Two of Central Europe’s most fascinating cities, and a cruise between the two to view sights which are not on the usual tourist trail.
Firstly the journey is not as easy as it sounds as the cities are not directly linked. Is it the Voltava? Is it the Elbe? Is the Havel? Or is it a canal? The answer is, of course, all three, as central Europe is fortunate in having an intricate and complex system of inter-connected waterways which not only take much traffic off the motorways but provide people like ourselves the opportunity to glide through lush green countryside, with deafened birdsong, splendid architecture, fine art and good company.
Prague, what a wonderful place with its crown of cathedrals and palaces atop Hradčany hill and the bridge on everyone’s tick list, the Charles Bridge. Thronged with tourists, cyclists, drinkers, pickpockets and stone saints, it is indeed a sight but only one of the many. Have you seen the silver statue of St John Nepomuk in St Vitus cathedral? It is 30 feet high! Have you seen the pair of magnificent Canalettos in the Lobkovitz palace, or the Strahov monastery, or the cakes in the Art Nouveau Palace Hotel. You didn’t? Well, there is always next time.
Next port of call, Dresden, to be exact, and a stop at the first of the plethora of palaces created by that glutton for architecture, and much else besides, Augusutus the Strong. Pillnitz. Here are the water-steps leading to this Chinese-inspired summer residence confected by the ever-creative Mr Pöppelman, Augustus’s architect. Lilacs in profusion, mandarin ducks waddling by the lake and a delicious tea pavilion with Adamesque plasterwork on the interior. In the town itself where do you start? It being Tuesday, the Green Vaults with their staggering display of jewels and “objets” is closed, so I make for the collection of Meissen porcelain displayed, most stylishly, in two pavilions of the Zwinger. Not just the products of the local Meissen factory, (started in the reign of Augustus) but a bewildering collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelain for which Augustus had a voracious appetite. So much so that he once swapped a regiment for 12 Chinese porcelain jars. One wonders what the Court of Human Rights would say about that! One has to go to Meissen if porcelain is your “thing”. Here again the profusion of quality and imagination is breath-taking. Within a few years of creating this new material, porcelain, in Europe, the artisans at the factory were creating with rudimentary equipment, works of art which make modern craftsmanship look slight. It is not all high-flown pieces, though, for the courts of
Europe, I particularly like this field-gun, yes, a porcelain field gun, made during World War One. There are three floors of the museum, containing a table centre-piece 8 feet high through to commemorative medallions in Böttger redware celebrating the opening the factory in 1710. Next time you are there do not forget the Albertinum, the rather overlooked Museum of Art which contains delights in sculpture as varied as Rodin and Gianbologna.
By way of a change the Hundertwasswer house in Magdeburg comes as a bit of a shock after the courtly refinements of Dresden. Constructed in 2005, this Green Citadel, (it is actually pink) enshrines in its construction everything that the exotically named Mr Hundertwasser espoused. There is not a right-angle, a regular shaped room or a perpendicular in the place. The building sprouts vegetation at every opportunity, and is supported on ceramic pillars. His life a contradiction in many ways, including death on the QE2.
And so to Berlin. Again so much to see, so much bewilderment, with renovated buildings interspersed with stark modern architecture not least the Reichstag itself. But here we concentrated on the Royal Village of Potsdam, and Sans Souci in particular. This aerial shot shows the Town Palace and immediate surroundings, but not two miles away is a whole conglomeration of royal edifices clustered around the meandering banks of the River Havel. Sans Souci is probably the best known, where Frederick the Great of Prussia, could “get away from it all” like Marie-Antoinette in her Trianon. This ochre domed confection contains fine Rococo interiors expressing the domestic side of the character of “Old Fritz”. Oddly, after many vicissitudes, Frederick was buried on the terrace of the palace along with his beloved dogs. It is customary to place a potato on his grave, as he was responsible for introducing the vegetable to Prussia as a staple for the diet. A King Edward, an appropriate potato, perhaps?
NICHOLAS MERCHANT WILL BE LECTURING IN EUROPE AND IN THE UNITED KINGDOM THROUGHOUT 2017