What We Did On Our Holidays

We promised a catch-up of our doings. They began with catching a plane to Amsterdam, returning to the familiar, sewagey smell of a Dutch town and stone setts underfoot bedded in sand. The Rijksmuseum is offering a distilled version of itself while its lengthy and extensive repairs continue, so concentrated on masterpieces it’s almost better than the full version. We did some windowshopping, reflecting once more on the conundrum that in both Holland and Germany, the populace is on the whole nicely dressed, but all the clothes in shop windows are repulsive, and ended the day by consuming a rijstaffel of tremendous scope and variety with the Greatest Living Shakespearean. Then we got a train to Wolfenbüttel, where there was a conference, a tidy little principality of wooden houses with raised-sunk gilt inscriptions along the string-course. It was the beautiful roofs I noticed as much as anything (due to the viscissitudes of our own little kingdom over the last few years we have become roof conscious): beautiful, elaborate, double A-frame roofs with top-quality slate tiling moving with such panache over wildly varying slopes it was like dragons’ scales. Some houses were tile-hung over the whole façade, with complex patterns. It did strike us that if the Dukes of Brunswick (who owned it) had not got above themselves and become the House of Hanover, the current heir to the throne would have been very happy there. Once the academic bit was over and we had got the G. L. S. onto a train for Switzerland, we went to Würzburg via a thrilling train ride though the Harz mountains, with dense decidous forest stretching to the horizon, making one feel a bit like an ant in a supermarket tray of broccoli, changing at Fulda. At Würzburg, the principal port of call was a megalomaniac baroque Residenz: not only was the hall big enough for an aircraft hangar, the grand staircase that led up from it had a ceiling by Tiepolo. If you like your baroque by the tonne, Würzburg is your place. The ceiling is very beautiful, the rest of the Residenz is very baroque, and outside there was a garden, rather nicely, a public amenity, showing every sign of having been brought back from the dead in the last ten years, aside from some ancient and presumably all but indestructible aloes and bays in pots. Some wild, weird yews must once have been clipped as balls or cones, and as a result, had lost their leaders and shot from the base in every direction. This highly respectable walking-spot shaded at one end into a shady (in both senses) beer garden, the only place I have ever encountered where a request for mineral water resulted in the stuff being produced in a litre stein. We dined, rather pleasantly, in a restaurant of considerable antiquity whose main business was supporting the town hospital –– there were vineyards, and they and the restaurant formed the principal cash-base for a medieval charity, so you could sup up with a good conscience. It’s generally soothing for those of a northern persuasion to find themselves surrounded by vineyards, which were much in evidence on the slopes about the town: I had some alleged red wine, actually a darkish rosé, but pleasant on a summer evening. The next day, we went to Innsbrück via Munich. Having become accustomed to the incredible, to the second, efficiency of German trains, we were deeply disconcerted to find something had gone wrong with the Munich train (in fact, it became clear, some kind of general bog-up with the signals at Hannover). As a result we had a messy sort of hanging about day and got into Innsbrück two hours later than we were supposed to, which rather messed up our plans. Still, Innsbrück turned out to be far more interesting and attractive than we had expected. The tomb of the Emperor Maximilian, one of the things we wanted to see, gave us both the creeps: you view it from between two huge rows of eight foot high bronze Ancestors who are only a couple of feet behind you, and look as if they might come to life at any moment. Dinner, schnitzel for me, käsespätzle for the Prof, and apple strudel, happened in a cavernous hall which was part of a disused palace, with lifesize baroque wooden statues of kings mounted on the walls. We also got to Schloss Ambrass for the cabinet of curiosities – by bus, which wound us through the inoffensive residential suburbs of Innsbrück, and dumped us at the start of what turned out to be a steep hike up to the schloss. The wonders were a combination of Brave New World and freakshow, clothes of all nations, carved ostrich eggs and nautilus, lifesize paintings of people covered in hair, stuffed alligators, grottoes of mother of pearl shells and coral, thrillingly pointless lacelike items of ivory and fine boxwood, foreign curiosities, and yet more emperors – three different sets. Also a picture gallery with an unconscionable number of Hapsburgs all looking exactly the same. But the real charm of Innsbrück is the alps down every street-corner, crystalline, light-drenched air of an incredible purity and clarity. From there, we took a train to Vicenza, over the Brenner pass, a truly lovely journey. Once in Vicenza, we went to a rural villa which offered, and achieved, complete tranquility. There was a shady patch with walnut trees, stone pines and pomegranate on the far side of an old threshing floor where I sat and wrote, and the Professor arranged his ideas in the intervals of refreshing slumber. There was an olive-grove to look at, and a well wooded hill beyond that, with thin pencils of cypress on the horizon. Vicenza itself is very smart, and pleasant. We spent a day in Venice, with the specific goal of buying notebooks from the elderly and distinguished artisan I buy notebooks from, and were a bit horrified by the shambling hordes – we haven’t set foot in Venice in tourist season for a good few years. So with supreme cunning, we spent the rest of the afternoon in the Accademia, which was just about a tourist free zone, and were glad to get back to Vicenza in the evening. After all that, we rounded things off with a couple of days in Ferrara, an old bolt hole which continues to be as nice as ever. There’s a hotel we first went to about fifteen years ago, when its owners were a gang of laid-back graduate students (now presumably fathers of all but teenage children), but the front of house staff they have since recruited are charming and genuinely welcoming, and it now has air conditioning. The Pudding Goddess still presides at the Golden Lion in the cathedral square, a little heavier, but much the same, and the airy little puffs filled with zabaione are as seductive as ever. The town continues to swarm with bicycles. One noted, even stunning, improvement is that the moat of the great d’Este palace has been adorned with vigorous fountains. At a single stroke, the depressing stench of stagnant water has all but vanished, and the mosquitos, who used to breed there in awe-inspiring numbers, have been drastically reduced. After all that, we took a plane from Bologna to London, took delivery of the Cosmo, and came home with it. So that, more or less, is that. The weather was uniformly lovely, which after the summer we’ve had here, was an absolute blessing.

2 Responses to “What We Did On Our Holidays”

  1. Eleanor Says:

    Welcome back!

  2. William Says:

    Did you go back to that restaurant in Ferrara, the one where I must have put on half a stone within four days?

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