Bad art/Mezé Bistrot

The other night I caught a couple of art openings (full disclosure: that’s twice as many as I’ve caught in the past three years). The first featured a series of tiny drawings so precise they could have been photographs. The drawings were based on movie stills from the Great Gatsby (Leo not Robert), Anna Karenina (Keira not Garbo), Factory Girl (could have from the original with Edie Sedgewick or else the terrible biopic with Sienna Miller, I could’t tell) and some other film we couldn’t identify.  We had a chat with the artist — a very nice young Englishwoman who uses magnifying glasses and drinks tea while she draws, of course. I was a bit annoyed by her assertion that she never sees the movies she draws from because she wants to furnish her own plots. That seems a bit disrespectful to the writers and screenwriters. If you want to come up with your own plot, why not come up with an original idea for your drawing rather than using someone else’s? Grrr. Anyway, the drawings were lovely. Here’s the advert. That’s Edie Sedgewick (or maybe Sienna Miller) below. The exhibit runs until the end of May. Invito Harnett cartNext we went to a garage (billed as ‘one of the most suggestive spaces in all of Trastevere’) where works by a whole load of well-known contemporary artists is being auctioned off to raise money for drug and alcohol addiction programs. I very much approve of of the sentiment. The art? Ugly and pretentious.  One could be cynical and conclude (as we did) that since the artists were asked to donate their creations, they just picked their worst pieces or the ones they would miss the least. The people watching was, however, great fun. The place was packed with young, hip and artsy types sporting stilettos (the women), long hair (women and men) and flowy outfits (ditto). My guess is that a good many plastic surgeons were able to buy their country houses thanks to the faces in that room. The exhibit runs until 8 May so if you want to see a bunch of bad art in a suggestive garage for a good cause, check it out here.

And then came the payoff: Mezé Bistrot! I wrote about this place a few years ago when it had just opened. I’ve been back  a number of times because the food is great and it is the requisite no more than 10 minute walk from my house. I’ve been  nervous because it’s usually pretty empty and I do not want to lose access to my mezé pusher (less than 10 minutes from my house). Fortunately the restaurant was jam-packed the other night so word seems to have gotten around.

For the uninitiated, mezé are small dishes that are served at the beginning of meals throughout the Middle East and the Balkans. Mezé Bistrot is owned by a Libyan and the cooks are Turkish so the food is absolutely authentic. Here’s the rundown of what we ate.

Tzatziki - a dip made with yoghurt, diced cucumber and plenty of garlic and mint.

Tzatziki – a dip made with yoghurt, diced cucumber and plenty of garlic and mint

A dip with eggplant and curry -- that one might not be too Ottoman Empire-inspired but it was delicious.

A dip with eggplant and curry — this one might not be too Ottoman Empire-inspired but it was delicious.

Labneh: a tart yoghurt cheese. This one was sprinkled with za'atar, a Middle Eastern spice mixture usually involving -- among other things -- sumac and sesame seeds.

Labneh: a tart yoghurt cheese. It was sprinkled with za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice mixture usually involving — among other things — sumac and sesame seeds.

A stunning dish of fried eggplant with pomegranate molasses, honey and pomegranate seeds.

A stunning dish of fried eggplant with pomegranate molasses, honey and pomegranate seeds.

Falafel (fried chickpea bals) on a bed of hummus (a dip made from mashed chickpeas)

Falafel (fried chickpea balls) on a bed of hummus (a dip made from mashed chickpeas)

Half-eaten fattoush: a many veggie salad with fried pita bread and more za'attar.

Half-eaten fattoush: a many veggie salad with fried pita bread and more za’atar.

The Pollo di Gerusalemme: incredibly succulent with hints of cinnamon and paprika. This is one of my favorite dishes. Luckily, hanging out with a couple of vegetarians meant I didn't have to share.

The Pollo di Gerusalemme is incredibly succulent with hints of cinnamon and paprika. It is one of my favorite dishes – anywhere. Luckily, hanging out with a couple of vegetarians meant I didn’t have to share.

I love this place and if you are looking for something a little bit different, I’ll bet you will too. It’s very reasonably priced. Mezé Bistrot is open for dinner every night and at lunchtime on Saturday and Sunday. Best of all, they do take out and, for orders over 20 Euros, they’ll deliver. Ooh, I just looked at their website and they’ve started offering cooking classes too!

Mezé Bistrot, Via di Monteverde 9B, Rome. Tel: 0658204749

Tutti potenziali bersagli

I was in the vicinity of Piazzale Ostiense this week and I thought I’d stop off and take a photo for you, Gentle Reader.  It’s a fairly boring piazza in front of the Roma-Ostia train station but there’s a cool monument there called tutti potenziali bersagli (all potential targets), which was mounted on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Italy. On April 25, 1945, Mussolini’s puppet government in northern Italy fell, as Italian partisans declared a general uprising and American forces seized Turin and Milan. Two days later, Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were captured in the village of Dongo (best village name ever!) while trying to flee to Switzerland. They were shot by a firing squad along with 16 Fascist associates. Six of them, including Mussolini and Petacci, were dumped in the Piazza Quindici Martiri (formerly Piazzale Loreto, the piazza had recently been renamed to honor the 15 anti-Fascists recently executed there) in Milan on April 29, where a mob trampled and spat on the remains. Then the bodies were hung upside down with meat hooks at an Esso gas station and people threw rocks at them for a while. Yikes.

The location of the monument is significant. On September 8, 1943, Marshall Pietro Badoglio — who replaced Mussolini when he got fired — announced that Italy negotiated an armistice with the Allies. The Germans immediately marched into the capital, prompting outbursts of resistance around the city, including three days of pitched battle between the Germans and Italian soldiers and armed civilians in this very zone, which includes the Pyramid of Caius Cestius and the Protestant Cemetery. I used to live right up the street and you can still see bullet holes on the facade of my former apartment building. 

It's odd to think of a battle raging so close to the graves of Keats and Shelley. But it happened.

It’s odd to think of a battle raging so close to the graves of Keats and Shelley. But it happened.

Tutti potenziali bersagli  is dedicated to the victims of Fascism and racism. It depicts five human beings with their hands tied behind their backs. While not only a World War II monument, it places triangles on the chest of each figure to remind us how the Nazis distinguished the prisoners in their extermination camps: pink for homosexuals, blue for immigrants, a double yellow triangle (the Star of David ) for Jews, red for anti-fascists and brown for gypsies. The backs of the figures are facing outwards and you can see the stars in the mirror images facing them (but not in my photo, sorry). The monument was designed and built by a group of anonymous political activists and artists, who only got authorization the night before it was to be unveiled because the right wing hated it, of course. That was in 1995. The monument was only intended to be a 10-day installation but nobody bothered to take it down and in 2007 it was included in Italy’s census of cultural heritage. I find it to be very moving and beautiful. 

Tutti potenziali bersagli

Tutti potenziali bersagli

Piazzale Ostiense has always been a bit of a magnet for gypsies, who hang around looking vaguely scary but doing no particular harm.  These are the folks that you often seen going through trash cans and using wire hangers to pull out items of interest. I always assumed the dumpster diving was in search of stuff for their own personal use, but not so. Over the past couple of months, the denizens of Piazzale Ostiense  have converted the piazza into a flea market — and not the good kind. I read somewhere that the police had kicked a bunch of gypsies out of the piazza in front of the Ostiense train station nearby for selling ‘non-hygenic’ products. They must have just scooted on down the road and set up shop here, where the cops will ignore them for at least a couple of months.

There are dirty blankets spread out everywhere and piled with what can only be described as garbage. A child’s broken left shoe. A torn and muddied paperback. A broken clock. A soiled and frayed apron. Some guy tried to sell me a moth-eaten fox pelt. It was really rather horrifying. I looked around the piazza and thought about its heroic history and the monument that honours the sacrifices of the very group of people who are now selling trash at its base to feed themselves. I’ve sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere but I’m not quite sure what it is.

#toomuchdog/street food at Eataly

Yesterday was a bright bright sunshiny day, which inspired me to make an exception to my normal Saturday morning practice of lying on the couch and napping while watching the news. Instead, I headed across the street to the park rather earlier than usual. It was lunchtime and the place was packed to the gills with picnickers.

This is my favorite tree in Villa Pamphili. I can see it from my window.

This is my favorite tree in Villa Pamphili. I can see it from my window.

I don’t know if I have mentioned this before but there is somewhat of a design flaw in the area cani in Villa Pamphili: it is only place in the park where there are picnic tables. So naturally the picnickers all flock there. But it is also one of the few places that dogs can be off-leash. You may be able to imagine the rest. Here’s the scenario that I have seen play out about 100 million times: picnickers organize a nice spread in the area cani at one of the tables or perhaps on a blanket on the ground. They may not even know it’s the dog zone because the signs denoting it as such are only up for a few days about every three months since they get knocked down by vandals almost immediately. Idiots. So, the picnickers are happily eating their pasta and whatever and all of the dogs in the zone (and because it’s a nice day for picnicking, there are plenty of dogs) come over and start nosing around. It’s more of an issue for the on-the-ground picnics than for the ones on the table although there is one dog who shall be nameless (his name rhymes with Gorgan) who believes that the picnic tables are his own personal domain – he likes to jump on them the better to observe his kingdom — and he has no qualms about jumping onto a picnic table full of food (and once, smack dab in the middle of a birthday cake). Then the picnickers yell at the dog owners, “Get your dog out of here!!!” and the dog owners yell at the picnickers, “This is the dog area. If you don’t want to deal with dogs, go somewhere else!” And they continue to yell at each other until everyone’s day is ruined. Ball-throwers and kite-flyers face the same degree of canine interest in the dog zone and the results are usually the same.

This is my table!

This is my table!

Lately I’ve noticed that Morgan has a new routine. He runs over to a blanket where a picnic is occurring and sticks his head directly into the first purse, backpack or bag he can find. If the purse or backpack is zipped, he starts pulling on the zipper with his teeth. He’s not succeeded with that yet but it’s just a matter of time.

Let's just see what's in this bag for me, shall we?

Let’s just see what they have brought for me, shall we?

The picnickers — for the most part teenagers — are usually distracted by how awesome and cool they are (and are frequently, shall we say, entwined) so they don’t see him at first. When they do, he immediately launches a major charm offensive, rolling on his back with his legs up in the air, rubbing against them like a cat and just generally being adorable (which he is).

Score! They're hooked. Now where's that bit of pizza?

They’re hooked. Now what’s in it for me?

After a few minutes of this, the picnickers are oohing and ahhing at Morgan’s cuteness and he generally scores a bit of pizza crust out of the deal. And then he immediately runs to the next picnic blanket and starts all over again. Genius. He hit six picnics yesterday and got a little snack at every one of them! BTW, there is a subset of the Italian teen — female persuasion — who thinks she’ll be more attractive to boys if she’s afraid of dogs so when Morgan approaches this idiot she’ll go, “Oooh help! I am so afraid! Protect me!” I’m like, “Moron. This dog is the size of your average kitty cat.  Get a life.”

Yes, it is true. I am a genius.

Yes, it is true. I am a genius.

This weekend, Eataly held its second annual street food festival and my friend Daniela and I went along to check it out. It was splendid.

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Eataly — which occupies a beautifully redesigned train station — is a combination farmer’s market, supermarket, food court and learning centre

The deal was that you bought chips (known as gettone, which are also the name of the things you used to use to make phone calls back in ye olde days of phone booths) and exchanged them for different street foods available around the food court. In addition to Italian street food (think pizza, focaccia and gelato), there were plates dedicated to Germany (currywurst), China (porky dumplings), Greece (gyros), Morocco (cous-cous), Vietnam (bahn mi), Thailand (pad thai), Mexico (chicken tacos), Spain (paella), Argentine (empanadas) and the USA (cupcakes — snore). As usual, my eyes were way bigger than my stomach and I bought four gettone. But after a chicken taco and a trapizzino filled with picchiapò, (peek-ee-ya-poe), which is a spiced boiled beef stew and one of my favorite words ever (it means ‘a little beat up’), I was done. That may have also had something to do with all of the free cheese on offer, of which I partook heavily. I used my leftover chips on take-home dumplings from the Chinese vender. Dinner!

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Daniela (lower right hand corner) waits in line for her pad thai. I did take a photo of her eating it but it was a very scary photo so this will have to do.

Flea markets of Rome

Yesterday, the Upstairs Vegetarian and I went to three flea markets in Rome. Well, technically four but one was closed. When I first moved to Rome I lived near Porta Portese, which hosts a huge and famous market on Sunday mornings and I went there every single week. It was the first time I had real money and I used to buy stupid stuff I didn’t need just because I could. I was not very fiscally responsible back then. Anyway, I am doing a spot of redecorating and have been looking for a chandelier and oil paintings so I went to Porta Portese last week for the first time in many years and had partial success. You can find some interesting stuff there (as well as quite a bit of dreck but that’s true of any flea market). The guy who sold me a couple of paintings gave me two medallions, one featuring Mussolini’s head and the other the head of Saint Hannibal (although of course the guy told me it was a pope’s head). Porta Portese is always super crowded and intimidating and filled with little gypsy kids who wave a piece of cardboard in your face to distract you and during the two seconds you are saying to yourself, “what the h…?” your wallet is removed from your pocket or purse and relayed across Rome by a giant tag team of gypsies.

"The sacred and the profane," my painting guy  said when he gave me these.

“The sacred and the profane,” my painting guy said when he gave me these.

The first of yesterday’s markets was the Mercatino Conca d’Oro, Via Conca d’Oro 143 (Open Saturday and Sunday 9-20). This was my favourite. It’s nowhere near the size of Porta Portese, which goes on for miles, and that’s a good thing. Conca d’Oro is about the size of a large parking lot and filled with stand after stand featuring antiques and tchachkas, some of which were downright weird. There are secondhand clothes stands and people selling sausages, cheeses and bread.

The market at Conca d'Oro

The market at Conca d’Oro

So tasteful

So tasteful

These are the largest lemons I've ever seen!

These were the largest lemons I’d ever seen!

More market

More market

This was the best. Check out the zombie baby lamp next to the Marilyn Monroe lamp in back.

This was the best. Check out the zombie baby lamp next to the Marilyn Monroe lamp in back.

I bought a nice oil painting of St. Peter’s for 10 Euros and then it was on to the next market. This was the Mercantino Nomentano, Via Cortuso 17 (Open Sunday, 8-19). It’s a smallish affair with lots of antiques. We were greeted at the entry by a wonderful selection of hats.

I really wish I wore hats!

I really wish I wore hats!

In the top left hand corner you may be able to make out the chandelier of which I am the proud new owner.

In the left hand corner you may be able to make out the chandelier of which I am the proud new owner.

Next we tried the Happy Sunday Market at Lanificio (Via die Pietralata 159, 11-2,2 first Sunday of the month). It’s only open once a month so we didn’t manage to see anything but it’s supposed to be great so I’ve included it in my list. When it’s not being a cool and funky happy market, the former wool factory (lana means wool) is a restaurant. When we arrived they were serving so-called brunch, which in Italy — as faithful readers have heard me rant before — is exactly the same as lunch except it happens on the weekend and usually takes buffet form. I am no big fan of buffets — they tend to be boring and congealed — although Lanificio’s has been given high marks by this wise sage. Nonetheless, it was fairly meaty looking so the U.V. gave it the thumbs down and off we went to the next market: Borghetto Flaminio, Piazzale della Marina 32 (Sunday, 10-19).

Not a fan. This is the only market I have ever been to that charges an entrance fee (1.60 Euro). What is up with that? The stalls are pretty much all staffed by resentful middle-aged women and you can imagine a scenario where hubby loses his job in a terrible economy and says to the wife, “Cara mia, you need to sell your fur coats and some of your trinkets so that we can make ends meet.” She does it but she’s not happy about it so she inflates her prices to the point that her favorite stuff will be unbuyable. “I tried honey,” she’ll say. I saw one woman quote a price of 350 Euros for a (very ugly) twin set and when my vegetarian friend enquired about a not-very-special table lamp, she was given a price of 260 Euros! The whole atmosphere feels slightly oppressive and none of the stuff on display is very interesting, although I did see a few interesting Mussolini gewgaws (for the benefit of new readers: I am not a 1930s-era fascist. I’m just interested in the history of the period). I did manage to score a couple of nice paintings of flowers for 15 Euros. Here are some pictures of that boring market.

See what I mean?

See what I mean?

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Historical aside: In Rome, as in many  places in Europe, brass plaques have been affixed to the sidewalks in front of the homes of people seized and later killed in the Holocaust. These ones are on Via Flaminia, near the boring market.

The plaques honour the Levi and Della Seta families, who died in the Holocaust.

The plaques honour the Levi and Della Seta families, who died in the Holocaust.

Via dei Fori Imperiali/Porto Fluviale

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Via dei Fori Imperiali

Last week the Morgster and I set off to see a Carnevale parade on Via die Fori Imperiali. There were supposed to be acrobats and jugglers and all sorts. We were temporarily distracted by the offer of a fine lunch but more on that later. Via die Fori Imperiali was built by Mussolini (he originally called it Via dei Imperi– the Road of Empires — because of course he did). Completed in 1932, the road runs straight from the Colosseum to Piazza Venezia where Il Duce had his office. It was supposed to celebrate the glories of the Roman Empire, which Mussolini intended to rebuild across the Mediterranean. He liked to go out on his balcony and, when not fulminating at the crowds, he would gaze at the Colosseum and pretend he was Caesar.

The terrible irony was that to build his monument to Ancient Rome, Mussolini destroyed many important ancient, medieval and renaissance buildings and uprooted thousands of people in one of the most densely populated (and poorest) sections of Rome. The Forum area was sliced in two and while some of the statues and art objects associated with the torn-up structures were excavated and warehoused, nobody bothered to record any information about them, like where they’d been found and in what context. Idiots. I studied archeology in Rome many years ago and my teachers always used to freak out whenever the subject of the Via die Fori Imperiali came up. Archeologists are not big fans of Il Duce.

Until recently, the Via die Fori Imperiali was very heavily trafficked and honking speeding smoke-spewing cars threatened the ruins with their exhaust fumes and vibrations. Rome’s new mayor Ignazio Marino closed the road to private traffic in August in order to create a pedestrian area. But it’s still open to buses and taxis, which will mow you down as soon as look at you, not to mention all the traffic nightmares it’s created as private vehicles try to figure out alternatives to the once straightforward route.

So, lunch. Porto Fluviale is a relatively new addition to the newly hip neighborhood of Ostiense It’s a 900 square metre former warehouse, which was once part of Rome’s Magazzini Generali, the city’s principal wholesale market. The restaurant is just a short walk from the Stazione Ostiense, a massive fascist-looking train station that was built to welcome Hitler’s visit to Rome in 1938 and which Mussolini said was inspired by the Roman Empire because, again, of course he did. Like the little suck-up he was he also named the big road adjacent to the station Via A. Hitler (renamed Viale dell Cave Ardeatina after the war). The station (which actually was not completed until 1940) features huge travertine columns, crazy gigantic pine cone-shaped hanging lamps and mosaics depicting the history of Rome. It’s really something to see. Stazione Ostiense

Stazione Ostiense
Hitler and Mussolini take a ride.

Hitler and Mussolini take a ride.

Porto Fluviale features a bar, a pizzeria, a tapas bar, lounge and tearoom. On weekends there is a brunch, which appears to be exactly the same as the daily lunch buffet except that it ends a half hour later. I had a burger, which was very good although they lose points for serving it with roast potatoes rather than fries (the potatoes were delicious but it just ain’t right). The two young people visiting the Upstairs Vegetarian for the weekend had pizza. Eating pizza at lunchtime is practically unheard of in Italy because it takes a super long time for a wood-burning pizza to reach the perfect pizza cooking temperature (nearly 500 C) and it’s not really thought to be worth it for the relatively modest lunchtime crowd. These pizzas looked very nice: a thin-crusted pizza alla diavola with spicy sausage and a pizza alla capricciosa featuring a little bit of everything (including a hard boiled egg). The U.V. ate something boring and healthy. Dessert for me was a lovely and light lemon pudding. The kids had apple strudel with cinnamon ice cream. All in all, a very nice meal. And there’s loads more to explore, what with all the tapas and tea and lounging available at Porto Fluviale.

The restaurant is open all day from 10:30 am to 2 am (3 on the weekends).

Sometime you just gotta have a burger!

Sometimes you just gotta have a burger!

Pizza alla diavola

Pizza alla diavola

Pizza all capricciosa

Pizza all capricciosa

A super boring salad for the U.V. Those speckley things are sesame seeds clinging to chucks of beet for dear life.

A super boring salad for the U.V. Those speckley things are sesame seeds clinging to chunks of beet for dear life.

Lemon deliciousness

Lemon deliciousness

Apple strudel mit cinnamon ice cream

Apple strudel mit cinnamon ice cream

The Morgster keeps an eye on things.

Morgan insisted on sitting at the table so he could keep an eye on things.

We did eventually get to the parade on Via die Fori Imperiali but it was raining pretty hard at that point and the jugglers and acrobats were nowhere to be found. There were just a couple of soggy-looking kids whose costumes peeped out from beneath their down coats. Sad.

By the way, a propos of absolutely nothing, I have become obsessed with an app that lets you turn your photos into beautiful watercolor paintings. Of course I am usually to be found creating paintings of dogs but I’ll spare you that (for now). Instead, here is a very nice view of Rome. That’s Saint Peter’s in the background. Cool, eh?

The app is called Waterlogue and it works on your phone or iPad.

The app is called Waterlogue and it works on your phone or iPad.

Porto Fluviale, Via del Porto Fluviale, 22, Roma, Italy
+39 06 574 3199

 

Davos/Klosters

I was in Davos, Switzerland a few weeks back doing some work for the World Economic Forum, which explains my long absence from this blog. Between preparing for Davos, being there and recovering from a week of very long days, I’ve been fairly steeped in Forum stuff since just after Christmas. It costs an estimated $40 000 to be an official delegate, between travel, accommodations and accreditation (super famous people and heads of state get a discount on the latter) and once you’re there, and have run the gauntlet of the 4 000 Swiss troops guarding the place, you’re free to go hear the Prime Minister of Japan talk about economic reform, listen to Goldie Hawn wax lyrical on mindfulness or attend one of the many many cocktail parties taking place during the course of the four-day Forum.

Not so for the worker bees. I was staying in Klosters — two buses, a train ride and a 15 minute tramp on an icy road away — and when I wasn’t note-taking at meetings, I was either traveling back and forth to the guest house, trying to find something to eat or looking for Matt Damon (who isn’t as easy to find as some would have you believe).  I did manage to spot George Soros, Kofi Annan, Gordon Brown and Fareed Zakaria but that was small comfort.

On the train to Davos.

On the train to Davos.

I stayed in a nice little guest house in Klosters, which was festooned with snowmen for some reason. Not real ones, although there was certainly enough snow all over the place. Seriously bad art in the rooms. Ceramic clown levels of bad. The place is run by a trio of middle-aged ladies who looked enough alike to be sisters (but I don’t think they were). The head lady — Erika — had a great shock of  magenta-coloured hair. Now here’s a thing. When Italian women turn 40, they all rush out and henna their hair. But because their natural hair color is dark brown (at least in Central and Southern Italy), it goes a weird shade of maroon. I remember my friend Linda (who lives in Paris) telling me once that French women over 40 all dye their hair blonde, which probably looks a bit better than maroon.

A taste of the random snowmen around the Bargis Gasthaus.

A taste of the random snowmen around the Bargis Gasthaus.

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It’s not melted cheese, but it’ll do.

Anyway, the Bargis Gasthaus has a restaurant, which seems to be quite popular among the local citizenry. It’s always full in the evenings and since the place only has a few rooms for rent, it’s got to be mostly locals eating there. The ladies do all the cooking and then sit at a table in the kitchen cracking jokes and drinking homemade schnapps.  They are hilarious. The food is very hearty and comes with great quantities of vegetables, boiled and unadorned. I had a very nice chunk of garlic-crusted lamb with rosti potatoes my last night there. I also ate lots of sausages. Never found any raclette, although I searched high and low. I bet Matt Damon found the raclette.

Anyway, if you ever go skiing in Klosters (which is apparently where the British royal family likes to conduct their winter sports), you could do worse than the Gasthaus Bargis. That’s Erika on the home page (minus the magenta hair).

Christmas markets and the Rheinhotel Dreesen/#Bonn

I was in Bonn last month visiting my friend Jane and we went to a whole load of Weihnachtsmarkts. Here’s what that’s all about: Weihnachtsmarkts or markets ushering in the Christmas season date back to the Middle Ages in German-speaking Europe; the first recorded ‘December Market’ took place in Vienna in 1294. These days, the markets are usually held during the four weeks of Advent. Popular attractions include gluwein (hot mulled wine with cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, oranges, and sugar); hot chocolate; rahmfleckrl (a sort of rye flatbread with creme fraiche, cheese, scallions, potatoes, bacon or speck, etc.); brat- and other wursts in every size, shape and color, often served with sautéed greens; grilled steaks, chickens and mushrooms; Santa-shaped gingerbread cookies; and stollen (a buttery, orangey, fruit and nut-filled loaf).

Once you’ve finished eating (or, shall we say once you are on a break from eating), there are booths selling handmade knitted and felted slippers, hats and gloves, Christmas ornaments, nutcrackers and, of course, the ubiquitous Nigerian carvings. There are also myriad lights, nativity scenes and often singing and dancing. The German Christmas fairs are great fun and good for winter tourism — the multiple fairs in Cologne apparently bring in over four million visitors per year. By my count, Jane and I visited seven fairs in all — five in Cologne, one in Bonn and one in Bad Godesburg, the Bonn suburb where she lives. We enjoyed them all, although they do tend to run together after a while We did manage to find a gay Christmas fair in Cologne and had high hopes for a little something different but, with the exception of a disco motif and a single booth selling sexy underwear, it was pretty much the same as the rest of the fairs. Some photos of the German Christmas market experience follow.Rahmfleckrl, a sort of rye flatbread with creme fraiche, cheese, scallions, potatoes, bacon, etc.

Rahmfleckrl, German street food
Bratwurst!

Bratwurst!

A little nachtmusik.

A little nachtmusik.

Sausages and greens. So healthy!

Sausages and greens. So healthy!

A Christmas fair in Cologne.

A Christmas fair in Cologne.

Waiting for the entertainment.

Waiting for the entertainment.

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral

Here’s some things about Cologne (Köln to its German friends) that you might not know. Beginning in 1940, Köln was bombed 262 times during the course of World War II. The city was the target of the first thousand plane raid on a German city by the RAF: in 1942, ‘Operation Millennium’ saw 1500 metric tons of bombs fall on Köln during a period of an hour and a half, the goal being to knock Germany out of the war. Although it didn’t work, the raid did flatten 90% of the city centre, killing 500 people and making another 45 000 homeless. Interestingly, Köln was not the original target of Operation Millennium. Hamburg was but that idea was abandoned due to poor weather. By the end of the war, the population of Köln had been reduced by 95%. The great cathedral was bombed 14 times but amazingly never flattened. Rudolph Schwarz, a German architect who played a decisive role in the post-war reconstruction of the city, called Köln “the world’s greatest heap of rubble.”

The cathedral the morning after the bombing, 1942.

The Köln Cathedral on the morning after the RAF bombing, 1942.

Bombed out ruins of Cologne.

The bombed out ruins of the city.

On Sunday, having pretty much exhausted the local Christmas markets, Jane and I turned up at the Rheinhotel Dreesen in Bad Godesburg for brunch. We were taking a risk here: Jane had called to reserve a table and had received a snort of derision in return for her trouble. Apparently the Dreesen merits far more than a week’s advance booking. We decided to check it out anyway but, by the time we got to the hotel after a goodly walk in the rain, we were looking a great deal more bedraggled than the average denizens of the swanky joint. And then, there was the Dreesen’s history to consider.

The Rheinhotel Dreesen opened in 1894 on the banks of the Rhine in the swishy spa town of Bad Godesburg. From the first it was a big hit with European aristocrats, world leaders and Hollywood types. Greta Garbo, D.D. Eisenhower, Danny Kaye and Charlie Chaplin were just a few of the hotel’s honoured guests. Oh, and it was Hitler’s favorite hotel. He first came here in 1926, probably at the suggestion of his pal Rudolph Hess who went to boarding school nearby, and he returned for over 70 visits thereafter. It was here that Hitler came up with the plan to eliminate the paramilitary Sturmabteilung (better known as the SA or the Brownshirts) and its leader Ernst Röhm in what would be known as the Night of the Long Knives. Anywhere from 85 to 400 people were killed in the 4-day purge in 1934, which consolidated Hitler’s power by eliminating his real and potential enemies and conciliating the Reichswehr,  the official German military, which feared and despised the SA.

Hitler also met the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at the Rheinhotel Dreesen between 21 and 23 September, 1938 regarding his proposed annexation of the Sudetenland. Determined to avoid war at any cost, the leaders of Great Britain, France and Italy signed an agreement on 30 September that allowed the Nazis to annex this region of Czechoslovakia, which was home to many ethnic Germans. On Chamberlain’s return to England, Winston Churchill declared, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.” By the way, it probably isn’t significant, but it is interesting that the Dreesen has the whole Hitler story available on its German website but not on its English site.

During the war, the Dreesen served as an internment camp for 100 diplomats. It was handed over to the Americans in March 1945 without a fight. Later, the hotel was requisitioned to become the seat of the French High Commissioner, in which capacity it served until it was ‘released from occupation’ in 1952. History does not record the hotelier’s view on that particular development.

Hotel Dreesen on the Rhine.

Hotel Dreesen on the Rhine.

Amazingly, Jane and I got into brunch despite not having reservations and the whole aforementioned snootiness and bedragglement issues and it was quite a spread. There were pates, cheeses and herring, salmon and shrimp, eggs and bacon, venison and beef roasts and stews, sausages galore, braised red cabbage, potatoes au gratin and lovely little fruit mousses. We ate, dare I say it, unto torpour.

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Later, we visited the German National Museum of Contemporary History (Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland) in Bonn, a fascinating exploration of the history of Germany from World War II to the present. The museum uses video and sound recordings, cultural and everyday artifacts to help visitors — Germans and foreigners alike — come to grips with the country’s complex past. It is well worth a visit. The information displayed in English is limited but helpful. Admission is free. There is also a nice cafe.

Elvis served in Germany in the 1950s. This is supposedly his uniform.

Elvis served in Germany from 1958-1960. This was supposedly his uniform.

German shout out to my home town of Philly. I have no idea why.

Random German shout out to my hometown of Philly. I have no idea why.

One last thing. In the museum’s bookstore I bought a ‘Pocket Guide to Germany,’ written for US soldiers occupying Germany after the war. It is super fascinating. Here are some excerpts, presented without irony or comment:

“The occupation of Germany will give you your guarantee that as soon as you turn your back to go home the German will not pick up his shooting irons and start throwing lead and lies at an unsuspecting world once more.”

“However friendly and repentant, however sick of the Nazi party, the Germans have sinned against the laws of humanity and cannot come back into the civilized fold by merely sticking out their hands and saying — ‘ I’m sorry.’

‘Most young Americans hate a bully, despise a snitch, and have nothing but contempt for a double crosser. In school, you learned from your teachers and from the other kids that it wasn’t smart to pick on a little guy, or tell tales…you learned not to cheat and that if you couldn’t win fairly, then you took your licking like a man and shook hands with the man who beat you…The young German, through his most impressionable years, has been taught that the strong are entitled to pick on and destroy the weak, that it is noble to squeal on a pal, or even snitch on a member of one’s own family, that if you can win by cheating it’s just as good as winning any other way, that a promise or word of honor given is to be kept only as long as it suits its purpose and can be broken at any time.”

‘The German isn’t sorry for the millions of dead, wounded, homeless and maimed in Europe, the result of his lust for loot and conquest. He is sorry for himself..He will try to make you sorry for him too. Don’t fall for it.”