25 April 2017

Sail away with me

As usual, the five weeks between the February and April breaks seemed to fly, leaving barely enough time to plan the next trip.  The weather is slowly but surely improving in Lille, the sun making more and more appearances.

Hills near Mont des Cats
One chilly but sufficiently sunny Sunday in March, my roommates and I rented a car to take a day trip over to Mont des Cats, an area near the Belgian border just less than halfway between Lille and the sea.  We first went to a park to hike a bit and picnic, then went to the small town for a beer at the local brewery.  It was nice to enjoy a bit of the countryside in the north.

Concert hall Le Nouveau Siècle
The last weekend in March, I finally made it to hear l'Orchestre National de Lille - or at least part of it - au Nouveau Siècle, the concert hall.  I snagged one of the last tickets to see Vivaldi's Four Seasons Recomposed by German composer Max Richter, a chamber music piece à la mode in France at the moment.  The second half was a piece I didn't know so a nice surprise, also by Richter, called Infra.  Both were done excellently, and I'm looking forward to going back to hear the full orchestra perform.

After a short-lived frenzy of grading the following week, I was off for a typical ten-day fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants trip.  "What's in the Balkans?" I was asked by several people when I told them about my April destination.  Well, you're about to find out.

Landing in Zadar, Croatia, was an experience in itself.  The lengthy landing included spectacular views of the coast and whitish rocky hills reflected seamlessly in the calm Adriatic Sea.  After a short bus ride, I arrived in the center of town, a small peninsula surrounded by lovely port and sea views.

Like many cities I visited in the Balkans, it's hard to picture Zadar at various darker points of its history.  The first thing that struck me about Zadar was its immaculate cleanliness; it is so well-maintained that the streets seem to shine, and it's also safe, even after dark.  The winding streets of the city centre are wonderful to explore, but Zadar's two main gems sit at its northwest point:  the Sea Organ and the Sun Salutation, two pieces created by Croatian artist Nikola Bašić.

Sea Organ, late afternoon
First, the Sea Organ.  As waves crash into the stone on the west side of Zadar, the Sea Organ picks up the power of the waves and converts them into eerie but calming sounds, like the child of a whale and a marimba.  Throughout the day, people lie down on these steps to relax and listen; here it is in the early morning before the crowds, but also while the waves were subtler.  The few pipe-like hums at the beginning are the organ.

The Sun Salutation is just next to the Sea Organ.  In daylight, it looks like a giant blue circle on the ground; tourists stomp on it and take selfies on it, not realizing that it's actually taking in solar energy all day, resting up to create quite the light show from sunset to sunrise.  In addition to its own light show, which depicts the movement of the solar system, it also lights up the waterfront using the solar energy of the day.

In the morning
At sunset
After sunset
And here is the Sun Salutation's final product, just after sunset.

Zadar is not all pretty views and sunsets; it has been in existence for at least three thousand years when ancient tribes settled there.  It became a Roman municipality, later the capital of the Byzantine province Dalmatia, then was settled by Croats, taken over by Crusaders and Venetians, taken over again by Austrians and then French and then Italians, finally turned over to Yugoslavia, and only came to its current peaceful state following Croatia's independence in the 1990s (and was then still attacked by Serbia).  You can read a more detailed overview here.

Knowing Zadar's sometimes volatile history makes it all the more fascinating to explore today.  You can spot ancient Roman ruins in several places around town, not behind glass or blocked off by ropes, but right in the middle of town.  Take this column in the middle of a city square, for example:

Or these remnants of the Roman forum surrounding St. Donatus, on which people sit to eat lunch or relax:

St. Donatus and its surrounding Roman ruins

Inside St. Donatus
My favorite was perhaps St. Donatus itself, a circular church and the largest pre-Romanesque building in Croatia.  It is surrounded by the ruins of the forum.  I was able to go inside as it is part of the Archeological Museum; the circular nature of the structure makes it an excellent acoustic space.  In July and August, it houses nightly classical music concerts as well as an international Renaissance music festival.  I hummed a bit during my self-guided tour and can attest that the acoustics are indeed stellar.

St. Donatus and the St. Anastasia tower

Behind St. Donatus in the same photo, you can see the tower of the cathedral, St. Anastasia.  Climbing the tower will give you a lovely view of the city.  Otherwise, there is not a lot to do in Zadar except relax, wander the old town streets, and enjoy the views and some occasional street music.  Tourists come in on buses and boats from around 10am to 4pm, so I avoided attractions and the center of town at that time, but I found Zadar to be surprisingly charming and safe.

Logistically, Croatia is part of the European Union, but not the Schengen Zone; I did need to go through border control to enter the country.  Croatia is still on the kuna currency; 1 EUR = 7.43 HRK.  Expenses vary from city to city in Croatia, but Zadar was extremely cheap; my most expensive meal came out to 12€.

Cuttlefish risotto
Unfortunately for me, this region of Croatia is known for its seafood specialties, but I never had too much trouble finding an alternative to munch on.  Typical restaurants provide you with bread and delicious olive oil.  In Zadar, I ate at the restaurant 2 Ribara and tried cuttlefish risotto - different, in a black sauce, but I really liked it.  The restaurant itself had so-so service and ambiance, but excellent-quality food.  I also noticed that grabbing slices of pizza to eat on the street is popular in that region of Croatia (followed by an ice cream cone); I needed a break from walking so I plopped down at Canzona, an Italian restaurant.  Their razor-thin veggie pizza easily topped anything I ever ate in New York, and the owner was so friendly.

Zadar is a pretty simple city today, but I have to give its sunset just one more mention: truly, nothing beats sitting along the water and watching the colors work their magic.

Bus is the most common mode of transport in the Balkans, and after a couple of days in Zadar, I headed a few hours south along the coast to my next seaside destination: Split.

Split's history is just about as long, confusing, and hectic as Zadar's as far as falling into the control of the hands of a multitude of countries one after another.  Its most well-known charm is its old town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, at the center of which sits Diocletian's Palace, built by the Roman emperor in the 4th century.  Naturally, I tried climbing the tower of the palace; this is the first time I've actually not made it to the top of a tall structure.  Inside, the openings between columns let in strong winds, and the metal stairs were a little too rickety for me; defeated, I turned back two-thirds of the way up.

Back on the ground, I tried to explore the historic old town which still sits inside limestone and marble walls on a square plot.  While it was cute and charming, I had the impression of being in an anthill, constantly colliding with tourist groups with cameras and guides walking backwards holding identifying painted ping pong paddles above their heads.  Even in April.  A few hours in the center of town on the first day was plenty for me; if you're looking for small, unique shops to peruse, Split is the place to be.  I also recommend a wine bar called Zinfandel where I tasted a couple of red Croatian wines (including a zinfandel, or Crljenak, in Croatian).  The owner was very approachable and knowledgable about his wines, and even gave me a bonus Croatian phonetics lesson.

Uje Oil Bar
On my last afternoon, I did return to the old town to try a restaurant called Uje Oil Bar, a quaint spot hidden on a small side street through a couple of passageways.  I loved the decor and sampling their olive oil on homemade bread.  For my main dish, I tried another Croatian specialty: veal, which came with veggies and a mild red sauce that I saw served several more times in Croatia and Bosnia.

Back to my first afternoon, it was nice to breathe a little walking outside the city walls along the port.  I continued up a plethora of steps to reach the edge of Marjan hill, a park next to the city with several hiking and biking trails as well as water sports and activities.

A lovely outdoor café sits at the edge of Marjan park with quite the view of Split.  I visited a couple of times, once to watch the sun set and again after a morning hike.

Marjan park itself was maybe my favorite part of my visit to Split.  My last morning, I decided to do some hiking.  I would budget about three hours to walk around the park and enjoy it; I of course got off on the wrong start and realized I wasn't on the path I thought I was originally, but it was a nice adventure zigzagging up and down the hill on various trails.  I found a few nice sunset spots and would have returned in the evening had I had another day to play with, but admired the view in the morning light anyway.  There are no words to describe the beauty and clarity of Croatia's water; you can always see straight down into its rocky depths.

Views from Marjan hill
Croatia from Brač
My day trip from Split ended up to be a visit to the island of Brač.  The ferry company Jadrolinija makes several trips back and forth per day; it takes about an hour to reach Supetar, a town on Brač.  Most tourists then take a bus across the island to Bol, a hotspot town known for its beautiful beaches, but I arrived too late in the day to make the bus so I instead chose a spot along the lengthy rocky beaches near Supetar.  It was really too cold to swim in the icy water at this time of year, but I read and napped on a giant rock for most of the afternoon with a view of the Croatian mainland and its breathtaking hills.

This first leg of the trip on the Dalmatian coast was dreamlike.  I never tired of the clear blue water or the rocky coastal hills while I was visiting; my photos do the landscape very little justice.  A large part of the beauty of the area are the hundreds of hikes and day trips possible while staying overnight in comfortable, unique cities.  Croatia is at least as beautiful as everyone says it is, the best of many worlds.

09 April 2017

Land of 10,000 Bachs

Leipzig from the Panorama Tower
Leipzig has been on my travel list for ages, since taking music history in college, but I'd never quite been able to fit it into a trip before now.  In Germany and in Europe, Leipzig is becoming known as an up-and-coming city in the department of chic, modern nightlife.  I was drawn by the opposite end of Leipzig tourism:  J. S. Bach history.

You can see the two sides of Leipzig clearly just by strolling through its rather small city center to take a peek at its architecture.  Hundred-year-old buildings and edgy modern buildings stand side-by-side everywhere you look.  In some respects, Leipzig is comparable to Vienna, but without the pretentious vibe; it was once in direct competition with Vienna as the European musician hotspot, but today, Leipzig is smaller and is still working on developing its tourism industry.

Bach spent the last twenty-seven years of his life (1723-1750) in Leipzig, where he was employed as the Cantor of Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church - you may be able to spot it in the Panorama Tower photo above).  Leipzig was also an important hub for composers Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Richard Wagner, among others.

Sound shower
I took advantage of the sunshine during my first morning to hike the Leipzig Music Trail, which for the time being is a self-guided walking tour that highlights twenty-three musical places of interest in town.  Since the city is rather small area-wise, it takes about two or three hours max, and all the information you need to know is included in the brochure from the tourist office or on the signage at each site.  One of the coolest hidden gems I found thanks to the tour was the Kretschmanns Hof, a passageway between two streets that houses a "sound shower" you can stand under to hear music and street sounds from three different points in history.

University cathedral, Augustusplatz
The worst 8€ I spent in Leipzig was on the audio guide I rented from the art museum to take on the tour; instead of giving more in-depth information about the tour sites, it was a series of actors giving cheesy dialogues to try to bring the history to life...but really it just led me to have to suppress eye rolls.

I finished up the last site of the tour just as a wave of heavy rain and gusts of wind blew through.  It was a nice way to get an idea of the layout of Leipzig; I decided to go back later and peruse the museums, houses, and sites that interested me at my leisure (for indoor activities during the rest of the rainy week).

Bach was my first project, and all of his attractions are in the same city square, at and near Thomaskirche.  This is where he composed most of his sacred works.  During his employment in Leipzig, Bach was responsible for conducting the boys' choir (which you can still hear sing today, though I missed their performance by a day) as well as cranking out sacred music for Mass; most of his cantatas were composed here, and for a long time, he was coming out with brand new music weekly.

Today, I was a little surprised to find that Thomaskirche is slightly upstaged by a to-go Curry Cult restaurant in the adjacent city park.  It has delicious Currywurst mit pommes, though, which you can eat in the park while listening to a little accordion music or maybe admiring a stunning sunset after a rainy day.

Bach window
The interior of the church has been redone considerably since Bach's days; also, the boys' school is no longer connected to the church itself.  One of the stained glass windows is dubbed the "Bach window", and he himself is buried on the altar.  (Or, at least, we think he is - his remains were dug up from a cemetery in Leipzig to be saved during the world war era and later moved to the church.  Apparently his original grave was unmarked, and the only directions left to find it included "walking six steps" from another marker.  A ring from his wife Anna Magdalena's grave was stolen during the move and never recovered.)  The inside of the church today is warm in color and in temperature, and if you're lucky, you may catch organ practice.

The history of Thomaskirche is so varied and incredible since Bach's time, from Martin Luther to Felix Mendelssohn to Nazis, that I'll just leave you with this timeline, taken from a church brochure:

Just across the street from the church is the Bach Museum, a small but enjoyable spot.  Besides detailing Bach's musical and family history, it included a listening lab with a handful of iPads on which were uploaded the vast majority of Bach's sacred works.  Since it was a rainy afternoon, I didn't feel guilty lounging for a couple of hours and listening to fugues.  In my other favorite room, Bach chamber music compositions were constantly playing over surround-sound speakers and there were many Baroque-era instruments encased in the center.  The outer walls of the room were lined with small plaques showing each instrument (there were upwards of twenty); they lit up when that particular instrument was playing, and you could press a button near each plaque to raise the volume just on that instrument throughout the whole room.  I had the room to myself for about a half-hour, as it's a bit out of the way, and I got quite a bit of exercise making laps around trying to get different combinations of instruments to play over the speaker.

Mendelssohn's study
After exhausting Bach's little corner of Leipzig, I moved on to Felix Mendelssohn's house, just out of the center of town.  Mendelssohn lived from 1809-1847; I know him best for his A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture.  He became conductor of Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835.  The museum dedicated to him was recently renovated, and his large apartment upstairs is one of the best-maintained homes I've seen in Europe.  Even the wooden staircase is original (though a sign cautions you to take care when using it) and some of the furniture is original as well.  The rooms are organized to depict Mendelssohn's life, which included extensive travels from a very young age and also his "secret" life as a painter on the side of his music career.

Mendelssohn's museum also includes a listening lab and a conducting lab where you can apparently conduct your own digital orchestra.  I was itching to play with it, but it was overtaken by one kid for well over an hour and I couldn't be bothered to wait any longer, so that will have to be for another time.

Robert Schumann's house is a little more difficult to picture as it once was.  Today, it is only three linked rooms that are basically on the top floor of an elementary school, and they are organized in museum style with documents, clothing, and music from the era in glass cases.  Schumann and his wife Clara lived in the house just after getting married in 1840.  Clara was a well-known concert pianist and both of them knew and worked with Mendelssohn in Leipzig.  Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, and Richard Wagner also crossed paths with the Schumanns and Mendelssohn, performing or conducting each other's works with the Leipzig orchestra or attending private concerts given at each other's homes.  The Schumanns lived in Leipzig for four years before moving to Dresden.

Between the Mendelssohn and Schumann houses, I found a collection of three museums in one building collectively called the GRASSI Museums and decided to take a spin through the Museum of Musical Instruments.  It's Germany's smaller version of the Cité de la Musique in Paris, housing the largest collection of musical instruments in the country.  Most of the information was only available in German, so it wasn't until I sat reading the abridged English brochure later that I discovered that the oldest originally preserved grand piano in the world is inside (I wonder which one it was?).

The museums and houses are all rather small and manageable, only taking one or two hours to see, and the walking time between them is short as well.  I found that I had quite a bit of extra time on my hands even after seeing things at a relaxed pace, so I ended up on a hunt about an hour-and-a-half walk south of Leipzig for something called the Völkschlachtdenkmal (a Google find).  In English, it's the Monument to the Battle of the Nations, a massive and kind of ominous-looking monument dedicated to Napoleon's defeat in Leipzig in October 1813.  It's a robust structure that was constructed between 1898 and 1913, with several stories inside and a couple of outer viewing platforms; it was so windy I didn't make it to the top.  Normally, a reflective pool sits in front, but it doesn't seem to be kept up very well in February.


Another Google find, and one place absolutely not to be missed, is the Stasi Museum, or Museum in der Runden Ecke, in German.  The name Runden Ecke, or "round corner", refers to the rounded shape of the outside of the building.  It was once the office building of the Stasi, or secret police who terrorized much of East Germany in the years leading up to the Berlin Wall's destruction.  The permanent exhibition is small but excellent, leading you through the various tactics the Stasi used to spy on citizens and ensure that any possible opposers of the government were convicted of crimes or socially destroyed.  Eventually, late in 1989, the Stasi attempted to cover up by destroying the records of what they'd done to citizens; the citizens of Leipzig stormed the Stasi headquarters building and salvaged much of the information.  The old offices - now museum - remains largely untouched since the Cold War; you can see how desks, filing cabinets, and tables were set up at the time.  It's one of those experiences that makes you assess the current world situation and notice that history could be repeating itself.

Back in the center of Leipzig, and right next to my hostel, sits the Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum, Germany's oldest coffee house.  It was also a sort of "meeting of the minds" home base for poets, scientists, and musicians for several centuries.  Robert Schumann notably spent a lot of time here.  Each floor represents a different coffee culture (Arabic, Viennese...) and there is a museum inside as well, though I just went for the fancy coffee.  To the right is a sweet coffee drink created and named after Schumann.

My final Leipzig recommendation (for now) is a traditional restaurant and brewery called Bayerischer Bahnhof located in an old train station just outside the city center.  You can order an incredibly large portion of schnitzel, among other German specialties.  It also brews one of Leipzig's best beers, the Original Leipziger Gose.  The station itself was built in 1842, was largely destroyed by Allied airstrikes during WWII, and then was re-created around 1999.  I loved the style and ambiance of the inside; there is also a patio for warmer months.

Sunrise flight from Berlin to Brussels