Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Monday I realised that, unusually, the Spring equinox had passed unremarked in this household, here in our comfortable hotel on the Alpenstrasse in Salzburg.

We drove to Munich on Sunday afternoon – that was the 21st, the day after the equinox – a nice one-and-a-half hour drive on a good motorway. In Salzburg, we’re so much in the Alps that we didn’t really see the Alps. So it wasn’t until we were driving back from Munich Sunday evening that they came into perspective. There they were, truly magnificent, rising stark and austere in front of us. One massive loaf-shaped mountain in particular seemed to block our path as we raced toward it, about 20 km outside of Salzburg. We could see a pass to one side of it and wondered if we’d go around it there. As it turned out, the road curved in the opposite direction, and we found ourselves skirting its up-thrusting mass on its other side. That’s when we realised that here, in Salzburg, we look at the other side of that specific mountain daily.

This was, of course, late in the afternoon after the day spent in Munich, to which we had been guided by Mavis, our ever-so-patient Mistress of the GPS. It had been about 35 years since I had been there, and my husband had never visited the city, despite having lived in Germany for a year and a half. So while I was foostering around the hotel room that morning, getting myself ready, he did a quick Google search for a specific destination to give Mavis. He picked Marienplatz, in the city centre, and Nymphenburg, a grand schloss with formal gardens not far from there, a former royal summer palace.

Just as Mavis brought us through the final web of narrow, confusing streets and left us in a car park, I heard bells chiming. It was noon, exactly, so that made sense. Then I realised we heard not ordinary bells but those of a glockenspiel, and some ghost of a memory about mechanical figures on a clock teased the back of my brain. We hurried in the direction of the music and came out in a large platz dominated by the enormous, late gothic Neues Rathaus with its towers, flying buttresses, statues and gargoyles. In front of it, Marienplatz was filled with people with heads bent back looking in the same direction. Looking up, we saw in the central tower a three-tiered recessed stage filled a tableau of life-sized figures. Brightly painted, they revolved in a slow dance as the entire group circled and the glockenspiel played, a festive beginning to our afternoon, possible through sheer dumb luck.

It was a cloudy, windy day, but not uncomfortable, an appropriately spring day with the sun breaking through and the shop fronts glittering with colour. Across from a museum of toys, two Cossacks busked, both of them singing as one played the accordion. One in particular, short and stout with a sweet round face like a boy's, had a beautiful tenor voice, and we stopped to listen. They wore black trousers with a broad red stripe down each leg, which disappeared into knee-high black boots. Their jackets were bright red. The flat crown on the accordion player’s hat was as wide as a large platter, and it rose up at a dramatic angle, like a steep roof. When I dropped a euro into their basket, we noticed they were selling CDs. Some of the CDs we’ve bought from buskers over the years have turned out to be perfect for putting on at parties – flamingo guitar bought in Barcelona, bright and sweet Guatemalan pan pipes, guitars and drums bought in downtown LA, perfect to play as guests have their first drinks – so we bought one. It turns out to be choral performances of traditional Russian and Cossack songs, with Schubert’s Ave Maria and a few Christmas carols mixed in. I don’t know how well it will do as a mood setter at parties, but it’s a souvenir.

Returing to the Marienplatz for some lunch, we noticed preparations for something. A knot of older women clustered around a large red-and-white display of artificial flowers with a Marian motto in its centre. An solemn, white-haired man supervised the setting up of wooden benches facing a small wooden podium set in front of the statue of Mary that gives the platz its name. Five men in traditional Bavarian costume edged together in a protected corner of two shop fronts, practicing tunes on brass instruments. I wandered over to a handbill taped to the makeshift stage. A procession in honour of Mary, Mother of Our Lord, Patroness of Bavaria (I think that’s what it said) was to begin at 14:00 and continue until about 16:00.

We were in luck for the second time that day.

Ironically, truly, for I couldn’t keep it from mind, was that this was the day the pope’s letter, in which he did not exactly apologise for the sexual predation of children by his priests, monks and nuns, or take responsibility on behalf of the church, was being read from pulpits across Ireland. Further, this was Munich, the seat of the archdiocese over which he had been bishop, during which time he failed to protect the children from abuse by a priest under his direct authority. It was only that morning I had read Andrew Sullivan’s blog about the history of forced resignations of popes – could it be possible that Benedict could be forced to resign?

The prayers began as we sat at an outdoor cafe finishing lunch. A small group of mostly elderly people sat on benches as an older man droned. A priest wearing a lacy surplice and purple stole hovered just behind the platform. The brass band played hymns and the congregates sang, well in fact. We could make out the air of Salve Regina among the songs. After a time, Himself finished his beer and I my wine, and we moved on, in search of the twin-towered church known as the Frauenkirche. I had never seen a procession, so I noted its route. It would not get underway for a while and when it did, I reasoned, we would find it along the way.

It turns out that the Frauenkirche is Munich’s cathedral, so inside were wooden choir stalls with the names of former bishops noted. There was also a brass relief sculpture of Benedict, honoured in the cathedral over which he formerly presided. These representations did nothing to incline me to consider him with more respect. In the circumstances, it reinforced the disconnect between what one might expect of spiritual compassion and the world of the church.

We continued exploring the street around the Rathaus and the cathedral, looking in shop windows and gaping at architecture, trying to identify impressive classical and baroque buildings with of our tourist map. There was a crowd gathered in front of one shop window, adults as well as children all but pressing noses against the pane. Inside glittered a row of jewel-like confections, egg-shaped and sparkling, studded with ripe raspberries, enameled with vivid clear colours – ruby, amesyth, emerald – or thickly coated chocolate so thick and glossy it was nearly black. A child inside, fortunate beyond my dreams, watched as a waitress slipped a deep pink-and-cream delight onto a plate.

Himself and I agreed, in the end, that the delight must lay in regarding, rather than tasting, their beauty. As were the many Easter delights that glittered in other shop windows everywhere we turned.

As we walked down one street, we began to hear a droning amplified male voice, followed by a deep muttered response. We walked toward it and soon the Marian procession came into sight. It was stopped in front a building with a small shrine set high in the wall above the door. A statue of Mary in her blue-and-white gown rose from the center of the red-and-white floral arrangement. The priest was leading the group in the rosary, which we recognised through its rhythm and the odd word here and there. Banners flapped in the wind. The brass band, stood to the side. As I watched, one of them nudged another, and the five musicians straightened up and stood close together, instruments in hand, for the benefit of a photographer. I studied them carefully, taking in their thick felt hats, loden jackets, knee-length lederhosen, thick socks and low, side-fastened shoes. Their instruments were a tuba, a euphonium, a French horn and two cornets, I think.

At last, the priest finished speaking and six men struggled to lift to their shoulders the statue mounted on its heavy bier. The brass band fell into place behind priest and statute, and the procession moved on. Many of the followers were old and hunched forward, drab in woollens, hands folded, penitent-like, in front. One man, nearly doubled over in a brown cloak, had a small dog on a lead with him. Not a few were pushed in wheelchairs. As they passed, a woman stopped in front of me and thrust a small silver-coloured medal at me. She said something, in a voice somewhere between insistent and wheedling, which of course I didn’t understand. I shook my head, ‘Nein, nein.’ She didn’t move, pressing me, holding the medal, cradled in both hands, close to my face. Irritated, I continued to shake my head. I don’t know about her offended me. Was it was my fear that she wanted something in return for the medal or my general irritation that she should try to draw me into her superstition? Which amounts to the same thing, in the end. She gave up at last, we walked on, and she followed the procession, the brass-borne hymns drifting in their wake.

We continued up the street the procession had come down, and they doubled back up the street we had come down, and not long after we crossed paths again, the red and white flowers bright in the sun, the brass band, the purple-clad priest and his dogged followers, numbering about 50. We entered the Marienplatz from one side of side of the Rathaus, they from another, and the procession was over.

Where the pilgrims went from there, I don’t know. After their afternoon, I hope they went to cheerful homes and had kaffee und kuchen at tables graced by bright yellow tulips.

We, however, drove on to the schloss at Nymphenburg and walked its gardens, admiring grey geese and swans in ponds. At last, we drove back along the good motorway, while Porches, BMWs and Audis swooshed by at amazing speeds, the Alps in front of us framing the lowering grey clouds as the sun set, daylight just slightly more abundant than night.

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