Category Archives: History

Vitello tonnato and a life-changing mayonnaise hack

A few weeks back I got a craving for vitello tonnato. A Piemonte dish that probably dates to the 19th Century, it consists of cold, thinly sliced veal slathered with a tuna-flavoured mayonnaise. I know. It sounds weird but it is incredibly delicious: a combination of textures and tastes that is perfect for the hot summer months. Pellegrino Artusi — Italy’s most influential cookbook writer (he lived from 1820-1911) included a recipe for vitello tonnato in his masterwork, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene (The science of cooking and the art of eating well). Artusi’s recipe did not feature mayonnaise, which I wish I’d known sooner, but we’ll get to that.

Pellegrino Artusi with some mighty impressive mutton chops (cue food joke)

Pellegrino Artusi with some mighty impressive mutton chops (cue food joke)

Artusi included recipes from all of Italy’s regions in his book. It was only 20 years after the unification of Italy and he’s often credited with using food to forge a sort of national identity (as well as with giving the hegemony of French cuisine a run for its money). Pellegrino was born to a well-off family in Forlimpopoli, in the region of Romagna. In 1851, 40 years before the publication of the cookbook, a brigand named Stefano Bonelli (better known by his nickname, ‘The Ferryman’ after his father’s profession) and his bandits took hostage the Verdi Theatre, where a bunch of richies were enjoying a performance of the dramatic oratorio, The Death of Sisara. Thanks to the help of his spies (In some circles, he was seen as a sort of Robin Hood who was sticking it to the man), The Ferryman knew the identity of Forlimpopoli’s fattest cats. His men escorted them home, beat them up and robbed them blind.

The bandits also did a home invasion at the casa di Artusi (who seem to have not been at the theatre). Pellegrino was pistol-whipped; his mother was knocked down; one of his sisters was stabbed; another was brutally gang-raped (the father had fainted with shock when the bandits showed up, thus saving himself the indignity of a beating). The family fled to Florence the next day. The sister who had been raped went mad and spent the rest of her life in an asylum. Isn’t that horrible? Anyway, Artusi’s cookbook is delightful and if you care about Italian food, you should have a look.

Il Passatore: The Ferryman

Il Passatore: The Ferryman

Vitello tonnato is one of those traditional dishes that you used to see on menus all the time and now hardly ever do. If I wanted to appease my craving, I was going to have to make it myself. The problem is that this involved a multi-stage and somewhat fiddly process and I am an accomplished but extremely lazy cook. There are many different ways to make vitello tonnato but the one I used involved browning and then braising the veal; letting it rest overnight; and composing an elaborate mayonnaise made from tuna, capers, anchovies and other yummy things. Ah. Mayonnaise. I had forgotten about that part.

I have tried (and mostly failed) to make mayonnaise on several occasions in the past. I love homemade mayo but I just have never had the knack. I was determined to do the vitello tonnato thing though so I forged ahead, guns a’blazing. Gigantic fail. Gigantic. Before starting, I consulted about a million mayonnaise recipes, each of which was, of course, different. They differed in the order in which to add the ingredients, in whether to use the egg white as well as the yolk and in which beating implement to use. They all agreed that the eggs should be at room temperature and that the oil should go in drop by drop until emulsification was achieved. Or not.

I had the opportunity to use each of the suggested beating implements (blender, food processor, mixer, whisk) and all the ingredients in every possible configuration because I MADE FIVE ATTEMPTS before I (sort-of) got it right. FIVE! What on Earth was I doing wrong? How do the Frenchies do it? The hardest bit is the drop by drop part but I managed to master that with the help of a drinking straw (patent pending).

Okay, well that sorry incident finally passed and, in the end, resulted in a very nice vitello tonnato. By then, my stubborn gene had kicked in and I knew that would not rest until I was able to make perfect mayonnaise. Mayo had become my labours of Hercules, my search for Moby Dick, my cutting down the mightiest tree in the forest with a herring, so to speak. And then I found this at The Healthy Foodie. It’s simple; it’s foolproof; no need for room temperature eggs; no need for any beating implement but the minipimer (meeniepeemerrr) a.k.a. the only kitchen tool you will ever really need; and it takes about 30 seconds. Thank you Healthy Foodie, for changing my life!





People sometimes think that because Rome was declared an open city during World War II it was safe from attacks. That is very far from the truth. First of all, the open city status didn’t come off until an awful lot of damage had already been inflicted. After Mussolini’s downfall, the government that replaced him — led by the craven Pietro Badoglio — announced that Rome was a demilitarized zone, hoping to safeguard all of its precious treasures. The Allies didn’t necessarily agree and continued to lob bombs at the city until mid-August 1943 when they agreed to lighten up (probably because they were already in surrender talks with the Italian government). Bombs continued to fall from time to time even after the open city declaration was confirmed (including on the Vatican, twice, although Germany was responsible for one of those). All told, the Allies dropped 60 000 bombs on Rome during World War II. 

On September 3, Badoglio surrendered to the Allies, who had already landed on the toe of Italy’s boot and, sensing that Hitler would not be pleased by this development (he was not, although he had been expecting it), he buggered off (at dawn) to Brindisi with his buddy King Victor Emmanuel III. Hitler promptly took control of most of Italy, including Rome, disarmed tens of thousands of Italian troops (so the Germans wouldn’t have to fight them), busted Mussolini out of jail and set him up in a puppet regime known as the Repubblica di Salò on Lake Garda, near Brescia.

The head of Venusia from Fellini's film Casanova greets you at the entrance to Cinecitta.

The head of Venusia from Fellini’s film Casanova greets you at the entrance to Cinecitta’.

You might wonder what any of this has to do with the largest film studio in Europe. I’ll be getting to that. But first let’s talk some more about Mussolini. It is no secret that he was massively vainglorious and blustery and that he loved to hear himself speak. So naturally, he went into the movies. In 1937, Il Duce inaugurated Cinecittà, handing the reins to Luigi Freddi, who had previously been the vice secretary of Fasci Italiani all’Estero, an organization that sought to convert expatriate Italians to fascism. So, lots of film experience there. Not.  But experience probably mattered less to Mussolini than Freddi’s fascist loyalty since a major purpose (but not the only one — he also wanted to boost Italy’s feature film industry) of Cinecittà was to roll out propaganda films disguised as cinema. For example, Scipione l’africano wasn’t actually about Scipio’s defeat of Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C.E. It was about the Italian military victory in Ethiopia in 1936. Meanwhile, the Istituto Luce was producing hundreds of newsreels a year showing Mussolini striding around in the snow bare-chested or fulminating from his office balcony in Piazza Venezia. Starting in 1926, every one of Italy’s 2 500 movie theatres was obligated to show one Luce newsreel a week. In 1929, an estimated 13 million viewers attended 1.2 million screenings. That’s some pretty powerful propaganda right there. BTW, Google has put 30 000 of the Luce newsreels on YouTube. They are pretty entertaining. 

Doesn't everyone go sledding with no shirt on?

Doesn’t everyone go sledding without a shirt?

In the summer of 1943, Allied bombs hit Cinecittà, destroying three of the studios. Yes, that’s what that long meandering introduction about the open city was leading up to.  Italy’s movie studios were bombed. Kinda anticlimactic, but the open city stuff is interesting I think.

Looters and the Germans did even more damage than the bombs. According to film historian Mario Verdone, “In the days that followed (the armistice), Cinecittà was ruthlessly sacked for its technical apparatus. The anonymous  looters even made off with the faucets in the bathrooms, while the Germans confiscated all the film equipment and carted it off to Germany.”

Starting in 1943 and until 1947, the Cinecittà opened its doors to about 3 000 war refugees, both Italians as well as displaced people from colonized Libya and Dalmatia. There was also an international camp, where the refugees ranged from Yugoslavia, Poland, Egypt, Iran and China. When the studios reopened after the war, the refugees sometimes worked as movie extras, receiving a token payment for their trouble. 

Neorealism and the Hollywood on the Tiber phases of Cinecittà’s existence are worthy of their own blog posts so consider this to be part one. The reason that I am writing about Cinecittà in the first place (apart from my WW2 in Italy obsession) is that I visited the place not too long ago and it was fun and interesting. You should go if you have the chance. There are two exhibitions, one permanent and one ‘current,’ which I suppose means temporary. The permanent exhibit tells the story of the building of Cinecittà and its history. Here are some fun facts to know and tell: Cinecittà consists of 73 buildings spread over 59 hectares. It was built by 1 500 workers in 475 days. It has produced over 4 000 films since 1937.

Another room is dedicated to Federico Fellini and contains photos, drawings, costumes and footage of the Maestro. The temporary exhibit, ‘Backstage,’ is all about filmaking’s main elements: direction, screenplay, sound, costume and fiction. The best was the costume room, which had touch screen tables to let you dress up virtual actors in costumes from famous movies. Paper dolls for the digital age!

The best part is the outdoor sets: Broadway (created for Gangs of New York) and Ancient Rome (created for the TV series, Rome).  There is also Florence in 1400 (created for the Italian miniseries, Francesco) but we couldn’t get in there for some reason. The sets are frequently adapted for reuse. The day we were there they were ‘directing’ a ‘movie’ set in Ancient Rome using some of the visitors as extras. Here’s Julius Caesar following his unfortunate incident in the Curia of Pompey.

Et tu, Brute?

Et tu, Brute?

I don’t even know what this is. Storm Troopers in Ancient Rome?  Anyway, the kids loved it. DSCN0127

Some sort of religious ceremony involving Vestal Virgins.

Some sort of religious ceremony involving Vestal Virgins.

Ancient Roman scenery.

Ancient Roman scenery.

The Great White Way, Roma-style.

The Great White Way, circa 1860.

Cinecittà has a nice bar and restaurant and a very acceptable book shop. If you are in Rome, you could do worse than to pay the studio a visit on a sunny afternoon.

Cinecittà, Via Tuscolana 1055

BOX OFFICE – open Monday through Sunday 09.30 to 19.00
EXHIBITION – open Monday through Sunday 09.30 to 20.00


10.00 (In Italian)
11.30 (in Italian and English)
13.00 (in Italian)
16.00 (in Italian and English)
17.30 (in Italian)
19.00 (in Italian)

Closed on Tuesdays


Celebrating the 4th of July at Villa Taverna

The Upstairs Vegetarian is a VIJ (very important journalist) and people are always inviting her to shindigs in the hope that she will write about them in her fancy newspaper. Sometimes I get to tag along as her plus one so that works out well for me. Last week, it was the 4th of July cookout at the residence of the American ambassador (which actually took place on the 3rd, but whatever). Before I get started, here are some things you might like to know about  the residence. Villa Taverna dates back to the 15th Century  although there has been stuff going on on the property much longer than that, e.g. it was owned by a monastery in the 10th Century, one pope gave it to the Jesuit German-Hungarian College in the 16th Century and another took it back in the 18th when Europe was busily suppressing the Jesuits. The German-Hungarian College is now located very near the US Embassy so that’s an interesting coincidence. The property served as a papal seminary college for awhile until it was purchased by a Milanese aristocrat in 1920. The American Embassy started renting the villa in 1933, handing it back during the war when it served as a convalescent facility for Italian soldiers. The US bought the villa in 1948. You can read more about Villa Taverna here.

A view of Villa Tavern's lovely garden

A view of Villa Tavern’s lovely garden

Now, as I said, the UV is a VIJ but there are lots of very important people in Rome apparently and when we got to the villa we were confronted with a queue that was about three blocks long. Apparently 3 000 people are invited to this party and we were about 2 8ooth in line. But the queue moved quickly and it was very entertaining to see all the Italian women teetering down the sidewalk in their very tight dresses and very high heels (it was even funnier to see them negotiate the pebble walks and grass lawns inside the villa). My favorite was a lady in her mid-sixties with pale orange hair, gigantic lips and heels so high that she must have used a stepladder to climb into them. She was concentrating incredibly hard on not falling down (which you could tell from the panic in her eyes; she couldn’t move her face due to all of the Botox). Honestly, her hair was orange — like the guy who shot all those people in the movie theatre two years ago. Remember that? That was awful.

Villa Taverna is a beautiful spot with statues, fountains and sarcophagi all over the place. There were also — more to the point — about 15 tables groaning with grub. The food was a nice combination of American and Italian styles. There was fried chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs of course (and freedom fries courtesy of McDonalds) but also pasta salads and porchetta. And about a million other things as well. For dessert there were brownies and cupcakes arranged to resemble an American flag. And there was Haagen Dazs. And popcorn.

Lining up for hamburgers

Lining up for hamburgers

The band played tunes from the Great American Songbook.

The band played tunes from the Great American Songbook — my favourite music.

Partying with 3 000 of my closest friends. The ambassador is in there somewhere too.

Partying with 3 000 of my closest friends. The ambassador is in there somewhere too.

Living room furniture on the lawn is the height of luxury. or so it seems to me.

Living room furniture on the lawn is the height of luxury. Or so it seems to me.

Now here's an interesting cultural difference. The Americans took one each of these little sugared almond bouquet things. The Italians took at least three!

Now here’s an interesting cultural observation, which I will make without further comment. The Americans took one each of these little sugared almond bouquet things. The Italians took at least three!

I thought this was cute.

As American as apple pie (and baseball)

The Day of Four Popes

We’ve had a truckload of holidays around here of late. First there was Easter, which unfortunately coincided this year with Hitler’s birthday and 4/20 (the unofficial holiday of the marijuana enthusiast). Then came Rome’s 2767th birthday, which coincided with Pasquetta (‘Little Easter,’ otherwise known as The Day That All Italians Race Outside to Have A Picnic, Rain or Shine). Then came the Italian Day of Liberation, which marks the ousting of the Nazis in 1945 and which coincided with World Penguin Day. But the real news last week was the Day of Four Popes.

This is what Saint Peter's looks like with a crowd in front of it (not yesterday's crowd mind you -- this was a prayer vigil for peace in Syria that Pope Francis held last year).

This is what Saint Peter’s looks like with a crowd in front of it (not yesterday’s crowd, mind you — this was a prayer vigil for peace in Syria that Pope Francis held last year).

Two of the four popes were alive — well, one alive and one alive-ish: the new guy, Francis, whom everyone agrees is a breath of fresh air pope-wise and the old guy, Benedict XVI, who quit last year and is now known as Pope Emeritus. The other two popes — John XXIII and John Paul II — were not alive as it is quite uncommon — despite the Upstairs Vegetarian’s fervent desire — to achieve sainthood in one’s lifetime. One assumes they were there in spirit. It’s also quite uncommon (as in it’s never happened) for two popes to be involved in a ceremony canonizing two other popes. So it was a pretty big deal and the pilgrims came a’running, mostly from Poland whence hailed John Paul II. An estimated 800 000 people crowded into St. Peter’s Square. The poor old U.V. — whose day job is being a famous newshound (her night job is falling asleep in front of the TV and being annoying about vegetables) — had to be at the Vatican at 4:30 to cover the story. I woke at my leisure and watched a bit of the ceremony on TV.

The double canonization was not without controversy. John Paul II was fast-tracked, a move that had popular support: people chanted santo subito (sainthood now!) during his funeral service. Some question whether the apparent recovery of two women from medical afflictions, supposedly after praying to the pope, can really be considered a miracle (it didn’t turn out too well for this guy). Others feel that John Paul II has no right to sainthood given his role in sheltering sex predator priests. Meanwhile, John XXIII only had one of the two obligatory miracles to show for himself. It seems to me like this pope-apalooza was a bit more about politics — the Catholic Church being very fractured at the moment for various reasons — than about religion. But what do I know? I’m not even catholic.

Anyway, the Morgster and I went out for a little saunter downtown yesterday afternoon (where we nearly got drowned by the weather, but that’s another story). Having camped out all night to ensure a spot in St. Peter’s Square, having endured the world’s smelliest PortaPotties, which were set up along the colonnade (to answer your question, Mom and Dad) and having sat through a very long ceremony indeed, the pilgrims skedaddled to central Rome afterwards for a little art and culture. They were everywhere and very easy to spot. Papal Pilgrims travel in packs, carry collapsible chairs and wear matching rain ponchos — and sometimes umbrella hats — like these guys below. I haven’t seen an umbrella hat since college!

The guy in green was the leader.

The head pilgrim gets to wear a different color poncho.


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.

Via dei Fori Imperiali/Porto Fluviale


Via dei Fori Imperiali

Last week the Morgster and I set off to see a Carnevale parade on Via dei 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 dei Fori Imperiali came up. Archeologists are not big fans of Il Duce.

Until recently, the Via dei 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


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


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 leaving 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 torpor.


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.”