Saturday, 1 May 2010

Yesterday turned out rather operatic in nature, when I look back on it. I drank gold, scaled forbidden towers and discussed the representation of evil with a cloistered nun...

I'd managed somehow to get myself invited at the last minute to join a private tour of the city (not entirely sure how; once again the influence of my generous neighbours - but I wasn't going to say no!). We explored various nooks and crannies; it was fascinating to see different aspects of the place. Visiting the only remaining working sparkling wine producer (there used to be literally hundreds, and even more breweries - they've always been fond of a drink here) was particularly interesting; as it wasn't an official tour, the clunking machinery for bottle filling, corking, sealing, labelling etc was in action, and we had to squeeze past those hard at work on the production line, led by the genial manager of the place. The tasting following the visit was great (grist to the mill for my burgeoning Spätburgunder infatuation) and I particularly appreciated the speciality of the place, a sparkling wine containing flecks of 22-carat gold, kept afloat and twinkling by all the bubbles. Wine connoisseurs will probably wince, but I adored the look of the stuff, and am never averse to ingesting a bit of pure gold. We got given a little bottle of it, too - wonderful!

Rather more sombre was a visit to a nunnery, whose underground cellar now serves as a sort of war memorial and shrine in one. We carefully descended the stairs, and the nun who'd let us in related how during the Second World War the convent had used the place as an air-raid shelter. On 27 February 1945 what was left of the city was bombarded heavily by the RAF (I moved back into the shadows in the corner at this point, being the only English person present...) and the 44 nuns in the cellar survived and dug their way out through the rubble-filled staircase, only to find the city on fire. Three of them stayed to help a dying woman, the others went back into the cellar to pray. Unfortunately their coal supplies in an adjacent cellar had been set alight by a passing spark, and when the three nuns who'd stayed on the surface returned, they found all 41 sisters dead where they knelt in a semicircle around the makeshift altar. It was a disturbing story on many levels, but I found no awkwardness amongst the Germans due to my nationality, which was a relief. Indeed once we were back out in the blessedly warm, peaceful and ash-free air on the surface, I had a lovely conversation with the nun about music, Tolstoy and the necessity for someone to sing the evil characters...

The highlight of the day, though, was that my neighbour had somehow got hold of the keys to the cathedral. The particular key he used to unlock the door leading (after several staircases and some quite narrow squeezes) to the west tower of the building, closed to the public, was a Proper Key, huge and heavy, don't get many of them to the pound; once again I felt as though I were on the stage as he ceremoniously unlocked a creaking wooden door. The views from the tower were amazing, and despite my habitual rush of vertigo I very much enjoyed seeing the city from a completely new perspective. Next time I'm wandering in the old town I shall be looking up carefully, trying to spot the underside of this rather lovely waterspout in the shape of (I think) a ram. What a treat to be able to see it from above!

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