Sunday, June 29, 2008

Surprise! Surprise!

“Vienna, city of my dreams”, I've always wanted to visit there. Maybe it's because I love waltzing. Maybe not. Here was my chance to realize my dream. We were using our time-share entitlements to arrange accommodation but RCI had nothing available in Vienna. Would my dreams have to wait?
Try Sopron.
Where? Sopron is a small city just over the border in Hungary. Only an hour from Vienna.
Sounds good. The dream is still alive. With this good advice aboard we landed at Schwechat airport in the “city of my dreams”, picked up the hire car and drove on to the land of Liszt.

Next morning came the surprise. A quick reccy and we soon realized that Sopron was much more than out-of-town accommodation for Vienna's visitors.
Here is history. The town was on one of those many roads which led to Rome. Two thousand years ago we would have been in Scarbantia. Its not only the ancient history here that's interesting.
Here the medieval lives on.
Here is natural beauty. The rolling forested hills of the Soproni Mountains embrace one side of the town and the intriguing Neusiedler Lake approaches the other. (Yes. Sopron does have more than two sides. Actually, Sopron has many sides.)
Here is music and culture. Franz Liszt and Joseph Haydn were regular visitors and their heritage lives on.
It appears that my dreams must be put on hold. There is more than enough to occupy me here.

Oh yes, the fire tower. I mustn't forget the fire tower. You can't miss it. It dominates the whole town, not only the adjacent main city square. It is regarded as the symbol of the city. It's been there in its present form since the fifteenth century but it is built on Roman foundations – a remnant of the ancient Scarbantia. The tower had an important role to play in past times. The watchman in the tower didn't just watch out for fires. He had to be multi-skilled. He was to keep an eye out for approaching unfriendly forces, as well as signalling the approach of VIPs and wine shipments. He had to keep the tower clock ticking as well. Yes a man with many responsibilities. Someone to look up to.

One can imagine his utter disappointment when the tower was burnt down in 1676. It seems that some of the local lads had chestnuts roasting on an open fire.... Oops!! And it wasn't just the tower. No merry Christmas in Sopron in1676. But it's an ill wind. Most of the old houses around the main square were destroyed and replaced by attractive baroque buildings which give it its beauty today.

At the base of the tower is a gate which leads to the Fo ter (Main Square). This is called the Loyalty Gate. There is a background to this rather unusual name. Sopron (once known by its German name of Ödenburg) is on the border of German- and Hungarian-speaking people. After the Austro-Hungarian Empire was disbanded after World War I the border areas here were apportioned to Hungary, Austria or Czechoslovakia. Initially the Sopron (Ödenburg) area was allotted to Austria, but the people were unhappy and in 1921 a plebiscite was held. (Fancy governments giving the people a say in their future!) The result was that this area became part of Hungary. The sculpture above the gate was commissioned and erected in recognition of the Soproni people's loyalty to Hungary. Hence Loyalty Gate. The sculpture depicts the symbolic figure of Hungary (centre) with the faithful inhabitants of Sopron gathered around. Isn't that a good-news story?

A lot of history in that tower.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


Which reminds me of Thargomindah.
What does?
Diverting from a planned route “to just have a look at something”.

A few years ago we had planned to drive to Cairns and ended up in Thargomindah.
Bad navigating?
No. We were barely under way (in the centre of Brisbane actually i.e. 20 kilometres from home) when Jill said, “Let's go via Thargomindah”.
Well, it is somewhat out of the way but hey! why not? We eventually arrived in this town some 1250 kilometres from Cairns as the crow flies, and believe me, there is a lot of crows out west. I wonder do they ever fly from Thargomindah to Cairns? But no stunning Baroque churches. Remember Banjo Patterson's outback poem The Bush Christening?
“On the outer Barcoo where churches are few
and men of religion are scanty,...”
Thargomindah is actually on the Bulloo River. But that's a minor detail. It's just as far out and the description fits.

We arrived in the lateish afternoon and, like in biblical times, there was no room at the inn. Nor at the motel. Nor at the caravan park! The helpful receptionist at the motel suggested a B&B 'out of town' (photo). She would telephone to see if they had a vacancy. “No sense driving there for nothing”. She did.
They did.
Then she gave us instructions to get there. “Well, a little way out of town”, she conceded, “but lovely people.” The place was some 80 kilometres down along the Bulloo River! Yes, eighty, or as the locals told us: “about four stubbies out”. Turn off the road when you see a boat on the right hand side, follow the track and you can't miss it.

We arrived to the hearty welcome of the worried hosts. Worried? There were storms in the area (we had noticed) and had one crossed the black-soil road we were slowly travelling along, we would have been stuck.
They didn't luckily.
And we weren't. Thank God for that.
It was these hosts who convinced us to stay around Thargomindah rather than drive all that long way (and out there you can't drive as the crow flies) to Cairns.

So for the next few weeks we experienced the desert splendour as well as the friendliness and hospitality of Thargomindah (it is a beautiful-sounding name) and Queensland's Far South West.
We still haven't been to Cairns together.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Souvenir Spoons

Grammy enjoyed travelling and she liked to punctuate her travel diary with souvenir spoons. But when you've taken your last trip and the time comes to hand in your passport this mathematical equation remains: One ardent traveller PLUS a penchant for collecting souvenir spoons EQUALS a big pile of spoons.

And the variety! The business end of the spoon comes in all shapes, sizes and designs. Brighton even has a picture of the Royal Pavilion on it. Then there are the various shafts. But it's the top end, the pictorial end which makes the statement and displays the ingenuity of the souvenir spoon designer. Here a “real” opal centred on Cooper Pedy, there a black and white penguin standing on Bruny Island and look, a wee kiwi hanging from the black ferns of New Zealand. Gold medal, however, goes to the two jubilant miners dancing atop the Kalgoorlie gold-plated extravaganza.

I can see the benefit in buying souvenir spoons. They are relatively cheap and easy and light to carry. Oh! And you can use them. Well ONE you can. Perhaps half a dozen; but hundreds? They surely must have some real use. They do have memento value to the traveller. But isn't it true that they mostly accumulate in an unused drawer and tarnish?

One could devise all manner of party games based on the spoons.(Do spoons spin?) They could be used to teach geography. (“Here's a spoon for each of you kids. Draw a map of it and list its main industries.” “Sir, where's Expo 88?”) Whereas some are salt spoons and there are jam and honey spoons, most are teaspoons, so you could have endless afternoon tea parties without visiting the same place twice.

You could become an ardent collector, going out of your way to add to your collection. Or you could become an armchair collector and travel the world on Ebay. I must check out the going rate for souvenir spoons at the flee-markets and local garage sales. Maybe there's a dollar to be made in wheeling and dealing in spoons. I am sure that some would be more valuable than others. “I'll swap my Miniland, Coonabarabran, (with a black Tyrannosaurus Rex) AND a Port Arthur Powder Magazine for The Royal Wedding 29 July 1981.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Wow of a Church

Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name;
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Psalm 29: 2.

It is Sunday evening and so I think the quote from Psalms is quite appropriate. It also takes me back a few weeks when we were driving along a road in Southern Germany. We were following our route on the road atlas and we noticed a “place of touristic interest” in the middle of what appeared to be nowhere. The specific symbol on the map indicated this “place of touristic interest” to be a church. It had the name “Wieskirche”.
Being in no great hurry, we decided to investigate. This is one of the advantages of individual travel. You do not have to be at a specific place at a specific time. But then I can remember times on a planned tour when we weren't where we were supposed to be. There was this one time when.... But I'm getting off the track. Back to Southern Germany! We came over a rise and Wow!! Here was this huge church. Yes, in the middle of nowhere, but surrounded by hundreds of cars, buses, trinket shops, restaurants, and beer stalls. This was the Wieskirche, or to give it its official name, 'Wallfahrtskirche zum Geißelten Heiland auf der Wiese' (Pilgrimage Church of the Scourged Saviour at Wies).
We had unknowingly stumbled on one of the most beautiful rococo churches of Southern Germany – a cultural site on the UNESCO World Heritage List. So much for a planned, well-researched holiday!
Going into the church was a double Wow! It is easy to see why hundreds of pilgrim groups and over a million tourists visit this church every year. Who said church attendances were falling in Europe? That day – admittedly it was a Sunday – things were really buzzing in the surrounding establishments as well as in the church. What on earth is going on here? What is this church all about? My inadequate descriptions would be superfluous. There are a lot of interesting facts about this church at (in English also) as well as many other sites. Especially intriguing is the history surrounding its establishment as a pilgrimage church and the reason for the name 'Scourged Saviour'.

All of which raises a question – Why are churches so high on the list of tourist sites? Not only this one which has such obvious appeal, but most places like to promote their local church as a place worthy of a visit. Or is this a subtle form of proselytising?
Perhaps the verse from Psalm 29 gives some clue. There have always been devout people who spared no expense in building worship centres, (Christian and other) where a specific deity is worshipped. The Abbot and monks of the nearby town of Steingaden spared no expense in having this church built. Nor did those who recently restored it to its present (or should I say past?) glory. Today people still come to churches to worship. Others just to see the beauty. But I agree with you. There is much more to it than this. Must think more about these things.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Food for thought

Read the other day about a family where the toddler twins were found in their room by an older sibling – dead. The father hadn't seen them for some months and the mother thought maybe she didn't feed them often enough. There is obviously a whole sad story there and I don't know the details and can't make any judgements about it. The parents are to be charged with not supplying the necessities of life. This is a legal obligation for anyone sharing a house.
It put me in mind of a conversation I had many years ago about eating and family. The Bible verse about those who don't work should also not eat was quoted. I am quite hopeless at direct quotes from anywhere. Don't seem to be able to remember exactly where things come from or the exact words used. I hope I get the gist, however. I dislike it when a few words are taken from the Bible to support some argument and no thought is given to the overall message or even the historical context.
Anyway our response was that anyone in our house would be fed regardless of their efforts in any field and the arguee realised that what was said was a bit harsh. It seems the law agrees with me.
On a larger scale, however, we should remember that we all share the home called Earth and this means that everyone here is entitled to be fed regardless of their value to us personally as people.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Lingua Franca

“No worries! Most people in Europe understand English. You don't have to worry about that phrase book!”
Well, apart from being a rather arrogant attitude, it's not strictly true. Sure, in the major hotels on the main tourist routes there will be someone who speaks English, but off the beaten track....... I had a stomach bug and quite debilitating diarrhoea in Hungary. I needed help, but my miming did nothing to change the blank look on the face of the receptionist. Luckily we had a computer to hand and made use of the translating function (and this one could speak Hungarian). She then understood and gave me some tablets which fixed the problem. My only trouble was trying to spell d.i.a.r.r.h.o.e.a.

Which reminds me of an American in Paris. No, not the Gene Kelly movie of some decades ago. This Yank was a modern tourist in Paris, with camera, loud shirt, etc. He just couldn't wait to try out his school French. (Good on him!!) After spending some time studying the menu he beckoned the waiter, “Garsong, je desire consomme royal et un piece of pang et beurre – oh damm – une piece of beurre.”
“I'm sorry,” replied the very tactful waiter in perfect English, “I don't speak French!”
“Well,” said the American, “could you go and find me someone who can?!”

Anyway, after a handful of Carbo activatus the problem was indeed fixed and we were soon on the way, enjoying the fresh green of the Hungarian forests.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Up and over Bernina Pass

The Bernina Pass allows rail and road access from the eastern regions of Switzerland to Tirano in N. E. Italy. The Bernina Express which travels up and over is one of Switzerland's scenic trains. It overcomes some very steep gradients (for a train) to climb over the 2330 metre pass and then loops the loop to make its way down into Italy. It is a marvel of railway technology. Many people avail themselves of the opportunity to use this particular technology to appreciate the natural beauty of this part of the Swiss Alps (seen here in early summer).

Some 2000 years ago Roman soldiers used to walk over this pass (hopefully not in winter!). Steep going? Yes, it would have been, but tramping over 2330 metres is better than scaling the mountains on either side which reach 4000 metres. I wonder if their attention was focused on the beauty of the Alps or were they dreaming of a technology which would make their journey a little more comfortable? (Most likely they were dreaming of sunny Italy which they would probably never see again!)

It's sad that today's technology (eg. transport) often overshadows the beauty of a natural landscape, as is the case here in the Mosel river valley in Germany. Speaking more generally however, isn't it a fact that we are so continually bombarded with one unbelievable scientific advancement after another that our minds are numbed by it all – digital sound and vision reproduction, medical breakthroughs, aircraft and space travel and communications. It is nothing short of amazing that I can sit in my lounge room and watch events taking place on the other side of the world, or indeed check out the soil on Mars. (Actually I have to sit in our TV room, for my wife does not allow a TV in the lounge room).

In all this our capacity to appreciate things natural has diminished. But in spite of the apparent omnipresence of human achievement, there is still a world of wonder waiting for those who want to discover it. Yes, up there in the Swiss Alps or check out a passion-fruit flower.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Suffer the Little Children....

Talking about Sunday school on our way home from church yesterday, my wife and I. Don't know particularly why, but it seemed appropriate at the time. Some folk see it as so important to have a thriving Sunday school – letter dropping the local community inviting the 'kiddies' along; spending disproportionate sums in setting up attractive Sunday school rooms, many of which are only used a few hours each week....
“I feel they put their energies into Sunday school because it's easier.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, it's easier to tell a little child,' Jesus loves you', than to discuss the Christian message with an adult.”
“You mean it's a cop out?”

Here in our Western Societies there are still many hereditary Christians – people who have grown up in a Christian family and have taken the Christian message aboard without really thinking about it. They have absorbed the message as a child. They are quite comfortable with statements such as “The church teaches...” and “The Bible says that...” without any critical analysis, forgetting that different churches promote different teachings and that throughout the centuries the Bible has been variously interpreted to suite what a church wanted. So many find it difficult to have a discussion with someone who does not accept the infallibility of the church and the absolute truth of God's word.

We also know that many of these hereditary Christians grew cold when they really started thinking about their inherited beliefs. But that's another story!

A modern intelligent agnostic, when confronted by someone with the Christian message is going to want the answers to many questions. The Church must be ready and willing to give these answers without referring simply to their own dogma. These people will not be “coerced into faith by the sheer weight of the inexplicable” (J.B.Phillips: God our Contemporary).

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Church for all Reasons

Einhard's Basilica in Seligenstadt is not just a noticeable building. It is truly a church used for all occasions. While we were staying with our friends/relatives in Germany they were invited to a baptism in the basilica and we were asked to come along as special guests. No, not “special” really. That appellative was reserved for the little girl being baptized.

The Bible reading for the ceremony was Luke 10: 30 -37, – the parable of the good Samaritan. (Or should I write, “Lukas 10: 30-37, - der barmherzige Samariter”?) A strange reading, you might say, and I thought so too initially. Then the priest gave his address based on the same reading. The line he took was unusual (to me at least). He portrayed Jesus as the good Samaritan. Which is interesting for the Jews in Jerusalem once “accused” Jesus of being a Samaritan.
“The Jews replied, “are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and possessed by a devil'?” John 8:48-49. Jesus answered, “I am not possessed; no, I honour my Father but you want to dishonour me.” I note here that Jesus did not deny that he was a Samaritan, but rather that he was not possessed by a devil.

Anyway, the Priest pointed out how a despised Jesus goes out of his way to help us when we are hurt and abandoned by others; how he is a cure for our pains; how he takes us to a safe place where we are healed and he himself pays for all this; no cost to us. Interesting parallel you may say, but what has that to do with baptism? Well, the little girl being baptized was starting out on life's journey where she will encounted various kinds of brigands, but she can be assured that the good Samaritan will always be there to care for her. Then it was off, throught the old town of half-timbered houses, to the other celebration of cofee and Kuchen... and Kuchen... and....
My photo shows an old beauty from 1596 – the “Einhardhaus”. Seems as though Einhard is everywhere in Seligenstadt!
As we were leaving the church guests were arriving for a wedding which was to take place shortly afterwards. This old basilica is not only a tourist attraction but is the focal point of the busy parish of St Marcellinus and Petrus, Seligenstadt. Marcellinus and Petrus, now there is another story. They were two Christian martyrs from the fourth century persecutions in Rome. By some devious means Einhard brought their relics from Rome in 828 and advertised them as a feature of his recently-build pilgrimage church. Today these relics are interred under the main altar of the basilica and these two martrys remain the patron saints of the town.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

In a Monastery Garden

This takes me back to my school days and piano lessons. (No, I didn't go to a Catholic school!) Sooner or later, and in my case it was later, music teachers would introduce students to some of the descriptive works by the early twentieth century composer Albert Ketelby. Piano pieces such as “In a Chinese Temple”, “In a Persian Market” and yes; you've guessed it! - “In a Monastery Garden” figured prominently in the young pianists' repertoire. Those afternoons of piano practice (rather than playing tennis!) came back to me as I was strolling through the garden behind the restored Benedictine monastery in Seligenstadt.

I must admit that I couldn't really relate the tune – those snatches faintly remembered – to the beauty of the garden around me. I must try to track down a copy of the old sheet music and maybe picking out the tune will do the reverse and take me back to the pleasant time spent in Seligenstadt and the monastery garden there.

There are the vines, then the herb garden, fruit trees, flowers and vegetables, and all so neatly organized. Is neatness next to godliness? Both my wife and my daughter are self-proclaimed vege-garden experts. But theirs is a slash, plant and pray variety – slash down the verdant weeds, plant sundry vegetables among their skeletons and pray that they grow and produce. They end up with a disorganized arrangement of various vegetables growing cheek by jowl with resurrected weeds. “Better for the soil. Better for the plants. Duplicating nature. Monoculture leads to the ruination of the soil.” These and other justifications are given for their agri-methods.

Oh, that they could see this monastery garden where the peas are happily growing with the other peas and the lettuces are all lined up neatly. Here the slow-growing lettuce is unable to hide its tardiness behind a pumpkin leaf or indeed die and pretend that a grass-straw was there all the time. This all gives a quiet, peaceful environment surely appreciated by the erstwhile monks more than the discordant aspect of slash and let
grow would have done. But did the lettuce taste as sweet? Alas. That we shall never know!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Seligenstadt - A Blessed City?

In my German/English dictionary the meaning given for “selig” is blessed (rel.). In the Bible in the fifth chapter of St Matthew we read, “Selig sind, die reines Herzens sind; denn sie werden Gott schauen.” Oops. Sorry! That should be Ev. Matthäi. St Matthew, chapter 5, verse 8 in my old King James version reads, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. (Many modern translations do not use “blessed” but “happy”, which seems to miss the point of it all.)

All of which takes us back 1200 years to the early 800s, to Charlemagne, the supreme ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, and to Einhard. Einhard? I would hazard a guess that most people have never heard of Einhard. He was, however, quite big in Charlemagne's day. He was a trusted envoy and close advisor of the Emperor and later wrote a definitive biography of the great ruler. He was born in the Main Valley region (that's where we are at the moment) but then lived in the royal court at Aachen, doing what royal advisors used to do in those days. But apparently – according to legend – Einhard did a little more than most.

It is reported that Charlemagne had a number of daughters who were a little generous with their affections. Einhard was smitten and ran off with one of these 'wild' daughters, Imma, headed back to his home districts (the Germans call it his “Heimat”) and settled in the small town of Obermuhlinheim on the Main river. The lovebirds were tracked down, but rather than exacting revenge, Imma's forgiving father cried, “Selig sei die Stadt genannt, wo ich meine Tochter wiederfand”. (May the town be called blessed, where I found my daughter again.) Hence Obermuhlinheim became Seligenstadt.

Well, maybe. It is true however that Einhard was important in the early (i.e. around 800) development of the town. The settlement itself was really founded by the Romans some 800 years before Einhard's time. Today a huge church, Einhard's Basilica, surrounded by a restored Benedictine Monastery, stands witness to his influence in the town those many centuries ago.

Einhard, whose wife was indeed Imma, but the sister of the Bishop of Worms, had been granted a number of estates in recognition of his work for the Emperor. He chose to live in one of these – Obermuhlinheim. Here he had erected a pilgrim church which contained the relics of two early Christian martyrs which he somehow had transported from Rome. This is the basis of another version of the origin of the name Seligenstadt. Pilgrims visiting this place would call it “Saligunstat” - the blessed place.

Whatever the case, Einhard's Basilica and the restored monastery beside it, create a focal point for the visitors to Seligenstadt today. And if you ever happen to be in Seligenstadt and want to go to Steinheim (also an interesting place) down river a little, you can leave by the Steinheim tower gate (photo). Over 300 years old that fine structure.

Sunday, June 8, 2008


Just got back from some time in Europe.
Ah! Europe River Cruising. Now that's the way to go. “Magnificent”, “exclusive”, “champagne”, “luxury”, “quality”, “gala”, “deluxe” - these are just some of the words the coloured brochure used to entice me on board. And then there's “free” and “free” and “save” and “save”. Makes me wonder why at this very moment I am not sitting on the sundeck of ms whatever, sipping a Rüdesheimer Rheinwein and savouring the Rhine scenery.
And all this could be mine “from $9247*”, ppts^. Ah! The word “from“ and the asterisk, now therein lies a whole new tale. One now needs to find a magnifying glass, refer to the bottom of the page and read the lines of the very fine print which begin: “Conditions apply.....”.
This price applies to category E cabins. Then it's a quick check-up on the net to find out where categary E cabins are located. Just as I thought – low price, low deck! They are on the lower deck next to the engine room and water tanks. Looked at from the outside they are behind those little black dots one sees just above the water-line. Fixed windows (portholes which can't be opened or the river water would gust in) allow you to have a fish-eye view of the twigs and branches, plastic bags, bottles and dead fish floating by.
But there's no great cause to worry for there is a very limited number of these and you are unlikely to get one. So you must upgrade. Up and up to a higher deck where indeed you have a balcony with a small table and two chairs, and a position which allows you to see beyond the levee banks. But you probably won't get one of these either. They have become too expensive. How quickly has my dream of a romantic European river cruise “from $9247*”, ppts^ , been left in the wake of ms whatever.

Stop dreaming and come back to earth. And I did, in Seligenstadt. Seligenstadt is a delightful little town on the Main river in Germany; the river which allows those deluxe river boats to sail from the Danube river into the Rhine, or from the Rhine river into the Danube if you are travelling in the other direction. A ferry crosses the Main here, on which both vehicles and passengers travel free. I went over and back a number of times, and indeed it cost me absolutely nothing. Here my European river cruising was indeed FREE. The deck-hand noticed me sitting going backwards and forwards across the river and in my school-boy German I explained what I was doing. Which reminds me. I must look up the meaning of “verrückt”.
^ per person, twin share

PS Too boring on the ferry. How about a deckhand on a river barge? My photos show possibilities on both the Main and the Mosel.