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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 9: Prague

This is no longer a Danube journey, more a Vltava one, but you feel the pull of the Danube here in Prague. The day dawns grey and cold. There will not be much of a Prague Spring today. We exchange some euros for Czech korunas (odd to be in the EU but not in the euro-zone). We buy day passes for the Prague transport system and head into the metro. It proves a pleasure to ride; indeed, everyone says how user-friendly and well-integrated public transport in this city is. We get off at the stop above Prague Castle with an unpronounceable name, planning to walk down to it. Here I get into difficulties and resorting to my iPhone and Google maps, fail to notice the lamp post I walk violently into. This is an almost exact repeat of what once happened on Luxor station when I had my eye glued to the camera viewfinder. That time I broke my leg, though I did not realise it until we were back in England and baffled by the pain and swelling that refused to subside. Today, once the horizon has righted itself, I shall suffer nothing worse than a big bruise over my eye. But it is not a good start to the day's sightseeing. 

We reach the Castle. At once it becomes clear that the epithet 'castle' creates entirely the wrong expectation. I should have learned from the opening sentence of Nikolaus Pevsner's entry on Durham in The Buildings of England. My memory is that it goes something like this: 'Durham is one of the great experiences of Europe to those who appreciate architecture. The combination of cathedral and castle set on their rocky hill surrounded by the river can only be compared with Avignon and Prague.' This is an acropolis on which is built a city within a city. Like Durham once, like Vézelay still, you enter a walled enclosure that is partly a fortified bastion, partly a sacred ecclesiastical and pilgrimage site, partly a seat of temporal power and authority, partly a working town where people live and ply their trades. Once we see it in that way, so familiar from home, its palaces, churches and streets make sense. Here in this Kremlin, church and state belong to a single organism

The hill top is crowded with tourists. We buy joint tickets that admit us to the important attractions, beginning with St Vitus' Cathedral. Its jagged profile is a classic of high gothic exuberance. We long for a Pevsner to take round with us to help us make sense of this fascinating church. For now, we are content to enjoy its magnificent medieval spaces and the Baroque splendour of its shrines and monuments. The throng swirls round the church, discreetly managed by a large army of security men and women; yet tourism has not eroded the cathedral's spirituality. Perhaps, like Durham, the memory of saints like Wenceslaus and Jan Nepomuk makes a difference to how we experience the place. They are not as ancient as Cuthbert and Bede, but they exert a powerful pull and sense of protection in this, the spiritual heart of the Czech lands. Opposite the newly restored 14th century Golden Porch, we enter the Old Palace, another fascinating building with a long history. And then the Romanesque Basilica of St George, a fine austere foil for the florid splendour of the Cathedral.

Off the hill, we walk round the New Town. It has started to rain, so we don't linger in the streets, except where there are arcades from which to admire elegant government buildings, church spires and domes, and ubiquitous trams - for this city is one of the best endowed in Europe when it comes to the flanged wheel. Trams and churches are both good for cold, wet sightseeing days. St Nicholas is one more in the series of outstanding Baroque churches we have visited on this journey; its monumental figures of the fathers of the eastern church flanking the high altar are one of many highlights. We look inside a few more and risk becoming intoxicated on too much Baroque on empty stomachs. It is time to eat, and here we find out how modest prices are in Prague compared to most other capital cities we know.

You don't associate the famous Charles Bridge with gunmetal skies and pouring rain. But it can be interesting to see so-called 'iconic' sites in other than picture-postcard conditions. The sculptures along the half-kilometre length of the bridge offer an education in theology and Central European history, and I wish we had time to examine them in detail. In the gloom, the statues, many blackened and eroded, take on a more severe character than sunny photos suggest: gauntly silhouetted against the sky, they seem to assert their religious seriousness as men and women of dogged faith and remind us that in a city with its turbulent history, they are not to be trifled with. The oldest and most revered is St John Nepomuk, Prague's turbulent priest who dared to cross an irascible king. He was hurled from the bridge to a watery grave in 1393 (on St Cuthbert's Day). His statue stands on the exact spot, and it is an old Prague custom to touch the sculpture as you cross the bridge. I watch a father lift his toddler son and guide his hands to where the stone is worn shiny and smooth from millions of pious strokes. It reminds me of Dijon's chouette, the sculpted owl on a church wall in a pedestrian alley, another city's much-loved emblem. Shouldn't every city have one? I ask myself what Durham's might be. The sanctuary knocker on the Cathedral's north door, perhaps. 

By now seriously wet, we walk through Old Town Square with its astronomical clock and visit the twin-spired Cathedral of Our Lady Before Tyn. Is there an end to the splendours of Prague's churches? Only Rome seems to compare for the sheer number of magnificent church buildings clustered together in so small a space. Unlike most of the other big churches, this one is free to enter, and no photography is allowed. People are sitting quietly and praying, while visitors walk round with a respectful air. I doubt that the authentic spirituality of this or any church could simply be the result of good management and visitor policies. It feels like a habitus, a hard-won way of being that certainly needs cherishing, but feels as though it has been indigenous here for a long while. I like to imagine that this is true of Durham too. 

We have had enough of the cold rain. We head back to the hotel for welcome tea and cakes. In the evening, we come out again, and at last it is dry, though we are not going to be granted the sunset I had romantically wished for on this last night of our holiday. We cross the Charles Bridge again and gaze up at the Castle on the skyline. Street musicians are playing, among them an elderly woman with a kind, beautiful face who is turning the handle of her barrel-organ. She meets our eye with a radiant smile as we give her something. We find a little crêperie in the shadow of the bridge and enjoy savoury pancakes and a local peasant wine. After these days when we have seen so much that is grand and at times overwhelming, this intimate human note seems the right way to say farewell to Prague, and to this absorbing journey of discovery. 

Tomorrow we need to be up early for the flight back to England, and home.

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. 

A Danube Journey Day 7: Regensburg and the Danube Gorge

There is talk of life after the ship. Yesterday we were given instructions by our tour leader about what will happen on when we disembark and are bussed to Prague: something about orange ribbons for this group and yellow ribbons for the other.... No doubt it will all become clear when the time comes. At breakfast guests are discussing the experience and comparing the Danube with other river cruises they have done. Our conversation partners think this ship is second to none, but have reservations about the river itself. They found their Rhine cruise more rewarding because, they say, there is more of interest to enjoy on the banks, and more traffic on the river itself than on the Danube. 'Those long boring stretches of forest - the Danube is a plain Jane among rivers compared to the Rhine' says one.

Meanwhile, the ship has sailed on through the night towards Regensburg. We are at the northernmost point on the Danube. We pass the huge folly called Valhalla, a copy of the Parthenon of Athens transplanted to the north shore of the Danube. I break away from breakfast to photograph it from a cold and rainy top deck. Its white marble gleams incongruously amid the lush dripping vegetation. But it creates a nice undulating reflection in the water which may prove worth getting damp for. 

This old imperial city escaped destruction in the war, so it has one of the best medieval town centres in Germany. We are moored downstream of the famous old bridge, but it's wreathed with scaffolding while repairs are carried out. So we won't get the famous view back from the bridge to the towers and spires of the city. I have worked out a circular walking tour (saves €18 on the official one) so we set off to begin at the Cathedral.

The Dom is an exquisite building. Its twin open work gothic spires are very German: echoes of Ulm, Cologne and Strasbourg. It is largely untouched by the Baroque embellishments you come to expect in Bavaria. In a crypt, Romanesque foundations and a couple of beautiful piers survive. The nave's noble proportions create a sense of peacefulness and harmony: you don't want to speak aloud in this holy environment. The medieval stained glass is outstanding. At the west end, in the centre of the nave, a huge bronze depicts a 19th century bishop kneeling in front of the crucifix, in itself perhaps a bit too rhetorical in taste, but effective in suggesting a sense of scale in this soaring gothic space. 

What moves us most is a small rough sculpture on the wall near the west door. It shows two women embracing, one very pregnant. The kiss on the lips is an audacious but endearing way of expressing the love of these two women, who must be the Blessed Virgin and her cousin Elizabeth at the Visitation. This naive but charming sculpture looks medieval to me, but who can tell? It is in the darkest corner of the building, so impossible to photograph without a tripod, though I try to steady the camera against the angle of a pier opposite. But a troupe of school children passes by, and I abandon the attempt. The memory will be enough.

Outside the Dom, a big stage is being erected. This is for the Katholischen Tag, a weekend of church-based activities inspired by the Berlin Kirchentag. We walk on into the heart of the Altstadt. By the Lutheran parish church we buy figs from a market stall. We visit another church, St Emmeram's, an abbey church at the core of a cluster of former monastic buildings that are now museums. This fascinating building has work of every age from early medieval to Baroque, including a beautiful Romanesque crypt. Then to the so-called 'Scottish Church', founded by Irish missionaries at the time of Columbanus. It has an amazing Romanesque North door, now glassed in to preserve it from erosion by wind and weather. 

It is a joy to roam the streets of the old city. As we reach the river again, we come across another medieval church dedicated to St Oswald. It is a pity that it's locked: we would love to know whether this is our Northumbrian Oswald or some other. A streetside Google search provides the answer and a lot more information besides. This is indeed our saint whose head lies interred with Cuthbert in the shrine at Durham Cathedral. It appears that alone among the North Saxon saints, he had a following in continental Europe in the Middle Ages. This is not principally because he instigated and promoted the Christian mission to Northumbria, but on account of his holy, chivalrous life which became an emblem of how a Christian knight should behave. In the brutalised era of the crusades, the memory of such a saint was evidently treasured. In Regensburg Cathedral, one of the medieval windows shows him feeding the poor in an episode related by Bede. 

The afternoon sees us on the coach for Kelheim. On the way we pass the house belonging to Pope Benedict XVI. As Joseph Ratzinger, he was a professor of theology at Regensburg. The coach slows to a pious crawl as our guide (an observant catholic) tells us reverently about it. It is now a museum devoted to his papacy. We walk through the undistinguished town and are regaled with the achievements of Bavarian King Ludwig I whose statue we pass. My memory of Bavarian history is sketchy, and I am prone to confuse this Ludwig with the mad Wagnerite of Neuschwanstein, a mistake our guide warns us severely not to make. 

This is the highest point at which the Danube is navigable by big ships like ours. So we board a smaller vessel to sail up the Danube Gorge. On the cliff top Ludwig I's monument to Bavarian freedom dominates. It commemorates the casting off of the yoke of Napoleon, but as one writer wittily observes, it resembles nothing so much as a carved gasometer. The river gorge is impressive, though we have to wrap up warmly as a fierce wind is blowing down it. The Danube is forced between high limestone cliffs in a narrow defile whose rapids, and bandits, made this a treacherous stretch of river for sailors bringing goods downstream to sell in the markets of Regensburg. A Franciscan hermitage is cut into the rock, a fitting place of prayer at a dangerous place. A small statue of the watery martyr St John Nepomuk stands alone on the rock face cutting a strangely comforting profile. Then the boat rounds a bend, the cliffs recede and we enjoy our first sight of the Weltenberg Monastery.

It is the oldest monastic site in Bavaria, founded like the Cathedral in Regensburg in the age of the Irish monks like Columbanus. These well-travelled men knew about the Egyptian desert monks and modelled their own religious practices on theirs. And while the Baroque buildings of Weltenberg are a world away from the desert hermits, the riverine site reminds me strongly of hermitages I have seen by the wadis of the Middle East. The rain starts to come down. Inside the courtyard, the scene is more like a bear garden than a monastery. A cafe under canvas is busy with large throngs of visitors. The place's claim to fame is that it brews its version of brown ale and has done this longer than any other monastic brewery. 

We head for the church. It takes a while for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. But then the extraordinary splendour of this building begins to be revealed. It is one of the best Baroque churches in Germany, created for the Benedictines by the Asam brothers who designed the more famous Asamkirche in Munich. One was a sculptor, the other a painter. The church is an ellipse with a small narthex at one end and the altar at the other. It is dedicated to St George whose colourful legend has fed to the full the imagination of the artists. This church is a perfect theatre, a drama of Ecclesia Triumphans, as we were reminded in a painting on the ceiling where we came in. But it's also a theatre of the soul, and in the exuberant profusion of sculpture and painting the message is the same: take religion to heart, listen, hear, obey, and let this foretaste of heaven inspire you to live in preparation for it. 

Our guide is good at explaining the complex symbolic world of this church but it needs longer than 20 minutes to do justice to it. The rain is unremitting. The group is despondent: it has forgotten what rain is like. We had expected to see more of the monastery than just the church, fine though it is. But apart from the museum and the shop, this appears to be the Weltenburg experience. Everyone heads for the tea tent. We joke with our guides about the English weather. I go back to the church.  Another English-speaking group has arrived so I listen to their guide and notice how good the acoustic in this building is. She starts with a joke that I can't believe I've never heard before. What Saint is always depicted with his mother in law? St George of course. But I have to think about it for a second.

I try to capture the marvellous trompe l'oeil effect the artists have created on the cupola above my head. Only it isn't a cupola at all: the ceiling is almost flat. One of the Asam brothers is shown leaning over the rim smiling down at us as from a distant balcony. It's pure magical realism. But it's likely that my snap-shot (which I won't dignify with the title of photograph - it's done in too much haste) will flatten out the curvature that has been so carefully contrived in this illusion. And that prompts the further question about this brilliant but seductive art. What is truth, and what is illusion? I want to say that Baroque tells lies for the truth's sake - like all art, of course, but there is something particularly blatant about the way Baroque does it. Romanesque and gothic seem more truthful, somehow, because their piers, arcades and vaults disclose their structural principles - and yet a great Romanesque space like Durham Cathedral still contrives to make itself look bigger than it really is. It's not just a question of the aesthetic. When we're talking about church architecture, it's fundamentally a matter of theology and spirituality. It would take a Von Balthazar to do it justice. But here is a note to self: research the theology of Baroque when you get home. Try to understand the principles on which St Paul's Cathedral is built, for there are illusions a plenty in that greatest of English Baroque churches. 

The ship is waiting for us at the entrance to the Rhine-Main-Donau canal. The original canal was an ambitious 19th century project deigned to allow cargo to be transported by water all the way from the North Sea to the Black Sea. But the narrow canal was unusable by the turn of the 20th century. The Nazis gave Europe her first motorways, and they also had ambitions to build a new canal across the watershed of Europe. It was only in the 1990s that the project was completed, a considerable engineering feat given the physical geography it had to traverse. So here is where we bid farewell to the Danube. The ship heads through the first lock less than a mile from the canal mouth. It's time for the farewell gala reception and dinner. The ship's crew are brought out one by one to be loudly applauded, and it is true that from bridge to galley, they have been outstanding. We say farewell to our fellow-passengers lucky enough to be cruising all the way to Amsterdam. Tomorrow we shall be back on dry land and head for Prague.

A Danube Journey Day 6: Germany and Passau

There is a lot of noise in the night, accompanied by lurid sodium lights behind the cabin curtains. This is due to the locks we have passed through, and to the industrial environment of Linz. It's a poetic name for a city, with the added lustre of having a Mozart symphony named after it, but the literature does not linger here and neither do we. No one seems to have slept well, so insomnia is a conversation topic at breakfast. There is smoked salmon to enjoy with our scrambled eggs, also much commented upon.  We lament the weight we must be putting on. 

The morning finds us gliding through a steeply wooded gorge. The river is narrower here, and not so energetic. It is not unlike the Durham river gorge, except for the profusion of evergreens and the houses with their large Alpine-style overhanging roofs. Onion dome spires slip into view, and gently out again. At the lock at Jochenstein, we notice a little shrine to the Virgin Mary perched on a rock at the end of a jetty. It's a reminder of the deep-rooted Catholicism of Austria and Southern Germany. The Rhine myth of the Lorelei singing from their rock to lure ships to destruction is told here too. In earlier times, there would have been dangerous rapids at these places, and boatmen would offer devout prayers to the Blessed Virgin for protection as they hurtled downstream on white water. At another lock there is a chapel where votive masses were once said for the same purpose. 

This stretch of the river marks the border between Germany and Austria. This was never a linguistic or cultural frontier, but across the Danube two world empires once faced each other: Prussia and Austria-Hungary. Today as we glide gently between two European nations, we learn of the EU election results across the continent. It is alarming that nationalist parties have made big gains almost everywhere, especially in our beloved France, seduced by the Front National into  blushing deep blue. In North East England, the region has returned two Labour members and one UKIP: not as good as I'd hoped, not as bad as I'd feared. 

On board ship, few seem to be much troubled by this news, even if they have heard it, though we talk to another couple from the North who share our dismay. The ship sails dreamily westwards. There is talk of playing quoits on deck, though we see no evidence that it happens. Novels are read, card-games played, snapshots taken, and in the library, jigsaws are worked on. Some speculate about Passau and what it will have to offer. But underneath the river's tranquil surface are powerful currents and dangerous shoals. All along its length the Danube calls for good navigational skills if ships are to avoid disaster. It's a grim metaphor of how Europe seems to be at the moment, just like it was a century ago and again in the 1930s. Someone tweets that in this Great War centenary year, it is a bleak irony that we are not remembering why the League of Nations was born. Here on the Danube, this river that has both divided and joined together continental Europe at different times, even the most superficial sense of history must make you wonder about the Eurosceptic amnesia that is overtaking the continent, and what the cost may turn out to be. How the peace-seeking founding fathers of the European project would lament this drift away from their noble vision. 

We leave chocolate-box Austria as we pass under a railway bridge by a grimy industrial town. This marks the point at which the Danube becomes a wholly German river. Germany is its birthplace, and it is German speaking culture that defines so much of its character. Along the bank runs a road called the Nibelungenstrasse, a reminder of 'holy German art'. It was news to me that the origins of the Nibelung sagas belong mostly not to the Rhine but to the Danube. It was Wagner, one of the 19th century's great myth makers, who transferred the legends northwards, perhaps because even he could not envisage Danube-Maidens singing rapturously about Donau-gold. It would have been nice if the ship had played excerpts from The Ring to give cultural depth to this Danube journey. Instead, we are treated to songs from the 50s and 60s which someone must think suits the age-group of the cruise. 

Some don't like their Danube trip sullied by industry and commerce along its banks. To me, it not only contributes variety and adds to the photographic possibilities: it also prevents the cruise from being simply a voyage through a theme park. Stretches of the river like the Wachau and the Danube Bend are (cliché alert) breathtakingly beautiful, but this great watery highway across Europe is so much more than that. It's important for the integrity of travel, any travel, to try to see it in its wholeness. Durham Cathedral is magnificent on its own, but it is all the better for being understood against its wider background of the industrial North East, the pit villages and their mining traditions. As a bishop said to me in my first year in Durham, attend the Miners' Gala service and understand what the Cathedral is really about. 

No sooner are we in Germany than the ship rounds a bend and Passau comes into view. Here is another city that needs to be approached by water to get a sense of its historic importance as well as its incomparable setting. It stands at the confluence of three rivers, the Danube, the Inn and the Ilz. From a distance, it sits above the water like an improbable vision of towers and onion-domed spires, a heavenly Jerusalem surrounded by the rivers of Eden (well, three of them), the waters of life. The old city with its cathedral is built on a peninsula, like Durham. Also like Durham, its bishopric had palatinate powers, and in a final Durham correspondence, the bishop lived in a grand castle, the Veste Oberhaus that stands guard over the Danube-Inn confluence. Our ship parks directly below this striking bastion. Once off the gangplank and we are on to the cobbles of the medieval city's streets.

Passau is full of good things, but the Cathedral outshines them all. Like Melk, it is exuberantly Baroque, but there is a lightness and restraint at Passau that allows the outstanding spatial awareness of the Baroque style to be seen to full effect. Baroque is often supposed to be a decayed Renaissance style in which the understanding of space and the way different volumes interact with one another has been sacrificed to a busy profusion of detail which, however fine in itself, has compromised the unity and integrity of the architecture. I don't see it that way. To me, Baroque is a theatre of illusion, an intelligent and subtle manipulation of space to exalt its dramatic qualities.  Scale and perspective are everything: a great Baroque church should beckon to the imagination and invite the worshipper to give it full reign. No wonder the Jesuits fell for it in such a big way (perhaps our young guide at Melk didn't quite appreciate this when he jokingly said he would rather be a Jesuit than a Benedictine). Perhaps it's more surprising that the Benedictines in Southern catholic lands fell in love with Baroque as well. But apart perhaps from Ottobeuren and the incomparable Asamkirche in Munich, I have never seen it done so well as here. 

One detail touches me. At an altar to St Joseph we see a 17th century painting. It's of no great merit, but its subject matter is unusual. It shows St Joseph and the Holy Child in a loving embrace. No doubt it was commissioned for this altar. My book Lost Sons was about fathers and sons in the Bible and this painting might have made an ideal cover for it. I try to remember whether I've ever seen Joseph and Jesus as the centrepiece of an old master before. Nothing comes to mind. 

Back to Baroque. It doesn't please everyone. I overhear another visitor say, pointing to the marvellous pulpit festooned with gilded angels and saints, 'I know what I would do with all that gold, and it wouldn't be building temples like this'. Another visitor from a different ship asks if we speak English, and can we please explain why that man is carrying a scallop shell. So we talk about St James and the pilgrimage to Santiago. Then he starts comparing Passau with Melk. 'An obscene and tasteless waste of money' he says, and makes a gesture. I protest that Baroque is playful and celebratory but he is not having it. 'To blow all that cash in that way - it's like a spoiled child with a paintbox who's emptied all the contents at once without caring'. Out of my hearing, though still in Jenny's, he likens it to a brothel. I ponder for a bit. I've learned that this sort of dismissive comment, however crudely put, does sometimes hold a kernel of truth - our young guide at Melk was perhaps saying something similar, if a bit off-message. I sometimes say at Durham that if we claim to follow the humble Carpenter of Nazareth, we should not have too easy a conscience about our great cathedrals. 

We walk through the medieval city. The Pfarrkirche of St Paul is fine too, more lightly Baroque, with elegant ebony woodwork against which the profiles and colours of the sculptures stand out to brilliant effect. There is a modern side-chapel for silent prayer, a womb-like cave with stylish light-oak seats that are among the most comfortable we have sat in, and much better for prayer and meditation than most church pews. In front of the Rathaus whose ornate tower presides over the waterside, children are playing.   Visitors are photographing something on the wall. It is another hydrometer, showing the levels to which the river has flooded in recent centuries. Last year, 2013, it rose to an extraordinary 4 metres above ground, nearer 6 or 8 above normal. This has only been exceeded once in recorded history, in 1801. But no doubt he inhabitants of Passau are learning that with climate change, it is bound to happen again. Soon, probably. 

I reckon I have time to climb up to the Veste Oberhaus on the opposite bank for the view. The rush hour traffic swirls relentlessly round the end of the suspension road bridge where I have to cross. I head up the steep steps noting a plaque paying tribute to Prince Ludwig. Near the top, there is a lightning flash. The sky to the east is ominously black. I take a few photographs of the old city below, don a lurid purple waterproof to cover my camera, and head back down in haste. It will not be long before the ship will set sail. Gin and tonic awaits.

A Danube Journey Day 5: Dürstein and Melk

On a beautiful morning, we set off to climb up to the ruins of the Burg that perches above the little village of Dürnstein. It is a steep but rewarding clamber up hundreds of steps through deciduous woods where wild poppies bring colour to rocky outcrops. This castle has a place in English Plantagenet history because Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned here as he tried to get back to England during the crusades. The view up and down the valley is magnificent. The church presides over the village, its blue and white icing-sugar tower a beautiful foil for the red roofs of the houses that cluster around it. A dirty barge chugs lazily upstream trailing a long wedge of silvery wake in the brown waters. We exchange polite Grüss Gott greetings as we walk, sometimes answered in kind or with a friendly 'Morning'. On the way down, we pause to read the interpretative plaques that line the route. It is very well done. Here is tourism with intelligence. 

The village is one of those show-pieces that set out to please tourists. It draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, many of them on day trips from Vienna. Cruise ships like ours berth there. Every shop sells souvenirs, including jams and liqueurs made from the ubiquitous apricot that is this region's speciality. Purveying olde-world charm is a marketing tactic that always works and it's no wonder that we all fall for it. Durham has it to some extent, Vézelay and Mont Saint Michel even more, so we are used to its devices and desires; yet at the same time it provides employment and livelihood to local people for whom, but for tourism, these remote parts of Central Europe might well be suffering socially and economically, even in affluent Austria.

I go back to the church we called in on before the climb. It is a former Augustinian Abbey, a gem of pure baroque architecture and art. The elaborate decoration is colourful and playful, yet the intimacy of the church keeps the baroque tendency to excess in check. It's a place where you can pray. A walk through the monastic buildings leads to a little terrace on the side of the tower. Here you are in the company of sculpted saints and angels, and of carved cherubs who compete for space to enjoy the beautiful view of the river. While architects and art historians rightly sing the praises of Ottobeuren, Vierzehnheiligen and Melk, this little church shows Baroque at its very best, in its mastery of scale, its theatre of illusion, its focus on detail and its spirituality of joyful celebration.

Melk is our destination on a hot afternoon. It has long been on my list of must-see great churches. There is a splendid vista from the river as we approach this proud, ancient monastery. Like Durham, it is built on an acropolis, 'half church of God, half castle 'gainst the....', or, if not a castle, then a palace for emperors and kings who came here on pilgrimage with their retinues and expected to be treated with palatial honours. This doesn't by itself explain the ambition with which Melk was rebuilt as a masterpiece of baroque in the early 18th century. Its renaissance as one of the most splendid high places of Christendom owes more to the defeat of the Turks, and the aspiration to celebrate the glories of the Catholic Church. This it does with an élan few other places can muster.

Our guide is a young man who cannot be more than 20. He is exemplary, without doubt the best we have had so far.  What makes a good guide? This is something I have pondered in Durham where we have some excellent guides. He or she should: be knowledgable (of course); be enthusiastic about their place; have insight about its meaning, not just its heritage; be a very good communicator (in the case of foreigners like us, this includes fluency in the language); manage the time well and know how to move people through a site courteously but efficiently; and - an elusive skill this - know enough about their guests to intuit how much or how little to convey. In Pilgrim's Progress, travellers must enter the House of the Interpreter if they are to understand the landscape they are passing through. Interpretation is a tricky assignment. But this school-leaver has what is needed, as well as the personal charm that always helps. 

The tour through the monastery begins in an enormous elegant courtyard from which we access the guest quarters where imperial visitors were housed. Everything is on a monumental scale. We reach a beautiful plaster-vaulted corridor fully 200 metres in length, a lot longer than our ship. The state rooms have been converted into an exhibition that presents a time-line of the monastery's history. It begins with St Benedict and the first word of his Rule for Monks: Höre, 'Listen!'. This word is projected on the end wall and is visible the whole length of the exhibition. The first room is devoted to  Benedict and his vision of monastic life, the next to the foundations of Melk in the 11th century and the third to the Romanesque and Gothic periods. The fourth room brings us to the Baroque era and the creation of the present monastic buildings. Here, the exhibits are shown in a hall of mirrors, no doubt a reference to Versailles' Hall of Mirrors. There is a threefold message here: that the Monarch who is honoured here is no mere Sun King but a divine Ruler; that baroque plays with illusion for the sake of truth; and that 'we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face', a text that is displayed as you gaze around the room. 

After an excursus on the Enlightenment, the exhibition ends with the present and the activity of the monastery today. Here, our guide tells us that he recently graduated from the high school that is run by the monks and will shortly go to university at Vienna to study theology. Since he has spoken with such eloquence about the religious life, I ask him whether he is a postulant at Melk. He laughs and says that if he were to opt for the religious life, it would not be in these opulent Benedictine surroundings, but in a more radical order such as the Jesuits. The question we don't pursue is whether the Rule doesn't itself call for a far simpler kind of community life than the 18th century monks at Melk were capable of understanding. What would Benedict make of this wondrously exuberant temple of art and culture? Possibly he would be disturbed by it. But might the same not be said of the great Romanesque Benedictine communities like Cluny and Glastonbury and Durham itself? This was precisely the 12th century Cistercians' quarrel with the Benedictines. Anyone from Durham can't have too easy a conscience about this story. 

Nevertheless, the community here should be given full marks for the way they have told their story. This is far from being a dry record of historical information laced by a surfeit of artefacts. It's clear that someone has thought hard about how to present the spiritual meaning of a community's search for truth: at every turn, the visitor is invited to think about how this place and the investment made in it down the ages can speak to people today. Like the messages carried by Baroque angels and putti on the walls of the church exhorting the worshipper to attend to truth, the exhibition plays on the meaning of that single word Höre from initial invitation to final reflection. Evangelism through art and heritage: I have not seen it done better. 

The ship sets off and enters a lock. The architecture of Danube locks is functional. The lines of the control rooms, hydro-electric dams, sluices and long jetties is severely plain, recalling us to functionalism after an afternoon of Baroque fantasies. You might even call it Cistercian: on this beautiful river, a lock has a job to do and there is no concession to charm. I look back to the east, and there, floating serenely above this brutal symbol of modernity stands the monastery of Melk high on its hill. The western towers and central dome are brilliantly illuminated by the setting sun, like an apparition of Jerusalem the Golden. The vision fades as the ship sails on westwards. Soon, Melk has become a memory. And it is time for dinner. 

A Danube Journey Day 4: Vienna

Buses will take us into Vienna. This tour is included in the cruise, which means that most people will be doing it. While we wait, there is talk about the food on board; not everything is to everyone's satisfaction. Maybe these are hardened cruise-cognoscenti. We are surprised: to us, everything seems pretty good. The meals are ample, with plenty of healthy options. Just for the record: there is coffee and pastries for early risers, breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and sandwiches, dinner and late night collations. But as I noticed yesterday, the normalising of this on-board total community makes us pay attention to the immediate and give it precedence over everything else. That includes the rhythm of meal times. I've often heard it said that food becomes an obsession when there is too little of it. The same is true when there is too much: it punctuates the day in a way that dominates life, perhaps because on a cruise boat, between excursions, there is not a lot to do but think about the next meal. Daily life is as ritualised as a Benedictine monastery. And even the excursions have something of a ritualised quality about them. Duty must be done: the key sites glimpsed (I don't say visited), the key photos taken as evidence that obligation was fulfilled; but there must not be too much of it. Tour companies understand exactly how much heritage, art and history the English tourist will put up with, and never exceed it by a hairbreadth.

We have worked out a tactic for excursions. Most of our fellow cruisers are ready ahead of time and hasten to get on the buses. But we have discovered that if we wait for the last bus of 3 or 4, it is inevitably less than half full.  This makes for a more pleasant journey and a more relaxed sightseeing group, easier to control in a crowded city centre. 

But 'doing' a city like Vienna in under 3 hours is a challenge. How does a leader try to do something intelligent in that absurdly brief time? I can't help thinking that visitors ought to be stretched a little more on trips like this, at least enough for us to feel we've earned the next meal. Most of all, it's a discourtesy to the great city herself. I wonder what value we place on heritage if this is the best effort we can achieve. True, our guide, whose day-job is to create theatre sets and who evidently loves this city, tells us a lot about Vienna's sublime architecture, stops frequently to point out who designed or lived in this building or that, then laughs apologetically and says that of course this wasn't part of the tour. Apart from his dismissive take on religion, he is trying to convey something of the rich complexity of this city, perhaps even hinting at the shadow that lies somewhere near its heart. But it can't be done in the time. And it is lost on most of us who inhabit simpler worlds untroubled by Freud and psychoanalysis, the paradoxes of baroque, the decay of the imperial dream and the Viennese' beautiful death-wish. 

We are shown the site of the house where Mozart lived at the end of his life. A Masonic hall is almost opposite (our guide doesn't mention The Magic Flute but its Masonic theme surely owes something to the dying composer's near neighbour). At the Cathedral, we are given 10 minutes inside, and that too is a concession, 'not part of the tour'. We walk through the Hofburg, have a minute or two on the Habsburgs, mention the Spanish Riding School and nod in the direction of Empress Maria Theresa.  The highlight of the morning may prove to have been Kaffee und Kuchen at the Café Central. Enjoyable, but it is not as if anyone is hungry for Viennese chocolate cake or Apfelstrudel. 

After a brief morning's excitements in Vienna, life on board settles back into its gentle routine. There is an ice-cream tea to look forward to, and Norman our Geordie entertainer is organising sports-lite on deck. There are two locks to navigate, and a thundery shower causes a frisson of excited comment. The top deck where positions had been taken up in the sunshine empties. I have it all to myself and try and capture the gorgeous skyscapes on my camera. 

Cue excursus on cruising and photography. The light is marvellous, as every water-borne painter and photographer knows. 'Luminous' is a cliché but there isn't a better word. Sky and water make an unbeatable combination, and I am keen to do it justice. The great thing is that the gentle movement of the boat allows compositions to take shape on front of your very eyes (I mean the viewfinder). You observe some feature in the landscape - an onion-shaped church tower against a forested background, a hill-top castle, the uncompromising starkness of a lock - and allow different compositions to settle in the viewfinder as the perspective slowly changes. You can take a dozen images from the same spot, see which has worked best and delete the rest.

I am especially aware of this today as we glide past the Benedictine monastery of Klosterneuberg. It is one of famous baroque abbeys of Austria, like Melk which we shall visit later. Alongside is the even more famous palace. The twin spires of the Abbey and the palace's green copper domes can be seen up and downstream for many miles. But unfortunately (for photographers on cruise ships), the course of the river was changed when it was dredged to allow big-ship navigation in the industrial era, and this means that when the monastery is at its nearest it can only just be glimpsed through a screen of trees. You have to pick your moment if you want a shot of the twin spires. So I gauge likely gaps in the canopy, and manage to get some images. They are not masterpieces, but maybe one will show well enough when uploaded to the computer. 

Dinner will be soon. This is the cue for a good moment on the top deck. It quickly empties again as our travelling companions disappear below deck to prepare for this high point of the day. I am left, as I imagine, quite alone. But then I see that there is an elderly woman leaning over the starboard side gazing into the distance. The air is warm and calm, and the only sounds are the lapping of the river against the bows, and the bird song that breaks out from time to time. I do not think I had noticed her before today. I am touched by her stillness and her contemplative way of looking. I am moved to photograph her without her knowing, and then feel that some social contact is called for as a sort of surrogate permission. 

She is travelling alone, she says, because she prefers solitude. She is enjoying the new experiences, the sights and sounds of the cruise but thinks it is too easy to chatter about nothing at all, collapse into mental and spiritual indolence encouraged by too much to eat and a surfeit of needless wallpaper music. I warm to this woman's independent spirit, her inner freedom not to fall too easily into the role of 'tourist'. She helps me to see why I hate myself when I don the required accoutrement (big camera round my neck etc) and play this tourism game. When I led a pilgrimage to Israel-Palestine in 2000, I was the only member of a large group not to take (or even possess) a camera. I kept a journal instead. That gave me the independence I looked for. But on this cruise, my behaviour is more conventional. I am simply another tourist, like everyone else, even if I want to be a pilgrim. This moment draws me back into one of what I believe is one of the reasons why travelling is not only enjoyable but nourishing: we glimpse new horizons, have our imagination stretched, gain new insights, and understand others and ourselves better. Ought it not to symbolise our lifelong journey into God, like the disciples walking the Emmaus Road on he first Easter Day? I have craved beautiful churches to spend time in, like a thirsty soul craves water, but this radiant evening shows me how any aspect of this Danube journey can be the same 'time of gifts'.

As we dine, great cumulus clouds tower above us. Their coppery edges presage another storm. When it comes, it is dramatic and brings torrential rain. Looking out from the comfort of the ship, we see crew members running on the dark quayside, bent double in the storm, lashing the vessel to its night mooring. We have arrived at Dürnstein. 

Thursday, 29 May 2014

A Danube Journey Day 3: Bratislava to Vienna

Books and travel literature are a must for every voyager. At least, I assume this: how much more can be gleaned from visiting new places when a reliable guide prepares you for them - and then helps you to remember them well. Egeria, that well-travelled woman of late antiquity, knew this when she wrote her famous guide to the holy sites of the Middle East to encourage Christian pilgrims. Artaud's guide to the pilgrimage to Compostela is another medieval example. When you are cruising and have only a few hours to spend in each site, possibly never to return in your lifetime, a good guide helps to make the most of a brief visit. 

So I've brought with me two books on the Danube. Neither is a guide book in the strict sense; both are more in the nature of cultural histories and geographies, but I've found that their take on the river is stimulating and suggestive. Claudio Magris' book Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea is an eccentric piece of writing, but it sparkles brilliantly with insights laced with quotations from writers ancient and modern. Here is a man who loves the river and the lands it flows through, not least in the way he sees so much in its course that speaks in a symbolic way about the issues of our time. The other book acknowledges its debt to Magris while staying more in the mainstream (as it were) of travel writing, Andrew Beattie's The Danube: A Cultural History. But it too is serious literature rather than a descriptive travelogue, and I've learned much from it. And I've also brought Patrick Leigh Fermor's classic A Time of Gifts which I loved when I read it years ago, and want to revisit for its Danube chapters. 

However, there doesn't seem to be much conversation on board about the places we are due to see. I find this lack of curiosity odd. I have seen one other guest reading a guide book to the Danube, and some others poring over the map in the lobby. Did I imagine that everyone would be sitting on deck reading Patrick Leigh Fermor and discussing the Ottoman Empire, Empress Maria Theresa, Austro-Hungarian politics, the Cold War, and the Danube's natural history and geology? It feels as though this little shipboard society is more interested in what is going on in our own midst. Our city is the ship itself: its passengers and crew, its daily routines and out-of-the-ordinary events: these are of much interest to everyone. I watch myself being drawn into this little world, hear myself taking part in its quotidian discourse. It's like being in one of Irving Goffman's 'total communities' where everyone lives, eats and sleeps behind the same walls. In these conditions people start behaving in distinctive ways. Prisons and psychiatric institutions were his famous examples, but a boarding school or a cruise ship (or as I found in another life, a theological college) could be others: anywhere that can become the proverbial goldfish bowl.

Bratislava is the next port of call. Beattie says that as a state capital city it's the poor relation of the others and its charms quickly wear thin. However, we find that it has pleasures to offer, even if these are modest compared to Budapest. A guide takes us up to the castle, the city's must-see tourist site, thought what must be seen is the view rather than the building itself. It has four tall turrets at the corners, hence its nickname of 'Bratislava's Upturned Table', an echo of St John's, Smith Square in London which is affectionately known as 'Queen Anne's Footstool'. It is Cistercian in its pure white simplicity. But the view is extraordinary. It embraces the paradoxes of the ex-Eastern Bloc countries. Across the Danube from the historic quarter are line after line of Soviet-style apartment blocks, from here presenting a dystopian vision of grim uniformity and decay. The bridge spanning the river has an enormous turret from which the load is cantilevered, straining back against the river-bank Atlas-like, as if to rise to the challenge of supporting this monumental weight. There is a revolving restaurant on top, from which the seamy south side of the river will be seen to even better effect.

The modern Slovak state parliamentary building is next to the castle. In front of the flight of stairs leading up to it, a forecourt is marked out by stone bishops' mitres embedded into the setts, a reminder that this was, and perhaps still is, a staunchly catholic nation that survived the years of cold-war oppression (and, its citizens might add, being yoked together in an unwanted late marriage with the Czech Lands). Not even in palatine Durham are mitres used so playfully. 

We walk down through the old town. By St Michael's gate, the bronze figure of St John Nepomuk smiles down at us. He is one of central Europe's great heroes: more of him in Prague. The streets are charming and animated. In leafy squares fountains cool the air. In the main piazza a wooden Trojan horse, a temporary art installation,offers a humorous foil to the spire of the Jesuit church. A Napoleonic soldier sculpted in bronze leans nonchalantly against a bench while tourists take it in turns to be photographed next to him. I decide to find my way to the Cathedral. A few metres outside the west door, traffic on a 4-lane highway obtrudes its century into quiet cobbled streets where priests roam in cassocks. The church itself has a beautiful green copper spire, and a fine flamboyant gothic interior. In the crypt, a colombarium holds the ashes of the worthy departed - and probably the quite ordinary too, judging by the naïve script with which their names are roughly inscribed on their final resting-places. 

The stretch of river from Bratislava to Vienna is punctuated by two main events. The first is the so-called Porta Hungarica, where the Danube leaves (as we are sailing upstream) the Eastern European lands and enters Austria. The castle of Devlin stands proudly on a bluff guarding this strategic gateway. In the middle of this beautiful medieval site, a functional 1960s or 70s building obtrudes crassly like the classic carbuncle. It looks derelict, but you never know in Eastern Europe. Was it, is it, a hotel or restaurant run by Intourist or its Czech equivalent? Or a frontier post perhaps? - for here, the Iron Curtain once crossed the river, and there were gantries for armed guards stationed at regular intervals in the forests along the northern bank facing Austria. 

Now we are back in the west. It is hard not to notice how much tidier the river banks are, how much greener. This is Lower Austria, the homeland of Haydn whose music echoes with the peasant melodies and rhythms of Slovakia. The country is uneventful. But near Vienna, we encounter our first lock. In fact, this is not the first on our voyage: that happened in the middle of the night downstream of Bratislava. We were dimly aware of lights and noise outside but missed the action. These giant locks on the Danube are a far cry from the intimate affairs you find on the Grand Union or Llangollen Canals. Some are a quarter of a mile long, and wide enough to contain two huge cargo boats side by side. What they lack in charm they possess in sheer monumentality. A vast quantity of water flows in and out of these locks every time they are used, but there is no detectable turbulence; the only movement you sense is the gentle rise of the boat up the lock. It is like being in a well-maintained lift. It calls for precision to line up our port side as close as possible to the concrete wall of the lock; so well is it done that you could not drop a scone down the gap. It is all managed electronically, while the captain, an inscrutable Russian, keeps a careful eye on proceedings, smoking a cigarette. 

And so we glide into Vienna. Or at any rate, its outskirts. Vienna is not like Budapest or Bratislava, making the most of its privileged riparian position. I have been to Vienna before, and never set eyes on the Danube. We are moored in the village of Nussdorf. Along the bank, a busy highway is supported on stilts, while S-Bahn commuter trains rush past. Here the Danube feels almost forgotten, a side-show to the true delights of Vienna's cultured city-centre which feels a long way from this backwater. On the north side of the river, away from the historic old town to the south, skyscrapers present the image of a contemporary capital city with an active commercial and intellectual life. Headquarters of international organisations have their home here. Vienna has been accused of being locked nostalgically into its imperial past. If that was true once, it is not true today.
Each night in the season, there is a concert in some historic venue in town, geared to the needs of tourists like us. 'Viennese' means Mozart and Strauss, a miscellany of favourites that always includes the Blue Danube Waltz. At €33 each, we give it a miss and spend €2.40 on tram tickets into the city centre. Riding trams is among the pleasures of European cities, and increasingly, UK cities too. I am proud to have been dean in a place (Sheffield) where there is a tram-stop named after the building it stops by - 'Cathedral'. Tram D takes us on to the Ring, the boulevard that encircles the centre along the line of the former city walls. The great buildings follow one another with bewildering speed. We get out at the Opera and walk along the Kästnerstrasse, one of Vienna's best shopping streets. It is pedestrianised, and thousands of people of every age are out in the mild evening air shopping (the stores are open though it is past 8pm), eating, drinking, enjoying street music and film, or simply wandering. It is exhilarating. 

A vast crowd is surging round the Cathedral. Inside, some kind of event is going on that involves coloured light and lively music. We fight our way in. A friendly young priest says Wilkommen. Hundreds of people of all ages are moving around the great space, some singing, sitting quietly, lighting candles. Coloured lights play over the gothic interior illuminating it in brilliant reds and greens and golds. We discover that this is the 'Nacht der Kirchen' when churches are open all night offering hospitality, music, arts, discussion and liturgy. The surging crowd looks largely like prosperous Western Europeans, presumably highly secularised, yet they seem to be rediscovering and joyfully celebrating their catholic roots, at least for the evening. Is it a Kirchentag or a Back to Church Night? If we tried this in Anglican cathedrals, would English people's vestigial Anglicanism come flooding back in the way it does in catholic Austria? It raises intriguing questions about implicit or 'folk' religion and how to tap into its potential. 

A Danube Journey Day 2: Budapest and setting sail

We are taken in buses round the sights of Budapest. Originally two cities like Manchester and Salford or Newcastle and Gateshead, I am having trouble remembering which one I am in. I decide that 'Pest is not West but is best' will do as a mnemonic.

But we must begin with the river itself. First, its colour. If ever there was an epithet based on wishful thinking, it is that the Danube is 'blue'. 'Beautiful', yes, but the colour is a consistent milk-chocolate, like a tidal estuary. This is always the case, it seems, but especially at this time of year when it is swollen by snowmelt. Someone tells us that Don-au is etymologically related to 'dun', as in cow, which says it all. Then there is its flow. It is nearly 200 yards wide at Budapest, yet this river does not drift languidly through the city like the London Thames. It is astonishingly fast, beating energetically against the boats and the landing stage. The Danube has spirit, more like a huge mountain torrent than a stately river that takes its time to travel. It does not intend to linger anywhere for long, not even in its greatest cities.

Our tour guide enthuses about the city. We are bombarded with facts about its history and monuments, too much to take in as the bus does its circuit. We get out at the Place of Heroes, a monumental piazza full of equine sculpture that celebrates Hungary's warriors. The bronzes are very fine and make a magnificent group. One of our group wanders off and there is worry about what has happened to him. A few telephone calls, and a couple of circuits of the piazza and he is reunited with us. Couriers must be used to this sort of thing, but when their charges include elderly people with minds of their own, it must make escorting a school group seem like child's play (as it were). 

We glimpse baroque facades, serious 19th century civic buildings, and a fascinating profusion of Art Nouveau and Déco. Structures from the Victorian age include Eiffel's characterful railway station and his elephant house at the zoo. There is too much 20th century socialist realism, much of it already looking the worse for wear. Yet the eclectic ensemble works, produces its own aesthetic of monumental buildings that create a largely harmonious whole. The next stop is the Fishermen's Bastion with its famed vista of the city. Like Montmartre, it shares the acropolis with a great church, St Matthias. Dedicated to Our Lady, it is named after one of Budapest's warriors who restrained the Ottomans from invading the city. When Hungary finally succumbed, it served for a while as one of the city's mosques; inevitably, it was drastically restored when it reverted to Christianity. Nevertheless (and despite the entrance fee) it is a noble building with a triforium successfully converted to a treasury museum full of beautiful things. 
From this summit, we can appreciate why Budapest is called the 'pearl of the Danube'. The panorama of the great river and its architecture is magnificent, with the Parliament building, directly inspired by the Palace of Westminster, resplendent. We pass an icon shop where we buy Hungarian crosses for the children. We wonder what to do with the our remaining 2000 Hungarian Forints. It sounds a lot but only amounts to a few pounds. If we ever come back to Budapest, they will no doubt have joined the euro by then. The charity box it will be then, or tips for the crew on board ship.

At lunch time we weigh anchor. Though we didn't arrive here by river as you are supposed to, at least we leave it that way. The bridges, churches and Parliament building are in a perfectly judged relationship with the river, as noble as London and Paris and perhaps better as the river has the width to set off monumental architecture to real effect; and also because there seems to have been some coherence in planning the development of the river frontages. They didn't just happen.

Upstream, we are back among the suburbs with rows of unlovely high-rise Soviet apartment blocks softened by shrubs on the river bank. Then it is forests, interspersed with the occasional dacha and its jetty, lost among a million trees. How empty this country must be. After lunch, people arrange themselves on deck to enjoy the sunshine. Paperback novels, magazines, and yesterday's papers are brought out. The afternoon settles into summer torpor, the gentle bass drone of the ship's engines offset by the trebles of bird song and the water lapping against the bows. We sense that it's the enjoyably lazy, sunny, life on board, rather than visiting interesting places, that is the real object of cruising. 

At Vac, the river has split into two for a while. A rusting car-ferry waits by the landing stage for passengers to carry to the other side. Baroque towers jostle for position on the skyline over the coloured frontages and red roofs of pretty houses. Only the prison jars with its uncompromising walls, barbed wire and observation towers. It was once an elite boarding school for girls founded by Empress Maria Theresa. In the Nazi and Cold War periods it earned an unenvied reputation as being one of the most dreaded places in Hungary. It is still a state penitentiary. Beyond, the river enters the Danube Bend that we saw from the aeroplane. This is a beautiful stretch of water where wooded hills force the river into a defile. The highlight is the ecclesiastical city of Esztergom, seat of the archbishopric of Hungary. The neo-classical cathedral sits on an acropolis directly above the river. It makes a fine sight that gets cameras clicking; whether it is more mausoleum than place of mystical wonder divides the travel writers. Perhaps it's one of those buildings you admire rather than love. 

As we go to bed, we see lights and towering cranes and the silhouettes of warehouses and industrial plants and docks. It must be the rust belt of Komárno. It looks faintly sinister by night, and possibly no better by daylight. On a river journey, you both see and don't see what you are passing by. You are close enough and move sufficiently slowly to take in a good deal more than, say, a passing motorist can do. But unless you actually stop, there is the odd feeling of glimpsing a chimera that comes and goes, emerges out of the future and recedes into the past. And afterwards, the chain of dream-like memories coalesces, melts into an impression of forests and hills and sky, and of course the river, this ceaseless traveller called the Danube that is like my own consciousness, and like time itself, an ever-flowing stream.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A Danube Journey Day 1: arriving at Budapest

I hope I don't regret this. I am posting a day by day blog of our recent cruise through Central Europe up the River Danube. We began in Budapest and ended in Nuremberg from where we travelled overland to Prague. This was a long-planned holiday organised by a well-known touring company. I wrote this blog as we travelled, without checking facts or sources. It is pure stream-of-consciousness. If you have done a similar journey and visited the places I describe, you may like to compare notes. I've tried to reflect as well as describe, for travel has a wonderful way of raising questions; but inevitably it will feel rough-hewn and perhaps a bit hasty. So much for the health warning. Here goes with Day 1. 


We can see the Danube as the plane comes in to land at Budapest. It swings round to the south in a great loop, the Danube Bend, having travelled from west to east since its birth in the Black Forest many hundreds of miles from here.

First impressions of a strange country begin at the airport. For the nation's capital, Budapest airport is surprisingly intimate: more like Newcastle than Birmingham or Manchester, let alone Heathrow. I notice the signs - bilingual of course, but what a language Hungarian is: all those consonants, and accents in strange places. There are no etymological landmarks, no familiar roots by which to triangulate and work out meanings. They say it's one of the most difficult languages in the world, like Basque, Turkish, or Finnish (to which it is related). By contrast, in downstream Romania, they speak the debased Latin of a former Roman province - easy enough to get by, they say, if you have a smattering of French or Italian.

We are rounded up and shepherded into a couple of buses. The drive into the city centre takes us  through the kind of colourless suburbs you come to expect in post-Soviet bloc countries. It reminds me of Moscow, whose vast banlieue seemed twenty years ago to be leached of vitality, where it was hard not to think that daily life was unremittingly hard work. 

Our courier gives us an informative whistle-stop tour of the history and culture of Hungary. The thrust of it is the extent to which these lands have been subject to the domination of others - centuries of Mongol, Ottoman and Hapsburg rule. There was a brief taste of freedom following the end of the Great War, but then the regime unwisely allied itself with the Axis powers and found itself under the the jackboot of the Third Reich. The Nazis invaded in 1944. Budapest suffered badly, especially its Jewish population. The Soviet era and the Cold War followed, and only in 1990 did Hungary once again become its own nation, a modern democratic republic and, since 2004, a member of the EU. Somehow, the suburbs wear this sense of exhaustion after a long, depressing history. 

Yet the centre comes as a beautiful surprise. Here there is liveliness, a sense of history, a palpable  intellectual and cultural presence, noble buildings (on a truly grand scale) and above all the river itself. I've read that of all the cities on the Danube, Budapest is the one that most takes the river to its heart and has organised its life around it. That feels like a good reason for starting our journey here. 

So we embark on the Regina Rheni II. (I almost said Regina Coeli - after all it is Eastertide.) She is tethered alongside a boulevard where there are trams, and a park, and what looks like a contemporary arts centre that reminds us of the Sage in Gateshead, and people out running and strolling and playing with their children in the evening sunshine. These river cruise ships are not huge compared with the immense vessels that ply the seas carrying upwards of a thousand passengers - we are only 150 so it is all quite intimate by comparison - but she is still a long ship, 110 metres, low-slung and sleek. Why the 'Queen of the Rhine' rather than the Danube? Because she was built and is registered in Holland, and works the entire length of the journey across the watershed of Europe from here to the North Sea via the Main Canal and the Rhine.
We find we have been upgraded to a cabin on the top deck. Such things rarely happen to us, so it is a nice surprise. Can they have known that we are celebrating our ruby wedding? It seems not: there has simply been some problem with a damp carpet in the cabin we were allocated. At dinner, there is the usual awkwardness of introductions: who we are, where we come from etc., all carefully establishing the rules of engagement of this new-formed floating community. We discuss the routines and rituals of shipboard life. Some cognoscenti do this kind of thing regularly and know the ins and outs of cruising etiquette. They compare travellers' tales about the Rhine, the Rhone, the Volga and the Nile. No one on our table has done the Danube before, so we cruising virgins are on the same deck as our fellow-travellers as far as the river itself is concerned. 

As we gather in the lounge for the introductory briefing, there is an excited babble of conversation. The meeting strikes an upbeat note, because it is obviously required that holidaymakers be cheerful, but with overtones of the school trip thrown in. Are there hints that managing a crowd of more mature adults with differing levels of physical ability can have its challenges? We are promised partying the next day. My introvert side starts protesting. I wonder how I shall cope with the bonhomie of it all. 

We are assigned to a table where we shall have our main meals with the same companions throughout the week's voyage. This is where the hazards of cruising are greatest, where real trepidation is felt. No planning goes into the lottery of table allocation, no checking of compatibility. How do you know if you can sustain polite, let alone interesting or stimulating, conversation at lunch and dinner day after day with people you have never met, with whom you are randomly thrown together at the whim of the restaurant floor manager? Time alone will tell. 

Friday, 16 May 2014

Farewell to Ruth Gledhill, Fleet Street's Last Full-Time Religious Affairs Correspondent

Ruth Gledhill's tenure as Religious Affairs Correspondent at The Times is ending. For more than a quarter of a century she has been an influential figure in the febrile borderlands where the church and the media meet. She has not always been loved by the church: truth-seekers never are; but she has been admired and respected. Thank you Ruth. We honour your achievements and wish you well. 

She is the last of her kind. With her departure, an era is coming to an end. There will no longer be a full-time journalist doing her job: not at The Times, not anywhere in Fleet Street. So this is a symbolic moment. I don't know the story at The Times, but we can guess that in the board room, the discussion ran along the following lines. Religion has been sidelined from the mainstream of public life. It's now a voluntary, marginal activity participated in by fewer and fewer people. In an increasingly secular society, religion doesn't merit intensive media coverage, and therefore not a full-time senior post. 

However, this ignores the blindingly obvious fact about the 21st century, that religion is playing an ever bigger part in world affairs and in our own society. This has taken some people by surprise. A generation back we might not have predicted the resurgence of radical fundamentalisms in world faiths, nor their often dire social, political and human consequences, though the signs were there if we had been paying attention. Islam is in the ascendant in many societies with the inevitable push-back of Islamophobia, often fuelled in the USA by the politics of the far right with its extreme conservative Christian agenda. Anti-semitism is worryingly on the increase across Europe. In this country, the place of religion in schools and allegations of discrimination against employees because of their beliefs continue to exercise debate, while in the British churches, the fractious debate about same-sex relationships is coloured by the oppression of homosexuals in African churches. I could go on.

My point is simple. Religion is not in decline in the modern world: it is flourishing. But it is a highly complex phenomenon that is evolving in new ways as the global village contracts. Understanding faith in a diverse world, making sense of the behaviours of faith communities calls for real insight they are to be responsibly presented to those who want to read the signs of the times. Broadsheet readers are right to look for careful analysis informed by a sophisticated grasp of religious affairs that can challenge the naïve readings we are so often fed by the media. 

This is precisely the time when we need our journalists to have as deep and comprehensive an understanding of religion as we expect from those who write about politics, education, literature or science. It is not enough simply to report 'stories'. It is the interpretation that matters. And without well-educated specialists in theology and religion, I doubt if we are going to get the in-house level of intelligent interpretation we have been grateful for from Ruth Gledhill and her like.

So come on, broadsheets. You may not like it, but for better or worse, religion is a major feature on the landscape of modernity. You have the power to shape minds for good as your readers try to make sense of what they see and hear. Give us back our interpreters. Otherwise we shall be left stranded on Dover Beach while the sea of faith makes its 'melancholy long withdrawing roar' and there will be no-one left in mainstream journalism to help us make sense of those other disquieting noises whose crescendo we hear in the dark, the 'confused alarms of struggle and fight where ignorant armies clash by night'.

Meanwhile, read The Tablet each week for the best-informed commentary on religion that's available in the UK at present. 

Friday, 2 May 2014

Real Life at Ambridge

I admit it: I am an Archers Addict. Radio 4 at 7pm is as regular a commitment as Cathedral evensong at 5.15pm. There are those who believe in the heresy of 'actorism', that is, so-called 'actors' play the parts of villagers in this daily eavesdrop on Ambridge life. Even the BBC seems to subscribe to it. I've never cared for this heresy myself, and learned to renounce it with the help of the now sadly defunct Archers Anarchists. I can't see why anyone should doubt that we are overhearing real people in a real place somewhere in a lost land between Warwickshire and Worcestershire. St Stephen's Church and Felpersham Cathedral even have Twitter accounts, so that proves it.

Some listeners are finding that things are getting a bit torrid in Ambridge right now. They deplore this down grade from the innocence of Doris Archer's baking, Phil picking out Hymns Ancient and Modern on the church organ, Shula and David at their childhood frolics in the garden at Brookfield, Tom Forrest chronicling the maturing of cider apples, Walter Gabriel's Borset vernacular 'mee ol' pal, mee ol' beauty', and all this under the benign patriarchal watch of Brigadier Winstanley and Ralph Bellamy. Happy days: The Archers has been a trusty companion and fellow-traveller for as long as I can remember. 

But if this was a pre-lapsarian Eden, there came a day when innocence was lost. It happened in my teenage years some time in the mid 1960s, for me the era of bitter-sweet adolescent emerging sexual awareness. I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when Jennifer Archer blurted out a terrible confession to her sister, 'O Lilian, I've been such a fool!' What had she done? Only got herself in the family way. I was deeply shocked as was most of Borsetshire. Such things did not happen on the Home Service. She called the baby Adam in recognition of her fallen state. Decades later, Adam would have his own sexual surprises to spring on Jennifer, but by then I was old enough to cope. 

Perhaps you haven't been paying attention in the past week. We had all been invited to Tom Archer's wedding to the beautiful Kirsty. The wedding had been talked about for weeks. We duly turned up in church. Alan the Vicar welcomed us. But then there was an inexplicable hiatus. Bridal nerves we told ourselves. The organist played on... And on. And then the dreadful truth became clear. Tom had bottled out, couldn't go through with it. Kirsty's frightful wail of despair is still echoing down the aisles of St Stephen's. And now Tom has gone missing, perhaps to become yet another of the many 'Ambridge Disappeared'. It's profoundly disturbing for Tony and Pat. It's a real worry for us all. 

As I'm a townie, I depend on The Archers to instruct me in the ways of rural life. It was invaluable when I was vicar of a country market-town, warning me when lambing and harvest were beginning, when the winter barley was being sown, helping me understand the fluctuations in the value of agricultural land, updating me on set-aside and EU farming subsidies and so on.  It imparted a whole lot of Really Useful Information. I dare say some people have also found it a good tutorial in the ups and downs of church life, what a parish council does, and how to organise the village pantomime.

But the real purpose of Ambridge is to immerse us in a real-life village community so that we have a map to help us read the landscape of the human heart. That gives it a truly spiritual dimension. The theology of The Archers appears to be a neglected subject. It would be good to hear more about it from @AmbridgeChurch and @Felpercathedral.