Some people are looking forward to their birthday, because that one day of the year, they will be the center of attention. I have this blog and can make myself important every day of the year. So, for my birthday I don’t have to sit at home and count the calls of happy-birthday-wishers who never call on any other day.
For epidemiological and environmental reasons, I won’t travel that far this time. From July 1st, I will be hiking the King Ludwig Trail in Bavaria. Although I am a strict anti-monarchist and would have joined the revolutions of 1848 and 1918, I find the trail quite alluring. It is only about 110 km, which I will certainly increase by intentional side trips and unintentional detours.
The route leads from Berg via Starnberg, Andechs monastery, Herrsching, Raisting, Diessen, Wessobrunn, Paterzell, Hohenpeissenberg, Rottenbuch, Wildsteig, the pilgrimage church of Wies, Steingaden, Halblech and Hohenschwangau to Füssen. In more general terms, I will set off south of Munich and walk towards the mountains that form the border with Austria.
The places probably don’t mean anything to you, so here are some photos to give you an idea:
At the end point of the hike, visible from afar like a lighthouse pulling me in the right direction, is Neuschwanstein Castle. And I bet you have seen that one before.
I’ll be walking for at least a week. If any of you live along the route and have a free couch, maybe you want to invite me in. And if that doesn’t work out, then I’ll sleep under trees and bathe in the river. There are worse things than falling into a soft meadow in the evening and waking up with the first rays of sunshine to the view of a royal castle.
If someone would like a postcard from the walk or from Neuschwanstein Castle, let me know! And if/when I come back, there will of course be a detailed report with hiking advice, photos, hopefully interesting encounters and pages of explanations about the Kingdom of Bavaria and especially about King Ludwig II. Just so much already: Please don’t call him Mad King Ludwig.
On my last day in Bolivia, I had bought a bus ticket from La Paz to Puno in Perú. When the bus made a stop for lunch in Copacabana and the driver said “the bus will continue at 1:30 pm two blocks from here,” I thought: “Great, I have two hours to walk around town.” Copacabana has some fun things to observe during a lunch break.
Naturally, I left all my belongings on the bus. Not only is Bolivia the safest country in South America, but who wants to steal two bags, weighing 30 kg and consisting mainly of books and notebooks and maps?
At 1:20 pm, I return to the described point of departure and don’t see the bus. Okay, I am thinking, maybe it’s somewhere else.
To readers unfamiliar with bus stations in Copacabana, Karachi or Kathmandu, I need to set the scenery a bit: There is no real station, the buses just all go to the main square. Because there are many more buses than space, the square fills up fast, with buses backlogging through the side streets and side alleys to side streets. In between, there are hundreds of ticket vendors, food stalls, taxis, travel agents, musicians, people selling hope in the form of lottery tickets, Aymara priests, an escaped lama, a butcher chasing after the lama, and a little lost traveler like me.
I thought I would recognize the bus because it was colorful, but I quickly discover that all buses in Bolivia are as colorful as if designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
As the minutes in the scorching sun are progressing, trepidation sets in.
I ask one of the bus drivers if he happens to know where the 1:30 bus to Puno will leave from. “That’s my bus. Hop on in, we are leaving right now,” he says, using ahorita for right now, which in South American Spanish can meaning anything from “I was just about to close the door” to “let me first have lunch and then call all of my children to remind them to do their homework, before I get together for a meeting with the other bus drivers to discuss whether the bus drivers’ union fund should make payouts to the widow of a bus driver who got killed in an accident, although he was in default with his union membership contributions and although some drivers say that he didn’t really like his wife anyway, but then we’ll really set off for Puno.” But I don’t mind, for I am not in a hurry. In my time in the country, I have become bolivianized and all the more relaxed for it.
I am however worried because he clearly is a different driver with a different bus. Confused and causing confusion, I ask him if my luggage is on the bus already.
“I don’t understand what you mean,” he replies, as politely as he can.
“I left my luggage on the green bus with which I came from La Paz this morning, because I thought that bus will continue to Puno,” I explain.
“Oh, no. That bus is on the way back to La Paz already.”
All the stuff I own, all the possessions with which I emigrated, everything is in those two bags. This may seem little to people who have houses and kitchen pots and winter coats and stuff, but my goal is to reduce it even more, so that everything fits into one backpack. Unfortunately, I really don’t like e-books.
“I have to leave now. Do you want to get on?”, the driver urges me.
I have already paid for the ticket, but finding my luggage again will be even harder once I will be in Perú.
The driver looks at me as if I am a bit stupid. And maybe I really haven’t been the brightest star in the sky today.
As the bus pulls out from the mayhem of transport options, towards the nearby border, I begin to think about all the things I have lost. The clothes are neither many, nor important. Only the loss of my Gabor hat, which I bought from a Roma trader in Transylvania, would be sad. I wouldn’t even mind the loss of my computer, my camera and my phone. Cleverly, I always buy the cheapest ones.
No, what I really grieve about, what I regret, what gets me slightly agitated is the loss of my notebooks. For many years already, I have been collecting thoughts, drafting poems and writing stories. Some of them created on location in a castle in Romania, on a ship crossing the Atlantic, or overlooking Lake Titicaca. Situations, memories and thoughts that could not possibly be recreated.
It’s a big loss, but I wouldn’t want to call it a waste. After all, I enjoy writing while I do it, almost independently of whether anyone will ever read it. But on the other hand, I also enjoy telling stories, especially as I know that not all of you will visit all these strange places yourselves. And if you do, you won’t live through the same adventures, if only because you will be smarter than me.
Less important to me, but probably more important to the readers of this blog are the almost 10,000 unpublished photos from Iran to Guernsey, stored on the computer which is now on the way to La Paz.
Luckily, I was very talkative this morning and chatted with the bus driver. I remember his name: Victor. At the square where all the buses arrive and mingle, I am looking for a bus from the same company and ask the driver if he knows Victor.
“The short one with a belly?”, he asks.
“Not an exceptionally big belly.”
“Yes, I know him.”
I explain the situation, and the very kind and helpful driver calls Victor. He is already beyond the ferry across the Strait of Tiquina, where he could have easily passed my luggage to another driver going in my direction. But he will work something out, he promises.
The friendly bus driver sees that I am still nervous and tells, no almost orders me: “Don’t worry! We will work something out. Just go for lunch or for a walk and come back here at 3 pm.”
Worrying about having to start writing and photographing from scratch again – and about the lost toothbrush -, I cannot enjoy the lunch break. What the bus drivers don’t know, what you don’t know yet, and what nobody else should know, is that having lost all of my possessions is only one of my problems that day: I have been staying in Bolivia illegally for a few months. So I am nervous enough about having to cross the border. At the end of this day, when night will fall, I may already be in prison, not to see the sun again for many years. But that’s another story. First things first.
At 3 pm, the helpful driver welcomes me at the bus station: “Do you have something to write?” Luckily, among the few things I took with me from the bus, there are a notebook and a pen, as well as my passport, cash, and Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia.
“Write down the name: José Luis Velasco. But nobody knows him by that name. When you ask for him, ask for El Cupo.” And: “He is short and has a big belly,” which seems to be how he describes all his colleagues. He tells me that the man known as El Cupo is expected in Copacabana by 4:30 pm. On his bus, there should be my luggage, because all the drivers in western Bolivia got onto their phones, trying to find out who is going where at what time. When Victor found a colleague who was going from La Paz to Copacabana, they stopped on the highway in the middle of the altiplano, carrying two heavy bags, full of books, but probably suspecting something much more sinister, from one bus to the other.
And at 4:30 pm, a bus from the same company pulls in. I ask the driver (who is neither particularly short nor fat), if he is El Cupo. He nods and beckons me to get onto the empty bus to retrieve my luggage. It’s all there.
El Cupo and the helpful middleman are sitting together in the market square, having coffee. I thank them profusely and suggest that I invite them to dinner or something. “No, no, don’t you worry, Sir,” they shrug it off, wishing me a nice trip.
Before I moved to South America, people told me that I would get robbed many times. Instead, I was stupid enough to lose all my stuff on my own, and complete strangers got together, telephoning around all afternoon, not only to locate my bags, but to bring them back to me.
Whenever you can take a train, take a train. Trains don’t disappear as quickly as a bus. Also, train stations are more organized than bus terminals.
In South America, don’t even bother about booking ahead. I had missed the bus to Puno, obviously, but there was another one within half an hour of me getting my luggage back.
Also, I have seen many travelers make the mistake of looking for buses online, where only a few are listed. Just go to the bus station and ask. There will almost always be a bus to your destination leaving ahorita.
Traveling with a lot of luggage is a pain in the culito.
If I hadn’t spoken with the bus driver, I wouldn’t have known his name, and maybe I never would have found him again. Speak to people! You can still stare into your cell phone when you are back home.
This is big and it concerns hundreds of you who have contacted me about restitution of German citizenship in recent years. I can’t contact each and everyone individually (my fees are too modest for that, and donations to keep this blog alive are not made as often they should be), hence the following summary of a decision by the German Constitutional Court dated 20 May 2020 (case no. 2 BvR 2628/18).
During the Nazi dictatorship between 1933 and 1945, many people lost their German citizenship due to racial, political or religious reasons. Since 1949, (West) Germany has allowed these former Germans to reclaim German citizenship under Art. 116 II of the German Constitution. The practical relevance now is that this extends to descendants of former Germans, because without the Nazi-era policy, they too would be German citizens.
However, when applying, one has to show that one would have gained German citizenship from one’s ancestors had it not been for the Nazi-era policies. There were always other ways of losing German citizenship (for example by applying for another citizenship or by serving in another country’s armed forces, with exceptions, respectively), as there were limits to German citizenship being passed to the next generation. For example, until 1975, German citizenship could usually only be passed through the father, not the mother. This was clearly discriminatory, but it was not a Nazi-era policy, so it was not rectified under Art. 116 II of the Constitution. (There is another way for these cases, as detailed in no. 8 (a) of my FAQ on getting naturalized as a German citizen without living in Germany. Or, relevant in the present case, until 1993, children born to a German father did not automatically receive German citizenship if the parents were not married at the time (see no. 8 (b) of the FAQ referred to above).
The present case:
A lady was born in the USA in 1967 to a US-American mother. Her father, born in 1921, was deprived of German citizenship in 1938. He had fled to the USA as a Jew. The complainant’s parents were not married. The father recognized her as his child. She applied for naturalization in 2013 in accordance with Article 116 II of the German Constitution. The Federal Office of Administration rejected the application for naturalization. The complainant had been born illegitimate and had therefore not been able to acquire citizenship from her father at that time, regardless of whether he had been deprived of his German citizenship under the Nazis or not.
The court ruled that the constitutional complaint was justified.
The interpretation by the German government violates principal values of the constitution as well as special provisions on the equal treatment of children born out of wedlock (Art. 6 V of the Constitution) and equal treatment of men and women (Art. 3 II of the Constitution).
The court focused on the definition of “descendant” and criticized that the lower courts had stuck to the strict wording of the Citizenship Act without taking into account the values posited by the Constitution (and by the European Charter on Human Rights). Although it’s legally logical to apply previous versions of the Citizenship Act to people born when these versions of the law were in place, the court ruled that henceforth the previous discrimination must not be perpetuated.
What does this mean?
Because the Constitutional Court explicitly referred to the equality clause regarding the German parent, not only the child in question, I would think that this reasoning also applies to the many cases of people born to German mothers before 1975.
This case was a restitution case under Art. 116 II of the Constitution, but I don’t see why the same reasoning should not be applied to other descendants of German mothers or fathers, who do not fall under Art. 116 II of the Constitution, but who applied under the Citizenship Act.
It also means that anyone who ever had their case appraised and was told that it’s not worth to pursue it, should probably have it reappraised in light of this decision. There are now many more people out there who are entitled to German citizenship (or who already have it, often without knowing it).
However, it also means that there will be even more applications, and it will take the German government even longer to process them.
If you have benefited from this information or from any of my articles in the past, I would appreciate some support for this blog. I am putting a lot of time into providing this information to the public, where other lawyers charge thousands of euros.
As I finally saw a village after a day’s walk through the jungle and several river crossings, I was relieved. When I saw that a village of 300 inhabitants, living so remotely, had an active school, my educated heart was overcome with joy.
But before education, there has to be some patriotism, apparently.
Lined up like in the military, the students, all belonging to the Mojeño tribe/nation, warbled the anthem of the Plurinational Republic of Bolivia before marching into their classrooms in an equally military order. Like all buildings in Buen Pastor, the school building was kept rather simple.
To my great surprise, there was a computer room, though, but it had been mothballed for five months. The power supply from the solar panels no longer worked.
There was an engineering student in our group, who checked that both the solar cells and the batteries were okay. Only a small intermediate part needed to be replaced. However, he did not have that part with him, and he would not come back for a few months. So, there would be another semester without electricity.
At least the teachers don’t have to worry about the children being distracted by their mobile phones.
Speaking of the teachers: They have to walk through the jungle or, in the rainy season, wade through the mud for 6 to 8 hours until they get to school. All four teachers working there are from other parts of the country, but between the long holidays they have to live in the village without showers, without toilets, without clean water (they drink from the river or rainwater during the rainy season) and now without electricity, all of this for several months in a row. They don’t receive newspapers, and nobody visits them because everybody is afraid of snakes and piranhas. The journey home for the weekend is not worth it because of the long walk. There is no privacy, because everyone lives in open huts around a clearing cut out of the jungle. The doctor comes once a month. After a few weeks, you really can’t stand fish and rice anymore, but there is nothing else to eat. I didn’t even want to ask about the salary.
During the break, which was of course used for football, I snuck into one of the classrooms to take a look at the history and social studies books. And what am I seeing there, in the middle of the jungle of South America?
Of the ten people depicted, 30% are from German history. Plus Vichy-Pétain. The Bolivian history book does not have a single Bolivian or South American on the cover. Where is Bolívar?? No idea why Hindenburg was more important. Well, at least Garibaldi fought in South America, and Napoleon, through his war against Spain, indirectly gave South American freedom fighters the freedom to go on with their revolutions.
On the other hand, as a history nerd from Germany, it fills me with joy that even small children in jungle settlements without electricity or roads know about the Weimar Republic. I am excited to read about Federico Ebert, Adolfo Hitler and Pablo von Hindenburg.
Of course, I don’t expect a textbook for the third year of secondary school, especially on a distant continent, to provide explanations on the level of the thousand-page tomes I usually devour. But
was the Weimar Republic really a “república socialista”?
if one writes that Adolfo Hitler was appointed Führer by referendum, should one not mention that on 19 August 1934, the German Reich was already a dictatorship and the referendum was by no means free or fair?
referring to the Volksgerichtshof as “tribunales del pueblo” without any further explanation seems to downplay that instrument of oppression.
it’s not entirely true that the Nazis introduced a system of social security.
in light of all of that, it doesn’t really matter that the Gestapo and the SS were not the same.
But this book at least mentions racism, nationalism, anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews. Another textbook, which I find in the bookcase, deals with the history of the Third Reich without mentioning the Holocaust even once, although Bolivia received relatively many Jewish refugees.
Let’s see how things evolved in this distant Germany.
So, Germany becomes a “global power”, does not pay its foreign debts and puts the unemployed into the military. Hitler and Mussolini ally against the communists and help their friend Franco.
And then – poof, poof – in 1949 “Alemania Democrática” suddenly appears. Grotewohl and Pieck establish the “people’s democracy”, experience “some difficulties” in 1953 and 1961-62, but “things went ahead”. In 1955, the Western powers recognize the Federal Republic of Germany, the heads of government are called Heuss, Lübke, Erhard, Kiesinger, Brandt. If you confuse chancellor and president here, you won’t have any points deducted. On 9 November 1989, the wall is torn down (which wall? by whom? why?).
Something beautiful happens, because the fall of communism will allow the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany to unite and to “enter an era of freedom”. As if both countries had previously been unfree. Gratitude is expressed to Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, but it remains unclear of which Germany Kohl was chancellor.
But seriously: There are pupils and adults in Germany who do not know or understand or want to know/understand any of this any better. And in my 13 school years in Germany, I never heard anything about Bolivia. Also, I doubt any of my teachers would have swum through a river with anacondas and crocodiles to get to school.
June 9th, the end of the involuntary Robinsonade, a date which I had been longing for after three months. I had begun to miss the mainland. I had read all the books I brought. I had finished the cigars months ago, and none of the ships brought any reinforcements. In the last week alone, I had dreamt about cigars three times, so you can imagine the withdrawal symptoms.
But yesterday the flight to Lisbon finally took off. Traveling is rather bleak at the moment, because there are restrictions and bans everywhere. No hand luggage, no food at the airport, nobody sitting next to me, a bit like on a prisoner transport.
I looked at the ocean, at Faial, at Pico, São Jorge, at the islands I was leaving behind.
And soon, I dozed off. What else was there to do? Until a sharp turn to the left and the voice of one of the guys steering the plane woke me up:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry, but the Portuguese government has banned all flights from the Azores.”
Oh shit, that means we’ll have to turn back again.
“We don’t have enough fuel to return to Faial.”
Well, maybe the trip would be fun after all. Luckily the planes here can land on water. And then we would be drifting until a ship comes along. The sea looked calm, so I wasn’t too worried.
But the navigator had another solution:
“The nearest island we can reach is São Miguel.”
Never heard of that before. But I’m sure people live there, so it can’t be that bad.
As I was getting off the plane, I asked the pilot when we would continue to Lisbon.
“We’re grounded for at least another week. We’ll know more by June 15th.”
One week. Stranded again on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And because I had been dumb enough to spend all my savings for the onward journey from Lisbon to Vienna (it was the cheapest flight) and from there to Germany, I was so short of money that I had to decide: cigars or a bed?
It felt quite warm. For one week, I should be able to sleep in the forest and wash in the sea, I thought. Maybe there are as many empty houses here as on the other islands, then I can easily hide.
I am telling you again: Don’t travel this year! Things won’t go as planned.
With these gloomy thoughts I was walking through the city, apparently looking a bit depressed, because a lady ran out of a beauty salon, all excited:
“Excuse me, do you speak English?” she asked, as if she was looking for help urgently. But on the contrary, she wanted to offer her help: “You look a little lost. Can I help you?”
I explained the predicament. She was sympathetic, maybe because she usually lives in the USA (like so many Azoreans) and had planned to stay on São Miguel for only a month. But now she has been stuck here for several months herself.
She was so typically American-optimistic that she really infected me with her “Don’t worry!” She took her phone and called a friend: “Hey Marcos Flavius, how are you? Listen, there’s a young man here, he’s stranded on the island. You have rooms available, right?”
The man with the name of a plebeian tribune didn’t dare to say no to the effusive-resolute lady. I was extremely uncomfortable about this until it turned out that he was not at home (probably stranded on the mainland involuntarily) and I would therefore not be a burden to him. The house was conveniently just across the road, and the key was under the flowerpot.
Marcos (“you can call me Flave”) said I should just go inside and see if I liked it and then decide if I would stay. (A very generous offer to someone whose alternative is sleeping outside.)
I liked it very much, and thus, completely unexpected, I will be staying in a small palace in Ponta Delgada, which by the way is not such a small town after all. Exploring the neighborhood that night, I even discovered two cigar factories in the immediate vicinity.
Well, as far as I’m concerned, the flights can remain suspended for a few months. Because once I get to Lisbon, having lost all the booked flights and trains and stuff, I will have to hitchhike home to Germany. In case you don’t have a map on hand: that’s really far.
On my travels around the world, I like to attend protests. Especially when I find the demands of the people worthy of my support. But even when not, protests or even revolutions are an excellent place to learn about the dynamics of the respective society. When protesters and counter-protesters clash, it’s very practical to be in the middle of it all, as I can get a picture of two sides at the same time.
Demonstrations also provide an opportunity to observe how the government deals with its citizens: brutally or politely, in a military or a civil manner, respectfully or criminalizing. As we currently see in the United States, some countries who think of themselves rather highly, aren’t really doing so well. (My home country of Germany is not a very good example either.) Heavy artillery is often brought in far too early and the policemen show up in fighting gear. When the fighting dogs are let loose, one wonders whether the issue of de-escalation was perhaps neglected at the police academy.
Quite different so in Bolivia: There, the police also have dogs, but they don’t bite anyone. On the contrary, the police bring dogs to protests on the verge of erupting into mayhem, so that both parties in a conflict are distracted from the quarrels about new elections or the deforestation of the jungle and all exclaim in unison: “Oh, look at the cute dog!” The dog can be petted, fed and photographed. And swoosh, there’s peace in the streets again.
The purpose of the Grim Reaper, however, did not become clear to me.
I walked home, through ice and snow and wind, with three little gems by William Somerset Maugham. (There would have been one more, but I had just read the fabulous Ashenden spy stories, so I left them for another book lover.)
“These books will serve me well on the long train journey through Canada,” I thought, not anticipating that I would share the train with people full of stories themselves, so that I would be writing more than I would be reading.
Not always being well understood by contemporaries, as hard as I try to explain myself in these pages, it is a delight to read stories, first published in 1951, in which I sometimes find myself mirrored with an eerie degree of accuracy.
In The Book-Bag, Maugham writes about the burden of travel as a book-lover.
And like the dope-fiend who cannot move from place to place without taking with him a plentiful supply of his deadly balm I never venture far without a sufficiency of reading matter. Books are so necessary to me that when in a railway train I have become aware that fellow-travellers have come away without a single one I have been seized with a veritable dismay. But when I am starting on a long journey the problem is formidable.
Formidable and heavy, I should add, not having any porters at my service. People who generously receive me on my travels often wonder about the weight of my backpack, which, if not put down carefully, puts an ever-lasting marker of my visit into the wooden floor. Once I empty the contents onto the table or the nightstand, they are torn between understanding the reason behind the brick-like weight and not understanding in the least why anyone would carry around a library.
I dare say, with more dismay than pride, that I have more books in my backpack right now than some people have in their house.
A number of well-meaning readers have suggested to me the purchase of one of those reading-machines that seem to be available in the sort of shop that sells this sort of thing. Apparently, you can return to the shop and ask for more books to be put on the machine, to be perused at a later time. “Unlimited books,” these friends say, which I think merely suggest their limited imagination of unlimitedness.
When I set out on a journey, I spend 15 minutes on packing clothes, toothbrush, shaving equipment and maybe some anti-malarial drugs. Then, I pace my room for hours, going through bookshelves and book piles and book boxes, trying to decide what reading material to take. Obviously, when I have books about the country for which I set out, these books shall come along for the walk. But anything else is difficult, for I don’t know in what mood I will be, how long the journey will take, and which books might be banned in what country. (A subject sorely lacking from the Foreign Office’s travel advisory, by the way.) My biggest fear before every trip is that I will run out of things to read. This once happened, on an island off Estonia, and it is what got me started with writing. So there you go, dear reader, you could have been spared all of this, if only I had packed Kalevipoeg.
Weight and size are an issue, too, because I don’t believe in the unlimitedness of my backpack. Hence my preference for paperbacks or books with thin pages and small print. Lastly, I prefer to take books that I don’t plan to keep, so I can leave them, after having finished them, of course, on the train, a park bench or with one of those little libraries whence I picked up Mr Maugham’s works.
If I manage to stay clear of book markets, my backpack gets lighter the longer I travel. Once it’s getting close to empty, it’s a sign to return home. This is actually how I measure time, by books remaining, not by days or weeks.
But I didn’t really want to write about books that much. I wanted to tell you about Mayhew, Maugham’s story about a lawyer, 35 years old, who, if not at the height, then on the ascending slope of his career, decided to call it quits.
He thought he could do more with life than spend it on composing the trivial quarrels of unimportant people. He had no definite plan. He merely wanted to get away from a life that had given him all it had to offer.
I did the same, at the same age, from the same profession, for similar reasons. And I definitely had no definite plan. Heck, even ten years later I don’t have one.
Having left the parasitic profession of benefiting from the problems of others, I now rely on the generosity of patrons who agree with me that the world needs more beautiful writing, rather than writing for winning. After all, one man’s victory is always another man’s defeat.
It seems that the Corona virus will impede long-distance travel for quite a while. In that time of need, maybe we’ll finally discover what has always been so close. Writing for an international audience, it’s hard to generalize what counts as close, of course.
For me, living in Bavaria in Germany, it’s the former Iron Curtain, which is still limiting most Westerners’ travel options like a veil of self-imposed ignorance. Luckily, I have long been more interested in the other side of that curtain. Thus, last summer, when a house-sitting gig got cancelled, I spontaneously jumped on a train and went to the first small town in the Czech Republic, to Marienbad.
Follow me on this journey and get inspired to make some discoveries in your neighborhood as well. Or, if you can’t, use this blog to come along on a virtual journey!
Before we get started, a few words about the name. Of course Marienbad is now Mariánské Lázně. It’s not hard to pronounce, but hard to type without a Czechoslovak keyboard. So, for the international readers I will use the German name, which seems to be more commonly known in English, without wishing to imply any irredentist claims to a Great Germany or Great Austria.
My first impression of Marienbad is that it is not a city at all, but rather an enormous park with houses in between.
The library resides in a castle, as libraries should do everywhere to protect themselves against book burnings.
Probably even the prison looks majestic here. Unfortunately, I won’t manage to get arrested during my stay in Marienbad, so I cannot report from personal experience.
Pavel, from whom I am renting an apartment for a few days, himself came to Marienbad as a visitor, more than ten years ago with his mother from Moscow. The mother liked the spa town so much that she wanted to stay. In order to do so, she had to buy a house, which she converted into a boarding house. As a good son, Pavel joined and supported her. There is something wailing in his voice as he is telling this story.
“It’s a beautiful city to live in,” I try to cheer him up, because that’s the impression I have gotten in the first hours.
“Well, if you’re from Moscow, it’s pretty small and quiet here.”
Asked about the seasonal fluctuations, Pavel explains: “January and February are very bad. March is also very bad.” And, after a pause for thought, “April is also really bad. May is a bit better. And from October on, it gets really bad again. The religious festivals are very important, many pilgrims come for them.”
I wouldn’t have expected this at a health resort in the predominantly atheist Czech Republic, but in tourism, you probably have to diversify.
“Most people come to celebrate the day when Jesus was born. How do you call that in English?”
“No, the other one. Where he died first and then he was born again.”
Well, if religion is so important here, I shall go to church immediately. I will pick the Orthodox one for now.
Because the entrance fee is set so low and because the church is not overrun by visitors, I even refrain from taking out my student card to avail myself of a discount. Hopefully, the Russian Orthodox Church won’t use the one euro to bless weapons in the Donbass.
The church is small but pretty. It is particularly proud of the iconostasis, the three-winged porcelain picture wall, supposedly the largest piece of porcelain in the world.
But I am even more impressed by an icon depicting all the saints of the Orthodox annual calendar, all on the size of one standard piece of paper. Someone must have had a very steady hand and a nanometer-thin brush. Next to the picture, thankfully, there is a magnifying glass, and I decipher the Holy Father Simeon Stylites and his mother, Saint Martha, the martyr Aithalas of Persia, the Holy 40 Female Martyrs and Ammon, the Deacon and their teacher in Heracles in Thrace, the martyr Kallista and her brothers Evodios and Hermogenes from Nicomedia, the Righteous Joshua, the son of Saint Meletios of Greece, the neo-martyr Angelis of Constantinople, Saint Evanthia and the Holy Monk Nicholas of Crete. These are only the stars of September 14th, the first day of the Orthodox liturgical year. And so it continues, 365 times, all in millimetre size. Whoever painted this was more pedantic than artistic.
The photo is blurry, unfortunately, because you are not allowed to take pictures in the church and I didn’t dare to violate this eleventh commandment too openly.
Not quite as holy, but also important were the kings and emperors who once gave Marienbad its splendour. At the Hotel Weimar, there is still a sign informing us that King Edward VII of Britain spent several holidays here. Maybe he knew Europe well enough that he would have been against Brexit. Too late.
By the way, this palace is standing empty now, not the only one in the city. This is how the ruins look like in Marienbad. Even abandoned and decaying, they are a hundred times more beautiful than the blocks that contemporary architects want to sell us as apartments or hotels. They should be ashamed of themselves, those concrete botchers!
Napoleon III, Otto I of Greece, the Shah of Persia and Emperor Franz Joseph I also came to Marienbad. Since every royal retinue wanted to be in the limelight, it had to be coordinated between the empires who would spend their holidays where and when. This, by the way, is the historical origin of travel agencies. Before that, in the so-called Migration Period, people had simply gone on uncoordinated road trips.
Once however, in August 1904, there was a misunderstanding or a booking error, or maybe malice. The English king and the Austrian emperor had booked the trip to Marienbad at the same time, both at the Hotel Weimar. When two railroad trains arrived from two different directions with a lot of ballyhoo, the gentleman at the reception started to sweat. Franz Joseph I was not only Emperor of Austria and thus the ruler of Marienbad, he was also quite explicitly King of Bohemia, and therefore the guest with a stronger claim to Kaiserschmarrn and lodging. On the other hand, Edward VII was a regular guest, he had travelled the longer distance and he gave generous tips.
Ten years later, the discord resulting from this meeting lead to World War I. You know that yourself: A small argument about a towel on a beach chair or about parking in front of the house escalates, then you don’t talk to each other for ten years, and suddenly one of you kills the other. Happens all the time.
The whole city is spacious, with wide avenues and cycle paths, huge parks and enough benches for all 12,000 inhabitants to relax at the same time. The communists were really good at urban planning, I’ll give them that.
Wonderful spots to read, study and smoke cigars. The latter is forbidden in some areas, though, probably because the water-vending clinics do not tolerate the competition of the healthy tobacco fumes.
Pavel had warned me about the healing waters. Although they are supposed to cure, they can also kill if the dosage is a little bit off. “The water here is so strong that you must not drink too much. You should consult your doctor before drinking it.”
But the water being properly applied, one would definitely get well, I was assured. Rudolph’s Spring and Ambrose’s Spring supposedly help against anemia and urological complaints. The water from Cross Spring and Ferdinand’s Spring supposedly has both laxative and anti-allergenic effects. Caroline’s Spring and Mary’s Spring would prevent bladder stones. The Forest Spring would free the lungs.
“And you have to use a sippy cup, because otherwise the iron in the water will attack your teeth, and you’ll run around with brown teeth for a month.” A straw would probably do it too, but we know that dolphins and cormorants choke on those. Or a clever cup maker came up with the whole story.
The tap water is perfectly okay, by the way, which makes me wonder. Doesn’t all this water come from the same groundwater? How can it cure cancer 200 meters further on when it bubbles out of the tap at home with no extra effect?
At some springs, there are tables with values of different elements that don’t tell me anything because I don’t know whether 141 magnesium or 0.103 zinc in water is good or bad, which values are normal and what unit of measurement they even pretend to use. To me, it seems like charlatanry with charades and logogriphs.
For those who do not believe in the healing power of water, there is the “Beer Spa”, a decadent bath in beer.
This is nothing for me, because I like neither beer, nor advertising with half-naked people. (I am however going to meet the lady in the bathtub in chapter 38, after all.)
About 45% of the visitors in Marienbad seem to come from Germany, another 45% from Russia, and the rest from all over the world. And they are mainly older guests. Only the Asians are lowering the average age. They also bring a bit of style, which is sorely needed among all the short-trousered Germans and Russians.
When visiting a country that was once occupied by the Nazis (which means almost all of Europe), I always have some inhibitions about speaking German, so after the Czech greetings, I switch to English. Most of the time I get an answer in German right away. Tourism heals wounds. Or maybe it just covers them up.
As the clock strikes the full hour, the fountain in front of the Colonnade frightens me with kitschy music. More spa town kitschy than capital city kitschy, so not as bad as in Skopje. But nothing more than shallow fountain music.
The building behind the fountain, the Colonnade, is something like the symbol of Marienbad. Although its purpose is not quite clear, I am always drawn to it. It is a long, slightly curved hall that is largely open to one side. If you stroll in it or drink a coffee, you feel half inside and half outside, a nice in-between feeling. And the metal construction gives you an Eiffel Tower feeling, without any queues, expensive entrance fees or fear of heights.
One day, something is happening, but I don’t understand what it is. Groups of girls are performing some circus show, swirling sticks through the air. Judging by their bonnets, they are either bakery saleswomen or a communist youth organization.
You wouldn’t expect it from a traditional and dignified spa town with visitors who are mostly in their third stage of life, but the mayor of Marienbad is a member of the Pirate Party.
And while other countries throw tons of money at desperate attempts to increase the share of electric mobility, Marienbad has long been using electric buses and police cars.
The most important landmark in Marienbad when asking or, as happens more often, being asked for directions, is the traffic light at the intersection of Chebská with the main road. There is only one traffic light in the whole town, and it is proudly marked on the map.
Although the healing springs all work wonders, they are marketed differently. Cross Spring, for example, is covered by a classicist temple, which is only open during the day. This is probably the healing water for wealthy private patients.
Alexandra’s Spring, on the other hand, is open around the clock, making it something like the emergency pharmacy among the healing springs. It is also free of charge, so I can finally try some water myself.
Eeewwww! If there weren’t sick people standing around the spring, whose last hope rests in these gulps, I would spit it out again. I’ve never drunk water tasting so horrible! The water is dripping with sulphur. Devil’s Spring would be a more suitable name.
The only tasty fountain in the city, as far as I have tried, – my desire for further attempts was not very pronounced after Sulphur Spring, and only the journalistic mission kept me going – is the spring at the entrance to the large park opposite the King and Kaiser statues (see chapter 5). Here, the water tingles and tastes like mineral water. Here, one can fill the bottle for a hike.
When visiting a health resort, a box of cigars has to come along, that much I remember from the Magic Mountain.
When I sit in the park with an aromatic Maria Mancini, it should attract the Russian oligarchs who are now being spurned by the FPÖ. This will lead to interesting conversations, adding the necessary spice to this report. That’s the plan, at least.
In fact, it only attracts a young lady who immediately makes herself unpopular with unsolicited advice: “Smoking is not good for your health!”
“It makes me happy, and happiness is an important component of health,” I explain.
Turns out she knows more about health than I do. She is a doctor, has just been transferred to the hospital in nearby Cheb/Eger, and is in Marienbad for the first time. This allows me to make myself popular with unsolicited advice about where to go and what to do in Marienbad.
And I finally have a competent person for the question that has plagued me all the time: “Say, this alleged healing water, is that based on science or just a marketing hoax?”
“People here believe that water cures them?” she asks in horror.
“Oh yes. The whole town is built on that.”
“And I thought it was only back home where people believed such nonsense. That it still exists in Europe …” Ipeleng is from Botswana, which sends doctors around the world as part of its development aid. (Given that Botswana is less corrupt and more democratic than the Czech Republic, sending politicians, civil servants and judges would also be a welcome move).
Cheb is a little bit far from Gaborone, but anyone who works in the public sector in the South African country is used to it. The European colonial states had drawn arbitrary borders in which people of different ethnicities, languages and cultures were suddenly one state, but had no common identity. When Botswana became independent in 1966, it had in mind the experience of the Congo, of Mali, of Nigeria, where conflicts and civil wars broke out after independence. So the Botswana government came up with a simple idea: teachers, doctors, police officers would be transferred to other areas of the country every few years, so that people from different ethnic groups could come into contact with each other, perhaps start families, and thus create a Botswana identity.
“I was once transferred to a hospital nine hours away from my home town,” says the doctor. “In some cases, that’s hard, especially for relationships. But it’s good for the country and the community, because that way we get to know each other instead of having prejudices about each other.” We should have done the same in Germany after reunification, I am thinking.
In the later course of the conversation, Ipeleng repeatedly asks me to drink water instead of cola on such a hot day because the refreshing fizzy drink is diuretic, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Apparently, even she is deeply involved in the water industry, like everyone else here.
By the way, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain is the perfect book for a stay in Marienbad. There, a resourceful doctor, who is more of a businessman than a physician, sells fresh air. Here, the spa doctors sell tap water. Here as there, the healing effect of the stay, if at all, results from staying in a somewhat secluded place, surrounded by beautiful nature. Here and there, even the most theoretical healing effect is overcompensated by sumptuous cakes.
Another vice in Marienbad is gambling. I would love to investigate these financial institutions, but I lack the funds to post the required deposit. There would be a spring in Karlovy Vary/Karlsbad that helps against poverty, it is said. I should have gone there first.
As I already know the Magic Mountain, I took Thomas Mann’s novel about Goethe, Lotte in Weimar, with me. There, the poet says:
Holy water, pure and cold – holy not less in thy soberness than is the boon-and-blessing, sun-and-fire-combining gift of the vine! Hail, water!
Goethe did visit Marienbad several times, and the city makes absolutely certain that you won’t fail to notice that: The square in front of the palace-like Hotel Royal is called Goethe Square, and in front of it there is a statue of Goethe, even if it is no longer the original, which was melted into cannons during the Second World War.
The Goethe Stela at Goethe’s Place points out Goethe’s View.
The town museum is located in Goethe House, but more about that in chapter 37, and everywhere it is mentioned what Goethe did where and when, what he ate, and what he said. No wonder that he got annoyed by the fuss made about him. The following year, he booked a package holiday to Italy instead.
As bloggers do, Goethe took note of everything that happened to him, planning to use it for future articles. So when a date went badly, he turned it into a turgid poem, the Marienbad Elegy. Fed up with the constant questions about how things were in Marienbad, he wrote an article, not without mentioning his hobby, which no one else was interested in: “Marienbad in general and especially with regard to geology”. Lucky you, because in my case, the hobby is history instead of earth science.
However, Marienbad does not appropriate the same attention and appreciation to the other artists who inspired each other here, possibly with the exception of Fryderyk Chopin, for whom there is a festival every August. Richard Wagner could have had that as well. Along with Bayreuth, he had Marienbad in the final selection for the venue of his festival. But in the end, Bohemia couldn’t pay any subsidies, because these had all been paid to Andrej Babiš.
Anton Bruckner, Johann Strauss and Antonín Dvořák also hung out in Marienbad. The latter even wrote a piece for the singing fountain.
Plenty of writers showed up, too, but they came in the cheaper off-season. Less distraction is better for writing. In addition to Übergoethe, Adalbert Stifter, Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig (who dedicated a chapter in Shooting Stars: 10 Historical Miniatures to the Marienbad Elegy, which seems slightly exaggerated to me, but maybe Goethe wrested it from him at the poker table), Maxim Gorki, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Goncharov, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Jan Neruda, Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain visited Marienbad before me. I would not be surprised if the latter wrote just as mockingly about the water cure.
But the most skeptical of all was Franz Kafka:
F. kindly picked me up from the train station in Marienbad, but still a desperate night in an ugly room facing the courtyard. Unhappy night. Impossible to live with F. Unbearable to live with anyone. Not regretting it; regretting the impossibility of not being alone.
Moved to an extraordinarily beautiful room on Monday, now staying at nothing less than “Balmoral Castle”. And there I will try to cope with the holiday, beginning with the not quite successful treatment of the headache.
For writers, it should be obvious that it is better to travel and to live alone.
Friday night at 8 pm, and there is no action, nowhere, just as Pavel lamented. The young people are probably all on the express train to Pilsen or to Prague. And the older spa guests are already in bed.
My age is exactly in the middle between the two groups and I have the whole town to myself.
Marienbad is one of the few places that had more tourists a hundred years ago than today.
You can only find this in Eastern Europe. But then, even in Marienbad the travel agencies have posters of Neuschwanstein and Paris in their windows, instead of Novy Afon and Peleș, driving people in the wrong direction. Be smarter than the masses!
The only guy enjoying the park with me is General Patton, the old warhorse.
If his presence puzzles you, I know that you have not read my article about Pilsen (especially chapters 46-53, only available in German so far). However, in Czechoslovakian times, the citizens and visitors of Marienbad were not supposed to know that they had been liberated by the US Army instead of the Red Army. Thus, in 1976 a monument was erected to the Soviet liberators who had not liberated anyone here.
Lesson: Don’t trust everything you see.
The ruins of Hamelika Castle, overlooking Marienbad, aren’t real ruins and there was never a real castle. They were already built that way in 1876. Decaying walls and ruins were fashionable at the time and were considered romantic. Naturally, this desire to see destruction and ruins led to World War I.
At the time, the main street was called Kaiser Street.
On the upper left you can see the Russian Orthodox Church, and the bigger building on the lower left with the two towers, well, that doesn’t exist anymore. It was the synagogue that burned down completely during the pogrom in November 1938. Only one month before, Marienbad and the Sudetenland had been granted to the German Reich in the Munich Agreement.
Opposite the former location of the synagogue, this is commemorated by a memorial stone, albeit only since 2015.
What Marienbad did with the place of the former synagogue is a much more poignant memorial, though. They have left the gap on the main boulevard. Much simpler than any monument, but a very effective symbol for what is missing.
By the way, the Sudeten Germans did not need the invasion of the Wehrmacht in 1938 to become Nazis. Like many Germans living abroad, they did so voluntarily and with great enthusiasm.
One of the first known victims of National Socialism, the writer Theodor Lessing, was shot dead by three assassins in Marienbad as early as August 1933.
I notice that you are not in the mood for assassinations and anti-Semitism, but rather for woods and hiking.
Just outside of Marienbad, there is Slavkov Forest or the Emperor’s Forest, a huge area with hiking trails in all directions, well signposted, as always in the Czech Republic.
Between the woods, there are clearings and lakes, also moorlands, sometimes a small chapel or a cottage in the middle of all the green.
And in Kladská, there is a hunting cottage in Alpine style, the first proper stop on my several-hour hike. Prince Schönburg-Waldenburg had it built in the 19th century to hunt deer, stags and wild boar.
There is not much hunting happening now, but in the U Tetřeva Inn (named after the wood grouse), they still have food and rooms for overnight stays. A single room costs 30 €, I read in the menu, looking for something sweet. Unfortunately, the weather forecast for the rest of the week is full of rain, otherwise I would spend a few internet-free days here in the middle of the forest.
Nearby there is a lake, surrounded by a path of wooden planks. Always as close to the shore as possible, wide as a promenade and wheelchair accessible. As I attempt to leave the wooden path, I immediately realize its importance. The ground gives way several centimetres, and if I stepped even further away, I would probably sink into the bog.
Then I discover a piece of shore suitable for staying, with a view to an island just large enough to live on. At least for a person like me who doesn’t need much stuff. Too bad I don’t know how to swim.
Let me rest here and transfer the observations and thoughts of the last few hours into my notebook, for them to delight the worldwide readership, instead of leaving this task for the evening, when I will fall into bed exhausted and the memories will secretly, quietly and silently disappear, as thousands of their unfaithful colleagues have done before.
A Czech lady is walking friends from Germany around the lake, telling them that Czech universities are stretching the curriculum for Turkish students to extend the length of their studies: “We are doing everything we can to ensure that they don’t have to go back to Erdoğan”. Sometimes you learn more from listening to other people’s conversations than from newspapers.
As they are walking past me, the professor proudly says: “You see, young people in the Czech Republic are creative, they write, they paint, they make music.” Usually, I am a relentless fighter for truth, but now, I cannot correct the misconception about my age and background. Otherwise it would become obvious that I had been eavesdropping. I don’t want to awake any StB trauma.
And she’s right. On my visits to our neighbouring country, I have also noticed that fewer people than in Germany (and even fewer than in North America, for example) are driven to work as much as possible, just in order to buy the biggest possible cars and houses. Many of them are interested in other things, in artistic or intellectual activity, in social commitment, impressively demonstrated by the protests against abuse of power and corruption, or they like to go hiking, fishing and camping. In chapter 31 of my article on Pilsen I had already suspected that the low unemployment rate contributes to a certain relaxation when it comes to planning one’s life. But it must be something else, an appreciation of intellectual pursuits, which I have also noticed in other post-communist societies.
The era of the writer as president is over, but at the last Leipzig Book Fair, 60 Czech authors were introduced to the German market, some in translation, some circumventing the need for translation by writing in German. Another example that continues to have an impact: since 1919, every municipality in Czechoslovakia, no matter how small the village, was required by law to have at least one public library. Although this no longer applies since 2001, the Czech Republic still has the highest library density in the world. And, last but not least: even restaurants in the Czech Republic are named after literary figures
Suddenly I hear loud grunting and smacking in the bushes.
A wild boar!
But no, it was just someone pressing the button for the boar sound on one of the information boards. The dogs running past are even more scared than I am. Fortunately, nobody pressed the button for the rattlesnake sound.
In order to get out of the geographical vicious circle of walking around the Emperor’s Lake all the time, I cut into the bushes at one of the branching streams, curious to see where the water will take me.
Soon, the stream turns out to be a canal, dead straight and with a raised and clearly visible path on the right side. Sporadically, fallen trees block my impetuous walk, but then I simply jump to the other side of the canal, which gives you a good indication about its width.
Wide it is not, but long it is. Slavkov Forest is criss-crossed by a system of canals, which is related to tin mining, the operation of mills and the transport of wood. The engineering masterpiece, with a complicated network of communicating canals, more than 30 km in total, was already laid out in the 16th century.
For about two hours, I am walking along the canals. They still carry water and look as if they would work just fine. I don’t meet a single soul, although the sunny weather is perfect for a Sunday walk. Only a few deer, looking up curiously and running away. And I hear a cuckoo, this time the real one, not the one from the tape.
Slowly, the forest opens up and I am looking over wide fields, beautiful hills, and the grass and purple flowers swaying in the cooling breeze.
To be honest, I think I got lost. Until I discover a prominent hill with three crosses. That should be on the map. Indeed: tři kříže. Damn it, I have been wandering further and further away from Marienbad. Now, I have to walk back another 14 km, although I am not in the mood for more exercise. It has been a hot day.
But while I’m here, let me climb Golgotha Hill. A Czech family is trying to decipher the inscription, which dates from 1849 and is in German.
On the way back, I pass through Prameny. The village shows what Marienbad would look like if it had not been renovated after communism.
The saint guarding the bridge has lost his hands, but otherwise it is well preserved. The inscription in German informs me that the place was once called Sangerberg. So this is one of those places from which the Germans were expelled after 1945 and which then partly fell into disrepair. Not because there was a curse on them, but because the area near the border in Czechoslovakia was often reserved for military purposes rather than for living.
Thus, the number of inhabitants has shrunk from more than 2000 to 109 people living in houses which have become too big for them. Like the other health resorts in the area, Prameny also wanted to tap a mineral spring, but the project turned out to be too ambitious and the municipality remained with debts of 1.2 million euros. That’s a lot for 109 people. Under these circumstances, no candidate for mayor was found in the December 2009 elections, and the village was placed under government administration. Strangely enough, the Sudeten Germans, who have been mourning the loss of their homeland for 70 years, did not want to return after all. Maybe people aren’t that emotionally attached to the field where their ancestors came from, after all.
I, for one, am moving on quickly, not that someone will spot me and call out: “Hey, there’s a guy who looks like he has no work. Let’s make him mayor!”
It’s another 10 km to Marienbad, the sun is high in the sky, and I didn’t dare to knock on any door in Prameny/Sangerberg to fill my water bottle, because one thing is still very German about the village: Every garden is guarded by an aggressive dog.
What’s the solution? Hitchhiking, of course! The fourth car stops, but admittedly not because of me. Two girls are checking the map, apparently lost. I look at the number plate and can’t believe the amazing coincidence: Like me, they are from Amberg-Sulzbach County in Germany. That’s a good reason to approach them and ask them where they need to go.
“We are looking for the easiest way back to Hirschau.”
Well, that doesn’t really go via Marienbad. But it wouldn’t be much of a detour either. I explain my situation, and the two girls say right away: “Then we’ll take you to Marienbad!” The world is such a good place.
They are visiting the region regularly, it turns out. The grandparents of one of them were expelled from this beautiful region to barren Upper Palatinate after the Second World War.
This time, they came to the Emperor’s Forest to look for the inn in Nimrod that their grandparents told them about. It had existed since the 18th century and had served its Kaiserschmarrn even to royal guests.
When they found it, there was an enormous pile of rubble in the forest. The dredger operator told them that they had arrived three days late. The historic buildings had just been demolished.
We all agree that’s a pity. We also agree, by the way, that it is a bit of a shame for us Germans that many Czechs speak German very well, and on the other side of the border hardly any schools teach the language of the neighbouring country.
On the short trip together, I forgot to ask them for their names, but I would like to thank the two young ladies for saving me about three hours of arduous walking!
After the day’s hike, I go to the park in the evening, treating myself to a Churchill-sized cigar.
A German family is passing by (you can tell the Germans by the fact that the man is pushing the pram), and the father expresses his horror at his wife and daughter, whom he apparently does not trust to be observant enough: “Look at that person, he is smoking a cigar.”
“Would you like one?” I offer.
“No,” he shouts as if in protest, “it smells terrible.”
Ten minutes later, a man sits down next to me on the bench, although there are several free benches all around.
“здравствуйте,” he introduces himself. He’s about my age, with a well-groomed beard and a friendly, attractive appearance.
“здравствуйте.” A handshake signals that I don’t mind the company and am ready to interrupt the reading for a chat.
In a mixture of Russian, Czech and German, as is customary in Central Europe, we have a very limited conversation. He is visibly interested in the cigar and I offer him a puff. He insists that I try his Marlboro in return.
Unfortunately I cannot explain in Russian that cigars are not to be inhaled. Too late! He can’t stop coughing, looks like he is dying. Now, where is the doctor when you need her? I notice that she forgot to give me her phone number. My new friend indicates that he feels very dizzy.
“Yes, it works like alcohol.”
“Like a whole bottle of vodka,” he specifies. “Or rather like a bottle of vodka and a few beers together.”
Speaking of vodka, he takes a bottle out of his denim jacket and offers me a sip. We are drinking straight from the bottle like teenagers who have known each other for a long time.
He wants to take another puff from the cigar and almost collapses again. His eyes are turning red. He can’t believe how I can smoke the cigar so easily. He probably thinks I have lungs of steel.
After he has taught me a few more words in Ukrainian, he urgently has to say goodbye. Too bad, because the vodka was good. Hopefully he won’t feel too bad at night! But his goodbye handshake is still as strong as was his first one, so I think he will survive.
If these two encounters are symptomatic, then I prefer the Russians or Ukrainians over the Germans.
Shortly after the vodka has left, the music fountain strikes again. Tonight, it plays the Exodus soundtrack.
This reminds me that I wanted to go to the museum to learn more about the people represented by the gap in chapter 25.
Given the local Goethemania, the fact that the city museum is housed in Goethe House is not surprising. And indeed, the writer lived in this house in 1823. Some of the rooms still contain the furniture of that time, others contain facsimiles of his manuscripts, and cute dolls reenact historical encounters.
In the section about the town history, I am struck by how small Marienbad was until recently. The town was only founded in 1808, before that, there was an uninhabited, inhospitable gorge.
But already in 1818, it became a spa town, and soon a world-famous one. Quite a career. Or as Goethe wrote in 1820:
Then I visited Marienbad, a new important institution […]. The architects and the gardener know their trade and are used to working with a free mind. The latter, one can easily see, has imagination and practice, he doesn’t ask what the terrain looks like, but what it should look like. Removing and filling landscape doesn’t bother him. I felt as if I was in the loneliness of North America, where forests are cut down to build a new city in three years.
Another push was brought by the railway, which, from 1872, connected the small town directly with Prague, something that today’s visitors still benefit from.
The museum includes a huge cinema, and although I am the only visitor on this early morning, the museum lady asks if I would like to see a film about the short history of the city. Of course I would!
The film offers an interesting overview of the founding history, maybe with a little bit too much detail, like this article. Once it approaches the 20th century, I am thinking: “Now it’s getting exciting”, but the German occupation is dealt with by saying that Marienbad was a military hospital during the Second World War. And then the war is already over. No invasion, no Holocaust, no expulsion of the Sudeten Germans, nothing.
And from 1948 on, everything is happy hunky dory: “The healing springs and spas were nationalized and thus made available to the working people of Czechoslovakia.” Yay, the big hotels are now in the hands of the proletariat! The film dates from 1987.
It’s the same in the whole museum: a lot about the spas, about the famous guests and of course about the healing power of water. Oh, and the lady in the bathtub apparently not only works at the “Beer Spa” (see chapter 8), but has long been part of Marienbad marketing for machos.
What I did miss in the museum, though, was information about the former synagogue and, which would be very interesting in a spa town, about the phenomenon of resort anti-Semitism in general. Because when Germans and Austrians went on holiday, they didn’t forget to pack their anti-Semitism, and that was true long before National Socialism.
In Marienbad and the other spa towns in the region (Karlsbad/Karlovy Vary and Franzensbad/Františkovy Lázně), a Bohemian peculiarity, the so-called winter anti-Semitism, occurred. This refers to the anti-Semitism of the hotel and restaurant operators, which they shelved, for business reasons, during the summer months and only reactivated at the end of the season. If Wagner had known that, maybe he would have stayed in Marienbad after all.
Each time I walk past the city theatre, it is closed.
That’s too bad, because it would be nice from the inside too.
Hence I miss the exhibition of “Masters of the Bohemian-Moravian Hills”, which is on display during the breaks of the theatre performances.
Speaking of hills: If anyone feels deterred by the long walk through the Emperor’s Forest, don’t be! Around Marienbad, there are also several shorter hikes of a few kilometres. One of them, the Metternich hiking trail, runs mostly through the forest, offering protection from the sun. It’s a relaxed morning in a quiet forest.
And here is one spring where the water does seem to be of different composition, for it is as red as blood.
The hike leads past the cemetery, which, as befits a spa town, is located sufficiently outside so that those hoping for recovery are not confronted with the probability of death. Because with death in mind, not even the placebo effect of the water treatment would work.
In the cemetery, I find traces of the German-speaking past, but also signs that the descendants have long left Marienbad. Most of the graves are overgrown.
A war memorial shows how pointless heroism can be: A column commemorates “the fallen heroes of the 1914-18 World War”, concealing the fact that the country for which they died no longer existed at the end of that war.
More beautiful monuments of past times are the houses in the second and third rows behind Kaiser Street.
The cars from that time seem to receive more love and care.
The whole week I’ve been wondering why I like Marienbad so much that I wouldn’t mind staying here for a bit longer. It is beautifully green and spacious. I like to see all the gradations of decay and reconstruction, like a cross-section through the centuries. A place in the Czech Republic that grew up in Austria and where German and Russian are now spoken quite naturally, it is also very European. And I like places that used to be bigger, more important and more significant than now, where you walk around between magnificent architecture like in a sweater that’s too wide, but still more comfortable than all those sweaters that fit like a glove.
But Marienbad also offers something special: The city was built for kings, for the rich and for the famous. And now it is open to everyone, even for relatively little money, because the kings are beheaded, the rich do not find Central Europe ostentatious enough, and the famous have no taste anymore. Here, I can feel a little sublime, although I am just a simple citizen, a student even.
Marienbad Is well connected by train, either via Marktredwitz and Eger/Cheb or from Prague or Pilsen. By the way, tickets in the Czech Republic are much cheaper, so it is better to buy only the outward journey in Germany or Austria. From Amberg to Marienbad, for example, the outward journey cost 28 € (Bayern-Böhmen-Ticket, whereby the second passenger would get away much cheaper), and the return journey on the same route cost 259 Czech crowns (about 10 €).
Buses leave from Marienbad to all towns and villages in the area, even to Kladská in Slavkov Forest.
Pavel, the extremely helpful and informative young man, is renting out Apartment Maria as well as several apartments in Villa Shafaly. If you use Booking.com via this link, you will get a discount of 15 €. Not only in Marienbad, but worldwide.
If you rather try AirBnB, you can use this link to save 25 €.
Oops, that turned into something long. Now you know why I don’t even start writing about big cities like Prague or Rome. But if the article helped you a little bit with your travel planning, I would be very happy about your support for this blog. Thank you!
I called the pizza place to order a Big American pizza.
Deviating from the usual procedure, the woman from the pizzeria did not accept the order with joy. Instead, she became rather serious:
“Well, about the Big American, I have to tell you something.”
“It’s not really a creation of ours. We kept it on the menu after buying the business last year, because some of our customers like it.”
Yeah, I’d like to try it too, I thought.
But the woman warned me: “This pizza has everything on it, so many ingredients. All together in one pizza!”
I knew that. I had checked the menu and had made the decision based on a very hungry stomach.
While I was still thinking about what she was getting at, it became clear: “If you like, I can prepare a Big American pizza for you. It’s your decision. But I don’t think you are going to like it that much.”
I had never gotten the impression that she knew me that well, because we had only met a few times when I’d picked up previous pizzas, ordered, by the way, without any problems. I always pick up food myself, because I find this whole delivery business a bit presumptuous and upper-class. There is hardly a more visible degradation of a human being to a pure workhorse than to let someone else drive food around in a snowstorm, to open the door impatiently, to allow a short glimpse into the warm and cozy home, and to send the guy back out into the human and meteorological cold immediately after taking the warm cardboard box from him. Moreover, here on Faial, I live on a very steep path that I wouldn’t want any delivery guy on a bicycle to have to tackle, especially as he, should he miss the little house that I am currently occupying, would be heading straight for a dangerous volcano. I don’t deem my time to be more valuable than the time of another human being, and that is why nobody else should be sweating on their bike, just to save myself half an hour of walking. Besides, I don’t like waiting at home, not being able to go to the bathroom fully relaxed.
“As I said, it’s your decision,” the pizza baker interrupted my sociocritical train of thought.
I ordered a bacon pizza instead, picked it up, took it to a field, leaned against a bale of hay and ate it with delightful pleasure, looking at the sea and the bacon-providing cows.
The pizza place had probably just run out of corn.
If you are stuck on an island in the Atlantic Ocean long enough, stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne and Astrid Lindgren come to mind. Especially when the mail boat apparently don’t sail, because not a single rescue package with books and cigars has arrived.
Like the shipwrecked guys in novels, I too – what a coincidence – still have some paper and ink and a bottle of brandy at hand, which I just emptied. As you know, I’m rather sceptical about technology, so the idea of writing and sending a message in a good old bottle is appealing.
Already as a child, I had toyed with this idea. Perusing the atlas, that constant igniter of wanderlusty dreams, I discovered that the creek in my village in Bavaria flows into the Vils, the Vils into the Naab, the Naab into the Danube and the Danube into the Black Sea. It struck me as rather romantic to write a message to strangers who would fish it out of the sea in Sevastopol, in Samsun or in Sukhumi a few months later. At that time, I still collected stamps and was hoping for a colourful philatelistic reply.
Unfortunately, I had to find out that the small stream leading out of the village was soon blocked in its free flow by weirs, locks and dams and the prose-filled bottle kept getting stuck, not having seen much of the world. “What a sardonic metaphor for my own imprisonment in this sea-less province,” complained the then eight-year-old me, because that’s how children used to talk before the internet, when we still honed our vocabulary and style with real books.
But now I’m in the Azores, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Nothing can impede the path of the bottle from here. The thermohaline circulation of the North Atlantic Current may carry it as far as Iceland, Norway, Greenland or Svalbard. Or maybe the Gulf Stream, the Azores Stream and the Canary Current will snatch it and take it to the Cape Verde Islands or to the coast of Mauritania or to Dakar, where other people inconveniently travel by car.
I drink lots of coke, but a plastic bottle seems stylishly deficient for this project. And maybe the mail will float around the oceans for so long that plastic will be banned at the time of delivery. Luckily, I just emptied a bottle of anise schnapps whose label even refers to the Azores.
I write a short letter and walk down to the coast to set the bottle onto its orbit around the Earth. Which is not that easy, it turns out. I’m so high above the sea that the bottle will probably smash on the rocks when I really want it to hit the water. I am not an Olympic long-distance throwing champion, after all.
So, for a tiny project with very little chance of success, I walk along the coast for several miles and hours, which is another suitable metaphor for my life, until I spot a suitable place.
Yes, here I can climb down the cliffs, jump from rock to rock and then from the furthermost outpost of the island, I can drop the bottle into the sea as easily as if I dropped it into a mailbox.
However, the ocean does not like the idea at all. It rages ever wilder and more violently. When the threatening gestures don’t work, it surrounds me from all sides. I am just about to put the letter into the bottle when my outpost, which I had believed to be safe, is completely flooded by water.
“Maybe this is a little bit dangerous,” I would think to myself, if I still could think at all. But now, it’s a matter of survival and a split-second decision. I hold on to the bottle, for which I have been risking my life, as I let myself fall into the water, exactly as the next tsunami wave sweeps over me. Thus, I hope to get washed up on the cliffs instead of being dragged out to sea.
What else could I do? Nobody knows the schedule for the tides. And if I sit around on a rock cut off from the mainland until dark, I might even get bored and – who knows -get stupid ideas.
To make a long story short: I survived. Actually, it was even kind of refreshing. But the aniseed bottle broke, and all I have left of it is a sliced right hand. Luckily, I still had a beer bottle in my backpack, although it looks much less representative. And whether the regrafted crown cork will hold until Antarctica, I am not so sure. But for the minute or so that I can still see it, it doesn’t sink.
And now it’s time to be patient. The record for the longest floating message in a bottle, which was eventually found, is 132 years. If mine were to take that long, I wouldn’t be around, but with my 44 years or so, I can sit back and relax for a few decades.
I’m going to cut short the strenuous climb back up the cliffs. As I am lying in the meadow, exhausted and bleeding, but soaking up the warming sun, I am still angry about the lost bottle. At home, I still have glasses of cucumber and pepperoni, I remember. With their screw tops, they must surely be watertight. But the next letters will have to wait until I will be in Horta, where there is a harbour and even a small beach.