Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

Goslar and Hildesheim

These two small towns preserve some of Germany’s finest structures.

Hildesheim, the larger of the two, was unfortunately not spared from damage during World War II. The aerial bombings badly damaged the 11th century St. Michael’s Church, one of the great examples of Ottonian / early Romanesque architecture in Germany. So what is seen today is a reconstructed version, but still reflects the gravity and sobriety of the church. The interior, although mostly new, is generally unadorned, save for the richly painted ceiling and a band of angel reliefs at the north transept. 

St. Michael's (Michaelskirche)

St. Michael's (Michaelskirche)

Streetscape, Hildesheim

Streetscape, Hildesheim

The central square is outstanding. It’s dominated by this massive eight story Fachwerkhaus:

Marktplatz, Hildesheim

Marktplatz, Hildesheim

Goslar is fairy-tale Germany, a small town abutting the Harz, with an old town worthy of its reputation. It’s simply cute, and after the visitors had gone home for the day, it was very quiet. I stayed rather late, since my train was not until half past 8 in the evening, and as it’s near the summer solstice, the daylight was long. So I took a tour of the Rammelsberg mines and spent the rest of the time in the old town. The style of the houses is interesting, apart from the half-timbered houses so well-known in Germany, many structures are covered in slate shingles.

Old town, Goslar

Old town, Goslar

The 12th century Klosterkirche Neuwerk, at the edge of the old town, is a quirky Romanesque church, with some interesting features, including a richly decorated exterior, and some weird ‘hooks’ inside:

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Apse carvings

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Eifel, Maulbronn, Bad Wimpfen, Mainz

More auto touring around Germany, it’s a real pleasure to drive around the country, gas prices notwithstanding. A few recent highlights:

Kloster Maulbronn- this place seems untouched by the war, given that Allied bombs hit pretty much every nearby city (Heidelberg, Stuttgart, Mannheim, Karlsruhe, to name a few). It’s also relatively untouristed, being well clear of the autobahn, and located in a very small town. This is a virtually intact medieval cloister of mixed Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles, and auxiliary buildings in that classic Fachwerk construction. 

Kloster Maulbronn

Kloster Maulbronn

Rapeseed field, bloomin'

Rapeseed field, bloomin'

Bad Wimpfen- a very cute hilltop town overlooking the Neckar River. The drive along the Neckar valley was much like the Rhine or Mosel, with plenty of old ruined castles on the cliffs, and heavy shipping traffic on the river. 

Bad Wimpfen

Bad Wimpfen

Mainz- I went there with the intention of visiting the cathedral, the Gutenberg Museum, and the Chagall windows. All three were closed, what luck. But the day was nice and warm, and I ended up strolling the citadel, and spent it on badly delayed trains.

Mainz skyline

Mainz skyline

Eifel- a bit long for a day tour, and coming from a volcanic part of the world, it was a bit disappointing. The landscape is a nice change from the gently rolling geography of much of Germany, though. But it’s on a small scale, although the cones and lakes are unmistakably volcanic in origin. I checked out the Maare near Daun, Germany, the magnificent Romanesque Maria Laach church near Koblenz, and then huffed it back to Frankfurt. Oh and yes, there is a ski piste as well.

Maria Laach, Klosterkirche

Maria Laach, Klosterkirche

Daun, Weinfelder Maar

Daun, Weinfelder Maar

This is small-town Germany, I can imagine being utterly bored growing up in a place like this. The lakes were pretty nifty, though, with two of them serving as swimming holes for locals, popular on a warm weekend like the past one. Maybe the American Midwest is similar, dead quiet on a Sunday in town, with the odd person walking the streets and all of the businesses shuttered. Not exactly a place where I want to live out my life.

I also took a walk to the top of the Eifel, the Hohe Acht tower (747 m), which was peaceful, except for the incessant hum of the Nuerburgring racetrack far below. There was an event during my brief sojourn, and the area had blossomed into an informal trailer park and campground. The area around it apparently is also used as an informal racetrack, I saw the result of a Ferrari that turbo-boosted it off the Hohe Acht road.

Endless green of the Eifel from hohe Acht

Endless green of the Eifel from hohe Acht

Detroit, May 2009

Last of a series of long weekends in Germany, so I pounced on a cheap flight, got an excellent hotel and car rental deal via Priceline, and spent the weekend in Detroit. Oh, and I spent Sunday biking through the city.

Detroit? Pretty much nothing but bad news coming out of there these days, except for the Red Wings. The city has become synonymous with urban decay, murder, poverty, and the ills of the auto industry, and not a whole lot of positive stuff has been reported about Detroit for many decades now. But let’s not forget that the city was a thriving place of 2 million people nearly sixty years ago, built on the automobile industry, and on immigration from central and eastern Europe, with some of America’s very best architecture. So I’ve been fascinated by this place, and finally had the chance to visit.

The glory days are long over. Many buildings are now endangered, and the once great boulevards of the city, Michigan Avenue, Gratiot, Grand River, are shells of their former selves. Only Woodward, the main north-south artery, retains its former grandeur. The churches of Detroit are also for the most part, in good condition, albeit with dwindling congregations. The once-German and Polish neighborhoods have been depopulated, most noticeably during the 1950s and after the 1967 riots that decimated the city.

St. Joseph's, just off of Gratiot. Still regular services in Latin and German!

St. Joseph's, just off of Gratiot. Still regular services in Latin and German!

Michigan Avenue from near the station, looking east. The remains of Tiger Stadium are on the left.

Michigan Avenue from near the station, looking east. The remains of Tiger Stadium are on the left.

Grand River Ave.

Grand River Ave.

Gratiot Ave.

Gratiot Ave.

Downtown is a treasure trove of distinguished skyscrapers from the first three decades of the 20th century, but as with much of the city, please go visit now, because there’s no guarantee that it will be there tomorrow. The area around Grand Circus Park remains a skyscraper graveyard, and many buildings are empty or abandoned. Parking garages seem to be almost as common as buildings. The few bright spots include the recent renovations of the Book Cadillac Hotel and the Fort Shelby, which have brought back a bit of life into the west downtown area. The Penobscot and Guardian Buildings are looking as good as new, as well. I’ll write more about the architecture in another post.

Downtown from Campus Martius

Downtown from Campus Martius

The neighborhoods, well, they are a different story. Inner Detroit is rapidly becoming an urban prairie. The great commercial arteries are now quite empty, with an odd business open here and there, but clearly unhealthy. So pretty much, the city is down to pockets of neighborhoods, with relatively few cohesive stands of houses. Despite this, Detroiters remain fiercely proud of their city, and a remarkably friendly bunch. 

One exception to the depopulation of neighborhoods is west and southwest Detroit, which are thriving thanks to a wave of immigrants from Mexico. And outside the city, in Hamtramck and Dearborn, a new generation of immigrants from the Middle East and Eastern Europe have kept them very robust, interesting places to visit. Restoration of Detroit’s historic neighborhoods is ongoing, although too late for inner city areas such as Brush Park and the region east of the Medical Center. Some blocks have just a house or two left standing, the remainder is a large lawn. Even more odd, more often than not, the one or two houses left on the block are perfectly maintained, even inviting. Nevertheless, the restored houses give a glimpse into the once-grand past of the city.

The Polish Yacht Club, Jos. Campau Street, still in business!

The Polish Yacht Club, Jos. Campau Street, still in business!

Brush Park survivors

Brush Park survivors

Ex-firehouse, Michigan Avenue

Ex-firehouse, Michigan Avenue

Little house on the (urban) prairie

Little house on the (urban) prairie

And a few words about Michigan Central Station, probably America’s most famous ruin, beautiful and depressing all at the same time. The location was strategic and wrong. Strategic because it was at the Detroit end of the tunnel to Canada, wrong because the developers thought that downtown would expand west, which it didn’t. The park leading to the station is a beautiful piece of city planning, but now sadly overgrown and empty. The station was abandoned in 1988 when the last Amtrak train rolled through it, and has been weathered by vandals and the elements since then. Still, plenty of people wander around and inside it, and I was treated to an impromptu jazz concert from a lone clarinetist playing one evening. The massive building dominates the nearby Corktown and Mexicantown neighborhoods, and is now threatened with “expedited demolition”. See it while you can.

Michigan Central Station

Michigan Central Station

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Neighboring Dearborn remains the center of the Arab-American community, and Hamtramck, an oasis of stability surrounded by Detroit, is a fascinating mix of people of Polish descent, mixed in with more recent arrivals from diverse places like Yemen, Ukraine, Albania, Bosnia, and Bangladesh. I found a small-town feel in Detroit, where people were willing to stop and chat with a total stranger like myself, and I didn’t feel as anonymous as I do in Germany.

Kowalski Sausage Company, Hamtramck

Kowalski Sausage Company, Hamtramck

Krajenke Buick and Yugo, closed since 1992.

Krajenke Buick and Yugo, closed since 1992.

Carl's Chop House on Grand River, closed 2008. Given the surroundings, not a surprise.

Carl's Chop House on Grand River Ave., closed 2008. Given the surroundings, not a surprise.