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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

A Danube Journey Day 8: Nuremberg and a Long Coach Journey

It is raining again. At Nuremberg we disembark and are bussed to the city centre. We are told we have 40 minutes before we leave for Prague. 40 minutes in Nuremberg! I have been here before, 20 years ago, when I spoke at an ecumenical conference. I'd taken the train from Ostende and loved that journey across Belgium and Germany. It was December, and all of Germany seemed lit up with coloured lights: no other country does Advent and Christmas so well. In Nuremberg's main square there was a Christmas Fair, a Christkindlmarkt. Market stalls sold sweetmeats and exquisite Christmas decorations; a choir sang Advent and Christmas music; families with young children wandered contentedly around in the crisp frosty air, many enjoying Lebkuchen washed down with Gluwein. At the heart of the square was the Christmas tree and next to it the Christkindl, the Christ Child in his crib surrounded by angels and shepherds with Mary and Joseph looking tenderly on. Today I'm reminded of that visit.

In 40 minutes, it is possible to visit two medieval churches nearby. Both are Lutheran, and I'm astonished at the quantity and the quality of the sculptures, mainly 15th to 17th century. Lutheranism was never iconoclastic in the way that Calvinism could be. The late medieval Calvary in St Seebald's reminds us of the quire screen in the Cathedral at Lübeck: an entire theologia crucis is written into the delicately drawn faces of the suffering Lord, his Mother and St John. I am not sure I would make a very good Lutheran: their liturgy is often long on words and short on symbolic actions, I sometimes feel. Yet I love worshipping in their churches where a reverent medieval piety is married to an elegant simplicity accompanied by great music. I think these 40 minutes have not been wasted.

We leave the towers and spires of the old town behind as the coach leaves for the autobahn. The suburbs of Nuremberg seem never-ending. At last we find the motorway and head east out of Germany. It is still raining. The Oberofälzer Wald presents an ocean of trees and forests through which we sail like a land cruiser. We reach the Czech border. Where once the iron curtain fell, we drive through almost without noticing. For travellers, the Schengen Accord has created a Europe without frontiers. That is an astonishing achievement, given our fractious European history. We should pay attention when we cross national borders if only to recognise that in the modern world, this global village where our lives are so interconnected, the idea of national frontiers seem (to me) anachronistic. 

Except for the UK and Ireland which are not signatories to Schengen, another example of how out of step we are with almost every other European Country. If asked how I describe my identity, I say that I feel European first, British second and English last. This must be due to my mother's German-Jewish origins: as fugitives from Nazi tyranny, she and my grandmother gave me the strongest possible sense of belonging to an entity bigger than nationhood. And as a Jewish-born Christian believer, the ultimate human community with whom I identify is nothing less than a worldwide people of faith and hope. Of that, a Europe that is home to people of many faiths and cultures could be a wonderful symbol of emerging worldwide community. An offshore island that is more and more defensive towards Europe has little to contribute to that vision. 

In the Czech Republic it stops raining. We arrive at Prague and catch a first glimpse of its beautiful city-centre before being installed in a large modern hotel on the 21st floor. It is as different from the cruise ship as it could be, and this sudden fracture of shipboard intimacy is disorientating. We have a magnificent view - but not of the historic city, rather its commercial and residential quarters. There is a large conference centre in the foreground with a metro station immediately below. Traffic queues on new roads that entwine round car-parks and high-rise apartments. We could be in any modern western European city. 

This sense of familiarity is something to notice. Unlike Budapest or Bratislava, Prague feels western. That surprises me, given that it was once the capital of one of Eastern Europe's most repressive communist regimes. Perhaps it always did look west, despite the Cold War, particularly fertile soil in which a Prague Spring could happen. For this has always been a devoutly catholic city, its proud medieval buildings dressed up in imperial Habsburg attire. We look forward to walking the streets tomorrow to find out. 

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