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'.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Wuerttemberg Memorial Chapel: Tribute to a Young Queen

Perched atop a vineyard-covered hill, the lonely Wuerttemberg Memorial Chapel enjoys a magnificent view of the Stuttgart area’s wine country. Although it sits in reverent silence, the chapel proclaims the timeless love of King Wilhelm I for his deceased bride, Katharina. The two now share this secluded resting place, together for eternity.

In 1819, Wilhelm and the people of Wuerttemberg lost their beloved queen at the tender age of 31. This queen had given much of her own money to further the social development of the area, including a girls’ school, hospitals, and an institution for charity – even during the extremely difficult years of famine. The enormous Wuerttemberg Hill, home to the family’s old 11th century fortress, had been a favorite place of Katharina’s. Shortly after her death, Wilhelm had the ancient fortress leveled so he could build something truly symbolic of his devotion for her. Italian architect Giovanni Salucci had been employed as the court architect and was soon put to work designing an appropriate new haunt for young queen.

The result of Salucci’s work was a neo-classic rotunda with an airy, arching dome inspired by Rome’s Pantheon. Towering Corinthian columns, stucco rosettes, and marble statues all of the palest hues reflect peace and rest as the dome’s incoming sunlight is subdued to a gentle glow. Warmly detailed cast iron accents the coolness of the circular room and is used for the doors, window frames, and a ventilated portion of the floor directly under the soaring dome. Since Katharina was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, Wilhelm made sure that this aspect of his wife’s existence was also remembered with fitting icons and services. Even to this day, Orthodox worship is conducted in the chapel once a year on Whit Monday. Katharina quietly sleeps below in the chapel’s dark crypt, surrounded by a massive white sarcophagus, where she patiently waited for Wilhelm to join her 45 years later. Their daughter, Marie, lies nearby and remains the only other soul in the tomb. Although the crypt is simple and unadorned in décor, the cast iron floor above allows light to pour in and paint decorative patterns on the cold stones that support the chapel’s foundation. Since this iron floor/ceiling lies right under the dome, the royal couple enjoys an everlasting view of the heavens.

In addition to being a monument of love and Italian architecture, the chapel is something of an acoustical phenomenon. Sounds originating in the crypt reverberate off the hard stone walls as well as travel up through the cast iron floor to bounce around the spacious dome. Secondary echoes from the crypt also travel skyward to create deafening slap-echoes which live several seconds before dissipating. This amazing sound effect brings an unusual energy and life to a place enveloped in death and remembrance.

On its isolated peak on Wuerttemberg Hill, the memorial chapel leaves the visitor with a profound sense of marital love. Visible from even miles away, the structure immortalizes one man’s devotion to his wife. Romantic, too in the sense that the pair have this secluded spot to themselves forever.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Tuscan State of Mind

Sometimes traveling isn’t just about going to a destination; it’s a state of mind. Physically, I’ve been trapped in South Carolina for seven months now while mentally I try and put myself back in my favorite European places. One of my very favorites is the Tuscany region of Italy. While the city in South Carolina is a blistering desert of concrete, Tuscany radiates a rejuvenating warmth that washes over you like the rolling green of the hills.

Since I’m currently unable to experience the area in person, I can only do what I can to substitute the experience. CDs full of pictures taken during my travels bring back stifled laughs and fond memories. The coffee table books I’ve collected over the years are so full of intense color and vivid landscape scenes that it makes my ache even worse. I even read “Under the Tuscan Sun” this week (which isn’t done justice by the movie). Mayes is such a descriptive writer. She does such a perfect job bringing the area to life and I believe, deserves much credit for putting Cortona on the map. Her book stirs memories of my one day in this little town – hot chocolate and pastries at a little café in the morning, gelato under a patio umbrella in the pouring rain, and linen shopping after the sun triumphed over the stubborn clouds. It almost makes me forget that my ‘gelato’ is now Eddy’s or something from Dairy Queen.

I also try to substitute with cooking – of course, I’m far from the authentic cuisine I once savored in the local family-owned restaurants. Tortellini al forno, penne al’arabiatta, even plain old spaghetti marinara is a work of art in Tuscany. I throw basil around like it’s going out of style, get all giddy when I find a sweet gorgonzola or pecorino cheese at the grocery store, and keep Verdi on full volume while I create my own personal Italy in the kitchen. Fortunately, I’ve been able to bring back the very best extra virgin olive oil in the entire country – La Macchia. The green, aromatic oil tastes so fresh and so light that you taste what you are meant to taste – the fruit of the olive tree – and not something reminiscent to wheel bearing grease. So even if my bruschetta is made from imported North Carolina tomatoes, South Carolina french bread, parmesan from Kraft, and dried basil from a lousy little plastic jar (out of fresh basil again…), I still have my beautiful drizzling Tuscan olive oil.

Italians also understand and appreciate the concept of ‘breaks’ (and not the 15 minute kind). Time doesn’t rule a Tuscan’s day, rather it revolves around life at the moment. I rush from one end of my current hometown to the other, running errands and trying to make it to appointments on time – in Italy, being late is ‘normale’. And when it gets to lunchtime, there’s no rushing through the meal and then jumping back into a schedule. Between the shining sun at its zenith and a full stomach that’s pulling you into a food coma, the day calls for a siesta. This ingenious concept not only refreshes the body but it literally pulls your mind into another world. Why fret about the next two hours when everyone else’s life has also come to a relaxing standstill? Daydream, watch the tall grasses blow in the wind, or drink a cappuccino among friends with a vineyard as a backdrop. Until the notion of a daily siesta takes hold in America, I attempt to create my own with plastic patio furniture and a Coca-Cola…that is, until the phone starts to ring with endless telemarketers anxious to sell me siding or refinance my mortgage.

There are just some places that feed your soul and remain in your heart no matter where you go. The rise and fall of the graceful hills, the glittery silver-green leaves of the olive trees, the way the aged bricks glow in the last rays of the evening sun all call me back for more. In the meantime, though, I’ll remain in a Tuscan state of mind.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Oberammergau: Devoted to a Passionate Promise

The little village of Oberammergau is more than just another charming German town. It’s a place where history is full of faith and sincere gratitude. It’s a place that oozes of timeless moments. And it’s a place where a promise to God has been kept for almost 400 years. Oberammergau is truly the soul of Bavaria.

Located in southern Germany not far from the Austrian border, Oberammergau is adorably charismatic and enchanting. Streets are lined with half-timbered houses whose flower boxes are exploding with brilliant red blooms. Many of the buildings are adorned with ‘lüftlmalerei’ – ornate fresco-like paintings on the outside walls, meant to display the residents’ religious beliefs or family occupation. Since Oberammergau is a deeply religious town, many of the paintings depict saints or other characters from the Bible. However, two houses – nicknamed the ‘Red Riding Hood House’ and the ‘Hansel and Gretel House’ – are colorfully painted with children and are said to have inspired the classic fairytales of the same name.

Oberammergau is also home to some of the most talented woodcarvers in Germany. These thriving little businesses offer exquisite hand and machine-cut plates, bowls, decorative items, toys, and religious icons. Visitors can not only browse a shop’s selection but observe as the resident master creates a work of art out of a simple block of wood. The fresh scent of sawdust and wood chips linger in the air around the stores as if drawing customers in with a signature perfume.

Despite all of its charm and beauty, the magnetism of Oberammergau is its emotional Passion Play. Back in the dark days of the Thirty Years War, the little town watched as Europe fell victim to an even harsher enemy – Plague. This menace brutally ravaged home after home, community after community, city after city and leaving almost no one in its wake. As this Black Death crept over Oberammergau’s borders and her population started to feel its grip, the town cried out to a higher power for help. Not wanting to be obliterated as other places had been, the citizens made a solemn promise to God – the desperate prayer of a desperate people. They swore that if God saved their town, they’d reenact the story of Christ’s death and resurrection every ten years as a commemoration of His mercy. They made this ultimate deal in 1633 and by 1634, they were ready to make good on their bargain. Although Oberammergau lost some to the deadly disease, the town as a whole escaped extinction and the Passion Play began its long-running history. Its first performance was held in the town cemetery, perhaps so even the plague’s final victims could look upon this promise upheld. Even now in these modern times where religion sometimes falls in the cracks, the citizens of Oberammergau refuse to tempt fate and remain faithful to their ancestor’s word. Their beautiful rendition of ‘the greatest story ever told’ runs a whopping six hours and is performed in an open-air theater through all kinds of weather.

Picturesque and eternally grateful, Oberammergau takes its promises very seriously. The next ‘installment’ of that promise is scheduled for May-September 2010.