We arrived in Germany on Tuesday 21 December. It was wintertime. When my husband Tony and I left Brisbane, the temperature was 32 degrees Celsius; when we arrived in Frankfurt am Main, 24 hours later, the temperature was -2 degrees Celsius. We donned our overcoats, but soon realised we weren’t adequately dressed for a German winter. (I’ve since read that Germans have a saying “Es gibt kein schlechtes Wetter, nur schlechte Kleidung”, which translated is “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing”.)
As soon as we exited the airconditioned airport terminal, suitcases in tow, we felt the cold air biting our faces, earlobes and the top of our heads. It was about 7:00 am, and still dark. Indeed, this day (21 December 2021) was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. Our son (who had come to meet us) hailed a taxi. As our taxi took us from the airport to our son’s home, in the dim morning light we could make out a thick blanket of frost on the fields we passed by.
Later that day, as Tony and I walked with our son to the shops, he told us that this was a typical December day in Frankfurt – dull and cloudy with a little rain, and very cold. (Not that December is the coldest month: January is even colder!)
Four days after we arrived, on Christmas Day, it snowed. The snow began to fall in the evening, around 7:00 pm. There had been light rain earlier that day. Through the triple-glazed glass doors from our vantage point in the cosy living room, we watched as the tiny snowflakes floated down and landed on the balcony outside. Wherever the snowflakes landed, they accumulated to form an icy crust. By the next morning, the snow and ice had disappeared. But it was just as cold, and it was raining!
For Tony and me it was our third visit to our family in Europe over the Christmas-New Year period and during winter. I’ve written previously about these visits: The wonder of Christmas in Vienna (December 22, 2018) and Weihnachten: Christmas in Germany (December 18, 2016).
However, this time, in contrast to these earlier visits, Tony and I stayed long enough (two months – from 21 December 2021 until 18 February 2022) to witness the changes that herald the end of winter and the advent of spring in this part of Europe. This gradual transformation is truly remarkable…a miraculous awakening. And, because of this experience, I understood something for the very first time…
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Our second day in Frankfurt was just as cold as the first. The sun rose around 8:20 am. The day dawned fine (much to our surprise), the thick cloud cover thinning out in places to reveal small patches of blue sky. At various times during the day, momentarily, the sun peeped out from behind the clouds. Not that the sunshine made any difference to the temperature!
Around 3:00 pm, while it was still daylight, Tony and I went with our daughter-in-law for a walk (me) and a bike-ride (Tony) to a lakeside park near their home. It was mid-afternoon, but the grass was still covered with frost. The huge lake was partially iced over. Some of the water birds were swimming in the water; others were walking on the frozen surface of the lake.
The clouds had thinned out and the palest of blue sky could be seen overhead. By the time we completed a circuit of the park, the sun was already low in the west. The daylight was fast fading, it was cold and getting colder, so we walked home as quickly as we could. It was now 4:00 pm. From the vantage point of our son and daughter-in-law’s fourth floor apartment, over the rooves of the nearby buildings, I watched the sun gradually sink below the distant horizon.
By 4:20 pm, the sun had disappeared. The sunset filled the western sky and tinted the remaining wispy clouds with vibrant colour – shades of red, orange, yellow and pink. This burst of colour was in stark contrast to the dreary grey that marked most of the daylight hours. The cars down the street already had their lights on. The eight hours of daylight had ended, and another long, cold dark night had begun.
Unlike our visits to Europe at Christmastime in 2004 and 2015, in 2021 Tony and I didn’t visit the Christmas markets. Indeed, in 2021 (as in 2020), the Christmas markets in most German cities were cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising case numbers and the risk of further spread of the corona virus. The Frankfurt Christmas Market, one of the exceptions, operated from 22 November until 22 December, but with fewer stalls spread out over a larger area. Given our date of arrival (21 December), we decided to give the Christmas markets a miss this time.
Instead, on the evening of 23 December, we visited Frankfurt’s Palmengarten (“Palm Garden”) to view the Winterlichter (“Winter Lights”). Tony and I joined our son, daughter-in-law and other family members in exploring the garden, a veritable winter wonderland, with its colourfully illuminated winter flora, light art and sculptures, and sound and video installations throughout the 22-hectare (54-acre) site.
The Palmengarten, in Frankfurt’s Westend, is the city’s main municipal garden. In 2012, the neighbouring Botanic Garden (Frankfurt’s oldest public garden) was combined with the Palmengarten. Together the two gardens display over 18,000 plant species from all over the world.
Tony and I found the “Winter Lights” display delightful and enchanting, but we didn’t cope well with the cold. After all, it was night-time, and the temperature was -2 degrees Celsius (or thereabouts). Tony hadn’t worn enough warm clothes and my leather boots with their thin sole and one pair of socks didn’t keep my feet warm (my toes were numb). So, we were much relieved when our party ended our visit to the Palmengarten with a warm drink seated at a table in the cosy ambience of the Galerie am Palmenhaus (“Gallery in the Palm House”).
Little did I know at the time, but Tony and I would return to the Palmengarten in seven weeks’ time. But more about that later.
Since 1997, the Palmengarten has had Pflanzen, Leben, Kultur (that is, “plants, life, culture”) as its motto.
As I reflect on our recent visit to Germany, in the winter of 2021-2022, apart from “cold”, the words “plants, culture, new life” (in that order) could be our motto.
Let me explain.
Like me, our son is a keen gardener. He and I share a love of plants, and gardening. Not that he has a large garden to look after. Compared with my garden in Brisbane, his is miniscule. He and his wife live in a fourth floor city apartment, so his garden comprises plants he can grow in pots and planter boxes on the balcony, and orchids and house plants indoors.
Typical of all good gardeners, our son is passionate about growing plants and understands their characteristics and needs. He is always excited to speak about their progress. Furthermore, he is patient and creative – two essential qualities of good gardeners – demonstrated plainly by his success in growing bonsai.
Our son loves nature and the outdoors. Most of all, he loves trees. Everywhere we went – on the footpaths, in parks and gardens, in the fields, by the roadside – he pointed out and named trees, whether bare deciduous ones or magnificent evergreen ones. “What tree is that?” he would ask his father when we were out walking (which was often). It was a kind of test – after all Tony studied botany at university and taught biology to high school students. “You should know,” he teased.
On the day we arrived in Frankfurt, I inspected our son’s balcony garden. It was in winter mode. All of the plants had lost their leaves, apart from the rosemary, azaleas, bonsai spruce tree and the tiny winter ornamentals in the one planter box remaining on the balcony. We spoke about each one. Then he took me downstairs to the basement carpark where, for the duration of winter, he was keeping two planter boxes containing geraniums and several pots of frost-sensitive herbs.
Returning to the balcony, I was struck by one lovely flowering plant. My son told me it’s Helleborus niger, a winter-flowering evergreen perennial in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. The plant is commonly called “Christmas Rose”, because it flowers around Christmas time in warmer winter areas. It boasts large, bowl-shaped, radiant white flowers, 8 centimetres across, with a crown of attractive golden-yellow stamens. The outwardly facing flowers are borne on short, thick stems accompanied by palm-shaped deeply lobed, dark green leaves. It’s native to the mountains of southern and central Europe, which explains why it survives (and thrives) through frosts and snowfalls!
Having seen the plants in our son’s garden, I found myself looking out for similar winter plants – and discovering others – wherever I travelled in Germany. Instead of being overcome by the bleakness of winter, whenever I was outdoors, I was cheered by the sight of delightful winter plants that adorned balconies, home gardens, parks and gardens in the cities and towns Tony and I visited during our stay in Germany. It proved a great distraction from the cold (and often wet) weather. With my ever-present Canon 80D over my shoulder, I was forever stopping to take photographs of yet another tree, plant, or flower.
You may be surprised to learn where we came across the most remarkable displays of winter plants: At two cemeteries, one in Munich, the other in Frankfurt.
On 31 December, our Munich host accompanied Tony and me, and our son, on a late afternoon walk through the nearby East Cemetery (Ostfriedhof). This picturesque garden cemetery, established 200 years ago, is still in use today. Many of the graves have multiple burials, even recent ones. But what struck me the most were the manicured winter plants and Christmas decorations that adorned almost every gravesite. The plants included attractive low-growing leafy ones, purple heather and the white-flowering Helleborus niger (“Christmas Rose”).
Four weeks later, in late January, our son escourted Tony and me on a visit to the district in Frankfurt where he and his wife used to live. He pointed out their former apartment, which is located not far from Frankfurt’s Main Cemetery (Hauptfriedhof). Our son told us that he and his wife often used to go walking in the cemetery – notable for its peaceful garden atmosphere, attractive monumental graves, and magnificent tree-lined avenues.
The three of us spent a little time wandering through a small section of the huge cemetery. Once again, I was struck by the beauty of the graves – particularly the way plants are used to decorate them. Unlike the common Australian practice of covering a grave with a concrete or marble slab, these graves are covered in soil and embellished with living things – plants! I’ve never seen graves as impressive as these anywhere in Australia.
In early February, just 2 weeks before we were due to return home, Tony and I travelled to Koblenz, where we stayed for a couple of days, exploring the sights. Koblenz is a city of about 114,000 people, 125 kilometres by train northwest of Frankfurt, at the junction of the Rhine and Moselle rivers. It is famous for the Deutsches Eck (English: “German corner”) – “Where Father Rhine meets Mother Moselle” – and the large imposing monument featuring Kaiser Wilhelm I at the site of the Deutsches Eck.
The weather was still cold, wet and dreary, but the gardens throughout the city of Koblenz were remarkably colourful and cheery. The winter plantings included small delicate multi-coloured pansies (Viola X wittrockiana) and large brightly coloured ornamental cabbage or kale (Brassica oleracea).
A week later, on Friday 11 February, our son took Tony and me on an outing to Königstein im Taunus. Königstein is a spa town of about 16,000 inhabitants located on the densely wooded slopes of the Taunus, a low mountain range on the outskirts of Frankfurt.
It was a cold day, but fine. We wandered through the Altstadt (“Old Town”), then took the steep Burgweg (“path to the castle”) to the Königsteiner Kur Park at the top of the hill. Here, after the three of us warmed up by taking afternoon tea at the elegant Villa Borgnis Kurhaus im Park, we strolled through the park, our son drawing our attention to the magnificent trees that grace the park.
During our visit to Germany in the winter of 2021-2022, we spent most of our time with our son and daughter-in-law in Frankfurt am Main. Frankfurt, population 784,780, is the largest city in the State of Hesse, central Germany.
I learnt that Frankfurt’s history dates back to the time of the Romans, that Frankfurt’s old town was once a major centre of trade and commerce, and that German kings were once elected, and even crowned, in Frankfurt. For five centuries, Frankfurt was a city state, the Free City of Frankfurt, and one of the most important cities in the Holy Roman Empire. Interestingly, today, Frankfurt is one of the major financial centres of Europe, the headquarters of many global and European financial and corporate organisations based there.
On Boxing Day, our son and daughter-in-law organised a guided walking tour through Frankfurt’s New Old Town for us and other family members visiting for Christmas. It was mid-afternoon. The weather was cold, the sky overcast and grey and it threatened rain (it was raining lightly by the end of our tour). Nevertheless, it was good to be out and about.
Frankfurt’s New Old Town (also known as the Dom-Römer Quarter) lies in the heart of Frankfurt and is the area between the Cathedral (Dom in German) and the Römer, Frankfurt’s main city square. Frankfurt’s New Old Town is a well-planned reconstruction of the city’s old town, which was destroyed during World War II.
The reconstruction project included replacing the Technical Town Hall (built in the 1970s) with a stylish contemporary city hall (Stadthaus am Markt), reviving the old alleyways and squares, building 35 new houses (15 reconstructions, 20 new buildings, including low level apartment blocks), and providing about 30 ground floor spaces for businesses and shops. I believe it’s a successful mix of the old and the new.
Our tour guide took us along the famous Krönungsweg (Coronation Path) taken by the German kings and emperors. She pointed out the “old” and “new” houses, built side by side. She showed us the former archaeological garden, located in the basement of the city hall. The new Stadthaus am Markt was built over the excavations (which date back to Roman times), to protect them from the weather and make them permanently accessible to the public. The exhibition, Kaiserpfalz Franconofurd, is a branch of the Archaeological Museum in Frankfurt.
Now, you may be thinking that most of our time in Germany was spent outdoors. In spite of what you’ve read so far, this is not so. Indeed, Tony and I spent as much time as we could indoors, taking advantage of central heating, and staying warm and comfortable. We visited museums, art galleries, historic churches and houses, taking frequent Kaffee und Kuchen breaks (inside, of course), and (whenever we were not with our family in Frankfurt or Munich) dining at restaurants that serve authentic German food.
One thing we found really hard to get used to is putting on and taking off so many items of clothing when you leave and enter your home/museum/restaurant/department store, etc. It’s exhausting! You have to put on/take off an extra pullover or cardigan, an overcoat, scarf, hat or beanie and gloves every time you go out/come in. And, with COVID-19 regulations in place, there was the obligatory mask to wear as well. I lost count how many times I heard the words, “Have you got your mask with you?” And how could I forget the ritual of putting on and taking off your street shoes? Fortunately, you don’t have to take off your shoes when you enter a museum, restaurant, department store, or the like.
Apart from Frankfurt, Tony and I stayed for several days at a time in five other widely separated cities in Germany: Munich, Welzow, Leipzig, Erfurt and Koblenz. Of these five, three (Welzow, Leipzig and Erfurt) belonged to the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) – or East Germany – from 1949 until 1990. From our base in Frankfurt, we took day trips to Mannheim, Wiesbaden, Eltville am Rhein and Königstein im Taunus. But we also took day trips to other towns during our time in Munich, Welzow, Leipzig and Erfurt.
We spent four days between Christmas and New Year with our extended family in Munich, the largest and capital city of the State of Bavaria, southern Germany. While we were there, our hosts took us on an outing to Tegernsee, a town in the Bavarian Alps, about 50 kilometres south of Munich. An old spa town, Tegernsee is situated on the shore of a picturesque lake by the same name (Tegernsee). Today, the town and district is a popular holiday destination. The temperature that day was about 9oC, very warm (we were told) for that time of year (late December). The town and the surrounding mountains would normally be covered in snow. (I did see a pile of snow during our walk by the lakeside – but it was not fresh.)
At Munich, Tony and I learnt how to play “Bavarian curling” or Eisstockschießen. It’s a winter sport somewhat similar to curling (hence its common name). Our extended family group split into two teams. Members of each team, in turn, had to slide a heavy ice stock over an ice surface about 1.5 metres wide and 20 metres long, aiming for a target at the end of the ice strip. Despite being outdoors on a cold winter evening in late December, having to deal with a persistent icy wind followed by a late-evening shower of sleet, we had lots of fun! Tony and I found the game to be highly competitive, but exciting and enjoyable.
From Munich, Tony and I, along with our son and daughter-in-law, flew to Spain, where we spent a fabulous week exploring sunny Andalucia, in southern Spain. Then we returned to Frankfurt.
About a week later, on Friday 14 January, we awoke to a winter wonderland. It had snowed during the night. Outside, the balcony floor and the plants were sheathed in white, as were the rooves of the buildings, the branches of the leafless trees and the ground far below.
This was the day Tony and I left Frankfurt and made our way to the other side of Germany, initially to spend the weekend with Silvia (one of our “snow angels”) and her husband Hartmut.
From Frankfurt, we travelled by train to Leipzig, then on to Cottbus (Brandenburg, north-eastern Germany), where Silvia and Hartmut were waiting to meet us. From Cottbus, they drove us to Welzow (25 kilometres southwest of Cottbus), where we stayed for the weekend – for more read Snow Angels in Cottbus: The reunion (Part 1). All that we did – and saw – during our stay in Welzow is the topic of “Snow Angels in Cottbus: The reunion (Part 2)” – coming soon to this blog.
Here, I will share just one highlight of our visit to Cottbus and Welzow.
On the evening of Saturday 15 January, the four of us attended a concert in St Nicholas Church, Cottbus. Because of COVID-19 regulations, audience numbers were limited. Fortunately, Silvia had booked our seats early. The brass ensemble Projekt Intrada, a locally based group of professional and semi-professional musicians, was performing publicly for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The program, “Frosti”, comprised traditional Christmas carols and hymns such as “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night” and popular wintery tunes such as “Let it snow” and “Frosty the Snowman”. The bright tones of brass instruments and the warm resonant tones of the pipe organ filled the huge space and delighted the appreciative audience. It mattered not that the Christmas season was over and that it was not snowing at the time!
From Cottbus, Tony and I took a regional train back to Leipzig, where we stayed from Monday 17 to Friday 21 January. Leipzig is located 143 kilometres west southwest of Cottbus and about 160 kilometres southwest of Berlin. Its population today is just over 600,000, making it the largest city in the German State of Saxony.
Tony and I had nearly given up hope of visiting Leipzig, as the city – indeed all of Saxony – had been in partial shutdown since 22 November 2021. The shutdown had been implemented because, at the time, Saxony had the highest corona virus case numbers and the lowest vaccination rate in the whole of Germany. During the shutdown, the only visitors allowed were those travelling for work or business purposes, and all cultural institutions were closed.
Fortunately for us, Saxony’s shutdown ended on Friday 14 January 2022, just three days before we were due to travel to Leipzig. Hotels, restaurants and museums were again open to the public, but only for people who were vaccinated. Entry was governed by the so-called 3G rule (double vaccinated plus booster or double vaccinated and recovered or tested). Wherever we went in Saxony – or anywhere else in Germany for that matter – we had to show our vaccination status before being granted entry to a hotel, restaurant, museum (or the like).
Our daughter-in-law had given us a list of recommended sites to visit, including St Thomas Church, St Nicholas Church, Bach Museum, Stadtgeschichtliches Museum (and Old Town Hall), and Monument to the Battle of the Nations. We began our sightseeing tour in the heart of Leipzig’s old town, at the Altes Rathaus (“Old Town Hall”).
Leipzig’s Old Town Hall was built in 1556-1557 by Hieronymus Lotter, master builder and mayor of the city. After 1905, with the opening of the “New Town Hall”, the former administration building was renovated and repurposed as the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum (“Museum of City History”). The building, one of the finest examples of German Renaissance architecture, was severely damaged in bombing raids on the city in December 1943. After the end of World War II, the Old Town Hall was the first public building in Leipzig to be rebuilt. It was completed by 1950.
Leipzig’s Museum of City History re-opened to the public at 10:00 am on Tuesday 18 January. Tony and I were its first visitors – and the museum’s only visitors for the remainder of the morning! Clearly, there weren’t too many tourists in Leipzig that day. For us, it was a bonus – being outnumbered by the three museum attendants, all of whom were only too willing to assist us. One, in particular, spoke very good English and answered my many questions (especially about Leipzig in the era of the GDR and after unification of the two Germanies).
All three women wore Schnee Frau (“Snow Women”) badges. The badges were in connection with the museum’s 2021-2022 winter exhibition Schnee…von Gestern? Die Kulturgeschichte des Winters in Leipzig (“Snow…a thing of the past? The cultural history of winter in Leipzig”). Not that Leipzig had seen much snow that winter!
Indeed, for our first four days in Leipzig, the weather was wet and cold, with intermittent showers of rain or sleet and daytime maximum temperatures of 6oC (Monday), 4oC (Tuesday), 4oC (Wednesday), 2oC (Thursday). With the wind factored in, the “real feel” was up to 4 degrees lower than the official temperature. The only fine day was Friday, the day of our departure, but the temperature was even lower (-2oC), with a “real feel” of -7oC.
In the afternoon, despite the inclement weather, Tony and I returned to St Thomas Church. We had passed this way earlier in the day, but the building was closed (it didn’t open until 12:00 midday). The church is famous because of its association with Johann Sebastian (J S) Bach. Bach held the position of cantor here from 1723 until his death in 1750. It is also the home of St Thomas Boys’ Choir, one of the most famous choirs in Germany.
It is thought that the first church on this site was part of an Augustinian monastery, founded in 1212. The current building has undergone many iterations. In 1482, the original Romanesque-style nave was replaced by a late-Gothic style hall. The tower was added by 1702. From 1884 to 1889, the Baroque style interior (dating from Bach’s day) was replaced by the current neo-Gothic style. Following reunification of the two Germanies, sufficient funds were raised to carry out a major restoration of the building in the 1990s.
The major restoration project was completed by July 28, 2000, in time for the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death. As part of the project a new Bach organ was installed in the church. During our visit, Tony and I were fortunate to hear the organ being played – by a young organist under instruction.
Here are a few interesting facts about Leipzig:
- At Leipzig, J S Bach wrote most of his sacred music. Musical highlights include his works for the church’s high feast days (Easter, Christmas) and his passion music (St Matthew’s Passion, St John’s Passion), which he wrote for Good Friday services in Leipzig.
- In the 19th century, Leipzig was considered one of the great centres of music in Europe, along with Vienna and Paris. The Gewandhaus Orchestra, Opera House, St Thomas Choir, the conservatory, music publishers and instruments makers – all contributed to Leipzig’s fine reputation.
- The first long-distance railway line in Germany, built between 1836 and 1839, connected Leipzig and Dresden.
- Leipzig’s Hauptbahnhof (“Main Railway Station”), completed in 1915, was once the terminus of all railway lines in Germany. The building was – and still is – Europe’s largest railway station (measured by floor area).
- Many of Leipzig’s historic buildings were destroyed during World War II and had to be rebuilt.
- After East Berlin, Leipzig was the second most populous city in the former GDR.
- A candle-lit mass protest by 70,000 people in the streets of Leipzig on Monday 9 October 1989 became the turning point in the people’s fight for freedom in the GDR – the former East Germany. “Wir sind das Volk!” (We are the people!) was their mantra.
On Thursday 20 January, Tony and I visited Wittenberg (officially Lutherstadt Wittenberg), 60 kilometres and just half an hour by train north of Leipzig. The city is renowned for its connection with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation (hence its honorific title Lutherstadt).
It snowed overnight in Wittenberg – just a light snowfall – but it was evident as soon as we exited the train station. The sun was shining and the icy mounds by the roadside and the snow-covered garden beds glistened in the sunlight. The forecast was a temperature of 1oC, with snow and gusty winds in the afternoon.
We began our visit to Wittenberg at Yadegar Asisi’s 360o Panorama Luther 1517. The huge drum-like building was within walking distance of the train station. Inside is the panorama, the stunning sound and light show “in the round” transported us back to Wittenberg at the time of Martin Luther. Focussing on events of 500 years ago, such as Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church, the artist Asisi depicts these key events of the reformation alongside scenes from everyday life. It’s quite a spectacle!
On leaving the Luther 1517 Panorama, we had to tread very carefully, so as not to slip on the melting snow and “black ice” outside the building and on the footpaths down Lutherstrasse. Our next stop was Luther House.
Tony and I spent most of the day exploring Luther House, the former home of Martin Luther, his wife Katharina von Bora and their children. There was so much to see! The house, a former Augustinian monastery, contains approximately 1000 original exhibits about Luther – his life and work as a reformer, his home and family life and his influence on European and world history. It’s the largest Reformation history museum in the world and on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Next, we paid a brief visit to nearby Melanchthon House. Built in 1536, this Renaissance-style house was the home of Philipp Melanchthon, theologian, reformer and associate of Martin Luther. Melanchthon lived and worked here in Wittenberg from 1539 until his death in 1560. Melanchthon House contains a permanent exhibition of Melanchthon’s life, work and legacy and (like Luther House) is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
It was about 2:30 pm by the time Tony and I left Melanchthon House and headed down Collegienstrasse towards Wittenberg’s market square. It was bitterly cold and we were tired and hungry. We had hardly gone any distance when it began to snow. Then came the wind…and the ice…horizontally! Our umbrellas were completely useless, and before long we couldn’t see a thing. We desperately looked for shelter, but could find none.
This was our first experience of being out in a snow storm, and it was really frightening. Fortunately, we found our way to a shopping mall near the town square, and stayed there until the storm passed. Surprisingly, it was all over in about 20 minutes. By the time we regained our composure (over coffee and cake), warmed up, and dared to venture outside again, the sun was shining!
Unfortunately, because of the snow storm, it was too late in the day for us to see inside Wittenberg’s Stadtkirche (Town Church) or All Saints’ Church (Schlosskirche or “Castle Church”). Both were closed. But we did take a look at both of them on the outside.
Back in Leipzig, we dined for the second night in a row at the Ratskeller. The restaurant was just across the square from our hotel. We could see its entrance from our room on the fourth floor of our hotel.
As its name suggests the Ratskeller is located in the cellar of the city hall – that is, the New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus). In 1905, the New Town Hall, built in historicist style on the site of a former castle, replaced the Old Town Hall (Altes Rathaus) as Leipzig’s seat of municipal government. Apparently, the cellar was part of the original castle, and predates the city hall. The building’s main tower is 114.8 metres high, the tallest city hall tower in Germany, and one of Leipzig’s landmarks.
The Ratskeller was a charming venue in which to dine and, more importantly, the service was faultless and the German food amazing. On both occasions Tony ordered Cured Pork Knuckle, accompanied by beer-mustard sauce, wheat beer sauerkraut and potato dumplings. In German that’s Gepökelte Schweinshaxe, Bier-Senfsoße, Weißbier-Sauerkraut und Kartoffelklöße. On our first visit, I ordered Roast Pork (Smoked), with Lotteraner beer sauce, wheat beer sauerkraut and roast potatoes. On the second occasion, I ordered Filled Beef Roulade, accompanied by red cabbage with cranberries and roast potatoes.
Our meals were typical of the region’s hearty German food: meat (pork, beef) cooked to perfection, accompanied by a beer sauce, sauerkraut (white/red) cooked in beer, and potatoes made into dumplings or roasted. Add a glass of the establishment’s own brew to the meal, and what more could one ask for?
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On Friday 21 January, Tony and I took the high speed Intercity Express (ICE) train from Leipzig to Erfurt. (Ironically, we always spoke of this train as the “icy” train.) The distance between Leipzig and Erfurt is 100 kilometres, so the trip took just 40 minutes. We arrived at Erfurt around midday. The sky was overcast, it had been raining and the temperature was even lower than it was when we left Leipzig!
Erfurt is the capital and largest city in the central German State of Thuringia. In the middle ages, Erfurt was one of the main towns on the trade route between Frankfurt and Leipzig. The city is renowned as the site of first university in Germany (more accurately, the geographical area occupied by Germany today). The University of Erfurt was established in 1379. Its most famous student was Martin Luther, who studied there from 1501 before entering St Augustine’s Monastery in 1505. The university closed in 1816 but was re-established in 1994, after German reunification.
Today, Erfurt ’s old town is considered one of the best preserved medieval city centres in Europe. Its attractions include the Krämerbrücke (“Merchants’ Bridge”), Erfurt Cathedral, St Severus’ Church, Petersberg Citidel (town fortress), St Augustine’s Monastery and the Old Jewish Synagogue. During our stay in Erfurt, together with our son and daughter-in-law who travelled from Frankfurt to join us for the weekend, we visited each of these sites (apart from the Petersberg Citidel).
The four of us stayed in a hotel overlooking Erfurt’s famous Krämerbrücke, a medieval stone arched bridge lined with half-timbered shops and houses either side of a cobblestone street. The Krämerbrücke remains one of the few remaining bridges in the world with inhabited buildings. The bridge, which dates from 1325, is still used today as a pedestrian crossing and shopping precinct.
While Tony and I waited for our son and daughter-in-law to join us in Erfurt, we visited Erfurt’s Anger Museum (Angermuseum). (It was good to be indoors, out of the cold.) The museum is housed in a magnificent Baroque building in the middle of Erfurt’s old town. Its collections include medieval art from Erfurt and Thuringia, paintings by German artists from the 19th century to the present day, 20th century German and European graphic art, arts and crafts, historical rooms, furniture, musical instruments, glass art, statues and sculptures.
Our first port of call on Saturday 22 January was Erfurt’s Augustinian Monastery. The former church and monastery date from the 13th century. Today the complex belongs to the Evangelical Church in Central Germany.
Martin Luther came to the monastery in July 1505 as a novice monk. He was ordained as a priest in Erfurt Cathedral in April 1507 and celebrated his first mass in St Augustine’s Church a month later. He taught and studied at Wittenberg University for a year, from September 1508 to September 1509, before returning to Erfurt. After visiting Rome between late 1510 and early 1511, Luther left Erfurt for good, taking up a permanent teaching position at Wittenberg, in September 1511.
Because of the part Erfurt’s Augustinian Monastery played in the life and work of Martin Luther, application has been made to have the monastery added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Like so many historic sites in Germany, the church and monastery were badly damaged in air raids during World War II. The 14th century stained glass windows in the church were removed and stored elsewhere during the war years, which is why they still exist today. The buildings were restored between 1946 and 1957.
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On Sunday 23 January, the four of us visited Weimar. After enjoying a leisurely breakfast at our hotel, we took the short train trip from Erfurt to Weimar, a distance of 20 kilometres.
Weimar is famous today for its cultural heritage and the role it has played in German history. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), leading figures of Weimar Classicism and two of Germany’s literary giants, lived here. Musician Franz Liszt (1811-1886) also lived and worked in Weimar, where he wrote some of his greatest compositions. Architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969) founded the Bauhaus art movement here in 1919. After World War I, Germany’s first democratic constitution was signed here, giving the name Weimar Republic to the period in German politics between 1918 and 1933.
The Duchess Anna Amalia Library is a publicly accessible archive and research library of European literary and cultural history with a particular focus on the era between 1750 and 1850. The library dates from 1766, when the duchess had the magnificent Rococo Hall (which houses the library) built into the existing Renaissance Palace.
Goethe House is where the poet-statesman Goethe and his family lived for almost 50 years. This large house, with its many uniquely furnished rooms, was more than a family home. Here Goethe worked, socialized, promoted his cultural and scientific interests, and stored his numerous and diverse collections (paintings, sculptures, ceramics, books and manuscripts, biological specimens and rocks). His house was a veritable museum, even in his own lifetime! Today Goethe’s former residence also serves as the Goethe National Museum. Believe me, there is a lot to see!
Before leaving Weimar and returning to Erfurt, the four of us made a brief stopover at another one of Weimar’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Church of St Peter and Paul. It’s also Weimar’s main church or Stadtkirche (literally “Town Church”) and, since 1525, part of a Lutheran parish.
Martin Luther gave sermons here. Indeed, one of the artworks in the church is the “Luther Shrine”, a small triptych from 1572 comprising three paintings of Luther – one as a monk, one as his alias “Junker Jorg” and one as professor.
The most famous work of art in the church is the three-winged altar piece depicting the story of the life and suffering of Christ. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) began the work but died before its completion in 1555. Cranach, a German Renaissance painter and printmaker, was a close friend of Martin Luther. Both men lived in Wittenberg. Cranach is known for his portraits of German princes and leaders of the Protestant Reformation and is considered the most successful German artist of his time.
The Church of St Peter and Paul, Weimar, is also known as Herderkirche (“Herder Church”) after Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), an influential German philosopher, theologian and poet. Herder, a contemporary of Goethe and Schiller, lived and worked in Weimar from 1776 until his death in 1803. His grave is in the Church of St Peter and Paul. A statue of Herder stands in the square outside the church.
From Weimar, we took the regional train back to Erfurt, then the high-speed ICE train from Erfurt to Frankfurt. Back in Frankfurt we took time out to rest and reflect on all that we had seen and done so far during our time in Germany.
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At Frankfurt, it was a typically cold, bleak day in mid-January. Overhead, the pale grey clouds hung low. Side by side, my son and I walked briskly from our apartment to the train station, a distance of about 600 metres. The cold air caused my eyes to water and my nose to run. I pulled my woollen scarf up over my mouth to cover the tip of my nose and I tried to keep my head down.
I’d walked this route several times before, so it was becoming familiar to me.
In a small front garden of one of the houses along the way, my son spotted a couple of tiny green plants. Each plant had strappy linear leaves about 15 centimetres long and, at the top of upright thin green stems, several green buds with brilliant white tips.
We stopped to take a closer look. “What are they called?” I asked.
“Snowdrops. They are the first of the bulbous plants to bloom at the end of winter,” my son explained. “They will flower soon – just wait and see.”
Sure enough, about a week later, as we passed by, the buds had opened. Each tiny flower had six petal-like tepals in two concentric circles – three larger outer “petals” and three smaller inner “petals” with green markings. Each flower hung from the top of a single slightly arched upright green stem about 20 centimetres long. These tiny green plants with their snowy white flowers stood out – breaking the monotony of the brown leaf mulch that covered the ground and contrasting with the bare rose bushes and leafless shrubs above.
“How long will the flowers last?” I asked.
“The plants flower from late winter until early spring. Then they die back, and the bulbs lie dormant in the ground until the end of winter next year when the plants miraculously reappear.”
After my first sighting of snowdrops (genus Galanthus), I looked out for and observed these tiny flowering plants bursting forth in home gardens, parks and public spaces in Frankfurt and other cities and towns I visited in Germany from mid-January onwards. I spotted them near the old university site in Erfurt (on 22 January) and in the castle gardens at Eltville am Rhein (on 5 February).
I began to notice other signs of the coming spring. Bulbs our son planted in pots on his balcony began to sprout – the nascent green leaves of daffodils and tulips (I was informed). Likewise, down the street, the bulbs in public garden plots were bursting forth with their tall green strappy foliage. As the days passed, I noticed the appearance of flower stalks and later, buds. But I didn’t get to see the result – these daffodils flowered a few weeks after we left.
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It was Saturday 12 February. Our time in Germany – and Frankfurt – was drawing to a close. Tony and I had seen and done so much in the seven weeks since we arrived. We felt fulfilled and happy.
But our son and daughter-in-law had one more outing planned for us: A daytime visit to Frankfurt’s Palmengarten. They had kept the destination a secret, so as to surprise us on the day of the outing. It was here, during our second visit to the Palmengarten, that I witnessed three more signs of the end of winter and the promise of spring.
The day was fine, but cold. When we left our apartment, suitably dressed for a day outdoors, the sun was shining. “What a beautiful day for our outing,” I thought. We took a relaxing 40-minute bus ride (by default a sightseeing tour of the city) to reach our destination. After showing proof of our COVID-19 “3G” vaccination status and paying the entry fee, we entered the grounds via the Palmengartenstrasse entrance. From there, we made our way to the nearby Palm House and Exhibition Galleries.
As we approached the Exhibition Galleries, under nearby trees, we spotted a motley carpet of green dotted with bright yellow buds. According to the sign, this was winterling or winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), a tuberous perennial that bursts from the ground in late winter. The buds open to produce cup-shaped, upward-facing, bright yellow flowers (2-3 centimetres wide). The plant’s foliage of rich green leaves, divided into several lobes, emerges after the flowers.
Later in the day, in a sunny position near the rose garden, we found examples of the winterling in flower. The winterling, common today in many parts of Europe, is one of the earliest plants to flower (even before crocuses). The plant will go dormant by late spring and there it will remain, hidden, until late winter the following year.
“Wow! Amazing!” were my first words as we entered the Palm House gallery and saw the spring flower display. The floor of the huge exhibition room was awash with colour – a full palette of nature’s vivid colours. Spring had come early at the Palmengarten!
The staff of the Palmengarten had worked for months, planting thousands of bulbs and nurturing them so that they flowered in time for the February spring flower display. The result was truly awe-inspiring: tens of thousands of daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, crocuses and primroses flanked by witch hazel bushes, feather bushes, forsythia and rock pear.
Flowers really do make us happy. I don’t think I could wipe the smile off my face as I viewed – and photographed – one group of flowers after the other. The flowers were all so gorgeous – vibrant, fresh and perfectly formed.
I don’t know how long we spent viewing the flowers (it was a long time!), but eventually the four of us agreed to leave the Palm House and explore the rest of the gardens. There was still so much more to see and enjoy.
Leaving the Palm House, we headed towards the café and restaurant on Siesmeyer Street. We hadn’t gone far when we spied hundreds of crocuses and snowdrops adorning the nearby lawns. Here was yet another way nature was signalling the end of winter and the coming of spring. It was just one of many displays of crocuses and snowdrops we saw as we explored the gardens that day.
Crocus (Krokusse in German) is a genus of flowering plants in the iris family (Iridaceae). There are about 100 species of crocus, perennials that grow from corms. They are low growing plants whose tiny purple, white, yellow or orange flowers pop miraculously out of the ground in late winter or early spring. The leaves appear after the flowers. After flowering, the plants become dormant once again.
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“Winter: loved, hated, longed for and feared, pleasure and pain, no season polarises as much as winter. Pleasure and pain are closely connected here.” These are the introductory words in a brochure advertising Leipzig’s Museum of City History 2021-2022 winter exhibition “Snow…a thing of the past? The cultural history of winter in Leipzig”.
In Germany, winter is inextricably linked to the celebration of Christmas, family get-togethers, end of year holidays, snow and winter sports. This is why some people love winter and long for its coming. But, for others, winter means adverse weather, short days and long dark nights, being “stuck” indoors, and loneliness. They don’t look forward to winter. They say winter makes them feel “down” or “depressed”. Indeed, winter depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD) is a documented medical condition, affecting up to 3% of Germans annually.
For many Germans, spring can’t come quickly enough. Officially, spring begins on March 1, although the milder weather that accompanies spring does not always come until April or even May. But, at least, Easter is just a few weeks away. Just as winter and Christmas go together, spring and Easter are inseparable.
In the northern hemisphere, Easter (Ostern in German) coincides with the advent of spring. In Germany, it’s that time of year when deciduous trees and shrubs burst into life, budding or sprouting their new greenery. Flowers in garden beds or pots add splashes of vibrant colour to streets, town squares, parks and gardens. After a long, cold winter, this is a time of renewal, anticipation and excitement.
Plainly, this miraculous awakening that marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring in Germany is an allegory of the Biblical account of Jesus’ death, burial and rising to new life on the third day (Easter Day). Hence the connection between spring and Easter.
J S Bach’s Easter Oratorio (Oster-Oratorium) begins with the following words:
Kommt, eilet und laufet, ihr flüchtigen Füße,
Erreichet die Höhle, die Jesum bedeckt!
Lachen und Scherzen
Begleitet die Herzen,
Denn unser Heil ist auferweckt.
The English translation:
Come, hurry and run, you swift feet,
get to the cave that covers Jesus!
Laughter and jokes,
accompany our hearts,
for our Saviour is raised from the dead.
Bach wrote this work during his tenure in Leipzig. It was performed for the first time on Easter Day, Sunday 1 April 1725.
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Tony and I arrived back in Brisbane in the evening of Saturday 19 February. Our housesitters met us at the airport and we exchanged greetings. They handed over the keys of our house and car but refused our offer to drive them to their new place of abode. They insisted on catching the train, leaving us free to return home and unwind.
The next day, amongst our pile of accumulated mail, I found the envelope containing our Bible reading notes for the January-March 2022 quarter. Tony and I expected to receive them before we left for Europe, but they arrived too late. When I opened the envelope, I couldn’t believe what was on the cover – a photograph of purple crocuses, with the headline “Nurturing Young Faith”. What a special “Aha!” moment that was!
I remembered the crocuses, snowdrops and winterlings I had seen in Germany…wonderful little flowering plants that come back to life at the end of winter and announce the coming of spring. After a long cold winter, these untamed ubiquitous plants with their tiny delicate flowers bring cheer where there is despondency and hope where there is fear and uncertainty.
I thought of Jesus’ words, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:27-29)
A few days later our son sent us a photograph of his spring garden, including the first bulb to flower (a crocus). He was excited…and so was I. Spring had arrived. Winter was over.