I am quite decided: sometime soon I am off to Vietnam. I know that Napoleon was never there, never annexed it, never plundered it. He did not make any of his relatives king, nor fought battles or took lovers there.
Although I know a fair bit of history, I had not known that the little emperor had at one time attached Bremen to his empire. I often feel I dog his steps, 200 years after he has passed through, left his footprints and grabbed his spoils from everywhere, Venice to Egypt, Naples to, well, Bremen!
Unusually for anywhere he 'visited', the furniture remains intact. I assume that by this time Paris was simply stuffed with artifacts and chairs and desks, sideboards and thrones from the various cultural centres of Europe. Even from the Vatican he purloined 100 art works to be dragged back to the Louvre: one reason for his excommunication. Though, making his new born son, Napoleon, king of Rome probably did not sit well with either Italian prelates or politicians.
What we see in Bremen is a well organised, prosperous city with a medieval centre and a great transport system. But not all is as it seems. During the 2nd world war the Allies flattened 40% of the city and 60% of its port. A lot has been restored to seem old, but some significant buildings escaped the raids. One such is the Rathaus, the town hall. Going round this on a guided tour is to join an exercise in the civic pride of heritage and in what the city has become.
This was one of the Hanseatic ports. A mercantile arrangement around the Baltic that was a distant precursor to the European Union. It lasted less than 100 years from the 1350s; but echoes of the arrangement continue even to this day.
Subsequently there was a tussle between the Roman church and the Protestants, the latter of whom protested in the cathedral in favour of reformation sermons. The Archbishop promptly upped sticks and, locking the cathedral, it fell into disuse and disrepair. It was abandoned for many decades. Today walking into it the signs of reformation exceed mere removal of any signs of idolatry. The axis of the church has been changed, not just bringing the altar forward into the nave; but swiveling it so that where the altar would once have been is now an elevated seating area that looks onto the side of the altar.
This break with Rome was the signal for local politicians to grasp power and set up their own government along ancient republican lines; with two 'mayors' holding their posts simultaneously, like tribunes in Rome. The idea was to prevent the concentration of too much power into one pair of hands.
Further, the Mayoral posts circulated round the entire council. It was a democracy of sorts, male, moneyed, but with distinct checks and balances that minimised corruption. To be weighed in the Bremen balance and found wanting would shut the doors to you from any and all trade right across the Baltic. Despite the occasional rounds of fisticuffs with empires, royalty and invaders, the city retains its unique position with its own parliament. A frowning new slab that sits uncomfortably aside the ancient buildings of what is otherwise a handsome old square, it is the current seat of power.
Kings got short shrift here. The smallest room in the Rathaus, smaller than a toilet, was that which had been set aside for the exclusive use of Austro-Hungarian royalty. The main council chamber holds great hanging ships and its declaration of freedom inscribed round its walls. In the tiny royal annex there was not room for the emperor to twirl a coronet, let alone swing a sceptre. I got the impression he would be left very much to his own devices there while the burghers got on with their business.
During the Renaissance the exterior of the Rathaus was given a spectacular face lift echoing the seafaring architecture that has brought so much wealth to the city. It contains a room dating back to the 14th century which was unaccountably redesigned early in the 20th century in the Art Nouveau style with embossed gilt leather walls. This inner sanctum is kept like a shrine.
We were permitted only to stick a head around the door to gaze and the guide several times referred to it as a "sacred space" and thus suitable for the most important men to make the most important decisions for the city. This guide was full of sincere sentiment, not pompous, but clear in his pride in his German heritage. His enlargement on the subject reminded me very closely of the German Art and German Traditions that Wagner espoused so proudly in 'Die Meistersingers von Nuremburg' and which were adopted and pushed as national pillars of secular faith under the Third Reich. The admirable turned into evil. Here I had to rethink this in order to see it as appropriate pride in culture and heritage.
Ancient heroes, Roland and Charlemagne are both deployed like mascots in some kind of legendary sponsorship of the city. In neither instance could I tie up just what the actual connections were. But there is a splendid statue of Roland in the main square, encompassed in the Unesco heritage site that also embraces the Rathaus.
The wealth here is to do with successful trading and the locals were wise and adventurous; taking a lead in trading with the New World trade almost before it was mapped. Something like 70% of all German wine passes through Bremen, some of it reaches the extensive cellars beneath the Rathaus, which contains a much loved restaurant with a vast wine list and a blocked up staircase that once lead straight to the council chamber in order to provide liquid refreshment. The food is excellent all over the city, heavy on both meat and fish, wonderful thick soups and sauces, my kind of eating. I made sure I only drank wine that was German right through the visit. I did avoid the many kebab houses, as ubiquitous as McDonalds.
There is a very lively arts scene here, including classical concerts seemingly at least a couple of nights a week. I was very fortunate. I caught two. First of all: a Wagner, Strauss and Shostakovitch concert by the visiting Amsterdam Concertgebouw; Andris Nelsons conducted. Amazing sounds, marvellous music making, but has there ever been a more miserable symphonist than Shostakovitch? I am sure areas of the first two movements are scattered with the instruction, 'aural assault' and the Dutch players went balls-deep obeying it. At times the sheer volume was uncomfortable, but the committed playing pinned one to the seat.
Nelsons opened with the Wagner Reinzi Overture; which I find almost comical in its Lloyd Webber overuse of the main theme in the first half, then it goes all Rossini and ends like a Strauss Polka. Of course, it was played for all it was worth and was a real crowd pleaser. What followed was a marvelous 'Dance of the Seven Veils' from Strauss's opera Salome. It could have been more down and dirty, but it worked well, the layers of sound and detail were remarkable. The conductor was simply terrific and it was clear the orchestra totally enjoyed working with him. They watched him, very significant, and were very warm in aplauding him. Ironic that I travel to Bremen to hear him; when he is the principal conductor in Birmingham.....on getting home I made speedy arrangements to hear him locally. I don't remember the last time a musician excited me so much.
The second concert: (It would have been better had they been the other way round.), was the Bremen Orchestra: Strauss 4 Last Songs and Bruckner 4th. The local outfit is fine, but it was a big step away from the previous night. The Strauss was soupy with the strings too loud, submerging the woodwind and harp. The soprano Kristine Opolais, (wife to Andris Nelsons), was OK, she did not do anything wrong, but I did not connect with her singing, the crowd appreciated her enormously.
I did therefore wonder how the orchestra would manage all the very quiet string work in the first movement of the Bruckner 4th. It managed just fine; which made me wonder why the Strauss had been so clotted. The orchestra could not match the sheer quality, the bottom heavy sonority and sweet, sweeping strings of the Amsterdammers, but it was good.
Their chief conductor, Markus Poschner, whose platform manner was positively inexpressive up against Nelsons, had not found that way of making you listen through the Brucknerarian silences, they became merely absence of sound. Those silences are vital, like windows in a building. We ought to hear the silence as part of the grand scheme. He also let the first movement disintegrate in places, where it occasionally ground to a halt.
All that makes it seem I did not enjoy it; but I did. Then the stroll with stop-offs through the open air winefest on the way to the hotel, yet more enjoyment and more music. Though not the umpah kind, a rock group playing to a full square of swaying, drinking and grinning folk.
One big selling point to Bremen is the Kunsthalle gallery. About a month before I landed, the Independent made a big splash about this major art venue. Seemingly, (Note that word 'seemingly'.), it has a first rate collection of Renaissance works. The building has just been been refurbished and extended. It was also to cost 18 Euros to get in. I kept it for the final full day. Blow me, it was free.....but it was also basically empty. Only one Renaissance work, a statue of Venus. She looks like part of a cut price S&M exhibition; confined inside a box and tied up. I am still not sure whether she was waiting to be decanted, or whether she was part of the sparse installation art that provided a bit of summat to look at, and disdain, in a couple of the large suites of echoing, empty rooms.
I was one of several people who were stalking round looking at blank walls, striding through empty rooms and coming away puzzled. The 'art' we saw for free consisted of a miniature Venus de Milo with a close-up camera trained onto her face. Across the wide low podium was an upright death mask....no idea whose, sadly not the artist's I assume. Likewise, this had a small camera trained on it. Between the two sculptures two TV monitors sat facing one another. The two static heads gazed out from the screens directly into one another's eyes. Mind bogglingly facile. Presumably the regular collection will be hung in due course. The postcard shop provided insights into what I missed. The Indie needs to get its facts straight.
Carrying on out of town past the Kunsthalle you come to a bohemian area, lots of large wall paintings, boutiques, vegetarian restaurants spilling onto the pavements, small art galleries. Off this thoroughfare run some very charming tree lined streets with attractive 19th century houses. As you travel out along this street, pass the manikin of the bride hanging over a first floor balcony, pass the large roof line relief of Buddha and beyond Bohemia you encounter louche, from louche you arrive at positively seedy. But along that road to ruin there is this very relaxed cafe society ribbon that belays the misconception many of us have of the uptight Germans.
I encountered only friendliness and politeness. No stern voices or pushy or dismissive attitudes. I found people helpful and so many had some English and none bothered to mention The War. I wandered into a men's clothes shop. A woman assistant strolled over to me and in a very nice way let me know that there would be nothing in the shop to fit me; she looked me up and down and said, "No, it is for big fat men." I raised my eyebrows and she smiled and confirmed, I did not qualify, not anything like fat enough. I was much cheered, I wear large or even extra large in England. Another blow to the German reputation for rectitude was a manhole cover in one square, drop a coin down a slot in it and it emits loud farm animal noises.
Just outside the splendid palace-like rail station is another newly refurbished museum. Let's call this rag-bag an ethnographic museum. I wandered this building outnumbered by the staff. A fascinating miscellany from preserved fish to oriental jewellery, bits of factory machinery and writings of immigrants; all brightly but confusingly displayed. Several of the staff were keen to chat to me: you can only look at those African tribal totems for so long before you need to interact. Again, English fluidly spoken and I was made to feel welcome, invited to photograph what I liked without using flash.
Walking away into town, you cross the canal and see a large windmill on silted-up land. The city walls were flattened after Napoleon had invaded. He did not pull them down, but the locals thereafter saw no purpose in them and by removing them, they instead produced a narrow, long park that runs along to the river. Water and shipping have been vital here in the cohesion and prosperity of the city. A city that feels very much at one with itself, a thriving air about it, but not grasping, no hard sell anywhere. I was told that Autumn had arrived along with me. Winters round the Baltic can be severe, thus the agective; Baltic. I noticed one painting from around the 1920s where ice breakers were being used on the river. It is vital here that The Show Must Go On. Trade is lifeblood and cannot be impeded by the mere, mean, moodiness of Mother Nature.
Next stop Poland.......Napoleon swept through and interfered there too!