Europe For The Senses

Author/Photographer Vicki Liston blogs on her book and some interesting places she's traveled. "Europe for the Senses - A Photographic Journal" was published under the name 'Vicki Landes'.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Alpirsbach Monastery: Medieval Sandstone Island

Nestled in the Northern Black Forest, Alpirsbach Monastery echoes with the souls that once worshipped within its walls. While clinging to a forgotten time with a white-knuckled grip, the monastery boasts a 900-year history beautifully kept intact while the world outside changed and modernized.

Founded in 1095, the Benedictine monastery easily humbles the proud and quiets the boisterous. Upon entering its doors with the massive brass lion doorknockers, it’s evident that this is a sanctuary of sanctuaries. The red sandstone beams warm tones during the day and leaps to an almost blinding glow as the sun begins to set. Sandstone bricks lay in a herringbone pattern in the church, making this hall of worship anything but plain. High, medieval ceilings and colorful stained glass above the simple alter add to the ambience of respect and subservience.

As with many monasteries, Alpirsbach has magnificent cloisters which lead out to a square courtyard. Cloisters give a sense of openness to the closed-off building as the outer façade has no glass. Now, ivy twists and turns through the intricately carved stone windows, bringing life to the empty reverberations in the hallways. All kinds of weather intrude from the courtyard, bringing the outside in – whether sunshine, rain, or snow.

Alpirsbach is famous for its beer. Look for the stone statue of the little monk – his protruding belly bears witness that he’s had a few too many. He stands near the entrance of the beer museum, which walks visitors through the history of its brewing. Beer was important to everyday life; not only did it provide a source of income for the monastery but it was considered ‘purified water’. During this time, water was considered to be a carrier of disease. Europeans believed that the alcohol in beer and wine killed whatever was in the water that made people sick so it was important to consume some regularly. ‘A pint a day keeps the pneumonia away…’

Monasteries such as Alpirsbach are a joy to visit because they aren’t overflowing with tourists. Instead, you can wander to your heart’s content as the only living soul while listening to the deafening silence. Rub your hands on the cool stone walls and pillars, which have been worn smooth over the last almost-1000 years. Just as this hallowed place once sheltered monks from the outside world, it continues to provide an escape from the overcrowded attractions. Peaceful, hushed, and reverent.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Nove, Italy – Yes, more pottery!

By now, you’ve probably guessed I have a little addiction for pottery. I’ve taken you through Deruta, Italy and to Boleslawiec, Poland (if you missed these articles, check out my blog’s archive!) Now, on to Nove!

The little Italian town of Nove overflows with a love for beautiful pottery and the talent to deliver. Although not as fancy (or as pricey) as Deruta, Nove’s wares beam with sunshine and seem to embody the exuberant spirit of the country and her people.

Simply drive through the town and stumble on shop after shop after shop! From delicate porcelain to splashy decorative pieces and earthy country items, the town seems to have a little something for every taste. Artists are happy to show their talent as they put their soul into each and every brush stroke. Some will even offer to personalize their work for you, making a simple purchase into a future family heirloom.

Nove is famous for its ‘Chicken Pitcher’. Back in the Renaissance days, the Medicis were the wealthiest and most powerful family in Italy. In addition to the vast amount of land, the family were also immense patrons of the arts – many timeless musicians and artists owe their fame to a Medici. Giuliano Medici was a bit of a party animal and was known to throw a bash at the drop of a hat. The Pazzis (a rival family) played on this trait and had an internal contact suggest to Giuliano that a party be held in the little village of Gallina. He’d never had a party there before and that, in and of itself, was a good enough reason so plans commenced. The Pazzis planned on attacking Giuliano in the middle of the night as he slept off the copious amounts of wine he’d ingested earlier. The attackers snuck into Gallina and had to cross a yard to get to the sleeping Medici. Fortunately for him, the yard happened to be full of chickens which began cackling in a flurry of excitement when the intruders entered. The guards were awakened by the commotion and caught the would-be assassins before they could get to Giuliano. Of course, this was cause for another party and Giuliano commissioned ceramic wine pitchers to be made in the likeness of the chickens for their lifesaving warning.

Here are my favorite shops (I recommend calling prior to your visit to get their opening times):

* Ceramich D’Arte San Marco
Via Martini 46
36055 Nove

* Caramica Stefani
Via Dell Umo 24/26
36055 Nove

* Caramiche Artistiche Ancora
Via Martini 26/28
36055 Nove

* La Ceramica VBC
Via Molini 45
36005 Nove

* Ceramiche Artistiche Marco Pizzato
Via Molini 67
36055 Nove

And some helpful websites: – the USO goes to Nove regularly so if you aren’t ready to go it alone (and you are affiliated with the US military), sign up for a tour. – good and inexpensive hotel in Vicenza (very close to Nove)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Rothenburg ob der Tauber: Medieval Charm in Modern Day

Uneven cobblestone streets, short, squatty doorways, aged half-timbered houses, and all contained within an imposingly thick wall of stone – you’ve just entered Rothenburg ob der Tauber. One of Germany’s most visited cities, Rothenburg oozes with medieval charm. And why shouldn’t it? Its history dates back as far as 970 A.D and the walls have seen their share of time.

Overlooking the Tauber River valley, Rothenburg has survived centuries of war and natural disasters with the help of generous contributions from all over the world. This is not surprising as the fascinating little town transports the visitor to another time with one step inside its gates. The antiquated buildings stand as witness to how life used to be – small societies where everyone’s life cannot help but be intermingled with everyone else’s…which isn’t hard to imagine when the buildings are joined one to another. The town’s folklore is passed down from generation to generation and recounted for the millions of tourists that drink in (pun intended, as you’ll read in a moment) these sometimes unbelievable tales. The most well-known legend is that of Lord Mayor Nusch. Rothenburg suffered occupation during the Thirty Years War despite heavy resistance from its citizens. In an act of jest, the occupying General announced that the city could be saved from destruction if someone from Rothenburg could drink a tankard of West German wine in one gulp (that’s a whopping 3.25 liters!). Lord Nusch stepped up and put his drinking skills (and liver, no doubt) to the test – and saved the town. As a tribute, the City Councillors’ Tavern houses mechanical figures that act out the story at 11am, 12pm, 1pm, 2pm, and 9pm each day. Crowds gather in the courtyard to watch a motorized Nusch guzzle his town’s salvation while the surprised General looks on.

Another alluring sight at Rothenburg is in St. Jakob’s Church. Constructed in a high gothic style, its towering, arched ceilings quickly make the visitor feel small and insignificant – a perfect state for worship. The two mismatching steeples hold an ungodly story of their own. Supposedly, two different men designed them – the master took on the south steeple and his apprentice took the north one. When construction was completed, the apprentice has erected a more slender and striking tower. Consumed by his anger and jealousy, the master committed suicide by throwing himself off of the top of his own steeple. Despite the high ceilings and deadly towers, the attraction to St. Jakob’s for many is its shrine. Legend has it that three drops of Christ’s blood were caught in a rock crystal, which is now at the center of the ornately carved Altar of the Holy Blood.

Rothenburg is quaint, picturesque, and worthy of any jigsaw puzzle – even more so in the wintertime. Despite the harsh weather and freezing temperatures, many brave the elements to catch a glimpse of this adorable little town with a blanket of snow. The lights glow from their icy coverings and everything is decorated to the hilt for the Christmas season. Germany is famous for its ‘Weihnachtsmarkt’ (Christmas Markets) and Rothenburg rivals them all. In addition to the normal hot sausage, roasted chestnuts, and spiced wine, Rothenburg’s market offers a myriad of medieval-inspired crafts and trinkets which perfectly reflect the town’s personality.

Abounding in charm and charisma, Rothenburg ob der Tauber promises a delightfully medieval vacation from the modern world at any time of year.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Solitude Palace - Stuttgart's Silent Pleasure

On the outskirts of Stuttgart lies an ironic little palace. Designed for Duke Carl Eugen, Solitude Palace is a wonderful display of showy Baroque architecture yet its location, its purpose, and even its name suggest a more reclusive nature. Nicknamed ‘The Pleasure Palace’, Solitude is a wonderful hidden treasure.

Duke Carl Eugen ruled from nearby Ludwigsburg Castle in the 16th century. Meant as a quiet retreat from the pressures of politics, the castle’s construction began in 1764 and only took about five years to complete. During its heyday, the grounds were quite expansive – unattached wings of the palace, pavilions, meticulously manicured flower gardens, a shrub labyrinth, theater, orangery garden, stables and much more – anything to keep the duke’s mind off of everyday life. Today, only the palace itself remains but it’s a breathtaking site regardless. Since the building sits atop a hill and overlooks the Wuerttemberg lowlands, the only backdrop is the brilliant blue sky. Paired with its delicate eggshell exterior, the castle and sky contrast perfectly. A broad, elegant double staircase leads up to the central and largest room, White Hall. With high ceilings and a substantial oval shape, this room was meant for parties.

The castle only has a total of ten rooms, including White Hall. Each has its own special personality and drips of intricate ornamentation, breathtaking artwork, and exotic inlay wood designs worthy of only the finest Baroque building. The Red Cabinet once held 34 different oil paintings of Italy, giving it a Mediterranean feel. The Music Room was full of mirrors to reflect the little bit of natural light that made it into the one exterior wall’s windows. The Assembly Room is an odd square shape and colored a stately bright blue. The Anteroom is decorated in cool, relaxing green hues, boasts a French floor plan, and was a sort of waiting room/passage room to the living rooms in the palace. Next, the Marble Hall offered an extreme contrast to the Anteroom with its warm, wood inlay details and the fake marble (fake marble cost more at that time so having the fake stuff was better than having the real thing – it showed you were truly wealthy.) The Palm Room is stunning. Decorated with palm branch and flower accents and having an abundance of windows to let in the sunshine, the Palm Room is a touch of nature amid the flamboyant Baroque style. The Bedroom, which supposedly was never used by the duke as he preferred a more simple room in one of the unattached wings, was more of a statement and used for ceremonies. The miniature Writing Chamber was located next to the bedroom and held telescopes, trophies, and measuring equipment. Finally, the bean-shaped library was just large enough to house some books and a cozy place to sit and enjoy them.

Solitude Palace also has an air of secrecy. A patron of the arts, Duke Carl Eugen also had the reputation for being a ladies man (it is rumored that he had over 100 illegitimate children). The palace sits due south of the Ludwigsburg Palace with a straight 13 kilometer road that connects the two. Many a tour guide has pointed out that Carl could have seen his wife coming from Ludwigsburg a great distance off, giving him ample time to send his current mistress out the back door unseen.

Despite its small size and seemingly unsociable character, Solitude Palace is both impressive and majestically friendly. Together with an unsurpassed view of the surrounding area, the little castle has the best seat in the area and continues to pleasantly surprise those that stumble upon its isolated location.