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Travels with Georgia and zig
Overseas Trips

Episode 15: Day trip to visit "The Treasures of the Church." Switzerland, Austria, Bavaria 2010

Episode 15—Saturday, May 29: Klosterneuburg

Today we took a day-trip along the Danube to the ancient Abbey Church of Klosterneuburg. It, of course, was at the very top of a loooonnnng flight of stairs from the little bus station. Is it any wonder that we eat like pigs on these trips and come home weighing less?

The church and cloister are massive—built in the 11th century in a stark and severe Gothic style—but tempered by wonderfully warm limestone and green slate roof tiles. Stone bas-reliefs are carved right into the walls and the grounds have lovely plantings of flowers and trees. There was also an inviting stone patio with tables and chairs where waiters and waitresses in black slacks and crisp white shirts served sandwiches and coffee. While waiting for our tour to form we went exploring in the surrounding out-buildings. One looked like it might have been a stable hundreds of years ago but was now enclosed to make a very charming chapel. The main part didn’t have stained glass, but there was a lovely swirling abstract panel mounted in a utility room wall on the opposite end of the building. I peeked into the room and saw a blue glow coming from behind a drawn screen. After a few minutes search I managed to find someone who could tell me its provenance. It had been removed from another chapel in the region that was being torn down. The glass was thought too lovely to smash, so Klosterneuburg rescued it. I hope they can someday find a better place to display it than a large broom closet. Lovely blues and browns, golds and yellows in a riotous swirl accentuated by painting done in tracing black.

We had signed up for the “sacred” tour and saw amazingly well preserved 12th century stained glass and a priceless 11th century gilded enameled altarpiece made of 50-something exquisite hand-crafted tiles depicting the entire plan of salvation. Hitler had “requested” the piece for his private collection. Somehow the monks managed to make it “disappear” behind a fake wall. Reminds me of “the Secret of Santa Vittoria,” but with a treasure more precious than wine.

As I said, the church was built in the 11th century as a Gothic masterpiece, but fashions change. In the 16th and 17th century Gothic was out and Baroque was in—so an absolutely staggering amount of money was spent to turn the inside of a Gothic Basilica into a stunning Baroque Basilica.

I personally prefer the Gothic cathedrals, like Notre Dame in Paris, or St Mark’s in Venice. They are magnificent in their relative simplicity—and usually have amazing story-telling mosaics and stained glass windows glittering with vibrant colors. In the beginning, you see, it was difficult to produce clear glass. Too hard to find “pure” materials to work with. It was easier to produce colored glass because the raw materials naturally contained metals and minerals. Because of this lack of clear glass, Gothic Cathedrals are generally darker. And then you have those additional centuries of smoke deposited on the walls. That makes some people think of them as gloomy.
But, no one would ever call a Baroque or Rococco Cathedral “gloomy.” Those are the ones that look like whipped cream and egg white confections—gigantic wedding cakes. They are filled to overflowing with plaster and marble saints, cherubs, and enough gold to dazzle the eye of the most jaded viewer. It all took our breath away. Where to look first?
Recovering later in a charming outdoor café with a delicious Austrian beer we met a nice middle-aged couple on an 8-day bicycling trip across Germany and Austria. They rode along the Danube and were supplied with bicycles and an itinerary that gave them a nice distance to ride each day and a place to stay each night. As fellow countrymen do all around the world we began looking for people or attitudes we held in common. They were from California, as I recall, and we couldn’t locate any common friends or acquaintances. More than seven degrees separating us I suppose. And so, the lady turned to common attitudes. They loved the German wine country. So did we. And then she said, “I can’t believe all the gold in that church,” motioning towards the warm stone glistening in the afternoon sun. “We’re social workers; it should all be melted down and given to the poor.”
I’m not usually at a loss for words but this silenced me. All those centuries spent to produce these treasures. Those armies of craftsmen who gave their lives to make something beautiful. Those generations and generations of peasants who loved their church and gave their pennies to have a part in its construction. All that beauty. All that effort: up-loaded on e-bay and shipped off to the highest bidder? I knew I couldn’t say what first popped into my head—so I said nothing. “Hmmmmm?” was the most neutral reply I could manage. The conversation soon petered out and they remounted their two-seater and peddled off. We waved goodbye to each other.
The thought that had popped into my head was that we knew that Matthew was a tax collector; we knew that Peter, Andrew, and some of the other disciples were fishermen; and now I knew that Judas was probably a social worker. He shared their attitude that lavishing treasure at the feet of Christ was a terrible waste of resources. And Judas, carrying the communal purse, looked forward to “dispensing” these riches. Was he right? Is all this gilding and ivory wasted? Are the centuries of effort it took to build such stunning treasure-chests wasted just as surely as an afternoon spent building sandcastles? Time or tide will certainly wash both away. But, is the aim of life to just eat, drink, and try to pass on your genes? What place is there for voluntary poverty, discipline, and obedience in today’s world? In the age of the individual, what sense is there to “common” wealth? What’s the point of trying to leave something beautiful and lasting for posterity?
This brief, abortive, conversation left me depressed—alleviated only by the bus ride back to Vienna when we sat across from two giggling Austrian teenagers who tried hilariously to remember their English lessons. They tried vainly to tell us what they “wanted to be” someday. The future, at least, was real for them. How charming. And the Danube was lovely—reminding me, of course, of the mighty Mississippi, timelessly flowing unconcerned through human history—sometimes serenely—sometimes raging. And we stopped at Schwedenplatz for more ice-cream at the “Italienischen Eissalon.” It’s really hard to be depressed while licking a cone of blackberry ice cream.
When we got back to the room we dressed for the concert. It was the Lower Austrian Symphony Orchestra in the Grosser Musikvereinssaal. We were right on the front row, directly under the conductor. If you don’t believe me look at the photo. He hopped and stamped all through the music and during the most energetic passages almost went airborne. I swear I expected to have to catch him! Schumann and Stravinsky’s “Afternoon of the Faun.” The audience was so appreciative that they even called the orchestra back for an encore before the intermission! Those Wieners do love their music.
The trip back to the room carried us through the underground Karlsplatz at night. It was a different and somewhat creepy world in the dark. Obvious drug use from teens and young adults bored with the more socially acceptable ways of sedating oneself. I’m not sure that they thought they had a future at all. Perhaps we should sell a couple cherubs to give these kids some spending money. Wonder what they’d buy with it. Even if they don’t come from poor families, they are certainly poor in spirit—like the young drunks we saw in Salzburg Cathedral. Would our bicyclists think the problems of anomie solvable with money?  I think of Mother Teresa’s adage that the worst poverty of all is that of being thought useless.
Sunday, May 30: Vienna

Up early for the Mozart’s Missa Solemnis at the Augustiner Church. Every place was taken twenty minutes before the mass began. We had prime seats. You should have seen the look of desperation on the faces of the late-comers. One woman saw people walking around the altar rail to be seated in the abbey choir. She so wanted to sit there but knew she didn’t belong. My heart hurt for her. I remember feeling excluded from something I really wanted to be part of.
The music soared above us from the organ loft. It was perfectly tuned to that space—and had been for four centuries. The incense drifted up in fragrant clouds. The abbot was attended by two resplendent con-celebrating priests, a deacon who sang the gospel as well as the petitions, and church bells the size of small trucks that tolled the elevation of the host and the chalice. This was the setting Mozart had in mind for his Credo and Agnus Dei. The Missa Solemnis, or “Solemn Mass,” is a glorious piece of music, but when it is detached from the communion of faith it is at best a beautiful flower in a bud vase. When it’s used to hawk hamburgers or automobiles it’s an opulent peony stuck in a coke bottle.

You see, the Missa Solemnis is another treasure of the church. But, like the marble cherubs, its lasting value comes from its relation to a practicing community of faith. And the center of that community is the miracle of the Word becoming Flesh becoming simple un-leavened bread, that humble daily bread that sustains us on our pilgrim way.
And this was Trinity Sunday. As members gathered together as the body of Christ we were invited to join our individual concerns—joys and sorrows—with the offerings brought up and handed to the abbot. Like the humble bread and wine we believe that our private offerings will also be transformed on the altar—to something more beautiful and more precious than we could have ever imagined. And then we receive all these transformed treasures as we shuffle forward in communion with the other believers.
After the service it was poring outside—and we didn’t have our collapsible rain capes. Tried to stop at our neighborhood grocery to buy supper fixings, but it was closed. So we had to eat at one of the nearby restaurants in the alley across the street. Durn :)  Shared a meal of Paprika chicken and Spaetzle washed down with an amazing dark bier but without dessert. No room.
After dinner we took a quick trip out to Shoenbrunn palace for a look around.  Only had time for one picture in the rose garden. We could see that you’d need to spend a lot of time there to see things, and we still had to get to the concert hall for Lohengrin.
A deformed beggar got on our car at one stop and got off at the next so she could shuttle back and forth along the line. I honestly cannot imagine how her leg could have been broken that badly on accident. She “walked” with her knee bending almost completely backwards. It reminded me of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” which introduced me to the fact that in some cultures children are horribly deformed intentionally so that they can be more pathetic and therefore lucrative beggars. Can beings with human hearts really do such things? Will selling another cherub fix this? Is the problem a lack of money?
The trip though Karlsplatz was just as upsetting as always. They don’t accost the pedestrians or anything like that—but it’s just so sad. People buying and selling drugs, a greasy young man tying off his arm in a phone booth so he could find a vein. Shrill arguments over “turf” among these denizens of the deep. Depressing. All the self-inflicted wounds. Maybe the bicyclists are right. Maybe money would solve the problems. But then, maybe humanity needs something more. Paraphrasing Wittgenstein: “Any value that is of real value must come from outside.”
What a night to be seeing an opera like Lohengrin.
 (to be continued)
Episode 14: Vienna and a reflection on Austrian Toilets,Switzerland, Austria, Bavaria 2010
Episode 14—Tuesday Evening, May 25: Vienna


We were standing on the sidewalk outside the Vienna Opera House. They were simulcasting Mozart’s “The Italian in Algiers” on a huge jumbotron on the sidewalk. There was a liveried usher handing out carpet squares for us to sit on. The plastic chairs were already filled. I had the best time surreptitiously photographing pedestrians walking past the screen. One little boy in particular was hilarious. He was so excited by the music—bouncing around and dancing to the music. He must have been on an adrenaline high because shortly after sitting down he crashed on the sidewalk sound asleep!

Wednesday, May 26

We rode the Ring Tram, which shares the roadway with bicycles, cars, taxis and buses on a wide tree-lined boulevard circling Vienna. Recorded tours give you the chance to orient yourself. We got off at a spectacular Art Deco Museum, called “The Secession House.” Inside there was a mural by the artist Gustav Klimt and some blown glass. Except for that, and for the architecture of the building itself, I thought it was a bust. There were several contemporary “installations” that seemed insufferably pretentious and self-absorbed. It’s art that is all about the artist. I find good graffiti less offensive—it, at least, exults in color. Art should be about something other than itself. Solipsism isn’t only boring—it’s lonely.



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We visited five or six churches and took pictures of a fair amount of stained glass. Much of it from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It was pretty standard. There are fashions in stained glass too. The work from the 20th century was more “primitive,” but also more interesting. One in particular showed concentration-camp inmates following behind Jesus as He walked the Via Dolorosa.
We also found some ancient panels at St Rupert’s church down by the canal in the oldest part of the city, but by then it had been hours since we’d had any ice cream or gelato. Luckily there was a gelatarea right near by in Morizin Platz. Someone had told us it was the best in town, and it was tremendous. It justified braving the crowds.
Thursday, May 27

Surface transportation in Vienna is confusing. The buses and trams interact in ways only a Weiner could understand. The Underground makes more sense. There are six lines that cross each other at various marked stations. You only have to worry about which side of the platform you are standing on. One side goes one way and the other side goes the other way. Because the trains cross each other at different depths some stations’ lowest line must be somewhere close to the 4th Ring of Hell. Even Dante would be out of breath by the time he reached the surface at Landstrasse.
Kung Historishe Museum was magnificent—a smaller replica of the Louvre. The Brugels were stupendous and we saw some lovely Durers and Boschs and then we saw a painting of “Jacob Ziegler” with an interesting inscription. He had been a friend to Erasmus, “sympathetic to the Reformation but remained a faithful Catholic all his life.” Austria is heavily Catholic.

Walked our feet flat. Georgia especially liked the Egyptian and Greek collection. Their antiquity surprised her. She’d been thinking that the Greek culture didn’t flourish until after the time of Christ. She was surprised to hear that Christ came about midway between the birth of the Greek civilization and the fall of the Roman Empire. And then there were the Egyptians flourishing long before the Greeks.
When we left the museum it was raining hard—we gave up on going anywhere else. Bought our supper from the supermarket, The Billa, and ate it in front of the TV at Stephan’s Haus. And then off to bed.
Sorry, I want to talk about toilets for bit. Our immaculate room was on the sixth of seven floors in St. Stephan’s Haus. Twin beds, with a nice desk and a balcony, where we had hung our clothes to dry. Each floor had a shower and a WC with two stalls: for Herren und Damen. Austrian toilets are a little difficult to get used to. When you do “#2” there is a little platform above the water level. It catches your “doody” as it falls and gives you (apparently) the opportunity for a minute examination. If you linger, the stall gets pretty fragrant. I guess the Austrians quickly “Do their business; examine their business; then get back to business.” Me, I’m not really that interested in seeing the results of my eating habits. But it did remind me of the time when I was in the second grade and accidentally swallowed a nickel. Afterwards, my mother told me not to flush the potty. She wanted to flush it. In a couple of days she brought me back my nickel. It was pretty discolored. I took it to school to show my friends. They were grossed out. I didn’t keep it.
As I write this now, tomorrow is Mother’s Day. That small loving action has remained for me the image of Mother-love—giving baths, reading bedtime stories, wiping runny noses and dirty bottoms, and even checking little #2s for nickels in an age before rubber gloves. I love you Mom. I’d give anything to be able to hug you tomorrow.
Friday, May 28

Because yesterday had been such a tough day on our feet we decided on a day without museums. It turned out to be a great day. Cloudy, but there were times the clouds drifted away and blue sky shown through.
We took the underground out to the Prater—a public fairgrounds so old that it was a favorite with Mozart. Georgia got really irritated with me because I got bored. It wasn’t yet 9:00 am and the grounds wouldn’t officially open until 10:00. We saw large groups of children in the Underground obviously coming to the Prater and I said we should take the underground to the center of the Park then walk to the river and by that time the Park would be open and bustling with people. Amusement parks without people are not amusing, if you know what I mean.

She reluctantly agreed but balked when we got to the Olympic Stadium stop where there was a lot of construction and high-rise office-type buildings. She wanted to turn around and go straight back. I told her that I’d meet her somewhere if she wanted, and she reluctantly agreed to mutter along beside me. Two blocks along a busy road brought us to the center of the park. We then walked a diagonal dirt path though some deep unkempt woods where people let their dogs run free. Unfortunately all the rain made the path pretty muddy. Georgia was not happy. The park, you see, is gigantic—it stretches for miles, nestled between the canal and the Danube.

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      Finally through the woods we came to real meadows with playgrounds and mothers with baby strollers. Georgia’s mood brightened considerably. One young mother was trying desperately to interest her toddler in playing ball with her. She had brought a small soccer ball. I don’t think the child could have been less interested in the ball. But, he was fascinated by the clumps of grass clippings left behind by yesterday’s grass mowers. He would pick up a double handful, hold his hands up and watch, fascinated, as the grass trickled through his fingers. It’s really hard being a mother—trying to plan wonderful outings in the park. You bring the ball you will need and little Johann only wants to let nasty grass clippings trickle through his pudgy fingers. I bet there’s a lesson there somewhere. We ate a huge schnitzel with pomme frites and some lovely beer. Yum. Watched the Austrian grade-schoolers. They were charming on their “kiddie rides.”
After the Prater we rode the Underground and a bus to the huge cemetery outside Vienna where Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms are buried along with members of Mozart’s family. We found it and expected an entrance fee. Tried to give the guy at the gate 4 euros. He looked at the money then at me like I was crazy. He said something to me and to the men standing nearby and handed the money back—motioning us through the gates.
There were some beautiful tombstones nestled among the mature trees and knee-high grass, but none of them were really as spectacular as the mosaic-covered stones we saw at the Cimiteria on the island of Murano or the tiny one-person stained glass chapels we saw in Florence. We strolled for hundreds of yards along a straight dirt road heading toward an enormous church that seemed to be in the center of the grounds. It was stupendous. Pure Art Deco. It must have been built around 1900. I took a bazillion photos and made sketches of the some of the interesting little design touches. And then we heard singing outside.
“Eyoo ar zee sonneshaine ov my laive!” The melody was familiar, but the words were a little odd. People were warming up for some local festival. There was free wine and sparkling water and interesting songs and music. We sat on the low stone fences around some of the gravesites and listened first to operatic arias, brass fanfares, folk quartets, duets, and left to wander the grounds before more “sonneshaine” broke out in my “laive.”

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Close by the festival we found the graves of our immortals—each covered with fresh flowers. But, immediately behind Beethoven’s flower-strewn grave I found the grave of “Robert Weigl, 1852-1902.” Not so much as a dandelion on it. He must have once been famous, else why would he be buried among the immortals, but now I couldn’t even find him mentioned in the Britannica. Sic Transit Gloria.


From the cemetery we traveled back downtown to pick up our tickets for tomorrow’s concert and happened upon a series of church-festivals called “Church all night.” As best I could tell all the churches were having an open house this evening. Saw a line forming inside one church to enter a small room off to the side. Figured that any line must go somewhere important. Unfortunately it was a lecture—in Austrian. We were all packed into this room like Japanese on the bullet trains. Luckily we stayed near the back and managed to open the door a crack and slip out. Found a bulletin board and saw that there were going to be concerts everywhere. Boy’s choir, organ concert, free wine (and clean restrooms), even an American Gospel choir in the Cathedral.
We took a pew in St Michaels Kirche. There was to be an organ concert later in the evening and we could see that the church was going to be packed. As we waited I studied the altar. It depicted the battle of Heaven with the Archangel Michael throwing Satan out. The concert itself featured Muffat, Johann Caspar Kerll, Johann Fux, but finished on a high point with Bach’s Fugue on the Magnificat. And it was truly Magnificat! On the organ he puts everyone else in the shade.
Each of the churches featured different treasures, and each was special in its own way. What with the free wine and snacks, and glorious concert after glorious concert I could feel myself starting to overload. We tried to move from church to church wending our way back toward St Stephan’s Haus. We arrived home late and sated. Somehow the room seemed to be spinning as I laid my head on the pillow. I don’t remember falling asleep.
 (to be continued)