Friday, 30 October 2015

Lohengrin’s Lair

Swan Tower
My regular operatic visits to the Ruhr and Lower Rhine areas of Germany leave me plenty of time to kill between evening performances, and I am always on the lookout for new places to visit during the daytime. Recently I was in Düsseldorf for a couple of nights, so on a very murky mid-October day I took the Regio Express train for 90 minutes to the end of its line at Kleve, just short of the Dutch border. Better known in English as Cleves (it was spelt as Cleve in Germany until spelling reform in the 1930s), it is probably most familiar as the home town of King Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne – the one whom he divorced after a mere six months when her visage proved to be nowhere near as pulchritudinous as Holbein’s portrait of her. But the town itself sets much greater store by a more mythical former inhabitant, the swan knight Lohengrin.

In Wagner’s version of the story, Lohengrin reveals in his Narration in Act III that he has come all the way from Montsalvat, which is presumed to be Montserrat in the mountains outside Barcelona. Given that Kleve is a mere 5km from the Rhine it makes for a far more plausible swan journey to leave his castle, travel down the great river to the North Sea and take the Scheldt up-river to the Brabantine court in Antwerp. Obvious, really. (Quite coincidentally, I had been in Antwerp the day before, following the previous evening’s performance of another Wagner opera, Tannhäuser, though my journey to the Rhineland had been more conventionally land-based.)

Kleve’s Lohengrin connection stems from the castle at its heart, the Schwanenburg, or Swan Castle. The counts who settled and built their fortress on the cliff-top overlooking the Rhine floodplain in the 11th century (‘Cleve’ derives from the word for ‘cliff’) believed they were descended from the local version of the swan knight, Helias, stories of whom were circulating among the troubadours for more than a century before finding literary form in the Teutonic medieval epics that Wagner used as his sources. But the idea of a saviour knight turning up on a swan to rescue a damsel in distress is common to them all. And today the swan has become the symbol of Kleve, from its logo and town website tab ident to virtually every piece of public art in the place. Among these is one of the wittiest water features anywhere: the Schwanenbrunnen (Swan Fountain, see above) in the main square portrays Wagner as Lohengrin, with the swan trying to drag him away into the water by his coat-tails and a buxom opera singer (Elsa?) along with two urchins pleading with him from the shore.

Kleve pictured in 1945, after its air-raids
The line of the Counts and the Dukes of Cleve, who were ruling over much of the lower Rhineland by the time of Anna’s marriage to Henry VIII in 1540, eventually died out in the early 17th century and the dukedom was swallowed up by Brandenburg and, much later, by Prussia. Besieged by the Spanish in 1635 and occupied by the French during the Napoleonic wars, Kleve then enjoyed a century or more as a leading spa town, thanks to a mineral spring that had been discovered in the 18th century, and it became a favoured place for Rhineland/Ruhr industrialists to build their weekend villas. These are some of the only buildings in Kleve to have survived two heavy Allied air-raids, in October 1944 and February 1945, which destroyed 90 per cent of the town, including the castle.

Despite the fact that Kleve had to be completely rebuilt and with only its most notable buildings reconstructed as they had been before the war, it’s an atmospheric place, or at least it was on the misty day I explored it. The Swan Tower at the heart of the castle was one of the first structures to be reborn and now houses a moderately interesting little museum on local geology and history with, on a clear day, views over the whole of the lower Rhineland (open daily April to October, at weekends only over winter); the rest of the castle is now occupied by law courts and municipal offices. Also rebuilt, though it took the best part of 40 years, is the main, double-spired Collegiate Church, whose origins go back to the 10th century; its most recent additions are its striking series of post-Millennial stained-glass windows (pictured right), which give the interior a rare unified feeling (open for visits daily except lunchtimes and during services).

One of the grandest of the 19th-century villas is now the Museum Kurhaus Kleve, an art gallery whose collection spans some five centuries and has an important focus on the work of the leading modernist performance artist Joseph Beuys (1921–86), who spent much of his early life in and around Kleve. The work of another local artist, Dutch landscape painter Barend Cornelis Koekkoek (1803–62), is celebrated in the villa he built in the centre of the town, one of the few in that area to survive the air-raids, which briefly stood in as a postwar town hall and is now the BC Koekkoek Museum. Otherwise, the architecture in much of the town centre, especially its shopping streets, is blandly 1950s–70s, though the hillier area around the castle at least maintains its historic feel and the original street plan survives.

The area in which Kleve sits, hard by the Dutch border and bound by hills in the west and the Rhine to the east, is known as Cleverland. It’s a popular draw for Netherlanders from over the border, attracted by its lower property prices and cost of living, which I suppose is why the locals call themselves Cleverlanders.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Ruhe in the Ruhr

A former ironworks in Duisburg, now turned into a landscape park
If you thought that the Ruhr region of north-west Germany was nothing but belching chimneys, satanic mills and slag heaps, think again. It is true that vestiges of those images do still exist in places, especially among the chemical factories along the Lower Rhine, but the one-time heart of European heavy industry, mining and manufacture has its sweeter side as well. In recent times, the region has re-invented itself as a cultural hotspot (it was European Capital of Culture in 2010) and has gone to great lengths to exploit its industrial archaeology by turning one-time turbine halls, coking plants and mines into museums, landscape parks and performance venues.

The Untermarkt in Hattingen
But there’s another Ruhr, one that seemingly survives unscathed by modern industry. Admittedly, wartime bombing flattened all the big towns and cities, many of which had historic hearts, and the present-day Altstadts of these are often sad relics of former glories. Move away into the countryside, however – and there’s a surprising amount of open forest and farmland between the cities, as any local train journey reveals – and there are historic villages, townscapes and miles and miles of paths and trails for hiking or cycling.

Fachwerk in Hattingen
The 'clothes iron house' in Hattingen
Essen is the largest city in the Ruhr and was once dominated by the industry of the Krupp engineering empire (the family’s Valhalla-like mansion, Villa Hügel, is now a major tourist attraction in a park to the south of the city). But within easy reach are a handful of unspoilt smaller towns that seem to belie their presence in this part of Germany. Principal among them is the former Hanseatic town of Hattingen, a 20-minute S-Bahn ride south-east from Essen, and a place that with its 143 restored half-timbered buildings seems like a world away. The approach from the Hattingen-Mitte S-Bahn terminus is somewhat unprepossessing, over a ring road and through a modern shopping centre, but soon one is in a medieval square, the Untermarkt, dominated by its 16th-century Altes Rathaus (old town hall - see main image above). Behind it is the parish church of St George, with its jauntily bent spire, and surrounding that an enjoyable maze of little lanes full of half-timbered gems, such as the ‘Bügeleisenhaus’ (iron house, from its top-heavy profile looking like a clothes iron, see picture, right). Even here there’s a heritage of iron- and steel-making, and a modern town gate has been designed to pay tribute to its industrial past, while within walking distance just to the north of the historic town centre is the Heinrichshütte Ironworks, a major component of the Ruhr-wide Westphalian State Museum of Industrial Culture. But it’s the other-worldly Fachwerk, or half-timbered architecture, that makes Hattingen one of the most charming places to visit in the region, especially during the summer, when its many cafés and restaurants spill out into the streets and squares.

Street scene in Kettwig
Except around its mouth at Duisburg and nearby Mülheim, the river that gives the region its name meanders with tranquil insouciance between wooded hills. The worst of the industry left the Ruhr valley for the flatter area to the north in the 19th century and now it’s a pleasant area to explore, whether on excursion boats on its various dammed stretches, walking or cycling along its dedicated long-distance path or visiting its riverside towns. The most attractive of these is Kettwig, on the S-Bahn line between Essen and Düsseldorf (Kettwig and Kettwig-Stausee stations are equally about a 15-minute walk from the town centre). Rather than the traditional black-and-white half-timbering of Hattingen, the architecture here is dominated by green-slate cladding, which gives the place a subdued but austere feel. There’s an attractive square and sinuous main street and a gentle tumble of steps and lanes falling away to the river from below the church.