Tuesday, 29 June 2010

A Day-trip to Hannover, By George!

Hannover (or Hanover in English) is the capital city of the German federal state of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen), and about 280km West of Berlin. However, we got special tickets on the ICE (Intercity Express) because Deutsche Bahn were celebrating 175 years of railways in Germany, and we journeyed there in only an hour and a half.

The railway station that greets you in Hannover is an enormous sprawl of train platforms and shopping arcades. If you manage to find your way out you'll hopefully come out on Ernst-August-Platz where you will see that the station building is actually quite impressive, and is guarded by a striking equestrian statue of King Ernst August I. Apparently the horse's backside is a popular meeting spot, where people 'meet under the tail'.

King Ernst August was actually born at Buckingham Palace, London. He was a prince of the realm of Great Britain, made Duke of Cumberland & Teviotdale and Earl of Armagh, led English and Hanoverian forces, and sat in the House of Lords. In fact, he would have been made King of the UK if Queen Victoria had snuffed it before he did, or the UK constitution didn't allow for female monarchs (Hanoverian law didn't, so that was why Victoria didn't become Queen of Hanover). He was also an extreme right-wing Tory and was rumoured (by his political enemies it must be said) to have murdered his valet and fathered a son by his sister.

Coincidently, the current heir to the Hanoverian throne (if there still was one), born in 1983, is also called Prince Ernst August, as is his dad who pretends to be King Ernst August V. However much they pretend Hannover still is a kingdom, they are actually both heirs to the British throne (if a lot of other royals die in a horrible accident. Well, they can but hope).

So, here he is, Ernie on his 'oss:

Personally I'm with the pigeons in preferring the sparkling water features in the square, especially on a stunningly hot day like today:

There is a painted red line looping around Hannover that you can follow, but the city centre is really not that big, so there is not much risk of getting lost. It leads you from the station down Georgstrasse past the wonderfully baroque Opera House:

Not much further along from here, outside the Deutsche Bank, is the only memorial I've ever seen to the binary system. Don't knock it though - as a computer programmer, binary has provided my bread and butter through life!

Actually, it is more a memorial to mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who invented the binary system as well as infinitesimal calculus (independently of Newton) and a whole lot more. Leibniz spent a lot of time in Hannover, until dying there in 1716.

Not much further and you come to a ruined church with a disproportionately large bell tower. This is the Aegidienkirche, first built in the 14th century and dedicated to Saint Ägidius, or St Giles in English. It grew in size and status until 1943, when Allied bombers destroyed it overnight. It was left in ruins as a remembrance for the victims of the Second World War.

Its carillon bell-tower was added in 1958, but it is a Japanese bell at the base of the tower that is most poignant. This is the Hiroshima Bell, which is struck every 6th August during a memorial service to mark the atomic destruction of Hiroshima, which is Hannover's twin city.

Next on the red line trail you come to the marvellous Rathaus (town hall), set picturesquely across the lily-pads of the Maschteich:

This mediaeval Gothic opulence is in contrast with the sight further up the river Leine, that feeds the lake, of some very modern and very free and joyful sculptures on the start of 'the sculpture mile'.

Called the Nanas, they are the work of French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who came to have a special relationship with the good Burghers of Hannover (indeed, so taken was the city with her work that she was granted honorary citizenship, and the semi-underground shopping arcade leading to the railway station was named the Niki de Saint-Phalle Promenade). They can't help but make you smile and raise your spirits:

So then you cross over the Leine and you are in the Altstadt. This is an area dominated by timber-framed buildings, narrow streets and leafy courtyards, a gothic church and old town hall. It is all the more surprising for none of it being original. Hannover was very heavily bombed during the war. It is no coincidence that it is twinned with Hiroshima. So during its postwar reconstruction any old buildings that could be saved from around the city were gathered together in the Altstadt area and rebuilt.

My favourite place around here was the Teestübchen (tea house) on Ballhof. we sat on deckchairs in a shady courtyard by a tinkling fountain, listening to a busker play a clarinet quite well, sipping tea from a wide selection on the menu, around a tea-chest table. I had a smoky black Russische Tee, which came with black cherries in syrup to sweeten it; it is probably the nicest cup of tea I've had since moving to Germany!

I think the teddy bears nearby would have liked a sip too!

That's just along the red line trail; there is more to see if you wander away from the centre, not least a famous zoo, and the Herrenhäuser Gärten (Herrenhausen Gardens) which looked like you could spend a whole day in easily. Unfortunately we hadn't enough time, but we did travel out to have a look at the gardens from outside the Kasse and walk down the long linden tree avenue. The journey by public transport was worth the effort by itself: the super-swift tram system disappears underground as it gets near the centre and they become subway trains!

Whilst walking around Hannover we kept noticing what looked very much like the coat of arms of Great Britain, with lion and unicorn supporters and the motto of The Order of the Garter 'honi soit qui mal y pense', and even 'Dieu at mon droit'. When I first saw it I thought the building was the British Embassy or something:

What's going on here then? And then the penny dropped. Remember Ernst August outside the station? Heir to the British throne? Why was he heir? Because he was a descendent of King George I of Great Britain who was shipped in to rule England on the death of Queen Anne (she of the legs) after they couldn't find a suitable protestant heir. I think they passed over about fifty others in the line of succession before they got to George, including Anne's catholic half-brother James Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie's dad, The Old Pretender). And George was the Elector of Hannover, and the monarchs of Great Britain up until Queen Victoria died were called the House of Hanover.

It was silly of me to think that the people of Hannover would just wave goodbye to their ruler when he was offered a more lucrative position over the North Sea. The George's and their successors continued ruling Hannover until, as I said, Queen Victoria couldn't do it for reason of her being a bit female.

So if you look at the coat of arms, that is exactly how the coat of arms of Great Britain was depicted in George I's day: the bottom right corner shows George's possessions, including the rampant horse of Hannover. The shield also shows the fleur de lys of France in the top right quarter because, somewhat pathetically, British royalty still claimed they ruled France.

What is curious is if you look at The Times newspaper's masthead, it also depicts the same Georgian coat of arms. For a newspaper, you'd think they'd have become aware that it was out of date now wouldn't you?

So, Hannover then. Quite small, but compact in what it has to offer the visitor, with plenty of scope for further adventure (we hadn't even touched on exploring the art galleries or the night-life). Very photo-worthy. Lots of history (even if most of it is post-war reconstruction), but also excitingly modern too. Easy to get around on the public transport. And immaculately clean of course (in comparison to English cities. And parts of Berlin).

Yes, by George, we liked it!

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Moor Frogs in the Pond

Our small pond has number of frogs (and newts) in it, finding a bit of welcome wetness in a garden that is increasingly resembling the African Savannah.

They are moor frogs, Rana arvalis, and though they are common across central Europe, I have never seen them before in the UK.

What is curious is that in sunlight (and unfortunately not showing up too well on my photos) the males have a definite blue tinge. During the mating season they actually turn sky blue! (see this photo here by Blaž Šegula if you don't believe me).

Anyway, the cats are deeply fascinated by them, and Simbi, especially, spends hours at a time sitting in the long grass around the pond edge, waiting for a chance to pounce on his new toy!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Parlez-vous français? Schloss Rheinsberg

Today we took a Regional Express train up to Rheinsberg, and though it lies only 75km North-West of Berlin it felt like we'd arrived in France. The small town has grown up around Schloss Rheinsberg, a picture-perfect French Renaissance style moated château floating on the edge of lake Grienericksee.

The Schloss owes its French / Netherlandish look from its makeover by architects including Georg Wenceslaus von Knobelsdorff in the period 1736 to 1740. These years covered the acquisition by Crown Prince Friedrich of the formerly mediaeval Rheinsberg castle, until Friedrich's accession to the Prussian throne as King Friedrich II (later known as Friedrich der Große, or Frederick the Great). The redesign of Schloss Rheinsberg marked the beginning of a long association between Freddy and von Knobelsdorff, in which the architectural style known as Frederician Rococo was developed. This style can be further seen in projects such as Freddy II's Potsdam retreat Schloss Sanssouci, a makeover of Schloss Charlottenburg, and even in the layout of Berlin Tiergarten.

At Schloss Rheinsberg however, the development of rococo out of baroque architecture (think of the Palace of Versailles) hasn't gone as mad as the profusion of swirling ornamentation and over-use of gold leaf that characterises Sanssouci. And what a relief that is! (for me anyway; you might like all the twiddly bits and wild sweeps of the imagination that rococo goes in for). At Rheinsberg there is just enough neo-classicist sobriety and common-sense to keep things in check. The formality of the French parterre garden (again, think of the garden layout at Versaille) and the scattering of classical sculptures also tames the effect of the loud baroque/gothic towers. Anyway, here are some photos of the Schloss and gardens to give you an impression:

The formal garden transforms by degrees into a landscaped garden that extends all around the lake. As you might expect from palace gardens of the time, it includes an obligatory grotto dedicated to Bacchus:

And a temple reminiscent of the Temple of Vesta in Rome:

But it is an obelisk on a rise on the opposite side of the lake from Schloss, dominating its view, that is the real curio:

It was erected in 1791 by Frederick's younger brother Henry, to whom Frederick had gifted Schloss Rheinsberg after Fred became King of Prussia and moved to Berlin and Potsdam. The obelisk is dedicated to the achievements of Friedrich II's generals in the Seven Years War, during which Friedrich managed to expand Prussia and in particular occupy Silesia (part of Poland). So far so good. But then why are all the inscriptions to German military men in French?

The truth is that the German language at the time was considered uncouth. The language of culture, enlightenment, great literature, philosophy, and science was French. Friedrich II himself considered German only good enough to speak to soldiers and horses, and wrote most of his correspondence in French (he could also speak and write in Spanish, Portugese, English and Italian, as well as knowing Latin, Greek and Hebrew). He had his children taught in French, and only grudgingly allowed them a basic knowledge of German. He explained that German authors 'pile parenthesis upon parenthesis, and often you find only at the end of an entire page the verb on which depends the meaning of the whole sentence', something any student of German can sympathise with. By the way, his strict authoritarian father Friedrich Wilhelm I considered his son somewhat namby-pamby in his love for all things French.

Whilst at Rheinsberg, a period which Frederick II always described as the happiest of his life ('die glücklichsten meines Lebens' or maybe 'Le plus heureux de ma vie'), Frederick surrounded himself with minor philosophers and musicians, and was in correspondence with Voltaire (pen name of François-Marie Arouet - who was French, can't you guess) , with whom he formulated an 'enlightened monarch's' response to Niccolò Machiavelli's 'The Prince', which was published (in French) as 'Anti-Machiavel'.

After becoming King and leaving Rheinsberg he still preferred French, even if he was ruler of a largely German-speaking kingdom; after all, he named his new Summer palace he had built in Potsdam 'Sanssouci', which is French for 'without worries'.

We too enjoyed our day at Schloss Rheinsberg, and we also had to travel back to Berlin.
There the resemblance with Frederick II ends - we can't even speak very good French!