christianity.

 

13th Century

The Germanic crusaders–Order of the Brothers of the Sword and Knights of the Teutonic Order–

took over most of the region in the 13th century, eventually adding northern Estonia (sold to them by Valdemar II who wanted out) to their holdings in southern Estonia and Latvia.

Unlike its northern neighbors, the Lithuanians managed to maintain their independence; and, when it seemed prudent to find an ally to ward off the Teutonic Knights, they chose Poland over Russia, linking them to Catholicism and, eventually, a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

14th -17th Centuries

As the Hansa grew more powerful, German merchants became de facto rulers of both Riga and Tallinn (previously known as Reval). In spite of never being more than 10% of the population the Baltic, Germans became the dominant force in the mercantile and professional sectors. Even when Russia’s Tsar Ivan IV (aka Ivan the Terrible) invaded in the mid-1500s,

the Germans maintained administrative control and continued to grow extremely wealthy. This Germanic influence is one reason why Estonia and Latvia became Lutheran after the Reformation, while Lithuanians kept their ties to Catholicism through their alliance with Poland.

In the late 1500s Sweden entered the picture when the heir to the Swedish throne was also King of Poland (Sigmund Vasa III) as well as the Grand Duke of Lithuania.

17th & 18th Centuries

While this union only lasted seven years, it began a century-long turf war between Poland-Lithuania and Sweden. Russia entered the fray in the mid-1600s with a tug of war over Ukraine. It wasn’t until Russia’s Peter the Great (1672-1725) finally won the Great Northern War (1700-21) in his decade-long grudge with Sweden’s Charles XII (1682-1719) that fate was decided for the Baltic States. That fate being Russification.

19th Century

With the emancipation of their serfs in the early 1800s, Estonian and Latvian natives immigrated to the cities and began to grow a strong middle class and a sense of nationalism. The access to education aided this socioeconomic change. (Lithuania’s development came later than its northern neighbors’ due to their peasants remaining serfs until 1861, when all of Russia abolished this feudal system.)

20th Century

With the Russian Revolution and WW I the revolutionary spirit spread throughout the Baltics. By 1920 all three countries won their independence from Soviet Russia. For the first time flags representing Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania flew in those countries. In Riga we visited the Monument to Freedom, erected in 1935 to honor the Latvian soldiers killed during its War of Independence (1918-20).

These three Baltic countries remained independent until 1939 when they fell under USSR’s domain with the signing of the 10-year, secretive Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (aka the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact).

After only two years Hitler reneged on the deal, invaded the Soviet Union, and subjected Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians to Nazi brutality. In 1944, these three countries swapped autocrats and came under the reign of Soviet terror. Finally, with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, all three countries wrested control and won their independence.

Riga’s MUSEUM OF THE OCCUPATION 

To help understand the modern history of the countries we visited, two museums provided excellent information:  Riga’s Museum of the Occupation of Latvia and Tallinn’s Vabamu Occupation Museum.

We located The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in its temporary location on the second floor of an imposing, but musty government building. Before we entered the rooms covering the occupation of Latvia, signage greeted us describing another misery:  Ukraine’s Holodomar, the National Catastrophe (1933-32). Thirteen billboards walked us through Stalin’s elimination of dissidence through planned starvation of Ukraine’s citizens, a horrific irony considering this country’s farming villages once supplied 43% of the world’s barley, 20% of its wheat and 10% of its corn pre-WW I.

The exhibit described how the Soviets first confiscated all the food, removing any and everything edible. Then they compounded the act by surrounding the farms and villages with armed guards, ensuring no one could leave. Stalin then replaced the local, dying population with collective farmers from other parts of Russia to perform spring sowing of the fields. During this time a large-scale purging resulted in the arrest of 124,000 “Ukranian Nationalists”. Then, at the end of 1933, the government removed all records of those who died of starvation, in effect denying their existence.

With the exception of a few documented accounts by foreign eyewitnesses,

this mass starvation campaign remained in the shadows until the late 1980s. In 1988 the US called it a crime of genocide with other countries following suit. The obvious purpose of the exhibit was to serve as a reminder that these atrocities can and do occur, and the world offers plenty of tragic examples, Yemen being one.

And, that was before we entered the four rooms depicting life under first Nazism, then Communism.

Welcome to more human misery…

The maps below provide a visual of the Baltic states first identified as individual countries following their 1920 independence… then annexed by Russia… who lost them when Germany  invaded…. but recaptured them for a second Russian occupation… ending with finally winning their independence in 1991.

The first Soviet occupation of 1940-41 established the Soviet totalitarian terror system with the goal of destroying all resistance and of soviet-izing all Latvians.

Artifacts from the Soviet occupation, one showing the Estonian flag hidden inside a purse…

and photographs, such as the 1940 headquarters of the NKGB (People’s Commissariat of State Security, aka Cheka) and NKYD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) document this Russification imposed brutally upon the local populace.

Ironically, life under the Soviet regime was so harsh that many Latvians welcomed the German soldiers as liberators when they arrived July 1, 1941.

This quickly changed when locals realized one totalitarian ruler was replacing another.

I learned from one display how Germany planned to colonize some Latvian cities by deporting 50% of the local inhabitants and importing 164,000 German settlers to ‘Germanize’ the region over a 25-year period. While in another area a map of the Riga Ghetto appeared in an August 1941 edition of a local paper.

By September of that same month 29,000 Jews are interned there. Meanwhile mass killings of Jews occurs, resulting in 70,000 Latvian Jews murdered along with 20,000 out of 25,000 jews brought to Latvia from other countries. An estimated 1,000 Latvian Jews are the only ones to survive the war.

More maps identified the main deportation routes used in the 1940s and 50s by the GULAG (the administration of forced labor camps) where thousands of  ‘criminals’ performed slave labor. Yet, deportations to Russia had begun even before WW II with over 15,000 Latvians exiled in Siberia or sent to GULAG camps by June 14, 1941. They were joined by 21,000 from Lithuania and 11,000 from Estonia.

For those curious, here’s the legend, which, hopefully, you can enlarge.

The largest, post-WW II deportations started on March 25, 1949 when 42,000 Latvians–almost 2% (!) of the population–are forcibly resettled in Siberia or GULAG camps along with 32,000 Lithuanians and 21,000 Estonians.

Until Stalin’s death in 1953, 44,271 citizens are deported. Out of those 5,500 die during the journey or in exile. Eventually the rest are released with the majority allowed to return to Latvia in 1956, but not to their original homes and they are still black-balled by the Soviet government.

If one does the math it’s stupefying to see how Stalin and his henchmen endeavored to decimate the natives of these Baltic countries.

Out of the Nazi occupation, homegrown partisan forces continue to fight, only now the enemy are the Soviets. Aiding these fighters are non-violent resistant groups. Persecution of the dissidents peters out in the early 1980s with Mikhail Gorbache’s perestroika in 1985 signaling the beginning of very public demonstrations advocating Latvian independence.

To me, one of the most powerful statements of this resistance against tyranny is an event that occurred August 23, 1989 – the 50th anniversary of the Molov-Ribbentrop Pact. On that day two million people joined hands

creating a 600-km (373 mile), unbroken human chain from Tallinn via Riga to Vilnius, the three capitals of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (FYI, the image below shows the countries’ flag colors).

What a powerful image, one that would be amazing if we could do the same in the US to protest the hate speech and groups festering in our country. Sign me up. I’m there.

1991 brings independence but not without huge losses: the % of the population comprised of native Latvians has gone from 75% in 1935 to 52% in 1989.

Latvia oriented itself to the West, joining its international groups:  the United Nations (September 1991); NATO (April 2004); and the European Union (May 2004).

A long, long history filled with invasions, occupations and finally national independence.

With the strong likelihood of making your eyes twirl around in your head even more, click here for Tallinn’s Museum of Occupation and other sites…

And, more Heidi-like Land, only in Italian :)

September 27-30, 2018

Heading to the Italian side the next morning we passed a church steeple rising from the man-made Lake Resia. Man-made due to being flooded in 1950 to create a dam for electricity.

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And, in case you’re like me and aren’t exactly clear on the governance of this region here’s a quick explanation:  this State of Tyrol is one of three areas designated by the EU as a Euroregion†. Italy’s South Tyrol (Süd Tirol) and Trentino form the southern and eastern parts of this cross-border triumverate.

† “A Euroregion is a cross-border territorial entity that brings together partners from two or more cross-border regions in different European countries. Their purpose is to create a coherent space that is developed collectively to ensure that the border is no longer an obstacle but becomes a resource and an opportunity for development. To do this, it creates a framework for cooperation that makes it possible to bring together the different players and to put in place common policies and projects in areas such as regional development, transport, the local economy, cultural activities, the environment and so on, always in accordance with the specific features of each border area.” (Espaces-transfrontaliers.org)

The cooperation must work well since this Euroregion is one of the wealthiest in Europe, with low unemployment and a high standard of living. No surprise tourism plays a large role in this area’s economic health, with the Austrian Alps and South Tyrol’s Dolomites providing a playground for all-season activities. We were extremely fortunate to meet up with Christine and Jürgen for picture-book strolls in their backyard of Austrian Alps.

While these bordering areas do work together, the newly elected Austrian prime minister Sebastian Kurtz seems to be keen on stirring up nationalistic fever. In 2017 the coalition government, which includes the far-right Freedom Party, suggested the German-speakers in South Tyrol (roughly 66% of the population) should qualify for dual nationality by adding an Austrian passport to their Italian one.

Many in South Tyrol are amenable to obtaining Austrian citizenship. Not only are they in sync with the Austrian culture but also prefer to be linked to Vienna’s economy over Rome’s. This suggestion by Austria had inflamed the Italian nationalists with the leader of Brothers of Italy (so much for sisters…) shouting the slogan, “Hands off Italy!”.

This push-pull amongst the South Tyroleans between Austria and Italy isn’t new. For 550 years the Austrian-Hapsburg Empire ruled this land until 1918. In 1915 the Allies ceded South Tyrol to Italy based on the Secret Treaty of London when Italy agreed to support the Allies. With the rise of fascism Mussolini forced the region to become totally Italian. Hitler, of course, wanted this area to be part of the German Reich.

So, the “Option” was devised where the South Tyroleans could either emigrate to Austria as part of Hitler’s Nazi Party or remain in Italy and lose their culture under Mussolini’s fascism. A lose-lose scenario lasting from 1939-1943.

Trentino, being further south in Italy, has escaped this tension especially since the majority of their inhabitants speak Italian.

However, with nationalism turning many countries into pockets of isolation, let’s hope this Euroregion can work through this issue without disrupting the existing cooperation among its citizens.

In driving to our destination in Kastelbel we noticed row after row of vineyards.

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But, those vines suspiciously are holding mighty big grapes. Which, in peering more closely we realized were apples…

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We later found out every 10th apple in Europe comes from this area. And, I have to say, they grew some good apples :)

We arrived at a lovely hotel Jürgen found for us when the Agri-Tourismo one he recommended had no vacancies. We highly recommend Hotel Panorama not only for its warm and helpful family, beginning with Christian, but also for its meals included in the room price (breakfast and dinner).

When we checked in they said fish was the main entree that night. Expecting a typical buffet of soggy food sitting under warming lights, the actual meal of delicate and delicious fillet accompanied by a starter and salad then finished with a dessert stunned us. We now knew not to be late for the 6:30-7:00pm serving time. And, the breakfasts were just as marvelous in their freshness and tastiness. And, the coffee was glorious.

Furthermore our room was Scandinavian airy and comfortable with a shower to die for. If you want to make a boating woman supremely happy, give her a shower that doesn’t cut off after three to five minutes, water hotter than tepid temps, and pressure that won’t leave half the shampoo on the head. Yes, I was happy!

But, beyond that the Dolomites we experienced both in drives and walks offered a completely different mountainscape.

After having driven on one of the famous sightseeing roads filled with hairpin turns and narrow lanes the day before

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–where we did stop to gaze in awe at Lake Carezza where you would swear it had been photoshopped

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And captured views of the Dolomites–

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With lots of para-sailaing (which we wanted to do but ran out of time)–

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We set off for the capital of South Tyrol, Bolzano (where the iceman, Ötzi, lives††) and the Renon plateau, an area offering lots of hikes and scenic options. Having located the cable car for a ride up to Collabo (in German, Klobenstein as every place is in both Italian and German) we began our task of sussing out a hiking trail. As we peered at one of those glossy-page folding maps trying to understand where we wanted to go this kind couple approached us. If you ever see someone looking a bit lost while staring intently at a map, one of the nicest things you can do is ask if they need help! That’s how we met Anna and Alois Frisch, a couple from Germany who were visiting one of their favorite areas.

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They took us under their wings, ensuring we got on the Renon Train, South Tyrol’s only narrow gauge railway with powered cars from 1907. Disembarking, we followed them to a bus stop in the small village of Longomoso. We then decided, due to time constraints, to skip the next step of taking a bus to a higher hiking ground.

†† On the Austrian-Italian border at 10,530 ft. Two hikers discovered his mummified body September 1991 in the Ötzi Mountains. The Italians claimed it after a survey established it laid just over 100 yards on their side. Unfortunately, we didn’t see him as this fits perfectly with in the category of an MDT (Max Disaster Tour).

We then headed off to do an hour loop, one marked with letter excerpts written to or from Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Which seemed odd until we read he had spent the summer of 1911 in this area.

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This was my type of an afternoon hike:  few inclines, well-marked paths, and plenty of open spaces with warm sunshine.

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Oh, and a few resting stops…

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And a friendly local.

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After several hours we found our way back to Bolzano and headed for another treasure in the area:  one of the six museums established by Reinhold Messner.

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A native of South Tyrol, this mountaineer was the first in the world to climb all the earth’s peaks over 26,000 ft. If you want an extreme quick bio of this guy, Check this post out  But, please excuse the language!

Each museum presents a A facet of Messner’s passion (mountaineering) interlaced with art,  and each museum locale is reason enough to visit even if you’re not interested in mountains or art. The one outside Bolzano is a repurposed castle,

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which we wandered around (often having to refer to the brochure to determine where we were)

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Unfortunately, we had hit this museum at the end of the day so we scampered up and down stairs (that tested my fear of heights)

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And enjoyed the various sculptures scattered throughout the grounds.

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After exploring this Messner Mountain Museum we added the other four onto our ‘to do’ list for future road trips.

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Back in our room that night we discovered one reason why Anna and Alois knew the routes so well:  he writes Guidebooks . Another wonderful connection. And, another example why it’s the people we meet in the places we go that make our voyage so heart-warming memorable.

We left South Tyrol via the Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road. It seemed fitting that our exit provided more stunning views.

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And, for me, the scariest. The road is open from 7:00am to 8:00pm beginning end of May to end of October (depending when winter decides to end and begin). Some informational stops along the way provided historical tidbits in artistic buildings,

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such as the use of the road as a smuggling route. The photo below shows a wooden ‘backpack’ used to transport goods in a ten-hour or more crossing.

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Not only cars but motorcycles zoomed by us, sometimes a seemingly non-ending streak of them. Which made sense when we discovered Timmelsjoch proudly hosts the ‘highest-located motorcycle museum in Europe’.

With non-existent guard rails in some of the highest places (unless you count some wooden stakes spaced fifteen feet apart…), 

we (royal ‘we’ as Max was the only driver on the rental) managed to exit Italy and enter Austria without any mishap. Except for Max performing his wall pose.

 

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Next, three more spectacular meet-ups!

 

Heidi-like Land

Tyrol, Austria

Sunday-Friday, September 23-28, 2018

With Beethoven’s dramatic music echoing in our heads we left the Beethoven-Haus Bonn and pointed south for the Austrian Alps.

After a long rainy drive the sky cleared to a full moon as we wove through a narrow cut in the mountains on the Fern Pass, the second-most travelled pass in the Alps (the first is Brenner Pass, which is the lowest one). A bright-colored string of lights between two mountain tops greeted us

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as we continued our way to the rental apartment in Lermoos, just 14 miles south of Reutte which sits on the border between Germany and Austria.

Actually, we were traveling on a Roman Road called Via Claudia Augusta. Completed 46-47 CE this road connected a Roman compound in southern Germany to the Po River in northern Italy. As the main travel region between the Adriatic Sea and the Danube river it later became known as the “Salt Road” with salt being an important commodity (and excellent tax resource for those fortunate enough to control the route).*

*Some days later we did some sleuthing and found tire ruts on a small segment of the Via Claudia Augusta after an hour of roaming up and down the road between Lermoos and Biberwier.

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which provided Max the opportunity to see if the width matched the space between modern train rails based on oxcart travel several thousand years ago.

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And, the only reason we decided to search out this piece of history began with a photo spotted at another site earlier in the week:

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But, the road we took to Lermoos seemed tame compared to others we traversed during our week in this part of the world.

Our arrival in Lermoos started with a wonderful couple of days partly due to blue skies-warm sun throughout our stay and mainly due to meeting up with Christine and Jürgen.

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We met them over breakfast a year ago January when both of us happened to be staying at the same hotel in Kayserberg, Alsace-Lorraine region of France.  A short conversation followed with their recommending an art exhibit of Otto Dix (1891-1969) in Colmer. Soon after, Max and Jürgen were friends on FaceBook with Jürgen kindly advising us where to base ourselves for daily explorations.

With Christine being an artist and nature guide and Jürgen a journalist and author** we were treated to a lovely walk along the Tyrolean Lech River, Austria’s last wild river landscape in the northern Alps flowing through a beautiful alpine valley (for the best images, click Here).

Christine works at this nature park during the summer season, so we had an excellent guide explaining the beauty surrounding us, from the grandeur of the expansive river bed to the earthen mounds of soon-to-be-hibernating ants.

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On the walk back Max and I noticed Jürgen stooping to pick up something. When we went over to see exactly what was so intriguing, we saw it was mushrooms! Which turned the last bit of our walk on a hunt for edible fungi :)

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** If you speak and read German, then you’re fortunate for you can get one of his fascinating guides combining amazing hikes with historical sites. For a preview of his new book click Here  ).

A tour of the Nature Park Center Klimmbrücke where Christine’s office is located ended our day but not before Jurgen and I became human dragonflies :)

 

And, not before a quick stop at a lovely village church whose spartan exterior belies the elaborate interiors:

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A separate building featured a chilling bones room. Due to a shortage of burial plots human remains were disinterred and deposited in the cellar.

 

 

It’s also where I saw some eidelweiss, albeit long past its original glory.

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When I exclaimed how I’d love to see some live ones Christine gently told me that eidelweiss only grows above the tree line, a height not conducive to fair weather hikers such as us.

The next day Christine had to work but Jürgen suggested another alpine walk, this time a gondola ride in the Tannheimer Valley outside of Reutte.

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From there we spent an easy hour or so following one of the well-groomed trails (the top left in photo below)

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We made our way to a restaurant perched on the mountainside with expansive views down to a lakeside village and a typical Austrian meal, and friendly waitress.

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Yes, Max is sampling the local schnapps after seeing the folk next to us prosting the day :)

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With such a warm sun it surprised me to see icicles from the night before

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as we made our way back to the gondola sated from a beautiful dream of a day,

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Including spotting a decorative straw hat perched atop another happy hiker:

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Prior to our walks with Christine and Jurgen we had done a bit of exploring ourselves beginning with a vital strategic stronghold built during the Middle Ages in Ehrenberg. The complex is comprised of four different fortified areas: Klause (a strong house), Ehrenberg Castle, Schlosskopf Fortress and Fort Claudia.

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The complex served as both a defensive barrier to the north and it’s Bavarian dukes, and a protection of the only north-south trade route (i.e., Via Claudia Augusta) at that time.

Of course, today the buildings are either castle ruins or rebuilt as a museum (where the Klause sat).

Of the four we walked past the Klause and followed the path on a 20-minute walk up the mountainside. But, before we entered the castle ruins we opted to walk across the one of the world’s longest suspension foot bridges (!).

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The Holzgau Suspension Bridge connects Ehrenberg Castle with the Fortress Claudia. It’s 200m (656ft) long crossing the Höhenbach Canyon. Although a new (2017) Swiss pedestrian footbridge is the longest at 494m (1621ft!), this one is still the highest at 114m (374ft) vs. the Swiss one at 86m (282ft).

Even with my deathly fear of heights I couldn’t NOT do this:  (1) there’s no reason to think you could fall because you’re contained by a fairly high net on each side of the walkway: (2) it wouldn’t be easy to jump because of the fairly high net on each side of the walkway; and, (3) if the fairly high net didn’t feel quite high enough, I could always drop to my butt and scoot across.

So, with some trepidation and a desire to go first to ‘get it over with’, I began the walk only feeling a bit more jittery when someone at the other end hopped on and caused a gentle sway to the walkway. With a straight-ahead gaze and hands gripping each handrail I made it across only daring myself to look down once or twice through the metal grating to the road below.

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On the way back I managed to sing “Do Re Mi” over… and over… and over again adlibbing lyrics such as ‘am almost there’, ‘what a fool am I’, and such morale-boosting phrases.

Max also felt the height as he, too, held onto the rail at certain points.

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And, just for the record I, too, removed hands from the railing (every now and then, well, mostly ‘then’).

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I finished our ‘stroll’ with a certain self-centered pride quickly dashed when I realized how undaunting it truly was compared to the thinking of doing it.

After a quick perusal through stone ruins we retraced our steps, down the path–not across that bridge, and headed to a quick cable car ride up a ski slope located right in Lermoos. Another tremendous view accompanied by white stuff on the ground

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and home we went feeling very glad Jürgen had recommended this particular section of Tyrol.

Because we wanted to watch the hearings beginning at 4:00pm our time we stayed an extra night at our Lermoos lodgings due to the certainty of a CNN channel. With an extra day we decided to go to the top of the tallest mountain in Germany, Zugspitze 2962 m (9718 ft) tall. We reached it by taking the cable car up on the Austrian side, which provided several stomach lurches when we bounced over the cable poles.

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The mountain top presented stunning views, something of which one never gets bored.

We mulled around going from the Austrian side

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to view the German side.

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There we witnessed, to me, a palm-sweating fear of seeing tourists of all ages and sizes and abilities clamoring up the precipice to snap a photo of “THE” top id’ed by the golden cross.

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No. Thank. You.

Max said he would have done it, which I believe, if so many people weren’t clogging the ladders and brittle path of the summit. For that, I am ever so thankful to the Alpine gods and goddesses for those crowds. To see him doing it would have either made me catatonic from terror or from glugging the local schnapps at one of the cafe picnic tables.

An easy ride down landed us on terra firma in time for the devastating hearings. No need to say more of that.

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And, before we leave Tyrol and its majestic peaks, here’s the view from our rental in Lermoos for morning coffee…

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And evening cocktail gazing.

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Not too shabby :)  No, not shabby at all! And, a huge ‘danke’ to Christine and Jürgen.

Stay tuned for more mountains….

Da-Da-Da DUHHHHH

BONN

Saturday-Sunday, September 22-23, 2018

Images of majestic alps with serrated tops decorated with an icing of snow inspired a road trip once we landed back in our winter port of Hoorn. So, we rented a car and headed south Saturday night after our friend Deborah’s book launch in Amsterdam.

But before we reached our mountain destination, a sleep-over outside of Bonn offered something we couldn’t resist:  touring one of the country’s most famous musician’s birth place. Located in the former capital of West Germany during communist rule, this city houses Beethoven-Haus Bonn, a memorial and museum dedicated to Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

A self-guided walking brochure accompanied by an excellent audio-guide (well-worth the 2 euros each) led us through the 12-room museum.

775A6AE6-E14D-43B4-B748-CFF187A240A7Formerly a front building and a separate annex, the two parts are now connected. The largest collection of this musician’s artifacts in the world, the Beethoven-Haus Bonn also includes a research center and cultural programs in a building on the other side of the enclosed garden.

When Johan Beethoven and Maria Magdalena had their second child (Ludwig) they lived in the annex (now the back of the house). Many occupants of this middle-class neighborhood worked for the royal court including Johan and his father, who lived diagonally across the street from his son. Historians believe the birth room (top window on the right) was the at the back of the annex.

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Coming from a line of musicians (both his father and grandfather were court musicians), it seemed inevitable his father would become his first instructor, reputedly a harsh one at that. 

The role of ‘stage dad’ played by Johan wasn’t new. Some years earlier another father (Leopold Mozart) shepherded his son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), to success. Yet, Leopold’s loving relationship with his son sharply contrasts to Johan’s tyrannical approach to Beethoven. Stories abound of an abusive father (drunkenly dragging the young boy out of bed in the middle of the night to practice, hitting him when he didn’t play well; in short, not a pleasant childhood).

So eager was he to present his son as a musical genius, Beethoven’s father supposedly knocked two years off his son’s age on an advertisement in 1778.

Fortunately, at age ten the young prodigy came under the guidance of Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-1798), both an instructor and mentor to Beethoven.

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Some say this composer and musician influenced Beethoven the most, including his pupil who wrote, “I thank you for the counsel which you gave me so often…If I ever become a great man yours shall be a share of the credit.” 

In 1792 he moved to Vienna, his home until his death, and studied under Franz Josef Hayden (1732-1809) and George Albrechtsberger (1736-1809). Beethoven also had informal lessons with Johann Schenck (1753-1836) and Antonio Salieri (1750-1825). 

Beethoven was reputed to be a difficult and stubborn student. As one scholar stated, the father’s unjust treatment of his son caused Beethoven to revolt against authority. To me, Beethoven’s proclivity to rebel would seem natural based on his early home life and the times in which he lived (French Revolution and Napoleon).

This rebellious streak may have inspired the stunning music Beethoven created. Whatever the cause and however he achieved it, all I can say is this man’s music gives me goosebumps, in the good sense!

We spent over an hour wandering through rooms filled with memorabilia–letters, portraits, his musical instruments and music sheets, ear trumpets,

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even his death mask (which a friend said seemed pretty freaky, and I have to agree).

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One of the more intriguing aspects of our time here was the audio-guide’s attempt to demonstrate the various stages of Beethoven’s hearing loss. Buzzing (tinninitis?) began in his late 20s and continued to deteriorate. It’s unclear whether he became totally deaf but by the last decade of his life he used ‘conversation books’ with friends and visitors, communicating thoughts in writing and Beethoven replying either in writing or by speaking. 

A portrait of Eleanor von Breuning*, one of Beethoven’s first pupils, highlighted the close friendship he had developed with that family, largely due to Eleanor’s mother providing a sympathetic shoulder after Beethoven’s mother died in 18787. Eleanor married physician Franz Gerhard Wegeler (1765-1848) who penned a biography of Beethoven in 1838. He sourced much of his material from the exchange of letters, a biography the museum states is the first authentic one. 

* I was curious why her surname prefix was “von’ and Beethoven’s “van”. Both mean ‘of’ or ‘from’ but the difference is in the origin. “Von” comes is of German origin and originally indicated a noble until after the Middle Ages when commoners also used it. “Van’ is of Dutch origin and used by pretty much anyone from the get-go.

I’ve pulled images from the Internet since photographs weren’t allowed, and here’s one I wish I’d been able to take:  an 1812 bust by sculptor Franz Klein, reputedly the most authentic representation of Beethoven. Gazing at the pugnacious expression I could easily envision this guy not wasting time on politeness.

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We left the museum too soon but we needed to reach our room for the night, another 6 or so hours on the road. And, as I end this I’m bobbing my head to one of his most famous composition’s… 

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Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, and I dare you not to sway to the music… :)

Next, where we couldnt stop humming another tune…

All About Zzzzzzeees

Sunday, September 23, 2018

“Do you know the rest of the alphabet too?”

That caption comes from a book just hitting stores now. Yes, it’s in Dutch and yes, there’s no English translation… yet. But, what we find so wonderful about this book is knowing one of the faces on the cover:  Deborah Freriks!

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Deborah penned VAN DIT BOEK GA JE BETER SLAPEN (literal translation:  FROM THIS BOOK YOU WILL SLEEP BETTER) with her friend and colleague, Catelijne Elzes. Not only did Deborah co-author the book but, being an artist, she also created all of the illustrations.

We’ve witnessed her creative powers over the past two years as she’s researched and crafted this book. And, then last fall they had secured a publisher, one who also represents the Dali Lama (!).

So, to see this appear in a hard cover complete with a book tour launch and multiple promotions on TV, radio, and magazines gives us goose bumps :)

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The formal book launching occurred yesterday, September 22, in Amsterdam at Scheltema, the biggest Dutch bookstore chain.

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We attended the event with Tika and Thijs (whose blue suede shoes called for a photo).

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This past week we had a mini-celebration aboard JUANONA with Deborah, Thijs and Tika as we toasted her accomplishment.

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Knowing many friends who join me in sleepless nights, I crave an English translation of this book.

Other friends of ours we’ve met cruising are published authors as well, such as Daria and Alex Blackwell, to name two. Pretty wonderful to think of people achieving such a feat! So, here’s to the written word and those who make me want to read them.